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.

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.

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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.

Why the way we press might be holding us back

Why the way we press might be holding us back

From my lengthy end-of-season review piece I wrote back in May:

“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.”

I’d like to start by going a tiny, little bit more in-depth on each of these three, somewhat intuitive, pressing structures.

1. Ball-Orientated Pressing

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Fairly simple stuff here to start. They have the ball, we want the ball, go chase the ball. That’s maybe overly Redknapp-ian. There will be some nuance over when, where and why you would initiate the press but what we’re looking at here is how we behave once that press has begun.

2. Man-Orientated Pressing

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Here one or two players go to challenge the man on the ball while everyone else glues themselves to the nearest opposition player thus restricting the player on the ball’s options while he’s being closed down. The player on the ball is now at risk of giving the ball away to the opposition or being forced to hoof it long out of fear.

This is the current system that Pochettino’s Spurs employ but there are some shortcomings that I believe are effecting us this season, that I’d like to come back to shortly.

3. Pass-Lane-Orientated Pressing

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Now, as one player presses the man in possession his team mates move in to spaces which create the illusion of there being passing options but actually means the pressing team can react to attempts to pass the ball by quickly moving into the path of the pass and intercepting it.

Each pressing player basically puts himself equal distance between two opposition players so there is a small enough gap that he can intercept a pass to either receiving player. With every player able to occupy two of the opposition the pressing team can create a kind of fake man advantage.

This is complicated for me to try to explain with written word so it is of course even more complicated to get a team of 11 players operating collectively in a match environment. No wonder we opt for a more simple approach, right?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece for The Fighting Cock about our struggles so far this season in central midfield. I dicked myself over a little there because my clickbait-y title distracted away from my, I thought, pretty good explanation of what Dembele does for us and why him being half-fit was having such a negative effect on us, especially in attack.

Half-way through the season now and despite more than adequate playing time Dembele still doesn’t look close to his last season self. His lesser fitness means a lack of commitment to individual challenges, a slowness to react, a lack of bravery in possession and a decrease in his ability to retain the ball under pressure.

Without the control of midfield that a fully fit Mousa Dembele gives us we are forced to bring the ball into attacking areas via our full-backs. This in turn means our attacking midfielders are receiving the ball in a less preferable context which I think accounts for their collective drop in form.

My controversial suggested solution was to introduce Harry Winks in place of Mousa Dembele in to the ‘2’ of the 4231 shape in attempt to return to our best football from last season.

I still stand by that claim but I also appreciate why Pochettino has not yet implemented it. And I think a lot of it comes down to the way we press.

Our use of man-orientations requires us to be athletically superior to the opposition. The man-orientation means we create a large number of 1v1 challenges for the ball and if you want to take advantage of that situation then you need to be stronger, faster or ideally both in order to beat your opponent to the ball.

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In order to take advantage of superior strength you also need to create a situation in which using it isn’t a foul. So Spurs try to bring a factor of allowed physicality to every game. By inviting heavy challenges early on in the game we set a tone of acceptance for 1v1 battles for possession. This means we can get away with heavy shoulder challenges without getting blown up for it.

And it’s in the physicality department that Winks is somewhat lacking. Not the extent of creative, central midfield, academy product predecessors Ryan Mason and Tom Carroll but he’s still a dramatic drop off from Mousa Dembele. In fact Dembele’s role is probably the most demanding in the Tottenham team. In his role, bringing the ball up through the centre of the pitch, shrugging off the opposition press, he has to balance elite levels of both physical and technical excellence.

Pochettino does seem tempted by the idea of eventually bringing Winks in for Dembele to solve some issues. This leads to half-commitments such as having them share the role by playing both of them at the same time, which, okay, solves the problem but leads to us being a little short up front and disrupts our existing possession and pressing shapes. Winks seems unlikely to make the physical requirements for this role for several years.

It isn’t just this role in which our physical requirements are causing us problems. Davies and Trippier, both strong in attack and, at least Davies, strong in defence too but unable to meet the athletic needs for Pochettino to trust them to do both at the same time.

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This summer saw defensive midfield bolstered by Victor Wanyama who is maybe not as uncomfortable with the ball at his feet as I originally thought but still pretty limited in terms of passing.

An Eriksen back-up remains a difficult purchase as the venn diagram cross-over between advanced playmakers and players willing to battle in a high-press is fairly small – Eriksen being a testament to that himself.

In short I think our need to accommodate our pressing system with, in the words of Luke BB, 6+ foot monsters is preventing us from developing technically and leaves us too reliant on the very unique and equally injury prone Mousa Dembele.

Players of Dembele’s ilk do exist in the football world but ticking the athletic freak box as a must have attribute significantly decreases our options in the player market which makes things more difficult, financially.

Why it’s time for Harry Winks

Why it’s time for Winks to replace Dembele

4-1-4-1

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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