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Tactics Tuesday: Tottenham’s 4-1-4-1 offering mixed returns so far.

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Let’s break down Tottenham’s newest tactical wrinkle.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

If there has been a story to Tottenham’s tactical approach so far this season it is how little consistency the club has had. Injuries, suspension, and the need to rotate due to a congested fixture list have made it impossible for Spurs to even approximate the consistency that last year’s best XI enjoyed.

The Opening Fixtures

The first few games saw the team set up in last year’s standard 4-2-3-1 with Victor Wanyama swapping in for the suspended Mousa Dembele. That system was defensively solid, but left a great deal to be desired offensively. Amongst other things, the club missed Dembele’s ability to link attack and defense, with Christian Eriksen in particular struggling.

Everton v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Dembele made his first league appearance in the win against Sunderland but then promptly went down with another injury with Dier and Harry Kane joining him on the trainer’s table. And even in the Sunderland game where we had Dembele back, he started next to Wanyama rather than Dier and the wide attackers either side of Dele Alli were Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-Min. (Put another way, eight games into the league and two games into the Champions League group stage and we still have not lined up with last season’s best XI a single time.)

That left Spurs having to find a way of playing while missing arguably three of last season’s four most important players. Eventually, manager Mauricio Pochettino settled on the 4-1-4-1 shape we have seen in the past several matches with Erik Lamela and new signing Moussa Sissoko playing on the wings and a midfield trio of Wanyama, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen with both Alli and Eriksen playing reasonably advanced roles.

In many ways it mirrors the 4-1-4-1 used by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or the 4-3-3 being used by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. In each case, we’re seeing a three man midfield with two extremely attacking players used in the normal advanced midfield roles.

The Thought Behind the 4-1-4-1

What is doubly interesting about the simultaneous popularity of 4-1-4-1 at each of England’s three most impressive teams so far this season is that all three seem to be using it to accomplish something similar: They have a lot of elite attacking players and they want to get as many of them on the field as possible while retaining a coherent, structured system.

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Man City’s 4-1-4-1 has allowed them to play Raheem Sterling, Nolito, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, and Sergio Aguero simultaneously. Liverpool’s 4-1-4-1 has featured Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane, Roberto Fermino, and Philippe Coutinho in the same XI. Spurs, finally, have used it so that they could feature all four of last season’s attackers—Alli, Eriksen, Lamela, and Harry Kane—plus Son with Sissoko rotating in regularly as well.

The first time we saw the 4-1-4-1 this season came in the Champions League against Monaco. Up to this point in the season, Spurs had consistently played a 4-2-3-1 similar to the approach of last season’s team, only with less attacking success due to the absence of Dembele.

But in the team’s first Champions League match at home against a French side known primarily for its defensive solidity, Mauricio Pochettino opted for an extremely attacking XI. He played a front six of Dier, Alli, Son, Eriksen, Lamela, and Kane. The approach worked well in the early stages as we battered the Monaco goal and were desperately unlucky not to score.

Unfortunately, the flip-side to this strategy was that our midfield was not nearly as structured as last season’s since Dele is far more adventurous going forward than Dembele. The average position map from Stats Zone tells the story here. Dele has pushed further forward and that leaves Dier on his own at the base of midfield. (Note that Dele’s normal position is even more advanced than the position Dembele took as a substitute when we were chasing the game):

player-position-v-monaco

Due to Dele’s advanced positioning, Monaco often had more space to counter attack into when they won the ball. This, of course, is what led to both of their goals.

Eric Dier v Victor Wanyama

This is where we need to talk about the differences between Tottenham’s two holding midfielders. Eric Dier surprised us all last season by turning in a fantastic season in a more defensive role as part of a double pivot midfield in a 4-2-3-1.

In this role, Dier played the deeper defensive role and left the more box-to-box work to his partner, typically Moussa Dembele but sometimes Ryan Mason. In this system, Dier could serve as a kind of passing metronome at the base of midfield, recycling possession when the attack broke down and serving as a line of defense between the attacking four and the back four. Dembele shuffled back and forth between the two and did most of his damage with his dribbling.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Wanyama is a different sort of player. He is not the passer that Dier is and he does not seem as comfortable when asked to play in a double pivot.

That said, Wanyama is a wonderful player if you need your defensive midfielder to have a more purely defensive role in the squad. To begin, he covers more ground than Dier at the base of midfield. This has both defensive and attacking value. Dier seldom drifted into wide areas to receive the ball last season, but Wanyama does this routinely. It sometimes can be a valuable release valve when the ball is being cycled through midfield. Wanyama’s running also means, of course, that he can defend a greater amount of the field than Dier.

Put simply, it may be the case that Wanyama is a better single-pivot midfielder (the sort you find sitting at the base of midfield in a 4-3-3 or midfield diamond) while Dier is more comfortable in the double pivot. (To be sure, we haven’t seen enough of Dier in the single pivot or Wanyama in the double to say this with certainty, but it’s a plausible theory at this point.)

Pochettino himself seems to think something along these lines, which is why Wanyama has started each game in which Spurs played a 4-1-4-1 since the Monaco fixture.

How does the 4-1-4-1 work in practice for Spurs?

Spurs have used the 4-1-4-1 in four fixtures since the Monaco defeat. Their record in those games is 3-1-0. That said, the returns with the 4-1-4-1 shape have been mixed.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Against Manchester City the formation was a spectacular success for a few reasons:

  • Though still recognizably Spurs, the team used a more German style of counter-pressing and attacking in this game, as I mentioned in a Hoddle a couple weeks ago. Basically, we decided we really really did not care about possession and we just wanted maximum chaos with lots of vertical running into the channels, which exploited City’s porous back four.
  • Consequently, there was almost no passing between the three central defensive players in the formation, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Wanyama. Instead, there was lots of aggressive passing down the wings which, once into the attacking third, was typically funneled in to Eriksen or Dele.
  • The use of Son as a striker (with Dele the more advanced of the attacking two central midfielders) worked marvelously because both players are excellent vertical attackers.
  • By pressing as high up as we did, we largely cut off the supply line to City’s attackers. When they did have the ball, the trio of Wanyama, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld were able to stop almost every attack they mounted.

The Limits of the 4-1-4-1

However, in matches against opponents more inclined to sit deep and force us to break them down, the 4-1-4-1 shape has, at best, failed to improve upon last season’s 4-2-3-1. Again, this is not terribly hard to understand.

To begin, the personnel we use in the 4-1-4-1, which so far has included Sissoko and excluded Dembele, in all three league fixtures, is not set up to break down packed defenses. It’s set up to attack fast and vertically into space. But getting this to work against teams that aren’t attacking you is difficult. Liverpool has pulled it off occasionally, although a Hull City-sized asterisk probably should be included even with them. But the Reds have a dramatically different squad than we do.

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

More importantly, what makes the Dier-Dembele Spurs so dangerous is how they are able to slowly grind teams down over 90 minutes. Though we’re not as possession-obsessed as some of Guardiola’s past teams, the basic concept of having lots of possession in the attacking third and slowly wearing the opponent out is shared between many of Pep’s team and last year’s Tottenham. When you defend for as long as we consistently forced people to last season, eventually you just break down.

But when you drop Dembele and Dier and replace them with Wanyama and Son or Sissoko, we can’t apply pressure in the same way. Dembele, Lamela, and Eriksen are all masters at slowly increasing the pressure on the opponent’s defense through consistently dangerous possession in the attacking third. All three of them constantly look as if they are just a second away from initiating an attacking move that ends with a goal.

RSC Anderlecht v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Europa League Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Sissoko, Son, and Alli are all much more aggressive and so they turn the ball over more often, which can provide a break for the opposition, particularly if all they want to do is blast the ball downfield and watch their strikers chase it, as is the case with West Brom and, to a lesser degree, Middlesbrough when they played us.

The result is that we don’t really wear teams down in the same way with the 4-1-4-1 that we often did with the 4-2-3-1 because our attacking spells are not sustained for the same length of time.

Conclusion

In the big picture, these are actually great problems to have. We were remarkably lucky last season to be able to ride the same XI for as long as we did. If we had suffered the injury issues this term that we did last year, our results would have been midtable form at best. (Last year’s midfield if Dier and Dembele were both hurt: Come on down, Masontaleb!)

This season we have a number of players who weren’t in last year’s best XI who can be counted on to play big minutes for us. Perhaps most important, we have serviceable backups for Eric Dier and Harry Kane. That said, when opponents don’t attack us, this new 4-1-4-1 has been inconsistent. I expect we’ll use it against Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen and perhaps again at Bournemouth at the weekend as both of those sides are more likely to afford us the space we need to attack into with the more direct style we’ve seen from the 4-1-4-1. But there is still a place for the 4-2-3-1 and we’ll see it return sooner or later.