Tactical Analysis: Spurs’ tactical future is with a 4-3-3

Tactical Analysis: Spurs’ tactical future is with a 4-3-3

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In the last article, I laid out the reasons that Spurs’ attacking philosophy needed a massive overhaul after Modric’s departure. In this article, I hope to establish why Spurs attacking future is a 4-3-3 that features a midfield of Sandro or Parker playing alongside Dembele and Sigurdsson.

The basic problem facing Spurs post-Modric is this: How can they creatively advance the ball to create high-quality scoring chances? With Modric, all the creative potential of their side was summed up in one player who made the whole attack go. Without him, the side have looked much more pedestrian, struggling to create chances off the predictable passing moves of Sandro and Livermore. The only time Spurs looked consistently threatening in the first two matches came when Lennon or Bale received the ball in space out wide and ran at their defender. But whenever the ball was in central areas, Spurs have looked extremely predictable. So what do you do about that? I’m going to propose that you drop your advanced central midfielder (usually Sigurdsson) back into a midfield three. With two holding mids in the center, he doesn’t get enough service to be effective anyway.

By deploying a midfield three, you can be a bit more flexible in what sort of players you slot into those roles. Rather than needing two defensive players to cover the vast central midfield area, you can have three players patrolling the area – which means you can get away with playing only one strict destroyer. In the other two spots, you can use a distributor (think Xavi at Barcelona or Fabregas during his Arsenal days) and a runner to link up play between the midfield two and front three (here you should think of Iniesta at Barca, Rosicky at Arsenal, or Lampard at Chelsea). The other interesting thing with this set up is that in games where you are the more talented side, 4-3-3 can easily become 3-4-3 with the destroyer sliding into defense with the two center backs and the two fullbacks moving forward to flank the remaining two midfielders. Given Parker and Sandro’s positional conservatism and the more enterprising mentality of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker, it isn’t hard to see Spurs shifting more toward a 3-4-3 against lower half sides. So this approach – three midfield players with each one assuming a distinct role in the side – is what I believe Villas Boas is trying to establish at Spurs. And if you look at his recent transfers with that philosophy in mind then they begin to make a bit more sense.

So pretend Spurs never signed Dembele and Dempsey and they kept Van der Vaart. Now they’re heading into the remainder of the season with the squad they had last Saturday. If you take Dembele out of the side and play a 4-3-3 with two holders and Sigurdsson or Van der Vaart, what you actually end up with is precisely the sort of thing that I already showed won’t work: a 4-2-3-1 without any creativity and in which your central attacking midfielder becomes marginalized due to lack of service.

What’s needed to make that midfield three work is a destroyer to shield the back line, a distributor who can make the attack go without taking many touches but who can make quick one or two touch passes to spring the attack to life, and a midfielder who can retain possession to either slow play down or to advance the ball simply by running at defenders. It’s that marauding runner who will stretch defenses and create space for the wide attacking players and he’s absolutely essential to making the system go. Modric used to be that for Spurs. What made him so remarkable is that he played that role and the regista role simultaneously, deciding which route to go based on what was available to him when he received the ball. In the new setup, Dembele will be the runner who stretches the defense and Sigurdsson will play the role of distributor. Consider Dembele’s heat map and average position map from his final match with Fulham against Man United:

Notice that in the heat map, Dembele almost always takes his first touch behind the halfway line. But on the average position map, he’s in a more advanced position (look for number 30, just below the midfield circle on the United side of the field). That reflects what anyone who watched the game could see for themselves: Most of Fulham’s most promising attacks came off long runs by Dembele where he beat the first man and then forced another United defender to come out of their position to stop his run. That’s how you stretch defenses and that’s how you create space to make life easier on your other attacking players. You think Bale, Adebayor, Dempsey, Sigurdsson and Lennon aren’t excited to benefit from Dembele’s mazy runs? Thanks to Dembele’s runs, Sigurdsson can operate in a more central role as a distributor. But he’ll also have freedom to jump ahead and join the attack in a role much like his closest Premiership analog, Frank Lampard, mostly looking for quick touches to set up teammates or the chance for an unmarked run from deep toward the goal. So Spurs midfield three would be Sandro, Sigurdsson and Dembele with Parker, Huddlestone, and Livermore available off the bench.

There are a couple other points to consider as well.  In a 4-3-3, there are always five other places where attacking threats can come from. But thanks to the canny transfer activity of the past summer, Spurs actually have six other players to involve in the attack. So let’s talk about them.

First is Adebayor. He’s a number nine striker, but he’s a number nine with phenomenal range and good passing ability (and, sadly for Spurs supporters, a less than reliable record as a finisher). Interestingly, the only Premiership striker who really compares to Adebayor is former Spurs striker Peter Crouch. Consider:

The first heat map is from Adebayor’s five star performance against Newcastle in which he scored one goal and assisted on four others. The second is from Crouch’s best game with Stoke when he scored a wonder goal against City late last season. In both cases, the strikers, though they look like conventional number nines, drop deep to receive the ball and distribute to other attackers. That makes Adebayor a tougher striker to mark and the space he vacates up top creates space for Sigurdsson or Dembele to attack or, more probable, the next person we need to talk about: Gareth Bale.

I’ve already described how Bale will likely be used by AVB so I won’t belabor the point here. All I will add is that what might seem a role too free for Bale’s own good when considered by itself should become much more sensible when set alongside these other considerations. Distilled to its essence, AVB’s philosophy is about shrinking the field when the opponent is on the ball and maximizing it when in possession. Bale’s more nomadic role in this setup, when set alongside the runs of a marauding midfielder and the free role of Adebayor up top should make him that much more difficult to mark. And taken within the larger system, it makes Spurs that much more unpredictable as an attacking force.

Next is the third player up front, which I anticipate will be either Aaron Lennon or Clint Dempsey. When it’s Lennon, I expect we’ll see him play a pretty typical right wing role with Bale being the player who cuts inside and supports Adebayor. But when it’s Dempsey, that will create a whole new set of challenges for defenders. Dempsey is, in many ways, the embodiment of American soccer at its pinnacle: Rugged, hard-working, fundamentally sound, and able to use those compound word virtues to make up for a lack of pace or obvious flair on the ball. He’s also a player who can line up anywhere in midfield or even as a center forward in a pinch. With Spurs I anticipate he’ll play on the right hand side of a 4-3-3 opposite Gareth Bale, though if Bale gets hurt he could easily shift left and play opposite Aaron Lennon. What makes Dempsey so exciting is that he can pop up just about anywhere to receive the ball, he has extremely intelligent movement and he finishes very well in front of goal. If the opposite wide man and Dembele can stretch the defense, I suspect Sigurdsson and Dempsey will both benefit enormously. To illustrate Dempsey’s versatility, look at these heat maps from several of his games last season. How do you mark a guy who covers that much space and does so as intelligently as the man Americans call Deuce? That’s the question Premiership defenses will have to answer.

The final three players to consider will provide support from the back line. Two are obvious: Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who is now one of Spurs’ most important creative players, and Kyle Walker, last year’s PFA Young Player of the Year. It’s the attacking ability of these two players that should allow Spurs to shift into a functional 3-4-3 when in possession against overmatched opponents. Assou-Ekotto is a massively underrated creator from the left back role and Walker’s danger down the right is already well known.

The final piece to the puzzle is Jan Vertonghen. Something worth watching next time you see Spurs play is how the defenders fan out whenever the keeper has the ball. The fullbacks press up almost to midfield and the two center halves both flair out into wide roles where you’d usually expect to see the fullbacks. This will likely become even more pronounced with the more technically adept Hugo Lloris in goal. So even the center halves are going to be cast in a more aggressive light in this system. And that should suit Vertonghen beautifully. Able to play midfield or left back without missing a beat, the Belgian international offers another attacking threat for Spurs – a threat that was on full display during his debut against West Brom when he narrowly missed a scoring chance in the first half and had a late winner waved off when William Gallas was called offside. It will be intriguing to see how Vertonghen is deployed for Spurs.

For all the reasons described above, AVB’s Spurs have the potential to be a very exciting team that plays attractive, aggressive football. But there’s a caveat to all this: The early returns have not been pretty. Much like AVB’s Chelea, Spurs have enjoyed a lot of possession and created a fair number of shots, but they haven’t scored enough goals. They’ve also shown a lot of fragility late in games. (If games ended after 80 minutes, Spurs would be undefeated with seven points.) I suspect that many of the problems go back to the difficulties that Spurs have had with AVB’s system. On paper, the system is supposed to make the creativity happen. Under Redknapp, you depended upon the impulsive creativity of geniuses like Modric and Van der Vaart. In AVB’s system players are meant to be put into positions where creativity becomes easier and more likely to happen. But that hasn’t happened early on. Bale has struggled to decide when he should stay wide and when he should look to cut inside. Most the team has looked uncertain about what to do with the ball when they have it. They look like a team that is struggling to learn a system and is spending too much of their time thinking and too little playing. (They also look like a team struggling for fitness, which could be a product of AVB’s training technique or could simply be early-season fitness issues.) If things go as planned, the players will take to the system in time and we’ll start to see the kind of free-flowing attacking football that I’ve described above. However, that’s all contingent upon the players grasping the system. For the past four years they’ve played under a manager with an exceedingly light touch who trusted his starters to go out and figure things out for themselves. Under AVB it’s a whole new ball game. If Spurs can become comfortable in the system and play within it, rather than constantly thinking about what they are supposed to be doing moment-to-moment, then they’ll do quite well. But if they can’t, then it could be déjà vu for AVB.

Author’s note: I’m a diehard Spurs fan. I try to offer neutral tactical analysis when I write, but sometimes that’s damned difficult. This is one of those times.

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  1. Great article, good read and very insightful. Change can be hard to grasp and extremely off putting when trying to play the game. I’ve played under such circumstances and when confidence may be low it’s not a fruitful exercise. We need a leader in the middle and for that reason Parker must play when hs is fit. I am a Sandro fan don’t get me wrong but you are correct they both cannot play.
    We must consider that with zero tactics in Harry’s days to having 3 or 4 systems now that’s a hell of a lot for footballers to take in over the course of a few weeks. You can argue that they are footballers paid a fortune and they must grasp what they are paid to do but you have to question their intellect don’t you? This whole process depends on aptitude and a willingness to learn and do. But without confidence and good morale all of these changes will not work out. We must get a result at reading to give the team and AVB belief.

  2. Another excellent article. Why isn’t this guy on radio 5 live with Chapers?

    1. Will – Heh, I’d love to do something like that. Only difficulty is I’m in the United States so I’m six hours behind you all and don’t have any contacts in the footballing media over there beyond the people here and at Just Football.

  3. Good article and I feel you are correct in we need Parker and dempsey with dembele to show the intelligence required to lead on the pitch for this seem.
    Others may be capable but this is made for Parker as a man to follow instructions and bark to others.
    Lennon, Hudderstone and others will be bench warming unless dramatic improvements are made in their game

  4. Well written and insightful article. I think most intelligent football fans can appreciate what AVB is trying to implement and with time I think he will be a success. The one area of concern I would have is the ‘regista’ role. I think you are spot on with Dembele, he offers real dynamism and forces defenders to commit. Furthermore he is very good in defence and keeps possesion well. His distribution from deep is not something he does particularly well to my mind. Jol diverted him to a deep lying midfielder only in the past 12 months. Likewise Gylfi Sigurdsson hasfantastic technical abilty and seems to have the engine to play as one of 3 in midfield but this triumvirate (include destroyer of choice) lacks the subtlty of passing variation that modric gave us. We’ve no Xavi. That is the reason missing out on Jao Moutinho was so critical. Perhaps when required Huddlestone could be deployed in a deep lying Quarter back role and as one of three may nit be required to cover so much ground? I guess we’ll see how it develops over the season. For the football connoiseur it certainly is an exciting tome to be a spurs fan.

  5. Another great article… My only hope is more Spurs fans will click onto the sight and take note. I think Dempsey is our signing of the summer followed closely by Dembele. Dembele will have a key role in the centre for us, I am happier to have him over Moutinho.
    I hate to relate my comment to an Arsenal performance, but I can see similarities between himself and Diabi, who, against Liverpool, consistantly drove forward with power creating space for Carzola with great effect.
    Like you say, I am looking forward to seeing Bale and Dempsey playing the inside forward roles for us, both can finish, Bale can beat a man and Clint has the “right place at the right time” possitional sence. It infuriated me watching WBA seeing a number of crosses coming in from Bale, only to see Lennon was outside his full back, not attacking the goal. Something that will come natually with Clint, in turn creating space for Walker outside.

    The tools are there and I beleive it will click. We have to be patient, this is the way we need to progress.

    1. Right. The one thing that is frightening with this is how dependent we are on Dembele. He’s basically going to have to pull a Modric this year, playing almost every Premiership match. That’s a big ask. It’s such a shame Carroll and Ceballos aren’t a few years older b/c I think they both could take some of the pressure off him. Luongo too, possibly.

  6. Yes, completely agree with your analysis. I suspect AVB is gearing up for a 4-3-3 (with a 4-2-3-1 as a “Plan B”). What we need now is quick fixes and we have 2 weeks during the International break to break the team into this system. For that reason I would also agree to deploy Parker (when fit) instead of Sandro, as he brings more leadership on the pitch. When Sandro has grasped the system and can take over from Parker then he will be ready as the midfield general. Formation:

    Friedel (Lloris eventually)

    Walker – Gallas or Dawson – Vertonghen or Caulker – Ekotto

    Sigurdsson – Parker or Sandro – Dembele

    Dempsey or Defoe/Lennon – Adebayor – Bale

    1. Right. One big point to keep in mind is that we can get really hung up on what specific formation it is, but that can kinda miss the point. If you have two attack minded wingbacks (we do), two midfielders who stay deep (kinda sorta – depends on how deep Dembele plays) and a runner (we do), two outside creative types (we do) and a center forward (we do)… well, that squad can shift seamlessly into at least three different formations – 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3. Depending on where your wide men end up and how far up your runner players, it can also end up looking like 4-4-1-1. So I’d call it 4-3-3, but I don’t want to overstress that point because what’s most important isn’t the starting shape, but the 11 players on the field. With the right 11 players, you can shift between 2 or 3 different formations in a single game.

  7. this is the second of two excellent articles. I want to believe in AVB and I welcome his appointment. these articles have given me hope that what we have seen so far this season are just “teething problems” and that the future can, indeed, be bright.

  8. Finished reading the (very insightful!) article, and my first thought was exactly what you said about Dembele. It relies heavily, maybe even solely, on Dembele not just playing, but playing well. He ties the whole system together, so if he’s out or off-form, which will undoubtably happen over the course of a long season, we’ll be in trouble.

    I’m wondering if Hudd will be able to deputise somehow, but that will likely involve a slight retweak.

  9. Great article about avb and players but you say AVB shrinks the field when the opponent has the ball? Isn’t it true that he shrinks the pitch when we have possession. The high line and high pressure means all ten of our players are effectively in the oppents half when we’re in procession. If the opponent intercepts the ball avb employs high pressing to force errors so we pick the ball back up in their own half. You said the opposite in your article so I’d like to understand that? Avb would obviously like to make the pitch as wide as possible when in possession which I would have thought would have come from Bale so I y do u think he should come into a floating role. I think he’s much better when sticking out on the left as he stretches the back line


    1. Well, obv. when we first get the ball off the pressing/shrinking the field tactic then the field gets smaller. Plus we haven’t had the right personnel for his system the first few games, which makes everything seem a bit helter-skelter. But what I think you can expect to see with Ade, Dempsey, and Dembele playing together is that all three of them will cover a ton of space to such an extent that we’ll basically be playing total football. Dempsey and Dembele can both play pretty much any attacking position. Adebayor is a pure striker, but he’s a pure striker with wonderful movement, hold-up play and passing ability. So those three should be very difficult to mark. Bale is the puzzle in this for me. I think he has the pace, strength, and finishing ability to mature into that Henry-type player coming in from a left forward position. But I’m not sure he has the mental capacity to play that role yet. He seems to really struggle to pick his spots so what often happens when he comes inside is he gets marked out completely. Part of the issue here may also be service-related. Bale’s main asset is his pace, so he can cut inside and find space before anyone else can catch him. But if no one can pick him out and get the ball to him quickly enough, then it doesn’t matter. It’s possible that Bale isn’t always running himself out of the play, he’s simply not getting the service he needs. (I don’t know how often this happens, but I do recall it happening on the break we had in the first half against Newcastle when BAE hit that hollywood ball to Lennon who ran down the right. Lennon had Bale wide open cutting inside off the left and didn’t see him. He ended up holding it too long and then dragging it back to Sigurdsson.)

  10. Loved the first article and now followed up by this one makes very interesting reading. many of the thoughts you expand on are similar to mine. I have not been a massive fan of Lennon as his end product is neither one thing or another: I feel the same about BAE. As a 4-3-3 we need a fullback that can create width and push on when required, Benny far too many times stops, cuts inside and plays the ball backwards.

    I honestly hope some Coach or person in the know at THFC manages to read these articles and passes them onto AVB – then he may understand not all Spurs fans are ‘booing’ idiotic morons, but are glad he is here to take us further than Redknees ever could have.

  11. I still think a 4-2-3-1 is better, with hard working high pressing forwards, I think our best line up would be something like …

    Siggurdson Dempsey Bale
    Dembele Sandro
    BAE Vertonghen Kaboul Walker

    maybe Parker for Sandro. 70 goals in that front 4 last season

    1. That’s an interesting lineup, although I think Sigurdsson’s passing is better than Deuce’s and Deuce has better movement and positional sense than Sigurdsson, so I’d be inclined to flip those two around. In which case your 4-2-3-1 and my 4-3-3 are extremely similar and any arguments we have about it are probably just splitting hairs.

      70 goals? Wow. Is that Premiership or all competitions? That’s impressive. Esp. when you figure Dembele is good for 6-8 from midfield and that Lennon and Defoe aren’t even factored into that equation. Those two are good for another ten or so themselves. Dang.

      1. Agreed.

        I might have overstated the golas, it was 60 not 70 in total and 50 in the league, bu Siggy only played half a season.

        What’s very interesting is Dempsey’s goal progress at fulham over the past 5 years: 6,8,9,13,23

  12. Very well presented and interesting read. Thanks. I very much like the idea of shifting from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3.

    Two small points though: “With Modric, all the creative potential of their side was summed up in one player who made the whole attack go” drastically reduces VdV’s input and influence in the past two seasons.

    “Sigurdsson will play the role of distributor” Sigurdsson doesn’t, imo, have the touch, passing range, vision or composure to play the “Xavi” role. He’d have to play as the runner in a midfield 3 or perhaps one of the wide players up front, though I have my doubts he’d be of the quality we have for the latter. He has a good shot and is a good finisher and can run (traits to be enjoyed not dismissed obviously, but he’s no distributor for me) other than that he looked very ordinary at Swansea and in the first 3 games for Spurs.

    Of the players Spurs have, I’d play Sandro as anchor, Dembele as runner and Huddlestone as distributor in a midfield 3.

    The new system could see us overcome the loss of a proven and habitual match winner like VdV, whose passing, long and sort, was also excellent, but I fear we may need another transfer window to replace Modric, even playing in a 3.

    Good pieces and keep them coming, I’m learning lots.

    I’d like to see us at least try 3-5-


  13. Sorry, messy ending. I meant to say I’d like us to at least try 3-5-2

  14. Brilliant! Please come and work with AVB as I don’t think we could possibly lose a game. You are,sir, the up and coming AVB. Brilliant with your tactical analysis. Hope to read many more of your articles and I hope someone at Spurs notices you and puts your articles to AVB. I believe you have a job to do here, at the Lane. Thanks once again!

  15. After years with FM games I thought my tactical skills was quite good, but I see from this article I have more to learn. Great read, and I hope AVB think similar. One thing I’d like to see next season is a better goalscorer on top. Llorente seems like a great player for this style of play, although I’d love to see Damiao arrive. Suggestion to your next article, Kyle Walker and crossong into the box. Great stamina, speed and determination but his crossing is really awful. Can’t remember one assist from a Walker cross ever.

  16. Great analysis, too bad Dembele and Dempsey were not signed prior last week – we would have addn 5 points. That’s what hurts is missing those points at year end.

  17. Sigurdsson is not strong in making play or play as a distributor . If you look back his time with Swansea, he has the best two passer in the EPL, Britton and Allen play behind him . Rodgers’s philosophy is to keep the possession and work the ball into the box , create simple chance. Sigurdsson actually benefited much from this system just like Van Der Vaart looked much dangerous when Modric plays behind him , in that case VDV seldom need to drop deep (although he likes drift anywhere he want). In conclusion , the far Sigurdsson to the goal , the less dangerous he is.

    Dembele as you say , although he came deeper to get the ball than usual when he played against Man Utd (i was surprised about that actually). He should play in a much advance role. Even in the last match when he was bought in as a central midfield and the formation became 442, it just too obvious that by watching his play you can figure out that he’s not a proper central midfield , at least not the “playmaker” , “distributor” we are looking for.
    I am glad that Huddlestone is stay as he is probably the only one who could suit into this position. Although i just can’t see he would be consider as an option and i also don’t believe that AVB would drop neither Livermore and Sandro , with Parker should be return in October.

    But the fact is when you looking to the top 4 and even Liverpool , Everton and Newcastle , they have at least one man who can pass the ball , distribute it , and most importantly , control the game when it needs to be slow down. One of the reason why we threw out 2 points against WBA and Norwich is after we opened the score we just keep over pushing forward that left so much space to them , we should have punished by Lukaku or anyone else by too often giving out the possession , which to me is unacceptable consider we were playing at home and we were facing teams are not better than us. This often happened in last two seasons .

    When AVB took charge i am the one who stand on him because IMO he’s the kind of manager who really care about the details and strategy , he should have and was supposed to let the players know when tempo-up and when to slow down , but so far i didn’t see those i expected. We looked clueless and dis-organize when we were rush for a goal.

  18. Fantastic article Jake, very nicely done! This line in particular sums up Spurs under AVB “They look like a team that is struggling to learn a system and is spending too much of their time thinking and too little playing.” I think his ability to keep his job will now come down to how quickly the players can adapt from a open, free to express, non technical 4-4-1-1 setup to a controlled, systematic, technical 4-3-3 system. AVB said he was going to make a slow evolution which is why he started with the 4-2-3-1 formation, but I imagine with the sale of Modric, VDV and the failure to purchase Mountinho he knows that he has to ditch the slow progression and push to the 4-3-3 setup much faster. I expect Lennon, Livermore and Defoe will all get dropped for the Reading match whilst Friedal will be given upto the United match before he to is dropped. My only question is do you really think Sigurdsson can play the creative roll, or is it possible that Huddlestone will be needed? Does the regista roll require a lot of mobility?

  19. I understand the theory, however I’m unconvinced by both Bale being able to operate as an inside forward, or Sigurdsson’s role in that lineup. Hopefully with more time to get his ideas over AVB will be able to get the team operating better but at the moment no one seems to know what they or others should be doing in any given circumstance, and without a true playmaker orchestrating things there is not an attacking launch pad that others can base their positioning and movement from.

    Dembele looked very good on saturday, but the rest of the team looks like a lot of good dribblers, strong runners, and potent finishers. Not enough technical ball palyers who will get start or combine in one-twos, play the through balls that Modric and VDV were so good at.

    AVB will do a fantastic job if he can get the current team playing fluid, attractive and effective football