Sometimes identifying where a manager has his outfield players positioned is a helpful way of describing a coach’s tactical setup. Certainly, Harry Redknapp’s funnest Spurs team played a straightforward 4-4-1-1. Likewise, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea this season have frequently played a 3-4-3. There are times where describing tactics using that sort of language is quite helpful.
The Limits of Position Language
Unfortunately, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is generally not a manager whose tactical approach can be accurately described that way. We say he prefers a 4-2-3-1 because that’s a useful shorthand for how he plays, but there are any number of ways in which Poche’s 4-2-3-1 is more complex than that:
- The front four is extremely narrow and sometimes ends up being more of a 4-2-2-2.
- The fullbacks often behave more like wingbacks.
- The midfield two is really a midfield one-one as one midfielder stays appreciably deeper than the other.
- The deeper of the two midfielders will at times swap places with Toby Alderweireld so that the Belgian can get forward and play the long diagonal balls that are one of his trademarks.
For all these reasons, it’s better to talk about things Pochettino’s teams do rather than where his players set up.
- is highly fluid positionally
- generally invovles a more narrow, compact style that facilitates pressing and sophisticated short passing moves
- relies on the back four to supply width
- uses the deeper midfielder as a water carrier who also enables the center backs to split wide
Pochettino’s 3-5-2 is entirely in keeping with the way his 4-2-3-1 plays.
Now let’s talk about the 3-5-2 that Pochettino used last Sunday against Arsenal. A few things stand out about it:
The front five, comprised of Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Son Heung-Min, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Kane was highly fluid in position. Son drifted all over the attacking third. Dembele and Wanyama at times both played like box-to-box midfielders. Eriksen had a free lateral drifter role. Kane did interesting Kane things. Everyone seems to have had a lot of license to drift out of position.
Almost all the width came from two central defenders splitting wide or from the two fullbacks surging forward.
Kevin Wimmer frequently dropped off between the two center backs and played short, simple passes and shielded Hugo Lloris, much as Eric Dier did in last year’s 4-2-3-1.
The 3-5-2 in particular is extremely versatile.
A further point to keep in mind is that the 3-5-2 is one of the more fluid positions in soccer. Consider how easily the team (with a full strength XI) might set up in a hypothetical 3-5-2:
In the above you can see Eric Dier sitting in the center of the back three, as he did last year against Watford. Ahead of him is the midfield two of Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele. The wingbacks flank them. Then we have the front three of Eriksen, Son, and Kane.
Now, slide Dier slightly forward, drop Rose and Walker slightly deeper, and what do you have? A 4-4-2 diamond:
With this shape, you can easily push the AC player further forward, push the FC players wide, and now you have a 4-3-3 with a false nine in the middle. Spurs did this at times last season with Dele as the false nine.
There’s more we can do though. Now push Dele up and to the right. Drop Son slightly to the left wing. Keep Kane central. Now we have the 4-2-3-1 that we used last season.
All of this is to say: Don’t read too much into the formational shifts. Spurs have a remarkably stable way of playing, even if the system changes slightly from game to game.
So what is the point of going to the 3-5-2?
Of course, the obvious question to ask is how the 3-5-2 changes anything if the system stays largely the same despite player position. There are three benefits to playing the 3-5-2, all of which explain Pochettino’s choice to roll with the 3-5-2 against Arsenal.
First, the number five player who sits in a deep central position to recycle the ball and shield Lloris stays much more conservative positionally in this system. Sometimes Pochettino’s number five can push forward almost level with the more box-to-box midfield players in Pochettino’s system. But against Arsenal that was a recipe for disaster, especially with Victor Wanyama as the likeliest candidate for the number five role. It made more sense to play Wimmer as a kind of false five and then use Wanyama as one of the two conventional center midfielders.
Second, the 3-5-2 makes it easier to push the fullbacks forward. One of the problems Spurs have had in recent weeks is that the attack has been extremely stagnant. There isn’t enough movement going on in the final third and so the ball ends up just being passed around in the attacking third without ever going anywhere. Making it easier for fullbacks to get forward is a big win, then, because it creates movement and spacing in the final third, two things the team desperately needs, especially with Toby Alderweireld still out due to injury.
Third, in this case the 3-5-2 was the best way to use Christian Eriksen. In the normal 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 system Spurs have used this season, Eriksen has a more disciplined role. In this game, he was given a free lateral drifter role as the number 10 behind Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. This meant that he almost always had ample space and time on the ball.
Recently on WDR I dinged Pochettino for being a bad in-game manager. That criticism holds. Pochettino is not great at reading games at this point in his career and his substitution patterns leave a great deal to be desired. That said, the tradeoff to this is that Pochettino has demonstrated an ability to maintain a coherent system while changing formation in ways that set his team up to be most successful. This was a North London Derby away to a red-hot Arsenal in which we would be forced to play without Erik Lamela, Toby Alderweireld, and Dele Alli. We also had Harry Kane newly returned from a two month absence. And there is the small matter of our recent form going into the game. Things did not look good for Spurs going into this fixture.
But, as he has done in previous derbies with Arsenal, Pochettino found a way to set up his team to make them successful. He’s still learning to be a better in-game manager, but Pochettino’s ability to set his team up for success from the first minute is remarkable. This game is simply the latest example of that.