With games coming in such short order and it being the holiday season and travelling with my family, I have little time to truly break this game down, which did vary in tactics and formations endlessly. I did, however, want to address some of the more pertinent situations of this game. Thankfully, the result went our way in the end, but there was no guarantee of that despite adding to our (missed) big chances created in the match (6 created, 2 scored - totalling 63 and 23 on the season.) While still missing plenty of chances, we also only have 3 clean sheets in the last 15 matches dating back to the beginning of October, which is certainly not a winning recipe. Including mid-match changes, I counted 8 different starting back lines in that time, and those rotations due to injury/necessity/adaptation certainly haven’t helped keep clean sheets, let alone the injury to Robert Sánchez.
Much has been made about this being our youngest ever lineup, the youngest in the Premier League since 2017, and the eighth youngest lineup ever. In fact, only three players named to the starting XI were 24 years or older - Đorđe Petrović, Axel Disasi, and Christopher Nkunku. While age certainly was influential, the quite limited playing time each has had with one another was undoubtedly more so, and the substitutions were just as unfamiliar...again, thankfully, they worked.
To be fair, our attack was not ineffective for the same reasons in this game as they had been, also why we created so many big chances and generated so much xG in contrast to some of our more recent encounters. Our width was utilised, and although many outlets have our attack spread across all three (left, right, and centre) at a generally equal amount (WhoScored? claims 35%, 35%, and 30% respectively), many of those central attacks were started from wide positions defensively and came centrally when we entered their half. If you want to attribute this to the attackers’ young age, too, you need only look at Brighton to learn why youth can potentially score goals aplenty.
Before I delve into the attack, though, I’d be remiss to not point out the amazing work that Malo Gusto did all around the pitch, whether it be at right or left back (or even left centre back), as well as in offense or defense. The image below is akin to the wasted chance from Sterling against Wolves, and while it would have been called back due to the VAR reviewed penalty on Noni Madueke, the fact that he comprehensively shut this down (with some help from Caicedo) screams to the effort the man put in. It also begs to why VAR can’t step in and stop a play...what happens if he had been injured in the process of his tackle or even if they had scored? Premier League VAR is just proving how rubbish it can be.
Gusto also did the difficult work to create the first goal and grab the assist, but again I want to point out the defensive situation that led to their equaliser after that amazing effort. While much of the blame has been placed solely on Levi Colwill, it is not entirely his fault. In fact, if Pochettino’s defense is focused on tracking runners, as it seems to be, then there is equal blame to be placed on Moises Caicedo, Michael Olise’s original mark. The fact of the matter is that it is likely that Levi Colwill is, as a centre back, inclined to track central runs - Moises Caicedo is, as a central midfielder, also trained to track central runs. Despite their training, the fact that there are two marks on Jean-Philippe Mateta, who does make the initial challenge for the ball, and neither cover the run of Olise, it does seem like Colwill communicates for cover to be applied while Caicedo yields his tracking run. It is tough to see, but Colwill gestures to Caicedo to stay with Olise, which he does not. Colwill covering centrally is justifiable, especially with the deep ball coming in from the opposite flank while he thinks he has cover behind. Failing to track your runner is not.
One reason that our attack stuttered in the first half was, unfortunately, Ian Maatsen. Bear in mind that he is not playing in a position he has played often, but he was quite unsuccessful in many aspects of the game, even defensively. He mistimed the challenge for the clearance (see above) on the build up to their goal and had a hard time contributing to the attack. For whatever reason, despite helping earn Burnley promotion from the position, Pochettino has been unwilling to trust him at left back. Perhaps those reasons now become slightly more justified, but after switching his position after his return from loan, there is no inherent reason that we can decipher why he hasn’t been given a run out with our current injuries to Chilwell and Cucurella. He has speed to cover, a willingness to get stuck in and tackle, accurate passing, and an eagerness to get forward with the ball. He lacks height, which Pochettino has pointed out as a weakness of the squad as a whole, but he is not much shorter than Cucurella, who has been given a fair trial.
The rest of our attack was fluid enough this match, but once again we lack any sense of finishing quality. Our runs behind were actually decently timed, we only finished with 3 offside calls on the day, and actually half of our touches in their penalty box were shots. The problem is that we had so few touches in their box and the shots were so rarely on target, but that problem is not new. Of course there are obvious continuous issues - Mudryk did well but also has the touch of a blacksmith, while his directness and runs are almost predictable by defenders - when he changed it up by turning inside and made a great run straight towards goal, the defense was not prepared for that. Nkunku made significant contributions while also fluffing a golden opportunity to make it 2 goals in 2 appearances. Jackson continues to do decently well with his pace and power, holding up very well and pushing their defensive line while also missing chances he should not. For once, there was reason for hope, and had we buried those chances, this article would be singing a different tune.
Regardless of the performance, we got a much needed result (almost expected at this point against Palace). What does perplex me is that sections of the fanbase are still trying to usher Conor Gallagher out of the door in January. Balancing the budget or not, the man is Proper Chels and his offensive and defensive efforts have not been matched by any other player in Europe. He should not be used as a makeweight for another unproven in the Premier League £100 million striker.