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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.