Mauricio Pochettino may have to rethink his selection strategy for the next week
Tottenham’s manager opted for a strong line-up in Belgium, only making two changes from the side that had lined up at Liverpool on Saturday, with Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko replacing Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son.
Pochettino may have hoped to build up a healthy lead after the first leg against Gent tonight, enabling him to pick a strong line-up at Fulham as well and then rest his senior stars at Wembley next Thursday.
But things did not go according to plan at all. Gent made five changes to their side and are clearly focusing on their league campaign, yet they still won 1-0 – and it could easily have been 2-0.
Pochettino may now have to rethink his strategy for the next week because neither of the next two games will be easy.
Tottenham have given themselves plenty to do in next Thursday’s return leg at Wembley, where they have rarely looked ‘at home’. Yet if the Argentinian saves his best players for that match and fields a weakened line-up at Fulham on Sunday then he risks having a very bad week indeed.
Spurs’ second string struggled at home against League Two side Wycombe Wanderers in the last round of the FA Cup, having to come from behind to win 4-3. A similar selection at Craven Cottage would put the Lilywhites at risk of a third successive defeat.
2. Harry Winks joins Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama in midfield
Tottenham struggled to keep possession at Anfield on Saturday, which allowed Liverpool to keep attacking their back four.
There was therefore some sense in bringing Winks into the side against Gent tonight – he offers different attributes to his midfield colleagues with his quick passing.
It was the fourth time this season that the 21-year-old has started alongside both Wanyama and Dembele, and he was one of Spurs’ better players in the first half.
Indeed, it was his positivity and a neat exchange with Sissoko that created Spurs’ first shot on goal, as Dele Alli sent a low effort wide from outside the box.
However, his inclusion came at a cost…
3. Confusing tactics
Spurs lined up a 4-1-4-1 system, with Wanyama protecting the defence while Dembele and Winks pushed forward. However, that forced Dele Alli and Sissoko into wide roles which did not really suit them.
It remains unclear how best to use Sissoko, and the Frenchman is so often ineffective that it is unsure how much tactics are to blame – but Alli was certainly marginalised as he was pushed out towards the left touchline.
As the first half wore on and Spurs struggled to keep possession, Winks dropped deeper to get involved and keep the visitors ticking over – which he did to good effect.
But that effectively left Dembele playing as the No10 and, while the Belgian embarked on some eye-catching runs, Spurs needed Alli in those central attacking areas.
As half time approached, it was clear Pochettino needed to make a change. The obvious one was to swap one of the three central midfielders for a left-sided attacking player – Christian Eriksen, Heung-Min Son and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou were all options on the bench – and to move Alli in the middle.
The other option was to switch to the 3-4-3 system that was so successful for Spurs at the turn of the year – and that was what Pochettino opted for. The problem, though, was the absence of the injured Danny Rose and the lack of a similarly effective left wing-back. The result?
4. Sissoko finds himself playing as a left wing-back.
Pochettino deployed Ben Davies as the left-sided centre-back in the second half – a role he plays for Wales – so Sissoko somehow found himself playing as the left wing-back.
It was a bizarre situation, especially as Wimmer was on the bench. The Austrian could have come on to play as the third centre-back, with Davies outside him.
Granted, Davies is not nearly as adept as Rose when it comes to bombing up and down the left flank, and that is arguably why Pochettino has recently been playing with four at the back, allowing him to pick a left-sided attacking player.
But surely anything was better than having Sissoko in that position. It was hardly a surprise when he was taken off in the 71st minute, with Nkoudou replacing him. The only surprise was that he stayed in the role for so long.
It’s a hangover rather than a backlash
Pochettino, his players and the supporters were hoping for a statement after Saturday’s dismal 2-0 defeat at Liverpool. Yet this was another poor showing and another blow to the confidence, individually and collectively.
A defence which has looked so solid in the past was breached just before the hour-mark as Gent scored their decisive goal, and it took a fine save from Hugo Lloris to stop the hosts scoring a second. Jan Vertongen’s return – which could come at Fulham this weekend – will be welcome.
In midfield, the usually reliable Wanyama was below par for the second game in a row, and there was a lack of creativity. Spurs scored 27 goals in nine games at the turn of the year but have now managed just one in their last four matches – a penalty at home against Middlesbrough.
While Harry Kane hit the post early in the second half, he otherwise struggled to get into the game – not for the first time recently. Meanwhile, deputy striker Vincent Janssen was not even given a spot on the bench.
Spurs have plenty to play for and, this time next week, they could easily be in the last 16 of the Europa League and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. But it has not been a good week.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs and visit my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BenPearceSpurs/