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Friday 04 October 2013

Talking tactics: Why Spurs are making giant strides

Adrian Clarke looks at tactics employed by Andre Villas-Boas and why things are looking up for Spurs

  • Pic 1: Spurs tackles v Norwich, 2012, left, and 2013. Successful (blue); unsuccessful (red)

  • Pic 2: Bale v Sunderland, left; Eriksen v Norwich. Successful pass (blue); unsuccessful (red)

  • Pic 3: Spurs crosses v Cardiff. Successful (green); unsuccessful (red)

  • Pic 4: Spurs shots v Cardiff City

  • Pic 5: Spurs dribbles v Chelsea. Green - successful, red - unsuccessful.

Former Arsenal player and now journalist Adrian Clarke looks at why Tottenham Hotspur have made such a strong start to the Barclays Premier League season.

His demeanour may appear less intense than during his tenure at Chelsea but few head coaches devote as much attention to detail as Andre Villas-Boas, and that tactical acumen is starting to bear fruit at White Hart Lane.

The 35-year-old has a clear vision in mind for how he wants his Spurs side to perform, and ahead of their London derby with West Ham United this Sunday it is evident his much-changed squad are ideally suited to carrying out his instructions.

Less pressure on the back four

Making the pitch as small as possible when they do not have the ball is integral to the way Spurs want to play, and in their first six matches of the 2013/14 Barclays Premier League season it has proven to be hugely effective.

Asking his forward players to press from the front, Villas-Boas demands that his back four push up to the halfway line. With deep-lying midfielders Paulinho and Mousa Dembele in close proximity, this congests the areas that rival attackers have to work in, and because both are terrific tacklers (the Belgian has a 90% success rate) Spurs are well-placed to win the ball back in this crowded region.

Even if they fail to do so, under-pressure opponents are often forced into playing a hopeful pass over the top, which Hugo Lloris, who is adept at coming off his line to act as an auxiliary sweeper, deals with easily.

The North Londoners’ new-look midfield has also eased the burden on their defence by keeping the ball better. In their first six league matches this season, Spurs have enjoyed 5% more possession than they did last term, and this has undoubtedly helped reduce their average goals conceded to 0.33 per match from 1.21.

Only Chelsea and Southampton have had to deal with fewer shots on target than Spurs (19), which goes to show that Villas-Boas’s instructions are working.

Pic 1 above shows that when comparing their matches against Norwich this season and last, the Canaries were able to force their way into the final third (down the bottom of the pitch in the image) much more often against Spurs in September 2012 than they did in the corresponding fixture last month.

Tackles per game Clearances per game
Jan Vertonghen
  2012/13 3.05 8.7
Michael Dawson
2013/14 1.33 6.83
  2012/13 1.54 11.25

New creators versus past masters

Tottenham Hotspur's attacking midfield unit has had a major revamp since Gareth Bale's departure but the Lilywhites are coping just fine without last season's talisman.

They did bag 16 goals from outside the penalty area in 2012/13 (and are yet to score once from long range this term) but what they have lost in that department they have gained in all-round quality and option variety. Passing the ball better, there is much more movement and creativity.

Top-class performers such as Erik Lamela, Lewis Holtby, Aaron Lennon and Nacer Chadli are back-up to the trio of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Andros Townsend and Christian Eriksen at present, so Villas-Boas has a luxury of varying styles and strengths from which to select.

It is interesting to note that Denmark playmaker Eriksen is providing more chances than Bale did per match last term, and that Iceland midfielder Sigurdsson has stepped out of the Welshman’s shadow when it comes to goals, even scoring at a quicker rate - so far, at least. As can be seen in Pic 2 above, Eriksen linked up play all over the pitch on his debut against Norwich, while Bale was more static in his positioning against Sunderland in his final match for Spurs.

With so much more than one obvious threat to worry about, Spurs are now less predictable to face. This should help them against West Ham, and anyone else, if Plan A is not working.

  2013/14 2012/13
  Sigurdsson Eriksen Townsend Dempsey Bale Lennon
Pass acccuracy 84.6% 89% 86.6% 81.3% 78.5% 84.5%
Crosses/match 1.4 3 3.4 0.37 5.42 2.23
2.2 1.33 2.8 1.68 4.03 0.47
Chances created/match 1.2 2.66 1.4 1.13 2.27 1.97
Minutes/goal 118.7 230 397 285.4 139.2 709.5

More fluidity, more dynamism

No longer pre-occupied with feeding one star man, Spurs' class of 2013/14 have been freed from the shackles. All over the pitch different players are expressing themselves with greater freedom.

All five members of Spurs' midfield, no matter which quintet is selected, have the ability to travel with the ball and because they are such technically proficient footballers there is an extra swagger and confidence about the side.

Kyle Walker and Dembele have provided more key passes than anyone else, for example (with 13 and 11 respectively), while Danny Rose is also averaging more than five crosses a match when bombing forward from his left-back berth. In addition, Paulinho has given the midfield a completely new dimension. Nobody has taken more shots on goal (15) than he has so far this season.

With individuals eager to play a bigger part in the team's success, there seems to be a renewed energy and vibrancy throughout the side. This can be seen in Pics 3, 4 & 5 above. Away to Cardiff City, Villas-Boas' side produced an incredible amount of shots and crosses. At home to Chelsea they tested the visitors by running at defenders throughout the match.


  Total dribbles
Dribbles success Dribble success
2012/13 636 (5th in League)
48.1% (10th in League) 8.05
2013/14 155 (1st in League)
65.8% (2nd in League)

Final thought

Villas-Boas may have lost a world-class figurehead in Bale but he has invested the money in a selection of excellent footballers who fit perfectly into his concept of the way Tottenham Hotspur should play.

Tactically, the players are comfortable in what they are being asked to do, and together they are starting to form a more powerful and inventive, multi-layered side.

If they maintain their current lofty standards, one suspects West Ham United will have their work cut out to stop them at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon.

To follow all of the action from Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United on Sunday afternoon, just click on this Matchday Live link.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke is a former professional footballer who has played at all levels from Premier League down to non-League
  • Since retiring he has become a written and broadcast journalist for magazines, TV shows and for Arsenal
  • In his regular Talking Tactics column, this week he looks at the improvements made by Tottenham Hotspur this season