Spurs have just paid £17m for a defensive midfield player, unsurprisingly fans are wondering whether AVB spent too much time with Jose at the Bridge. This is big money for Spurs as £17m would go along way for a quality striker. Last season Spurs fans grumbled at paying 11m for young goalkeeper Loris as they already had three goalkeepers in Brad Friedel, Carlo Cudicini and Heurelho Gomes. However this proved an excellent signing for the future; building a top squad, starting at the back.
But the real question is, have Spurs progressed under Andre Villas Boas? The league table might suggest not, with Spurs finishing outside the top four. Looking at the formations that AVB chose for the majority of the season, 4-3-3 system became well integrated into the team by playing from the back as much as possible. The roles of most positions have evolved over the last 5-10 years throughout the game; with goalkeepers now having to be able to play a lot of tidy football. Full backs must now be like wingers with bundles of energy and physiques the resemble sprinters instead of the typical footballer.
Centre backs need to be much better footballers than before while also holding onto the same physical characteristics as the old. This leads to the deeper lying midfield player. We can take a look at how Spurs tactics will now improve with Paulinho in the side. What can he bring to the side that Scott Parker or Tom Huddlestone or Sandro and Dembele didn’t? Spurs struggled at times playing out from the back against well organised teams who closed off all their options on playing from the back forcing them long; into players who prefer the ball on the ground.
In the Diagram we can see the passing options for Loris. The centre backs drop back to the edge of the box with full backs pushed on, opening the centre for Parker and Dembele to create some space to get on the ball. Though the shape is good, there is the issue that when play restarts from a goal kick it can be predictable and easier to block off. The full backs are easier to get on the ball when the goalkeeper collects the ball in open play. He quickly selects pass, helping the team to counter. The movement of the centre midfield players now becomes extremely important. Parker is a clever and brave footballer as is Dembele. They both fit the remit for the stereotypical deep lying midfield player. They can both receive the ball and under pressure they can create space to get on it. Both can tackle to break up opposition attacks and play the quick 5-10 yard pass to set up the play for his own team to counter attack. While Parker has a big engine, wearing his heart on his sleeve, making him fans favourite everywhere he’s played, is he versatile enough to push up the pitch and get involved? Dembele is now probably the better of the two as he has more height and pace.
So why Paulinho?
In the Confederations Cup, Brazil used Paulinho to fantastic effect using a very similar system to AVB in moving between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. In the previous season when Spurs needed to change the shape of the midfield, Parker was the least versatile midfield player. Paulinho is quite different. He has all the attributes of Parker with added height and box to box energy with pace. Paulinho has some excellent defensive qualities too. Below you can see that when one central defender gets on the ball (Dawson in this case) everyone tries to make himself available. This can, though, too often easily be blocked off. I use the last game of the season as example where Spurs hosted Sunderland.
If Dawson failed to find a pass forward his option is to turn back and use Loris again who will play out through Vertonghen? Vertonghen will still have the same passing angles as Dawson. Paulinho, for Brazil though, gave them a new dynamic and flexibility that Parker of Huddlestone could not offer Spurs.
Instead of staying in front of the play like Parker, he drops right between the two centre backs. This may seem nothing new (drawing a midfielder with him). However the fact is that he stays there for long periods of the game giving them a back 3 allowing the two full backs push right up the pitch and not worry about both going at the same time. Paulinho is 5ft 11″ and has the same defensive qualities as any Premiership centre back. This causes problems for the attacking mid player of the defending team who now must decide if he will follow Paulinho in or cover Vertonghen’s run out to create overload in centre. Both wide players for defending team are pinned further back. This opens for possibility for Bale to drop in as angles have changed.
Now if Dawson decides to recycle the ball to Loris the shape has changed and he can play Paulinho or Vertonghen. With Paulinho the angles are different, giving more options and making it very difficult to defend against, pulling players out of shape. This shift in dynamics for Spurs is massive as now no substitution will need to be made to change the play as Paulinho is also a very good box to box player and can move up one if needed; he will even make the runs beyond opposition defence during the game. This will definitely help Spurs to control games more.
You can see now in the diagram if Vertonghen gets a pass from Loris he can afford a wider starting position with Paulinho dropped back in. This now causes a problem for Graham and now also Johnson marked in yellow circle. Staying and holding the shape (letting the defender step out with the ball) or closing and leaving the full back free. This will be key in allowing the team to gain and maintain possession.
Paulinho may well end up being worth every penny of the £17m paid, even if Benoit Assou-Ekotto has never heard of him. A very interesting season ahead for Spurs.
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