Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Deep line, 2 man midfield leave Spurs too open in defeat to Arsenal

During his spells at both Chelsea and Tottenham, Andre Villas Boas was rather unyielding in his use of a high defensive line despite not having the ideal personnel to suit such a system. In late October 2011, Villas Boas's Chelsea were ripped apart 5-3 by Arsenal as the Gunners were continually able to run onto the ball in space behind Chelsea's high line. Chelsea's center backs that afternoon were Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry, two defenders more comfortable defending deep and dealing with crosses into the box than playing high and making recovery runs when balls are played in behind them.

Early in this season Arsenal again made Villas Boas pay for his stubborn insistence on a high line, this time as Spurs boss, in a 1-0 league win at the Emirates. In that contest Theo Walcott tucked in to a narrow position from the right and continually ran in behind the high line of Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. The high line was once again at least partly at fault for the heavy winter defeats to Manchester City (6-0) and Liverpool (5-0) that would ultimately cost Villas Boas his job.

It comes as little surprise then that Villas Boas's replacement Tim Sherwood has adopted a deeper defensive line to keep the opposition from getting in behind his back four, a strategy he stuck with in Saturday's FA Cup tie with Arsenal. Spurs captain and center back Michael Dawson is particularly ill-suited to play a high line and with Theo Walcott employed as the striker for the Gunners, a deeper line meant fewer opportunities for Arsenal's pacey England international to get on the end of through balls and run at Hugo Lloris 1 v 1.

While the deeper positioning may have mitigated the danger behind Spurs back four, it left far too much space between the midfield and defensive lines for Arsenal to exploit. These large gaps between defense and midfield could have been at least partly remedied while still sticking with a deep defensive line in one of two ways: Sherwood could have opted away from the 4-4-2 he's gone with since taking over and pulled a striker in place of a third center midfielder or, having decided to use a 4-4-2, he could have gone with a positionally disciplined, physical holding midfielder. With Sandro unavailable the obvious choice was Etienne Capoue.

As it turned out Sherwood went with Nabil Bentaleb and Moussa Dembele. Both players shuttled high up the pitch when Spurs were in possession, leaving large gaps between themselves and their center backs. Without a third center midfielder to plug the space by sitting deeper in front of the back four, Arsenal were able to quickly transition on the break into the huge amounts of space behind Bentaleb and Dembele and run at center backs Dawson and Chiriches.

Whether you play a high line or a deep one it's crucial that your defensive shape is compact and you leave minimal space between the lines. If Spurs were going to play a deeper line, their central midfielders needed to play deeper as well. This is particularly important against a team like Arsenal who boast a wealth of players skilled at playing in pockets of space between the lines. In this contest Tomas Rosicky, playing the #10 role, and Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry, tucking inside from the channels, were all able to collect the ball in space behind the Tottenham midfielders.

The two screen shots below show the buildup to Cazorla's opener. The first image shows the gap between Bentaleb, Spurs deeper center midfielder, and the center backs just prior to Bacary Sagna's simple penetrating ball into Gnabry in space between the lines (the ball is at Sagna's feet in the image who is hidden behind the Macclesfield v. Sheffield Wednesday score). Keep in mind Arsenal are not quickly countering here with Spurs racing to get back- they've had the ball for 8 seconds at this point, giving Bentaleb and Dembele time to get closer to their center backs.

This next image shows Gnabry receiving Sagna's pass. Gnabry is able to comfortably receive the ball in the vast space between Tottenham's defense and midfield while Bentaleb is completely taken out of the play with the Sagna's pass. Gnabry sprints inside forcing both Chiriches and Dawson to step and lays a pass wide to the left for Cazorla to finish. Had Spurs been more compact with a holding midfielder in front of the center backs, that holding midfielder could have stepped to Gnabry, allowing Dawson to check Cazorla's run inside.

The opening goal wasn't an isolated incident of Spurs leaving too much space in front of the back four. Prior to that Rosicky twice found himself in space behind the Spurs midfield and played penetrating passes into Walcott to set up dangerous opportunities. Chiriches made a last ditch block on the first one and Lloris stood his ground well at the front post on the second but Tottenham's weakness was obvious (you can see both chances in the highlights below).

The screen shot below shows another example. The gap here between Chiriches-Dawson and Dembele-Bentaleb is startling. Both Wilshere and Rosicky are in dangerous positions to receive the ball between the lines and cause the center backs problems. On this occasion Wilshere took a poor first touch and conceded possession but the goal would come shortly after.

Playing 4-4-2 against Arsenal is always going to be a substantial risk. Arsene Wenger's side are quite good at tucking their wide attacking midfielders inside and overwhelming the opposition in central areas. With Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 in this game and Cazorla often coming inside from the left, Arsenal at times had a 4 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield. If 4-4-2 was likely to work for Spurs, Sherwood needed his side to defend in tight, compact banks of four with one of either Soldado or Adebayor dropping in to put pressure on Arsenal's double pivot midfielders Wilshere and Mikel Arteta. As it played out, it was often Dembele and Bentaleb pressing Arsenal's two deep midfielders high in midfield, leaving space behind for the likes of Rosicky, Cazorla and Gnabry.

Many had questioned Sherwood's tactical acumen when he was appointed Spurs manager for the season. The sound defeat Saturday and his denial afterwards that his side were overwhelmed in midfield, or that they were even using a 4-4-2, will do little to quell those opinions.

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