AVB gets the midfield balance right

Spurs fans were very excited about their central midfield options prior to the season’s kick off; understandably so. Whilst admiring the size, strength, stamina, and defensive capabilities of the players available – Sandro, Capoue, Dembele, and Paulinho – we were calling it the best central midfield in the Premier League.

We all expected a shift to the 4-3-3 that André Villas-Boas was renowned for in his year at Porto. There, he utilised Fernando as a dedicated holder, João Moutinho as the “recycling” link player, and Fredy Guarin as the breaker – tasked with getting forward to support the central striker. The majority of the creativity, it could be said, came from wide areas, where Hulk played as an inverted winger – cutting in and firing shots away – whilst Silvestre Varela was more of a touchline hugger.

At Spurs, the mapping of skill sets seemed to suggest that Sandro or Étienne Capoue would play as the deepest-lying player, Mousa Dembélé would take on the João Moutinho role, and Paulinho would be the one to break forward. This sounds plausible on first thoughts, but when you consider the respective playing traits more closely, it becomes clear that it doesn’t quite hold up – there’s a distinct lack of creativity, as none of those mentioned are particularly adept at moving the ball forward, and moving it forward quickly (albeit Capoue gives it a good go).

Dembélé is a wonderful dribbler and rarely loses the ball, but his tendency to dwell in possession in addition to his lack of vision do mean that we are sometimes restricted when we have the ball. As a result of both this and Sandro’s lack of match fitness, AVB started with Sigurdsson as a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 in our first match of the season, at Crystal Palace.


Whilst Sigurdsson didn’t have a particularly good game, he made a number of forward passes, had a couple of efforts on goal, and set up some shooting opportunities from wide areas. Soldado touched the ball 41 times in the match and was relatively involved.


Against Swansea, Villas-Boas made a more defensive selection, opting for Dembélé as the most advanced central midfield player, with Paulinho and Capoue alongside him. Dembélé’s attacking dashboard illustrates how he struggled to involve himself in the final third, and Soldado ended the game with just touches 21.


Villas-Boas stuck with the same midfield against Arsenal, with similar results. Soldado was isolated again, and ended the game having had 25 touches. Dembélé again struggled, and barely managed a successful forward pass in the final third.

As the transfer window came to a close, Spurs confirmed the signing of young Dane, Christian Eriksen. In the last year of his contract, signing Eriksen for the cut-price fee that could rise to £11m was a no-brainer. His age and European reputation mean that his price will unlikely fall below that level, even if he fails to settle. However, if his debut performance is anything to go by, his stock should continue to rise.


Although Soldado wasn’t that much more involved than the previous two matches (he had 32 touches), Eriksen’s introduction led to Spurs seeing a lot more of the ball in dangerous areas, and we scored our first two goals from open play this season – Eriksen grabbing the assist for Sigurdsson’s first (after a nice piece of link-up with Soldado) as well as the assist of the assist (!) for the second.

He had license to roam – playing most of his passes to the right (as the above graphic shows) presumably because we had much more natural width on that side, with Townsend more of a touchline hugging winger than Sigurdsson (at least as a starting position, as he typically comes inside once he receives the ball). The improvement in the team after the introduction of Eriksen is not purely down to the individual – although he’s clearly a talent who should prove to be an exciting signing for Spurs – but the ‘type’ of player required to play that role.

The team is set up perfectly for an intelligent number 10 to thrive, so long as he is found often and early. The defensive screen is excellent, and the only question mark is whether we have enough quality in the deep midfield region to move the ball quickly to a 10 – it is vital that he receives the ball before the opposition has a chance to reorganise after a turnover. By that I mean that when the defensive midfield players win the ball with their high tempo pressing, they need to play quick passes into Eriksen’s feet if possible so that he can exploit teams during transitions from attack to defence.

With Lamela also adept at playing the role, as well as the returning Lewis Holtby – so impressive against (the admittedly poor) Dinamo Tbilisi – Spurs now have the right kind of players to play off Soldado, and do not need to fit square-ish pegs into round-ish holes. For the foreseeable future, I would expect AVB to stick with the 4-2-3-1, with two from Sandro/Capoue/Paulinho and Dembélé as the ‘2’ – most likely a combination of one of Sandro/Capoue and one of Paulinho/Dembélé once all are fully fit and available.

Join the conversation

  1. Excellent analysis, as always
    1. Thanks!
  2. Excellent as always Windy. All looking good for the season.
    1. Thanks, appreciate it. Yes, quietly confident here...
  3. Great post, thoroughly agree with everything said.
    1. Thanks for the comment!
  4. I was very impressed with Eriksen’s performance against Norwich, and I hope most fans don't put too much pressure on him by getting carried away too quickly . No doubt he's got the potential to go as far as he wants in the game, and is already highly experienced for someone so young. When Modric left, Bale moved more central and was a revelation, by scoring so many goals himself with pieces of individual brilliance. However I do think this was to the detriment of creating chances for our forward line from wide and central positions. Eriksen is the type of creative player we were missing last term, and I hope he will progress to one of the best in Europe. There's bigger challenges then Norwich at home for us this season, and so far the signs are good. Our depth of squad gives us the ability to cover injuries \ suspensions, rotate to compete in all competitions and change the style of play in games when things aren't working. It's going to take time for the players to get to know each other and build a team spirit, and for AVB to fully asses all the talent at his disposable and understand what combinations are the most effective. But all in all the future looks bright. Maybe we'll look back at the sale of Gareth Bale, Chelsea's capture of Willian, as pivotal moments in changing the clubs history for the better???
    1. Nice comment - lots to agree with. It'll be interesting to see where Lamela ends up playing too as he apparently wants to play as a 10.
  5. Good stuff as always Windy. I think Siggy's rather super run, control and finish on the run have been too overshadowed by the fine fine pass from Eriksen. Very interesting player Siggy.
    1. Yeah he played really well, Siggy - good finisher and nice to see him coming inside and linking with others like that.
  6. Personally, I always expected Ericksen/Holtby to play the “recycling” link player role. I believe the first three games were making do with what was available while Holtby was injured and Willian (grrr)/Ericksen/whoever was signed. What this gives is: Sandro/Capoue Paulinho/Dembélé Ericksen/Holtby Amazing to think that our back-up midfield, when everyone is fit, is Capoue/Dembélé/Holtby. Also interesting to note that AVB's preference for players who are comfortable in more than one position means that in the unlikely event that Ericksen and Holtby are both injured Sigs can fit in there. Especially if Holtby is sold (not something I am expecting, all paper talk, to me). Top article - as usual.
    1. No way Dembélé is a back up. He's a starter. I don't see Sandro gaining his starting spot until Dembélé eventually gets injured. I see this site has something against Dembélé. He's a ball playing midfielder and he and Paulinho are doing well together as the "holding" players although they aren't truly holding players. They can tackle and are good enough going forward. I wish Dembélé would shoot more, but I guess it's going to be saved for special goals.
      1. Firstly, it is important to remember that football is a squad game now, and, with players he feels he can trust, there will likely be plenty of rotation, so I am not writing Dembélé off. He is a fantastic player and I rate him highly. Secondly, I am going on the system that AVB prefers to play. The three man midfield is formed from three distinct roles - the Holding player, the box-to-box (what Windy has labelled the 'Breaker') and the Recycling Link player. And that is how I have paired the players, above: Holder: Sandro/Capoue Breaker: Paulinho/Dembélé Recycler: Ericksen/Holtby So, based on this, I am not dropping Dembélé for Sandro, I am saying it is either Paulinho or Dembélé for the 'Breaker' role - and I would choose Paulinho, even though Dembélé is a fantastic player. And that was my point, really, we have such a strong squad midfield that even our second choices(in my opinion) are incredibly strong. It's not the least of a slight on Dembélé. It also means that even when we are struggling with one of these designated roles (in this case, Sandro isn't fully fit, yet, and Capoue is injured), we can still more than cope. That's fine, but it's not text-book AVB, which is Holder/Breaker/Recycler.
      2. Totally agree with this.
      3. I disagree - Dembele isn't a ball playing midfielder, that's exactly my problem with him. I wish he was. He doesn't pass the ball quickly, often, or well enough.
      4. Stick to youth updates because Dembélé did pretty well yesterday against Cardiff. I guess you didn't notice the through ball to Soldado. Keep being blinded by your bias.
      5. I tweeted post match that I thought Dembele was the standard player against Cardiff. In previous games he had disappointed, but I take each game as it comes. No bias here.
    2. Brilliant strength in depth isn't it?
  7. Top article Windy!
    1. Cheers!
  8. There is no first choice midfield or back-up midfield. AVB is planning for a 60 game season and will choose and rotate accordingly. We now have the luxury of doing that!
    1. I think most if us understand this, just sometimes it is necessary when talking theoretically, to act as though there is one. Football is a squad game now, and as long as AVB 'trusts' a player, I believe he will get plenty of game time.
  9. I hope you're not on a zero hours contract Windy for your goals conceded analysis. At this rate you may never work again.Hopefully. AVB's selection of Sigurdsson was in itself proof that he knows his squad better than we do. Dembele has been freed up by the players and movement around him. There are more and better options prompting him to release the ball more quickly. JJ, Parker and Livermore will rapidly become distant memories.
    1. Ha! Fortunately (or unfortunately!) I just do this for fun! So actually it means I'm working more ;-) Funny you mention JJ - that's who Dembele reminds me of, although obviously at a much higher level.
  10. Great analysis and some interesting comments. Another question though. Where does Lamela fit in to all of this? He's undoubted class.
    1. Either right side or behind the forward in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
  11. Ever since the nineties managers have dreamed of having 2 first elevens, Keegan's horses for courses team and accusations of man utd buying players for no other reason than to prevent other teams from buying them both spring to mind. The simple fact is that a first team player only needs to be slightly better than the player he's keeping out, improve the squad and you improve the team but you have to make sure that the players know they will get a fair crack at proving they are the better of the two, it's no good one player playing well in eruopa only to be told, yeah, but it was only against a bunch of amateurs and get switched out again until the other guy needs resting again. This was Harry's problem, I get the feeling avb is more clinical, the best one plays until he is not the best, quite frankly, i think this could be the first time i don't think a team actually has a first eleven (might want to look closer at the full backs though, at least one has been coasting with little pressure exerted on his place for a while though i have no doubt they will step up when they do)
    1. Great stuff.


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