Throughout much of his time with Tottenham Hotspur, Mauricio Pochettino has opted for one man up front. That man has usually been Harry Kane, and he’s done a fine job on his own. However, more recently, the Argentine manager has decided on a strike duet.
He deployed a front two during the Champions League clash with Real Madrid to good effect, pairing Kane with Fernando Llorente as his side secured a 1-1 draw in the Santiago Bernabeu. And he surprised many by going for the same shape in the weekend win over Liverpool.
Tottenham dominated from start to finish against Jurgen Klopp’s beleaguered outfit. This time, Son Heung-min partnered the English hitman up top, and their combination posed problems throughout. Meanwhile, the basic 5-3-2 defensive shape endured Spurs were extremely tough to break down.
Pochettino’s tactics have allowed his team to challenge for the Premier League title in each of the last two seasons. Currently they sit third, level on points with Manchester United and well in the race. Their lofty status is largely down to the fact that they are now arguably the league’s most versatile team.
CHANGE IN SHAPE
Last season, Tottenham added a new string to their structural bow. As well as their classic 4-2-3-1, they began lining up in a rough 3-4-2-1 shape that was not entirely dissimilar to that of eventual champions Chelsea.
This term, Pochettino has introduced the 3-5-2 system, opening up some interesting new opportunities as a result. It was this system that he decided upon against Liverpool, with a back three of Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sánchez and Jan Vertonghen flanked by wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier, while Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli sat on either side of Harry Winks in midfield.
Tottenham have shown themselves to be an astute high pressing side, but, recognising their opposition’s attacking qualities, they deployed a midfield press with a medium defensive block. This meant that their back five formed a line midway between their own penalty box and halfway, while pressure was not applied to the opposition until they entered the middle third of the field.
In this defensive approach, the front two of Kane and Son had an important job. They were not tasked with pressing the Liverpool centre-backs; instead, they were instructed to take up central positions closer to their own midfield line. This was done to close off the space for the opposition to make forward passes into midfield, forcing their possession wide.
With their strikers sitting deep and remaining fairly passive from a pressing perspective, Tottenham formed a compact defensive unit, as shown above. They maintained this by shifting from side to side in accordance with the opposition’s movement of the ball, looking to cut off Liverpool’s options.
The back line operated with man-oriented coverage, with individuals often stepping out of the line to pressure the opponent in their zone. An example of this is seen below, where Jan Vertonghen moves up to cover Roberto Firmino, removing this potential pass for Philippe Coutinho.
Tottenham’s approach to this game and its effectiveness can be seen statistically. Liverpool had 64 per cent of ball possession – 7.4 per cent more than their seasonal average – but only managed seven shots on target. Spurs, meanwhile, managed six shots on target despite only seeing 36 per cent of ball possession.
FRONT TWO CAUSE PROBLEMS
While in defence Tottenham’s shape was more of a 5-3-2, this became a fluid 3-5-2 in attack. Both Aurier and Trippier looked to push forward and take up high positions down their respective flanks with the aim of stretching Liverpool’s defensive structure and creating space in the channels for the likes of Alli and Eriksen.
Alternately, the wing-backs were utilised for diagonal switches of play or for relieving pressure when the centre of the pitch became too congested.
One of Tottenham’s outer central midfielders would look to move beyond Liverpool’s midfield line, while the other would stay on the same line as Winks. This had two potential effects: either it would disrupt the opposition’s shape, or it would create a free man between the lines.
The latter outcome was the more prevalent on this occasion, with one of Eriksen or Alli moving up to play closer to Kane and Son. The strike duet were also layered, with the South Korean often using his pace to attack the opposition’s defensive line.
This attacking setup caused issues for Liverpool’s back four, who were often asked the question: Who to mark?
Son’s pace meant that one of the two centre-backs stepping up to mark Kane was not an option, as it would leave a one-on-one situation that the other centre-back was guaranteed to lose. The dangers of this are seen in the below stills. At the same time, remaining deep would only lead to more space between the lines for Alli, Eriksen and Kane to exploit.
The confusion this caused was evident throughout a shambolic start to the first half for the visitors, in which Tottenham regularly breached their defensive line to create scoring chances, two of which were taken with aplomb. Ultimately, this led to the substitution of a bewildered Dejan Lovren.
VERSATILE TOTTENHAM IN THE HUNT
Against Liverpool, Spurs proved they are just as capable defending fairly passively and in a slightly deeper block as they are pressing high. They also demonstrated another shape in the 3-5-2, meaning they can now rotate between three basic formations depending on the opponent or situation.
On top of that, they showed they have more than one strike partnership. Gone are the days when Kane had to lead the line on his own without any real alternative. Llorente offers a more direct, target man-style partner, while Son is clearly an equally effective support striker.
Pochettino’s tactical nous continues to make Tottenham a more rounded team. And that increased versatility makes them dangerous to any Premier League opponent.