Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Defence

Mauricio Pochettino has to look at the tactics of our defence and address a number of issues.

Mauricio Pochettino has made strides with getting the team to play in his image. He’s enjoyed successes, but there have also been shortcomings that have been exposed by better quality opposition.

In a series of posts I’m going to look at each one of these issues in turn, analyse what’s been done and what else is required to resolve it. After looking at the tactical issues involved with our pressing game, next we move on to look at our defensive back line.

Defensive frailties

When looking at our defence, I see a number of talented individuals with plenty of potential. However, last season, they didn’t function well together or gel as a cohesive unit. This is due to inexperience, the system we played and a lack of both communication and a vocal leader.

The defensive unit does have to be extremely well drilled and organized in any Pochettino side. His philosophy is attacking as we look to get the ball forward quicker, but this also leaves us more open and vulnerable at the back by committing men forward.

Full backs

The Full backs are an obvious position to highlight; they are open to being exposed by their high positioning. They are also not helped by the inverted wide players ahead of them drifting infield to overload the centre. This can see both players on one side caught out by quick transitions.

Take Leicester’s first goal at the Lane last season, where both Danny Rose and Nacer Chadli were left upfield by the swiftness of the Foxes’ counter attack.


Chadli and Rose caught out of the play.

This is the system we play; the full backs are required to get forward with us using inverted wide players that move inside ahead of them. It is a risk/reward balance and the improved attacking numbers from Danny Rose last season are testament to the gains, but they also come at a price in the defensive phase.

High defensive line

Often deploying a high defensive line sees our centre backs vulnerable to pace when they squeeze up the field. Fazio is the obvious example, but Jan Vertonghen is not rapid across the ground in recovery situations either. The Leicester goal above highlighted that with David Nugent having the footspeed to get in-behind Vertonghen and Dier. As did Marouane Fellaini on his strike at Old Trafford and Mario Gomez’s halfway-line steal and rumble up the pitch in our Europa League tie in Florence. Neither of these players: Nugent, Fellaini or Gomez are particularly fast, but highlighted the lack of speed in our centre back pairing.

What’s more, Mauricio Pochettino coaches front foot defending from his back four. Impetuous decisions being made by the likes of Rose and Vertonghen, who can often dive in needlessly trying to stop an attack when high up the pitch, have hurt us.


No need for Vertonghen to go to ground.

Against Arsenal, Vertonghen needlessly dives in trying to steal the ball from Giroud. This allows the Arsenal man to lay the ball off to Welbeck, who gets on our high line immediately and through the gap left by Vertonghen’s challenge. He then centered for Ozil to score.

Decision Making

Decision-making is a key part of the defensive player’s mentality in the system of Mauricio Pochettino. Players are expected to have a decent IQ when it comes to making the right footballing decision and making passes that don’t put themselves or their teammates in trouble.

Impetuous challenges, one form of decision making, and the high line have hurt us in defensive situations. Sloppy passing turnovers by players in vulnerable positions are another that haven’t helped us out. For example Nabil Bentaleb’s square pass straight to Wayne Rooney to run through and score at Old Trafford. There have been many more examples throughout the season and too many to list here. Overall, more care, attention and better decisions are needed when players are in vulnerable situations with the ball that could leave us exposed.

Another example of decision-making revolves around tracking and marking. I’ve talked before about how Kyle Walker can struggle when faced with making quick decisions about who to track and that has haunted him recently. The 3-0 loss to Man Utd highlighted this time and time again, as he was forced to rapidly make choices between tracking Fellaini and Young. As you can see below, Walker is caught in two minds as to whether to go to Fellaini, who Mason has let go or to get back to his marking job on Ashley Young, which has his body twisted the wrong way.


Fellaini gets behind Mason, giving Walker a decision.

Eric Dier didn’t help Walker out in this game and neither did Ryan Mason who should’ve been tracking Fellaini despite being at a significant size disadvantage.

Over the years, Walker has had the benefit of a Gallas, Dawson or King as the centre back alongside him and this has helped him out with some of his decision-making. Last season he had either Dier or Fazio next to him who are both vastly inexperienced in the Premier League and he had a very underwhelming campaign.

Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address

Mauricio Pochettino has a number of tactical considerations to consider.

Firstly, does he continue to operate with flying full backs and inside moving wide players ahead of them?

The second is does he continue to try and play a high line and coach front foot defending?

Thirdly, our defence at the minute has some good individuals, but they are in no way a cohesive unit nor do we have a vocal leader or organiser.

What’s been done so far?

After making a number of defensive additions last summer, that probably weren’t Mauricio Pochettino signings, we’ve made moves to re-enforce our defence with players that should suit the Argentine.

Kieran Trippier is an ideal guy for Pochettino’s system and will help fill a right back slot that was a revolving door last season. Toby Alderweireld brings experience and also that much-needed speed if he plays as a centre back, as well as sound decision-making that we’ve sometimes lacked. Kevin Wimmer has potential, but again lacks experience. We also don’t know how he’ll handle the pace of the Premier League, although he won’t be outdone in the strength and power stakes.

What’s left to do?

There are still two things left for Mauricio Pochettino to address.

The first is cohesion. Last season we saw chopping and changing amongst our full back and centre back pairings and this affected the unit’s cohesion as a whole. Chemistry will take time to develop, but needs to be worked on in pre-season and on the training ground.

The second doesn’t appear to have been addressed yet. We’ve been blessed with some vocal organisers at the back over the years and Mauricio Pochettino desperately needs one to settle our defence down. Jan Vertonghen has the most experience, but isn’t one of these. Eric Dier may become one, but certainly isn’t at the moment. Wimmer is in the same boat and may develop in to one in the future. Fazio is not one and won’t get the playing time to be one. Alderweireld has experience but is not yet a vocal leader and organiser. This does leave us with problems and Mauricio Pochettino will need someone that he can trust to take charge.

Last season only four teams conceded more goals in the Premier League than us. Inspite of this, the setup and style of Mauricio Pochettino’s defensive system will not be changing. Moves have been made to reinforce and strengthen it, but come next May, we could well be still bemoaning the lack of a vocal leader and organiser.

The next post in the series is planned for Wednesday, so follow on Twitter or Facebook to be the first notified when it’s available.

If you enjoyed this post, please share:

, ,

16 Responses to Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Defence

  1. John Greenwood 20th July 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    I wish to concur with many of the points made in this article.
    Having a captain who is reliable and can keep fit is our number one problem.
    I believe that ideally he should be in the centre back position and be made responsible for organising his defensive set up.
    If you look back through the past two years the number of goals we have let in when the centre of goal 6yard position has been left empty. Free headers from set pieces.
    This, together with posts not being guarded sometimes leaves me to doubt who is responsible for our defensive tactics. I look forward to your future comments.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 20th July 2015 at 4:17 pm #

      Some good points John. Pochettino should be in charge of our defensive tactics, but he does need an on the field leader to organise the troops in the heat of battle.

  2. Mike J 20th July 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    Great Article.
    You raised the questions:
    Firstly, does he continue to operate with flying full backs and inside moving wide players ahead of them?
    The second is does he continue to try and play a high line and coach front foot defending?
    Then basically said Poch won’t change either of these things.
    Do you think changing either of these approaches would be beneficial? If so, what changes would you make? Hold back the flying full-backs? Ensure one of the DM’s covers for when an attack is in full flow down a wing? Perhaps not have such a high line (good in theory but sometimes doesn’t it seem to lead to too much congestion in the attacking third, which hinders the attacker more than the defender?)?
    What would you suggest that would improve the defence without hindering the attack too much?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 20th July 2015 at 5:40 pm #

      Hi Mike J. I don’t think Pochettino will change these things as they are the way he has always coached his teams. I know it’s not great to have effectively rhetorical questions, but they are options i feel he should consider.

      I do personally think he should look at adding more midfield width and restraining the full backs as an option to go to. Put teams off balance by supplying the width from different areas so we are not predictable. I would also like to see the return of the fluid three advanced midfielders, remember those? but that’s another post for later in the week. However, with the addition of Trippier, he now he has two first choice FB options on each side, plus Alderweireld can fill in. Pochettino will get to have two maurauding full backs on each side rather than a centre back filling in like we had with Dier on the right and occasionally Vertonghen on the left, so i think the flying full back width approach will be here to stay. In this case we do need two responsible defensive midfielders that can cover and this is where we are light of a player in this area.

      As for the high line, i like this approach if you have the speed to play it. I think Alderweireld will be a big help in this area and will have a calming influence on Vertonghen’s sometimes impetuous defending.

      • UKFootballFan 21st July 2015 at 1:19 am #

        Good food-for-thought article.
        I agree with your analysis. The extra pace at CB will help this season as will Alderweireld and Vertonghen’s familiarity with each other.
        I think what’s also necessary is to be able to switch tactics at times to make it more difficult to “park buses” against Spurs and to also acknowledge when a team has agile speed merchants in attack and take appropriate steps to counter them.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 21st July 2015 at 11:26 am #

          The bus parking teams are ones that Pochettino, like many Spurs managers before him, has struggled with. He didn’t face this as often with Southampton or Espanyol, so its a new challenge for him to try and solve. Last season he had varying degrees of success as i’ve talked about in the match reports, so i’m curious to see what approaches he tries this campaign.

  3. Jimbo 20th July 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    Thanks for the analysis. I never thought of Jan not being very vocal – somehow I just presumed he was better at organizing than you give him credit for. But I think a significant part of our defensive craziness last year was the double pivot, especially with Mason. Mason seems to struggle with his defensive duties (which is a shame, as I’d love to see Bentaleb getting forward more, and maybe Mason deputizing for Eriksen), and that has presented more than a couple of opportunities. And we obviously haven’t signed a true DM this window – who knows if the rumors of our interest in various people are true, or just dreams from the Spurs faithful. Maybe an academy prospect will get a chance. There are the issues you raise above, but I can’t help thinking that midfield is the most important part here (together with the mess at right back).
    Also, in terms of Danny Rose, do you think he has improved defensively, or that he has had more cover than last year (despite what I said about the midfield above…)?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 20th July 2015 at 4:34 pm #

      Great post Jimbo. The problems in the pivot are planned for another post on our midfield, this one was solely meant for the back four, but yes the Bentaleb/Mason axis does play a large part in why we were leaking goals, but i will get to that on Wednesday.

      As for Vertonghen i think he is a very good player, just not an organiser. Danny Rose has improved defensively, but Pochettino’s system can hang him out to dry as it has the potential to leave him spectacularly exposed. The defensive midfielders are supposed to cover him, as are the centre backs who need to be able to defend in the wide areas as highlighted on last week’s post about Toby Alderweireld, but often they are too slow to bail Rose (or the other full back) out and we concede – as happened vs Leicester in the example above. More on Wednesday…

  4. Mr. Greaves 20th July 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    I enjoyed that article – so much better than many.

    I think the issue you didn’t mention though was that of how the defense is coached, in terms of zones or man marking. We all know that Pochettino was an International CB, but he did dreadfully last year in coaching the back four – shambles doesn’t start to describe it and all avoidable.

    Lack of mobility and leadership are the prime issues of course, but our zonal system is massively at fault with the players we have because none seem capable of anticiapating people coming into their zone. When they do it seems like a huge surprise and we then play catch-up, before the ball goes into the net – man marking in the box is a better system for us.

    As for leadership, what a brilliant move it was to sell Dawson- not in the class / mould of McKay, Peryman or Mabbutt as a leader but still not bad.

    Yes I know he was slow and, against some sides, was a liability but he bought a lot more skills to the back four than were gained via selling him. Fazio (clearly a Pochettino pick as he knew him well from Spain) has all of Dawsons limitations but none of the attributes and is not a leader it seems – although as he captained Sevill tht surprises me. Appointing Kaboul was suicidal and just gave us self-inflicted problems.

    We still have no leader and, although Trippier and Alderwerield are good signings, I don’t see who is going to marshall the defense.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 21st July 2015 at 11:18 am #

      Good points Mr. Greaves. The debate over zonal or man-to-man marking is one that divides many people. I think there are benefits in each system, but the hybrid version we use did create a lot of confusion last year. Hopefully a year on and a full pre-season to work with players – a number of whom were not present for much of last summer due to the World Cup – will condition them better for this campaign.

  5. Colspur 20th July 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    Excellent article
    Highlighting what I have been saying for ages
    What I worry about is poch will not change formation in games we are struggling in
    And that is not acceptable at high level football
    And will cost us results

  6. Derek 20th July 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    Hallo Mark….interesting article, I enjoyed! if we get MacCathy would make great captain? £12-15 Top + Lennon!Toby? Jan? rumors of my choice 110% Javier….Remy my choice & please no holly Moses…Chelsea deadwood! Rabbit talent would fit our system great! Disagree about Dembele £12+ Frazio £6+ take many & run to bank! Both strong players but not team players! Any chance of acquiring Jay? …Hold breath for next Sky Sports rumor of day! Although don’t always agree, you have good insight! Aloha Derek

  7. James 21st July 2015 at 9:54 am #

    Thanks for the post Mark, do you know how Veljković is progressing? Do you know if his style/attributes will fit in with our system or even how close he is to breaking into the squad? Cheers

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 21st July 2015 at 11:31 am #

      Hi James, I think Veljkovic fits with what Pochettino wants, but i only see him going on loan again this season. Last year wasn’t great for him with Middlesbrough not extending his loan and Charlton not playing him either, so its not the progress we’d hoped. He is still 19 though, so has a few years to develop.

  8. anotherwisemonkey 22nd July 2015 at 9:42 pm #

    Excellent analysis as ever! I particularly like your point about Walker.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 22nd July 2015 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks, big season for him!