The aim of this piece is to outline Tottenham’s overall tactical approaches during the 2015/16 season. In each section I will start with the basics before progressing on to the more abstract concepts so that you can skip ahead to the next section or drop out entirely without being cheated of an overview. Having said that I am not the most in-depth analyst. For those wanting more I will provide links to more thorough tactical pieces relevant to Spurs this season at the bottom.
Basic Philosophy – Directness
In the last few years the Premier League, and in fact the entire football world, has been influenced by Pep Guardiola’s possession football playing Barcelona. But second rate possession football can be immensely frustrating, especially for the very impatient crowds of English football.
Under Andre Villas-Boas Spurs suffered from needlessly pragmatic keep-ball football that was neither especially successful in creating quality chances for Spurs or reducing them for the opposition. AVB was replaced by Tim Sherwood, under whom it was uncertain if Tottenham were instructed to play directly to the point of recklessness, or simply left without instruction at all.
Pochettino has managed to find an impeccable balance between dominant, possession-based football and direct, dangerous counter-attack football. Recording impressive victories under both circumstances. Generally, Spurs have leant towards a more direct style of play than has been typical of recent top level teams in the Premier League.
Pressing isn’t a new concept, in fact, really, it is as old as football it’s self. When you are defending you are either screening – standing between the ball and where you don’t want it to go. Or pressing – going towards the ball with intention of winning it.
But it has become a much more commonly used word in the mainstream British sports media recently – especially since Klopp joined the league.
What is relatively new, or at least in fashion, is ‘counter-pressing’ which stems from the basic idea that the sooner and higher up the pitch you win the ball the further the opposition will be from a defensive shape and, therefore, the better the opportunity you have to immediately score.
Generally, pressing is lead by ‘triggers’ – a poor pass, a miss-controlled touch, a player receiving the ball with their back to you. You start with a default of screening and when you, or a team mate, recognises a trigger you then collectively change to pressing.
Pochettino’s system is built on maintaining an almost constant press that goes all the way to the opposition keeper and keeps a high intensity. In this fashion it is simultaneously a creator of chances for Tottenham and a defensive system that prevents the opposition from building up meaningful play from the back.
In order to maintain elements of screening, Pochettino’s pressing is man-orientated. This means rather than every player chasing the ball like school kids (ball-orientated), only the nearest one or two players go directly to the ball. The others cover the nearest opposition players to the one on the ball and then approach the ball from those angles; closing down the player with the ball whilst simultaneously cutting off the opposition’s passing options.
Effectively, and I am probably guilty of over-simplifying here, there are three different ways to approach counter-pressing. Ball-orientated, man-orientated and pass-lane-orientated. The first in the list is the most simple to teach but the easiest to bypass and the last in the list is the most complicated and difficult to teach but the hardest to play against.
Perhaps, as Pochettino begins his third season and with a growing consistency within the squad, he will begin to implement pass-lane-orientated counter-pressing. Eriksen, the most tactically intelligent player in the squad and also one of the least physical, is already winning the ball high up the pitch in this manner.
Attacking Narrowness – The Central Overload
Another philosophical identity that comes from the most basic of premises; the goals are in the middle. And again this isn’t a new idea but one recently being explored in new means. Defending the middle because that is where the goal is has forever been an instinctive doctrine of football. The knock-on of that is that the space is out wide and therefore where teams attack. This has lead to an era in which nearly all attacking play – especially in England – culminates in a cross. But endless crossing is a relatively poor route to goal.
4231 is the ‘in’ formation of the 2010’s. But most team’s 4231 isn’t that different from the previous era’s 442. The number 10 plays off of the striker. The wingers play wide and with a closer proximity to the central midfielders (who themselves join the attacks) than to the forwards.
But Pochettino has his wingers (who have their strong foot on the inside) play narrow and central with the number 10 playing slightly deeper to create an attacking midfield 3 who swap positions with one another – a ‘central overload’.
But narrowness has it’s weaknesses. The opposition can match Spurs’ attacking narrowness with their own defensive narrowness. When things weren’t going well for Spurs, especially in Pochettino’s first season, they were accused of being too narrow. The opposition were allowed to ‘shrink the pitch’ and deny Spurs space with which to attack the centre.
Once Pochettino felt that Spurs had become defensively strong enough he adapted. Making use of Eric Dier playing both in front of and occasionally in the defence he allowed the full-backs to play a more attacking game – a continuation of defend the middle; attack wide. Previously Rose and Walker had played more defensively under Pochettino than they had under previous managers.
Now Tottenham are attacking all 5 vertical columns: the wide left, the left channel, the centre, the right channel and the wide right.
The red lines which divide up the spaces are also the horizontal positionings of a traditional back 4.
With this shape the opposition have to defend all 5 areas. This stretches their defence which makes it easier for Spurs to outnumber the opposition in the middle.
This works often, and well, but is imperfect. On a handful of occasions teams (Leicester, West Brom, Chelsea) have come to White Hart Lane, stayed in the narrow defensive shape and surrendered the wide areas to Tottenham’s full-backs. With all the space out wide they could wish for Rose and Walker, with their strong feet out wide, are still limited to passing backwards or crossing. And teams defending in large numbers and with tall defenders have shown that Rose and Walker’s crossing proves little to no threat.
Defensive Narrowness – Protecting ‘Zone 14’
Defensively, Tottenham create the same situation in front of their own goal. It’s hard for teams to attack Spurs through the middle but their fullbacks are free to hit early crosses from deep. All the defensive organisation and drilling in the world will still see Tottenham’s relatively short defenders eventually fail to prevent the ball from reaching the head of one of the Premier League’s multiple, quality Targetmen.
Individual Roles of the First XI
Certainty of Spurs’ best starting XI was only achieved in the second half of the season and only put into practice towards the end when free from injury and having to rotate across multiple competitions.
Arrows indicate typical movements.
Hugo Lloris –
Under Andre Villas-Boas Lloris made a name for himself in English football as a sweeper-keeper. This was already a facet of his game at Nice, Lyon and the French national team but it became much more defined when playing in AVB’s system which played an extremely high-defensive line.
Although Lloris remains excellent at coming off his line (probably the second best in the world) it’s a lesser part of his game under Pochettino who wants him to perform more traditional goalkeeper tasks. Despite his relatively short height his ability to collect crosses and command his area is outstanding.
His one weakness remains his distribution with is feet but this is something that has gradually improved over the last two years. Under Pochettino Lloris is asked to play a fairly balanced mixture of short passes to the feet of defenders, medium distance passes out wide to the full-backs and long and high balls for Kane to challenge for so he can resort to any of these methods when under pressure without breaking instruction.
Toby Alderweireld –
By a distance the best defender in the league Toby is often the deepest outfield player on the Tottenham pitch. Both in the defensive sense of being the last man, the defender who sweeps, and in the sense of being able to play-make his team from the position of having the entire game ahead of him.
Alderweireld is very technically comfortable on the ball and has one of the best long-passes in world football often directly supplying players in high and wide areas. He has also recorded multiple assists this season from long balls that bypass two entire teams for a sprinting Dele Alli to finish with a volley.
Despite excelling when he does, he rarely dives in, has to compete for a ball in the air or even has to commit to tackles. Instead, like all the best defenders, he is much more reliant on his positioning and reading of the game which allows him to either intercept the ball or prevent it ever being played. Alderweireld is neither toweringly tall or lightning fast but a healthy compromise of the two.
Jan Vertonghen –
Playing slightly ahead and to the left of his defensive partner, Vertonghen, is the centre-back who’s job it is to attack the ball – either intercepting or tackling.
He sends the ball long much less frequently than Toby does but is similarly creative with his high-tempo, vertical, accurate short passes that help shift the ball from side to side and forward while his team are in the building phase.
Even more technically gifted than his partner Vertonghen will occasionally bring the ball forward at his own feet, committing opposition players towards him before beating them with skill and offloading to a teammate.
Vertonghen’s clear weakness is his ability to deal with tall and strong centre-forwards. Vertonghen struggles in aerial duels with targetmen and is often guilty of wrapping his arms around them in attempting and failing to battle with them physically.
Danny Rose & Kyle Walker
Once upon a time scapegoats with more than a season’s worth of poor performances between them Rose and Walker are now known for being a raging inferno of an attacking full-back duo. Almost constantly screaming, sprinting or both at the same time the pair are almost unbearably intense.
Under Pochettino Rose’s defensive understanding of the game has improved immensely and Walker has reduced the number of calamitous defensive decisions he makes from 2 per game to nearly 0 per season. From that foundation they are able to put blistering pace to a width-giving and even attacking purpose.
Despite Rose being quite small he often wins physical battles for the ball in the air and in slide tackles due to the pure energy and commitment he puts in to absolutely everything he does. Walker, meanwhile, is never weaker, slower, shorter or less fit than his wide opponent. Both suffer from somewhat poor crossing technique and decision making the final third.
Eric Dier –
Last season Eric Dier’s time was split between playing as a centre-back, a right-back and waiting on the bench – depending on where he was needed most. And in some ways this season has been a continuation of his utility.
A defensive midfielder was a key target for Tottenham last summer and many Spurs fans were disappointed at the board failing to land one. Up stepped Eric Dier.
While his performances the previous season were reliable, solid and even promising it’s the defensive midfield position he has really made his own – starting the season as Tottenham’s best player. Dier moves between aggressively pressing the ball in midfield, shielding his defence, covering out on the right for Walker and joining the defence to create a back 3. Dier is key because his defensive versatility enables Tottenham’s attacking variety.
Although effectively a defender playing further forward Dier is much more technically comfortable than might be expected. He can beat players on the ball, hold it under pressure and pass it with not only accuracy but an impressive creativity.
Despite him greatly exceeding expectations in these areas I still feel he is a little more creatively limited than would be ideal for a team competing in the Champion’s League and I see his future at the back where his technical and creative ability is even more contextually impressive (like Alderweireld).
Mousa Dembele –
After an impressive first season Mousa Dembele came to embody everything wrong with AVB’s Spurs – lethargic, indecisive, uncreative and poorly defensively positioned. Despite starting his Premier League career as a number 10 Dembele lacked vision, creative bravery and goalscoring ability. He still holds those weaknesses (to a lesser extent) but he’s now playing in a role that makes use of his particular set of skills.
Dembele is difficult to compare in terms of quality to other midfielders because he is truly unique in world football and probably in football’s lengthy history. As well as being a capable ball winner Dembele uses his mixture of ball control and immense strength to draw opposition players towards him before going round them. In doing this he is able to ‘break’ the oppositions first and second lines of defence which creates space for his teammates before he off-loads the ball to them. He’s not the first midfielder to dribble through the middle of the park but his uniqueness comes from being the very best at it whilst at the same time having such strong limitations outside of it.
Whilst I do think Dembele was misused prior to this season I also suspect he is for the first time in several seasons free from a nagging hip injury and therefore fit enough to put in the high-energy performances that he now terrorises the league with.
Christian Eriksen –
Inexplicably Tottenham’s most under-celebrated player this season Eriksen is deployed as Spurs’ playmaker. It is difficult to explain playmaking without a creating a separate, lengthy article with multiple diagrams and pieces of footage. But to simplify it as best I can; playmaking is the art of using intelligent positioning and passing to create space for others. Players make runs when Eriksen has the ball because they know he’ll see that run and either supply them the ball or use the space their run has created for himself.
He is also, understandably, chastised for pulling out of challenges. Eriksen is a little bit of a lightweight but what he lacks in physicality and intensity he makes up for in the intelligence of his pressing. Just nipping in at the right moment to intercept the ball, without having to battle for it, and immediately using the ball well.
In previous seasons Eriksen has played further forward, often as the lone attacking midfielder, and as a result registered more goals. On paper Eriksen plays on the left but he spends just as much time in the middle and in deep midfield areas. As the deepest of the attacking midfield three his is able to aid our build-up play in all areas and against Swansea played alongside Dier in the 4231’s ‘2’ to pick the lock of Swansea’s deep and narrow defence.
I suppose this is the reason for Eriksen’s perceived lack of form this season. Goals are much more easy to quantify and recognise than playmaking but with other goal-scorers in the team Eriksen gives Spurs much more when linking up the play. He also, under Pochettino, makes the play with a single touch to keep up the high tempo of the attack and I think that can give the impression of non-involvement. The easiest way to measure what Eriksen brings is in seeing the drop-off in Tottenham’s general quality when Eriksen is missing.
Erik Lamela –
Too say Lamela had a slow start to his Tottenham career would be a huge understatement. Many matched up his failure with his slight frame, pretty face, spiky hair and him being Argentine and labelled him a lazy, continental lightweight. But perhaps his most important contribution at Spurs season is in his pressing. He is energetic, relentless and even reckless in his hounding of the opposition up and down the pitch when Spurs don’t have the ball.
In possession Lamela, playing on the narrow right, is something of a balance between Eriksen’s creativity and Kane and Alli’s direct goal threat. In linking the midfield to the attack Lamela is forever looking to assist, ideally via a run at defence that ends in a piercing through-ball.
Lamela’s football upbringing in Argentina and Italy left him expecting too much time on the ball which has probably been his biggest issue in fitting in to the Premier League. Lamela always wants the spectacular when on the ball and curving that instinct has been a lengthy challenge. Lamela has learnt to simplify his game and modify his disrespect for the opposition to turn in to a solid and reliable player. In doing that he may have lost a little of the spectacular that he always strived for but it remains present in increasingly regular occasions. As his reputation grows so does the opposition’s fear of him which means they stand-off him more. His best performances have come in the Europa League and in the big, end-to-end, games when that time on the ball is available to him.
Lamela’s passion for winning the ball is greater than his ability to do so and his carelessness, which can push into nastiness, in the tackle sees him give away a lot of fouls. He has been lucky to get away without a second yellow on a few occasions this season and has been subbed off in fear of one in a couple more.
Dele Alli –
Alli started the season, at 19 years old, in a central midfield role, but switched with Dembele fairly early on. This move wasn’t popular with Spurs fans at first. They felt that Alli moved the ball up the field quicker than Mousa and that he would go missing from games when being marked out of them higher up the pitch. Meanwhile Dembele’s physical and intelligent pressing of the opponent’s defence was deemed a loss.
But Pochettino stuck by his decision and it’s been clear why for a while. Under Pochettino. Alli, who was described in the past as a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder, plays almost as a forward. On paper, starting from the 10 position, he is able to contribute to the defence and the build-up play but his main purpose is to make runs into space or combine with Kane to score or assist goals. I think there are a lot of playstyle similarities between Alli and Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller.
Müller described himself as a ‘raumdeuter’ which means “space interpreter” and I think that describes Alli quite well too. The raumdeuter, playing from midfield and often wide, gives you everything the ‘poacher’ does in the final third without being such a single issue player. He is normally found out on the space on the left or in the little pockets of space in front of, or running in behind, the opposition’s defence.
Alli is still guilty of going missing from games for large periods of time – as the space, or he, can not be found – but it is on those occasions when he is most likely to pop up in the right place and convert a chance when it is most needed.
His off-the-ball movement is that of a very experienced pro but he shows the trademarks of his youth often. He likes to show off his excellent technique – whether that’s a nutmeg or an outside the box wonder volley – but he also struggles to control his temper at times which has resulted in a few moments of petulance.
By and large this has been accepted as part of his character, a source for his energy, but an inevitable poor timed sending off for club or country will see some fans turn on him.
Harry Kane –
Kane is is one of the most well-rounded forwards in football and Pochettino makes sure to use of every aspect of his game.
Kane is comfortable finishing off moves in the box with a single touch by head or foot or by creating and converting shots from medium and long distance. He is able to put his height, strength and ball control to purpose in hold-up play. Having developed in the Tottenham Academy as an old-school number 10 he will drop deep, in to pockets of space, to create chances for others or spread the play with high-quality passing. Kane’s off-the-ball movement into the channels and in behind matches well with his surprising pace to mean he is able to run on to through-balls or take the ball round defenders himself. His high work-rate, stamina, defensive understanding and tackling ability makes him a fantastic presser and winner of the ball. He is able to operate in high-tempo games and in tight spaces.
He is an intelligent, hard-working player who continues to develop all the time which can be most easily seen in the improvement of his first touch and penalty taking over the last year. If Kane was very fast instead of quite fast he’d already be talked about as an all-time great.
Fitness & Rotation
In order to maintain the high press that is fundamental to Pochettino’s system Tottenham have to run further, and at a higher tempo than the opposition in nearly every game. They achieve this via the immense fitness regime held up by Pochettino’s staff. Each player is very carefully and digitally monitored in training and each has a bespoke routine designed to get the absolute most out of each individual without pushing them over the ‘red line’ where the potential for lengthy muscle injuries exist.
But although outstanding, the fitness coaching remains unmastered. Pochettino’s teams still suffer from a late season drop-off. The term ‘Bielsa Burnout’ was coined for the same occurrence in team’s managed by Pochettino’s mentor and tactical inspiration Marcelo Bielsa. Although Tottenham boast a much stronger mental fortitude than they did before the current management, a morale knock in the final third of the season has twice seen Tottenham show that they had been running on an adrenaline they were no longer carried by. Showing dramatic dips in form in 2015 after losing the League Cup Final and in 2016 after missing out on the title to Leicester.
Essentially, in order to see the season out without a fitness drop, I suspect that no-one but the centre-backs can afford to play twice in a week. But Spurs don’t yet have the necessary quality in depth to make such rotations especially as they are now qualified for the Champion’s League.
They do at fullback though. No full-back has played twice in a week this season. It took a little while to settle but the existing pattern is that Walker and Rose with their athleticism and defensive quality play the big game, typically on the weekend, and Davies and Trippier with their final third decision making and quality crossing play in the lesser game, typically mid-week.
This rotation suits tactically too. As lesser teams are more likely to play defensively, more likely to have tall but slow defenders and therefore more likely to play narrowly, playing Davies and Trippier, who can better use the space left out wide for them and also have less defending to do, is ideal.
A requirement of the high-intensity, direct and man-orientated pressing game is a physical presence that has long been lacking from the Tottenham side.
Winning aerial duels, battling for the second ball, using strength to retain the ball. These aspects, that are crucial to the current Spurs team, are more commonly associated with sides coached by Tony Pullis and Sam Allardyce. Whilst teams competing in Europe forsake grit for flair. Tottenham over the last decade have gone too far in pursuit of flair that they are left with too little grit but Pochettino is finding a balance.
Using physique is a bit of an art though and Tottenham have become very good at ‘setting a physical tone’. This means that they will invite, and ride out, challenges and fouls early on in games so as to set, in each game, a feel of acceptable physicality. They will gradually increase how hard they go into tackles and shoulder-to-shoulder battles in the early period of the game so that it becomes the norm.
The result is that when Lamela inevitably bundles over the opposition left-back in the 60th minute whilst already on a yellow and without winning the ball he isn’t sent off. His foul is seen as within the reasonable realms of contact and Tottenham can continue to hound the opposition defence without timidity or fear.
But setting this tone has it’s drawbacks. Whilst Tottenham are becoming renowned for their pressing they are also quite vulnerable to it. That flair/grit balance isn’t quite perfect. Alli has it, Lamela has it, Kane has it, Rose has it but Eriksen doesn’t, Mason certainly doesn’t and whilst Vertonghen should he’s not quite there either.
By building play from the back two, and playing in a very physical game Tottenham have opened themselves up to pressing from physical teams leading to defeats against Newcastle, Leicester, Southampton and West Ham. The connection? Mousa Dembele’s absence. Tottenham’s current answer to being pressed is to hit the ball vaguely in Dembele’s direction and watch as he uses his unworldly balance of grit and flair to kill the ball, shrug off multiple challenges and skip away with possession.
Fine for when Dembele is in the team but he can’t play every fixture especially when his playstyle invites so many fouls on a twisting body. And his bit of nastiness on Diego Costa will see him miss the first four games of next season. Tottenham must find an alternative solution to this issue.
Adjusting Shape for Opposition
As the season progressed Eriksen would come deeper and deeper, more frequently to receive the ball and dictate the play against lesser teams who would set up defensively. This culminated in Dembele moving over to the right to balance it out moving Spurs to narrow 433 shape.
Here Tottenham can effectively play with 3 forwards while still maintaining control and creativity in midfield. This up top change would often combine with the three at the back shape; especially when Davies and Trippier played over Rose and Walker.
Here Spurs are playing something of a 3421 shape. This shape – which really pushed the attacking in 5 vertical lines idea – was seen most often during the impressive run from January to March in which their consistent superior-to-opposition fitness meant they could implement such an attacking shape via their intense pressing game.
-Kane Adjusting To Form
There was a strong narrative at the end of last season that Kane was a ‘one season wonder’ and I think that idea got to him a bit – failing to register a goal until the League’s 8th game week. To compensate for this Pochettino had Harry adjust his role. Before he started converting his chances Kane would operate almost as a false 9, coming deep to move defences out of position before playing balls over the top to onrushing midfielders and generally being more involved in the build-up play. This meant Kane was able to contribute meaningfully to the team when not scoring. Although it was seen less after his goal against City it still remains part of his game as it was somewhat last season.
Although there is a lot of fluidity amongst Tottenham’s attacking 4 Pochettino would occasionally have Eriksen and Lamela swap wings for large periods of the game. In ths situation Tottenham are playing with more traditional wingers who have their strong foot closer to the sideline. Although I’m a big fan of inverted wingers there’s a number of advantages to doing this. If Poch feels the opposition are anticipating inverted wingers and set-up up to play against them then swapping them will catch the opposition by surprise. If the opposition are keeping an attacking width, preventing Spurs’ full-backs from getting up the pitch then swapped wingers can provide the width that is not being given by the full-backs and not being defended by the opposition. If Pochettino feels the opposition is particularly vulnerable to crosses and especially early ones then swapped wingers with their strong foot out wide are better for exploiting this.
-Making Room For Toby
In order to make use of Alderweireld’s playmaking ability and because of a lack of creativity from Dembele and Dier Spurs would occasionally run minor plays in which they create space for Alderweireld to move into. Here’s an example of a typical move:
In this first diagram Vertonghen, who is failing to beat the opposition’s medium block press rolls the ball along the ground for Alderweireld. As soon as the ball leaves Vertonghen’s foot Walker makes what seems to be a far too early run down the line. Dier stays left and moves deeper to keep the opposition forward with him. One of Alli, Lamela or Eriksen come deep to occupy the opposition’s number 10 while one or both of the remaining two make runs at into channels pinning the opposition midfield.
Now Alderweireld can step forward with the ball as Dier takes his place at the back. Walker and Kane come towards the ball offering a pass to feet while Alli can make a diagonal run into a central position behind the opposition defence and Lamela can offer a run into the right channel.
Now this piece is finished I will begin work on a new one looking at how Tottenham can continue to improve and overcome weaknesses with relation to the summer transfer window. So follow me on Twitter @TTTactics if you’re interested in that.