The biggest and most obvious change that the new manager Andre Villas-Boas has brought to the North London outfit is in their style of play. The former Chelsea manager has devised a fairly impressive set-up for Spurs, with the team’s play revolving around the highly-coveted Gareth Bale.
In this article for EPL Index, I tactically analyse how this new formation has changed the midfield strata of the team, with cases from the thrilling 3-2 away win over West Ham United as well as the 2-1 triumph over rivals Arsenal.
Note: This topic will be divided into four parts:
Part 1: Role of Midfielders (current topic)
Part 2: Role of Defenders
Part 3: Role of Strikers
Part 4: Role of Gareth Bale
However, all parts will be inter-related and include some little tit-bits from all segments.
Role of Midfielders
-Dembele and Scott Parker operate deep and role of the Inverted Winger.
Against West Ham, Spurs lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while the Hammers favoured a 4-3-3 formation with Mohamed Diame, Kevin Nolan and Gary O’Neil forming the midfield bank of ‘3’.
The visitors’ midfield pivot contained Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker, with Gareth Bale playing just ahead of the duo.
The most intriguing part of AVB’s tactics is that both Dembele and Parker, excluding the former’s runs from the deep, generally dictate the game from a relatively deeper position. This has helped Spurs in two ways.
First, Tottenham like to play with a very high line. Hence, it is important that there isn’t much gap between the midfielders and defenders as it will then give too much space for the opposition attackers to target Spurs’ back-four, particularly if they play with three attackers (like West Ham).
However, with Dembele and Parker sitting deep, the possibility of any such space being created between the final two segments of players is reduced.
In addition to that, Dembele’s constant runs into the final third and Bale dropping back ensures the nexus between the midfield and attack is also maintained.
Second, in order to limit the impact of Dembele and Parker, it is important that both are pressed well and given less time on the ball. Sam Allardyce tried to do this by instructing Diame and Nolan (later Matthew Taylor as Nolan limped off) to keep tight on Dembele and Parker respectively. This, in turn, however, created numerous problems for the home-side.
Take for instance, Spurs build up play during the 69th minute. Dembele was in possession of the ball. Diame pressed the Belgium international, while Taylor closed on to Parker. This left gaps between the lines and allowed Gylfi Sigurdsson (brought on for Lewis Holtby) to drift in from the left, untracked by Joe Cole. Consequently, Gary O’Neil became confused as to mark the drifting ‘inverted’ winger or Bale.
As a result both Spurs players remained unmarked and when Dembele passed the ball to Bale, although O’Neil immediately charged on to the Welshman, it left acres of space for Sigurdsson. Too bad, however, Bale failed to notice his colleague’s movements.
No matter how good West Ham might have tried to execute their game plan, the fluidity among the Spurs players made life altogether difficult for the Hammers.
During the 13th minute of the game, the flair between the Spurs players was at its optimum best.
Holtby shifted centrally (in-fact, he spent majority of the game in the centre, helping the team with the midfield battle), Dembele switched in space between Joe Cole and Diame and Bale dropped back until around the halfway line.
As the image below shows, due to the numerical advantage in the centre of the park and O’Neil failing to make charge on Holtby, Bale, holding the ball, had two easy options to pass it.
Running over the midfield might not be the most exciting battle on the football pitch, but it does help a team form a strong hold on the game. Due to their extra-man advantage, although Spurs lacked width from the left-flank they did maintain majority of the possession (62%) and kept threatening the goal.
However, it has been noted that Holtby’s central and creative role often resulted in the German failing to track back on the left-wing and leaving Jan Vertonghen exposed.
Oppositions’ Central Defence Dismantled
Due the midfielders being overrun, West Ham central defender James Collins was sometimes forced to track Bale. With his partner Winston Reid given a same task on Emmanuel Adebayor, Spurs were easily able to breach the Hammers’ central defence duo, as can be understood from the following.
During the 47th minute of the match, Bale dropped deep to collect the ball from Steven Caulker and Collins followed the 23-year-old until the halfway line. After running a few yards with the ball, Bale passed it to Adebayor, who too has dropped back and forced Reid to do the same.
Realizing that they both were out of position and a large space has been created just in-front of the goal, Collins dashed back to take up the room vacated by Reid. On the other hand, Guy Demel, unwilling track Holtby to the middle of the pitch and leave even more gaps, took up Collins’ place. This also acted as measure to prevent the Spurs players from running the channels.
Adebayor quickly noticed that due to Reid tracking the former Arsenal star down almost till the half length of the pitch, West Ham’s four-man defence had been converted into a three-man defence (indicated by the black markers), without a right-back.
The Togo international therefore quickly passed the ball towards the marauding Vertonghen, who too had noticed the large opening on the left-flank.
However, Spurs yet again failed to convert their chances as Demel deflected Vertonghen’s subsequent shot and the men in white could only earn a corner.
Plan B (When the Opposition overloads midfield and nullifies the extra-man)
-Aaron Lennon Providing Width
Usually, when Spurs try to win the midfield battle, teams overload the centre of the field, and push them out wide. This ploy also suffocates any space for Bale to make his trademark runs.
The Hammers utilized the same technique with mostly Cole closely tracking Holtby (and later Sigurdsson). However, whenever they did so, Spurs shifted the play onto their right-wing via Aaron Lennon.
The 25-year-old’s pace and trickery terrified Joey O’Brien and often opened up space in the centre as he stretched the magnitude of the play.
Although the England international only had 37 touches throughout the game (joint lowest among all the starting outfield players), Lennon’s ability to provide width was key to Spurs and it gave them not only an alternative, but an equally effective and usable option.
Therefore, even one of the major reasons for Spurs recent dip has been the absence of Lennon. During their 4-1 thrashing by Inter, Sigurdsson and Dembele started as the the two wingers. Since, both are incapable of providing width like Lennon, Spurs were too narrow and lacked imagination during attacks.
Instead of putting Bale back on to the flanks momentarily, Villa-Boas tried to rectify this mismatch, by starting Benoit Assou-Ekotto as the left-winger against Fulham, but this measure didn’t really pay off.
Lennon’s partnership with Kyle Walker is also crucial to Spurs as the two link-up superbly well and constantly run channels.
When West Ham tried to squeeze out the duo, Spurs had two viable options- they could either return back to attacking from the centre or commit more men on the right side of the pitch (primarily Bale or/and Parker)
Left Wing Options
Against Allardyce’s troops, Spurs attack from the left-flank kept fluctuating.
Mostly, they were lacked impetus from that side. If not for Vertonghen, sometimes Holtby and Sigurdsson maintained their position and got support from the former Ajax captain, Bale and Dembele. At times, even Adebayor moved on to the left wing.
Nonetheless, it was mostly Vertonghen as the sole width provider and his high work-ethics and pace meant it was relatively easy for him to quickly cover the two ends of the pitch.
Succumbing Under Pressure
Although Spurs do record an average of 52% possession, when the opposing team pressurizes their midfield and press well, Villa-Boas’ players succumb under pressure.
Lack of help from the attackers made it impossible for West Ham to counter Spurs midfield, but things were quite different when Arsenal visited the White Hart Lane.
The Gunners played an identical 4-2-3-1 formation and pressed relatively higher up the pitch.
Mikel Arteta closely marked Bale, while Santi Cazorla drifted in from the left-wing to form little triangles with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere against Dembele and Parker. The latter duo were pressed so aggressively by Arsenal’s midfielders, as well as Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud that they just couldn’t get the required time to settle down and command play.
In addition to that, with Spurs themselves barely putting any pressure on Arteta and co. when out of possession, Arsenal could easily dominate the proceedings.
The Gunners’ impressive pressing is evident from the fact that nine of their total 19 interceptions came in Spurs’ half.
The difference in the passing dynamics of Dembele in the games versus West Ham and Arsenal also tell us how the former Fulham star somewhat struggled against Arsenal’s approach.
Majority of Dembele’s passes were placed in the forward direction and in the opposition half against West Ham, but in the Arsenal tie, a considerable chunk of the 25-year-old’s passes were directed backwards (24% as compared to 10%).
Even if Sigurdsson drifted in (starting as left-winger) to help out his midfield colleagues, this allowed Carl Jenkinson to make runs down the Spurs’ left-flank. It thus doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Jenkinson got the opportunity to make game-high seven crosses into the Spurs penalty area, although none reached the target.
However, as aforementioned, if service from the flanks renders futile, Spurs switch on to the flanks. Lennon provided massive width and his pace also helped him notch up the Champions League hopefuls’ second goal.
Had Arsenal’s defence sat a little deeper in the same way that Tottenham’s did, the Gunners could have actually gone back to the Emirates with a positive result.
… To Be Continued – look out for Part 2 tomorrow!