David Wagner dominated the tactics board on Saturday with his Huddersfield side pressing Tottenham Hotspur into a mess. They limited Eric Dier to a poor performance with 78% pass success rate and Paulo Gazzaniga just 52%.
But it mattered for nothing as Spurs’ individual supremacy shone in the transitional and improvisational moments, giving Tottenham a misleadingly comfortable 2-0 scoreline.
The chance for Tottenham to test their talents against Barcelona is an exciting challenge. The two teams haven’t met in senior competition for decades, but it’s coming at the wrong time for the north Londoners.
Issues in midfield remain unresolved after an event-less transfer window. Post-World-Cup fatigue is hurting a team with no less than nine players in the semi-finals. Spurs are suffering a slow start to the season. Now, just in time, an injury crisis has set in. Dele, Aurier, Eriksen, Lloris, Vertonghen and Dembele are all doubts.
Curiously, Pochettino opted to start the direct duo of Son and Lucas against Huddersfield, a game he was surely expecting to have more of the ball in – though in the end this was not the case. This leaves the more possession-type-players of Harry Winks and Erik Lamela both at least partially rested ahead of the game against a club who’s name is almost synonymous with possession.
Barcelona aren’t the exact club they were when they established that reputation under Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2012 but many similarities remain. The game they play today is still built upon the same Cruffyian principles and the squad is still glued together by graduates of the La Masia academy.
Whether in a more traditional 4-3-3 or his own unique interpretation of the 4-4-2 Ernesto Valverde’s Barca are proponents of the positional play and counter-pressing principles that also make up Pochettino’s own playbook. On that basis, and the aforementioned selection options available to Spurs, this seems likely to be a straightforward battle for control of the ball – one you’d expect the Catalans to have the advantage on.
Yet there’s a whisper on the wind saying Spurs coming away with a lesser share of the ball this weekend was no failure, but practice. Many times Pochettino has persisted with his possession play-style when fans have felt it would have been wiser not to, leaving him with a reputation for stubbornness. Exceptions, however, do exist and they came this time last year in the very same competition.
Tottenham recorded 32 and 37% shares of the possession in respective victories over Borussia Dortmund and, competition eventual winners, Real Madrid at Wembley last season. When questioned about this the manager insists the intention was the same, only that Spurs failed in their attempts to control the ball but with victories in both these games this is slightly difficult to believe.
That sit-and-counter style does appear to be the way to play against Barcelona if their three most recent games – two draws and a loss – are anything to go by. The first draw was punctuated by an early red card, the second by Messi being rested ahead of the upcoming Champions League fixture. But the loss to Leganes bore no such excuses and is underlined by how well Barcelona’s shot quality was restricted by Leganes deep, deep block, as we can see here.
Earlier we looked at Pochettino’s use of his two most direct players in Son and Lucas at the weekend but with a worst case scenario on injuries it seems he’ll have little choice but to start at least one of them again midweek. As it stands, Samuel Umtiti and Sergi Roberto are the major injury losses for Barcelona.