Tottenham looked tired in loss to West Ham ahead of Ajax UCL clash
LONDON -- As Tottenham slumped to their first defeat in their new ground at the hands of West Ham, you couldn't help but think of the contrast between them and their Champions League opponents, Ajax.
Ahead of Tuesday's fixture here at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Dutch FA has postponed an entire round of Eredivisie fixtures to allow Ajax the opportunity to rest ahead of the Champions League semifinal. They might not have spent the day with their feet up -- more likely they've been working on tactical plans on the training ground -- but they will go into the two-legged tie considerably fresher than Spurs, who looked dreadfully fatigued throughout this disappointing 1-0 defeat.
Mauricio Pochettino has soldiered on with an undermanned squad this season, but this match was a fine example of Spurs' lack of depth. Without Harry Kane, they were depending upon Son Heung-Min and Lucas Moura to provide a penalty box presence; Son couldn't time his runs to meet the through-balls his teammates attempted, with both Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose expressing their frustration with his movements. Lucas was barely involved.
There were suggestions after Spurs' dramatic quarterfinal second leg at the Etihad, where they scored three goals, that this side can be better without Kane. That's an understandable argument in matches where Spurs are allowed to play almost exclusively on the counterattack, but against deeper defences when they dominate possession, they desperately miss him. There was nothing similar to Christian Eriksen's long-range winner against Brighton this time around.
Dele Alli looked tired and failed to produce any of his trademark bursts in behind, while Pochettino must also be questioned in a tactical sense. He fielded a midfield diamond here, with Danny Rose on the left playing close to the touchline, but Eriksen on the right playing very centrally. That meant any width from the right was the domain of right-back Juan Foyth, a natural centre-back who looked entirely uncomfortable overlapping, and it took until stoppage time for him to exert an influence going forward, when his sudden run and crossed onto the head of substitute Vincent Janssen, whose header was cleared off the line by Fabian Balbuena.
Foyth is not a right-back and Rose is not a central midfielder. Pochettino's tactical flexibility has allowed him to rotate effectively this season without sacrificing too much quality, but Spurs' system was lopsided and their performance was flat, after a promising first 15 minutes.
"I think the first half was good for us; the second half they were better, they showed more energy than us," Pochettino conceded afterwards. "We conceded a lot of space to run into for Marko Arnautovic and Michail Antonio who created problems for us. We couldn't manage the ball properly, we lost a lot of balls.
"Of course it's a setback. We wanted to win the three points to be in a good position to arrive in the Champions League game in a good way. Now we have to move on, it's about recovery, and on Tuesday we'll be ready to play."
With directly referencing Ajax's period of rest, the implication was there when Pochettino added: "It's a bit unfair, the way we arrive in the competition. It's a situation we cannot change."
Manuel Pellegrini's West Ham were somewhat timid before the break, only threatening when Felipe Anderson motored in behind down the left, but as Spurs wilted after half-time, the away side offered more attacking threat. Arnautovic suddenly sprung into life, producing the game's most impressive moment when he controlled a high ball with the elegance of Dimitar Berbatov, before producing a long-range strike that was handled comfortably by Hugo Lloris who, tellingly, was Spurs' best performer here.
Lloris, though, could do nothing when Arnautovic's clever chip into the path of Antonio produced a composed finish -- a touch with the chest to control the ball, and a powerful right-footed smash into the far corner. "It was not an easy goal to score, and he did it very well," a typically understated Pellegrini said afterward.
West Ham continued to offer a counterattacking threat despite Pellegrini throwing on an extra defender in Angelo Ogbonna and going 5-4-1, and but for Lloris' save from Antonio, and Issa Diop running out of stream when through on goal after an incredible dribble from the back, this could have been a more convincing margin of victory.
This was far from ideal preparation for Tottenham ahead of Tuesday; but that match is so big, the prospect of qualifying for the Champions League final so exciting, that the atmosphere will surely be hugely positive on the night. The question for Pochettino is precisely how to format his attack, and the fact Fernando Llorente was rested here suggests he will lead the line on Tuesday night. To take advantage of his qualities, however, Spurs will need a more balanced system, and more attacking threat down both flanks, to prevent another flat performance.