Thought I’d expand on my Chelsea preview from my debut on this week’s Fight Cock Extra Inch podcast. We tried to keep that bit brief as we didn’t want to date the episode which was meant to be more of a general tactical overview of Poch’s time at Spurs.
Chelsea’s current setup is all about separating the opposition’s defensive lines with an overload in deep midfield. Sometimes when building from the back their shape can resemble an Ossie Ardiles-esque 5-0-5.
This worked brilliantly against Manchester United as explored in this video. Mourinho’s 6-3-1 defensive shape was easily exploited. The wingers were pinned back by the wing-backs and the centre-mids were dragged away from shielding roles in front of the defence.
Chelsea could then move the ball across the deep midfield area which the wide centre-backs pushed in to. This created space in midfield which the winger/forwards of Pedro and Hazard could drop into to make passing combinations with the centre-backs to drag United all over the pitch.
Everton also suffered against Conte’s shiny new system. They tried to match Chelsea’s shape with their own back 3. Once again Moses and Alonso pushed back and stretched Everton’s giving them more of a back 5 and left Everton with only 3 lines of defence.
Chelsea were once again able to draw Everton’s midfield out into a place where they were numerically inferior before finding combinations into the wingers feet.
This is why I think it’s very important we return to a 4-2-3-1 shape against Chelsea. The 4231 is narrow which leaves Chelsea’s wing-backs unmarked but it in place it returns us 4 lines of defence. This means we can press Chelsea’s midfield without leaving pockets of space for the wingers to drop in to.
Chelsea will instead play out to their unmarked wing-backs which may cause us some problems. We will have to be very quick in shifting our pressing shape from one side of the pitch to the other without letting one of Chelsea’s 3 forwards escape.
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.
Moussa Sissoko’s move to Tottenham in the dying minutes of the summer Transfer Window came as a bit of a shock to everyone. The club spent a reported £30m on a player that struggled to shine in a lackluster Newcastle side that was eventually relegated. Barring some magnificent performances in the Euros, his performances for Newcastle have been average at best. The move proved to be fairly divisive within the Spurs fanbase.
Seven games in and Sissoko is making a case for himself. He has shown that he’s not as inept as some (myself included) first assumed. His performances even earned him a start against a perfect-record, Guardiola-led Manchester City.
What has he been doing well?
Sissoko is a player with extreme physical ability. He has pace to run down the channels and a strong frame to hold up play or knock an opposition player off the ball. These attributes are…
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In my tactical overview piece at the end of last season I explained how Pochettino, like many modern managers, organises his team to attack the opposition across the five horizontal divisions of the pitch. The wings, the channels and the centre. This spreads the opposition defence wide and opens up space to attack in the middle. Spurs achieve this in a growingly common method. We drop Eric Dier between the centre-backs, bring our wingers inside and push the full-backs into high positions.
Pep Guardiola is an adamant practitioner of juego de posicion which also encapsulates occupying these five zones but he achieves this through a different method. Instead of pushing his full-backs up the pitch he keeps them deep and moves them in centrally. His wingers stay very wide and his central midfielders push-up to so that City can have four attacking midfielders behind their striker.
This extremity has been reserved for games City have expected to dominate
This worked incredibly well for him at Bayern Munich and has already turned in very impressive results at City but the personnel remain imperfect. Despite Kolorov’s outstanding passing range City’s full-backs aren’t ideal inverted full-backs as they aren’t up to the technical and tactical level that Lahm and Alaba were at Bayern.
This leaves them somewhat vulnerable to pressing. And history has taught us the best way to play against Guardiola teams is to prevent them from developing quality build-up play from the back via pressing – especially their deepest midfielder Busquets/Alonso/Fernandinho. Celtic, Swansea and to a lesser extent Man United have caused City issues with their high-pressing.
In total contrast, Pep teams also want to be pressed. By deploying creative passers all the way back to, and including, the goalkeeper City look to invite and pass around opposition pressure to attack the space in behind, essentially counter-attacking without having lost the ball.
But we won’t be the only pressing team, Pep teams are renowned for their ability with the ball, but their ability to win it back with high-pressing is similarly impressive which means once again, because of his unmatched ability to resist opposition pressing, so much balances on whether or not Dembele is fit enough to start.
In at least our last two games we’ve used a 4141/433 shape to increase our midfield presence, to make up for the lack of Dembele and this has worked fairly well but I think we should persist with it regardless of whether or not Dembele starts.
Adding to our deep midfield again will help us against City’s attacking midfield overload which has caused several teams marking issues already. This will also make it easy to move to a back 3/5 which will allow our full-backs to mark the opposition wingers tightly and prevent them from running at us with the ball at their feet.
Christian Eriksen has come under some criticism recently and I remain one of his biggest fans. While I think a lot of what he does goes unnoticed that doesn’t also mean he is immune to having an off day. I think Eriksen should be rested on Sunday and that’s not a reflection of his overall quality or recent performances. Eriksen’s greatest ability is in helping us pick the lock of tight defences. As we’ll mostly be playing on the break, pressing with intensity and, I hope, playing a three-man midfield this game is less suited to his skill-set and the I think the fact that he has started our last three games supports the idea that Poch may be thinking similarly.