Last season, Tottenham Hotspur were the only team to even vaguely threaten Chelsea in the race for the Premier League title. They were able to keep up the chase thanks primarily to the tactical identity forged by manager Mauricio Pochettino.
The Argentine boss has been able to infuse a collective organisation at Spurs that few other teams in Europe can match. Regardless of the players he picks or the formations he chooses, his side are consistently competitive.
However, as they prepare for a 2017/18 campaign in which another title challenge must be the aim, Spurs have one question to answer: Which system suits them best?
Pochettino’s most used shapes last term were the classic 4-2-3-1 and the 3-4-2-1 popularised first by Antonio Conte and Chelsea. Tottenham were effective in both systems, so much so that it is hard to pick one over the other.
Here, Football Whispers delves into the statistics to analyse which of the two Spurs should settle upon as their first-choice for next season.
BREAKING DOWN THE FORMATIONS
As many tactical analysts will confirm, the formation isn’t the be all and end all. Rather, it is a starting point, a building block towards the way a team can or will play. Regardless of the shape, Tottenham’s attacking and defensive principles stay the same. However, the shape can affect quality of performance, both for the team and the individuals it comprises.
Spurs only really started using the 3-4-2-1 in the second half of 2016/17 season, having debuted it in the 1-1 draw away to rivals Arsenal on 6 November. This system would generally see Eric Dier start on the right-hand side of a three-man back line next to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
The two-man midfield would usually be Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembélé, with Christian Eriksen flitting between the lines and Dele Alli supporting Harry Kane as the lone striker. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose would act as sole suppliers of width in wing-back roles.
In the more conventional 4-2-3-1, Pochettino would utilise Dier in defensive midfield alongside Wanyama or Dembélé. Eriksen and Alli would then be joined by Son Heung-Min in an attacking midfield trident behind Kane.
While the 4-2-3-1 perhaps offered greater variation in the final third due to the additional quantity and unique individual qualities of the players included, the 3-4-2-1 allowed for more central overloads due to the number of players available in those zones.
Tottenham started in a 4-2-3-1 shape on 21 occasions in the Premier League last season. Of those 21 matches, they won 12, drew five and lost four. They scored 42 goals and conceded 13, achieving a goal difference of plus 29, and picked up a total of 41 points.
The totals are fairly irrelevant, however, unless averaged out over the relevant period. Spurs’ win rate with the 4-2-3-1 was 57.1 per cent, while they scored an average of two goals per game and conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game. Picking up 41 points out of a possible 63, they averaged two points per game in this system.
By comparison, Tottenham started in a 3-4-2-1 shape on ten occasions in the Premier League last season. Of those ten matches, they won eight, drew two and lost none. They scored 27 goals and conceded seven, achieving a goal difference of plus 20, and picked up a total of 26 points.
Averaged out, Spurs’ win rate in the 3-4-2-1 was 80 per cent – a whopping 22.9 per cent higher than in the 4-2-3-1. They scored an average of 2.7 goals per game – 0.7 per game more than in the 4-2-3-1 – and conceded an average of 0.7 goals per game – 0.1 per game more than in the 4-2-3-1. Picking up 26 of a possible 30 points, they averaged 2.6 points per game in this system – 0.6 points per game more than in the 4-2-3-1.
On the basis of results, goals and points, Tottenham had much greater success in the 3-4-2-1 than they did in the 4-2-3-1.
And, to counter any argument that the above numbers could be skewed by the former system being used against weaker opposition, the average final league position of the teams played in the 3-4-2-1 was a highly respectable 8.9.
Furthermore, six out of the ten fixtures in which this system was used came against top-half opponents, and three out of the ten came against top-six sides.
Digging deeper into the figures presents some intriguing finds. Tottenham’s average possession in the 3-4-2-1 was 0.3 per cent higher than their seasonal average of 57.4 per cent, suggesting they tended to dominate the ball slightly more in this system.
However, in the 3-4-2-1 their pass success was 3.5 per cent lower, while they made 1.3 key passes per game fewer and attempted 1.4 fewer shots per game. These numbers hint Spurs were relatively less combinative and expansive in this system, though it’s worth mentioning that their shot accuracy was 0.3 per cent higher than their seasonal average in the shape.
Considering they had more of the ball, had a higher shot accuracy and scored more goals per game in the 3-4-2-1, it is possible that, while the quantity may have been less, the quality of Tottenham’s attacks may have been of a higher standard in this system.
On top of that, the 3-4-2-1 had positive effects on Pochettino’s three key individual attacking forces – Kane, Alli and Eriksen – taking into account performance in Premier League fixtures.
The former scored 13 goals and set up a further four in eight appearances leading the line within the 3-4-2-1. Thus, he made only 26.7 per cent of starts in the 3-4-2-1, but scored 44.8 per cent of his total goals and claimed 57.1 per cent of his total assists for the season while playing within this system.
Alli made just 24.3 per cent of his outings in the 3-4-2-1, but scored 33.3 per cent of his total goals and set up 57.1 per cent of his total assists for the season in the system. Meanwhile, 25 per cent of Eriksen’s appearances came in the shape, along with 25 per cent of his total goals scored. However, 33.3 per cent of his total assists came in the shape.
To surmise, Kane, Alli and Eriksen all set up goals at a higher rate while in the 3-4-2-1, while the former two also scored at a higher rate. In short, this shape suited Tottenham’s front three down to the ground.
HOW SPURS COULD LINE UP NEXT TERM
The extensive list of Tottenham transfer targets only adds to the notion that Pochettino may decide to line his team up in the 3-4-2-1 next season, something that the aforementioned statistics suggest would be a good call.
They have been persistently linked to Everton’s Ross Barkley, someone who thrives when given the extra creative license of an inside forward role, a role he would see much more of in the 3-4-2-1. The same could be said of Monaco’s Thomas Lemar and Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Çalhanoğlu, both of whom have also been rumoured as potential Spurs additions.
Other targets include a number of attack-minded full-backs who have the profile and experience of natural wing-backs, such as Hoffenheim’s Jeremy Toljan, Paris Saint-Germain’s Serge Aurier and Nice’s Ricardo Pereira.
We recently analysed Tottenham’s top five transfer targets. Here’s how they could look within the 3-4-2-1 system should some of these transfers go through.