Tottenham Hotspur: Analyzing Spurs' Tactical Shift Under Andre Villas-Boas
Naturally enough with a new manager, the most significant alteration has been in the way Tottenham play.
The tactical and strategic shift under Villas-Boas, though not a dramatic one, has been substantial enough to warrant a look.
How much has it really changed?
Over the following pages, some of the most significant areas of Spurs' style, structure and formation are examined, with a particular look at the role of several key players this season.
The Advantages of the High Line
One of the most significant adjustments Tottenham have undergone this season is in their deployment of a high defensive line. It is a move that has been facilitated, in part, by alterations elsewhere.
The 4-2-3-1 formation Spurs have played for much of the season features two deeper-lying midfielders. It is one of two concessions to the greater risk afforded by a higher line. In theory, they offer extra protection to the defense while still playing their part in placing greater pressure on the opposition further up the pitch.
The other concession (if it can be called that) has been the signing of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Speedier than displaced former No.1 Brad Friedel, the Frenchman serves as the quick-thinking sweeper necessary to compensate for any breaches of the defense.
February's win over West Ham United was one that saw these elements (eventually) come together in Spurs' 3-2 comeback win. Lloris made a crucial game-changing intervention to deny Matt Taylor when he was clean through on goal when the Hammers were 2-1 up.
Tottenham's overall compactness contributed to Gareth Bale being in a suitable position to get on the ball and fire off the long-range shot that proved to be the winner.
Against Arsenal the following week, Spurs' advanced positioning allowed them to take advantage of the Gunners' own high-line when they won the ball in midfield.
Bale and Aaron Lennon gleefully made short-distance runs behind the opposition defense to both score in the space of a few minutes. The second in particular, when Scott Parker swiftly drove forward and fed in Lennon, typified the idea at its best.
Collective Failure to Assume Responsbility
Part of Tottenham's trouble is that they do not have a system for all occasions. The defense is so focused on keeping their shape higher up the pitch, it is sometimes at the expense of their primary responsibilities around the penalty box.
The 2-2 home draw with Basel was the most startling recent example of this.
Winger Mohamed Salah consistently had Spurs on the back foot, his forward-driving runs leading his team's attack. Frequently having to turn round and face their own goal—Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Jan Vertonghen, William Gallas and Kyle Naughton were disorganized and unprepared by the time they reached their penalty box.
Good teams can do that to you, and sometimes the priority has to be defending from the back.
More than anything though, Villas-Boas' attempts to fashion a new defensive mindset at Spurs have been undermined by issues with personnel (sometimes of his own doing, eg. the frequent rotation) and, chiefly, the failure of several defenders to assume acceptable standards of responsibility in their jobs.
During the opening third of the season, the three most senior defenders used—Gallas, Vertonghen and Kyle Walker—were often woeful in marking and tracking opposition players. As the most experienced, Gallas' lack of leadership was especially culpable for the back four's rudderless nature.
On paper, the defenders Villas-Boas was playing were more suitable for a higher line. This notion was thoroughly ripped to shreds by their embarrassing failure to perform even the most basic of defensive duties against Arsenal in November—a turning point that saw the long overdue re-introduction of Michael Dawson to the starting lineup.
Dawson knows how to properly defend (blocking, tackling, heading) in the vital area in front of his own team's goal. Crucially, he also knows how to organize others around him and make sure they are doing their jobs too. Spurs have largely benefited from that since then.
The captain is not perfect. His lack of pace has seen him caught out at times since then, and in the end, it will likely see him replaced. But as of right now, no other Spurs player is capable of leading the defense.
Playing a high line and everything it encompasses—deciding when to move, understanding between defenders—is so reliant on good leadership. For Spurs to make it work in the long run, the onus cannot be on just one man to lead the way.
Vertonghen's development in this regard will be intriguing having had a full year behind him in the Premier League come next season. Walker has certainly stepped up his efforts following the costly error he made in the defeat to Liverpool. There is also a lot of hope Steven Caulker will progress into one of Tottenham's best all-round defenders.
Midfield Instincts and Chemistry
At its best, the four-man midfield in Redknapp's 4-4-2 formation worked a treat (eg. their unbeaten autumn run of 11 league games), and that was the case in 2011-12. Out on the wing, Bale and Lennon were trusted with when to attack (and where) and when their full-backs needed covering.
Luka Modric and Scott Parker (and sometimes Sandro) would hassle and needle at their midfield counterparts, dropping back when the defense needed extra protection. There was a flexibility to how they would impose themselves in attack too.
Modric largely ran the show from midfield, operating as, and where, the flow of the game took him. Parker was there to back the Croatian up but was also allowed to contribute his energies how he saw fit.
On paper, the 4-2-3-1 Villas-Boas has predominantly used does not appear too different. But the purpose that extra advanced midfielder serves (more about which on the next page) means the roles of the two main midfielders are more defined by their defensive duties.
In Spurs' case, the defense's deployment further up the field has meant it is even more imperative that duo wins the ball—or at least stop the opposition in its tracks quicker.
The Sandro-Mousa Dembele axis worked so well as both (though particularly the Brazilian) have the physicality, nous and toughness to work strictly as defensive midfielders. As it was, the skillful and intelligent Dembele could then instantly change roles, bringing the ball forward and fulfilling a different, more attacking function.
Since Sandro's injury, Spurs have lacked balance in midfield as Dembele and the incoming Scott Parker do not have the same chemistry. Stylistically different though they may be, both want to get on the ball, forcing a situation of too many cooks.
For Parker, it has been tough going too adapting to a more defined role.
The England international is a more instinctive midfielder by nature, adapting to the game around him as he sees fit. Though not undisciplined (his fine defensive work at Euro 2012 showed that much), operating in a more defined position muddies Parker's inclination to involve himself.
Spurs, as a result, have had two very good midfielders not operating at the maximum of their capabilities. Playing well at times (like against Lyon and Arsenal) but often leaving the feeling there is a better option.
Villas-Boas' search for his best midfield has also been complicated further by Tom Huddlestone, Tom Carroll and Lewis Holtby putting their case to play forward—as well as the recent use of a 4-3-3.
Not to detract from the role of strikers for Tottenham this season, but this writer has explored that in depth elsewhere in recent weeks—looking at both Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor's contributions. Instead, it is the role of that secondary, central attacker that will be examined here.
During the winter, Villas-Boas played the aforementioned duo in a traditional front-two. Mostly though, Spurs have played one upfront with one player behind in support—generally occupying the middle of the three in the 4-2-3-1.
The role is not altogether different to where Rafael van der Vaart was used in his time in North London. What has changed is the amount of space in which this player operates.
The Dutchman's (largely) free-role meant he was liable to turn up anywhere in the opposition half in search of the ball. This season, the attacking midfielder/secondary striker has not strictly played in one area of the pitch, but, with Spurs pressing further forward, he has been more likely to see the ball closer to the opposition goal.
Occupying the role chiefly this season has been Clint Dempsey and latterly, Gareth Bale.
With Dempsey playing there, the function of the position was largely sporadic. The American would link up with his advancing midfielders (usually Dembele). Unless a shooting opportunity immediately arose, he would feed it to another teammate and focus on finding a dangerous position for later in the move.
Dempsey's 11 goals have shown it can work (and in important games too, with vital strikes against the Manchester sides and against Basel). However, given Spurs' propensity to get the ball to their more naturally dangerous players, it has sometimes left the 30-year-old as a passenger.
Bale is a player who is able to make things happen for himself on a more regular basis.
Moving centrally following the West Bromwich Albion win, he used the initial absence of Defoe and Adebayor as his chance to apply his usual game in a more immediately threatening space. It worked phenomenally well for a spell, with teams not prepared for the threat Bale posed.
Villas-Boas moving Bale back out wide late in the Manchester City game was a reaction to his diminishing involvement centrally and the increasing realization the Welshman was better served starting out wide (with more space to run).
The experiment of before did go to show how effective a player of his ability can be in that advanced, middle position though.
Just how Villas-Boas intends to set up his team for the season's remainder should make for a fascinating watch.