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Tactics Review: Spurs have two systems so far this season. Which is better?

Will Spurs return to a 3-5-2 this year or commit to the diamond?

Tottenham Hotspur v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

In each of Mauricio Pochettino’s seasons at Spurs there has been a dominant theme that asserts itself by season’s end.

  • In year one, it was the alarming lack of depth at the club and the desperate need to fix the midfield. Because Tottenham’s midfield was broken, the entire team was broken.
  • In year two, it was the dominance of Pochettino’s classic 4-2-3-1 and Tottenham’s inability to adapt when they could not play that exact shape with the exact XI Pochettino favored.
  • In year three we saw Pochettino land on the 3-5-2 in December, leading Spurs on a four month run of title-winning form only to be beaten to the post by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea who had switched to three at the back earlier and maintained their form for longer.
  • Last season was the most interesting so far, however, as Pochettino showed a newfound ability to adapt his tactics to circumstances, to rotate his squad more regularly, and to adjust his system to his personnel. It was a necessary move if Pochettino was to continue his rise up the list of elite managers and Spurs fans were delighted to see him make it last season.

The promising sign through two games this season is that Pochettino may be continuing that development this season. For much of the first two games the team has favored a 4-4-2 diamond system, something that Spurs experimented with on a limited basis last year but never fully embraced. That said, the team has also returned to the 3-5-2, which had become the preferred system from December of 2016 until late in 2017 when Toby Alderweireld went down with an injury and Spurs were forced back to a four-man defense.

Pochettino’s roots are still the 4-2-3-1.

The intriguing thing about both systems is that you can see both as natural outgrowths of Pochettino’s traditional 4-2-3-1 with both being adaptations of that style meant to accommodate the personnel on the field.

In the case of the diamond, the shift is relatively simple to see: One of the wide attackers pushes even higher and narrower than in the days of the true 4-2-3-1. There is your second striker. One of the wide attackers drops deeper, partnering up with the more forward of the two midfielders in the double pivot. That leaves a lone creator in the attacking band spearheading the diamond midfield behind two strikers. Given that Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 was always narrow anyway, the diamond is a very obvious next step.

The 3-5-2 is slightly different. In his second season at the club Pochettino moved defender Eric Dier into midfield. As a holding midfielder, Dier sat deeper so that Mousa Dembele could influence the game further up the pitch. He also often would drop so deep that he became a kind of de facto third center back, freeing Vertonghen and Alderweireld to push further up the pitch and into wider positions.

With Dier deeper and the two center backs high and wide, the fullbacks could push further up, becoming more like wingbacks. This then left the attacking three in narrow highly fluid roles with Harry Kane leading the line. The way that this base 4-2-3-1 would transform into a 3-5-2 is not hard to see—Dier drops into the back three, Dembele forms a midfield three with two of the attacking players, and the other attacker stays further up next to Kane.

So while these two systems can look quite different, there’s a certain sense in which both overlap a great deal with Pochettino’s original 4-2-3-1 shape.

How do the two systems differ?

The obvious difference is in personnel. In the 3-5-2, Spurs will play some version of this lineup:

Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen
Trippier, Eriksen, Dier, Dele, Davies
Lucas, Kane

There’s some room for modification here—Dembele can obviously swap into midfield, we can rotate fullbacks, Son or Llorente can rotate in up top, and so on.

The diamond is going to look more like this:

Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies
Dele, Sissoko
Kane, Lucas

The diamond offers a bit more adaptability: Dembele can rotate into one of the deeper three midfield places, Dele or Eriksen can play in the number 10 role, or Lamela can play the #10 and Eriksen can sit deeper in a free eight role next to Dele.

The first is how we set up last weekend against Fulham. The second is the opening day lineup against Newcastle.

In practice, the 3-5-2 is going to probably be more robust defensively. With Dier (or Victor Wanyama if he ever returns) shielding a back three, it will be very hard to penetrate the defense. Sanchez provides helpful cover so that Toby and Jan can push forward and help in the attack more. The 3-5-2 also allows Trippier and Davies to stay further forward, meaning they have fewer deep defensive responsibilities and are less likely to be caught up field due to a lack of pace.

In short, the system allows several gifted passers to become more involved in the attack—Toby can play long diagonals from an advanced position, almost as if he is a deep playmaker. Trippier and Davies can play the ball into the box from advanced wide areas. The opening goal last weekend actually originated with Trippier playing a ball into the box from just such a position.

The downside is that this system will often lack width. From roughly the half hour mark of last weekend’s game until the 60 minute mark, Fulham simply sat in an extremely deep, narrow block and dared Spurs to beat them either down the wing or by picking the lock of a low block defense.

As you can see, Trippier is advanced on the right wing, but in the advanced central area Spurs have three players up against Fulham’s nine. It’s just not the kind of scenario where you create a lot of chances.

To be fair, the opening goal came during this period and it came via an attack down the wing that made the Fulham defense stretch laterally and created space for Lucas to attack.

Over the course of the full 90 minutes, Spurs generated 2.82 xG. But from 30 minutes to 60—roughly when Fulham started sitting deeper until Spurs changed the system with two substitutions—they only created .4 xG.

Not only that, by sitting deep and launching counters Fulham quickly found a strong attacking solution after a very poor opening half hour. At the thirty minute mark, it was .69 to .18 on xG. At the 65 minute mark it was 1.16 to 1.09. That is when Mousa Dembele entered the game.

Obviously this was the first match in which Spurs played 3-5-2 in some time and it is likely that the defending will get better over time. But on the first showing, the 3-5-2 totally overran Fulham in the early going thanks to the runs of Dele and Lucas and the passing of Trippier and Alderweireld. But once Fulham adjusted, Spurs were bereft of ideas and the Cottager counters began to click.

What happened when Spurs moved to the diamond?

This was interesting. So in one sense the advanced stats say everything you need to know. From the 65 minute mark to the 75 minute mark, Spurs had Dembele playing alongside Dier and Dele in midfield behind Eriksen, Lucas, and Kane. During that stretch of play, Spurs beat Fulham .67 to .35 on xG.

At the 75 minute mark, Spurs introduced Erik Lamela as a sub for Dier. At that point they moved to this shape:

Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies
Eriksen, Dembele, Dier
Kane, Lucas

Lamela brought energy and power into the game, bolstering Tottenham’s high press—which meant Dier’s deeper midfield work was not as necessary. It also provided a new way for Spurs to break up the Fulham defense: direct running with the ball, as on the final goal of the game when Lamela carried the ball for nearly half the length of the pitch. During this stretch, Spurs outscored Fulham .99 to 0.

So if we break things down by phase of play, this is what it looks like:

0-30 minutes, 3-5-2: .69-.18
30-65 minutes, 3-5-2, Fulham low block: .47-.91
65-90 minutes, diamond with Dembele and Lamela: 1.66-.35

To be sure, part of that sharp discrepancy in the final 25 minutes is a function of Spurs scoring a go-ahead goal and Fulham needing to become more aggressive in search of a winner. But the high press also played a major role—the free kick that Trippier scored was won off a sequence that began with Lucas winning the ball in an advanced position.

Where do Spurs go from here?

This seems like it is only good news if you are a Spurs fan. The team has cromulent depth in the fullback roles, four center backs able to play in a back two or back three, with Wanyama back in training they now have three midfielders capable of sitting at the base of midfield, they have a ton of flexibility in the attack with Lamela healthy and Lucas now up and running, and they seem comfortable playing in both systems.

Typically Pochettino teams have settled into a single system as a season progresses. That said, last year we saw more adaptability with Spurs. It is possible that we’ll continue to see that this season, with the team sometimes playing a 3-5-2 and sometimes playing a diamond based on circumstance. If so, that is precisely the sort of flexibility you’d want to see from a team with serious aspirations to win silverware. Today’s date with Man United will tell us a bit more, but so far things are looking good for Spurs on the pitch, despite their underwhelming summer window and the ongoing nightmares associated with the stadium.