We’ve now had two games with a fit Kieran Trippier starting at right back for Spurs and a few trends have already emerged.
First, it doesn’t really matter what we call the formation.
This has been apparent with Pochettino for awhile, but whether Spurs play 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 is in many ways irrelevant as the team will play a fairly similar style in both systems. This was on full display against Burnley.
Technically, Tottenham set up in the 4-2-3-1 that we used to such devastating effect in 2015-16. But from the beginning the actual shape was something more complicated. Kieran Trippier pushed well up the field into the attacking third, almost looking more like an orthodox right winger than a fullback or even a wingback.
To compensate for this advanced position, one of the two midfielders would regularly drift into the space where a fullback might typically be expected to play, slightly ahead of and outside of the right-sided center back. Dembele did this early in the match. Dier then began to do it later. But in both cases, the midfielders were stepping in to allow Trippier to stay in an advanced position where his passing ability is more valuable and his limited speed and ability to run at the defense will be less of a problem.
On the other side, Ben Davies often almost looked more like a Pep Guardiola-type inverted fullback, tucking in and supplementing the midfield on the left side to make up for the right-ward shift of Dembele and Dier.
Here is one shot of how this looks in practice. Note how much Dembele and Dier have shifted to the right with Davies sliding into a narrower position to compensate:
Davies was able to do this as needed because in the more advanced portion of the pitch, Son Heung-Min was often staying as wide to the left as Trippier did on the right.
Thus, though theoretically a rather bland 4-2-3-1, the actual shape was something more like this:
Dembele, Dier, Davies
Trippier, Eriksen, Dele, Son
If this sounds like some sort of weird Pep Guardiola thing where you have wingbacks as your wide players and a bunch of passers packed into the center of the park ready to press and attempt quick pass-and-move style attacks... well, it is kinda like that.
It also could morph into a more classic Poche 4-2-3-1 with Davies and Trippier pushed forward, the center backs split into wide areas, and Dier sitting in between the two defenders. This versatility, of course, is a classic characteristic of Pochettino’s Tottenham.
Second, the attack has mostly been fine so far.
The interesting thing about Pochettino’s Spurs is that his teams have never been great at creating high-quality chances and they also haven’t been especially great at limiting opponents to mostly low-quality chances. Poche’s teams beat people with volume: They often take about three times as many shots as their opponents and with that kind of advantage in shot quantity, Spurs will come out ahead more often than not.
The encouraging thing is that, despite losing Kyle Walker, Tottenham’s underlying shot numbers from our opening three games look basically fine.
Against Newcastle, Tottenham put in a dominant performance and won comfortably 2-0. Obviously we benefited from playing against 10 men because of Jonjo Shelvey’s Joey Barton moment, but the point is we controlled the match and won:
xG map for Newcastle - Tottenham. Spurs easily walked the match once up 11 v 10. pic.twitter.com/lIpuDBYRGa— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 13, 2017
Chelsea two weekends ago was a different matter, but even then we actually won on shot quantity. The Blues were just especially good at limiting quality, which, of course, is a trademark of Antonio Conte teams.
xG map for Spurs - Chelsea. Hard to get a better example of what a defense conceding shots (and set plays) but no good chances looks like. pic.twitter.com/TEu0x38fAU— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 20, 2017
Then we have Burnley. Here is the xG map:
xG map for Spurs - Burnley. Tottenham had their chances to put this one away. pic.twitter.com/V2gChYxcwp— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 27, 2017
That is not only a totally decent result by xG, but it looks very, very like a classic Poche Spurs xG map. We got a large volume of average quality chances and managed to turn one of them into a goal. We may have drawn 1-1, but we should be happy about these shot numbers. They suggest that this team is basically fine so far and we should not be worrying too much about on-field performance, even if worrying over squad depth is probably more warranted.
The big question mark is in those wide areas.
The chance-creation happening through the middle of the park has been, predictably, good. Dele’s movement and elusiveness on the ball creates plenty of problems for defenses, Eriksen’s passing ability is a constant threat, plus you have Harry Kane up top. Plus you have the vertical passing of Alderweireld and the increasingly regular forward runs from Jan Vertonghen.
This team is always going to be able to create chances through the middle.
That said, if we cannot create chances as consistently on the wings, we could be in trouble. And here we may have a bit of trouble.
In the opening minutes, a gorgeous lofted ball down the wing from Eriksen played Trippier into space. But when he tried to slide the ball into Son running through the channel, he overhit it and the ball went out of play for a goal kick.
Later in the first half, Tottenham created a better chance through an excellent run from Dele and nice pull back cross from Ben Davies:
Trippier then had a chance to set up Christian Eriksen for a shot from outside the box with a simple layoff in the 43rd minute.
In the second half, Spurs started out with Ben Davies pushed forward, the midfield shifted to the left, and Trippier tucking in on the right. This allowed Trippier to be more involved after a very quiet first half. It also caused some initial problems for Burnley as they were unprepared to adjust to a shape that had Son as the wide man on the right, Davies wide on the left, and Trippier tucked in and more involved in the buildup play.
This tweak led to a good ball from Trippier played into Dele’s feet in the box which nearly led to a good chance for the English attacker. Moments later, it led to the corner kick which resulted in Dele’s goal in the 49th minute.
What this suggests is that the versatility of Tottenham’s players may help cover for the lack of pace and athleticism on the wings. If we can play with inverted fullbacks and ask Son to play extremely wide on either side, then that certainly adds another dimension to our attack.
The thing that stands out to me while watching this is that while the added versatility is obviously welcome, why wouldn’t we want to go in for a more athletic, faster fullback to use up and down the wing? Trippier’s performance against Burnley was basically fine. His defensive gaffe late in the game that led to the equalizer was awful and unfortunate, but otherwise he was fine.
But think about what this team looked like with Walker and Rose barreling down the wings, adding that extra threat both with their ability to stretch the defense and to take defenders out of the play with a confident, direct run with the ball. This team does not have that ability in the wide areas right now. The result is we have to attempt to compensate for that absence with clever positional tweaks and good passing and movement. The good news is we’re able to do all of that.
But, even so, why not pick up a more athletic option at right back?
This isn’t about bashing Trippier. It’s about recognizing the reduced possibilities of a team without Kyle Walker. Trippier is fine, but he simply isn’t able to do the things athletically that Walker could. This team—and any team, really—is better with a powerful, fast runner at fullback. So why haven’t we signed one?