Tottenham Hotspur managed to capitalise on the mixed midweek fortunes of Manchester City and Liverpool to apply a little pressure on the pair in the title race.
Mauricio Pochettino may have surprised a few people with his decision to select Lucas Moura and Eric Lamela as a strike partnership, unfortunately, the decision wasn’t justified by the duo’s performance.
Despite having narrowly over a quarter of possession, Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle remained resolute, until Martin Dubravka was undone by a straightforward Son Heung-min strike from distance.
A slow-burning but tactically fascinating affair
As soon as play commenced, it was apparent that Newcastle would be satisfied with relinquishing possession to Tottenham, as long as they had bodies between the ball and their goal. For long spells Spurs sat on the edge of the final third and were frustrated in possession. Benitez’s side resembled a double glazed window, comprised of a sheet of five then four men, Tottenham could peer through at the target, though they were unable to penetrate.
To label the strategy safety in numbers would be too reductionist and harsh on Benitez as the visitors neutralised any Spurs attacking threat by forcing their play out wide, using the touchline as an extra defender. Taking a wide route may have suited Tottenham attempted to stretch Newcastle’s back five and create space, however, the hosts failed to move the ball with enough pace to exploit those central gaps.
Though when Tottenham were able to bypass a stubborn defence and produce crosses, usually through Jan Vertonghen who whipped some delightful deliveries, Moura and Lamela delivered very little in the form of attacking threat. Epitomised by the fact that after 30 minutes 40% of Spurs shots have come through headers from Lamela or Moura, though none of those had been on target.
While defensively Newcastle did enough to keep Tottenham at bay, the visitors offered nothing more than isolated charges on the counter-attack due to the way their tactics manifested. The only occasions that the Magpies were truly able to exploit was when either opposition full-back was out of position high up the flank. Eventually, Ayoze Perez and Christian Atsu could be found further up the field as Benitez sought to increase the visitor’s chances of snatching victory.
Finally, Pochettino implemented a tactical adaptation of his own with the addition of Danny Rose, this meant switching to a back four, and that Son lined up alongside Llorente up front. This decision was vindicated not long after, as Son gathered the ball in a central area, as opposed to on the left flank where he’d been previously, and his driven low effort wriggled under Dubravka to move Tottenham onto 57 points.
While it was an exciting tactical duel, ultimately it was decided by an individual error from Martin Dubravka, something Benitez will be disappointed by, but couldn’t have prepared for.
Spurs Saturday late, late show
Despite being the lunchtime kick-off, there was a continuation of a trend typifying Tottenham of late by producing what’s required later on; for the sixth game running as Spurs failed to score in the first half. However, three games in succession Pochettino’s side have scored in the last ten minutes to seal victory.
With their attacking talisman Harry Kane remaining sidelined, Tottenham are displaying a mental aptitude that has only previously been seen in fleeting glimpses. If the north London club can sustain this effort until Kane’s return, they stand an excellent chance of repeating or possibly improving upon their best Premier League finish.
Both sides equal in the air
Throughout this encounter, the best opportunities were often created aerially though neither team were able to capitalise on the abundance of opportunities created by crosses or set pieces. The aerial duel was split equally with nine wins apiece, despite Newcastle having conceded the most headed goals in the Premier League this season. As well as this, in the reverse fixture, Spurs beat Newcastle by two headers to one.
Although Pochetino chose to ignore the previous statistic by selecting Lamela and Moura initially, after the hour mark, he conceded by introducing Fernando Llorente. It’s understandable why Moura started the match, as the Brazilian made diagonal runs to stretch Newcastle’s back five and create gaps for others. However, as the visiting defence began to tire, Llorente’s lack of mobility and the hindering effect that has to create space against a narrowly deployed centre-back trio waned.
Even after the former Spanish international’s introduction, neither side managed to score through headed chances. The closest either team came throughout the match in the air was hitting the woodwork.
Man of the Match: Son Heung-min
After spending much of his afternoon in the left channel, a late switch to the centre by Pochettino proved to be the stroke of genius that, although with some luck, Spurs required to win this fixture.