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Three Tactical Notes on the EFL Cup Match with Liverpool

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Dier Spurs and Wanyama Spurs are two different things.

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Though it was a largely forgettable defeat that saw us bow out of a basically meaningless competition, yesterday’s match with Liverpool still offered some interesting tactical talking points. We’re going to talk through three of them in this post.

Dier Spurs and Wanyama Spurs seem like two fundamentally different things.

I’ve tried to be cautious so far with my theory about how Victor Wanyama changes the way Spurs play. Whatever conclusions we might try to come to, it’s hard to be too dogmatic about them when we’re working with such a small sample.

That said, yesterday definitely provided further support for this theory. Let’s review the differences between Dier Spurs and Wanyama Spurs and then we can briefly review yesterday’s game:

  • Dier Spurs play a fairly conventional 4-2-3-1 with some Bielsa influences to make it more interesting. The center backs drift into wider areas when the keeper has the ball to assist with distribution. The two midfielders in the double pivot tend to stay deeper with Dier slightly deeper and almost slotting in as a third center back. The fullbacks push well up the field on the flanks and then the front four is a standard (if somewhat narrower) 3-1 shape.
  • Wanyama Spurs play more of a 4-1-4-1 shape with Wanyama serving as the lone pivot in midfield behind a very aggressive midfield two, typically consisting of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. The center backs stay slightly narrower with Wanyama offering more lateral movement than Dier but less vertical movement. The fullback responsibilities remain much the same. The front five is typically more vertically attacking and less adept at retaining possession as three of the five players who have been in the attacking four are possession indifferent vertical runners (Dele, Son Heung-Min, and Moussa Sissoko) and the fourth, Erik Lamela, is less effective as a lateral drifter because he has to stay wider since the advanced central area is more crowded with two players in that area rather than one as in the 4-2-3-1.

In yesterday’s game, we saw something much more like the former system than the latter. Dier and Harry Winks both stayed deeper, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Kevin Wimmer played wider, and the fullbacks often took up very advanced positions:

dier-winks-midfield-pivot

In the above image, Carter-Vickers is visible in the bottom left, Wimmer in the top right, and both of the midfield two are inside the 18-yard box. This is an extreme example, but it is consistent with the way we played for much of the match.

The key thing to understand is that the 4-2-3-1 shape maximizes our ability to control the pace of the game while the 4-1-4-1 shape maximizes our attacking options and ability to attack quickly. In 4-2-3-1, we have many different lines of passing which maximizes our ability to play possession and gradually grind down the opposition. It also helps us break the high press more easily:

spurs-pass-break-press-4-2-3-1

When Vorm plays the ball in this clip, he has three players in front of him. From bottom to top it is Carter-Vickers, Dier, and Wimmer. Dier’s dropping deep provides space for the ball to be played to Wimmer who can then move the ball to the fullback who has an easy passing lane to Winks. Multiple passing levels makes all of this happen.

In 4-1-4-1, we have more players committed to the attacking third which allows us to press more effectively in that part of the field and to attack quickly thanks to superior numbers. But we have fewer players working in other parts of the field and when you combine that with Wanyama’s limitations as a passer it is much harder for us to control the pace of the game across the entire field as we did throughout last season.

Vincent Janssen is Dutch Olivier Giroud, but he seems to be adapting to the demands of Tottenham’s system.

One of the things I noted early on this season is that Janssen does not seem to have Harry Kane’s knack for picking up the ball in wide areas and working it inside with clever passes or powerful, direct running.

If Harry Kane is a Diego Costa-type striker, and though imperfect that analogy does hold up in many ways, then Vincent Janssen is Olivier Giroud. Like Giroud, Janssen has tremendous physical strength that allows him to basically post-up defenders, receive the ball with his back to goal, and play extremely dangerous passes to his teammates to set them up for goal-scoring chances.

Unfortunately, Giroud is not necessarily what this attack needs. Someone with Giroud-like qualities is valuable, of course, but the qualities Kane offers are in many ways what makes the attack tick. His ability to drift wide to receive the ball creates space for Dele and Erik Lamela or Son Heung-Min to run into advanced central areas. His running on the ball stretches the defense and opens up areas of the field for the attacking three to move into. When you take those qualities away, our 4-2-3-1 becomes much more predictable, which is perhaps why we have seen so much of the 4-1-4-1 this season.

That said, yesterday we finally started to see Janssen moving into wide areas. You can see the difference by comparing the passes he received in his start against CSKA in the Champions League with the passes he received yesterday. Here is CSKA:

janssen-passes-received-cska

Now here is the same chart (but from Squawka) for yesterday’s fixture:

janssen-passes-received-liverpool

(Shoutout to pd8258 for the graphic in his fine FanPost that is definitely worth a read if you haven’t looked at it yet.)

As you can see, Janssen was operating in wide areas far more often against Liverpool than he was against CSKA. Some of this is likely a function of system as we played 4-1-4-1 against CSKA and 4-2-3-1 against Liverpool. But it also might suggest that Janssen is beginning to learn how to play in wider areas and help build the attack in the way that Kane routinely does.

Tom Carroll and Josh Onomah struggled.

Heading into the season Carroll and Onomah were seen as two wildcards in the Spurs squad.

Carroll had potential to be a Christian Eriksen-type passing midfielder who can play in the midfield two or attacking three and who can be a playmaker/creator in the Spurs attack. Onomah could be a direct runner and bring a lot of energy and power to the high press.

Unfortunately, what happened often yesterday is that both players failed to do what they needed to in the Spurs attack. Carroll turned the ball over in a dangerous midfield position within the first two minutes. Onomah’s decision making in the attacking third was inconsistent and he struggled to link up with his teammates.

In August, I was frustrated by the move to sign Moussa Sissoko because it seemed to bury Onomah. But yesterday’s game suggests that Onomah is still adjusting to the pace and physicality of senior football. Given that he’s still 19, that isn’t really a surprise or much of a cause for concern.

Carroll, meanwhile, is looking like a player whose days at White Hart Lane may be numbered. Given his age and the struggles he has had in both the midfield two and the attacking three, it’s likely that he’ll leave the club over the summer or perhaps even in the January window.

Conclusion

The big story here is likely the persistent differences in how we set up when Dier starts versus when Wanyama starts. Though formation-talk can sometimes be rather pointless due to the highly fluid nature of soccer, in this case the positional differences between Dier Spurs and Wanyama Spurs are probably notable. (It also makes me wonder if the similarities between Pochettino and Atletico boss Diego Simeone are worth exploring more. Simeone’s tactical approach varies a great deal, especially these days, with the one constant being the presence of a number five-type midfield anchor. But the anchor can be Gabi, Saul Niguez, Augusto, or Tiago depending on the game—and the identity of the anchor ends up shaping the rest of the team. Something similar seems to be happening with Spurs. It will be interesting to see if it continues.