Modern football is no doubt a squad game, and selection decisions inevitably get tougher at this time of year. Between now and New Year’s Day, Mauricio Pochettino has nine fixtures to guide his Tottenham team through; that’s almost one game every three days.
And yet, when it comes to an encounter as significant as the North London Derby, not only a crucial clash psychologically for Tottenham and Arsenal but also in the context of the Premier League table with both sides separated by just three points before kickoff, team selection should be pretty simple – get your strongest and most reliable starting XI out onto the field.
Unai Emery too, made mistakes with his starting XI – admitting as much when he made a double substitution at half time. But the Spaniard is still getting to grips with a squad he inherited from Arsene Wenger; Tottenham didn’t even make any signings in the summer, so Pochettino is privy to almost a year of familiarity with this exact cohort of personnel.
And that makes the decision to bench Toby Alderweireld, whose last four outings have seen Tottenham concede just two goals, all the more baffling, especially as the player who started instead – Juan Foyth – had only made three Premier League appearances before Sunday’s game and looked dangerously fallible for much of those 270 minutes.
That was the case once again against Arsenal, a game that highlighted the Argentine’s lack of experience as he bucked under the pressure of the North London Derby. While he made the most tackles of any player at the Emirates Stadium, seven, that only seemed to allude to how often poor positioning forced him into making challenges.
Perhaps more tellingly though, Foyth directly lost the ball four times – dispossessed twice while committing two unsuccessful touches – which is simply an unacceptable return for a centre-back and completed just 64% of his passes, the lowest rate of any defender for either side. He also suffered one error leading to a goal, falling on the ball to allow Aaron Ramsey a free run into the final third, where the Welshman slipped it to Alexandre Lacazette for Arsenal’s third goal.
It would be superficial to suggest the result would have been different had Alderweireld started instead; Arsenal’s relentlessness only increased throughout the ninety minutes and Tottenham seemed unable to keep up with the pace of play in all departments. Likewise, Jan Vertonghen did his rookie centre-back partner few favours, or Spurs in general for that matter.
But considering Alderweireld, who is valued at £36m by transfermarkt.com, is unquestionably one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League, a natural leader, a calming presence and has a long-existing partnership with Vertonghen, it’s safe to assume he would have enjoyed a better afternoon than Foyth, who never looked comfortable against the likes of Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Pochettino insisted before the match that the decision was purely down to rotation, and in fairness the Arsenal defeat came at the end of a week of big games for the club. But Dele Alli played 259 minutes until being subbed off late on against the Gunners, and Serge Aurier and Moussa Sissoko played all three games throughout. It seems strangely unnecessary to bench a key player, who operates in a position less demanding on fitness.
Clearly, Pochettino over-complicated and over-thought his North London Derby selection, and the big gamble on Foyth backfired spectacularly.
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