A few weeks ago I commented on an observation that James Yorke made over at StatsBomb. Looking over this season’s results, Yorke noted that this year’s Tottenham look kinda like AVB’s second Tottenham team. The more I’ve thought about that, the more I think Yorke is on to something. (Now before you scream and launch your computer across the room like Andros Townsend trying to hit the net from 30 yards, hear me out.)
AVB’s system had a few basic pieces to it:
- He played a high defensive line in order to squeeze the field and limit the space in which the game was played.
- He also used a relatively narrow shape to further compress the field and limit opposition time on the ball.
- He generally valued shot quantity over shot quality.
- For all these reasons, his teams were generally excellent defensively, OK offensively, but tended to be extremely vulnerable to teams that could exploit the high line.
In many ways, Pochettino’s approach is more careful than AVB’s. His defensive line is generally not as high as AVB’s. And while his first-year team was similarly brittle, the teams of the past season and a half have been far more consistent and reliable defensively than AVB’s second-year team.
That said, there are similarities, even when Poche teams are playing well: His style of play is largely dependent on shrinking the size of the field for the opposition, he encourages his team to take a lot of shots, and he generally plays a fairly narrow 4-2-3-1 shape that has one wide attacker in a tucked-in narrow role and one who is expected to stay more to the flank.
What Makes Pochettino’s System Work
The defensive benefits to Pochettino’s system are obvious at this point: Forcing the game to be played in a smaller area limits the effectiveness of the opposition’s skill players and reduces the number of chances the opposition can create.
Though it was a mid-season stat, these numbers tell the tale:
You simply don’t get enough time on the ball or space in threatening positions to create many chances against a good Pochettino team.
The trouble is that this defensive cohesion can easily come at the expense of fluidity in the attack. This is not unusual. Teams that prize such defensive solidity routinely lack a more varied attacking system.
If you take away the counter attack from Jose Mourinho or Diego Simeone, their teams struggle to create chances. If you took away wide play from AVB’s Chelsea, they were fairly impotent. If you limited Gareth Bale’s space against AVB’s Spurs, we often didn’t have any other ideas.
To manage this problem, Pochettino has hit on a simple solution: Long, direct passing to set up attacks. Recall how much more direct last season’s team was in the attack than fellow top four sides Manchester City and Arsenal. While Arsenal and City used much more short central passing to create chances, Spurs frequently skipped over the midfield and straight into the attacking third with long passes.
This attack against CSKA, built off a long pass from Jan Vertonghen, is representative of how the team attacks when at its best:
When this system worked, it was a sight to behold. The direct passing itself led to many chances. Moreover, when it did not produce chances, it often produced extended periods of transition play as both teams attempt to win the ball. These passages of transition also help Spurs as our system thrives on the chaos created by transition play in the attacking third.
To sum up, Pochettino uses long, direct passing to create attacking chances. This is how Spurs create so many chances despite having a very narrow front four and not being terribly fluid in their attacking movement.
What happens when Pochettino’s teams lose their vertical attacking ability?
You could attribute much of Spurs’ success last season to a few simple factors:
- Toby Alderweireld and Moussa Dembele both, in very different ways, excel at the kind of line-breaking vertical attacking moves that are necessary for Tottenham’s attack to work.
- Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier were the perfect partners for Alderweireld and Dembele in that both of them knew exactly what they needed to do in order to maximize the talents of the other. Dier’s versatility as a holding midfield who could also drop into defense was particularly important on this point.
So what happens when you lose one of these pieces? Well, after almost half a season of playing without our best XI from last year, we’re in a position to say:
- When Alderweireld is out, Spurs lack the consistent deep passing threat provided by the Belgian defender.
- When Dembele is out, Spurs do not have anyone else in midfield who can punch through the opposition lines, either via powerful running or direct passing. (Harry Winks’s continued development may help us on this point, it’s worth noting.)
- When Eric Dier is missing in midfield, we do not see peak Alderweireld or peak Dembele, as both are forced to play a more conservative role due to Dier’s absence in midfield.
Most importantly, we have learned something about our new midfield signing, Victor Wanyama: Though he is an excellent pure destroyer in midfield, Wanyama’s limited abilities on the ball are immediately apparent when you watch Spurs play.
Wanyama cannot move the ball forward with powerful, direct running a la Dembele. He is not comfortable dropping deep into center half so that Alderweireld can step up and plays a regista. Whereas Dier dropped into deep central roles most often last season, Wanyama is more often seen drifting into wide areas to receive the ball (and, typically, play a short, predictable pass to one of the fullbacks.) Wanyama is also not particularly good at making forward passes.
So while he may be a great destroyer, the ex-Southampton man’s presence in midfield this season has often had a stultifying effect on Tottenham’s attack this season.
The Spurs attack gets bogged down when we have too much possession in the attacking third.
The result of all these factors is that this Spurs team has struggled mightily this season to create chances and much of this is down to the lack of vertical attacking. When Spurs are forced to advance the ball more slowly, due to more conservative positioning and playing style from Alderweireld and Dembele as well as Wanyama’s significant on-the-ball limitations, the Spurs attack becomes predictable. Additionally, the rhythm of the game is more fixed, so we don’t have as many transition moments to count on to help us create more scoring chances.
Instead, all we have is a bunkered down defense and an attack that doesn’t really have many players who thrive on playing in tight quarters and unlocking a packed defense. (This is essentially a description of what happened against Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, and for much of the game against West Ham.) If there is a player in the normal rotation of front four attackers who does break down packed defenses regularly, it is (of course it is) Erik Lamela, who has missed most of the season.
And what happens when you have a team that can’t penetrate a packed defense and that includes ambitious long-shot takers like Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen? Well, we take lots of shots—lots of really awful, crappy shots.
At this point, we need only look at the numbers. Last season, Spurs finished with fewer than 1.0 xG only seven times in the league. Through 15 games, we have already had four such results this season—plus several more that are just over 1.0.
The defense has been mostly OK despite Alderweireld’s lengthy absence. But going forward the attack has been very AVB like—no ideas, minimal movement, and lots of low-quality long shots.
It perhaps has not been as noticeable because one doesn’t mind long shots as much when they are being taken by Eriksen or Kane (as opposed to Andros Townsend), but the trend is worrying all the same. If Spurs are going to make a serious run at chasing down one of the top four for a Champions League spot, then we will need to figure out how to restore that direct attacking game.
Otherwise, our best case scenario is the Europa League turning into a de facto Champions League playoff between England’s fifth and sixth best teams. And after last weekend, I wouldn’t feel too confident about our odds in such a clash.