Hopeless Aston Villa pulled apart as Tottenham find acres of space
If one of the main rules for a struggling manager is to make his side hard to beat, Remi Garde failed on most counts in the 2-0 defeat against Tottenham on Sunday. Aston Villa lacked the kind of basic defensive structure required for a relegation escape to take place and, while Garde rued the timing of the two goals, he was lucky that Spurs didn't score more.
The writing was on the wall from the start. Villa pressed high, which would be a reasonable strategy had the rest of the team pushed up and stayed compact, but instead vast spaces opened up in midfield and the backline was caught out by simple passes over the top.
It didn't help that Kyle Walker went unmarked by Jordan Ayew and, when Harry Kane struck just before half-time, the only surprise was that the breakthrough had not come sooner.
The second goal came through a transition that punished familiar failings. Villa did create some chances, mainly through Rudy Gestede, and might have deserved a goal, though with defending like this a seventh defeat in eight games appeared all but inevitable.
High pressing ruins Villa shape
For Garde, the plan seemed to be to press high in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Jordan Veretout playing behind Gestede and flanked by Ayew and Carles Gil.
But rather than forcing Spurs into errors, it left central midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Ashley Westwood outnumbered and isolated as Spurs flooded the centre of the pitch. Neither was the pressure intense enough to cut off long passes, such as when Kevin Wimmer released Kane in the third minute only for the striker's final pass to be intercepted.
A typical pattern was that Gueye and Westwood moved up to press Eric Dier and/or Mousa Dembele, which gifted gaps in behind for Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen.
Another issue was that Garde appeared to have instructed Gueye, the side's chief ball-winner, to raid forward: the Senegalese ended up as the Villa player with the most passes completed in the final third (16 out of 21), and second on the list was Westwood (10 out of 13).
While Gueye did win a free kick from which Gestede should have scored, his advanced positioning left Villa vulnerable to quick breaks and created a notable contrast to Dier, who was more cautious in his positioning.
As such, Spurs created a series of chances. Kane hit the crossbar, missed a sitter from 11 yards out and had another shot saved from the left and Lamela hit the post.
Just before the break, Alli lifted a snap free kick over the top for Kane to convert. By that stage, the various ball recoveries reflected two different defensive structures: Spurs were compact, while Villa were more open and easier to drag out of shape.
Spurs playmakers take advantage
Spurs were well equipped to exploit this. Pochettino likes to move his attacking midfielders infield between the lines, and the trio operated in free roles here. The best prevention mechanism is usually to mark zonally and stay compact, but Villa did neither, as became evident inside four minutes.
As Dembele picked up possession inside his own half, Gueye and Westwood were stationed 50 and 60 yards up the pitch, enabling Dembele to play a simple pass through to Lamela, who could now run at an exposed backline. The Argentine duly released Kane, who hit the crossbar.
A minute later, Eriksen was allowed to shoot from 25 yards. The Dane would fire three shots, while Lamela unleashed four and Alli one; all eight came from central positions. Other opportunities materialised in similar ways, and while Spurs didn't always take advantage, an exception came on 48 minutes: Pochettino's side intercepted a pass in midfield and with Gueye and Westwood out of position, Kane, Lamela and Alli cut through an isolated backline to secure Kane's 19th league goal of the season.
Garde later bemoaned how Villa tend to become "very fragile" when they concede, though the description had been equally applicable at 0-0. By full-time, Alli had received a series of passes in dangerous positions, while Lamela had also pulled the strings.
Dangerous Walker goes untracked
Another feature centred on Kyle Walker. The right-back was repeatedly found in advanced positions without being followed by Ayew and, with Lamela drifting infield, he had several one-on-one situations against Villa left-back Aly Cissokho.
This was dangerous because Walker was rarely closed down until he neared the penalty area. One early cross led to blocked efforts from Lamela and Danny Rose, while another cross was struck against the post by Lamela.
Walker also fired three shots at Brad Guzan from reasonable range, and it seemed strange that Garde did not try to fix the problem until the 62nd minute, when league debutant Andre Green came in on the left to track back more diligently.
Gestede spearheads attacks
Down the other end, Villa pinned their hopes on Gestede. The towering forward won 10 out of 13 aerial duels in attack -- nobody else went up for more than two -- and Villa also swung in 26 crosses compared to Spurs' 15.
Many of these were early balls lofted into the box, and Gestede also received long passes that he brought down and fed to nearby midfielders. On one occasion, this kind of linkup play led to a move in which Veretout shot wide.
Still, Gestede was more dangerous from set-pieces. On 39 minutes he should have scored from Gil's wide delivery, and in the second half he volleyed off target following a long throw-in. In the final six minutes both he and Ayew struck the woodwork in the same move, before Gestede flicked a corner to Joleon Lescott who somehow hit the post from yards out.
That might have left Villa unlucky not to score, though the defeat was nothing but deserved.