Pochettino’s Back Three Part Two

If you haven’t read it already, Part One explored the journey by which we have arrived at playing the back three.

Inverting the Backline Triangle

Although we created a back three for a lot of last season the new system differs because of the shape it takes. Last season the wide two would rarely be further up the pitch than the defensive midfielder. Instead, behind or in line with Dier, they would be afforded time and space to pick out looping diagonal switches or, more impressively, vertical balls up the channel to the feet of an attacking midfielder.

^              –              v

This season however Alderweireld typically remains deep while the outside centre-backs are encouraged to push beyond the half way line to participate in the back-and-forth of midfield passing or even dribbling the ball up the pitch.

Moving from two to three defenders can be intuitively perceived as a defensive move. However, in this case I think can be seen as a creatively brave decision as, while it is a back three on paper, it often operates as a back one in practice when Tottenham are in possession and building play from the back.

I think Pochettino has been inspired by Conte whose back three also operate in this way. It’s unlikely to catch on with the rest of the football world though because it places huge demands on the lone centre-back. Luiz and Alderwerield have to receive back-passes without a partner alongside them, meaning they have to be technically comfortable enough to escape the opposition high-press without an easy short option. In order for the Back One to find their own keeper they have to fully turn their back on the play – an ill-advised move.

Chelsea have had to sacrifice some of their centre-back playmaking potential by moving Luiz into the central role. But while Spurs do have to do the same with Alderweireld I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Vertonghen and Dier are creatively superior to Cahill and Azpilicueta. So it could even be argued that Spurs are more suited to the system originally created at Stamford Bridge.

Deep Left Overload

Jan Vertonghen, especially, is thriving in this auxiliary midfield role. Although Dier is no slouch, the majority of our play now seems to be building from the left. In @11tTegen11’s passmap for our game against West Brom, Vertonghen can be seen pushing wider, further up the pitch, with a higher number of touches and more connections to Moustor Wanbele Vicousa Demyama.


It also shows Danny Rose deeper and more narrow than counterpart Kyle Walker. Similarly, against Villa, left-sided Kevin Wimmer appeared much more comfortable creating play than youngster Cameron Carter-Vickers on the right – praise must go to his defensive performance though. Ben Davies’ and Kieran Trippier’s heatmaps showcase lefty Davies coming deep and narrow in the build-up while Trippier sticks to the touchline.

 Davies   –   Trippier

The combination of a high left centre-back and a deep and narrow left-back creates an overload situation in that area of the pitch which gives Tottenham a way in to the rest of the pitch.

The Development of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker

Just over a year ago we lined up against a Leicester City who defended very narrow. They were one of several teams who swarmed the middle like this to punish us for our own attacking narrowness. It put the creative burden on Kyle Walker and Danny Rose who were unable to create enough chances. We ended up dropping points to Leicester as we did in other games with a similar context.

By that time Rose and Walker had already gained plaudits for their improvements as players under Pochettino and rightfully so. Since then they’ve taken it up another level in terms of their final third performances. They are now both comfortable receiving the ball in tight areas. They are now both able to cut inside into congested areas or beat a man on the outside. They both now make penetrating runs without the ball. They are both developing the quality of their crossing and creative pass selection.

Pochettino’s continued improvement of the pair first defensively, later their ability in transition and now finally aiding them to settle into almost entirely attacking roles is nothing short of incredible. It has also been key as we have experimented with various shapes, each time the full-backs taking on new roles and challenges, before arriving at a shape that asks quite so much of them. Pochettino proves it is one thing to think up a long-term, systematic, tactical alteration in theory and another entirely to coach the players so as they master their new roles.

Not a Single Shape but a Collection

Against Arsenal we deployed a 3-4-1-2


Against Hull a 3-3-3-1


And our current shape moves fluidly between 3-4-3 and 3-5-2

This demonstrates that  we’ve moved to less of a shape in it’s self but a back three foundation upon which several different shapes can be used depending on fitness, form, opposition, rotation and game-state.

Squad Management

Over the last 3 seasons Spurs have slowly improved the squad for Pochettino’s preferred 4-2-3-1. We began this season lacking a back-up to Mousa Dembele and Christian Eriksen but were otherwise well equipped. There had also been question of Kieran Trippier’s ability to deputise, a fear which has since grown with a couple of defensively questionable performances at right back.

Now, switched to the back three, Trippier has a new lease of life performing very well in the more attacking role. This, along with the academy growth of Kyle Walker-Peters means this is no longer a problem zone. On the other flank the once reliable, defensive, Ben Davies is coming under question for his creative and athletic ability.

But I wouldn’t be so keen to get rid of him. The FA cup game started poorly for him as he tried and failed to do a Danny Rose impression but he faired much better in the second half as Pochettino had him adapt to a deeper, narrower role that had him operate almost like a central midfielder.

His cameo against West Brom also showcased his ability to perform at left centre-back too, with a large portion of Spurs fans arguing that he should be the long term replacement for Jan Vertonghen in place of Wimmer. For fear of dating the article I won’t go too much in to that. I’d go for Wimmer – I’ve put him in my fantasy team (£4.6) – and I think Poch will too. As long as he doesn’t drop the back three system all together and make me writing all this look a bit silly.

One of the key reasons for moving to a back three was to lessen the burden on Dembele’s central midfield role and I think this will also make it easier for Harry Winks and possibly Josh Onomah to perform that role.

Erik Lamela, should he ever return to London or a state of fitness, probably sees himself out of the starting XI. But he now makes himself an excellent back-up to Eriksen moving between central midfield, the right wing and the number 10 position.

Moussa Sissoko can play either of the two more advanced midfield roles in this system (though can’t replace Eriksen’s creativity) and I think he could even do a job out at right wing-back.

Wanyama and Dier remain our two defensive midfielders and are now both starting games but rather than add yet another body in that role I think we’d be better off strengthening the also newly light, right footed centre-back department. This would enable Dier to move into Wanyama’s place if needed with a centre-back coming off the bench to join the back three.

With three defenders starting every game there’s still plenty of minutes for the young, talented Cameron Carter-Vickers to develop his game, with the focus now on creativity, but good squad management dictates a back-up for each of our starting back three.


Ideally this hypothetical centre-back signing would be able to perform both Dier and Alderweireld’s role. But we’ve already explored just how demanding Toby’s role is. I don’t believe there are many viable options out there up to both his technical ability on the ball and defensive reading of the game. Which begs the question; is this entire system reliant on Alderweireld’s fitness? And what do we do when he needs to be rested?


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