In my second part of how Andre Villas-Boas has rebuilt and reshaped Tottenham Hotspur, we look into the new defensive set-up of the team. Part 1 can be found here: Analysing the Club’s Tactics Under AVB Part 1
Ledley King bid adieu to domestic football, whilst Jan Vertonghen was brought from Ajax and Steven Caulker returned after an impressive loan-stint at Swansea City. In addition to that, Kyle Naughton was also finally given a chance to establish himself as a first-team starter after spending the past season at Norwich City.
Now, let’s look at the tactical reforms.
The High Line
The most notable change that Villas-Boas has brought to Spurs’ defence is the institution of a high defensive line.
The 35-year-old used a similar strategy at Chelsea, but it heavily backfired as the slow legs of John Terry particularly were thoroughly exposed by pacey attackers running behind the back-four.
Things have been somewhat different with Spurs though. Vertonghen and Caulker are quite quick and easily able to keep the strikers trying to beat the offside trap at bay. Even though Michael Dawson lacks the required pace, his excellent positioning sense and astute tackling have helped him stake claim for the second-choice defender over the past few weeks (ahead of Caulker).
However, there are some glitches with Spurs’ high line.
Lack of Communication
Since AVB is still actually yet to have a consistent back-four due to constant injury niggles, the communication between the Spurs defenders is sometimes lacking. For a team that heavily relies on the offside trap, a definite back line is pivotal as it will help the players develop a strong understanding and cut the possibility of even the slightest of errors.
Take FC Barcelona for instance, a club notorious for a playing with a very high defensive organization. Just almost more than two-three years ago, the Catalans had little problems with this tactic as they usually played with an uniform back-four consisting of Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Dani Alves and Gerard Pique. Lately, though, over the last two seasons, due to various injuries and health problems to these four players, the Spanish giants have had to heavily tinker with their defence. This has led to mis-understandings between the players and Barcelona’s defensive woes are quite evident whenever they play against a counter-attack minded team (Real Madrid).
This has also been the case with Spurs up to now and on numerous occasions, the oppositions’ strikers have easily breached the North Londoners’ offside trap. But the positive note is, that in given time, these issues will be ironed out.
Long Balls and Through Balls
When Liverpool defeated Spurs 3-2 at Anfield this month, the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jose Enrique and Lucas Leiva constantly tried to bombard passes behind the back line.
Due to rather nominal lapses in communication between the defenders and more importantly, full-backs sometimes not falling back, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez found themselves in promising positions in front of Hugo Lloris’ goal. Dawson, despite his strong positioning, sometimes found it hard to keep up with the Reds attackers marauding down behind him. The England international was also partially to blame for Suarez’s goal as he failed to notice the Uruguay international making the run behind him.
Nonetheless, as much as Spurs appeared to struggle against the long balls and through balls, the Lilywhites’ defenders were eventually able to mitigate these threats with apparent ease.
This was mainly due to their robust pressing in the defensive third (with additional help from Mousa Dembele, Jack Livermore and Scott Parker) and Vertonghen, Kyle Walker (albeit showcasing a disappointing positioning sense) and Dawson producing pin-point interceptions and tackles. ‘Keeper Lloris has also helped by occasionally coming off his line to clear off through balls.
As players gel more with each other, in this regard too, Spurs will only improve.
Pressing and Defending from the Centre of the Pitch
-Case 1- Deny the ball getting to the attackers
An important aspect of playing with a high line is to ensure that the midfielders and attackers don’t give the opposing players much time on the ball. Aim is to make sure that neither the midfield segment is too close to the defenders and subsequently allow the nemesis to penetrate by inviting pressure, nor too far from the back-four, which will give open space between the lines (exactly Liverpool targeted).
When the Reds couldn’t get the ball behind the defence, the Brendon Rodgers’ men tried to get it past the midfielders so that the four attackers (Steward Downing, Suarez, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho) could directly target Spurs’ high line and then make the incisive through balls.
This however, was much harder than expected for the 18-time English champions, at-least when they tried to attack from the centre of the park. Even though Dembele and company didn’t press much in Liverpool’s half, as soon as the ball entered the visitor’s territory, they applied aggressive pressure on the likes of Gerrard and Lucas and at the same time, also ensured the required gap between the midfield and the defence.
As a result, most of the balls couldn’t reach the home side’s attackers and the latter also couldn’t freely move in between the lines.
-Case 2- When the midfield bank is breached
When Liverpool did manage to get the ball behind the midfield to one of the attackers from the middle of the field, the central defender marking or closer to the receiving ‘Red’, with additional help from one or even two teammates, tightly pressed the receiving attacker.
The concerned full-back (that is, if right-central defender pressed, then the right-back and likewise for the left) or the central defence partner meanwhile tried to shut down the channels.
Hence, Liverpool had no other option but to switch on to the wings.
As the image below shows, during the second minute of the match, Daniel Agger directly played a pass to Sturridge.
As soon as the England international got hold of the ball, Dawson latched on to the youngster, while Jermaine Defoe too pressed Sturridge. The latter subsequently, was left with no other option but to pass the ball to Lucas, who in turn shifted the magnitude of play by launching a long ball towards Downing, behind Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
During all this, Vertonghen was closely monitoring Suarez to ensure that the 26-year-old didn’t run the channel formed behind Dawson.
Defending from the Wings
While defending from wings, when the opposing winger has the ball, the full-back is instructed to aggressively press him. As a result, the full-back shifts higher up the pitch and subsequently the remaining three defenders move places to overload the wing, as shown below.
Although, there is a ‘weak side’ created by the defenders shuffling, because of the intensive pressing by Spurs in the defending third, they give little opportunity to other teams to expose it.
Take the following case from the Liverpool game into account.
Around the quarter-hour mark, Suarez picked up the ball on the right-wing.
Spurs overloaded the flank, but this left Downing with a massive hole to exploit on the left side of the pitch. However, before Suarez could switch play, Dawson quickly intercepted the possible final ball. In addition to that, Spurs had isolated and pressed Suarez so impressively that the only option to get the ball to Downing was with a long ball, which in turn, would’ve given ample time to AVB’s crew to reshape.
For all that, when Spurs’ wingers or full-backs failed to track back, the flanks provided attacking joy to Liverpool.
Suarez’s opener was a result of first Spurs trying to suffocate the wings, but then Dembele failing to keep hold of his marker (Jose Enrique). As a result, Dawson was drawn further towards the wings and didn’t notice Suarez making the run.
Thus, with AVB’s system of play, it is crucial that the players man-mark superbly as even a slight error could lead to dire consequences.
Susceptible Under Pressure
One of the biggest issues with Spurs is that the players are highly susceptible when pressed.
Therefore, the defenders lost possession way too easily and in dangerous situations when Liverpool pressed, with the mediocre passing rates of Dawson (79%) and Assou-Ekotto (66%) a testament to this claim.
Not to forget, Downing’s equalizer and the catalyst to Spurs’ collapse was also a displaced pass by Walker, caused by the pressing of Liverpool’s attackers.
If Spurs are to improve upon their defensive showings, they will need to be more confident and patient on the ball when under pressure. It’s not about a tactical change but more of a psychological balance they would need to create within themselves.
They originate all the attacks from the defence and due to the back-four succumbing under pressure against Liverpool and unable to get the ball to the men upfront, Spurs attack become impotent on several occasion. This even led to Gareth Bale having to drop way too deep to not only collect the ball but also make solo runs into the final third.
To be continued… Part 3 of this analysis coming soon!