Everton took care of business last weekend but have another task entirely awaiting them this Sunday. Tottenham Hotspur are coming off their second 4-0 defeat of Stoke this season, a needed tonic after a damaging 2-0 loss at Anfield a fortnight prior.
Tottenham’s second-place table position is slightly misleading. They are 10 points behind first place Chelsea and just one ahead of Manchester City, who have a game in hand. In terms of expected goals, they have the league’s 5th best attack and 6th best defense.* The fact that they are out-performing xG on both sides of the ball is probably part luck, part clinical finishing of Harry Kane and Delle Alli, part tactical, part other things I don’t have the expertise to know, but the overall point to be made here is that while Spurs are definitely one of the best 6 teams in the league, it is hard to say beyond that just how good they are. Accordingly, projections for the end of the year vary quite a bit, from a 62% chance to a 75% chance to even an 88% chance that Tottenham will finish in the top 4.
One thing that jumps out about Pochettino’s side both this year and last year is that they are a high volume shooting team, leading the league in total shots taken. They also tend to have high shot tempo, or shots taken per completion. This seems to reflect a concerted tactical effort: Pochettino want his team to be quick and direct with the ball rather than prizing possession for the sake of possession.
Inevitably prioritizing quantity of shots will produce a drop in the quality of shots, and so it is proved with Spurs: their shot quality (xG per shot) has dropped even since last year and now lags well below their fellow top-6ers. Sometimes high volume is enough to get the job done, but sometimes it’s not, especially if the opponent tailors their defensive approach towards indulging your propensity to take low-percentage shots:
Ronald Koeman will be aware of Tottenham’s approach in this regard and should perhaps adjust his game plan accordingly. Spurs have so many good attackers that they will undoubtedly get on the ball in the final third, but if Everton can focus on not allowing penetration into the box, then they might be able to restrict Spurs to a flurry of shots from poor positions.
The good news for Spurs is that in Kane and Alli they have two players in the league’s top 10 in xG per 90 minutes, and they have one of the league’s best creators in Christian Eriksen to feed them. Beyond Eriksen though, they can be a bit over-reliant on full backs to make difficult passes to unlock the defense:
Here's Tottenham's expected passing chart giving you some idea why we struggle when the fullbacks go down. pic.twitter.com/6p1DBSGzcl— Unfitforpurpose (@unfitforpurpose) February 21, 2017
Indeed, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are as good a fullback pairing as you’ll see in the league, and the latter’s absence has been sorely noted. Whether it’s a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, or the 3-4-2-1 seen last weekend, the fullbacks have a big role to play in this side, especially as there are no usually natural wingers on the pitch:
The worry with a set-up like this can be an over-reliance on crosses. Spurs have mostly avoided this pitfall, I think in large part because Walker and Rose are legitimately creative for their position, and because they have a bona fide central creator in Eriksen to rely on as well.
Susceptibility to the press
One of the more impressive things about Spurs this season is the list of teams that have outplayed them. Their only losses were away to Chelsea, away to Manchester United, and away to Liverpool. In terms of single-game xG numbers, they’ve only been bested by 0.5 or more by Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City. So while teams have kept them in check from time to time (see 0-0 v Sunderland above), they are rarely dominated.
Notably, those that have done so have done so with an aggressive press, with City and Liverpool being the prime examples. Both teams successfully disrupted Tottenham’s buildup and did not allow them to create a stable base of possession.
We all know that Everton do not have the organization or personnel to execute a high press in the manner of Klopp’s Liverpool. However, they have at various points in the season used sporadic but focused pressing to disrupt opponents. The 4-0 victory over City was a great example of this—the Toffees weren’t perfect but they were mentally focused, they communicated a great deal, and they pressed just well enough to make life difficult for City. A similar approach produced a win against Arsenal. In the following match against Liverpool, though, Everton went absolutely ballistic in the first half, only to crash completely in the second.
Somewhere in there is a game plan for dealing with Spurs. We know they are poor against high-pressing schemes, but we can’t expect Everton to execute such a scheme for 90 minutes. They goal, then, will be pressing in key moments, and only when there is sufficient cover. Everton did this to some degree in the opening match of the season against Spurs, and it produced the free kick that gave them their goal. If Everton initiate a press and fail to win the ball, they need to immediately drop into something resembling a low block, as Spurs will exploit any space that they are given.
Tottenham are a well-drilled and very solid side, but Everton have showed up well against the big boys this season (not counting the one game at Chelsea). Another measured approach from Koeman and a focused effort from the players could produce a good result here. Away from home, a draw would constitute such a result and solidify Everton’s status as a team nipping at the heels of the top 6. Meanwhile, a loss would hardly be devastating, especially with home matches against West Brom and Hull on the horizon.