The press and high line have both been synonymous with Andre Villas-Boas’s Spurs. Trying to squeeze teams and suffocate them by condensing the playing area has been a main feature of our play.
It has its merits, as we’ve kept many a clean sheet. It also has its detractors, as opponents have been hemmed in and as a result we’ve struggled to break them down. Only once in a Premier League match prior to Man Utd at home did we score more than one goal in a game.
That Spurs 2 Man Utd 2 match signalled a slight changing of the guard.
It was the second time we’d scored twice, but also the first time our team unit sat slightly deeper, encouraging Man Utd to come out and play. In that game it looked as if this may have been a mark of respect to the Champions, but in subsequent outings at Sunderland and Fulham we’ve seen the same.
Opponents have been sat deep denying us space, something Mousa Dembele was frustrated about earlier in the season. “We know that some teams are going to come here and make a block, so it’s even more difficult”
So is this the response from Andre Villas-Boas?
Spurs aggressive pressure
It’s not a massively noticeable difference, as we’re not dropping completely off to play on the counter and therefore is quite difficult to show. I’m not a big fan of average position diagrams, but they can give an indicator of team unit depth.
If we look at our trip to the Emirates, we can see how high up the field Dawson and Vertonghen’s average positions were. We can also see a really compact unit from back to front.
Against another decent side in Chelsea, who we also wouldn’t expect to dominate, we again played extremely high up and as a compact unit.
The aggressiveness of Soldado (9), Townsend (17), Sigurdsson (22) and Eriksen (23) is a feature; as is Paulinho (8) and Moussa Dembele (19) squeezing up tight behind them. Michael Dawson (20) and Jan Vertonghen (5) are also extremely high up, again keeping the compact unit.
If we look at where Spurs recovered the ball, we can see how often possession was regained in the middle third and also in the opposition half.
Spurs relaxing the pressure
Now Arsenal and Chelsea are no pushovers, so it’s not like we’d expect to be playing that high up and dominating as if we were playing a relegation candidate. But if we compare those games with our home match with Man Utd we can see some noticeable differences.
The first is the compactness of the team, there is a lot more distance between the back and front. The centre backs have dropped deeper and the midfield is not pushed up behind the forwards.
The second is the forward line. Earlier in the season, AVB was playing a 4-3-3 and the wide forwards were high up at the same level as Roberto Soldado (9). Here the system was switched to 4-2-3-1, with Nacer Chadli (21) and Aaron Lennon (7) operating much deeper in the wide positions to help their full backs out.
The Man Utd match could have been considered as a one off against a revered opponent, but this theme has continued.
Against Fulham the centre backs were again much deeper as the team was less compact from back to front.
Despite Aaron Lennon (7) and Erik Lamela (11) switching wings – giving them central positions and thus skewing the diagram – they are not high up with Jermain Defoe. Earlier in the season the wide forwards were squeezing up at the same level as the centre forward. Here, Lennon and Lamela played more as wingers and protected their full backs
Away at Sunderland at the weekend, we can see a similar distance from back to front.
The Black Cats really sat deep, so this time the midfield and forwards were more compact and advanced up the field. But there is a real gap to the defence, who earlier in the season would have been pushed right up in behind to condense the space and hem a sitting opponent in.
This slight adjustment to the team unit has affected where we recovered the ball.
Compared to the matches earlier in the season against Chelsea and Arsenal, we’re now regaining possession deeper in our own half or just inside the opponents half.
Since this slight change to drop our centre backs, whilst also increasing the distance between the back and front, we’ve scored 6 goals in the Premier League.
To attribute all these goals to relaxing the aggressiveness of our defensive shape would be crazy, but maybe this alteration is helping loosen the opposition up?
Previously teams were sat back and prepared to play on the counter, looking to exploit the space in-behind our high line. Now this shift is forcing opponents to come out of their shell more. As a result, Man Utd, Sunderland and Fulham were all quite open games.
We have conceded four times in these three matches, whereas earlier in the season our heavy press was keeping clean sheets. However, maybe you have to give up something to gain something?
With us finding the net more often this could be a trade off that AVB is willing to take. It could also be about fine-tuning the amount of pressure we bring and the compactness of our side.
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