Watford 1-2 Spurs: battle of the back threes

Both coaches use a back three with differing degrees of success as we win again, Watford 1-2 Spurs at Vicarage Road.

Mauricio Pochettino started with a back three and Quique Sanchez Flores finished with one, as both coaches used the system at different points to achieve different aims.

Spurs back three

When the line-ups were announced, it seemed as if Mauricio Pochettino would be continuing with our tried and trusted formation. The initial surprise was Christian Eriksen’s admittance from the team sheet, but setting up with three centre backs trumped this shock.

We often see Eric Dier dropping in to the back line in order to bring the ball out, but not starting as the anchor in a pure back three. This allowed Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld to split even wider than usual and spray countless long diagonal passes to Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier operating as wingbacks.

The naming of Trippier in the starting eleven was another eyebrow raiser, but as soon as the 3-3-3-1 formation became apparent, his inclusion also became clear. The summer signing from Burnley is a much more dangerous crosser of the ball than Kyle Walker. His service would be one of the routes to attacking a Watford back four that has been susceptible in the left back zone.

Trippier operated for a large chunk of the match in the Watford half and our centre backs were looking to get play out to him at every opportunity. This saw the ball move quickly over great distances to hit him before the Watford defence could get out and cover him.

The naming of three centre backs was to avoid playing 2v2 against Watford’s twin striker pairing and in achieving that objective it stood up very well. But it also allowed our wingbacks greater space versus the Hornet’s central midfield and full backs.

Pressing matters

Operating in a 3-3-3-1 formation gave us the extra man at the back versus Deeney and Ighalo. It also allowed us to still press from the front as Mauricio Pochettino likes us to do. Harry Kane and Erik Lamela will usually try and push the opposition to one side and then after cutting down their passing options, the press will move in.

Our first goal came from such a situation. Craig Cathcart had the ball and Kane went over to close and hurry him. Cathcart was initially looking for a pass out to Ikechi Anya on his right, but seeing Dele Alli there and Anya hemmed by the sideline, he pondered.


Kane starts the press from our 3-3-3-1 on Cathcart.

This hesitation allowed Kane to close in and seal off a pass back. As Cathcart then tried to advance up the field, Tom Carroll saw his panic and also smelled a potential turnover. Carroll moved in causing Cathcart to try and dribble, which allowed Dele Alli to strip his loose touch.


Carroll and Alli move in.

The trap had achieved its aim and now with possession and numbers, Erik Lamela raced forward and calmly slotted home, 1-0.

Deeney and Ighalo

The work rate of Watford’s twin pronged attack is a big reason why the Hornets are having such a good season and they are so difficult to beat. Both players are dangerous when Watford gets the ball forward, but they also work tirelessly without it.

The play of both was a big reason why they remained in the game. We contributed with sloppy passes, but Watford’s pressing from the front was energetic, calculated and caused a number of turnovers in our half.

With the ball, Watford’s plan all season has been to hit Troy Deeney early and have Odion Ighalo work off his headers, knockdowns and through balls. Against our three centre backs, the paring were getting little change until Deeney pulled out on to our full backs, looking to bully Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.

The ploy brought success as the Hornets levelled the game up just before half time. Deeney pressed and chased down Toby Alderweireld out towards the corner flag, causing the Belgian to clear up the line straight to Nathan Ake. The ball was then worked to the other side of the pitch and Almen Abdi swung it back across towards Deeney who had stayed out wide on Kieran Trippier. Our full back was no match for the Watford man in the air and he sent a speculative header up towards Ighalo.


Deeney pulls on to Trippier.

Ighalo had pushed and forced Dier back towards our goal. The bounce of the ball was really Dier’s undoing. It allowed Ighalo to outmuscle him while he was in the air, pushing Dier off it when he was most vulnerable, just enough to allow Ighalo to turn. The ricochet off Dier and back in to the path of Ighalo was fortunate, but there was nothing lucky about the finish as he stabbed the ball past Hugo Lloris. 1-1.

Ake sees red

The game was finely poised. Our back three, one moment apart, had contained Deeney and Ighalo. We were also controlling possession on what was a tricky pitch and getting our wingbacks forward. The game really changed when Nathan Ake was sent off.

It was a challenge that got worse every time you saw it and changed both coaches tactical thinking. Mauricio Pochettino dispensed with the back three and went to our usual 4-2-3-1 setup. Quique Sanchez Flores moved Deeney to right midfield and went with three centre backs of his own. He had his side drop off and play deep and compact and it looked as if the tone was set for the final thirty minutes.

With Watford playing so deep it forced Christian Eriksen to come far too short looking for the ball. The Dane had come on as a half time sub for Mousa Dembele, but coming so short was negating his impact.

The game was meandering and it looked as if we would again struggle to break down a side sat deep looking to defend what it had. Our passing was going astray and we were becoming frustrated. Mauricio Pochettino brought on Nacer Chadli and Son Heung-Mon. Both are run in-behind forward types and the removal of a lock picking passer in Tom Carroll didn’t seem to be what was called for.

What the arrival of Chadli and Son did do was play higher up the pitch and this actually gave Watford some space to run Deeney and Ighalo in to. Both players had been booked after Ake’s red card for petulant acts and were re-invigorated by their frustration and the backs to the wall situation.

It led to a string of Watford corners as the home side went in search of a winner themselves. They almost got it, as Ben Watson swung a delivery in that highlighted our lack of players on the posts at corners once again. This has been a continued problem this season and it wasn’t the only delivery that caused us problems in the match, merely the closest to scoring.

Watford were suddenly caught up the pitch, they had numbers to press Hugo Lloris on the ball, actually causing our keeper to pass straight out to Valeron Behrami. His touch let him down though and Nacer Chadli recovered. The Belgian sprung forward, releasing Erik Lamela. He slowed play down, allowing Watford to recover, but they were caught far too narrow trying to stop us going through the centre.


Watford caught too narrow.

Their back three, which had become a back five, was now caught inside, affording Kieran Trippier a vast area of space.

The flag had mystifyingly stayed down, but no one continued to pick Son up, who was free on the initial cross and when Trippier returned the ball. This time the now onside South Korean made no mistake and flicked it home with a deft back heel. Watford 1-2 Spurs and the away end was bouncing in delirious joy as the Hornets cursed the linesman.

Watford 1-2 Spurs overall

The big talking point from this game was the offside/onside nature of Son’s goal, but the operation of our back three was the main takeaway for me. Eric Dier slotted nicely in-between Vertonghen and Alderweireld to offer us a real alternative formation, even if it is only used against teams playing with two strikers.

Final score: Watford 1-2 Spurs.

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20 Responses to Watford 1-2 Spurs: battle of the back threes

  1. James Bailey 29th December 2015 at 7:23 pm #

    Welcome back, Mark. I think I’ve checked this site 5 times a day over the past three weeks. Glad to have a new post. Can’t find the same insightful discussion anywhere else.

    I like that Poch was willing to try something different to counter another club’s strength. Ighalo scares the hell out of me. That guy is so quick and strong. I hate watching the replay of his goal, because every time I want to see Dier just nub the ball out of the way with his toe and it never happens. He made up for it with a great block on Deeney late in the game.

    I was happy for Tom Carroll to get his goal on Saturday, but I still thought it was a little charitable to give him the start this time around. He seemed to almost panic every time he got the ball. I’m not sure what his passing percentage was, but I felt like every other pass went straight to Watford. I’d much rather have seen Son in the starting 11, or even Mason or Chadli. It worked out in the end, but it seems like it could have been a little less stressful if we could have tagged on a second goal much earlier in the game.

    I didn’t think Rose played particularly well in this game, and for me Davies has been the better option on that side lately. Rose’s crosses were mostly off the mark, including at least one that went way beyond the goal out of bounds. Trippier, on the other hand, was fantastic. Can he switch sides? (I do think he fits better when we go with the 3-man back line, though, as I like him a lot more going forward than I do in defense.)

    All in all, we found a way to get it done in the end. To lose only twice in the first half of the season is a great accomplishment, but think how much higher we could be if we’d turned a couple of those draws into wins. Still hard to complain about sitting Top 3-4 going into the new year. #COYS

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2015 at 4:13 pm #

      Good to be back James and thanks for the kind words, I enjoy the discussion on here also.

      Poch adpating to nullify another club’s strength was pleasing to see wasn’t it? Many a coach would’ve tried to overpower the opposition by imposing themselves on them with their game, but it was good to see a bit of adaptability, nous, and dare i say that phrase that has been levelled at Poch in the past, having a ‘plan B.’ It really looked like we had been working on the training field on this set up.

      With regards to Carroll, i think Pochettino wants to try and see if he can be a rotation player for Eriksen. He’s not got Christian’s skillset, but Eriksen burnt out last year with the number of games and yards he was being asked to work. Poch obviously doesn’t want that to happen again as he needs him fresher for the long run.

      Trippier does look much better as a wingback, it suits his love of a cross. I still think he’ll be a decent right back, but needs time and games. He can’t just play the odd Europa and cup game and be expected to be at his best. That being said, Walker has been excellent this season and it’s his position to lose. Trippier does look te better choice if we see the back three again though eg vs Leicester.

  2. James 29th December 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    Thank goodness. Was feeling very lost whilst you’ve been on holiday Mark, thanks for this report!

    Even more than the back 3, Carroll was a curious one for me. The festive period seemed like a perfect opportunity to give Son some more game time, Chadli a chance to impress or even Mason a way back in. Am I missing anything? Am thrilled with his integration per-se, but thought another time would have been better. Do you think there was something specific he had in mind for him specifically relating to Watford?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2015 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks James, not a holiday but hard at work, good to be back though. I think Poch has rotated a bit with the hectic schedule and as mentioned in reply to James Bailey above, i think Carroll is purely to give Eriksen a rest now and then. Eriksen was burnt out by March last season and Poch knows he is the hub that makes a lot of things go, so needs him fresh for the long run. Carroll will get a few more games, maybe even Mason will come in from time-to-time, too.

  3. Reinert 29th December 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    “Mystifying” flag indeed! That pendulum of strange situations has finally swung in our favor, and fortune favors the bold!

    Great to have you back, Mark! COYS

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2015 at 4:21 pm #

      Fortune does favour the bold! We’ve had the Walker offside in the buiid-up to Dier’s equalising goal against Man City and now this, so i’m expecting a highly dubious decision to go against us soon, kind of like the Stefano Okaka goal over in Anderlecht ;)

  4. Marcus 29th December 2015 at 11:50 pm #

    Love the new option with a 3-back but was surprised how we deployed it. Would have put Toby as the sweeper myself. Eriksen is such a talented player but I think Poch wanted to make a statement that no one is invincible. Carroll will be a great player but he clearly is a late bloomer. Anyone know what’s going on with mason/benteleb?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2015 at 4:24 pm #

      Interesting suggestion of Toby as a sweeper. I think Poch used JV and TA on the outsides to take advanatge of their range of passing – they do play as full backs for Belgium after all – but it still has merit if he was to play as an old-school style Libero that could emerge out from the back line.

  5. Luke Francis 30th December 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    Very Glad your back Mark, have missed your posts!!!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 30th December 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      Thanks for reading and the kind words Luke. Top 3 a possibility now?

  6. Ben 30th December 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    great to have your wise words back, been missing your insight after and before all the games…
    Top three a reality if we can keep this up I reckon.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st December 2015 at 12:00 am #

      Thanks Ben, very much appreciate the kind words, i’ve missed the banter before and after games. The league is so open this season that it’ll be a missed opportunity if we don’t take advantage. The traditional big four will be reinforcing in the summer + upgrading managers, so this season is vital to other sides to take some initiative. Champions League is a great draw to attracting players, but a lack of it for clubs like Chelsea and Man Utd may see them miss out on players they might otherwise have got.

  7. Bleedlilywhite 30th December 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Good to find you being back, Mark.
    I do not think 3 back system is something this young team was able to adopt to easily. Especially, when 3-3-3-1 turns into 5-4-1 defensive posture. Wingback position requires an exceptional performers for such formation to be successful. Obviously Spurs do not possess such a talent yet. But I can see where Poch is heading to. He wants to be able to employ different variations depending on the opponent. I can see also Yedlin as a possible wingback next season. I would not be surprised if Spurs would go and buy young talent to compliment Davies and Rose who seem to be only able to perform fullback roles.
    All and all it was great to see plan B for once.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st December 2015 at 12:09 am #

      Thanks Bleedlilywhite, good to see you back too. I thought we did quite well with the system seeing as we’ve not utilised it in match situation before. Granted it’ll only come out against teams playing with twin strikers, but i thought there were some encouraging performances. We did play some sloppy passes and come under some pressure at times, so it wasn’t all rosy, but that is to be expected playing against a hard working team on a dubious pitch. Hopefully Poch will continue to work on this and some other formations in training.

  8. Chris 31st December 2015 at 12:42 am #

    Great stuff as always. It was such a good thing to see Poch willing to adapt to the opposition and try something different. It was equally good to see us pull it off so well. Our CB partnership has done amazingly well this season, but I do fear for them up against big strong forwards, and teams that go direct.

    Eriksen is already looking a bit tired – he’s never been one to really go for 50/50s, but when he stops creating then he does become a bit of problem for the team. Purely based on performance, Carroll wouldn’t be starting any games, but I like that Poch is sticking with him and hopefully he will raise his game.

    I find him a frustrating player to watch, he doesn’t really seem to be able to find space to receive a pass, and he often seems to crowd out teammates by moving towards them when they have the ball. It’s almost like he wants to do some tiki taka short passing, but the rest of the team is looking to split the lines and play longer more aggressive passes. But I’ve still go high hopes, as he was great playing off of Kane in the few U21 matches I vaguely remember seeing (!).

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 31st December 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      You make a good point about Tom Carroll, Chris. I think that is why he looked much better when on loan at Swansea last season, they play that shorter passing style and it suits him better. He did look better at under 21s and earlier, which is why so many of us had great hopes for him. Maybe he found his level and is unable to make the step up?

  9. Luke Francis 31st December 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    I’m starting to think crazy things and get carried away given out recent form. With the Watford game being a prime example of what happens to teams with “momentum”. The kind of bad luck which use to afflict us on a regular. The flukey last minute goals, the dodgy refereeing decisions. So far this season it’s been good to at least give as good as I get with my Arsenal fan mates (the Newcastle game aside!!. But as Spurs supporter it’s usually the hope that kills you. So I’m trying to temper my thoughts. Anyway happy new year Mark. All the best for 2016

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd January 2016 at 4:08 pm #

      It is the hope that has freqyently killed us, but for the first time in years we have a manager that actually makes me feel confident that he has this under control, and, dare i say it, that there is even more to come! All the best for 2016 Luke.

  10. Dr JAB 2nd January 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Mark, like others on the site it is good to see you back again. Everything of the best for 2016.
    We have reached the half way stage in a season that borders on aberrant. Perhaps this season presents our best chance in years for a title challenge and more likely a top 4 position.

    The style of play, the intensity of our game and the fine form shown by the team gives Spurs supporters that worst of emotions – optimism! As you know from some of my earlier posts I have been a long time ardent supporter of both Lamela and Dembele and I am delighted to see them both have such an influence. Dembele’s absence is a concern for the next few games but perhaps Mason and Bentelab can step in to relieve some of the pressure on team selection and fatigue. I am also pleased to see those I have been critical of – Walker and Rose show big improvements – especially the former.

    I guess the big issue now is possible player acquisition. Although Poch talks of others filling the gap if Harry is injured I feel we still need a specialist centre forward and perhaps another player in the Dier mould as both of our players have been vital to the teams effort. For a change Levy needs to move fast as the workload in January and February is large especially when the UEFA competition cranks up again.

    On balance we can be hugely satisfied and hope that the caravan keeps rolling!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd January 2016 at 4:04 pm #

      It is good to see Dembele and Lamela coming good this season. Dembele so much so that he is now regarded as a pivotal player that we aren’t as confident going in to games without. Mason and Bentaleb don’t give us great confidence to fill his boots – how that has changed since last season!

      Player acquisition will be important, but I am optimistic this time for two reasons. Firstly, we seem to have scouting on point now. We know what we are looking for and Levy seems to be letting the likes of Mitchell and MacKenzie do what they are paid to do. Secondly, Pochettino has a plan, a philosophy and knows not only the skillset of the players that he requires but also the mental capacity as well, which is important in creating a harmonious unit. Dare i say it, but for the first time in years, we seem to have co-ordination and some forward-thinking vision!

      All the best for 2016.