Young Boys 3-2 Tottenham: Spurs fortunate to avoid a thrashing

August 18, 2010

The starting line-ups

A wonderful match – Tottenham looked like being given the thrashing of their life after half an hour, but recovered to take home a decent result, considering the two away goals.

They made three changes from the side that were unfortunate not to beat Manchester City at the weekend – in came Sebastien Bassong, Giovani dos Santos and Roman Pavlyuchenko. The 4-4-2 remained.

Young Boys lined up with a very interesting 4-2-3-1 shape, that became a 4-1-4-1 and a lopsided 3-3-3-1 at various points in the game.

The first thing to note was Young Boys’ intense, Chile-esque pressing from the start of the game. Their wingers forced Tottenham’s full-backs backwards, Henri Bienvue harassed the centre-backs,  and Xavier Hochstrasser moved forward onto Luka Modric, with Moreno Costanzo occupying Wilson Palacios, leaving Thierry Doubai as the holding midfielder.

In a scene reminiscent of the onslaught Arsenal suffered in the opening of their tie against Barcelona this spring, Spurs simply crumbled, unable to handle the pressure, incapable of stringing a few passes together. Michael Dawson’s passing was woeful, the usually immaculate Modric continually lost the ball, whilst the two strikers – who remained high up the pitch – were barely involved.

Young Boys shape

Young Boys’ shape was particularly interesting, switching between a three-man defence when on the attack, and a flat back four when defending. The key in all this was an Englishman, Scott Sutter, who played significantly in advance of Christoph Spycher and looked to support David Degen on the right, before dropping into the defensive line when his side lost the ball. With the use of this player, Young Boys had an extra attacking option when going forward, whilst retaining 3 v 2 at the back. This required Spycher to shift across the pitch laterally to make the back three and back four balanced, though he also attacked down the left on occasion.

Young Boys had already hit the post before they went ahead, a slightly lucky goal finished by Senad Lulic. But when Bienvue doubled their lead on 13 minutes, 2-0 was not an unfair reflection of the balance of play. Spurs defended too high up the pitch and couldn’t cope with Bienvue’s pace – Dawson got himself into an awful position square on, and Bienvue simply waltzed past him before passing the ball  wide of Gomes and into the far corner.

The numerical disadvantage Spurs had in midfield was playing into the hands of Costanzo, a classic number ten. He was able to dictate play from a dangerous position, constantly getting the better of Palacios, and his perfectly-weighted through ball found Hochstrasser’s run from midfield, and he powered home to make it 3-0 after just half an hour.

Two strikers a problem for Spurs

Spurs’ most obvious problem was the use of two strikers who stayed high up the pitch, not looking to play any defensive role whatsoever. At one point, Doubai put his foot on the ball and had a few seconds to look up and switch a long, diagonal pass to the right wing. Not a particularly unusual sight in football – see Paul Scholes’ performance on Monday – but in contrast to the lack of time Modric was afforded, it summed up the differences between the two sides. Young Boys were defending with ten outfield players, Tottenham with just eight. One of the strikers needed to drop in on one of the Young Boys midfielders when Spurs lost the ball, as they did towards the end of last season with some success.

Redknapp changed things soon after, bringing on Tom Huddlestone for Benoit Assou-Ekotto and putting Gareth Bale at left-back, and Spurs immediately had more control of the game in the centre of midfield with two holding players. Set-pieces seemed to be their best bet for a goal, and Bassong headed home excellently when left unmarked in the box for the second time in ten minutes to give hem crucial goal before the first half was over.

Second half changes

The second half line-ups

The true change came at half-time, though. There was another substitution, with Niko Kranjcar replacing Modric, but Spurs’ overall shape had changed. To start with, there was more variation from the front two. Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko took it in turns to drop into deeper positions, and Defoe looked more lively, showed better lateral movement, and was involved in build-up play more.

Kranjcar drifted inside to cause Young Boys problems from a central playmaking position (something Spurs lacked since they were now playing two holding players), which caused Sutter problems in his unorthodox role, pushing him inside. This allowed Bale forward on the overlap, where the Welshman delivered a couple of superb crosses. On the other side, dos Santos pushed higher up the pitch and made life difficult for Spycher, whose defensive responsibilities in a back three were not suited to dealing with an advanced winger.

Pavlyuchenko strikes

But the main change was simply that there was more movement from Tottenham – they had been so static and rigid in the first half, that they were very, very easy to defend against – and very easy to press. Young Boys’ pressing was noticeably poorer as the match wore on – it’s simply very difficult to do that for 90 minutes.

In truth, 3-2 flattered Spurs – Young Boys could have scored two goals on the counter-attack, although they were pushing forward with fewer numbers. The tie-turning strike came from Pavlyuchenko with a superb goal – not just for the ferocious strike into the top corner, but because of his prior dummy, and substitute Robbie Keane’s neat pass into his path. The use of two strikers may have cost Spurs defensively, but it was fantastic interplay from two strikers that gave them that crucial goal.

The final ten minutes saw the sides call a truce – they passed it around in their own halves under little pressure, both content with 3-2.


A good example of when not to use 4-4-2 – away from home, in Europe, against a technically proficient side. Spurs were hopelessly naive in the opening period, and Redknapp must take some of the blame for sending them out with a shape that left them exposed in the centre of the pitch. Young Boys’ opening was excellent, with their intense pressing game causing havoc and the use of Sutter as a sole wing-back pushing Bale back into a defensive role.

We must give Redknapp credit for his tactical changes – or at least someone on Spurs’ coaching staff, as Redknapp recently declared in a national newspaper that tactics weren’t particularly important in football. The instructions – dos Santos pushing forward, Defoe dropping off, Bale getting wide – were fairly simple, but they got Spurs back into the game and probably make them favourites to progress.

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