Talkin’ tactics: Looking at what Tottenham could bring to the table against Juventus

Juventus has something to prove against Tottenham Hotspur. Not just for them, but also for Serie A.

With its financial dominance, the Premier League has been battling with the Spanish giants for the best players. “They may have the players, but they don’t know how to play tactics.” Serie A fans thought that the British could never take those tactics away. But they were wrong. Top managers have brought their ideas to England, with every game dissected under a microscope. Every tactic is explained and debated by experts and amateurs. The feeling that Serie A has the best tactical games is long gone for many people.

So here comes Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur, a team lauded for its tactical brilliance. Serie A fans need this game. They need Juventus to win this battle and show the world that the Italian league is still the king of tactics.

Tottenham’s tactics

Pochettino has used a lot of formations since taking over Tottenham Hotspur. Their recent setup is a 4-2-3-1:

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Transitioning into the offensive phase, the center backs look to combine with the double pivot to generate numerical advantage. Pushing up to the midfield are the fullbacks that provide width. Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier link the defense to the foursomes up front and their positional exchanges generate the first wave of attack while the fullbacks create the second wave of support. To create variability, Spurs players sometimes shift to the left to advance the ball. The right back, Kieran Trippier, stays on the same line as the center backs to create a three-man back line. Luring the opponent’s players to the left, Spurs create space on the ball-far side for Trippier to penetrate. More variations, such as a 3-4-3 with Victor Wanyama dropping in between the center backs and Dele Alli filling his space in the midfield, or a 3-5-2 when with three center backs — or when Dier part-times the role — have all been used in recent games.

Spurs’ flexibility creates a problem for Juventus. Their 4-2-3-1 is a hybrid of 4-4-2 (4-2-3-1 is a variant of 4-4-2) and 4-3-3. A regular 4-2-3-1 attacks the flanks with the wide midfielders and the fullbacks. In contrast, Spurs only use their fullbacks to provide width. The wide-midfielders/wingers — Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen and Alli — are runners in the middle. In this sense, they resemble the inverted wingers of a 4-3-3. These mixings of shapes and movements showcase the range of tactics Tottenham can play and highlight the difficulty for Juventus to design a strategy against them.

Tottenham’s positional exchange is potent and dynamic — a joy for the fans but a nightmare for the opponent. Because the double pivot, mostly Dembele, provides the linking passes, the three advanced midfielders can focus on creating space with their movements between the lines:

An exchange can create a domino effect that generates faster subsequent exchanges to confuse and eventually dismantle the defense. When one player leaves a zone, he creates space. As the second player moves into this space, he creates yet another space for another teammate. This chain-reaction creates waves of movements and opportunities.

The movements are so fast and robust, just like knee-jerk reactions. Tottenham’s dangerous on the counterattack because of these perfunctory rapid combinations and movements.

They often use overloads to draw defenders’ attention and to generate space for the fullbacks.

The front “3-1” players are lethal. They are 6-foot roaming midfielders/forwards with excellent shooting ranges. Harry Kane is a world-class striker. Alli, Eriksen, and Son Heung-min are just as dangerous when they run into the space that Kane creates by dropping from the defenders. Especially difficult to defend against is the diagonal run that initiates from the half-space. Alli has an under-appreciated aerial dominance.

Dembele is Tottenham’s most important player because nothing happens without him. His passes transform their build-up phase into the attacking phase. His timing is critical. Once Dembele receives the ball from the center backs, he needs to assess when and how to deliver a pass. A space may remain open for only half a second. Making a pass too early or too late and the space is gone. On top of that, he needs to withstand the opponent’s pressure and pass through the opponent’s midfield:

Dembele provides the perfect balance for his team. His physique and technique allow him to resist opponent’s pressing, while he can protect the ball and wait for his teammates to move into the proper position. With him controlling the possession, the temporal and spatial windows of space creation increase. Dembele can dribble past his marker to open the opponent’s defense if an opportunity arises. Because he is Tottenham’s most-crucial player going forward, they look to create proper passing angles and sufficient room for him to operate.

Spurs focus on controlling the ball and use aggressive pressing to regain possession when their play breaks down.

The front four players carry the initial pressing, with Dier and Dembele usually covering the pressers. The fullbacks often aim to return to the defense when Hotspur lose the ball. If the first wave of pressing fails, the players will return to a 4-4-2 defensive shape to rest and wait for the next pressing opportunity.

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Like all the top teams in Europe, Pochettino’s side plays with modern tactics but a superior tactical range as he tailors the strategies to maximize his players’ characteristics against different opponents. They are formidable.

Tottenham’s potential weaknesses

They have two glaring weaknesses during their transitional phases.

Spurs’ transition from the build-up to the attacking phase is error-prone. They favor penetration over possession and have too few passers (Dembele and Dier) but too many (two fullbacks and four attackers) receivers. The receivers will focus on the off-ball movements and wait for the entry pass from the midfield. That time window is narrow and put a lot of pressure to the midfield. Dembele is crucial because only he can consistently deliver that pass and he anchors their weakest point. Man-marking him is not ideal because it will comprise the cohesion of defense. Dier and Davinson Sanchez are not as good as Dembele, but they can still inflict damage if unmarked. Dembele picks up the ball from the defense and uses a midfield block to prevent his entry pass.

If Juventus can eliminate his forward passing lane, Tottenham’s attack will halt. Sami Khedira should do this job since he plays on the same side as Dembele and has the tactical intelligence for the task. Better, if Juventus can intercept the ball, they can immediately threaten Tottenham since their fullbacks will be positioned wide and make the center vulnerable. Juventus already experimented this tactic in Derby d’Italia in December. Like Spurs, Inter used a 4-2-3-1 with a better passer (Borja Valero) but fewer runners. In that game, Juventus nullified Inter’s ball progression in the midfield by minimizing Valero’s vertical passes, thus preventing Inter from supplying their attackers. The same strategy will work against Hotspur if done properly.

Tottenham’s defense is poor between aggressive pressings. When the opponent resists their first wave of pressing, Hotspurs will shift to a 4-4-2 standoff zonal defense. They always transition into the proper shape, but their mindsets are off:

Their players are too aggressive in tackling the opponent even in a supposedly passive defensive scheme. The space between the lines is too big. Gaps pop up when they come out to engage the opponent’s players. Juventus can take advantages of these gaps if they find ways to resist Hotspur’s pressing.

A tactical battle between Serie A and Premier League

Allegri’s Juventus has rarely faced an opponent with such tactical flexibility. But Pochettino cares about result more than just style. He may field a defensive 5-3-2 in Turin, just like he did in Madrid in October. If Toby Alderweireld can return to fitness, Hotspu have an excellent passer from the back to share Dembele’s workloads. Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko, and Harry Winks can give something different from the starting lineup.

Because Tottenham is playing the first game away, they have the luxury to be passive and observant. Juventus want to score and not concede, so Allegri will need to take the initiative and show his cards first, a dangerous thing to do against Pochettino. But he has a lot of cards, more than anyone. Juventus can transition from an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 to an all-out attacking 2-4-4 without any substitution. Allegri has been using 4-3-3 for the last ten games, but we shouldn’t be surprised to see a 4-2-3-1/3-5-2 hybrid with Andrea Barzagli or Mattia De Sciglio part-timing the right fullback/center back role.

Granted, Tottenham Hotspur are not the strongest team in the Premier League. (That’s Manchester City.) But they represent the advancement of their league. Beating them will give Serie A fans something to cheer for, and validate their loyalty to the league.

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