A look at Pochettino’s tactical options ahead of the Champions League final
Two true tacticians go for a joust in the biggest match in club football. In this article, we’ve decided to zoom in on Tottenham’s tactical options. How can they increase their chances of winning the Champions League?
We all know how Liverpool will play in the final. After briefly flirting with 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 formation has become the gold standard once again for Klopp and company. Excluding a huge tactical surprise, Liverpool will play in exactly that formation, exactly with the patterns we have become accustomed to both in and out of possession.
Liverpool might have a better squad, have had a better season and ended the season better than Tottenham. But they don’t have the element of surprise; that will be Tottenham’s tomorrow, in the opening stages. A close look at four possible scenarios in which Pochettino can line up his side in their attempt to win the Champions League.
The 4-2-3-1 setup is the most likely outcome among Pochettino’s options. In his press conferences, Pochettino heavily played down the importance of the games the two sides played against each other this season. However, this could be a decoy attempt to shift attention away from the latest clash of the two teams.
Liverpool’s 2-1 win at Anfield in March is likely to be seen as very relevant to this game by both managers. Liverpool had to win the game to have any hopes of title and was at full strength, but Tottenham managed to have a very good second half due to Pochettino’s tactical changes. Liverpool won the game 2-1 thanks to a fortunate late Alderweireld own goal, but as Klopp pointed out in his pre-match comments, it was very tight. We’ve seen Pochettino experiment a lot with his choices of formation, and this season he often initially got it wrong, before adapting to the dynamics of the game successfully and getting his side back on track.
In that particular game, Pochettino started with a 3-5-2 formation and got completely outplayed in the first half, which makes it very unlikely that he will start this final with that system. In the second half, he pushed Vertonghen to left-back, Rose to the left wing and Eriksen as a inverted right wing to form a 4-2-3-1 with the same players on the pitch. The double pivot of Alli and Sissoko, although not an ideal duo by any means, helped Tottenham to find passing options through Liverpool’s high press and Tottenham had their best spell within the 180 minutes they played against Liverpool this season. It was more the success of the shape than the personnel, and in this light it is no surprise that Guardiola also often opts for a double pivot to be able to build up through Liverpool’s press.
We’ve seen how much Tottenham struggled against Ajax’s high pressure, and here they will be facing arguably the best pressing side in Europe. With Harry Winks likely to be back in the side, Tottenham has two options in buildup saved for different phases of the game.
When Liverpool is pressing high with intensity, as they mostly do in the opening phases of the first and second half, Tottenham will likely look to bypass midfield with long balls to Harry Kane, with getting attackers close to him for layoffs and second halls. This simple concept proved very useful for Tottenham against Manchester City and Ajax because they have all the tools to execute this successfully. Their defenders are very good at sending good quality long balls, in Kane and Llorente they have excellent target men and their forwards excel at making deadly runs.
However, Liverpool is very well equipped to defend that compared to the other teams Tottenham faced. Kane seems to be fit for this game; we should expect Tottenham to aim balls towards him and attack the second balls with the selected two of Alli, Son and Lucas around him. Kane will likely prefer to place himself near Matip rather than van Dijk for these balls, so Tottenham’s main source of distribution is likely to be Vertonghen, similarly to the Manchester City game.
In addition to that, Tottenham surprisingly did have decent spells of possession and gained control of the game during the second half of the 2-1 loss at Anfield in March. Eriksen drifting inside from the right and the usage of the double pivot disrupted Liverpool’s pressure. Tottenham created passing options, progressed the ball well and created chances at the other end. With Harry Winks’ return to the side, they will arguably be able to execute it better in the phases when Liverpool’s pressing intensity inevitably drops. Expect Trippier to take more offensive positions with Eriksen drifting inside, and Rose largely staying deep to contain Salah. Son will look to provide the width on the left.
In the defensive phase, it is also a question mark how aggressive Tottenham will choose to be when Liverpool has possession. We will most likely see them in a medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. 4-4-2 shape with Kane and Alli trying to prevent passes into the midfield.
Liverpool’s fullback threats are well known and it is one of the main reasons thatPochettino is less likely to field a 4-4-2 diamond system here. Sissoko might play a part in defending Robertson, shifting to that side in defensive transition, since Eriksen will spend most of his time in central positions if he plays on the right side. Son’s presence will most likely worry Alexander-Arnold and might diminish his impact.
The obvious zone of weakness seems to be Tottenham’s right side, with Mané looking as the danger man in his matchup with a defensively weak Trippier. If Eriksen plays on the right, which looks likely, Tottenham also might be vulnerable to switches of play during Liverpool’s possession spells, towards Robertson’s darting runs.
An interesting, though less likely, option might be the 4-4-2 diamond formation. This has been fielded often by Pochettino this season, and proved to work against Liverpool for parts of the earlier confrontations in the past few years.
This formation can be either achieved with Harry Kane alone up top accompanied with another striker next to him – Llorente, Son, Lucas – or with a pure winger on the touchline. The latter does offer more possibilities when attacking, however centrality might be the key to defeating Liverpool, meaning two out-and-out strikers can be seen as preferable.
Even though Tottenham have a four-versus-three advantage in midfield, it is very likely that they will not try to build through the center of the field in this formation. Whenever you get trapped between Liverpool’s six most offensive players and you are caught in possession, a counterattack is launched and you will suffer from it. The only midfielder that can perform the role of a regista is Harry Winks, and he has not been fit for long.
It is quite likely that when a 4-4-2 diamond formation is selected, the general aim will be to go long for Kane and the striker that accompanies him and scrap for the second ball afterwards. This is the big advantage of the diamond, as the four-versus-three overload in midfield is still very real, while the fullbacks can push up only after the second ball is won, and not have to stand there to provide width in a more positional way of playing. This is when the aspect of centrality comes in, because Spurs might have to stack the middle of the pitch with bodies in order to win the ball.
Another possibility is that Spurs do prefer to play short passes and bring the ball out from the back, but elect to go for the flanks, as so many of their opponents have done this season, avoiding to trigger the Liverpool press with a wrong central pass. In that case, it will be interesting to see whether Poch does indeed go for a striking duo, or fields an out-an-out winger that can be an outlet on the flanks. Perhaps we’ll see a very asymmetrical 4-4-2 diamond in possession if Spurs want to keep the ball on the ground, as one fullback pushes up, while on the other side the width is provided by a winger.
Once again, the key question here is how high Liverpool are willing to press. The 4-4-2 diamond does offer an excellent solution in terms of tilting Liverpool to the sides, as two strikers can pressure two center-backs and a total of six players are stationed in the center of the park in their backs, excluding only the fullbacks. In terms of centrality and stacking the middle, 4-4-2 diamond is one of the best formations there is, and Pochettino has used it a number of times against Manchester City, with good reasons.
The 4-4-2 diamond is a great way of pressing, as the ball is very naturally forced to the flanks, from where Spurs can tilt their whole team.
Whenever the press fails or Spurs wilfully choose to sit back for a while, it will be interesting how they set themselves up. A 4-3-1-2 shape with Alli on Fabinho is an excellent option for manufacturing counterattacks, but you do need to trust the seven most defensive players to hold off Liverpool.
A bit less risky choice might be to let Alli drop into central midfield off the ball, let the striker next to Kane play of Fabinho and hold Liverpool back with two good ol’ banks of four. There might be a 4-1-4-1 at play, even though that’s very unlikely for a formation with two strikers and would need an ungodly amount of work from the striker next to Kane.
All in all, you do not want an open match against Liverpool and you do not want a match wherein they can counterpress you. A 4-4-2 diamond accompanied with an extremely direct approach in possession and a medium high press might be the key to attaining a game like that.
5-3-2 / 3-5-2
A three-at-the-back formation is bread and butter for Tottenham Hotspur, since a big part of their tactical flexibility is due to the fact they can shift between three and two central defenders in the blink of an eye. In theory, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sánchez and Toby Alderweireld fit the profile of two ball-playing center-backs and a destroyer inside, while all the attackers and attacking midfielders possess the flexibility to fill in various attacking roles.
This formation seems highly unlikely for two reasons, however. First of all, when you are attacking in a 3-5-2 shape, someone has to keep the width op front. Often, the fullbacks are occupied with this role, meaning three defenders and one or two midfielders stay behind the ball. Against Liverpool, this can be deadly enough, as they have more or less the deadliest attacking trio when it comes to counterattacking. You do not want to be left three-versus-three against those guys. Oddly as it may seem, a formation with two central defenders offers better protection as you can leave the fullback on the far side behind the ball, plus two midfielders. There is also less of a channel to run into for an opposing winger.
If you lose the ball, you’re three-on-three with Salah, Firmino and Mané.
Another aspect is how Liverpool play with a false nine The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. in possession, as Firmino constantly tries to drop into midfield and create space for Salah and Mané. Against Ajax, Tottenham hugely struggled with this, as Dušan Tadić constantly dropped into midfield, while neither of the central defenders followed him. Spurs were fearful of breaking the defensive line and did not cover for that reason, but proved a mistake, as Tadić ran the game from midfield. Playing with five defenders and two attackers already leaves the midfield slightly understaffed and easy to overload. Pochettino will not want the same to happen tomorrow.
The three formations all more or less rely on the same plan: Tottenham forming a medium block and pressing incidentally, while keeping access to the middle part of the pitch. The three formations above all yield different spaces for Liverpool, meaning Poch might pull a big pink rabbit from the hat.
That rabbit being that he totally drops the medium block and attempts to halt Liverpool from a low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. This has not been his preferred approach in the last seasons against Liverpool, but incidentally, it has proven successful. The most prominent example of this low block approach was when Tottenham formed a 5-3-2-0 formation on their own half in order to keep Real Madrid from progressing play, snatching a draw at the Bernabéu.
Every team needs to be able to defend in a low block for parts of the match; this is something else than standing back in your own penalty area voluntarily, soaking up pressure and hoping to catch a goal on the counterattack. Against Liverpool though, this approach seems unlikely for Tottenham, as Liverpool are one of the best counterpressing teams on the planet. If you elect to stand in a low block, there is any chance you will not get out anymore, while Liverpool at times can have difficulty carrying or passing the ball into the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. when confronted with a well-drilled medium block.
So, that’s all the tactical tinkering for now. The 4-2-3-1 shape seems most likely, while a variant of 4-4-2 might be on the cards, and a 3-5-2 formation seems highly unlikely. If you are into these kinds of things and like to speculate about the tactical side of the game, keep an eye on our Twitter account in the hours before kick-off.