The first half was hardly convincing, the second was thoroughly, especially after the hour mark. With only 5 shots (3 on target) in the first half compared to 19 (9 on target) in the second, the team must have gotten the halftime hairdryer treatment from Pochettino in regards to their performance against another mid-table side, albeit a division lower. In fact, in 65 meetings between the clubs, only five have been in the FA Cup, while the other 60 have been split between the first and second division of English football - none have been in the Premier League since it’s rebranding in 1992.
Pochettino fielded quite a strong side, aside from his including Alfie Gilchrist at right back, which is not his typical position. The academy graduate and lifelong Chelsea fan did well, showing the same grit and determination he had done in his debuts as well as coming up through the academy - he has captained every youth team side prior to this, which certainly helps with the John Terry comparisons, not to mention JT’s own ringing endorsement of the young man. Malo Gusto also put in another fantastic performance, especially in the second half, and I will touch upon the fullback situation in more detail below.
While there were chances in the first half, much of our play was too static and predictable, which allowed Preston to defend rigidly and effectively. In fact, the decent chances of the first half included two Raheem Sterling efforts being deflected or saved, both while heading towards the top corner of the net from shots inside a congested penalty box. Confusion on their back line as to where exactly to hold and who to track Palmer’s and Broja’s runs led to the glorious chance seen below for Cole Palmer. Normally we might bet the bank that he would finish this, but he unfortunately put it inches wide.
The last of the true chances in the first half fell to Enzo Fernández, who really should have done better with his header despite seemingly getting back to his fine passing form. It is that passing that is going to be key to Pochettino’s plans, which are clearly unwavering despite being dependent on progressive fullbacks while having only one (whom he deems capable of the position) available for selection. Pochettino wants his fullbacks pancaking up and down the flanks and contributing as much to the attack as to their defensive responsibilities. There have been asymmetrical attempts of this depending on the side the ball is on, but when there are centre backs that aren’t capable of fulfilling that role because they are out of position, it has really hindered our attack. For that reason specifically, Malo Gusto has seemingly shone in our recent matches. In fact, when Gilchrist (or Gusto) did press on, such as in the instance below, we certainly found it easier to break down their defensive structure and create bonafide chances.
The strategies, the passing networks, and the expectations of Pochettino are becoming a bit more clear - if they are not yet being entirely achieved. This is a possession-based side, obviously, and largely dependent on that passing ability of Enzo, who is given significantly more license to roam than Moisés Caicedo, the defensive cover. There are a rooted two centre backs, who are expected to have decent height and aerial capabilities, complemented by two outside backs that, if the ball is on their respective side, ought to be contributing to the attack to create overloads and passing triangles. Whether against a lower-tier side or Premier League opposition, those things do not change. The midfield is slightly more variable than either the attack or defense, pending the opposition’s attacking threat. The attacking midfielders are expected to be somewhat fluid and high-pressing, and a striker offering penetrating runs that can sometimes (not the case against Preston, a compliment to Broja) be caught offside by staying high on their defensive line. We have seen time and time again that the striker’s initial run is often a decoy in hopes of opening up space for one of those attacking midfielders. In fact, it was refreshing to note that not a single player was caught offside against Preston.
While I can appreciate consistency with an adherence to a plan, it also essentially makes the team predictable. The variables inevitably become the wingers and fullbacks, and our wingers, Cole Palmer aside, are entirely predictable. Mudryk is going to knock it past and try to beat the defense with speed and Sterling is going to try to beat them with footwork. Man-marking them essentially dulls their effectiveness, and so we become dependent on the likes of Palmer to create something from his versatility to make some semblance of an overload or offensive-minded fullbacks to outmaneuver the competition. In fact, the images above, which were our shot-generating actions in the first half, were the few times we were able to get behind their defensive line. Our passing sequences do not penetrate nearly enough, and the slow pace of our vertical ball movement complicates that matter.
The second half was much more satisfying to watch, and indeed it was because Gusto was pushing much higher up the pitch than he had in the first half. That is why he was the crosser to give the assist to Broja, who was occupying the perfect space in between their centre backs. In fact, it is strange that so few crosses went into their box in the first half, because Broja nearly snatched a second moments after his goal, only just missing and hitting the crossbar.
The subsequent two goals are entirely situational, with Sterling’s free kick (the second of the season from nearly identical positions) and Silva’s header at the near post from Palmer’s corner (which we have seen countless times now) are the results of us keeping possession much deeper and effectively in their half. We only had 1 corner kick in the first half, yet 7 in the second. Enzo’s goal is as much a result of chaos as anything else, but the passing between Caicedo and Sterling that caused it was more direct than virtually anything we had tried in the first half. Not only that, but Preston were already checked out, because the half-hearted challenges that preceded it were nothing like what they had done earlier in the match. In fact, they were 80% with their 20 tackles (16/20) in the first half, but only attempted 14 (7 successfully) in the second half, finishing with a 67.6% success rate.
It was wonderful to see debuts for the likes of Deivid Washington and Michael Golding, but also concerning considering how long it took them to get on to get their minutes - 76th minute for Washington and 89th for Golding. Perhaps a better first half and more comprehensive victory would have gotten them more minutes, because it doesn’t seem likely that Pochettino will rotate too much for the midweek match against Middlesbrough. Cup competitions ought to remain our focus - the silverware and European football they could provide would essentially salvage the season after such a poor return in the Premier League.