We’re still several days away from Fernando Llorente’s possible debut with Tottenham, but we can probably say two things, briefly, about how the big Spaniard might fit into Mauricio Pochettino’s squad.
Pochettino likes experimenting with two striker systems.
One thing that is easy to forget about Pochettino is that he has experimented with a weird hybrid 4-4-2 system on several occasions since his arrival in England. During his second season at Southampton, he regularly played Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo together until Osvaldo’s issues in the dressing room made it impossible for the mercurial striker to continue with Southampton.
When he did this, he often had Lambert as a more stationary attacking focal point up top while Osvaldo had more of a runner role, buzzing around in the channels waiting for service from the wide attackers or a simple exchange with Lambert.
He attempted something similar at Spurs last season with Vincent Janssen as the target man up top and Harry Kane dropping off slightly as a hybrid second striker/attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1. It didn’t work because of Janssen’s lack of movement up top and struggles with reading the game, but you could sometimes see the thinking behind it.
Two strikers can help improve a narrow attacking system.
Pochettino prefers a narrow 4-2-3-1. Having four attacking players working in the central area allows them to hunt in packs when pressing and it can allow for quick, fluid passing moves when in possession. A two striker system with a target man can work very well for those sorts of passing moves.
Consider Son Heung-Min’s late match winner against Swansea last spring:
Eriksen plays a vertical ball along the ground into Janssen’s feet with his back to the goal. Janssen senses Son’s run and plays a quick backheel right into the Korean winger’s feet. Janssen struggled for much of last season, but that sequence showed what he—or a striker like him—can do in Pochettino’s system.
I suspect this is one way that Pochettino will look to use Llorente. By pushing the Spaniard up to lead the line, he gives the attack a focal point to orbit around. The idea is simple: Play the ball into Llorente’s feet and trust that he’ll find one of the runners buzzing around him. Lambert was masterful in this role at Southampton. Janssen struggled in it for Spurs. Llorente’s record suggests he will be somewhere in between the two. He is not nearly the passer that Lambert was, but he is a smarter and obviously more experienced player than Janssen. Given Dele and Son’s ability to make runs, we should expect both of them to get some very good looks at goal playing off of Llorente.
What could go wrong with Llorente?
There are several potential problems.
First, as Skipjack noted recently, Llorente doesn’t run much these days. If we need to press, he is not going to be an asset.
Second, there’s some weird lineup shuffling that will need to happen to accommodate the Spaniard. Assuming that Harry Kane is not droppable, that means someone in midfield or the attacking three will drop to the bench. Given the importance of runners to work off the target man, it seems unlikely that Pochettino would drop Dele or Son. If Kane drops into the attacking three, that would make Christian Eriksen the odd man out.
That said, Eriksen’s versatility offers Pochettino some other options: He could rest Dembele and slot Eriksen into midfield with Eric Dier or Victor Wanyama. He could even, if he really needed to be aggressive, drop Wanyama or Dier for Eriksen and play a 4-2-3-1 with Eriksen and Dembele in the pivot behind Kane, Dele, and Son.
The good news here is that we might have an attacking lineup that works without Dembele. One of the live questions for Tottenham for the past several seasons has been whether or not they have a coherent team without the Belgian midfielder. So far the only time we’ve looked OK without him was in the 3-4-2-1 last season with Wanyama and Eriksen in midfield behind Son and Dele. But we only saw that lineup in two or three matches and they were all against relegation-level opposition.
The bad news is two-fold. First, if our plan for being good without an injury prone 30-something midfielder is to build around a 30-something striker who doesn’t run anymore and therefore breaks our overall tactical approach... that seems short-sighted? Second, the scenarios I’m describing where Llorente could be effective are fairly specific. Most of the time, we need all our attacking players to press. In those games, Llorente will be an enormous liability. In fixtures at home against over-matched opponents, he could be a huge asset. But we don’t have a ton of games that fit that description.
Llorente is not a bad signing. He gives Pochettino more options in the attack, provides a better backup plan at striker than what we had with Janssen, and is a reliable veteran player who has worked with a manager like Pochettino before during his time with Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. He also could provide a great late game target man when we’re chasing a goal.
With those points in mind, however, we should be realistic about what the striker does and does not bring to the table for Spurs. He will help us in some significant, but very specific ways. But as far as our normal best XI goes, his impact on it is basically nil. Normally you’d expect better from the player who is arguably your marquee summer signing.