Mauricio Pochettino needs to remember the key purpose of the Fannying About Theory to hurt opponents further up the pitch
There was an unusual moment in the first half at San Siro on Tuesday night. With the score 0-0, the sky still deep blue above the stand, the game still to take its decisive shape, Mousa Dembl burst the ball. Radja Nainggolan will claim an assist on this. Both men went into a slide tackle with full force. As they made contact simultaneously there was a deep booming noise, like the sound of a major world war two ammunition dump exploding 50 miles away.
For what its worth Dembl just about won the ball, albeit at the expense of the balls good health. Nainggolan punted it off the pitch with a look of distaste. The game rushed on. And looking back on Tottenhams oddly mannered defeat it seemed like a reminder of this teams best qualities of the past two seasons.
Poch-era Spurs have often been bruising opponents, a team of collisions, always coming forward. Dembl himself ran over and through the midfields of Juventus and Real Madrid in their best performances in last years Champions League, looming across the middle of the pitch like an avenging wookie, albeit an avenging wookie with the feet of a ballroom dancer.
Something has changed this season. The gearing has been altered a little. In the last week the most striking part of both the 2-1 defeat at San Siro and the 2-1 defeat by Liverpool at Wembley is how long Spurs have spent operating to a different rhythm, keeping the ball in different areas.
Yes, its time to talk about playing out from the back. Pep Guardiolas champions have shown the benefits of developing this style, of working space at one end of the pitch by drawing an opponent out, of keeping the ball rather than kicking it away and feeding an opponents strengths. When City were learning to play this way two years ago Guardiola had to defend it, to make speeches about being brave and ballsy, about the stones of John Stones. In victory a kind of mimesis has begun. Other managers have sought to bring the benefits of deep possession play. Players have been willing to take it on. Supporters have been patient.
As so often this is a question of timing and of execution. Rather than being in crisis after three successive defeats, rather than Mauricio Pochettino losing his magic, or the players all simultaneously falling apart which may or may not be the case to varying degrees perhaps Tottenham are also trying something new, and experiencing some bumps in the road.
Pochettino has often spoken about finding different ways of playing, pointing out that all the best teams do this. The cow and train metaphor caused a degree of bafflement, but it seemed like a good analogy on the page, a parable about learning new things. Perhaps he was talking about players struggling to expand their own range. Five times in the first half at San Siro the back five made a jittery attempt to play the ball out rather than clear it in one or two longer passes. They almost went behind after Jan Vertonghen had given away a needless throw trying to dribble out of the left-back area like a supermarket-brand Gareth Bale.
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