Time and time again the very best coaches in the world tell us we focus too much on digit described formations. And I agree. No team plays set in their shape for 90 minutes; a team’s formation is fluid throughout the different phases of the game. And one team’s 4-2-3-1 is completely different from another’s.
So with that in mind here’s an entire article on a four number description of Tottenham’s shape over the last few games.
Something I’ve talked about quite a bit recently is the occupation of the five vertical divisions of the pitch. By forcing the opposition to defend against you across all five, you stretch them across the width of the pitch, opening up space in the middle for your central, attacking players.
Below we can see how Pochettino uses narrow wingers and attacking full-backs supported by two defensive midfielders – one dropping between the centre-backs – to occupy the five verticals with a 4-2-3-1.
The main shortcoming of this is that, by being limited to staying out wide and crossing, even top level full-backs have the attacking output of mid-table wingers. Additionally, this shape piles an incredible work load on the full-backs who each essentially have to do the work of two. Playing the hardest working role in a team that already outrun most teams means that last season Pochettino rarely played the same full-back twice in a week.
Still, attacking full-backs are all the rage, which has been limiting to attacking/possession teams looking to make use of the 4-1-4-1 shape (it’s a brilliant defensive shape in a medium pressing block but that’s another article).
Typically the 4-1-4-1 struggles for balance. Either the band of four push up into attacking midfield, leaving the lone defensive midfielder to get overrun. The team then either lose control of the game or become hugely vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Alternatively, the band of four remain deep. This leaves a disconnect between midfield and the lone forward, with very few runs from deep, and fails to occupy the five verticals. It becomes easy for the defending team to push the opposition wide where the full-backs and wide midfielders end up fulfilling similar tasks in the same vertical column.
This is where Guardiola comes in. Pep has his band of four push up into attacking midfield but compensates by having his full-backs remain deep and narrow; adding themselves to the midfield.
This is the shape that Pochettino has been using recently. In no small part, I suspect, to make up for a lack of Dembele. We don’t quite go all way with the full-backs operating as midfielders when in possession but they do stay deep, narrow, circulate the ball and help compress the space on the counter-press.
Walker’s heatmaps in the 4-2-3-1 (Everton) and 4-1-4-1 (Middlesborough)
So this shape no longer requires our full-backs to run themselves into the ground until their legs are worn down to stubs but are they suited to this more central role? Davies seems to be the most comfortable, Rose had some experience in midfield as a youngster and Walker isn’t a natural but continues to respond well to Poch’s coaching (could you imagine him trying to play this role in 2013?). So there’s competency here but none of them are exactly creatives, thriving in this role like Alaba or Lahm did.
Dele Alli is performing well and my thoughts on how well Eriksen plays in a deeper role are pretty clear for all to see.
Where we’re really struggling, and why I’m having doubts on our use of this shape, is on the wings. Son is flourishing, no doubt, but he’s doing so in multiple different roles. Lamela isn’t comfortable on the touchline and especially on the left. Sissoko continues to get game time on the right which suited playing against City as he was able to contribute defensively and make direct ball-carrying runs down the touchline but against more defensive teams he offers very little.
When Sissoko joined the club I thought he was coming to be back-up to Dembele but that’s yet to happen and is becoming a more and more distant dream. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that our 4-2-3-1 would have been more appropriate for the players we started against West Brom and in the majority of games going forward.