Next season could see Mauricio Pochettino add another new formation to the Tottenham armoury.
Last season was Tottenham Hotspur’s best in Premier League history. The key? Formational flexibility. Spurs could seamlessly transition between two setups that Mauricio Pochettino had drilled the team in.
Different looks could be achieved by effortlessly switching from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 or vice versa. What’s more, both formations could often be deployed using the same personnel. Therefore the opposition was kept guessing, even when they saw the team sheet before the match.
At times, Spurs steamrolled competitors from both formations. However, there were chinks in the armour, notably against other high pressing sides and in the Champions League. Europe’s top competition sees a wide array of teams play at varying speeds. Both Monaco and Leverkusen caused us no end of problems in this campaign.
Could this be why we saw a brief experiment by Mauricio Pochettino in the closing stages of several matches at the end of the season?
Our manager rolled out a brand new formation. The 4-3-3 with a powerful midfield trio.
Mauricio Pochettino’s 4-3-3
Mauricio Pochettino’s switch to a 4-3-3 centred around two factors. Firstly, Mousa Dembele entered the game from the bench. Secondly, Spurs switched to a more counter attacking based approach.
Mousa Dembele entered the action each time to form a powerful trio with Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama. Christian Eriksen would move out in to a wide right position and Dele Alli an equal role on the left. The central trio would destroy anything attempting to play through the middle. Eriksen and Alli would shuttle between the flanks and link with Harry Kane. We can see the setup against Arsenal.
The formation gave Spurs a strong base from which to draw the opponent forward, relieve them of the ball and launch counter attacks. Eriksen and Alli drifting in-field meant that the full backs could get forward. Ben Davies, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier were safe in the knowledge that they had Dier, Wanyama and Dembele to cover and clean up.
Uses for Pochettino’s 4-3-3
Our 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 formations have been dominant, so introducing a third setup might be seen as overcomplicating the issue. However, there are three situations that we could see Pochettino’s power 4-3-3 unleashed.
1. Press resistance
Firstly, against teams that press high and fast. These opponents have given us the most trouble this season. Teams that have sought to press and put us immediately on the back foot have been a problem. Liverpool, Manchester City away, Leverkusen and Monaco immediately spring to mind.
Pochettino’s response has often been to play through the press rather than go long over it. His trial of 4-3-3 with a powerful central trio of Wanyama, Dier and Dembele therefore could be very useful if this continues to be the case.
All three are particularly strong, press resistant players. Mousa Dembele is the hardest man to get the ball off in the Premier League and can spin out of any situation. Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier are also able to use their sizeable frames to shield off would be pressers. Both are rarely dispossessed of the ball.
Against Man Utd we had a brief glimpse of how this could work. Getting back in to the game at Spurs 2-1 Man Utd the Red Devils increased the level of their pressing. The midfield trio gave our centre backs options by creating neat passing triangles to play out. The ball here went Vertonghen – Dier – Alderweireld – Wanyama – Trippier.
This strong, physical central midfield trio solves a problem. Against teams that push up looking to rapidly pounce, the middle ground is often where Spurs can get outnumbered. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool seeks to control this zone, often with five or six.
So too do Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, where it’s not uncommon to see him using inverted full backs in central locations to outnumber the opposition.
A commanding midfield trio of Dembele, Dier and Wanyama, combined with Eriksen and Dele drifting in, allows Pochettino to match up and overwhelm with numbers, strength and power in this vital zone.
2. Counter attack option
The second use of Pochettino’s power 4-3-3 is to play a more counter-attacking game.
In Europe, especially in away games, Spurs have been too open and picked apart. A strong counter-attacking game gives Pochettino the option of a plan B, especially if we end up at Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern, who can tear open teams apart.
Against Man Utd we can see how Spurs drop Eriksen and Alli back to make almost a 4-5-1 base from which to win the ball and counter.
Both Eriksen and Alli get through a tremendous amount of work in this formation. Both players have to retreat and defend wide. As soon as the ball is won, both players then have to get in-field to support Harry Kane. Their continual diagonal movement creates space for the overlapping full backs to attack, as they need to support an otherwise isolated striker.
3. Controlling deep lying teams
Thirdly, the formation is not just a defensive response to high pressing or the option of counter attack. A 4-3-3 with a powerful central midfield trio can be used to hem and throttle the life out of teams that sit back.
Squeezing Dembele, Dier and Wanyama up the field can stop opponents that park the bus from getting out of their half. These teams are then simply overwhelmed with wave after wave of attack.
Progression of youth
A 4-3-3 also allows Mauricio Pochettino the chance to enhance the opportunities for some of our younger players coming through.
Harry Winks has made remarkable progress this season and could be an alternative choice when ensconced alongside two more robust options. Winks quick passing and forward movement of the ball could be highly useful from a 4-3-3, especially when looking to counter attack.
Josh Onomah, who is naturally a deeper lying central midfield option, could also see more opportunities.
Faltering in advanced attacking roles at Spurs last season, Onomah has been excelling for England in a deeper central midfield position. The video below shows how influential he was in this position against South Korea at the U20 World Cup.
Onomah has been used mainly in wide forward positions for Spurs so far, but a 4-3-3 would allow him to play in a more accustomed deeper central role.
Mauricio Pochettino ready to surprise with new formation?
Mauricio Pochettino was criticised for not having a plan B two seasons ago, as Spurs rigidly used a 4-2-3-1 formation. The addition of the 3-4-2-1 setup was the response, giving Pochettino options to switch between the two formations, often in-game.
Brief glimpses of a 4-3-3 at the end of last season indicate that Pochettino has more in store for us.
Option C may just be around the corner to catch the Premier League, and Europe, by surprise with just how flexible this Tottenham team can be.
A good read Mark – and plenty of food for thought.
Onomah looked a different player there with far more space and time on the ball of course, but he looks a “keeper” and gives us more depth in the centre.
That screen shot of Liverpool dominating the centre of the park demands analysis and a solution!
It does look like the next logical step.
I’ve a feeling we won’t be too active in the window.
Barkley would suit us I think – especially in that 433.
A versatile RCB/RB is a must and we should go to 15-20 mill there.
And Sessegnon for the future – alongside CCV/KWP/JO youth in squad.
I don’t think we will go in for a striker.
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
Thanks Toby4eva. I’m surprised that Onomah has been used in more advanced positions, usually across the attacking midfield trio in 4-2-3-1, given that he obviously prefers to play in the pivot. I know we are stacked here with Wanyama, Dier, Dembele and Winks all competing for playing time, but it would seem more logical to use him in this position and maybe the 4-3-3 set up is his chance for some game time.
Liverpool are going to be a problem when fully fit as they try to dominate this area to spring their quick attacks from turnovers. I’d prefer to play with a lot of width using wingbacks and try to go longer from back to front or switch side-to-side to navigate this central congestion. This could mean playing 3-5-2.
I also don’t think we’ll be too active this window. I only see about 3 signings with Sissoko definitely going (along with the Fazio and Bentaleb deals). Walker and Lamela are the other two i’m curious about. I’d like to see us keep both but the rumours are rife. Plus, we may need to trim the squad to bring in new recruits to get down to the limit for PL and CL.
Agree this is a brilliant article. Our matches with Liverpool and those in Europe have shown the need to develop a system to handle teams that are able to press against us and develop an effective counter attacking threat.
My enduring memory of Big Vic this season will be that Leicester player trying to drag him down and failing! Think he would be brilliant as destroyer in such a midfield. It will ask a lot of Dier tactically to play some games as the middle CB when we play 3 at the back, and then like Carrick/Luka when we play 433, and then compete with big Vic for the slot alongside Dembele when we play the Gaffer’s preferred formation. I think Winks in the 433 will thrive as he has much more positive passing range compared to our other CMs and he is much more switched on as to where to move in the Poch Press. The only fly in the ointment is reliant on the almost unique Moussa has to keep the ball. He has not been able to play more 70 minutes, is approaching 30. This leads to the understandable speculation that links us to Barkley who will need to move if Everton threaten to bench him. While Onomah did look good at the u20s very few players who win the golden ball have a great career after (unless they are Argentine or called Paul Pogba). If we are moving Sissokho on we may still need to add to our CM ranks as with the calls on Dier to be a CB at times we lack bodies in the midfield. I remember our last attempt at a power midfield when we brought in Paulinho and Capoue to work alongside Sandro and Dembele. Poch’s methods have applied much better to the EPL than AVB’s ever did but I am cautious as against the Goons and United neither of our opponents really showed up. And it does seem odd we did not use it against West Ham in their cup final.
A worry I have will be a failure to add effective pace from the attacking midfield as opposed to from our fullbacks. Eriksen and Alli can run for days and are intelligent with their movement, but Sonny aside we lack speed from that attacking midfield.
Poch has shown an ability to learn season upon season and is not so ego driven that he is unwilling to to admit his mistakes the Kaboul Cabal etc. I think Europe will be a huge litmus test for the gaffer in the next season and I think we will improve a lot as a result.
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
Great comment. The one benefit Poch’s use of a power midfield trio has over AVB’s is that Poch has so far used it to drop off, retrieve the ball and counter attack. AVB wanted to use it to press teams higher up the pitch and this is where the creative side of it failed. We won the ball easily enough, but then it just went sideways as there wasn’t pitch space to run in to. Poch opting to drop off creates the space where speed is more required than neat incisive passes.
I think this is also part of the reason why Poch is looking at players that can travel quickly with the ball eg Lemar so that he has the option to use them in a counter attack formation. Will be fascinating to watch who comes in to see if they fit the skill set needed to work this formation as one of three setups that Poch will have at his disposal.
Great article, but I have 2 fears, when MDem plays deep he can get caught in possession and his dibbling becomes somewhat ineffective, also our lack of creativity when Erik is having one of his off days. This may sound strange being leagues top scorers, but think back to before Chrimbo and in Europe when we at times we were poor. I think this was quite often due to relying on fullbacks to be wingers and not providing quality delivery. My point is highlighted by KT when he replaced Crisps, who had several great games getting in quality crosses and we then put away not so good sides which we have struggled to do too often. So back to you, if this is the case what is the answer.
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
So far, we’ve only seen Poch use this formation solely for counter attack purposes. That is the context that it needs to be looked at rather than a chance creation or high attack-minded approach. When Poch has deployed this 4-3-3 setup, we’ve dropped off, won the ball and looked to hit the space. Our attack in this formation is not therefore based on crossing nor neat creative passes, but more on speed to counter attack the space the opposition leaves. Players that can travel quickly with the ball and get shots away are therefore paramount for scoring the goals.
The central trio is predicated on power and solely aimed at recovering the ball. They have minimal creative responsibility. Dembele rarely gets caught in possession. If he did, then Dier and Wanyama are circling to win it back. That is certainly what they did when Poch deployed this formation against Arsenal and Man Utd. What’s more, they have the back up of Toby and Jan behind them. It is this wall that Poch wants to use to stop opponents in their tracks to launch the counter attacks. Using this setup to stuff pressing teams is my assumption as we’ve not seen Poch use it for that yet. However, Dier and Wanyama are underrated passers, Dier especially and Dembele is the most resistant to pressing player in the Premier League.
To launch the counter attacks, speed is what we are lacking. Son and GKN are all we have with good speed, although Alli and Kane are no slouches when it comes to travelling across the ground and I am constantly amazed at how many times Kane can run past or hold off defenders without being the quickest striker. This is also part of the reason why Poch has been interested in fast players that can travel with the ball, so that they can be used in this formation if required.
We don’t know how often Poch will use this 4-3-3 setup, but given its deployment in a few games, it is definitely something that has been worked on during training. Now we know it exists, it’ll be interesting to see if Poch continues to develop it and how it evolves. But at least we can recognise it when it is rolled out and track the changes.
Every time we played at Wembley last season we were caught out by fast breaks into the space in behind. Do you think this formation could be a sensible way of combatting that, at least against the stronger PL and CL teams at home? And do you have any thoughts about how we can overcome this problem in our other 2 formations?
Spurs Fanatic - Mark says
I think we were caught out at Wembley due to a number of factors. The first is the pitch size, as the longer length makes it more difficult for our high line to cover the increased ground than at White Hart Lane. This is also why we had an average away record as our stadium favours our style of play. Secondly, the grass is a lot slower and softer at Wembley. This hinders the speed at which we not only play with the ball, but also press as the softer ground takes more of a physical toll throughout a match and fatigue sets in sooner.
Therefore, I think its more of a formational issue than one of personnel. I think Wembley suits teams that play a medium block or counter attack game rather than a high pressing one. Therefore any of our formations are fine, but i think we need to adjust our position as a unit to play 10 yards deeper. This gives the opposition more room to play out and we can then press them when the ball enters the middle third. This leaves less space in-behind for opposition counter attacks, but also brings opponents up the field to create space to play in to.
Excellent, this is exactly the sort of response I was looking for. Thank you.
Hello everybody ! In a same way, I have an idea how to use Moussa Sissoko. Until now he doesn’t fit very well to the team… But I think Pochettino could use him as a right back in a back four or right winger in a 3-4-2-1, especially if Walker goes away. What’s your point on it ?