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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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