Pochettino’s Back Three Part One: Solving the Mousa Dembele Conundrum

Last season, when we played the ball out from the back, Dier would drop in between Alderweireld and Vertonghen and one of the ‘situational back three’ would either play it long if there was a good option or give it to Dembele if there wasn’t.

Dembele would then invite a series of challenges for the ball before swanning up the centre of the pitch, leaving a battlefield of failed slide tackles in his wake, and neatly delivering the ball to an attacking midfielder’s feet.

But just as last season’s Mousa Dembele is brilliant, his issues with fitness mean, he is also a fleeting vision. The absence of The Dembele of Last Season has left Tottenham without a way to play the ball out from the back. This season so far has been the story of coping without Mousa’s mastery.

Initially, Dembele was only suspended and Pochettino looked for a temporary solution to the four remaining matches on his ban by forsaking his preference for narrow, intricate, creative football.

It all got a bit old school as two defensive midfielders, Dier and Wanyama, disrupted the centre of the pitch and everything went up wide to Lamela, Eriksen or Son. The wingers were tasked with playing with their dominant foot outside, sticking to the touchline and crossing it into the the two towering targets of Janssen and Kane.

Tottenham 1 – 0 Crystal Palace 20/08/2016

Dembele was only cleared to play against Sunderland before being out again for several weeks with injury. In this period Pochettino took influence from, then league leader, and upcoming opponent Pep Guardiola. We moved to a 4-1-4-1 in which the full-backs would tuck inside and stay deep to act like central-midfielders when we were building attacks.

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4-1-4-1 with ‘inverted’ full-backs
Middlesborough 1 – 2 Tottenham  24/09/2016

With a victory over Manchester City the 4-1-4-1 formation looked promising  but against more defensively focused opposition it proved to be unsuited to our attacking midfielders who were uncomfortable having to create from out wide.

Dembele returned but his ongoing issues with nagging hip and foot injuries meant he wasn’t able to put in last season’s level of absurdly good performances so our attempts to return to last season’s 4-2-3-1 failed.

Following that period of time I called for Winks to replace Dembele in the centre of the pitch – it wasn’t a popular idea. While Pochettino didn’t make the move himself; Winks’ minutes did begin to increase and he and even saw a league start as we toyed with a very short-lived 4-4-2 Diamond formation in attempt to share Mousa’s workload with others.

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Tottenham 3 – 2 West Ham 19/11/2016

Finally, Pochettino looked to a back three. He had done once earlier in the season against Arsenal. And, in a way, the back three was a shape used for a lot of last season but the more recent uses are note-worthy for innovation and creativity.

Once again taking inspiration from league leaders and upcoming opponents; Pochettino has replicated the way Conte’s Chelsea use a single technically outstanding centre-back to remain deep and central while the other two push up to overload midfield. Read more about this comparison here.

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Tottenham 3 – 0 Hull 14/12/2016

The win against Hull could be put down to the weakness of  the opposition and even defeating champions-elect Chelsea could be seen as something of a one off. But, for me, the conclusive victory over Tony Pulis’ defensively resound West Brom proves a turning point in the success of the back three formation.

Now when passing out from the back we are able to shift the ball from side-to-side, create wide overloads and have multiple players who are free to bring the ball forwards at their feet. We have an actual method of building play from deep that isn’t “Just give it to Dembele”.

In turn, the still-not-fully-fit Dembele is able to do what he does best; dominate the midfield area. With three centre-backs and a defensive midfielder behind him, the wing-backs and often Christian Eriksen along side him, Dembele is only tasked with doing the work of a single player and it’s now a smaller area of the pitch that he has to cover. He’s also aided by being brought off early for Winks every game.

Dembele’s action zone in the 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2

The combination of weight being lifted off Dembele’s shoulders and Spurs as a whole hitting peak fitness around this time of year means the return of the intense Pochettino counter-press.

It’s become clear to me this season that the counter-press is the foundation of everything Poch wants this team to do. It provides a security that means players can take risks on the ball, be creative and brave, safe in the knowledge that if it doesn’t work out, if it goes to the opposition, it can be quickly won again and another opportunity provided.

Gamble after gamble can be taken and the opposition are provided no let-up. The feeling that there is no escape from this single, fluid, ever on-going attack must be exhausting physically and mentally for the opposition. Which only leads to more space opening up.

I believe the form of our attacking players this season matches up exactly with our ability to build from the back, control midfield and counter-press resiliently.

With intelligent squad management and a bit of luck with injuries Tottenham are now as good as any other team in the league and should be in competition for the title for seasons to come.

In the coming days I will put out Part Two which will be a more in-depth look at how the back three functions and the questions that lay ahead. So stay tuned for that.

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