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Tactics Brief: The Importance of Splitting the Center Backs

This is what we’ve been missing all year.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

One of several good points made by Dan Kilpatrick in his recent piece for ESPN is that Tottenham’s attack is at its best when we are able to split the center halves to allow them more time on the ball and more freedom to get forward.

As I have noted before, Tottenham’s rather unique attacking style necessitates a high level of involvement from the center backs. The best way to make sure that our defenders can be involved in the ways we require is to give them opportunity to get forward and time enough on the ball to do something with it when they do get forward.

So far this season we have struggled to do that because Victor Wanyama is not nearly as good at dropping off and splitting the center halves as last season’s first choice defensive midfielder, Eric Dier, is.

You can see this issue reflected in where and how often our center halves are receiving the ball. The chart below shows the passes that Toby Alderweireld received last season in our match at Old Trafford against Manchester United:

With Dier in the defensive midfield role and frequently dropping off to split the center halves, Jan Vertonghen is able to flare out to the left and Alderweireld to the right. From this position they can have more time on the ball to pick out a pass and the fullbacks can push forward more confidently, knowing that the center halves are in the space they are vacating.

Here is the same passes received chart from last weekend’s game, a game in which we actually had far more possession than we did last season:

Last year we had 50% possession in this fixture, but look at all the passes Alderweireld received and where he got them. Then look at the chart above and know that this is from a game when we had 60% possession.

Due to Wanyama’s struggles to drop off and split the center halves, both Vertonghen and Alderweireld are forced to stay more central, which largely neutralizes their threat as passers.

This brings us to the game against Hull this week. Pochettino opted to play a back three with Dier, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen with Toby in the center role, Dier on the right, and Vertonghen on the left.

In this system, all three of them have a role in the attacking approach. Alderweireld almost amounts to being a kind of libero, sitting deep, cleaning things up, and building the attack from the back. Dier and Vertonghen, meanwhile, split wide and almost end up behaving like fullbacks rather than center backs.

This move allowed both Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to push further forward. It also gave Dier and Vertonghen more time on the ball as they did not have a striker or midfielder bearing down on them at all times.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s look at the first goal:

eriksen opening goal vs hull city 2016-17

Jan Vertonghen flares out to the left because there is a deep central defender allowing him to drift into wide areas more. He then has time to look up and pick out a pass. He picks out Danny Rose with a long ball. Danny Rose is streaking down the wing already in the attacking third at this point because he has the freedom to get forward like that thanks to the system.

This opening goal is, in other words, entirely a result of the 3-4-2-1 system Poche opted for against Hull.

And this was hardly the only example of that sort of attacking move. Less than a minute before the goal, we can see a similar buildup on the right with Dier:

eric dier pass vs hull city 2015-16

This time the attack doesn’t go anywhere, but you can see it’s the same basic idea.

Before we leave this, there is another benefit worth mentioning: When you’re able to push the wide center half forward and get your fullback further forward, that just means you’re getting more players moving into the attacking third. More players translates to more passing options, more movement, and more difficulty for the team trying to mark all those players:

In that photo alone, you have Kane and Dele up top (Dele is just outside the frame). You also have Walker on the far touch line, Sissoko pushed up ahead of him, Walker and Wanyama in midfield, Rose on the opposite flank, and Vertonghen in the bottom right corner of the shot.

In other words, if you count Dele, who is only just outside the frame, we have nine players in the Hull half. The only players not in their half are Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris.

To be sure, this is partly about how bad Hull has been. They certainly were bad as they tried to mark and control us. However, I think we’re also seeing a promising sign here with this shift in system. Pochettino seems to have recognized that we needed more passing options in the attacking third and he has made the necessary adjustments. And in this particular case, it only took the adjustment 14 minutes of match-time to produce a goal.

We’ll have to see if this system is used consistently against weaker opposition, but for now we can certainly say that the system was a success against Hull.