Tottenham Hotspur – Aston Villa: Eriksen Cameo Helps Break Down Aston Villa Defense (3-1)

It looked like Aston Villa would come back to the Premier League in style, getting points off Spurs by successfully defending their box against the home side’s predictable crossing game. However, the substitution of Christian Eriksen infused new life and unpredictability to Tottenham’s attack, allowing them to finally break the deadlock. 

Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez

After 18 months of no moves in the transfer market, Daniel Levy finally listened to his fans’ demands for a midfield and signed two of the most promising young midfielders in Europe: Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Lo Celso. The fact Spurs could attract players of such caliber (or negotiate with Paulo Dybala) reflects how much prestige the club has accrued in the last five years. This year Spurs have reached a Champions League final, finally matched the revenue of their north London rivals, and are finally playing in their new world-class stadium. After decades of being the punchline to jokes, Tottenham Hotspur are now one of the strongest sides in England and all of Europe, both financially and performance-wise.

Spurs opened this season against Aston Villa with a very narrow 4-3-1-2 shape, similar to the one used last season. The goal of Hugo Lloris was defended by central defenders Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez, aided by fullbacks Kyle Walker-Peters and Danny Rose. Midfield featured a trio of Harry Winks in the holding role and Tanguy Ndombelé and Moussa Sissoko playing the interior midfield roles. Up front featured a very narrow front three with Lucas Moura and Harry Kane as striker and Erik Lamela in behind.

Despite changing owners last year and changing manager two months into the season, Aston Villa completed a surprise comeback to the Premier League under the guidance of coach Dean Smith. Villa did have a Herculean task ahead in the transfer market, as many of their players came from loan deals and the club needed to find money to buy them or get suitable replacements. This is what led to Villa’s massive 127-million-pound rebuilding operation over the summer, which saw them buy half a squad (twelve players), including last-season loanees like Tyrone Mings (for a whopping transfer fee) and Anwar El Ghazi. With so many new faces and a coach who is facing his first full season as Villa manager, Villa look more unstable than their newly promoted counterparts, Norwich City and Sheffield United, who’ve had the same coaches and process for the last two or three years.

Against Tottenham, Smith and Villa started in their usual 4-1-4-1 shape. The goal of newly signed Tom Heaton was defended by central defenders Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels, with Neil Taylor and Ahmed Elmohamady as fullbacks. In midfield, Conor Hourihane played in the holding role with Jack Grealish and John McGinn playing the box-to-box midfield roles. Up front, Wesley Moraes acted as the target man, flanked by Anwar El Ghazi (left) and Trézéguet (right), who were looking to aggressively run into the channels.

Spurs’ unproductive possession game leads only to crosses

Despite Spurs monopolizing possession of the ball during the first half (71% vs 29%), Villa actually produced more shots in the box (three versus four). Spurs attacked consistently but in predictable ways, and a predictable attack in football is often easy to defend.

Especially after their opening goal, scored after eight minutes, Villa chose to defend in a deep, compact 4-5-1 defensive block, A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. with players marking opponents only until Spurs crossed the halfway line. As Spurs got closer to the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. the Villa defense got narrower and narrower. Players prioritized defending the central lanes and minimized the spaces in between the lines in which Lamela, Kane and Moura could operate.

Spurs’ 4-3-1-2 shape in attack against Villa´s 4-5-1 deep block. Notice the narrowness of Villa’s defensive line, trying to lure Spurs fullbacks into crossing early.

In this scenario, the Spurs attack – often directed by a great Harry Winks – would switch play over to the fullbacks on the wings. However, without actual wingers to support them (Lamela, Moura and Kane mostly stayed central), Spurs fullbacks either had to beat their defender or wait for Sissoko, Ndombele or Lamela to make the appropriate supporting runs on the wings. 

This often meant that the fullbacks had to cross early and from sub-optimal positions. And even if they got into good crossing positions, the attack had been delayed enough that the Villa defense, led by the attentive Mings and Engels, was already well-organized and ready to clear the incoming cross. These subpar crosses were practically Spurs’ only means of entering the Villa box throughout the first half. 

Villa’s counterattacking game takes advantage of Spurs’ high line and mistakes

Villa were prepared to live without the ball throughout most of the game. Other than long balls into the channels and the occasional dribbling run from midfielder Jack Grealish, Villa had almost no way to overcome the aggressive and well-drilled Spurs pressing and counterpressing. After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. 

However, with most of Tottenham’s players operating in the opposition half and the defensive line pushing up all the way to the halfway line, Villa could create some danger through long balls. Aerial balls to striker Wesley mostly failed, with Spurs’ defenders coming out on top most of the time. However, long balls to wingers El Ghazi and Trézéguet, who were trying to sneak behind Spurs’ fullbacks, proved a bit more successful. Villa’s early eighth minute goal, however, came from a different source: the hyperactive midfielder McGinn. 

As defender Tyrone Mings sent another long ball forward, Spurs’s center-backs were pinned down by Wesley, while the fullbacks had to keep an eye on the wingers. McGinn took advantage of this and ran from behind to get the long ball, outsmarting and outmuscling a confused Danny Rose to score. In all fairness, Rose’s mistake was an isolated incident within a game almost exclusively controlled by Spurs, but this is a cruel sport after all. No matter how many times you do things right, one mistake is all it takes to be punished by the opposition, and suddenly, you’re trailing.

Spurs improve their use of width during the second half

There were no half-time substitutions, but the beginning of the second half saw Spurs make slightly better use of their attacking width. They were still crossing like maniacs (ten crosses in the first twenty minutes of the second half), but the speed of their attacks had increased. 

The Villa defense struggled more to organize itself against the higher frequency of attacks, becoming increasingly reliant on defender Mings and his clearance heroics. Sissoko became more active in making runs into the box to help overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the Villa defense during crosses, and one such run led to their best chance of the early second half (and a spectacular miss from Sissoko).

Eriksen helps land the finishing blows on Villa

Spurs had improved in their ability to break down the Villa defense, but the goals had not arrived yet. In the 64th minute, Pochettino replaced Winks with Christian Eriksen, who has been surrounded by transfer rumors all summer. Quickly enough, however, Eriksen showed why he is so valuable to Tottenham, by taking over the role of midfield director. 

Eriksen appeared everywhere on the pitch, from pressing on the front lines to collecting the ball from his defenders to crossing from the wings. And none of these active movements were borne out of precipitation; Eriksen knew exactly where to position himself in order to make his team’s attacks more fluid and consistent. 

In the end, the Villa defensive wall could only take so many hits, and finally fell in the 72nd minute. After a corner kick and a spectacular Heaton save, Moura picked up the second ball and passed back to Ndombele, who awaited just outside the box to unleash a curved shot that finally beat Heaton. 

At this point, Spurs just needed to keep doing what they were doing to get more goals. They were not a predictable attack anymore, commandeered by Eriksen and moving the ball around quickly from side to side to further disorder the Villa defense. And whenever Villa tried to take some initiative and play out from the back, pressing from Spurs’ forwards and Eriksen would induce mistakes from the Villa back line and create even more chances. Villa was depending on heroics from Mings and keeper Heaton to stay in the game.

In the 86th minute, Spurs punished another Villa attempt at playing out from the back. As Grealish drove forward, Lamela stole the ball from him, shot, and the ensuing bounce off Villa defenders was picked up by an ever-attentive Kane to score. To add further insult to injury, in the 90th minute a great Sissoko solo run through a dismantled Villa midfield led to another Kane goal, this time with a low, driven finish from the edge of the box. 


The expected goal The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. graph speaks for itself. In the second half, Spurs outshot Villa 24 to 2, very much earning their victory. Spurs begin the season showing that they are a team that can adjust both tactically and mentally to the challenges the Premier League can throw at them. That being said, this victory also shows that even with talents like Ndombele or Lo Celso, it will be hard to replace Eriksen in case the transfer rumors are true, and he leaves this month.

As for Villa, their resistance was frankly more due to heroism than tactics and collective structure. Spurs are a much stronger opponent than them, but even in such circumstances, conceding almost 30 shots in your opening game does not speak well of their defensive structure. We will need more games against opponents of a lower caliber to assess what their real chances of survival in the league are.

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José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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