Tactical Analysis Series: Midfield

Spurs Tactics


It's been a while since we had a positional tactical look at our system so time to focus on the midfield three.

Our system uses a defensive midfielder, a link player who plays in advance of the defensive midfielder (note Neville's comment in commentary that Paulinho was playing in advance of Sandro) and an attacking midfielder, or number 10 as some prefer to call them.

Dembele and Paulinho, Spurs midfield
Dembele & Paulinho interchange positions
We change personnel and use an adjustment to our basic system when required during games, that being having the link midfielder and defensive midfielder swap positions. If one goes forward the other assumes the defensive duties, this is more pronounced when Dembele is paired with Paulinho.

The midfield three mark zonally in a triangle and are aggressive tacklers. They have a high work rate so they have to be in peak physical condition. The problem areas as we have talked about before are the two wide areas in front of the full-backs which makes coordination and communication with them vital.

In the standard system the midfield and winger generally have the responsibility to defend these areas so that the full-back can stay tucked in to his centre-back. This enables him to defend the area behind him, although who can press the ball quickest comes into the equation too. Incidentally in our system it is the job of our full-backs to attack this area of the oppositions defence.

The full-back has to read the game and at times step up when he sees a pass is to be played wide so he can intercept but must not go to early and allow a ball played in behind him. That spells danger for his side. This is an area where many supporters make mistakes in their player assessments thinking a tucked in full-back is out of position when not tight to the opposing winger but that is not the case. When the winger does come into his area then he rushes out to meet him the way regularly Walker does. He gets criticised for it but that is how he is supposed to defend within this system. For the full-back Vision and reading the game are essential skills, reactive defending rather than proactive defending will cause your team problems.

We play with advanced full-backs so there is a greater responsibility on the full-back and winger to defend the wide areas within our system. You will often see Walker for instance pressing the ball with the winger, the attacking midfielder and usually Paulinho with Soldado marking the central defender, with the result we win the ball back.

Defending is not always defending in front of your own box. You try to defend from the opposition half first, players have to assess how many they can get into an area and how quickly, it is the midfield's responsibility to decides where the defensive line should be set. They effectively draw a line in the sand and make a stand when the ball can be pressed.. That may be in the opposition half, your own half or the edge of your box depending on the situation but should always be as high as possible. You defend from there and start your ball pressing phase.

If the midfielder is taken wide he then needs to be aware that space in the centre will open up for the opposition to exploit. When one defensive midfield moves over another drops central to cover the centre-backs. The attacking midfielders role is to join in the pressing of the ball either from the front or behind the ball to prevent forward central passes. The key considerations are the speed you move at the opposing player and the angle when you are jockeying him to prevent penetrating forward passes. Vision is essential in knowing where the opposition are.

You will often see in today's game where tackles are few and far between compared with 20 years ago, that as the ball is passed from one flank to the other, the defensive line in front of the defence simply shuffles across. I have mentioned before an imaginary string between them, one moves over the rest follow, stretching that imaginary string by drawing someone out is the key to getting at the defence.

Now there are two basic ways to defend within the system, you can force the opposition inside where you will have a numerical advantage which limits their incisive passing options and enhances your chances of regaining possession or you can force them wide which limit their passing options to forward back or sideways. Against Norwich for instance all 5 passing interceptions we made in our own half were left sided. In that particular game we predominantly pushed them wide to win the ball back.

Spurs Midfield Trio
Midfield Trio
Tottenham evolved last season from a static Parker to a flexible Sandro, until he was injured of course. The role now requires for the player to have the technical ability to join his two fellow midfielders to move the opposition midfield and pass around them. This is achieved by awareness and movement off the ball which aids creativity and fluidity. No movement means no passing options and the ball spends time with the central defenders like the first half at Villa.

Off the ball running is crucial to the system, crucial to how AVB used the system at Porto as was interchangeability of the midfield.

Imagine for a moment a midfielder makes a move/run to take an opposition midfielder with him. That leaves a gap for one of his teammates to exploit. In Paulinho, Sandro and Dembele we have three players who can all make forward runs as well as defend. Playing two of these increases our options, either can move forward so instead of the opposition knowing Parker for instance will sit, the opposition problems multiplied.

At Porto AVB used a simple formula. One player drifted narrow, one player drifted wide, one midfielder defended, one attacked. Drifting wide and narrow you are pulling an opposition player out of position to create a hole. Now if this is happening all over the pitch at the same time you create plenty of holes, the opposition are constantly being pulled out of position (breaking their string). They have to mentally work hard trying to figure out where they should be and what shape they are supposed to be in which increases the likelihood of errors and fatigue later in the game. This player movement was central to Porto winning the treble so I think we can safely say, it worked.

Very briefly the basic roles (not comprehensive):

Defensive (Holding) Midfielder

  • Remains in defence, advanced a little but in defence.
  • Primary role is to provide a screen for the centre-backs and make through passes to the strikers feet difficult.
  • He is a ball winner who is also good in the air.
  • In attack he can act as playmaker or a player who connects the left to the right, switching the point of attack in two passes or defence to forward third.
  • Should play simple quick passes.


Attacking midfielder

  • Main role is to support the central striker and create goalscoring opportunities with penetrating passes.
  • He should be technically good, have good vision, play well in combinations and be good in one-on-one situations.


Organising/Link Midfielder

  • Must read the game exceptionally well.
  • Can drop and play as a second holding player but who can also rush forward as another attacker.
  • He goes where he is needed, back or forward.


Now as I've mentioned we have a holding midfielder and link midfielder who can interchange (hence selling Parker and buying Capoue) to add complications for the opposition. These two must maintain the midfield triangle rather than playing flat beside each other although obviously at times of high pressure you have to. When we are looking to maintain possession we drop to two holding midfielders so they and the defenders can keep the ball by outnumbering the opponents. Sides use this when in front and want to simply control the game. If the opposition need to chase the game then they have to pull themselves out of position to try and win the ball opening the way for a counter attack. On Sunday neither Villa nor ourselves wanted to be pulled out of position in the first half hence little happening.

The midfielder looks to make penetrating runs, not just to pull players our of position for his teammates but to get into scoring positions and give the attacking midfielder a defence splitting option. You will regularly see Paulinho in the opposition box for instance. In attack the defensive midfielder makes himself available for a pass to switch the point of attack from one side to the other.

The creative midfielder looks to play to the feet of the striker and through balls for on running players. The Norwich game and Sigurdsson's first goal was a prime example, play to the striker who plays in an on running player. He needs to communicate well with his forwards (possible problem with Lamela speaking no English at the moment, seems less of an issue with Soldado though) and make himself available for passes, his movement off the ball is crucial in this. Naturally he has to have vision and read the runs or potential runs of his teammates, indeed playing balls to make them make the run.

AVB used his midfield rotation system at Porto winning a treble and tried to introduce it at Chelsea, let's hope he is as successful with Spurs as he was with Porto.



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