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In the last article, I laid out the reasons that Spurs’ attacking philosophy needed a massive overhaul after Modric’s departure. In this article, I hope to establish why Spurs attacking future is a 4-3-3 that features a midfield of Sandro or Parker playing alongside Dembele and Sigurdsson.
The basic problem facing Spurs post-Modric is this: How can they creatively advance the ball to create high-quality scoring chances? With Modric, all the creative potential of their side was summed up in one player who made the whole attack go. Without him, the side have looked much more pedestrian, struggling to create chances off the predictable passing moves of Sandro and Livermore. The only time Spurs looked consistently threatening in the first two matches came when Lennon or Bale received the ball in space out wide and ran at their defender. But whenever the ball was in central areas, Spurs have looked extremely predictable. So what do you do about that? I’m going to propose that you drop your advanced central midfielder (usually Sigurdsson) back into a midfield three. With two holding mids in the center, he doesn’t get enough service to be effective anyway.
By deploying a midfield three, you can be a bit more flexible in what sort of players you slot into those roles. Rather than needing two defensive players to cover the vast central midfield area, you can have three players patrolling the area – which means you can get away with playing only one strict destroyer. In the other two spots, you can use a distributor (think Xavi at Barcelona or Fabregas during his Arsenal days) and a runner to link up play between the midfield two and front three (here you should think of Iniesta at Barca, Rosicky at Arsenal, or Lampard at Chelsea). The other interesting thing with this set up is that in games where you are the more talented side, 4-3-3 can easily become 3-4-3 with the destroyer sliding into defense with the two center backs and the two fullbacks moving forward to flank the remaining two midfielders. Given Parker and Sandro’s positional conservatism and the more enterprising mentality of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker, it isn’t hard to see Spurs shifting more toward a 3-4-3 against lower half sides. So this approach – three midfield players with each one assuming a distinct role in the side – is what I believe Villas Boas is trying to establish at Spurs. And if you look at his recent transfers with that philosophy in mind then they begin to make a bit more sense.
So pretend Spurs never signed Dembele and Dempsey and they kept Van der Vaart. Now they’re heading into the remainder of the season with the squad they had last Saturday. If you take Dembele out of the side and play a 4-3-3 with two holders and Sigurdsson or Van der Vaart, what you actually end up with is precisely the sort of thing that I already showed won’t work: a 4-2-3-1 without any creativity and in which your central attacking midfielder becomes marginalized due to lack of service.
What’s needed to make that midfield three work is a destroyer to shield the back line, a distributor who can make the attack go without taking many touches but who can make quick one or two touch passes to spring the attack to life, and a midfielder who can retain possession to either slow play down or to advance the ball simply by running at defenders. It’s that marauding runner who will stretch defenses and create space for the wide attacking players and he’s absolutely essential to making the system go. Modric used to be that for Spurs. What made him so remarkable is that he played that role and the regista role simultaneously, deciding which route to go based on what was available to him when he received the ball. In the new setup, Dembele will be the runner who stretches the defense and Sigurdsson will play the role of distributor. Consider Dembele’s heat map and average position map from his final match with Fulham against Man United:
Notice that in the heat map, Dembele almost always takes his first touch behind the halfway line. But on the average position map, he’s in a more advanced position (look for number 30, just below the midfield circle on the United side of the field). That reflects what anyone who watched the game could see for themselves: Most of Fulham’s most promising attacks came off long runs by Dembele where he beat the first man and then forced another United defender to come out of their position to stop his run. That’s how you stretch defenses and that’s how you create space to make life easier on your other attacking players. You think Bale, Adebayor, Dempsey, Sigurdsson and Lennon aren’t excited to benefit from Dembele’s mazy runs? Thanks to Dembele’s runs, Sigurdsson can operate in a more central role as a distributor. But he’ll also have freedom to jump ahead and join the attack in a role much like his closest Premiership analog, Frank Lampard, mostly looking for quick touches to set up teammates or the chance for an unmarked run from deep toward the goal. So Spurs midfield three would be Sandro, Sigurdsson and Dembele with Parker, Huddlestone, and Livermore available off the bench.
There are a couple other points to consider as well. In a 4-3-3, there are always five other places where attacking threats can come from. But thanks to the canny transfer activity of the past summer, Spurs actually have six other players to involve in the attack. So let’s talk about them.
First is Adebayor. He’s a number nine striker, but he’s a number nine with phenomenal range and good passing ability (and, sadly for Spurs supporters, a less than reliable record as a finisher). Interestingly, the only Premiership striker who really compares to Adebayor is former Spurs striker Peter Crouch. Consider:
The first heat map is from Adebayor’s five star performance against Newcastle in which he scored one goal and assisted on four others. The second is from Crouch’s best game with Stoke when he scored a wonder goal against City late last season. In both cases, the strikers, though they look like conventional number nines, drop deep to receive the ball and distribute to other attackers. That makes Adebayor a tougher striker to mark and the space he vacates up top creates space for Sigurdsson or Dembele to attack or, more probable, the next person we need to talk about: Gareth Bale.
I’ve already described how Bale will likely be used by AVB so I won’t belabor the point here. All I will add is that what might seem a role too free for Bale’s own good when considered by itself should become much more sensible when set alongside these other considerations. Distilled to its essence, AVB’s philosophy is about shrinking the field when the opponent is on the ball and maximizing it when in possession. Bale’s more nomadic role in this setup, when set alongside the runs of a marauding midfielder and the free role of Adebayor up top should make him that much more difficult to mark. And taken within the larger system, it makes Spurs that much more unpredictable as an attacking force.
Next is the third player up front, which I anticipate will be either Aaron Lennon or Clint Dempsey. When it’s Lennon, I expect we’ll see him play a pretty typical right wing role with Bale being the player who cuts inside and supports Adebayor. But when it’s Dempsey, that will create a whole new set of challenges for defenders. Dempsey is, in many ways, the embodiment of American soccer at its pinnacle: Rugged, hard-working, fundamentally sound, and able to use those compound word virtues to make up for a lack of pace or obvious flair on the ball. He’s also a player who can line up anywhere in midfield or even as a center forward in a pinch. With Spurs I anticipate he’ll play on the right hand side of a 4-3-3 opposite Gareth Bale, though if Bale gets hurt he could easily shift left and play opposite Aaron Lennon. What makes Dempsey so exciting is that he can pop up just about anywhere to receive the ball, he has extremely intelligent movement and he finishes very well in front of goal. If the opposite wide man and Dembele can stretch the defense, I suspect Sigurdsson and Dempsey will both benefit enormously. To illustrate Dempsey’s versatility, look at these heat maps from several of his games last season. How do you mark a guy who covers that much space and does so as intelligently as the man Americans call Deuce? That’s the question Premiership defenses will have to answer.
The final three players to consider will provide support from the back line. Two are obvious: Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who is now one of Spurs’ most important creative players, and Kyle Walker, last year’s PFA Young Player of the Year. It’s the attacking ability of these two players that should allow Spurs to shift into a functional 3-4-3 when in possession against overmatched opponents. Assou-Ekotto is a massively underrated creator from the left back role and Walker’s danger down the right is already well known.
The final piece to the puzzle is Jan Vertonghen. Something worth watching next time you see Spurs play is how the defenders fan out whenever the keeper has the ball. The fullbacks press up almost to midfield and the two center halves both flair out into wide roles where you’d usually expect to see the fullbacks. This will likely become even more pronounced with the more technically adept Hugo Lloris in goal. So even the center halves are going to be cast in a more aggressive light in this system. And that should suit Vertonghen beautifully. Able to play midfield or left back without missing a beat, the Belgian international offers another attacking threat for Spurs – a threat that was on full display during his debut against West Brom when he narrowly missed a scoring chance in the first half and had a late winner waved off when William Gallas was called offside. It will be intriguing to see how Vertonghen is deployed for Spurs.
For all the reasons described above, AVB’s Spurs have the potential to be a very exciting team that plays attractive, aggressive football. But there’s a caveat to all this: The early returns have not been pretty. Much like AVB’s Chelea, Spurs have enjoyed a lot of possession and created a fair number of shots, but they haven’t scored enough goals. They’ve also shown a lot of fragility late in games. (If games ended after 80 minutes, Spurs would be undefeated with seven points.) I suspect that many of the problems go back to the difficulties that Spurs have had with AVB’s system. On paper, the system is supposed to make the creativity happen. Under Redknapp, you depended upon the impulsive creativity of geniuses like Modric and Van der Vaart. In AVB’s system players are meant to be put into positions where creativity becomes easier and more likely to happen. But that hasn’t happened early on. Bale has struggled to decide when he should stay wide and when he should look to cut inside. Most the team has looked uncertain about what to do with the ball when they have it. They look like a team that is struggling to learn a system and is spending too much of their time thinking and too little playing. (They also look like a team struggling for fitness, which could be a product of AVB’s training technique or could simply be early-season fitness issues.) If things go as planned, the players will take to the system in time and we’ll start to see the kind of free-flowing attacking football that I’ve described above. However, that’s all contingent upon the players grasping the system. For the past four years they’ve played under a manager with an exceedingly light touch who trusted his starters to go out and figure things out for themselves. Under AVB it’s a whole new ball game. If Spurs can become comfortable in the system and play within it, rather than constantly thinking about what they are supposed to be doing moment-to-moment, then they’ll do quite well. But if they can’t, then it could be déjà vu for AVB.
Author’s note: I’m a diehard Spurs fan. I try to offer neutral tactical analysis when I write, but sometimes that’s damned difficult. This is one of those times.
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