Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Defensive Midfield

Mauricio Pochettino has to address the problems that exist in defensive midfield this season if we are to progress.

Mauricio Pochettino’s key players are at the full back positions, after that, defensive midfield is the next area of importance in his philosophy.

Last season he made a number of tweaks in here, eventually settling on the combination of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason. The pair were good at moving the ball forwards, but in turn didn’t offer the necessary protection for the defence. This saw us too easily exposed and played a part in us conceding the fifth most goals in the Premier League.

To understand what is required from our defensive midfield duo, its necessary to look at what they have to do. Mauricio Pochettino employs a defensive player and a more forward thinking box-to-box man.

Defensive midfielder

The more defensively minded player has five key roles.

1. Drop in between the wide splitting centre backs to bring the ball out.
2  Be a release valve for passes backwards from the midfield.
3. Move the ball to the more attacking players, especially the full backs.
4. Screen the defence to regain possession.
5  Cover the advancing full backs.

At the start of the campaign, Mauricio Pochettino went with Etienne Capoue. The Frenchman was very comfortable on the ball and could spray the passes about. This was especially true when switching the play from side-to-side, something I have talked about throughout last season and a key reason why we signed Toby Alderweireld.

Capoue lead the Premier League in passes per game during his stint of starts at the beginning of the campaign. His ability to pass the ball accurately over distance from side-to-side to alter the point of attack was a big reason for his inclusion.


Etienne Capoue long-range passes, Spurs 1-0 Southampton.

Whilst Capoue was very comfortable on the ball, he was quite casual in his pace of play. As we know, the speed of the Premier League will catch this type of player out. This often saw him exposed in the defensive part of his game. He was late on covering his full back when he went forward. He also committed the most fouls per game of any Spurs player last season and this was from being out of position.

Etienne Capoue enjoyed a brief run of games and was subsequently replaced by Nabil Bentaleb.

Box-to-box midfielder

The role of the box-to-box player requires a tempo man. Someone with great energy that can get forward and back, but also can move the ball up the field through short and long passing.

He has to be much more attacking, as his movement is affected by what goes on in front of him. In the attacking phase Mauricio Pochettino wants him to arrive late in the box after the centre forward and wide forward. In the defensive phase, he too is required to press the ball in-behind the number ten, but also to cover his full back if he has gone forward.

Last term, Mauricio Pochettino mainly used three players here, all of which gave him some, but not all of what he required.

Paulinho was good at arriving late in the box, but was lacking the ability to pass the ball forward or recover it often enough in the defensive phase. Mousa Dembele was good in the defensive phase, but struggled to get forward in the box or pass the ball up the field quickly. Ryan Mason was good at passing up the field, but prefers to shoot from distance rather than follow Kane and Chadli in.

Good points of Mason and Bentaleb partnership

Mauricio Pochettino eventually settled on the combination of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason for the majority of Premier League starts for the two positions. Both players bring some good points to the defensive midfield area.

As the more defensive midfielder, Nabil Bentaleb is very capable of dropping deep between the splitting centre backs in order to bring the ball out. Although he doesn’t have the same range of long passing as Etienne Capoue did, his mid-range and short passing is better, quicker and on-point.

In the defensive phase he is actually better than many give him credit for. Nabil is used to playing further forward, but he is a very good tackler and interceptor of the ball. His anticipation and reading of the game from a defensive standpoint is beyond his young years and he does a decent job of covering his full back when he goes forward.

A defensive chart for our match away to Liverpool sums up where he is as a player at the minute perfectly. He makes four out of four attempted tackles (the x’s), three interceptions (diamonds), two clearances (circles) and just one foul (black triangle).


Nabil Bentaleb defensive actions, Liverpool 3-2 Spurs.

The downside is the blue triangle. This is where his errant pass gifted a goal-scoring chance to Daniel Sturridge. This would be repeated a few matches later as his square pass went straight to Wayne Rooney, who punished his moment of negligence with a goal at Old Trafford. It’s clear that situational awareness is a part of Bentaleb’s game that needs to improve.

Alongside Bentaleb, Ryan Mason also fulfils some good points of the criteria that Mauricio Pochettino wants from the box-to-box player.

Mason does excel at moving the ball forward through quick passing. Take our last game of the season away at Everton, where he was looking to get the ball out on the diagonal or up the pitch at every opportunity.


Ryan Mason passes played, Everton 0-1 Spurs.

The aggressive nature of his passing means that a number of vertical ones don’t reach their target, these are shown in red. However, he does create three shooting opportunities, highlighted by the aqua arrows.

Mason does play with his head on a swivel and has decent awareness of where he needs to get the ball too. He also plays at tempo, which is what Mauricio Pochettino requires from this player to get attacks moving through the midfield zone.

Areas for improvement

They have their good points, but both Mason and Bentaleb have areas for improvement.

As pointed out above, Nabil needs to work on his situational awareness to know more of what is going on around him on the pitch. The stray passes to Sturridge and Rooney were a part of his game last season and a recurring theme at points in the campaign. Tiredness from representing Algeria at the AFCON and being just 20-years old played a part, but it needs to be ironed out of his play.

Ryan Mason can pass the ball, but he needs to improve the defensive side of his game. Statisticians will tell you that he made the most tackles per game along with Danny Rose last season, but he was also dribbled past more than any other Spurs player too. Having just looked at Bentaleb’s defensive effort in the game up at Anfield, compare that with Mason’s display where he made two tackles (green x) and was dribbled past 6 times (orange x). He also has the deathly blue triangle of gifting a scoring chance to the opposition.


Ryan Mason defensive actions, Liverpool 3-2 Spurs.

The problem with Ryan Mason is that he is slightly undersized and a little lightweight to be a force in the defensive midfield area of the pitch. He won 50% of his tackles, which is less than Bentaleb’s 59%, Dembele’s 62% and even Paulinho’s 61%. Naturally due to his size, he also struggles in aerial duels where his 40% win rate is 20% below that of Bentaleb and Paulinho.

Nowhere more was Mason’s aerial ability exposed than in the 3-0 drubbing by Man Utd at Old Trafford. Marouane Fellaini abused him in the first half before Nabil Bentaleb was switched to mark the Belgian after the interval.

The game also highlighted Mason’s defensive positioning, something which needs to be worked on. Fellaini not only used his size in the air, but then drifted off the back of Mason in to the space between the lines.


Fellaini drifts behind Mason.

This then gave our back line problems as to who to mark and was a big reason why we conceded so many goals last season – a lack of cover for our centre backs.


Fellaini gets behind Mason, giving Walker a decision of who to cover?

Mason’s ability to close and defend the space between the lines was his Achilles heel last season and a major reason why he would be better used further up the pitch this.

Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address

Mauricio Pochettino needs to decide what he wants from each position in his defensive midfield duo. Last season he used hybrid players in here and we paid for it by not having either a pure defensive holding midfielder or the complete package of what he needs his box-to-box midfielder to do. The result was a lack of cover for our centre backs and we leaked goals.

What has been done to address our defensive midfield problems?

So far Mauricio Pochettino has brought in a player that gives him options here in Toby Alderweireld. The Belgian is a centre back, but can cover right back and the defensive midfielder positions. This allows Mauricio Pochettino to go with Nabil Bentaleb, Toby Alderweireld or Eric Dier at this spot. However, a pure destructive holding player that can pass and instigate attacks would be more preferable. Links with Sven Bender and Christoph Kramer are good evidence of moves to solve this problem.

The box-to-box player remains a conundrum. Mauricio Pochettino has the choice of a solid passer that can move the ball quickly forward in Ryan Mason and a sound closing down defensive asset in Mousa Dembele. Both bring completely opposite things to the table.

What Pochettino lacks is a player that can arrive later behind the forwards in the box to support the attack. If we do indeed bring in a proper defensive midfielder, then that would allow Nabil Bentaleb to move forward in to this position. The Algerian is a player that could provide all three aspects that Pochettino wants from here. Bentaleb has the powers of ball recovery, is a good passer, but also last season showed an eye for bursting forward at opportune moments. His only goal arrived in the League Cup, but last term he showed enough progression in the attacking side of his game to hint that this will be a breakout year for him going forward.

Having Bentaleb, Mason and Dembele competing for the box-to-box role, Mauricio Pochettino will certainly have options in here. Just as he will have with Alderweireld, Bentaleb, Dier and potentially a new defensive midfielder competing for the role alongside them. What this also does is give our coach more options in the number ten role with Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele and now potentially Ryan Mason getting a chance at working behind Harry Kane.

Whoever Mauricio Pochettino decides to go with, the two players operating in the defensive midfield roles need to be addressed. We simply cannot go on leaving our back four unscreened this season.

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23 Responses to Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Defensive Midfield

  1. Mike J 31st July 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    Great article (as usual)

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st July 2015 at 7:43 pm #

      Thanks for reading Mike.

      • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st August 2015 at 12:52 am #

        I think you made a wise move to skip the Man Utd game Being Jamie, although I’m sure it’ll be dragged up by the media prior to next weekend! AVB always used to play a centre back at either left back or right back vs Players like Crouch, Andy Carroll or Benteke in order to get effectively 3 centre backs on the field and also 3 good aerial players. I wonder if Pochettino might experiment with the same like Dier or Alderweireld at right back. He could even go Alderweireld-Dier-Wimmer-Vertonghen across the back four against aerial sides!

  2. Jonas Whitby 31st July 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    You’re describing central midfield, not defensive midfield. The 2 in a 4-2-3-1 is central midfield, who can be defensive or otherwise.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st July 2015 at 7:45 pm #

      Hi Jonas, the two in 4-2-3-1 is defensive midfield and the three are advanced midfield. Central midfield would be a pairing in 4-4-2.

  3. Being Jamie 31st July 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    This is a great piece – I missed the 3-0 at OT and, given the reaction among my fellow yids, didn’t make too much effort to catch up on it.

    This made the Fellaini/Mason point really interesting: I’m reminded of Crouch taking up a position against Assou-Ekotto in a 3-2 reverse at the Britannia under Redknapp.

    It’be intriguing to see what Pocche does when we go back there soon – perhaps Alderweireld in midfield.

  4. Bleedlilywhite 31st July 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    The fact that MP played Dier as DMF against MLS proves Mark’s point about concern Poch must have with respect to position discussed. Eric performed admirably role of defensive player out of the two, except for passing back to Ds part. That skill may be improved, though.
    I think Mason’s ability to cover for Rose was very much stretched last season as he felt much more comfortable in those infrequent instances when more defense oriented Davies played.
    In summary, Mark’s coverage of the subject matter is overall much better that that for of defensive one for our DMFs. last season.

    • Zaph 31st July 2015 at 11:00 pm #

      Yep, Dier in the DM was interesting. He started poorly though, gifting up the dreaded Blue arrow thingy.

      Odd game to watch as players resisted any real tackles, a wierd friendly aura, so hard to get real clues.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st August 2015 at 12:55 am #

      Dier playing there was an interesting one Bleedlilywhite, be curious to see if Poch does the same in the Audi Cup games.

  5. Rob 31st July 2015 at 9:34 pm #

    Good observations and analysis. Deli Ali could be the box-box later part of the season perhaps.

    • Ben 1st August 2015 at 12:43 am #

      Definitely – I think Dele Alli has a big future at Tottenham. May need this season to settle in while playing in Europe, the Domestic cups and as a sub, but if he finds his feet quickly then you never know. Leaves Bentaleb, Mason and Alli competing for the box-to-box role, Eriksen and Dembele for the AM role, and a new DM / Bentaleb for the DM role.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st August 2015 at 12:56 am #

      This is where I can see him fitting in Rob, depending on how fast he can make the step up.

  6. Ben 1st August 2015 at 12:40 am #

    Great article – couldn’t agree more with this and have been peddling a similar message recently (at a much higher level, obviously!). I think the Toby and Jan CB partnership could be good so I’d rather he stay there, but if that happens then we’re crying out for a quality DM to shield the back four. My preference would be someone like Illaramiendi but Kramer sounds pretty good and Bender is also solid. I’d even take McCarthy at the right price – just so long as we don’t have the Mason/Bentaleb combo again this season as neither one shields the defence well enough. Let us hope they’re working on plugging this major gap as we speak…

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st August 2015 at 12:59 am #

      I think the links with Kramer and Bender say we are working on it. Poch may just we’ll be playing with contingencies to see what he can do if we fail to sign either.

  7. Brian 1st August 2015 at 1:22 am #

    Bentaleb and Mason have great potential but were both (especially Mason) played beyond their capacity last season. I’m expecting Dembele to stay and take a more dominant role. I’d like to see us get McCarthy. I think that could take the pressure off everybody.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd August 2015 at 11:10 am #

      Yes i agree that both were overused to the point of exhaustion last season. At least now they both have the expereince of the not only the mental side of what it takes, but also the physical endurance that is required to play the number of games in a season at the top level.

  8. Brian 1st August 2015 at 6:37 am #

    As the great Yogi Berra once said “deja vu all over again”.
    My hopeful stance was shaken today. It really is starting to look like Levy, instead of supporting Poch and getting him the talent he wants e.g. one more midfielder and 2 strikers –
    McCarthy – Hernandez & Berahino – alternatively N’jie or Batshuiza – Levy has either made low ball offers or none at all and holding out for better money on some of the deadwood.
    So instead of going for the players that Poch has identified; he has Baldini the Schmoozer running all over the place rummaging through dustbins and used and damaged goods tables in the hopes of finding a “bargain”. Very discouraging – We are very close to challenger status. We need 3 quality players and have 3 fair players at excess to move – Lennon, Soldado & Townsend – and the Ade who can do nothing to help Spurs except leave..
    McCarthy and Berahino might excede Levy’s ceiling but the ceiling existst because the last time he paid larger amounts he got some poor buys. The problem wasn’t the prices paid the problem was that Baldini & he made the selections and neither of them have the acumen to do that. Baldini’s only good buy was Lamela – and he paid far too much for him even though he’ll be worth 30 M after this year. By contrast – Levy bought 2 players that AVB wanted – Erickson & Lloris. There is a lesson in here somewhere for Mr. Levy.
    I hope he can learn it.
    The other issue is that without appropriate support, we are going to burn out some of our young. high potential stars

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd August 2015 at 11:28 am #

      We all know that Levy has a history of meddling, but at the minute we simply don’t know the truth about what is going on between Pochettino, Mitchell, Baldini and Levy and just how their relationships are working together or the quartet interacting overall. We have specualtion, but we don’t know what is in their job descriptions.

      We are also dealing with some expensive commodities here, £15-£20 million in some cases, which takes time to negotiate deals. It isn’t just like popping down the street to buy a Mars bar. Maybe low ball offers have been made, Levy does have a history of being a tough negotiator, but all we get to hear, unless you are some well clued up ITK, is media speculation and we know that they are just trying to sell newspapers or generate page clicks for advertising revenues. I’m sure we’ll see some more movement as the season start draws closer, the window closes and clubs want to get deals done. Remember it takes two to tango in a negotation, just because we show up and say that we want to but doesn’t mean the other club want to sell or that the player is even interested in coming here. We don’t want to do business last minute, and we have made some good early moves this time, but we also don’t want to be held to ransom. Just because we haven’t signed anyone this week doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything. Then, of course, there is the flip side argument that bringing in too many players means that they won’t gel and it will affect team chemistry, you can’t have it both ways.

  9. John 2nd August 2015 at 9:43 pm #

    Thanks for another good read Mark. How do you think Dier did in midfield last match, and how would you feel if we don’t sign anyone more and he plays there for substantial minutes this season?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd August 2015 at 10:58 am #

      Hi John, thanks for reading. I thought Dier had some teething troubles but did ok. I don’t want to judge it based on just one pre-season build-up game, but i will be looking to see if it continues in the Audi Cup this week. It’s a shame as these games are on back-to-back days and so we will see a fair amount of squad rotation, which doesn’t help in assessing these things. He may grow in to the role or he may look like an out of place centre back.

  10. anotherwisemonkey 3rd August 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Very interesting points, well made.

    Aren’t we playing these Audi cup matches too close to the big kick off? Surely no-one will be expected to play more than 90 minutes over the two matches?

    I’m a little worried that Dier will be run rings round at Old Trafford. van Gaal seemed to have Spurs’ number last season. But for poor finishing they could have won at the Lane, and you’ve highlighted that they’d done their homework on Mason. Given that we won’t know the final squad till the transfer window closes, and the lack of depth in the position, how do we limit damage over our August fixtures to ensure we’re not cut adrift by the end of that period?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd August 2015 at 7:13 pm #

      I think they are way too close Anotherwisemonkey. We are only involved because of the size of the other teams so as to grow our brand with the coverage the “tournament” will get. We shouldn’t be playing anyone in the Wednesday game who is going to start on Saturday that’s for sure and the starting Xi shouldn’t play more than 70 mins.

      As for vs Man Utd, I’d play Alderweireld in there with Bentaleb and go Dier and Vertonghen at the back, just until we can get a proper DM sorted. More in the match preview on Friday.

      • anotherwisemonkey 3rd August 2015 at 10:10 pm #

        Sounds like a good plan, but I suspect Pochettino will do what he’s done so far in pre-season. I’ll look forward to the preview.