Much has been made about the type of formation that Andre Villas-Boas wishes to implement at Spurs this season. Having used a 4-2-3-1 last term, there is a growing feeling that AVB will switch to his preferred 4-3-3, a slightly more attacking approach than its predecessor.
There are plenty of tools in the White Hart Lane shed to utilize in such a formation. What has been a popular notion on this site is that Paulinho, Sandro and Mousa Dembele will form the interior midfield of the 4-3-3. (Read here, here, here, here, here, here and here)
Someone, however, has to go against the grain. The three players, as strong as they are, do not fit the mold that AVB needs for all three midfield positions.
To explain, let us think of the midfield trio as components of someone who is driving a vehicle. The driver has at his disposal the accelerator, the brakes and the wheel.
The easiest of the three to explain is the brakes—the anchor midfielder. That midfielder is expected to sit deep 80 to 90 percent of the match and destroy whatever attacks move through the center of the pitch. Occasionally, that midfielder will come bombing forward, either looking to attack the goalmouth or create a late overload in the defense.
The farthest forward of the trio is the accelerator—the attacking midfielder. As often as the anchor sits back, the attacking midfielder is bombing forward. In Porto’s iteration of the formation, this often was Fredy Guarin or Fernando Belluschi.
The objective of this midfielder is to create overloads whenever possible. Whether breaking into the channels or swapping with the wing players, the attacking midfielder is constantly on the run at defenders.
The object of the wheel—the central midfielder—is to link the play from back to front. Unlike the attacking midfielder, the central midfielder had to be the one to get the ball in the right areas while still being positionally sound on defense.
This was the spot Joao Moutinho held for AVB at Porto. Moutinho’s primary asset was his ability to put the ball in the right spots for others to carry the attack forward. While occasionally running at the defense, Moutinho was the creative mind of the midfield trio and the one tasked with playmaking responsibilities.
Having discussed the three spots, it is easy to fill one spot, a mixed bag in the second and a question mark in the third.
Sandro’s game fits the anchor midfielder role to a T, a point that was discussed here last season. There’s little doubt where the Brazilian fits into the starting XI when healthy.
Dembele could reasonably be expected to slot into either the attacking or central positions and play well. Neither spot, however, is his strongest as the demands of both would test Dembele's conditioning in the front and passing range in the middle.
Paulinho seems suited toward the anchor and central roles. The newcomer showed his tenacity in the Confederations Cup Final against Spain while also showing his eye for a pass in the tournament.
While Paulinho would lose some of his attacking impetus being stuck in the back, it would remain a test to see whether or not the midfielder could consistently pick the right pass to get others involved in the attack from the center.
Seemingly, one could make a case that the three could make life easier as a balanced central midfield trio. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.
Gareth Bale’s free role last term is something that one would not expect to see reduced to a strict wing player again. The problem of allowing Bale that freedom is that, without wings and full-backs stretching the play on both sides, it is very easy for the formation to get stuck on one side of the pitch.
Swapping flanks does not fix the problem as Bale is as likely to pop up in the center as he is on either flank at any given time. Even if Aaron Lennon was to move immediately to the other side, Bale would drift back towards that side, effectively vacating a wing.
One key to AVB’s Porto side was the width the two wingers created, allowing the attacking midfielder room to advance into. The constant overlapping of the full-back, particularly on Porto’s right, made for overloads that forced defenses into uncomfortable decisions, often leaving one of the attackers unmarked.
Stretching the play also kept opponents from cutting off half of the field because of the threat that could come from the opposite flank in one-on-one situations.
Unless Bale is deployed as a forward, it seems very difficult for the squad to have balance while Bale is moving all over the interior.
That’s why it seems unlikely that Spurs can achieve balance in the squad with the three big hitters lining up in the midfield. One of the three likely has to be able to shuffle wide, negating much of the impact the trio could have.
Chances are good that instead of utilizing all three in the midfield at once, two of the three would be starters based on the location and opposition. Another player, such as Lewis Holtby or Gylfi Sigurdsson would then slide in, likely in the attacking role, and move around based on Bale’s positioning.
This would allow the squad to retain some of the balance that is needed to make the 4-3-3 really tick along.