Article by Scott Byrd – Follow @DSMSpurs
Mauricio Pochettino has undoubtedly always been an advocate of using a system that allows for mobility and fluidity. Taking on the foundation of “total football,” Pochettino has expressed the influence that Marcelo Bielsa has had on the young manager, as is evident in his coaching. As Pochettino continues to grow into his role as a manager, once would expect that while the philosophy won’t change, the ways in which he executes that philosophy will.
Pochettino originally opted for a 4-2-3-1 early on in his time in North London, and it makes sense. When he inherited Spurs, he was light in the midfield, heavy on attack, and had some questions to resolve of his defense. The 4-2-3-1 allowed Pochettino to set himself up in manner that utilized his sparse skill in the midfield, while simultaneously developing opinions of the rest of his squad. Having two midfield, both of whom can hold and press, allowed for much fluidity, however, it does leave a midfield that can find itself outnumbered.
It was in Eric Dier that Pochettino finally found a solution to this problem, and two years back, we started seeing Spurs setup in a 3-4-3. This setup also utilizes two midfielders, but also a third option in the form of a flexible CB. With such formation, Pochettino could ensure that his team had plenty of opportunity to play with width, while facing little risk at the back, and having a solution to a packed midfield with a flexing Dier. Problems solved, right?
Hold on, not to fast. While Spurs thrives in this formation, it poses a few problems: Firstly, it adds an extra element to the issue of depth, namely at the center back position. In utilizing Dier as a third CB, you pull depth from a midfield that is light, and also ask more of a core of CB’s that wasn’t robust to begin with. Secondly, a 3-4-3 pulls the fourth attacking player from the front, something of which Spurs have plenty to offer. In utilizing a 3-4-3, the manager found his end sacrificing either Son, Dele or Lamela for the extra defender, and that is ultimately counterproductive to the football he wants to play.
So, how does Pochettino get the full effect of the Flex without sacrificing in midfield, at the back, or in attack? This question might seem tricky, but it’s really not:
Enter the 4-3-3.
This formation firstly allows Pochettino to Utilize Son, Eriksen, Dele and Kane, all while boasting a strong, robust midfield and also a lack of risk at the back. And secondly, this formation allows the manager to essentially move between a 3-4-3, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, all with the snap of a finger. For example, let’s say the manager opts for a midfield of Dier, Dembele and Eriksen. When Eriksen needs to roam forward (as he does so effectively for Denmark), Dembele can slide back to form a 2 in midfield, with Eriksen joining the front four. Dembele holds/links, and Dier anchors.
Furthermore, if we are defending against a side that presses and attacks, Dier can slide back to form a back three, with Eriksen (or Dele) sliding back with Dembele to form a 3-4-3, a formation which suits the counter well (especially with a player like Kieren Trippier deployed on the right flank). This allows us to play with 5 at the back in defense, 4 in transitional play, and 3 while in a true attack. Spurs can now utilize width, pace, vision, and link up play, all while sacrificing nothing in defense.
So, while Poch aims to continue his growth both within Spurs, but also as a manager in general, it seems quite obvious that the 4-3-3 is his eventual destination. And as I was fortunate enough to see the US Tour in-person, I can say confidently that Pochettino used this formation consistently, and is obviously putting the coming season together around such. If players like Amos, Skipp, Winks and Tashan Oakley-Booth can continue their development, the manager will find himself with plenty of options to replay such tactics, and in my opinion, we will be better for it.