Tottenham’s Tactical Shift

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nacer Chadli (22) plays the ball against the MLS All Stars during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nacer Chadli (22) plays the ball against the MLS All Stars during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick /

There was something unusual going on during Tottenham’s 2-2 home draw with Stoke City Saturday.

When the lineup was announced before the game, it was safe to assume that Tottenham would line up in their traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. Ryan Mason and Eric Dier would occupy central midfield with Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembélé in more advanced roles and Harry Kane at the top.

That’s been the formation Mauricio Pochettino has utilized for much of his career with Tottenham. It lends itself to his preferred style of play, allowing the midfield five to drop back as needed when off the ball to contribute to the press. The Argentine manager uses the formation so often in fact that he’s been criticized for his side’s predictability.

Something was different Saturday though. Dembélé played deeper than attacking midfield, as he usually tends to anyways, but Chadli stuck closer to the right side of the pitch than his customary left. He played so far advanced, in fact, that for the bulk of the game he seemed to join Kane in a striker partnership. Along with Eriksen’s forays forward, Tottenham in attack more closely resembled a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2.

The same discipline and energy was there for the pressing game. All three continued to drop back into midfield when Stoke had possession. In attack – for the first half at least – Tottenham dominated the game, crowding out Stoke’s central midfield pair and pulling the centre-backs out of position. Stoke, likely expecting Tottenham’s typically less direct play, were confounded and had few answers.

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In truth, a lot of the talk surrounding particular formations and their usefulness can be a bit overblown. Regardless of how they’re arranged on the field, players will typically play to their own strengths more than the system’s. That tendency might vary from culture to culture – Italian teams tend to be more wedded to systems than English teams, for instance – but the difference between 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 tends to be more aesthetic than practical.

The main advantage Saturday came from Chadli’s positioning alongside Kane. The Belgian has played as a striker before but has almost exclusively been used on the left wing by Tottenham since he joined two seasons ago. His 11 goals last term proved his value in more direct play. Consequently his name has come up more than a few times in reference to Tottenham’s sudden dearth of backup strikers.

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The real surprise then wasn’t that Chadli could play striker, but rather that he would play alongside Kane in the starting XI. Pochettino has rarely played two strikers at once, only really utilizing such tactics from the bench when Tottenham needed a goal.

Perhaps he felt that Stoke City were as vulnerable a team as any to test out a new system on early in the season. The results of the experiment were by no means conclusive given the two goals conceded – and no goals scored – in the second half. Perhaps more importantly, Kane’s relative lack of influence on the game could suggest that he’s less impactful when he has to share space at the top of the formation. Tottenham would not be anxious to at all discourage last season’s most important player.

The arrival of Clinton N’jie to the team certainly frees Tottenham up further to play in this style again. The more likely scenario though is that Chadli loses his place on the left wing to the Cameroonian and finds himself as Kane’s understudy on the bench. It might not be as flashy a choice as recruiting a new proper striker, but it might be the more practical and certainly less expensive option.

Next: Who Should Spurs Play Next to Eric Dier?