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Tactics Tuesday: Say Hello to DESK

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Tottenham has gone back to the 4-2-3-1, but swapping Sonny for Lamela makes it a very different system.

2017 Premier league football Tottenham v Bournemouth Apr 15th Photo by Mark Kerton/Action Plus via Getty Images

A bit of Pochettino tactical history: The first Good Pochettino Tottenham team ran a 4-2-3-1 that used a frenetic narrow attacking band with three attacking midfielders, Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, and Dele Alli, playing behind Harry Kane to create chances out of a high pressing system backed up by the sturdy defensive platform of Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele in midfield and Janby Alderweirtonghen in defense.

The second Good Pochettino Tottenham team ran a 3-5-2 system that relied more on the deep passing of Toby Alderweireld, the running of Jan Vertonghen, and the midfield build-up play of Eriksen and Dembele which supported the striking partnership of Kane and Dele.

In both cases, it took Pochettino until the festive fixtures to figure out his best team. In year one, the necessary shift was swapping Dele and Dembele, moving Dembele back into the pivot and pushing Dele into the attacking band. In the second year, it was figuring out how to accommodate Victor Wanyama in the team, which became necessary due to injuries to a number of key players in the squad.

We’re now just past the festive fixtures and it would appear that Pochettino has, once again, taken major strides toward figuring out his best team. If we are going to crack top four for an unprecedented third consecutive year and remember this year’s squad as the third Good Pochettino Tottenham Team, it will be thanks to this latest tweak made by the manager.

The key to the system is what we jokingly dubbed “DESK” in the writers room. (That’s Dele-Eriksen-Son-Kane.)

This is how it works: Theoretically, Spurs have reverted to the 4-2-3-1 of Pochettino’s second season. Dierbele is back in midfield and Kane is, again, supported by three attacking midfielders. But there is one change in personnel from that first 4-2-3-1 team to this version: Argentine attacker Erik Lamela has dropped to the bench and Korean wide forward Son Heung-Min has taken his place. And that has made all the difference.

Lamela is a classic trequeartista playmaker type when in possession. He is technically refined, creative, and likes to drift across the attacking third, showing for the ball and looking to make the final pass that leads to a scoring chance. So when the front four featured both Lamela and Eriksen as well as a less developed Dele, the system ended up looking very like what Pochettino ran at Southampton with lots of frantic running across the attacking third and behind the lone striker leading the line.

Son, in contrast, is a tweener winger/striker of the sort that has become more common in recent years. Thomas Muller may well be the ur tweener, but Neymar, older Ronaldo, Madrid-era Gareth Bale, Alexis Sanchez, older Eden Hazard, Gabriel Jesus, and Anthony Martial would all be good examples of this kind of player. These players tend to be less lateral and more vertical in their movement. Son doesn’t drift across the attacking third as Lamela does. Rather, he stays in the channel and makes regular aggressive vertical runs into the box.

In addition to Son’s quite different role, Dele has continued to mature as a player. While still quite capable of playing a central midfield role, as he did against Liverpool earlier this year, his primary role for the past 12 months has been as a classic second striker, playing almost entirely in the final third and operating off of the primary striker, looking for knockdowns and quick exchanges with his partner to create chances.

Finally, Eriksen has also changed. Last season saw him consistently dropping into a deeper midfield position which allowed him to exert a greater influence on the game. In one of Tottenham’s first games in the 3-5-2, Eriksen twice picked up the ball in deeper positions before lofting perfect balls into the box that led to headed goals for Dele.

The result is that Tottenham’s 4-2-3-1 is probably in practice more 4-2-1-3 or 4-3-3. The key is that Eriksen is now playing deeper as a deep-lying playmaker, which gives us the ability to progress the ball through midfield via passing or dribbling. And the remaining three attackers now all operate as vertical runners, looking to get on the end of the aggressive passes played forward by Eriksen.

So far at least, teams haven’t known how to deal with it. The Everton match gave us multiple examples of how the new system works and why teams have trouble addressing it. Here is the opening goal:

There are two things to note about this goal, both of which are typical of the modified system Spurs are now playing.

First, note Eriksen’s deeper position. He is roughly level with Dembele and slightly ahead of Dier. But because he is in this deeper area, he is able to launch an excellent ball to Serge Aurier.

Second, check out the box when Aurier strikes his shot/cross:

Son is obviously there waiting for the cross, but Dele is also ready to clean up at the back post if Son doesn’t get to the ball or if there is a deflection or rebound. Similarly, Kane is making a late run, ready for a cut back or, again, to pick up any deflections or rebounds that might roll into his feet.

So what we have now is a deep playmaker in Eriksen and three runners in Dele, Son, and Kane.

Here is the second goal:

We see the same things again. Eriksen is roughly level with Dier at the beginning of the sequence and actually makes the pass to Dier that sets him up for the ball to Son. Then as the attack develops we have the same three vertical runners attacking the box: Son on the ball, Kane making the run down the middle, and Dele, who had initially been going toward the middle, checking his run and overlapping Kane toward the far post.

Here’s another example, this one did not lead to a goal but was still a dangerous chance:

Here we see another layer to the attack which is actually lifted from Pep Guardiola’s City. One thing Guardiola does with his attacking three is he plays a quick vertical ball from deep and then one of his three runners immediately plays a first touch lay-off for one of the other attackers before continuing his run. Here you can see Raheem Sterling doing this to set up Kevin De Bruyne for his goal against Chelsea:

The idea here is similar to what Guardiola does with his lateral one-touch passing: This sort of quick ball movement destabilizes the defense and makes them decide whether to chase the player or the ball, which forces multiple individual players to make multiple separate decisions and will usually lead to a gap opening up in the defense.

In the above case, Dele’s lay-off for Son leads to James McArthur following the ball and leaving Dele unmarked as he continues his run. And, once again, as one of the forwards enters the box with the ball at his feet, he has the option to shoot or pass because another forward is making a supporting run.

Finally, there is one more option that the three vertical runners system opens up. This is a common trope in 4-3-3 systems but it is worth noting: When you have three players making consistent runs into the box, it often taxes a defense, such that a fourth player can make a late run and find themselves in great goal-scoring position. Frank Lampard made a career of these late runs at Chelsea, of course. Well, here is Christian Eriksen doing the same for our fourth goal:

In this goal, Kane drops deep and plays the initial ball to Aurier. He then chips it in to Son who quickly plays it to Dele, who backheels it to Eriksen for the goal. But note how Eriksen is able to drift in from the left channel completely unmarked. Part of this is down to Everton’s spirit being thoroughly broken by this point and the fact that they just aren’t that good in the first place. But this is also a sign that Tottenham’s system is doing what it is supposed to do: The threat of Kane, Dele, and Son making runs into the box is so great that other players, even ones as talented as Eriksen, can drift in as the forgotten fourth man.

Conclusion

Obviously it is early and the improved results in recent weeks may be a blip for Spurs. Moreover, improved results may end up not mattering if Liverpool continue to be so strong and United and Chelsea keep grinding out results. This is a year where 76 points may only get you fifth in the table. But what we can say is that so far this seems to be fitting a pattern we have observed with Pochettino Spurs. In the five fixtures since the December 23 win against Burnley, Spurs have had 13.87 xG, using UnderStat’s numbers, and conceded only 2.05 xGA. No doubt, the rather abysmal opponents have helped those numbers.

But this is the time of year when we often see Pochettino teams begin to snap into form and make a serious push up the table. So it would not be crazy to think that we may be seeing that again. The question is simply whether or not that push will be enough in a year in which Klopp’s Liverpool looks genuinely elite, Guardiola’s City looks like the strongest side in Europe, and both United and Chelsea are strong enough to grind out results.