16/17 End of Season Q&A

16/17 End of Season Q&A

I was surprised by both the quantity and quality of questions I received on a single tweet I only bumped once. Maybe that’s because this is a one-off but if it isn’t then maybe this can become a slightly more regular thing.

Sorry if your question hasn’t made it. I’ll try to tweet replies to those not included where less than 140 characters will give a decent answer.

3. Only if Eric plays as a CB. We beat both United and Arsenal with this midfield duo, sure. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that they were both weak iterations of those sides. As resident tactics nerd I’m quickest to downplay the ‘intangibles’ but I truly believe they were the predominant factor in both those games. The energy and commitment we put in for the first 60 minutes v United, carried us through our creative shortcomings. It’s just not something we can expect to replicate on a weekly basis.

2. If he wants it then as squad player who can sometimes contribute to a 4-2-3-1, sometimes rotate with Eriksen (we do need this) in the 3-4-3 and could maybe even kinda do a job at WB from time to time. But having previously been a first XI regular it would be understandable if he was unwilling to accept a secondary role.

1. We should have already started. Our season only really got started after Christmas and I put a lot of that down to Mousa’s fitness and our inability to work around it. (Imagine if we’d been this good from the start!)

From January onwards our form improved with his. His fitness seemed to improve around this time but I think our three at the back shape eased the burden on him in several ways, so it’s a little hard to differentiate between the impacts of the two things. Especially with all the other factors at play.

Regardless, we’re still not a long way from “Tottenham do not exist without Dembele”. The problem is that he is not easily replaced with personnel or tactics…

Not really. I’m big on Winks; he’s an intelligent, hard-working, talented kid from the local area who plays my favourite role. He’s performed well, even very well, most of the time he’s been called upon.

But away to Gent and Burnley, when put into Dembele’s role against physical, pressing opponents, the gulf between everything he is and everything we need him to be was on display. It might come across as harsh to write off the abilities of a young player based on roughly 90 minutes of football but it was evident that Winks just isn’t in the same tier as Dembele for both pressing and resistance to opposition pressing.

That doesn’t mean that “Start Winks” was a terrible take at the time that I should now apologise for. We desperately needed to improve how we built the ball from the back for the first half of the season and my proposed method would have helped.

Instead the method we did arrive at, 3 at the back, worked better and didn’t have the shortcomings my suggestion would have had. I guess that’s why Pochettino is the world-class manager and I’m just some dickhead on twitter.

Winks is really good, it’s not his fault that the requisite skills for the job prompt the question:

This season I’ve banged on a lot about finding solutions to a world without Mousa and how his lack of fitness has caused us problems. But that shouldn’t be seen as a slight on him. If anything it’s a compliment to our reliance on him and by extension his brilliance.

In his pre-Leicester press conference Pochettino talked about how Dembele has been playing through the pain this season. The club announced that he will see a specialist regarding an ongoing foot problem that prevents him from being able to complete 90 minutes.

The fact that he’s carrying an injury that would see most players long-term sidelined and is still, in my opinion, the best central midfielder in the league is absolutely ridiculous.

Kane, Eriksen, Alderweireld, Lloris. These are incredible players that we are very lucky to have play for our club but there are other players in the world who are comparable. Mousa Dembele, for the extremities of his strengths and limitations, is not only unique in world football but in it’s lengthy history too.

Okay onto some lighter stuff for a while:

Waltz: Operates in a unique time signature, sometimes causes a dizzying effect, Erik Lamela.

Macarena: Silly, formulaic, well-known in multiple continents, Son Heung-Min.

Boddypopping: Huge for a while, not so popular nowadays: Kevin Wimmer.

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Make your account public, Jack.

Not given much listening to either of their solo projects but within the band I prefer’s Tanya’s contributions. I don’t think that’s really a songwriting thing though (Kristen is probably the better writer), I just find Tanya’s voice more, of the era, of the scene.

Sorry mate that’s a crap answer to a great question. Anyway check out some of my local bands GANG (early Sabbath + Pixies) and Inevitable Daydream (Dino Jr + Psych).

 

Got quite a few Walker questions, unsurprisingly.

Hopefully he sticks around but even with his seemingly heartfelt video tribute to White Hart Lane it doesn’t look great.

Trippier has done okay in Walker’s absence. But is okay good enough for first choice? The full-back/wing-back role under Pochettino is an immensely physical one. And athleticism isn’t Trippier’s greatest strength, neither is it Walker-Peters’. So really we need to get looking for someone who is more in the Danny Rose/Kyle Walker mould. I don’t watch enough international football to tell you who that might be. Serge Aurier is the only name that comes to mind but he’s a more than questionable character.

Instead Trippier’s strength is in his crossing. Which is good, obviously. It’s good to have that in the squad because but it’s an added bonus. It isn’t the main focus of what Pochettino wants our full-backs to do.

He kinda just wants them to be there. That’s an oversimplification but you’re right to point out that it’s not really about end product for them.

Instead, Pochettino wants to use the threat of end product to hurt the opposition in other areas. He wants them high, wide, moving the ball with tempo and precision and carrying it into the final third when necessary. All so that the opposition are stretched across the pitch to create more space in the middle where the real danger is.

Obviously they aren’t completely removed from attacks. Both will still occasionally get to the by-line to play a floor cross and, more uniquely under Pochettino, both will underlap into attacking midfield areas to combine there.

Pace, technical reliability and (coached) positional intelligence are the attacking attributes of a Pochettino full-back.

Playmaking CBs work. They’re cool and fun and somewhat unique.

Essentially we need creativity from somewhere deep and it doesn’t really matter if it comes from deep midfield or all the way at the back. Intentionally or otherwise we’re in a situation where we have three quality, creative CBs and a midfield of creatively limited man mountains.

The question becomes how can we provide depth to these areas? Quality, creative CBs are rare. Rarer still are ones prepared to sit on the bench and wait their turn. Creative CMs are more common and we have one in Winks, but as we’ve already explored the system places too much physical responsibility on the CMs for Winks to reliably fill in if there was to be a long-term injury.

First team CB creativity is a feature. Needing CB creativity depth is a bug.

Davies hasn’t played LCB (except for a few minutes v West Brom) because he’s been needed out wide, because CBs require less rotation, because Davies is short and, lastly, because Wimmer is still on the books.

I like Wimmer but it looks like Poch doesn’t. I like Wimmer based on how he’s been on the pitch (I appreciate there’s been a drop off this season) it strikes me that Pochettino’s lack of love for Wimmer probably comes from something off it.

CCV is a good young defender but my suspicion that he’s not up to the job of a Pochettino RCB in terms of creativity was confirmed by the lads on the 2nd Fighting Cock youth special. Additionally Wimmer is a lefty, CCV is a righty. We need cover for both and footedness is even more of a big deal in a 3 than it is in a 2.

Yes and I think we’re seeing it with Pochettino. Spurs’ attacking shape can often resemble the old-school WM formation and our ability to sustain attacks through our counter-pressing allows us to commit so many players forward.

 

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Pep too can be accused of playing a 2-3-5 shape with a similar pressing scheme that allows him to throw the kitchen sink. Talking of…

1. I think there’s been some Englishness about his City team this year. A bit more direct, and a bit more physical in his pressing (though both those things had already happened to a degree at Bayern – as had the wide wingers thing).

Now that can be seen as both “Ah look, Pep’s had to change his game for the great and mighty Premier League” and “Pep’s so clever he’s adjusted his game to his surroundings.” Whatever, forge your own narratives.

2. Had quite a few Zaha/winger questions. For me, there are bigger priorities in replacing/keeping Walker, keeping all our key players and somehow finding depth for Dembele, Eriksen and our CBs.

We have a system that’s really good. That turns over team after team (that aren’t Liverpool). The reason we haven’t won a title is because we haven’t been able to consistently start the required players to make that system work of the length of a season.

I’d like to see us work on making what we’ve got repeatable for a whole season. But I can see the argument in looking for a pure winger. It gives us something different which means we have alternate routes to goal if our normal method isn’t working and we can make slight alterations to our normal system so that we continue to be difficult to predict and suss out.

I actually quite like Zaha. I like the way he dribbles, it’s fairly unique. He’s slightly crouched and he gets a lot of width between his feet. I like the way he can dig out the necessary power and swerve when the ball is under him/away from him.

But I don’t think he’s what Spurs need. His end product has improved but it’s still not up to par and I have some questions on his ability to run on to through-balls.

 

Alright, that’s your lot for now. In a couple of weeks I’m planning my analytics debut. A piece on Spurs and xG so stay tuned/mad for that.

FA Cup Semi-Final Preview – Chelsea

FA Cup Semi-Final Preview – Chelsea

 

Alright, I am short on time this week but I’ve had a couple of you on twitter remind me that I did say I would put this article out. So here, in a rushed, error heavy, stream of consciousness mess, it is.

In my analysis of January’s league victory at Chelsea we looked at how Pochettino took a risk by going man-for-man with Chelsea at the back in order to disrupt the way Chelsea build their moves from the back. Chelsea, failed, in return to press our defenders in possession and as a result we were able to build moves that exposed Chelsea’s weakness to aerial threats in the left channel.

The result was 3 points for us but it probably wasn’t as decisive a victory as the scoreline would have us believe. Hazard fluffed a couple of quality chances and while we took ours we didn’t create a ton of them. Michael Caley’s xG model has us narrowly coming out on top at 1.1 v 1.0.

Still, we caused Chelsea problems they hadn’t been caused since switching to the 3-4-3 system and it’s only very recently that other clubs have managed the same.

Humble hero of beautiful football and all round nice guy Jose Mourinho may have given us a shot at the title by exposing some of Chelsea’s shortcomings. With a lack of playmakers in the team they’re creatively reliant on a combination of Conte’s positional system and ‘final third difference maker’ Eden Hazard. By dedicating his team to disrupting those patterns and having Hazard very tightly marked; Chelsea were totally stumped for threat.

Mourinho also played two, speedy forwards to quickly counter-attack in behind Chelsea’s wide centre-backs who, like ours, are aggressive in possession.

Is there anything we can learn from this? Not a huge amount. Setting up his team with the primary focus of disrupting the opposition is just something Pochettino doesn’t do, preferring, instead to gamble on his sides’ ability to dominate the game and turn that domination into goals and clean sheets.

Three or Four at the Back?

The big debate this week leading up to Saturday’s game is who starts between Wanyama and Son.

Pochettino himself has said not to focus too much on formation. That our two main shapes are different ways of achieving the same things. Press, posses, risk, repeat.

That’s largely agreeable but there are a couple of minor pros/cons between the two shapes. Essentially, the three at the back is slightly better at counter-pressing and the four at the back is slightly better at sitting back and defending while we can’t get the ball.

Three at the back is better at counter-pressing because it means: 1) Wanyama and 2) Dembele being slightly further up the pitch.

On the other hand, four at the back is better during the defensive phase because of the zones we like to cover in our defensive shape:

It’s hard to be narrow when you’ve got five men in a row. It’s hard to defend the area in front your defence when two of your midfielders are kinda, really, more forwards today.

Also, back fives are really difficult to play offside with, especially if you suddenly jump into that shape mid-way through the season. Our line can be quite wonky.

Since moving to the back three/five shape though we’ve spent very little time stuck in our defensive block because we’ve dominated. Chelsea will have the ball. So our defensive phase is really important.

But our counter-pressing (attack-to-defence transition phase) is really important for being able to remain on top when we have the ball too. So there are no easy answer here.

“What about Son’s form? Surely we can’t dro-” I don’t care.

Team News

Danny Rose is almost definitely out which is obviously a worry. One of the key premises of matching Chelsea man-for-man is that we think we have the better men. I like Davies, I like him creatively and I quite like him defensively but this is not the game for him. There’s a debate to be had over whether we should attempt to improve on Davies but not here.

Meanwhile it looks like Courtois may still be out for Chelsea. Begovic looked more than a little rusty against United so it may be a good idea for Spurs to shoot on sight. Oh wait, we already do that.

How might things be different?

One of the few things we can take from that United – Chelsea game is that Mourinho’s game plan in this match was very similar to the one that was (prior the Herrera getting sent off) working against Chelsea in their cup game from a few weeks earlier. And yet come last weekend Conte seemed totally unprepared for what Mourinho set up to do, would he be the same for us?

Eventually Conte brought on Cesc Fabregas (booo!) which meant Chelsea did start to create some hint of a chance once it was already too late. Conte isn’t hugely keen on Fabregas because his defensive work rate is poor and Conte appears to believe in the creativity of the system over the creativity of the individual (we are blessed with both).

However, Cesc has become Conte’s plan B for nearly all circumstances in the latter half of the season and there’s a slight chance Conte will start Fabregas in a matching 3-5-2 to give them a different way of building attacks and to throw us a bit of a curveball.

Conte is also likely to ask more from his front three, in terms of pressing, than he did in the league win. Being pressed 3v3 at the back by City gave us our toughest domestic game of the season and we were forced to switch to a 4 to overcome it. So a tick in the box for 4-2-3-1 there.

One final note on Chelsea is that Costa is out of favour with the fans. The moderate chance that Costa could be dropped for this game would more likely see a shape change (Fabregas or Willian) than see a like-for-like replacement (Spurs’ summer target Batshuayi)

How might Pochettino shake things up? Other than whether he’s going to play 3 or 4, I’m lost for ideas. Not just lost for how Poch might do things but other, bolder plans that I could theorise.

For whatever it’s worth I’d go with 3 and I think Poch will too but it’s hard to base that on anything other than it feels more ‘big game’ and Son does not.

How Would Clive Allen and Darren Anderton Perform in Today’s Game?

How Would Clive Allen and Darren Anderton Perform in Today’s Game?

I was lucky enough to watch Sunday’s game in the company of Spurs greats Clive Allen and Darren Anderton at the Grosvenor Casino, Piccadilly.

Both of these players had careers that I think were somewhat prototypical. First I spoke to Clive who played as a lone forward in front of a midfield five during an era in which every team played 4-4-2. Clive spoke very highly of that midfield, especially Glenn Hoddle. “It was easy,” Allen on his remarkable 49 goals season “I’d make runs and the ball would just keep landing at my feet.”

On whether the skills learnt leading the line alone would have allowed him to transfer into the modern game Clive took an angle of relativity. “I think it would all transfer to the way it is now.”  The game is much changed. Advancements in tactics, fitness, ground maintenance and technology mean a much faster pace of game than the one Allen played so well in. “The talent was relative to what else there was at the time. And it would be the same now.” For all the sport has changed Allen’s greatest attribute was his clever and creative off the ball movement and it’s a skill that still reigns today.

It quickly became clear that Allen’s life spent as a player, a coach, a scout and a commentator was much more than just a career to him. Unlike a handful of ex-players, who he had a several stories on, Clive has a genuine, enduring love for the game. I was blown away when we were discussing young talents with bright futures and he enthusiastically named half of the current Monaco squad.

Later I spoke to Darren Anderton who I also believe was a little ahead of his time. Although predominantly used out wide, Darren played a number of attacking positions during his career. Anderton revealed to me that he always saw himself as a number 10. “You can become forced out of a game when you’re a winger. If you’re not getting the service there’s not a lot you can do. Then when the ball finally does come to you your so desperate to have an impact that you immediately try something overly flamboyant when you should just keep it safe.” This is why Darren preferred to play just behind the striker. “You can effect the game more in the centre, you’re more involved and that’s what I wanted to be.” 

“I’d love to have played in this current [Spurs] side”. And it’s easy to see why. Under Pochettino, even if you’re down on paper as a winger, you’re always moving inside, heavily involved the creative hub of attacking midfield. Now, it’s very rare for any Spurs player to get marked out of a game or be under-supplied by team mates. The Pochettino high-press system means domination of possession, control of the centre, penetration into attacking areas and the opportunity to take risks with the ball.

Tottenham 2 – 0 Chelsea Analysis

Having drawn Chelsea in the FA Cup semis I thought I’d do a quick belated analysis of our 2-0 League victory from back in January.

Both teams opted for a 3-4-3 formation and it’s no coincidence. Both teams – due to creativity at the back and physicality in midfield – build their attacks in similar ways.

Chelsea (and Spurs) like to build in something of a 1-4-5 shape.

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This means Chelsea often outnumber the opposition on their defensive line and by forming a horizontal line of 4 in deep midfield become difficult to press.

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Drawing the opposition midfield out towards them Chelsea then make quick, vertical combinations with attacking players who drop into pockets of space in the now vacated midfield and are able to get in behind.

To disrupt this Spurs took a bit of a risk at the back by matching Chelsea man-for-man – with Dier vs Hazard being the biggest scare. Contradictory to what I said earlier Spurs’ shape was actually more of a 3-5-2. Dele and Kane pressed the Chelsea CBs relentlessly, preventing the two wider defenders from advancing into a midfield four. Instead instead they were forced to rush passes into midfield, to the marked wing-backs or to play the ball long.

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Tottenham’s midfield three sat deeper preventing passes into the feet of Chelsea’s attacking three but were very quick to press Kante and Matic who were often receiving the ball with their backs turned.

As the match went on, Hazard, getting frustrated, would then drop deep to get on the ball which succeeded in little more than disrupting Chelsea’s man-to-man threat up front.

Chelsea did not press our centre-backs when in possession but instead sat off allowing them the ball deep preventing them from crossing the half-way line.

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With good movement and passing Spurs were repeatedly able to build the ball from left to right. Often going from Vertonghen pushed into midfield to Walker high-up on the right.

Eriksen caused Matic problems with his movement as he has done on several previous meetings. This time, starting deep and arriving late to receive a pulled-back pass from Walker. Matic repeatedly moved too deep and too narrow too early leaving Eriksen to Cahill who was uncomfortable coming out from his backline.

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Kane could then drag Luiz over to the near post; leaving Azpilecueta and Moses to defend Eriksen’s crosses to Dele at the far post. Azpilecueta’s ability to read the game defensively is very strong but his height limits him. Moses, taller, is simply a poor defender.

Closer to the game I will put together an article on how Conte and Pochettino may adapt to what happened in this game.

Pochettino’s Back Three Part Two

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.

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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

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Against Hull a 3-3-3-1

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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.

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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?

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

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.

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4-2-3-1/4-4-2
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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4-1-2-1-2
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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3-3-3-1
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.