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Pochettino has a Tactical Dilemma Ahead of the North London Derby

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Whether Spurs play a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3 is anyone’s guess.

Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur turned what could’ve been a disastrous night in south London into a rejuvenating and confidence-building result, thanks to a sublime strike from Christian Eriksen. Not only was the performance possible due to the mental strength of the players, but also thanks to Mauricio Pochettino’s tactical flexibility. He made a key change to the starting XI as well as switching formations and making two substitutions at halftime. Let’s take a look at each half and see what might work best in the NLD at White Hart Lane this weekend.

Changing the CBs in the 3-4-3

In what was such an important match, with title favorites Chelsea extending the league lead to 7 points the day prior, Pochettino gambled by playing a 3-4-3 with Eric Dier playing as the central CB and Toby Alderweireld flanking him on the right. This is the first time the manager has aligned his defenders this way all season.

The obvious reason for doing so is to match up with the physical threat of Christian Benteke. Dier, being generally the most physically capable of the back three, could match Benteke on aerial duels and match him step-for-step. The knock-on effect of moving Alderwiereld to RCB is that he has a better angle to hit his trademark diagonal passes to the opposite flank. In theory, this is a perfectly logical strategy, and you can see why Poch was tempted to make such a change.

What transpired was not what Poch had in mind, and there seemed to be something off about the way the defense reacted to several phases of play, like this one.

The team also didn’t look as comfortable in possession when building play from the back off of goal kicks. Whether that was down to the alignment of the CBs or the poor form of Victor Wanyama was immaterial by halftime. Wanyama had to be removed due to his reckless play in the first half, made worse by the fact that Mousa Dembele asked to be removed after twisting his ankle.

Despite the way the 3-4-3 played out Wednesday, it’s worked well this season and it’s very possible Pochettino returns to it Sunday against Arsenal. A lot will depend on the condition of Dembele, as we haven’t played in that shape when both Dembele and Harry Winks have been unavailable. I’d fully expect Poch to revert the CBs back to their regular positions. Even if the switch was primarily to help Alderwiereld stretch the field with his passing, it doesn’t seem worth losing our sharpness and decisiveness among the back line.

Switch to 4-2-3-1

Heung Min Son and Moussa Sissoko came on at halftime and replaced Wanyama and Dembele — undoubtedly a worrying sight for any Tottenham supporter. The change of shape, along with dropping Eriksen deeper into a more influential role, changed the way Tottenham were able to build the play and allowed them to control the tempo in the second half. Pochettino admitted that his team needed a change at halftime after the match, when he told reporters:

“I think in the second half we played much better and the way we want to play. We changed something at halftime. I think the first half was difficult to find a way to move the ball quick and find the space to move the ball forward and create chances.”

It’s safe to say the players looked more comfortable and the team performed better despite having less quality on the pitch in the second half (I’m looking at you, Sissoko). Son was able to get in dangerous areas down the left half space, which allowed Ben Davies to make dangerous overlapping runs. Still, Palace defended resolutely by playing deep denying Dele Alli and Harry Kane time and space on the ball, but conceded possession to Spurs further up the pitch. Look at the difference in passes by Spurs in their own defensive 3rd in each half.

Pochettino has an important decision to make Sunday, and the players available to him (namely Mousa Demeble) will have a major impact on the team selection. The team has looked great playing the 4-2-3-1 over the last 6 weeks or so, but if Demebele is out, then that leaves Dier and Wanyama as your central midfielders, a notoriously tepid creative pairing. That said, if Dembele is out, those two would seemingly have to play alongside each other no matter the formation, so perhaps Eriksen would play deeper. If Dembele is healthy, it’s hard to go away from a 3-4-3 that has worked so well for the majority of the season. Pochettino seems to prefer a 3-4-3 when he suspects his opponent will do the same, which Arsene Wenger has done in the past two matches. It’s a tough call to make. Do I know the answer? No. I just hope Poch does.