The introduction of Gareth Bale, Dele Alli, and Giovani Lo Celso into the team were the obvious personnel changes made for Tottenham against Sheffield United. However, it is a minor change to the tactics in the back of the midfield that made much of the success in possession possible. And while the attack is rightly receiving plaudits, it was a small change in possession that really balanced Tottenham in the win over Sheffield United.
Creating the right balance for Tottenham
There are many midfielders who are simply fantastic distributors of the football, unfortunately, or not, those kind of players are not really at Tottenham in the midfield. Yes, Harry Winks is an above-average distributor but he is no Luka Modric pulling strings from deep.
And despite all of the tremendous characteristics he brings to the team, passing is not Pierre Højbjerg’s strength is in his ability to recover the ball and break-up play, not pushing the ball via the pass. As Tottenham has struggled to create good possession this season and get wing play something had to give.
While we have suggested for a long time to drop Højbjerg between the two center halves, his lack of passing range limits that for the Spurs. Instead, Højbjerg often found himself as the left center-half in possession in a back three with Eric Dier between the Dane and Toby Alderweireld. Dier is not the best passer in the team but his range is better than Højbjerg.
Moving Højbjerg created space and positioning
More importantly, by dropping Højbjerg out of the midfield there was more room for Giovani Lo Celso to come deep and gain possession as well as other attackers. With Højbjerg serving as a back in possession Lo Celso had the run of the field up-and-down as well as side-to-side. Lo Celso did an excellent job of picking up possession and forming passing triangles with Toby and Serge Aurier on the right as well as Højbjerg and Sergio Reguilon on the left.
Instead of two backs rather wide apart having no angles, we had three backs, with multiple angles. There was the simple side pass to Dier or back pass to Lloris. Additionally, both Højbjerg and Aldereweireld could go wide to the fullbacks or look centrally to Lo Celso or Dele Alli. With more options available – and admittedly less pressure – both Dier and Alderweireld played well, as did Højbjerg.
Of course, when Tottenham lost possession, the Lilywhites went back to two holding midfielders with Lo Celso and Højbjerg but they were now also better positioned to recover the ball. Ultimately, Spurs got more out of their midfield than they have in a long time against Sheffield as Lo Celso and Dele both carried the ball on several occasions. Whether or not that can continue against better competition remains to be seen but for at least one game the Spurs took their chances and the midfield was back.