While the first half was a rather drab affair, things finally started to click in the second half, allowing Mauricio Pochettino to avoid losing three consecutive Premier League matches, something he hadn’t even ever done at Tottenham. There were a few tactical tweaks taken both prior to and during this match that earned us the win, but, until the latter were made, we again showed a lack of cohesion in a once again changed starting XI. Cohesion begins with consistency, and our injuries have prevented that from occurring.
Benoît Badiashile was given license to roam into the midfield in the first half, progressing with the ball and trying to pick out passes that were available, while Thiago Silva stayed back but was nearly the sole carrier from the defensive to the middle third. Badiashile ended with an impressive 284 yards of progressive carries (from a total of 396), and so he was certainly more offensively minded than we have seen from him previously. While we can understand the usage of that particular back four due to the height (something Pochettino has complained about) of our opposition, they were doing more with the ball at their feet than with their aerial presence.
When Badiashile did push on, it essentially formed a back three, which likely made Levi Colwill and Axel Disasi more comfortable in their positions, as neither prefers to play fullback. That doesn’t mean we looked comfortable as a whole, because the xG of both teams prior to the break was 0.14, and our 1 shot on target from Conor Gallagher was not from a viable scoring position. For the third article in a row, allow me to point out that we only score goals when they are done centrally and in front of the penalty spot. To have such a low xG and also zero big chances created against such a dismal side that really offered no counter speaks to the dreadful need that we have for the integration of Christopher Nkunku - he would not yet make his competitive debut.
Their minimal expected offensive thrust meant that there was no need for a midfield trio, and so Enzo Fernández was given a break from the start while Moises Caicedo and captain Conor Gallagher made up the double pivot, with Gallagher not adherent to that role and given freedom to move around the pitch. Their defensive actions maps are the best way to show this flexibility in position, as they were largely on their respective sides (left for Gallagher and right for Caicedo) but Gallagher was often significantly farther forward. His freedom has often been key to linking the defense to the attack and actually providing chances, and his help in overloading the right side certainly did the same for our first goal.
It seems as though Gallagher’s offensive creativity was favoured to the elite passing skills of Fernández, but it wasn’t effective in the first half. The attacking midfield was shifted at halftime, with Cole Palmer slotting out wide and Raheem Sterling coming more central, which made us almost instantly more threatening. They did not stay in those respective positions, and so it seems as though their more fluid interchanges more so just confused the marking scheme of Sheffield United. In fact, for our first goal, Palmer is central in a pocket of space to receive the ball on the half-turn and Sterling is wider in that right wing position. That Gallagher is up near Sterling to help create the overload for Sterling to quickly burst to the touchline and lay of a diagonal back pass essentially showed us the key to unlocking their low block, with Pochettino admitting as much in his post match presser.
Sheffield United made substitutions immediately after both our first and our second goal, but the changes did not really influence the outcome or even the flow of the game. Our players need confidence, which they’re surely lacking after our recent results and performances, and playing the worst team in the league ought to help with that. It should equally bolster our chances and indeed our realisation that if we intend to qualify for any sort of European football, regardless of which European competition it is, the League Cup is our most realistic opportunity to do so, especially considering the competition that we might yet face. In fact, half of our Premier League opposition should be eliminated after the next round, and despite the fact we’d be thrown into the black sheep of European competition resultantly, if we want to start to establish any sense of accomplishment, the first step begins tomorrow against Newcastle.