Can Tottenham Operate with Two Strikers?

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 13: Mauricio Pochettino manager of Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur shake hands after victory in the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur at Villa Park on March 13, 2016 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 13: Mauricio Pochettino manager of Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur shake hands after victory in the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur at Villa Park on March 13, 2016 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) /

In their pursuit of another striker this summer, Tottenham might be forced into making some pretty dramatic changes.

By most measures, Tottenham represent one of the more exciting destinations in Europe at the moment. Mauricio Pochettino committed to a long term contract toward the end of the season, and incoming players will have the opportunity to take the field alongside some of the best young players in the game.

The problem — if you could call it that — is that only eleven of those players can take the pitch to start a match. With Pochettino’s starting XI already firmly established after a overachieving season, what assurances can Tottenham’s manager realistically make to prospective star players about their opportunities at the club next season? Will a chance at rotation or substitute appearances be enough for the caliber of player Tottenham needs to ascend to the next level?

No where in the squad is this problem more acutely felt than the striker position. Premier League Golden Boot winner Harry Kane currently occupies the role, and given his first two spectacular seasons starting for Tottenham, it seems very unlikely that he cedes any ground to even the most promising candidates Pochettino could bring in.

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Tottenham are obliged to scout in the striker position regardless. Kane is the only recognized center forward in the squad, and his reliability these past two seasons cannot be taken for granted going forward. With Champions League football occupying Tottenham’s midweeks hopefully deep into next season, Pochettino needs to be able to call upon at least one other player to keep Kane from burning out too early.

HotspurHQ’s front page is littered with rumors new and old about prospective striker targets, and in each and every article the same difficulty is always cited: how comfortable will a Michy Batshuayi, Alexandre Lacazette or Breel Embolo be with not being Tottenham’s first choice man up front?

What this question is missing is an acknowledgement that Pochettino might actually be able to offer these players everything they ask for and more without having to cut into Kane’s minutes.

Though Pochettino’s shown some flexibility at Tottenham, he’s almost always preferred to set his team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That ensures that Tottenham always have a presence in the center of midfield, with plenty of options elsewhere in to press the center of the pitch as well as stretch play wide when needed.

If there’s one thing we learned about the evolution of football from last season, it’s that 4-2-3-1 might not be the only thing going. Some of the most successful sides in Europe actually utilized something closer to a 4-4-2 formation that went out of style around the turn of the century.

Leicester City won the Premier League fielding a reactive 4-4-2 with two center forwards and advanced, creative wingers. Atlético Madrid made it to the Champions League final using broadly the same tactics, albeit with a narrower midfield than Leicester’s. Even a typically dominant team like Juventus will regularly utilize two strikers up front.

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What’s to stop Pochettino from doing the same at Tottenham? The obvious answer is that a 4-4-2 formation, as it exists hypothetically, isn’t exactly conducive to the level of press Pochettino demands of his side.

The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 is that it permits as many as five midfielders focusing their efforts in either retrieving the ball or getting into good positions to receive the ball in transition. Fielding two strikers means, in theory, one less player to press in that manner, and there’s no telling if Pochettino’s system is as effective like that.

What that analysis so far ignores is the typically unrecognized half of Kane’s talents. Yes, he’s an exceptional goalscorer, but he’s also capable of some of the most unselfish, team-focused football on the pitch. Despite the fact that he’s regularly finding a way into the back of the net, he spends good portions of the match dropping deep and helping retain or regain possession.

That naturally tendency of his to operate both in play-building and play-ending capacities could make Kane the ideal candidate for one half of a striking partnership.

Tottenham - Premier League - Football tactics and formations
Tottenham - Premier League - Football tactics and formations /

With Kane operating only slightly deeper than he would otherwise, Pochettino could bring in another, more pure striker to lead the line. Whether that’s Batshyuai or Lacazette or whoever might require some subtle adjustments, but it’s entirely conceivable that such a pair could effectively combine to be an even more potent force through the center of the pitch than Kane alone could be.

A domino effect takes place when adding that extra striker, of course. Given the options that Pochettino has at his disposal in midfield, it’s possible that he institutes a rotational policy based on the needs of the side match-to-match. That means that perhaps Érik Lamela takes up his familiar narrow right-sided role in matches requiring a bit more presence in midfield, or perhaps Clinton Njie or Hueng-min Son come in when a bit more directness is required.

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Similarly, from the opposite end of the pitch, Pochettino could call on Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen for situations appropriate to the skillset of both players. The center of midfield would remain unchanged unless absolutely necessary, and Kyle Walker and Danny Rose would continue patrolling the flanks in their own rotation with Ben Davies and Kieran Tripper/DeAndre Yedlin.

This technique would not only give ample rest to some of Tottenham’s best players, but also allow a lot more flexibility for meeting different types of opponents, at home or abroad. That would mean that adding a striker into the side might actually be in the best interest of the whole team, and not just a sacrifice made in order to bring in quality talent.