Tactical Analysis: How Spurs Should Line-Up to Optimize Their Possession Game

Entering the 2018/19 season, Spurs are once again one of the favorites to finish in the top 4 (despite not making ANY signings) thanks to their plethora of terrific players. But, if there’s anything that this Tottenham side has struggled to do in recent years, it would be methodically building up play out of the back and creating chances from possession in the attacking third. Obviously, Spurs are by no means “bad” at this, it’s just that you could certainly argue that Spurs have dropped a lot of points over the past couple of years due to the inability to break down the “lesser” teams in the Premier League. The fortunate thing is that the Lilywhites have the talent and profiles that can mesh together and thrive in these situations, and here’s how they can do it.

We have seen glimpses of what Tottenham could do in this set up last year in the Champions League and a little bit in the league as well. Pochettino’s philosophy around this formation is to keep the shape of the team and pressure the opposition’s ball carriers into getting dispossessed. While forcing errors and getting high % shots from the counter is good, that’s not enough to always put yourself in the driver’s seat, especially against teams who sit back and don’t commit many men forward. On the ball, however, if they can play a positional game in their buildup, their number of chances created will increase.

Here, we have a Tottenham side where most of the players are aligned on the left-hand side of the pitch. The first phase of buildup will emphasize the ball-playing ability of the three-man defense and Harry Winks. Jan Vertonghen’s ball carrying can attract defenders, leaving space for a midfielder or Winks to receive the ball. If it’s not him on the ball, the composure and quick thinking from Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld can pierce through that first defensive line or resist the opposition’s high press. As the controller in this team, Winks will have the responsibility to facilitate play.

The key here should be to circulate the ball as much as possible, constantly having the defense having to follow where Spurs are going. Forming passing triangles can help, as players who may not be comfortable to play a long ball can always have an option that’s not too far and should a player from the opposition aggressively press someone who’s on the ball, quick play can cause a numerical advantage.

With Winks on the ball, he’ll likely have Christian Eriksen or Dele to pass to. Of course, if anything were to open up out wide or in front of him with Son dropping a little deeper to get involved in the team’s buildup play, he can easily switch play. While quick passing may be good, you might wonder why everyone is shifted towards the left. The opposition will likely shift to the left, following where the ball is going. That leaves Trippier with acres of space on the right and the team stretched out. Considering his crossing ability, he could play a ball in the half space to Kane, creating a good chance for his team. (This is a tactic most notably deployed by Manchester City this past weekend against Huddersfield. The build up was shifted towards the right, leaving the left wing back — Ben Mendy — all alone on the left).

While Trippier shouldn’t be completely isolated by his teammates, the movement from Dele, Davies, and Son should attract players on the left, freeing up space for Eriksen to play a ball from the half-space or Winks switching play into either Trippier or Kane’s feet. If both of them aren’t available to do anything on the ball, then they can return it to the backline or to Harry Winks.

Should the team reset, Tottenham could replicate what was said previously, but instead of having Trippier receive the ball out wide, Davies could be the one on the ball with space. However, constantly switching play in hopes to isolate a 1v1 player isn’t ideal because it would get repetitive and predictable. When Alli makes his run forward, his original position will be vacant as no one is picking up on it. If Eriksen were to drift in that direction with the ball, he can play his favorite pass, a cross from the wing or the half space to Harry Kane, who tends to position himself into receiving the ball in those areas.

Under “Alli”, I have Dembele. Of course, his age and fitness will likely prevent him from playing the full 90 and will likely see stints coming off the bench. His ball retention is second to none on this team, and in late game situations, he can put that to good use. Being hard to take off the ball, it might take more than one man to dispossess him. If it’s not clear already, attracting players and creating space for teammates is a huge key. Sissoko doesn’t have the same traits as Eriksen, but the energy and liveliness he can bring against tired legs on the pitch can bring some light into the team. His passing range and vision are lackluster, but 5 yard passes shouldn’t be too hard to make, especially if we are in control of a game.

All the other players under their respective position will likely have the same role and as you can see, there is some good depth under this formation. Of course, the team can always be susceptible to injuries and suspensions may occur every now and then, but Poch can adequately make changes to the XI when needed, keeping this system running.