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.