Mauricio Pochettino had one eye on Tottenham’s match against CSKA Moscow as he orchestrated a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough on Saturday.
Tottenham’s usually frenetic pace was largely absent for most of the match. In its place came a calm, collected possession game that did more to bide the time than consistently create chances.
This was an overall plan made easier by two factors.
One: Tottenham played in a clear 4-3-3 from the start. This was mostly a pragmatic choice. With Mousa Dembélé and Eric Dier absent through injury, the normal 4-2-3-1 wasn’t ideal. Victor Wanyama stayed at the base of midfield while Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli patrolled his flanks.
This geometry was a matter of convenience, but also made it easier to control the center of the pitch. Boro were consistently outnumbered, especially as Moussa Sissoko and Heung-min Son often dropped deep when out of possession. Passing options were abundant, and there was always someone to recover the ball when it was lost in Boro’s third.
This made cycling possession easy. Even if the removal of a more advanced player behind Vincent Janssen meant the attack looked a little stifled, it was broadly the best tactical choice for the day.
Most importantly, this more meditative form of football meant that Tottenham’s players could operate at a lower gear than usual. With the match against CSKA coming on Tuesday and many miles to travel, resting with the ball becomes crucial. Spurs will have enough juice left in the tank to earn their first win of the Champions League campaign.
They were able to rest as such due to the second key factor of the game: Heung-min Son’s early goals.
Tottenham have struggled to find rhythm early in matches, leaving the goals until late. This hasn’t gone wrong yet — Spurs remain unbeaten after all — but it means that Pochettino’s XI have to work all the harder for longer periods of the game.
Son’s two goals in the opening 23 minutes meant that Tottenham could ease up, not make as many dashes forward and generally count down the minutes to the end of the game. Rotating possession around midfield was key in that sense.
It wasn’t a full proof plan. Boro made changes that allowed them to come back into the game in the second half. Ben Gibson’s goal off a set piece complicated matters as well, and the momentum definitely seemed to shift to the hosts.
Thankfully Spurs were able to see out the match through some confident defending and more savvy possession. Son’s two goals were enough for Tottenham to more or less coast through the final whistle.
We’re likely to see this tactical set up more often as Pochettino prepares for Champions League fixtures. Its success relies on early goals, but if Son’s ascent continues apace and Janssen finds his scoring touch, Pochettino can be confident Tottenham will find them.