Once again the clear advantages of Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1 formation were made evident as Mauricio Pochettino’s side beat a visiting Stoke City 4-0.
It was the first time Tottenham utilized the tactical set since they suffered the dual set-back of injuries to both Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose in late January.
The return of the former seems to be what provoked Pochettino to return to the three-at-the-back shape. Evidently the Belgian’s time as a left-back lends itself to the position more than Kevin Wimmer’s comparatively limited experience.
Ben Davies remains the clear odd-man-out in this formation — he lacks the pace of a proper wing-back like Rose — but Stoke rarely found a way to exploit this one weakness.
Though the formation is made possible by the health of Vertonghen and other defenders, its primary benefit is found on the other end of the pitch. The 3-4-2-1 formation top-loads Tottenham’s quality to such an extent that 4-0 results are more norm than exception.
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Consider Tottenham’s previous experience starting the match in this basic shape. The formation was used in fives matches from December through January. Spurs won each contest — and did so with a aggregate scoreline of 15-1.
If averaging three goals scored a game and close to zero conceded doesn’t say most of what you need to know about about Pochettino’s tactical switch, its return on Sunday should.
Prior to the match we discussed Mark Hughes’ successful melding of past and future to create a more solid, competitive Stoke since back to back losses to Chelsea and Liverpool just before the new year. Between January 1st and their visit to Tottenham, they had not conceded more than one goal in a Premier League match.
Almost all of those matches came against opponents playing a more conventional 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. Most Premier League teams are familiar enough with playing against those tactics to, at the very least, limit the damage. Stoke sacrificed some offensive potency to contain some of those teams, but for a team struggled in the tail end of 2016 it was a worthy trade-off.
The one exception in that run came with Everton’s visit at the start of February. Ronald Koeman’s side fielded a 3-5-2 formation for that match, but actually got outplayed by their hosts for the bulk of the 90 minutes. They were lucky to come away with a 1-1 draw.
Stoke, it appeared, grew into the challenge of playing a relatively new tactical set and kept Everton on their heels throughout. This didn’t bode well for Tottenham.
There are differences in Tottenham’s interpretation of the three at the back. It is closer in spirit to the 3-4-3 utilized by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Koeman’s take contrasts with Pochettino’s in that it more strongly favors possession and control at the back.
Per FourFourTwo’s StatsZone, Everton’s top six pass combinations against Stoke were between some combination of the goalkeeper, defenders and central midfielders. This suggests a horizontal game, one that, if anything, encouraged Stoke into Everton’s half.
With three routes through to Stoke’s goal in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, Tottenham could stretch the game vertically. Adventurous forays forward from Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier in defense — not to mention the bombing runs of Kyle Walker at right wing-back — only added to the pressure on Stoke’s midfield and defense.
Barring further injury lay-offs, Tottenham should be able to sustain this form going forward. This weekend’s visit from Everton might even provide an opportunity to the full extent of the 3-4-2-1’s effectiveness.