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Three Ways Spurs Could Set Up Against Monaco

It’s probably a 4-3-3, but there are other options.

Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The starting lineup for today’s must-win Champions League clash in Monaco has been announced. Here it is:

Two Surprises

The decision to rest Kyle Walker fits with Pochettino’s general use of his right backs so far this season and isn’t too much of a shock. That said, two other omissions are more notable.

  • Kevin Wimmer is starting in the left-sided center half role in place of Jan Vertonghen, who is on the bench.
  • Harry Winks and Dele Alli are both starting while Christian Eriksen is demoted to the bench.

The choice to rest Vertonghen isn’t a huge surprise, actually: With Ben Davies injured and Danny Rose suspended this weekend, Jan will be the starting left back against Chelsea. So this gives him a rest and it gives Wimmer a start in the left-sided CB role he’ll be playing this weekend.

The Eriksen move is a bit more surprising, but may also make a certain amount of sense: While the “Eriksen-is-slumping” takes are as bad this year as they were last year, there is a good tactical case for dropping the Dane to the bench for this match. Since it’s a road fixture, Spurs will likely have more chances to play on the counter. Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min are better suited to that than Eriksen.

Turning toward midfield, the big problem in our first fixture against Monaco, the 2-1 home defeat back in September on Match Day One, was that the midfield was too open. Monaco, a team that likes to play on the counter anyway, had lots of joy sitting deep and breaking forward against a 4-2-3-1 system that featured a double pivot of Victor Wanyama-Dele.

A midfield three of Wanyama, Mousa Dembele, and Harry Winks will be more difficult to hit on the counter. It also was a surprisingly versatile trio at the weekend at least, as all three players rotated through the deepest position in the trio and freed the other two to get forward in more box-to-box roles.

After this game, it’s likely that the #Narrative will be that Eriksen is bad and needs to be benched. The reality is more complex. Benching Eriksen for an away fixture against a team that loves to counter attack through the center of the park so that you can play vertical attackers in the front three and pack the midfield with sturdier players is just a smart tactical move—or at least a defensible one.

How will Spurs set up?

I see three possible ways that Spurs could attack Monaco in this game. I suspect the on-field reality will end up being a mixture of at least two of these systems.

How Spurs Could Play 4-3-3

The 4-3-3 system is the most obvious. We’ll see a midfield trio of Wanyama-Dembele-Winks. Most of the time I expect that will mean Wanyama at the base with Dembele on the left and Winks on the right. But it will be either fluid or confused and disorganized, depending on how much credit you want to give Pochettino and his midfield trio.

The front three will then have Son on one wing, Dele on the other, and Harry Kane in the center. That said, because Dele likes to drift in and because Kane is comfortable drifting wide to receive the ball, it may almost look more like a 4-3-3 with Dele in a false nine role flanked by Son and Kane. In that scenario, we’d see lots of outside-in runs from Son and Kane with attempted one-twos played with Dele.

How Spurs Could Play a 4-4-2 Diamond

The other option is that we’ll see something like we did last weekend against West Ham but with Dele in the Eriksen tip-of-the-diamond role and Son in for Vincent Janssen alongside Kane.

In this system, we’d rely a lot on the wide players in the midfield three to get forward more and would need masterful performances from Rose and Trippier on the wings. The big problem this system had last weekend is that it was simply too narrow. It’s possible that Son for Janssen is enough of an upgrade that it may work. But I wouldn’t count on it. This is not the shape I want to see us set up in.

How Spurs Could Play a 4-2-3-1

The other option, and this is the long shot but it’s worth including, is that Spurs could play a 4-2-3-1 along the lines of what we saw last season. In that system, we’d have a midfield two of Wanyama-Winks with Dembele playing in a wide role in the 4-2-3-1 as he did for the start of last season. Son would then play on the other flank with Dele in the number 10 role behind Kane.

This system is nice in that it’s familiar and effective. However, the evidence we have so far is that Wanyama doesn’t really work in the double pivot. He’s an unusual player in that he’s good enough to play in midfield for a team at our level, but he’s not really an ideal player for any single system. He brings a lot to the table, but he also takes a lot off the table.

Why We Should Play 4-3-3

The strength of the 4-3-3 is that it will conceal most of Wanyama’s weaknesses. It will, unfortunately, do that by also concealing some of Dembele’s strengths. But I think it’s the best system for today because it will limit the Monaco counter, allow us to control the pace of the game (which we want to do), and will be wider than the odd system we saw at home against the Hammers last Saturday.

Whatever we end up doing, we’ll soon know how it turned out. Tottenham’s European dreams hang on finding the right system. Let’s hope Pochettino got this one right.