I’m going to do a more in-depth review of Saturday’s match tomorrow. For now, I wanted to make one short observation as a kind of post-mortem on Saturday’s game. Where Spurs finish in the table depends on basically one factor: Can we find a sustainable system that masks Victor Wanyama’s limitations in midfield?
Why can’t we play last year’s 4-2-3-1 with Dier and Dembele in midfield?
Some folks will, understandably, say that this is a bad question because it assumes that Wanyama has to start in midfield. If we just go back to last year’s 4-2-3-1 with the Eric Dier-Mousa Dembele midfield duo, then we don’t have to bother with this question. That said, I don’t think Dier-Dembele is going to be a regular option for us this season. The only way it is an option is if Dier, Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld are all fit—and if they’re all fit, I would rather us play the 3-4-3 anyway. So there’s not any plausible scenario in which Wanyama is not a fixture in our midfield through the rest of the season.
Of course, you can (again, understandably) complain that going into this season with our plan being to use Dier as our backup centerback (and Wanyama as our backup to Dier in midfield) was dumb and that we should have signed a center back last summer.
But it’s too late to change that now. Last year’s 4-2-3-1 isn’t coming back. For better or worse, Wanyama is a starter in our midfield and will continue to be.
Can the Wanbele midfield work?
That’s a bit of a trick question. The answer is it depends. Here are some interesting numbers:
- In 10 games of Wanbele in the 4-2-3-1, we have gone 4-3-3—that’s an average of 1.5 points per match, which would have us at 57 points for a full season, which is solidly midtable and maybe chasing a Europa League spot.
- The underlying numbers aren’t much better: Our xG/match is 1.28. (Roughly on par with Southampton or West Ham.)
- Our xG/shot is .0712. That number is really, really bad.
For comparison’s sake, here are the other EPL teams averaging .07 xG/shot over the season:
- Crystal Palace—.0747 xG/shot
- Hull City—.0746 xG/shot
- Middlesbrough—.0736 xG/shot
- Sunderland—.0787 xG/shot
- Watford—.0759 xG/shot
If you’re looking at that and thinking “hey aren’t all those teams in danger of being relegated?” well, YOU ARE EXACTLY RIGHT.
To be clear (and fair to Wanbele), we produce more shots per game than any of those five teams, so it’s not that our attack is as bad as Hull’s or Palace’s. Our shot volume is how the attack gets up to Southampton or West Ham-type numbers. But purely evaluating shot quality, the Wanbele 4-2-3-1 would be worst in the league over a full season.
But here’s the funny thing: In four games of Wanbele in the three man system (and this includes the North London Derby, which was not a great game by any stretch), the numbers are remarkably different: We’re averaging 1.43 xG/match (comparable but slightly behind Chelsea and Manchester United) and our xG/shot is .12.
Here’s a list of teams that are averaging .12xG/shot over a full season:
- (there isn’t anyone)
- (that’s the joke)
How can Wanbele be so good in the 3-4-whatever and so bad in the 4-2-3-1?
It’s actually pretty simple: One way Tottenham vary their attacking style is through long diagonal passes played out of deep midfield positions. These passes skip over multiple lines of play and routinely find players in lots of space in the attacking third. When you combine the threat of that sort of passing with the movement of our front three/four (depending on system) and Dembele’s dribbling ability in midfield, you have a pretty good attack.
Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, and (increasingly) Eric Dier are all adept at playing these long diagonal passes. In last year’s 4-2-3-1, Alderweireld constantly moved forward to play these sorts of passes, but Dier also did it on occasion from his deep midfield position.
This season, however, Wanyama has played the deep midfield role. He is not a good long passer. So it falls on Alderweireld, Vertonghen, or Dier to make those passes. But in order for them to do that, they need to move forward into a midfield position with Wanyama dropping off. Wanyama is not good at this either. (I wrote an entire article on the importance of splitting the center backs earlier this season.)
The result is that those long diagonal passes are not made as regularly. Unfortunately, if those passes aren’t being made, the only way Spurs get the ball into dangerous positions consistently is “Dembele does crazy crap in midfield.” That happens occasionally, but even Dembele cannot pull off world-class dribbling runs more than a few times a match.
Short of that, we’re left hoping for defensive gaffes and chances to hit teams on the counter, which don’t happen often since teams (especially weaker teams) will play a deeper line against us and not give us chances to counter.
The three center back system masks Wanyama’s limitations.
In the 3-4-whatever system, this problem is solved. And the solution is clever: Wanyama is an amazing destroyer. He covers a lot of ground as well. And he’s a smart defender in midfield. (He also did a surprisingly good job deputizing at center back against Manchester City.) He does certain things very well.
But the two things he doesn’t do—and many defensive midfielders struggle here because neither of these responsibilities are classic defensive midfielder essentials—is make long passes or drop off to swap positions with a center back or split the center back pair.
The 3-4-3 says “OK, that’s fine. We won’t ask you to do either of those things.” Instead, the 3-4-3 allows Wanyama to stay in midfield, where he is comfortable, and simply break up play. The long passing play comes from the wide center backs who can push forward without needing Wanyama to drop off because of the central defender in the back three.
Why isn’t the 3-4-3 a reliable solution?
See that image? You’re looking at the answer.
If Poche does not trust Wimmer (and it would seem he does not) and also does not trust Ben Davies as the left-sided center back (ditto), then the only time we can play the 3-4-3 is when all three of Dier, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen are fit.
Put another way, the only way we have found to mask Wanyama’s limitations is to use a system that requires all three of our center backs to be fit. As solutions go, that one is kinda terrible—you can’t rotate your three center backs ever, which increases the likelihood of one of them getting hurt and if one of them gets hurt you can’t play the system.
The long-term fix is obvious enough—sign a center back who you’ll trust in the system. He needs to be reasonably quick and comfortable on the ball. While such center backs aren’t exactly growing on trees, you don’t need to find one that’s world-class. You need to find one that is good enough to rotate into the squad and fill in when your one of your regular starters is hurt. A slightly quicker version of Wimmer would probably be fine, in fact.
That said, in the interim we need a short-term solution and I don’t think anyone knows what that is, which is why we keep seeing the Wanbele 4-2-3-1.
I would love to see a 4-3-3 that drops Son Heung-Min to the bench and replaces him with Harry Winks. The obvious issue here is that you’re asking Winks, an academy grad midfielder with two league starts in his career, to do the job that Alderweireld normally does—no small thing, that. However, Winks has proven to be surprisingly strong on the ball and has shown more impressive passing range than Wanyama or Dembele.
Indeed, a 4-3-3 with Winks, Wanyama, and Dembele would end up being a fairly conventional midfield trio: Wanyama will sit in the deep destroyer role, Dembele works as a shuttler/box-to-box type, and Winks is the passer of the trio.
We have tried this formation twice, once in more of a 4-4-2 diamond and once in more of the narrow 4-3-2-1 system I imagine us trying. We won both games, although one of them was the extremely lucky 3-2 win against West Ham and the other was a home victory against Burnley that, if you remember the match, turned out to be far more difficult than it ought to have been. That said, when you look at the record of the 4-2-3-1 with Wanyama and Dembele in midfield, it’s hard to argue against trying something new.