Tottenham Hotspur’s Tactical Issues Explained

Tottenham Hotspur have not started the Champions
League well. Last season’s beaten finalists were held to a draw away at Olympiakos before
crashing to a 2-7 defeat at home to Bayern Munich. The Premier League season has started
in similarly poor fashion. As these stats from OneFootball show, Spurs
have significant ground to make up if they are to compete past the group stages and their
next opponents, Red Star Belgrade, are tricky customers as Liverpool found out away from
home last season. This season Spurs have generally used a 4-3-1-2,
while occasionally deploying a 4-2-3-1. Part of this switch has been to assist Harry Kane
and remove some of the attacking burden on the striker as a lone operator. This has led to the essential problem of formations
that don’t use natural wingers or wide wide attackers – resulting in a lack of natural
width. This is exacerbated for Spurs because their attackers have tended to stay quite
narrow, attempting to pass through the middle of sides with neat, quick interplay. When
it works, it’s excellent, and Spurs have previously used a solid defensive base to
unleash quick, mobile attackers who roam between the lines and exploit space superbly to create
attacking opportunities. However, this works best when it’s backed
up by an aggressive, athletic midfield and defence who can press and counter-press. But the transition to a midfield diamond has
been uneasy in terms of this overall approach. When pressing in an essentially narrow formation,
the wide areas in the middle and defensive thirds of the pitch present a problem. The
full backs must either step up to anticipate the opposition pass leaving gaps behind, or
stay back and require the midfield diamond or double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 to move across
a lot to cover. There are two issues here for Spurs. First
is that their full backs, especially on the right, are being caught out. Push up, and
the centre backs are required to cover the holes behind. Sit back, and the midfield are
asked to do a huge amount in the wide spaces which is both tiring and leaves gaps in the
centre. Whereas in seasons past under Pochettino Spurs
had the sort of explosive midfield that could achieve this, with Moussa Dembele, Victor
Wanyama, and Eric Dier, Wanyama and Dier have both suffered with fitness, and the latter
has seemed out of favour at times, while Dembele has left. Winks, Sissoko, and Ndombele are
insufficiently aggressive and physical, at this point, while Ndombele’s positioning
has been suspect, for example in the defeat to Brighton. Added to that, decision making
from the fullbacks has, at times, been poor. The consequence of this is Tottenham’s defensive
issues. According to Wyscout, so far this season in the Premier League and Champions
League combined, Spurs are achieving an xG of 1.42 per game, but giving up an xG of 1.75
to their opponents. This shows that, on average, Tottenham’s opponents are able to achieve
better scoring chances. And unlike last season, where a more efficient
attacking style partly mitigated these defensive problems, Tottenham have looked more ponderous
in attack this season. Again, a lack of width and dynamism means that Spurs complex attacking
structure has seemed to lack energy or the ability to go wide and change things up; against
sides who are content to sit back and defend in an energetic mid- or low-block this seems
particularly acute. Stop up the middle, and Spurs can struggle. Tactical issues, defensive instability, injuries,
grumbling over contracts (all of which are discussed in more detail in our last video)
– Spurs have a lot to contend with if this campaign is to match or even exceed the highs
of last season.

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