Tottenham Hotspur graduated from perennial Premier League challengers to serious European contenders this week by defeating Real Madrid 3-1 at Wembley Stadium. That win, against the continental kings in Champions League action, took the club to a new level.
Mauricio Pochettino deserves much of the praise for this growth over recent seasons. When he took charge, Spurs were grateful for a place in the top four; now, such a position is expected. So, when they welcome struggling Crystal Palace to their temporary home stadium this Sunday, they will be heavy favourites to collect all three points.
However, football isn’t quite so simple. Tottenham’s win over Real Madrid was one of the most stunning performances by an English team in Europe in recent times. But while their opposition this weekend may not be of similar calibre, they must not be taken lightly.
Crystal Palace made a terrible start to the season, losing every one of their opening seven Premier League matches without scoring a single goal. That run of form cost Frank de Boer his job, with Roy Hodgson coming in to replace him. Yet, under the auspices of the former England national team boss, their chances of survival have already increased.
Tottenham have shown a clear preference for playing against attack-minded opposition in recent weeks, proving that they have developed a sharper counter-attacking edge. Additionally, while Pochettino has a reputation for an intense pressing game, that isn’t the only way his side can defend.
In the 4-1 thrashing of Liverpool, Spurs sat fairly deep collectively and shifted as a unit to cut off the opposition ball-player’s passing options. They took up a rough 5-3-2 structure and occupied the centre, forcing their opponents’ possession wide.
They made excellent use of Son Heung-min in a more advanced role, with the South Korean’s pace used to get in behind the Reds’ back line at every opportunity. With a fast outlet up front, they had an obvious option for direct counters.
Tottenham banked just 36 per cent of possession that day, decidedly showcasing that merely having the ball is a virtual irrelevance in the modern game. They followed this statement up in the impressive 3-1 win over Real Madrid, in which they had just 37 per cent of possession.
Pochettino’s side are evidently a more rounded force this season, but one worrying aspect of their recent performances – particularly going into a game against a Crystal Palace side that pose their own counter-attacking threat – is their apparent difficulties when dominating the ball.
They could only win 1-0 against Bournemouth, despite enjoying 73 per cent of possession. They also had 61 per cent of possession in the League Cup defeat to West Ham United, and 55 per cent in the 1-0 loss away to Manchester United.
Having a fully fit Harry Kane available should improve Spurs’ chances of making full use of their possession. However, with other players out this weekend, they must not be complacent about the threat their visitors pose.
PALACE RECOVER WITH TACTICAL TWEAK
While Tottenham have welcomed back their first-choice centre-forward, Crystal Palace will remain without theirs for the time being. Christian Benteke remains out injured; fortunately, that hasn’t stopped Hodgson from bringing about a mild upturn in results.
He took the decision to pair Andros Townsend with Wilfried Zaha up front atop a 4-4-2 formation for the clash with reigning champions Chelsea on 14 October. The impact of the tactical change was immediate: Palace won 2-1, scoring their first goals and winning their first points of the campaign against all the odds.
Neither player is a natural striker; both have spent the majority of their careers operating on the wings or behind a frontman, from where their pace and skill can be fully utilised. Now, however, they lead the line, and they do so in a dangerously fluid and mobile manner.
Zaha has scored two goals in the last three games, all of which he has played as one of the two strikers. The Ivorian is one of the finest dribblers in the Premier League and his combination of pure speed, technique and ingenuity make him a difficult player to mark.
Alongside him, Townsend appears to be relishing the extra freedom granted to him in the new role. The former Tottenham man liked to drop deep or move out wide to the right-hand side, giving opposition defences a headache as to who, if anyone, should pick him up.
Combine the aggression on the ball of the front two with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a remarkably composed attacking midfielder whose classy displays have been rewarded with an England call-up, and Crystal Palace are developing a fearsome attacking setup.
It is likely that Pochettino will not be able to call upon Toby Alderweireld this weekend due to injury. Without their key centre-back, in a match in which they should dominate possession, up against a side with athleticism and quality on the break, Tottenham could be in for a surprisingly difficult game.