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Tactics Tuesday: Should Spurs Play a 4-2-3-1 Until Harry Kane Returns?

The band is back together in midfield. Should we keep them?

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

One of the recurring themes I’ve discussed with the 2016-17 edition of Spurs has been our inability to play the 4-2-3-1 that led us to such success last season. The trouble has been that the only way we can play that system effectively is if all four of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, and Mousa Dembele are fit and not suspended for hilariously but stupidly eye gouging Diego Costa.

Unfortunately, Vertonghen and Alderweireld have had lengthy absences this season due to injury. By the time we got a sustained run of games with this four, Victor Wanyama had established himself in midfield. Moreover, Mauricio Pochettino had realized that since we did not have a decent Erik Lamela replacement, it was better to keep Wanyama in the team and change the shape from last year’s 4-2-3-1 to the 3-4-2-1.

Though there is more to the change than just this, it’s not entirely inaccurate to say we simply swapped a guy who runs around and breaks things in midfield for a guy who ran around and broke things in the attacking third. The rest of the personnel and even the roles in the system have stayed fairly similar.

To be sure, the results with this system have been really encouraging. But when Victor Wanyama came off just before halftime last week due to injury, Spurs had to switch back to last season’s 4-2-3-1, or at least the closest we have come to it all season. Though the fullbacks were different and Lamela and Harry Kane were missing from the front four, the core four at the back were all present: We had Janby Alderweirtonghen in central defense with Dier-Dembele in midfield. And, surprise: It still works.

We were able to break down a stout Burnley defense on multiple occasions, Vincent Janssen actually looked halfway decent up top, and the defense looked as sturdy as it has all season, holding a Burnley team that typically gets very good looks at goal to .3 xG:

Here’s the question then: With Harry Kane out for a little while yet and given the poor performances we have seen from Son and Janssen as they attempt to replace Kane at the top of a 3-4-2-1... should we revert to last year’s 4-2-3-1 until Kane returns? I think we should. Let’s see if I can convince you.

How Would Our Personnel Change from 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1?

Lamela, Rose, and Kane are ruled out due to injury but for sake of argument let’s say all our other regular starters are fit. Here’s our best 3-4-2-1:

Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen
Walker, Wanyama, Dembele, Davies
Eriksen, Dele

Here is the 4-2-3-1:

Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies
Dier, Dembele
Son, Dele, Eriksen

The funny thing about this is that the only change we’ve made in personnel is swapping our best summer signing for one of our weaker signings. But the important point is that even if the XI in the 4-2-3-1 has less overall individual quality, it works better as a system because it allows us to get the most out of our striker.

Why does Janssen work better in the 4-2-3-1?

The 3-4-2-1 system can be devastating, but it requires some fairly peculiar, unique skill sets from the attacking players. There are only three players regularly operating in the attacking third. A 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 system will often have four players in that area and sometimes five depending on whether or not one of their midfielders is more of a box-to-box type. If you include fullbacks, the number gets even higher.

In more extreme attacking systems, like Pep Guardiola’s at City, the numbers get pushed even more. It’s not unusual to see City with six or even seven players pushing into the attacking third on a regular basis. (The key to the system is Pep’s refusal to do things like “use fullbacks” or “play actual midfielders.”)

For those systems, attacking success is often simply a function of the amount of players they throw forward. To be sure, Tottenaham can get numbers forward in the 3-4-2-1. It just requires that the fullbacks attack down the flanks, one of the midfielders pushes forward, or even that Jan Vertonghen surges ahead as he often has in recent weeks.

That’s the key thing though: The system only begins with three obvious attacking players. Everything else depends upon the ability of other players to get into advanced positions. But for that to work, they need to have time to get there. The ball needs to get into the attacking third and stick there so that the wingbacks, midfielders, or even a wide center half have time to push forward.

The system relies a great deal on Harry Kane’s ability to pick up the ball all over the pitch and then use his strength and technical ability to hold up play and bring his teammates in as they surge forward. Here are the passes Kane received in one of Tottenham’s more successful outings in the 3-4-2-1, the 4-0 belting of Stoke City:

Note how much ground Kane covers across the attacking third. The vast majority of passes he receives are on the edge of the attacking third and almost into the midfield area on one flank or the other. (I think he receives 32 passes in this game.) He receives a few passes in the central attacking third, but not many and even those are mostly on the edge of the area rather than in the 18-yard box.

Now, here is Son against Southampton in his attempt to lead the line in the 3-4-2-1:

son passes received v southampton

While most of Kane’s passes are short balls played into his feet that he can then run with or play quickly to teammates as the attack progresses forward, most of Son’s passes received are longer, more vertical balls. (I think he receives 20 total.) The short pass-and-move system that Kane’s range and passing facilitates basically disappears and, with it, much of the fluidity of the Spurs attack.

Janssen is a more powerful striker and his ability to hold up the ball is comparable to Kane’s. But for most of this season he has seemed to lack Kane’s technical ability as well as his vision as a passer. So while he receives passes in similar parts of the field and can even hold the ball there for a short time, he has not been able to bring his teammates into the game as effectively.

Indeed, based on what we have seen so far this season, Janssen is still extremely raw as far as his development is concerned. His vision, ability to read the game, and technical ability are all quite limited. So though he at least can receive the same kind of passes as Kane, he cannot consistently do the things with the ball that Kane does. Given that limitation, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 is a fairly natural, obvious move.

The 4-2-3-1 Makes Janssen Serviceable

There are a few key things the 4-2-3-1 does that help Janssen be more effective up top.

First, it gets more players around him on a regular basis, which means he has obvious, simple passes to make when he does get the ball played into his feet with his back to goal.

Second, it doubles the number of wide players as the system moves from two wingbacks flanking narrow attackers to two fullbacks providing overlap of two wide attackers with a second striker playing just off Janssen. This means there is more service from wide areas into the box for Janssen to attack.

The result of the change were notable. I have marked with a blue line the six shots from the first half of the game against Burnley when Spurs were working in the 3-4-2-1 and Janssen was mostly ineffective:

Tottenham manage only two shots from inside the box and they came off the same sequence—the Christian Eriksen shot from the flank and the rebound that Dele skied over from seven yards out. The other four shots that Spurs managed all came from outside the box and were very low percentage shots.

Put another way, the only really good chance Spurs create was off a rebound when Tom Heaton palmed the ball into Dele’s path.

Note the change in the second half. Both Spurs goals come after the intermission. So too do two excellent chances for Dele and Son. Spurs also get five other chances from inside the box plus three speculative efforts from outside the box. To sum up:

  • In the 3-4-2-1, Spurs took six shots, only two of which were inside the box and only one of which was a really high-quality chance—and that one was mostly an accident due to Heaton’s inability to control a much lower quality chance.
  • In the 4-2-3-1, Spurs took 12 shots, four of which were just about as good as Dele’s first half chance. Of the 12 shots, nine were taken inside the 18-yard box.

Reviewing Specific Sequences with the 4-2-3-1

Let’s look at a few of the key sequences that show both how the 4-2-3-1 works generally and how Janssen specifically can be more effective in that system.

Here is the first one. It’s Ben Davies’ shot in the 53rd minute, which came off some nice, simple hold-up play from Janssen.

Eriksen is operating in more of a wide creative role here rather than a midfield/advanced midfielder tweener role as he does in the 3-4-2-1. Because he is in this position, he is able to play a short ball to Davies down the wing. The Welsh left back finds Janssen posting up his defender in the box. Davies then makes his run into the box, gets on the end of Janssen’s layoff and gets a nice look at the goal. This is exactly the sort of chance we saw Kane, Eriksen, and Rose creating on a regular basis last season.

Let’s look at another example. Janssen actually showed some surprising range as a passer that we haven’t often seen this season in the buildup to the opening goal. The goal itself came off a corner, but here is the sequence leading to the goal:

janssen buildup

To be sure, one notable thing about this clip is how seamlessly Dier, Dembele, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld reverted to the roles they played in last year’s team. The centerbacks split wide, Dier drops in between, and Dembele links through midfield. This could have been a clip from last season.

But what’s more notable is the pass Janssen makes once he gets the ball out of his feet. He receives the ball in a bit of space, thanks in large part to the movement of Eriksen and Dembele and wastes no time whipping it into a wide area for Kieran Trippier to pick up. This entire sequence should be extremely encouraging if you’re a Spurs fan.

Janssen’s ability to play as a deep target man also became more valuable as Dele stayed much more central with Eriksen and Sissoko on his flanks, making him a natural target for Janssen’s layoffs and knockdowns.

Here is one example moments after the opening goal.

This is fairly route-one stuff, but route one stuff can be effective if you have a good target man and numbers getting forward. In this sequence, Spurs do: Because the center backs have pushed wide with Eric Dier dropping in between, the fullbacks can surge forward. Then you also have Dele working closely with Janssen plus Sissoko and Eriksen on the wings.

So you have two attackers in the central area where the ball is being played plus four players on the edges available as passing options. In this case, Janssen knocks the ball down and Dele controls and sprays it wide to Trippier. It’s an almost identical attacking move to what we saw moments before, only with Dele playing the ball wide rather than Janssen himself.


Obviously the ideal scenario for Spurs is that we would see Harry Kane and Victor Wanyama return to full fitness and we return to the 3-4-2-1 side that is undefeated in league play. But until Kane returns, we need an alternative system that, you know, actually works. So far in 135 minutes of the 3-4-2-1 with Son and Janssen each having a shot leading the line the results have been extremely mixed.

But the 45 second half minutes we got with Janssen and then Son up top looked much better. The team seemed more balanced and there were fewer creative responsibilities laid at the feet of the center forward. If we are going to survive the Kane injury and preserve our top four place, then we’ll need more halves like the second half at Turf Moor.