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Tactics Tuesday: Formation Shift and Eriksen Make the Difference for Spurs

The second half of Saturday’s win against Villa shows a promising sign of things to come.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

At halftime on Saturday, Aston Villa was leading Spurs 1-0. The scoreline was not unfair. Understat’s expected goals metric had Villa shading Spurs on xG .59 to .58. The issues were two-fold.

First, Tottenham’s defensive shape was bizarrely uneven as Danny Rose consistently took up positions that were too wide, which created space in the channel between Rose and Davinson Sanchez. Villa’s opener came from attacking this space and they nearly scored a second via Trezeguet which was only prevented thanks to some excellent last gasp defending from Toby Alderweireld.

Going the other way, the Tottenham diamond struggled as Harry Kane, Lucas Moura, and Erik Lamela lacked space to work on the ball and the midfield trio of Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko, and Tanguy Ndombele struggled to consistently supply the trio with good service. (This was primarily an issue with Sissoko. His positioning and work-rate were excellent, but his bad first touch and passing struggles, both problems which are exacerbated when spacing is tight, led to several wasted chances.)

Second Half Changes

The second half saw two primary changes that turned the game. First, Spurs moved to more of a 4-2-3-1 system in the second half. For the first 20 minutes, Winks and Ndombele partnered in the pivot with Sissoko and Lamela flanking Lucas and Kane up top, with both Lucas and Kane sometimes dropping into the hole. This shot from early in the second half shows the basic shape with Lamela on the left wing and Sissoko on the right:

tottenham 4-2-3-1 shape against Aston Villa

The first great chance for Spurs in the second half came out of this system with Sissoko crashing in on the far post from right wing in the 49th minute. The less said about his shot the better. All you really need to do is that he took the shot from the edge of the six-yard box and it went out for a throw-in.

Eriksen’s Introduction

After Christian Eriksen entered the game at the 65 minute mark, Sissoko dropped into midfield with Ndombele. Eriksen then moved into the number 10 role, which allowed Lucas to drift into a right wing role, which is a more natural position for him and was a significant upgrade in that spot relative to Sissoko.

The changes both made Spurs more solid defensively and opened up their attacking options going forward. The second half xG numbers demonstrate the effectiveness of the change, with Spurs outscoring Villa 1.99 to .05.

Much of that dominance came after Eriksen entered the game—of Tottenham’s 2.57 total xG, 1.53 of that came in the final 25 minutes after Eriksen’s introduction. The combination of more space with Eriksen’s movement and passing was devastating for the Villains and made all the difference for Spurs.

The difference Eriksen made is simple: You take a team that has already improved its spacing and positional play. Then you introduce a creative midfielder who can play literally any kind of pass you can imagine. The results aren’t surprising, but are still worth reviewing.

This was Eriksen’s first major contribution. It began with a smart press to win the ball back followed by an immediate ball over the top to Kane. Villa keeper Tom Heaton rushed off his line to head clear, giving Erik Lamela a chance to shoot on an empty net:

eriksen long pass to kane

But it isn’t just Eriksen’s technical ability and vision that make him an elite creative midfielder. Watch how he positions himself to receive the ball off Sissoko and Ndombele’s work to win it in midfield and how he immediately plays a very simple ball forward to launch another attack:

eriksen quick pass

The Dane’s defensive instincts also helped Spurs maintain pressure on Villa. Here he is recognizing a poor touch by Villa skipper Jack Grealish and immediately pouncing to win the ball.

eriksen press against grealish

Nothing came from this sequence immediately, but eventually Spurs would win a corner which would lead to the opening goal from Ndombele.

The above clips capture the qualities Eriksen can offer. He’s intelligent, technically elite, and has wonderful vision. When you combine those qualities in a single player, you have something special and Tottenham supporters have been able to enjoy such play on a regular basis for six seasons now.

Can Spurs survive without Eriksen?

After the game some pundits suggested that Tottenham still “needs” Eriksen. While Eriksen’s introduction did change the game, it’s also true that Spurs had three excellent chances to score before he entered and that the team was also playing without Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min, and Giovani Lo Celso. Even if Eriksen goes, a diamond system built around Winks, Ndombele, and Lo Celso playing behind Dele, Son, and Kane is very strong. Even if Eriksen goes, Spurs are still the odds-on favorite for third in the Premier League.

That said: If Spurs can keep Eriksen and find a working system that allows him to play with Ndombele, Lo Celso, Dele, Son, and Kane, then this Tottenham side genuinely is a title challenger. Like last season’s Liverpool, Spurs would need some good breaks in terms of player fitness. But this squad with Eriksen is capable of a points total in the 90s. Without Eriksen, this is still a very strong team that looks comfortably superior to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United. But with Eriksen this could be a very special season indeed in north London.

Three More Brief Notes

1) Harry Kane: Two goals, eight shots. That’s the Kane we want to see.

2) Kyle Walker-Peters received more passes than any other Spurs player and was a consistently excellent outlet ball on the right wing. It helps, of course, that “having to play defense” was not on his list of necessary responsibilities this week. But if he can consistently play at the level he showed on Saturday, he would be a replacement-level starting option in probably 23 of Tottenham’s fixtures this season. I don’t want to see him starting in a Champions League match at the Camp Nou, but if he can perform at the level he did Saturday then he could start in league fixtures against opposition like Villa as well as in most domestic cup matches without being a liability. That is more than I expected from him coming into the season.

3) Harry Winks looked very strong in the Spurs midfield as well, provided you recognize what he was expected to do within the system. Winks’s job is not primarily to be a ball progression option or to push forward into the attack. He’s a number six whose job is to sit at the base of midfield, shield the backline, and shift the ball quickly. By that standard, he was excellent. In a little over an hour of play, Winks played 82 passes and completed 96% of them.

harry winks pass map vs aston villa

He only made one tackle, but it came on a vital open-field challenge which, if Winks had failed, would have resulted in a one-on-one for Villa against Hugo Lloris.

The likeliest scenario for Spurs this season still seems to be that Christian Eriksen leaves before the window closes. If that happens, then Spurs have to figure out who their sixth midfield/attacking player will be after Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min, Giovani Lo Celso, Kane, and Ndombele. One plausible scenario has Spurs staying with the diamond with Winks sitting behind Lo Celso and Ndombele. Nothing we saw on Saturday would suggest that Winks would be a liability in such a role or that Spurs would be better off dropping him for Lucas or Lamela. If Eriksen stays, then we are likely to see a 4-2-3-1 with a Lo Celso-Ndombele pivot behind DESK. This is obviously Tottenham’s best-case scenario. But if Eriksen goes, Winks is the likeliest man to slot into the first XI and on Saturday’s evidence he would fully deserve the role.