Analysis of Tottenham : How Pochettino leads the team in Top 3

The following article has been translated from the french version.

Tottenham ended in top 3 for the first time since 89/90. It’s been a while, isn’t it ?
Even when Modric and Bale were in the team, Spurs didn’t manage to be higher than fourth. Without such world-class players, they reached the third place with Pochettino on the bench who confirms that he is an excellent coach.

During the whole season, Spurs barely never left aside their 4-2-3-1 and showed a great tactical ability which is quite unusual in Premier League.

Tottenham

Principles of positional play

After a first unnoticeable season with Spurs, Pochettino has built a team whom principles are obvious and who use the ball as a tool to create chances.

Spurs are trying to build from the back and use regularly the goalkeeper to start their actions, despite Lloris is average with the ball in his feet.
Actually the “square” made by centre-backs and centre-midfielders is the pivotal component of the building play when the team is building in its own half. However I’m calling it a square whereas it’s not at all a fixed shape, since the structure change fluidly in order to be as efficient as possible. Their movements aim to create a free man while maintaining a coherent spatial positioning (*)

The double pivot role is highly interesting. Dier is key because he is the one who best reads the game, then he often guides his teammates to adapt their position and he is willing to play everywhere in the width in order to help the structure.
The most usual movement is Dier dropping between centre-backs, allowing them to be wider and higher: this is La Salida Lavolpiana. However it’s far from the only one movement used by Tottenham.

Those movements allow Tottenham to generate efficiently a free man in the 1st build-up phase. Ideally Spurs are trying to free Alderweireld because of his qualities with the ball. However others are willing to take their responsibilities if they are the free man. Vertonghen, Wimmer, Dembélé, Dier or Eriksen are able to progress with the ball, only Carroll is reluctant to be the free man and prefers to open spaces for his teammates.

Once the free man has been created, Pochettino’s team change the rhythm and organize itself to make possible the ball progression. In order to break the lines, the 3 attacking midfielders are ball-oriented and very compact horizontally.
Most of the time those 3 players are between the lines, behind the opponent’s midfield. Moreover they are positioning themselves in gaps to open passing lanes.

The positioning of the 3 attacking midfielders is really interesting. Indeed they have to receive the ball between the lines to allow progression, so they are constantly moving to be able to receive a pass. However it’s not easy to be well oriented when receiving behind opponent’s midfield … and it’s even harder when the pass is vertical.

In these phases Tottenham benefit from the compactness of the 3 players to use combinational play in order to have to ball carrier facing forwards. They efficiently use wall-passes and lay-offs after a vertical pass to do so. Facing the opponent’s goal is a key principle in Tottenham’s play, we will find other examples of it later.
The quality of their positional structure is important to allow such combinational play, because the receiver must have strong support in order to not be isolated after a vertical pass. They are positioned in different channels and at different height; This staggering is ideal to open passing lanes (**)

More the centre combinational play is a good way to fix the opponent, as he’s quickly converging to stop the progression, then spaces are opened on the wings.
Thereby Spurs are often playing vertical passes from a freed centre-back to an attacking midfielder who combined with his near teammates before launching a fullback on the wings.
Among the 4 most used attacking midfielders (Alli, Eriksen, Lamela and Son), Dele Alli is by far the best in playing between the lines and turning while receiving the ball.

However Tottenham’s opponents are well aware of their central combinational play focus. Then they often are compact horizontally to close gaps in midfield line.
By being compact horizontally, opponents are leaving spaces on the wings. And Pochettino’s side are very happy to exploit free spaces.

The build-up phase aforementioned usually creates a free man in half-space, who has time to evaluate the situation. His first aim is to reach a player between the lines, but if he can’t find such a passing lane, because opponents are compact horizontally, then he is willing to play diagonal balls to exploit free spaces on the ball-far side. Dier and Alderweireld are very important in that phase because they are very good in playing diagonal balls to their fullbacks.

These diagonal balls are done to exploit the free space, that’s why they aren’t played into the fullback’s feet but in front of him, literally in the space.
Such situations are ended by a quick cross to bring the ball into the box against an unbalanced defence. Rose and Walker are well suited for this role as they have much pace and are quite good in 1v1 situation (especially Walker)

As I said previously, Tottenham’s build-up phase is highly half-space focused, that’s why the freed ball carrier is often in these spaces. This position is ideal to bring the ball from the back, as it allows fixing the opponent on a half width while keeping many different solutions.

half-space
Building from centre isn’t ideal to free wings (each wing is half-vacated) and the ball carrier has 2 kind of solutions because of the symmetry

Compared to a central position, the half-space offers many different solutions because of the asymmetry. Moreover diagonal balls are more efficient from the half-space than from the centre because of the angle of the pass that is nearly ideal from half-space.
Principles are well implemented in Tottenham’s play, then centre-backs know that they will probably play a diagonal ball. That’s why they often move higher with the ball, in order to force the opponent to be even more compact in front of the ball. (***)

These diagonal balls are a key component of Tottenham’s play, and their opponents struggle to deal with. We could imagine that opponents would be prepared enough to anticipate it, however they firstly have to focus on preventing passes to attacking midfielders between lines. As said Guardiola :

In order to attack well through the center you need players who are open wide and to attack well through the flanks you need to play well in the central areas – Pep Guardiola

With their great positional structure between the lines, Spurs are forcing opponents to be very compact horizontally. So they can attack efficiently on the wings.

These patterns are used against a mid-block, but they also often have to deal with a low-block parked in front of the box.
In these situations, Pochettino’s side are still looking for a free man and are willing to circulate quite patiently to find it. Once a free man has the ball (ideally Eriksen or Dier), he aims to quickly finish the situation. One way to do so is by taking many longs shots.

With players such as Kane or Eriksen, Spurs are able to score from outside the box.

They also like to play balls over the defence, with again a huge focus on body shape of the receiver. Indeed they don’t play such passes for a player who is running towards the touchline, but towards the goal.
The type of run is hugely important to achieve that, so is the origin of the pass. With a focus on half-spaces (I can’t advise you too much to read that amazing article, by Rene Maric, about half-spaces value ) Pochettino’s side are opening valuable passing lanes which are perfectly complemented by forwards’ runs.

This solution is even more efficient thanks to the positional structure of the team. Indeed with many players between the lines, they force opponent’s centre-backs to focus on what’s going on in front of them. So it’s hard for them to regularly check their shoulders to follow runs in behind the defensive line. To exploit that, Tottenham are using the “3rd layer”, meaning that the run is made by a ball-far player (usually the third one the most far from the ball) who comes inside from the ball-far half-space. Thereby the run is towards the goal and behind centre-backs who are focused on players between lines.

You may notice at the end of the video that 3rd layer runs aren’t only used against low-block, and you’ll some more examples later.

Let’s come back to the build-up phase with the quartet: sometimes the free man can’t find a passing lane to progress up the field. Actually it’s often the case as they look to play risky passes, which demand a perfect timing, and you can’t expect the team to be well coordinated for 90 minutes. In such situations fullbacks are used to release the pressure and recycle possession. Again the positional structure allows to always have a support to the fullback, which is needed otherwise he would be easily closed by the opponent to the touchline.

A vertical pass often follows the fullback’s wall-pass in order to exploit the lack of structure of opponent’s block who was sliding. It’s almost a “building trap” as opponents are willing to disorganized themselves: indeed most of teams have two pressing triggers that are met here: hard first touch and receiving on the touchline.
And we see again the 3rd layer runs, key component of Pochettino’s side offensive game plan.

Through the read you may have noticed that Pochettino places a high emphasis on the structure of his team. Players are well aware of the importance of their positioning and the way it’s enhances their game. We can definitely say that Tottenham are playing the famous “positional play” as we met some of its principles through the article :

(*) : Generate and using free man
(**) : Staggering in order to open passing lanes.
(***) : Conduccion

We could also speak about the importance of the body shape in the whole Tottenham game. Players don’t try to turn if they receive under pressure, they rather use the strong support to make a wall-pass. Although attacking midfielders can really progress in order to improve their body shape while receiving between lines, especially Son and Lamela. They are too often facing their own goal so they can’t turn whereas they have the space to do so.

However even if Pochettino’s side is playing positional play, they are very different from the Barcelona’s version. The build-up with the quartet sounds a bit Catalan, but following phases are far more vertical. They are willing to try risky passes to unbalance the opponent rather than patiently generating a free man.

These actions represent perfectly all what we saw until there, and picture how principles allow Tottenham to build from the keeper to the goal. I really recommend you to watch the last extract which is a true masterpiece of their play.

The quality of the structure is really the main strength of the team, this is the reason of their excellent performances with the ball. And it also has a great importance when they lose the ball.

Defensive transition

Pochettino’s side want to unbalance the opponent as soon as they can, this philosophy is obviously very ambitious. However it also generates many recoveries for the opponent, from bad touches or passes directly intercepted. And we know that it’s harder and harder to find spaces in modern football, so transitional phases are paramount since teams may be disorganized in such situations.
The huge amount of ball lost creates many defensive transitions, then Tottenham have to be able to deal with these situations if they don’t want to be punished for their ambition.

We saw that players are really aware of their positioning and the importance of the structure. Thanks to that, the team is always covering important spaces to prevent the opponent to accelerate and counter-attack. These important spaces are the ball-near half-space and the centre. While 2 players are slowing the counter, the rest of the team come back quickly while converging to the ball.

This is definitely not a counterpressing as Klopp’s teams use to do, but their retreat is use to isolate opponent while his team isn’t structured yet. And they maintain pressure through their offensive players.
Players who are staying behind the ball are key to slow the opponent. Without that work, their teammates couldn’t retreat quickly enough and Tottenham would be in a big trouble.

Pochettino’s side have the same will about covering important spaces in offensive corners. Their positioning allows them to prevent counter-attacks but it also provides chances by getting the 2nd ball.

Tottenham’s ability on defensive transitions Is one of their strengths. Thanks to the great work rate of their attacking midfielders, the team is able to retreat before hunting the opponent to get the ball back. It’s not a coincidence if 3 of the 4 attacking midfielders are among the players who make the most defensive intervention in Premier League.

boulot-def-off
Defensive interventions made by attacking players in Premier League

Defensive block

Spurs are positioned in a 4-2-3-1 mid-block when the opponent has a secured possession.

tottenham-def

Wingers are not always clearly positioned with the attacking midfielder to create a 3-chain behind the striker. In some games they are rather with the double pivot to form a 4-chain, then the team is defending in a 4-4-1-1. Anyway Tottenham are looking to prevent the opponent to play in the 3 central channels (centre and both half-spaces). They do so because Pochettino consider these channels as the most important area of the field as it offers many solutions for the team with the ball.

First we have to cover the centre. He tells us again and gain, this is the heart of the game and there still more solutions in centre (than wings) – Morgan Schneiderlin

We saw that on the previous picture, wingers don’t actually cover the wings, they rather cover half-spaces. The strong central presence hinder the opponent to open passing lanes, and the double pivot are willing to follow players who drop to escape pressure. All that work is made to force the play onto the wings, where a pressing trap can be easily set-up.

The ball-near winger closes down the fullback, and prevents passes into half-space with his cover-shadow. He doesn’t rush to steel the ball into feet, but he makes solutions hard to be found. Meanwhile ball-near players are covering passing lanes, either by marking players or by defending on the passing lane.
With no forward solution, the fullback often looks to recycle possession with his centre-back. Once the backpass is played, Kane closes down the centre-back and push him towards the touchline to force him to get rid of the ball.

Moreover they can use a variation with a standard pressing trigger, when a pass is played between centre-backs. Then Alli or Kane make curved runs to cut the field and force the opponent to play on a half of it. Deeper players recognize this trigger and cover passing lanes as they did in the aforementioned pressing trap.
This is the forward who starts the press, as it’s done in Atletico Madrid’s defensive side.

He (Pochettino) wants us to recover the ball as high as possible, so for that it’s usually up to a forward to trigger the pressing ; so then we’ve to follow. – See more at: http://kickoff.blogs.lequipe.fr/morgan-schneiderlin-pochettino-cest-lart-du-detail/#sthash.yK1YPmbk.dpuf[…] It’s often Lambert or Osvaldo who start the press, they trigger the whole process – Again Morgan Schneiderlin, as a Southampton player

Then Alli and Kane have key roles when the opponent have the ball, as they must force him to play in specific areas whereas they may be outnumbered (usually 2v3 since the pivot join centre-backs).

He emphasises on blocking passing lanes. Anyway when I do press, I try to leave the worst passing option possible to the opponent. Pochettino asks us not to give the opponent the choice – You recognized Morgan Schneiderlin, don’t you?

Tottenham’s pressing trap is efficient in Premier League since teams are struggling to alter their positioning in the build-up phase. However their trap is quite standard and lies on the centre-back fear that he will get caught with the ball in his feet.

Moreover Pochettino’s side are struggling against teams whose forwards drop in midfield since their centre-backs aren’t willing to leave their position. Then Tottenham’s midfield is outnumbered, which is critical as they are option-oriented.

Few teams exploited this weakness during the season, because forwards in Premier League are more used as targets and usually stay at the height of the defensive line. However Ozil highlighted that weakness thanks to his ability to understand the game and the spaces.

Another weakness comes from the choice to defend with 4 lines, and with little chains in midfield (2 and 3 players). However such little chains don’t allow to be compact in front of the ball while keeping a nice cover in the width. That’s why forwards’ work is so important to cut the field and prevent change of play. If they can’t close down quickly enough or if they get dribbled, opponent may find quite easily valuable passing lanes.

This issue doesn’t exist anymore when the ball-far winger defend with the midfield line. But often he rather stay high to anticipate the offensive transition.

Offensive transitions

With fast players who are able to dribble and like combinational play, Pochettino’s side seem designed to run forwards as soon as they get the ball back.
However despite an efficient mid-block and many recoveries trough their attacking midfielders, Tottenham are not among most dangerous teams on counter break.

contres-Tottenham
Pochettino’s side are an average Premier League team when it comes to score from counters

It may looks weird but it’s easy to find the reason. Spurs are that confident in their ability to build chances from the back that they are willing to ignore some counter possibilities to rather play the ball back to their centre-backs and build a new attack.

Conclusion

I’ve been really pleased while looking at Tottenham games. Their will to alter their positioning in order to create free man while remaining structured is great. Moreover they are able to use fast combinational play on the ground as much as long diagonal balls, and their spacing coherence is second to none in Premier League.
Pochettino must be congratulated for his work because he is the main reason of the huge improvement of his team.

< blockquote >Mauricio Pochettino has been brilliant for me, I have nothing but nice things to say about him […]We do have to work hard in training and I do suffer but it’s an enjoyable kind of suffering because I’m benefitting so much. I’m far more tactically aware and more consistent – Danny Rose

In the future the team will have to improve in exploiting the space between the lines. This season first touches from attacking midfielders have been unreliable and hinder Pochettino’s side for breaking lines as much as they would hope.
Moreover Tottenham can improve in their decision making about exploiting ball-far spaces. This is a key component of their play, but they tend to over-use it. In some games they tended to play diagonal balls each time the ball-far wing was vacated by the opponent whereas they should vary their attacks.

I hope that you enjoyed this analysis, which is obviously not exhaustive. I could have mentioned Kane’s role about creating space between lines or even the crazy Dembélé’s ability in take-on.

It will be really interesting to see what moves will be made in transfer market. I would sign a great attacking midfielder, able to receive and turn between lines. And 3 subs: a striker, a left-back and a central midfielder.

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