Tottenham Using Two Holding Midfielders is Crucial to Tactics

Tottenham Hotspur's Danish midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Photo by JASON CAIRNDUFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur's Danish midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Photo by JASON CAIRNDUFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) /

Given some thought we think we figured out why Jose Mourinho continues to stick with two holding midfielders instead of one, blame the fullbacks.

One of the things we opined on around the Tottenham signing of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was the ability to play with one holding midfielder. It made perfect sense, Pierre Højbjerg was going to change the dynamic of the way Tottenham play, allowing two midfielders to join in the attack, leaving five dedicated players for offense. The only think is, this has not happened and likely will not anytime soon.

This idea of going to one holding midfielder is predicated on the fact that five attacking players are better than four and Højbjerg can hold the line in front of the back four. Well, Tottenham only play with a back four sometimes, as often the fullbacks are committed to the attack and that commitment is predicated on the defensive midfielders.

It may sound strange at first, but ultimately Jose Mourinho is trading an attacking five for an attacking six by using the defensive midfielders as cover to commit the fullbacks to attack.

Tottenham Fullbacks in Attack

In the glory days of the Mauricio Pochettino era, the fullbacks were flying up and down the pitch. However, as the squad turned over much of the benefit coming from those positions was lost. Jose Mourinho has gone back to the attacking fullback philosophy in full by getting more than cover, rather competition for both Serge Aurier and Ben Davies in the form of Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilón.

Doherty has had some excellent performances, like last week in Europa and Reguilón has been so good, many Madrid fans want – but cannot have – him back. With additional cover and competition, the performances from both Aurier and Davies have improved, and it is clear the wings are a big part of the attack.

When we say we need the coverage for the fullbacks, it is not because they are bad defensively, rather, it is about where they are positioned on the pitch.

Midfield Coverage in the Back

In order to let the fullbacks push up and provide that width and support to the attack, there has to be cover in defense. Traditionally, teams would use the two center halves and push them out into more space on the wings of the defense. Ultimately, this kind of approach does not benefit Tottenham. As good as the cadre of center halves are for Tottenham, defending in big space is not their specialty.

So instead of stretching the center-halves apart, Jose Mourinho and company have found a way to keep them compact by using the two holding midfielders as cover for the fullbacks. As Aurier or Doherty push up the right flank, Sissoko will drop down into a more traditional fullback position and Højbjerg will come over to create a passing triangle with Sissoko and the center-half.

Alternatively, if it is Reguilon or Davies pushing far up the left early, Højbjerg drops back and picks up the ball in the space the defender has left. In that instance Sissoko comes over to provide some midfield assistance. So instead of pushing Toby Alderweireld or Davinson Sanchez to the edges of the defense with the ball at their feet, we have it with midfielders capable of beating the opposition with the dribble or pass.

What makes this work is the fact that Kane is dropping deep on offense allowing the player in the #10 to occasionally drop deep and join the other midfielder not creating a back three with the two center halves. All of this goes to say, just one holding midfielder, whether Højbjerg or not, this is simply too much ground to cover and the threat of the fullback attack is blunted. Not only is the attack then blunted the team is out of balance like they were most of last season.

One or Two Holding for Tottenham

In the end the question is who would you rather have attacking our front three with a #10 and two additional wingers or our front three with two players competing for the ball in the #10 slot with each other and Harry Kane. For now it seems Mourinho and company are going with two holding midfielders, which will continue to work as long as both Sissoko and Højbjerg stay healthy as the depth behind them for this position – as opposed to the depth for the 1 #10 role – is very light.

Anyway, this is why we at HotspurHQ believe Jose is sticking with the double pivot, as it is not about a traditional pivot, but about a full back push that keeps two deep lying midfielders on the pitch for Spurs.