In a Match of the Day segment last week, both Danny Murphy and Ruud Gullit argued that Tottenham striker Harry Kane isn’t really a pure center forward. Indeed, he would be better off, they said, playing as a second striker with a more conventional number nine leading the line.
To illustrate the point, they highlighted Kane’s unconventional movement, showing how he constantly drifts out into the wide areas to receive the ball or play a quick one-two with one of Tottenham’s fullbacks or wide attackers:
In the above image, which is fairly typical of how Kane has always played under Pochettino, Kane has drifted way out into essentially a right wing role. Lamela is tucked inside as a right inside forward, Eriksen has drifted in from his left inside forward role into more of a number ten’s position, and Heung-Min Son, ostensibly the number 10, is actually the most advanced player and is also tucked in from the left wing, but is actually wider than Eriksen, the theoretical left winger.
This isn’t a surprise, however, if you know a bit about Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics. Consider this shot from a 2013-14 Southampton match against Liverpool at St. Mary’s:
In both cases, we see the striker drifting into a wide area to receive the ball and then play a quick ball forward to one of the other players in the attacking four. In this sense, it may be useful to speak about Pochettino playing more of a 4-2-4 rather than a pure 4-2-3-1.
To be sure, this is unconventional. Typically you want a striker to stay in central areas both to serve as an attacking focal point and to get on the end of crosses and through balls played into the box. Even when that striker is a bit under-sized and unable to serve as a proper target man, it’s generally thought that he’s best utilized in a primarily central role.
Indeed, neither of the two finest strikers to play in the Premier League in recent years fit the conventional picture of a center forward in England, yet both tended to stay mostly central. So far as that goes, Murphy and Gullit are correct.
Maurico Pochettino’s attacking system is unique.
However, Mauricio Pochettino is not a typical manager. In most systems, it’s assumed that you will either build attacking moves through controlling possession, in which case a center focal point is helpful, or that you will create chances through quick counter attacks, in which case a central focal point is essential because someone has to finish the attack before the defenders get back and recover their positions.
Pochettino’s system is different. It is not concerned with bossing possession and building chances through steady, quick passing moves. But it also does not rely on counter-attacking from deep positions like Harry Redknapp’s best Tottenham teams or, to take a more contemporary example, Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace.
Rather, Pochettino, much like new signing Heung-Min Son’s former manager Roger Schmidt, wants to attack quickly, win the ball back quickly, and attack again. His teams do not shoot as quickly as Schmidt’s which means they do post higher possession numbers than Schmidt’s Leverkusen, but that is more incidental than a reflection of anything like a Van Gaal-like commitment to possession football.
Given this approach, Pochettino doesn’t necessarily want two wide attackers, a number 10, and a striker to comprise his front four. Indeed, if you picture what he wants from each of his front four players as a Venn diagram, there is much more overlap between the four positions than there is separation.
The differentiation between players in the front four has less to do with their general positioning and more to do with the way they use the ball and move across the attacking third.
Pochettino needs two passers in the front four.
Pochettino wants two players who mostly drift laterally, receive the ball and either play a quick pass down the channel or recycle possession to the midfielders or fullbacks. At Southampton these players were usually Adam Lallana and Steven Davis or James Ward-Prowse.
At Spurs Christian Eriksen has always had this role. The other drifter has varied tremendously though. Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela have both played in this way at times, although neither really fit the position perfectly. Mousa Dembele is the closest thing in this Spurs squad to another player of this sort, although Ryan Mason and Alex Pritchard can work as well. Last season Paulinho was also given a shot here but, unsurprisingly, failed to impress.
To illustrate what Pochettino wants from these players, consider these two passing charts from two of Pochettino’s lateral drifters—Adam Lallana and Christian Eriksen.
First note how similar the two charts here, even down to the number of passes played (44) and the number completed (38 for Lallana, 36 for Eriksen). What you can see in both images is that when the players get the ball in deeper positions they typically push it forward. But when they play a pass in the attacking third they almost always play the ball laterally.
They aren’t trying to make a run themselves or take a shot; they are trying to keep the ball moving, get the defense moving laterally, and create space for the other two attackers to make quick vertical runs in the spaces between the defense. This is a tactic that Pep Guardiola has used to great effect—fast, lateral passing gets the defense shifting and creates space for attackers.
Pochettino needs two vertical runners who finish well in front of goal.
The other two players in the front four are meant to make quick, vertical runs that split the defense. They begin in wide areas and drift in to make their moves. (Kane gave a master-class in how to do this in last season’s win against Chelsea.) This is another similarity you could highlight between Pochettino and Barcelona-era Guardiola. At that time, Guardiola often had his central attacking players as the playmakers (Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta) with his wide men (Pedro and David Villa) making outside-in runs to create chances.
At Southampton these two players were typically Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez. That said, early in 2013-14 Pochettino attempted to use Lambert and Dani Osvaldo as the two players in this role, a move which failed due mostly to Osvaldo’s volatile temperament. This chart showing the passes Rodriguez received in the same Newcastle match shown above illustrates what Pochettino wants from these players:
These players receive almost all their passes in wide areas or inside the 18-yard box. By my count, he receives 24 passes in the chart above and three of them are in the central attacking area outside the 18 yard box. All the other passes are either received on the wing or in the 18-yard box.
Ideally, these players get the ball in space when they are already running at full pace and can make a run into the box or they receive the ball, play a quick one-two, and run into the box to receive the second ball.
Rickie Lambert has a similar passing chart:
You can learn a lot about Pochettino’s commitment to this approach from the fact that he used Rickie Lambert in this fashion. If there is a single traditional English center forward who has been successful in the Premier League in recent years, it is Lambert. (And he might be the only one depending on how you rate Andy Carroll’s good half-season at Newcastle or Grant Holt’s spell at Norwich.)
Yet even here Pochettino would sooner have the immobile but technically proficient Lamber moving outside-in rather then use him as a traditional number nine. He didn’t drift as much as Rodriguez, of course, but he still receives the majority of his passes on the wing or in the box. If Pochettino didn’t use Rickie Lambert as a number nine then he will never play with a traditional number nine.
At Spurs, meanwhile, the biggest problem Pochettino has had in his attacking approach is the lack of two consistent vertical runners who can also finish well. Theoretically the club doesn’t lack such personnel. Harry Kane obviously thrives in the role, but last season he was the only one. Roberto Soldado continued to misfire and Emmauel Adebayor never seemed to gel with Pochettino. Nacer Chadli doesn’t quite have the quickness you want but is smart enough to do somewhat well in the position and was easily Spurs’ second best goal scorer last season. Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend both lack finishing ability. Erik Lamela, meanwhile, should thrive in the role but has lacked the confidence and decisiveness required to make the sort of quick runs that Rodriguez and Kane have both made to such devastating effect.
That is what made the Son signing (and, to a lesser degree, the Clinton N’Jie signing) so significant for Spurs. Both Son and Clinton are versatile attacking players who can work as wingers or strikers. They are, in other words, very similar to Harry Kane and Jay Rodriguez. They like to start in wide areas and drift inside. They can make runs forward to latch onto through balls or long diagonal passes but they can also get the ball played into their feet and play quick one-twos with the lateral drifters in the attacking four. The club’s main summer transfer target, West Bromwich Albion’s Saido Berahino, is also this type of player.
Harry Kane’s wide positioning for Tottenham is not a bug. It’s not a patched together solution that Mauricio Pochettino has invented to compensate for the club’s lack of a true striker. It’s how Pochettino wants his team to play. He wants to attack the opponent with and without the ball. When out of possession each of the front four players has an obligation to close on the ball quickly. When in possession, each of the attacking four needs to be able to hit quickly and then be prepared to win the ball back. In this system there is no place for a traditional number nine who lurks on the edge of the 18-yard box and never strays into other parts of the field. Such a player would be a liability to Pochettino. He wants versatile, hard-working forwards who can move into wide areas and then charge into central areas quickly. That’s what Harry Kane does. It’s also what Son Heung-Min and Clinton N’Jie do. And as long as Pochettino is at White Hart Lane, it is what Tottenham’s “central” forwards will continue to do.