Last season the biggest knock on Tottenham going forward is that they really only had two plans to score:
- Harry Kane does something amazing.
- Christian Eriksen does something amazing.
To be sure, Nacer Chadli chipped in with more than a few goals, but many of Chadli’s strikes were directly a result of the work of either Kane or Eriksen. So when it came to creating attacks, Spurs really only had two consistent playmakers.
The Pros and Cons of Being Narrow
This problem shouldn’t have come as a surprise, however. Because of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s high press and intricate passing approach in the attacking third the front four often become quite narrow and compressed. In best case scenarios this narrowness actually becomes an asset because it’s easier to swarm the ball and to play the kind of quick, simple passes that create scoring chances after recovering the ball. (Nacer Chadli’s opener against Arsenal at the Emirates last year is a fine example of the benefit to having a narrower front four.)
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The downside to this approach, however, is that spacing in the attacking third is often quite poor. As a result, it’s hard to shift play quickly or create chances in non-transition situations. When the ball has just been won and everything is a bit chaotic, it works. But when the team has consistent possession in the attacking third the goals can dry up a bit as the tight spacing makes it too easy to mark Tottenham’s attackers.
The Importance of Long Passing and Attacking Fullbacks in Pochettino’s System
Mauricio Pochettino uses two things to solve this problem:
- He deploys capable passers in central defensive and midfield who are comfortably spraying passes all over the field in order to quickly shift the ball, creating something like a transition in possession because of how it requires everyone to suddenly take up new positions.
- He uses attacking fullbacks who storm down the flanks to provide passing outlets for the narrow attacking players and for the deeper central passers when they want to switch play.
Last season, Spurs often lacked this attacking width down the right flank as Kyle Walker was injured, Kyle Naughton was dreadful, and Eric Dier stayed a bit deeper due to his struggles with recovering a defensive position when possession was lost. This took away one of the side’s main pressure-release valves when possession stagnated in the middle of the field.
But the even greater problem last season was the lack of a credible long passer in the Spurs midfield and defense. Jan Vertonghen is a tidy passer, but has never consistently shown an ability to be a consistent libero-like passer out of defense.
Take his performance against Swansea last season in the club’s 3-2 win. Vertonghen was fine on the day, a miskick that led to Swansea’s opener being his lone miscue. As a passer he was tidy and he helped stabilize the back line. But he didn’t offer anything as far as long-range passing goes:
Eric Dier and Federico Fazio, meanwhile, proved wholly incapable of playing those long diagonal balls to switch play. Consider the two passing charts below—the first from Fazio in Tottenham’s 3-1 win against Newcastle and the second for Dier in the club’s 2-1 North London Derby victory against Arsenal:
Meanwhile in midfield Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason are both fine players, but Bentaleb is (his Old Trafford performance not withstanding) a tidy short-range passer rather than anything like a deep-lying playmaker in the mold of Luka Modric or even someone like Morgan Schneiderlin, who fulfilled this role for Pochettino at Southampton. Mason, meanwhile, is more of a classic box-to-box player and would rather play short passes and make unmarked runs from deep. Indeed, his best position may well be as a member of the attacking three rather than
The cumulative result of all this is that the Spurs attack bogged down and often became a stale, predictable mess. The width wasn’t there unless Danny Rose was fit and starting at left back. The long passes to switch play were wholly absent. Result: Spurs became entirely too dependent on Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen to conjure up a bit of magic.
The Role of Toby Alderweireld in the Tottenham XI
This is what makes the signing of Toby Alderweireld so exciting for Spurs fans. In his first competitive match with the club Alderweireld showed a passing range that Spurs have not seen from a central player—defender or midfield—since Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone graced the Lane during the Redknapp era. The passing chart tells the story:
In other words—over three separate matches Fazio, Dier, and Vertonghen totaled 16 attempted long passes. In a single match—at Old Trafford!—Alderweireld attempted 17, completing six of them and creating a scoring chance with one of them.
These long passes not only can lead to direct scoring chances when completed, they can also create transitions in the attacking third when played as more of a 50-50 ball. And transitions are when Pochettino teams are at their best. When both teams are in defined, stable formations the attack stagnates. When possession is switched from one team to another or the ball is shifted from one side of the field to the other that creates the kind of fluid situation that Pochettino’s teams love. So even those 11 missed passes can serve a purpose in the Tottenham attack.
In addition to his passing, Alderweireld seemed to instantly regain the chemistry he had with defensive partner Jan Vertonghen dating back to their time together at Ajax. He was calm when dropping deeper and dealt with crosses into the box effectively. You could perhaps ask questions about his decision to attack the ball when Ashley Young dribbled in off Nabil Bentaleb’s errant pass that led to the United goal. But even there it looked likely that Young would get past Vertonghen, in which case he would have a one-on-one with Michel Vorm. Alderweireld might have then reasoned that the best defensive move was to try and cut off Young before he could shoot or pass rather than try and simply block off the passing lane to Rooney. That sequence of events (which was Bentaleb’s fault anyway) Alderweireld had an impressive debut complete with six interceptions, seven clearances (five of which were in the 18-yard box), and generally looked surprisingly comfortable in the Spurs defense given that it was his first competitive game with the club.
There is every reason, then, to think that Alderweireld will turn out to be a fantastic signing for the club. His defensive contribution alone will be considerable if he can stabilize Vertonghen and be the rock in the 18-yard box that he was on Saturday. But it may be his offensive contribution that is even greater. Last season Spurs lacked width and a capable long passer. Alderweireld may well be precisely what the club needed.