With the transfers of Guglielmo Vicario and James Maddison now sealed, and multiple links to new center backs solidifying, Tottenham Hotspur’s 23/24 squad is starting to take shape. Ange Postecoglou’s aggressive tactics will be a novel experience to many in the team after spending extended time operating in a defensive mindset, and there are a number of questions as to how well the Spurs squad is geared to adjusting to a more possession-heavy, attacking approach.
There’s a number of thoughts and ideas floating around as to how Tottenham could line up in 23/24, so let’s work through how the team could operate effectively in a manner reflective of our new Aussie dad’s ideals.
Obviously, the squad isn’t finalized yet, and there’s still a lot of unknowns as to incomings and outgoings on the tea. With that in mind, I’ve made the following assumptions to aid in addressing our potential tactics:
- We will buy a new starting CB - our current ones aren’t really good enough to start, and strong links with Edmond Tapsoba, Micky van de Ven, and Tosin Adarabioyo show we are serious about reinforcing the position.
- Harry Kane is staying - this could definitely change, and honestly, the tactics below will work pretty well with a different striker anyway; however, thus far it seems Daniel Levy is unwilling to sell the England captain.
- Rodrigo Bentancur is fit - yeah, I know he isn’t. But let’s (for the sake of argument) assume our squad has everyone fit and firing.
- Our loanees are unlikely to be heavily involved - Spurs have had a number of high-profile players out on loan, including Tanguy Ndombele, Gio Lo Celso, Sergio Reguilon, and Djed Spence. All the reporting at the moment is indicating Lo Celso and Reguilon are going (which is a shame for the former, who would likely work well in Ange’s tactics) and while Spence and Ndombele COULD be involved, it’s unlikely they’ll play much more than a squad role.
- Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is going - again, there’s strong reporting that our great Dane is on our way out - and I’ll touch on this more below.
- I’m going to be talking today more about Spurs’ on the ball tactics; the press and potential defensive setup is another discussion entirely which I may leave for another article (though I do touch on it briefly).
Ange’s Celtic Tactics
This has been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere, but for the sake of aiding familiarity I’ll briefly touch on Postecoglou’s approach at Celtic, as it could heavily influence Spurs’ future lineup:
In a nutshell, the system was effectively a 4-3-3, with a midfield consisting of a deeper central midfielder (referred to henceforth as a 6) and two attacking number 8 roles. The approach revolved around vertical attacking from the 8’s, who would look to crash the box, wingers who would stay high and wide, and “inverted” fullbacks - a terrible term, as they wouldn’t play on their weaker side, but instead come narrow and sit deep - who would assist the 6 in faciliating play.
Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley played the attacking 8 roles, and as they got forward a front 5 would be created in concert with the width from the two wingers, overwhelming the defense and creating overloads at the top of the box.
Callum McGregor in the 6 role would create triangles with his fullbacks and center backs, and often look for a quick switch to his wingers high up the pitch in space. The center backs would also often be aggressive with their passing, especially Spurs alum Cameron Carter-Vickers who would often look to play forward to O’Riley in between the lines.
Let’s start with 2 clear shortcomings: apart from the obvious need for a new starting left center back, the left back and second attacking midfield position are the ones with a few question marks.
At LB, there isn’t really anybody in the squad that would excel in that deeper facilitating role; Reguilon could work there but he’s on the way out and his passing is bad; Ryan Sessegnon spends more time on the treatment table than on the pitch; and Ben Davies is aging into more of a flexible defensive squad option than a natural LB.
Even with the addition of Maddison, the second attacking 8 is lacking for creative options. Lo Celso would excel in that role, but he’s likely leaving; playing Ndombele at the same time as Maddison would likely expose us hugely defensively; Bentancur scored a few last season, but you could count his career goals up until that point on one hand; and Oliver Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr don’t really have the goal threat or the aggressive passing to play that position effectively.
Let’s get lopsided
Here’s the thing - even with the gaps above, with a few tweaks Spurs can implement something quite similar to Ange’s Celtic tactics: vertical positioning and movement, passing triangles, and an aggressive front five crashing the opposition box:
We start with a back four of Destiny Udogie, a new CB, Cristian Romero, and Emerson Royal. Royal walks into the starting lineup due to his ability (which we already saw at times under Ryan Mason and Antonio Conte) to tuck into midfield and progress play from deep; he is a much better fit tactically and complement to Udogie on the left than the more aggressive Porro or Spence.
There’s not much to say about the front three, which really picks itself, and the midfield three is comprised of Bentancur, Yves Bissouma, and Maddison. Here’s where things get a bit interesting though - you’ll note that we’re not operating with two attacking 8’s. Instead, Maddison is operating a bit higher, and Bissouma is acting in a more typical box-to-box role.
This is because having that left-sided 8 sit deeper covers Tottenham’s squad deficiencies while emphasizing the strengths of the players at hand and retaining the ability to create passing triangles: Bissouma can come more central to interplay with all of the LCB, Bentancur, Udogie, Heung-Min Son, Maddison, or Kane - that can create space for either Maddison or Kane to drop into to get on the ball and look forward; Maddison can also drop on the right hand side and do a similar role, but may look to stay higher up the pitch to receive Cuti’s more aggressive passing and Royal’s good progression in the defensive third.
The wings stay high, creating width, but with Dejan Kulusevski sometimes coming deeper to provide another option in build-up, at which he excels; Udogie can also start in a deeper position to aid the early build-up before breaking forward, creating a system that looks like this:
All of a sudden, Ange’s attacking front 5 begins to take shape: Kane, in his striker role, interplaying with those around him; Maddison, looking to break forward and either shoot or play in his fellow attackers; Kulusevski, posting up against the opposition left back from wide; Udogie, pushing forward from left back; and Son, starting from a wide area but breaking beyond Kane into more central areas as almost a second striker.
This really maximizes the strengths of the front 5, and in this setup the passing triangles become even more clearer, enabling Spurs to play through either a deep block OR a more aggressive press. Bissouma and the new center back especially play key roles: covering the space left by Udogie, and in Bissouma’s case, also potentially pushing forward if Kane has dropped deeper or Udogie hasn’t made his overlapping run yet.
Let’s talk about six, baby
By this point, there will be a few readers asking a reasonably obvious question: Why have Rodrigo Bentancur in the 6 position, with Yves Bissouma playing an 8 role? There’s a few reasons for this approach. Firstly, let’s take a look at some stats around how Ange’s 6 at Celtic, Callum McGregor, was utilised:
Unfortunately, due to the lack of data on the Scottish league, we have a very small sample size here (though if you look at his Europa League 21/22 stats, they are similar) - but they do paint an interesting picture. The thing that jumps out at you is the passing numbers vs the defensive actions. There’s a good number of interceptions in there, indicating teams were often attempting to break against a dominant Celtic side, but the tackle numbers are really low, and if you take tackle + interception numbers he’s really pretty middling as a defensive midfield player. What this really shows us is a 6 that operates more in a deep lying playmaker role, rather than a Victor Wanyama destroyer type. To support this, some of the FBRef comparisons include Jorginho, Marcelo Brozovic, and Thiago: all players with excellent passing range.
A really interesting thing of note is the closest match to McGregor within the Spurs squad is none other than Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, his third closest match on FBRef. But with the assumption that he’s leaving (and including the other assumptions above), that leaves Bissouma and Bentancur for that role. The first thing to note is that the left-sided 8 will need to cover a lot of ground, both getting forward and also covering the space behind Udogie. That’s something at which Bissouma excels.
There’s also the fact that the 8 has to be highly involved in the counterpress. Bissouma has a lot of experience playing a similar role for Brighton, where he was often tasked with hunting down specific players in a more aggressive system (one specific match against Spurs comes to mind where he completely shut down Harry Kane). Bentancur meanwhile has largely played non-pressing systems throughout his career, and his defensive numbers (which are excellent, by the way) in the space of Tottenham’s midfield 2 over the last 2 seasons lend themselves to covering the space a quick opposition attack would look to exploit.
Finally, while Bissouma provides an excellent press-resistant, safe passing option, Bentancur is more effective at getting on the ball and his progressive passing numbers are solid (though unspectacular). Neither have great goalscoring records, but due to a change in how this role would be utilized, it’s not quite necessary. Bentancur has also historically been more comfortable playing on the right of midfield. It’s not a huge point, but it’s also not nothing.
With all that said: it could be that Bissouma and Bentancur end up operating in a fluid system depending on Maddison and Udogie’s movement, where one covers the 6 and the other pushes forward; and it could be that Ange does opt for more of a destroyer role in the 6 to deal with the higher quality attacks found in the Premier League.
There’s a couple of elephants still in the room. It’s pretty clear there’s a need for more midfield passing. Tanguy Ndombele (if he stays) can be very aggressive with his passing, and has great vision closer to goal, but doesn’t quite have the range (in this writer’s opinion) to play in that 6 role. He makes more sense as Maddison cover. Skipp and Sarr don’t really fit any of the midfield roles super well, but could play in a more defensive role as the 8 OR as a backup for the 6. The problem you then encounter is there aren’t enough minutes this season for them both to play that role, so one of them likely needs to be sold or sent on loan, and a more creative but deeper presence added.
There’s also the question of the right-hand side of defense, where Royal, Porro, and Spence are vying for a spot. Porro, in all honesty, doesn’t quite fit the Postecoglou system either, and there is a possibility that Spurs don’t exercise his buy option. I would say that is unlikely to occur, and instead Porro could potentially be used in a reverse lopsided formation, pushing forward while the likes of Ben Davies plays a deeper left back role. Porro could additionally act as cover for the right wing position, while Spence should probably head out on loan.
When it comes down to it though, the reality is this: outside of some vague quotes from Udogie’s agent indicating Postecoglou wants to play a 4-3-3 this season, and big Ange himself indicating he wants to play attacking, front-foot football, we don’t really know exactly how Ange Postecoglou wants to set up this Spurs side. Most of the above is guesswork; but I think it does at least give us some idea as to how Ange could maximize the resources available to him, and besides: isn’t rosterbation fun?