The post-game assessment of our 4-0 win against Stoke last weekend was generally “we didn’t learn anything from this game that we didn’t already know.” That’s true, but it’s still worth talking about the game for the simple reason that the three man defense that Spurs are using is still relatively new: It was only the seventh league match this season with the three-at-the-back system and only the fifth with Dembele and Wanyama in midfield ahead of a back three of Dier, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen.
The key to the system is the wide center backs.
One thing we’ve talked about before is how Pochettino uses his fullbacks. Even in the 4-2-3-1, his fullbacks behave more like wingbacks because of the extremely narrow position his wide attackers take.
In most four man defenses, the fullbacks are auxiliary wide attackers who overlap the wingers but mostly maintain a relatively conservative defensive position. Though we did some innovative things with him, this is mostly how Benoit Assou-Ekotto was used under Harry Redknapp. This pass map from our 2011 3-2 win against Stoke City is representative of how Benny typically played—conservative positioning combined with more ambitious long passing. (It’s often forgotten but Assou-Ekotto was probably the second most important passer in those teams after Luka Modric.)
He attempted 70 passes in that game, which is a relatively high number for a left back, but none of them are taken from an advanced position unless you consider being on the cusp of the attacking third to be particularly advanced.
Now here is Danny Rose from this season against Swansea:
Rose plays fewer passes than Benny, but he’s getting further forward. His main cluster of passes is in midfield rather than the edge of the defensive third and he is getting into the attacking third much more often. (An added issue here is that dummy runs Rose makes into the attacking third in which he doesn’t play or receive a pass are difficult to account for, but we all know he does make such runs fairly often.)
So that’s the role of the “fullbacks” in Poche’s system typically. What’s interesting is what happened this past weekend against Stoke with Spurs playing a back three shielded by midfielder Victor Wanyama.
Brief Excursus on Wanyama
We’ve talked a lot about his limitations, but Wanyama does not get enough credit for the sheer amount of ground he is able to cover in midfield. One benefit of having such an active defensive midfielder is that the opposition attack doesn’t get to your center backs as often because your defensive shield for them is so good.
We saw something like this in play last season with Leicester City. Because N’Golo Kante was so amazing as a destroyer and defensive shield, the team was able to get away with playing two extremely limited defenders in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. There are things both of those players do very well, but they’re not terribly mobile or good with the ball at their feet.
Kante’s presence, however, meant that they pretty much only had to do things they were actually good at doing. They didn’t have to step up regularly to stop the ball because Kante did that. They didn’t have to start attacks quickly out of the back because Kante did that too.
Weaknesses only matter if your style of play creates circumstances in which those weaknesses can be exploited regularly. Leicester’s style covered for the considerable limitations of their defenders and so they could get away with playing an immobile tandem like Morgan and Huth in defense.
Spurs are attempting a similar kind of experiment with Wanyama and the back three. However, the gamble in their case is not that they can get away with playing two limited defenders in the middle of defense; it’s that they can get away with playing one extremely good defender by himself.
Vertonghen and Dier did not play like normal wide center halves in a three-man defense.
Three-man defenses can use the wide center backs in a number of different ways, some of which will depend on what kind of attack they’re facing. But typically all three players are still recognizably center backs. The two wide players may push forward more, but they’re still clearly central defenders. This is not how Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier were used at the weekend against Stoke.
That said, the thought process for how Vert and Dier were used is recognizable: If you reason that you only need one typical central defender thanks to both the range of Wanyama and the undeniable quality of Alderweireld, then you suddenly have two auxiliary players on either side of the big Belgian. Not only that, you have two auxiliary players who can play a variety of different roles. Both Dier and Vertonghen have played as fullbacks in their careers. Dier has also played as a defensive midfielder and Vertonghen certainly could play that role if asked to do so.
What you have, then, is something that seems reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in which David Alaba, a player Dier has said he hopes to emulate, and Philipp Lahm were each given similar auxiliary roles that saw them sometimes behave more like fullbacks and sometimes more like central midfielders.
Here are a few examples of both players working in these auxiliary support roles. First, here is an instance of Dier simply pushing forward into midfield to close off a passing lane:
That can seem like a small thing, but in this sequence Wanyama has pushed forward more and Stoke could easily get into a dangerous counter if they can get the first ball right. Dier makes sure they don’t—and he’s in a position to do so because he’s already playing in a relatively advanced spot.
This next clip is more representative as it shows Vertonghen looking very like a ball-playing midfielder, albeit one lacking in ideas at the end of the clip:
Later in the first half, Jan does the same thing:
Dier, meanwhile, also pushed forward at times. Here he is winning the corner that led to Vertonghen’s shot that hit the woodwork. He receives the ball in a deep position, plays the ball wide to Walker and then immediately makes a run into the box like a classic-box-to-box midfielder looking to make an unmarked run from deep:
Now we have a clip of Dier receiving the ball and seeing opportunity to dribble further into midfield before attempting a ball into the feet of his BFF Dele Alli:
Taken together, what emerges is a consistent theme: Pochettino was confident that Toby Alderweireld could man the center of defense on his own with Victor Wanyama as a screen. That creates two wide center backs who are suddenly redundant as far as being central defenders goes. Well, in that case: Give them license to push forward and play almost like Guardiola’s inverted fullbacks.
I doubt we’ll see Jan and Eric be this aggressive every match. Home against Stoke is the sort of game where you expect to have a lot of possession and expect to have to break down a more bunkered-in opponent. It’s smart to have a plan to push more players forward, create more passing lanes, and force Stoke into more difficult defensive situations. Using Jan and Eric as inverted fullbacks does that in much the same way that playing more of a 3-3-3-1 earlier this season against over-matched opponents did.
So what does this mean? What should we expect the rest of the season?
Here is what we know: In seven league games with three at the back, Spurs have gone 5-2-0. That said, those seven fixtures have seen the team use the three man back line in very different ways. Against Arsenal the team had Kevin Wimmer in a back three and so they played a lower block and were focused on being more defensively sturdy. Against Hull and Watford the team sacrificed a midfielder (Dembele) for an attacker and simply overran their opponents with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings from a deeper midfield role.
More recently, we have seen the team use more of a 3-5-2 system with Dele and Kane up top supported by wide men Davies and Walker, midfielders Dembele and Eriksen, and auxiliary attackers Vertonghen and Dier.
What this means is that Spurs have a ton of options for how to attack a game when their best XI is fit. That last clause is the key bit, of course: When any one of Dier, Vertonghen, or Alderweireld is hurt, Spurs have really struggled to find a workable system. But when all three of those defenders are available, this Spurs team looks very hard to break down and quite fluid when attacking. There’s still a lot of football left to play this season, but as long as Tottenham’s three center halves (and Victor Wanyama) stay healthy, this Spurs team looks quite formidable.