Against Crystal Palace, interim head coach Ryan Mason came up with an elegant solution to Tottenham’s recent problems; will it work for Villa?
The squad’s defense has been in shambles of late, with plenty of blame to go around. While the back three have suffered from Eric Dier’s erratic play and Cristian Romero’s mix of brilliance and wildness, the wing-back positions have been a concern all season. On the right side, the problem has been straightforward. To over-simplify it, Pedro Porro can’t defend and Emerson Royal can’t attack. Porro lacks positional sensibility, but Emerson has both the sense and the work rate to defend. He simply hits his limit in the attacking third.
Porro and Royal provide stability on the Tottenham right side and give Spurs tactical flexibility
Mason, rather than picking one or the other, found a way to utilize the skills of both. Against Crystal Palace, Tottenham blended two formations, the 4-4-2 and the 3-4-3. The team’s attempt at a back four against Newcastle was so disastrous that it couldn’t be relied on. Although, Royal’s absence may have been the reason, because as we saw, Mason’s ploy, though, utilized everyone in an ideal spot, emphasizing the players’ strengths while providing plenty of cover.
The squad essentially looked like a 4-4-2, with Emerson as the right back and Porro in front of him. Ben Davies played the left back and Heung-min Son played in front of him, with Harry Kane and Richarlison as the two forwards.
To attack, Davies pushed far up the field, playing as a wing-back in the 3-4-3. Emerson slipped to his left and stayed back, more like a right center back, rarely crossing midfield. This took deep defensive responsibilities away from Porro, who used his newfound freedom to assist on the game’s lone goal, by Kane.
The movement also released Son into a higher and more central position, the sort of winger role he relishes. The arrangement nearly led to a second goal, when Romero, at home and stable in the middle of the defense sent a long pass to Son, who – thanks to Davies’ protection – could race to the top of the pitch.
Tottenham couldn’t overwhelm Palace, but they had their opportunities, and they happily kept a clean sheet. The team also looked energized for the first time in weeks. Mason’s strategy put the starting XI in comfortable roles (even if unexpected positions) and utilized their strengths. The system itself provided more room for creativity than Antonio Conte’s had, but by keeping Emerson in a defensive role, it maintained more security.
Palace hasn’t been the most dangerous of teams this season, scoring only 35 goals on the year, but Spurs looked sharp in keeping them out of goal. It’s hard to say if this experiment will continue, but for one week at least, Mason and his team looked surprising, exciting, and, most important, effective. If another clean sheet can be achieved against a more effective Aston Villa attack, then maybe this will be more than an experiment.