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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Middlesbrough 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur | Influence of Central Defenders in Possession

Ross Eaton provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League match that ended Middlesbrough 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur.

As Karanka and Pochettino, two relatively young managers, met in their sixth English Premier League games of the season, many anticipated a chess-like tactical battle. Facing off at Boro’s Riverside stadium, these two managers will have different mindsets going into the match. Karanka’s Middlesbrough have results-wise, been pretty poor so far this season, though he himself has stated his satisfaction to Boro’s start, particularly performance-wise. Pochettino’s Spurs have picked up the required points for the majority of the time, though their attacking threat which was sure to terrify opposition defences last term doesn’t seem to have the same edge it did. Both sides have possessional issues, yet strong defensive structures, which may play a significant role in the outcome of the match.


Middlesbrough deployed a fairly standard 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 formation. Victor Valdes was in goal with a four man defence of Barragan, Gibson, Chambers and Friend ahead of him. As the midfield’s  double-pivot was Clayton and De Roon. The advanced midfielders were Stuani, Ramirez and Downing. Up front was Álvaro Negredo.

Pochettino used a shape somewhere in between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 with Lloris as the goalkeeper. Directly in front of him were Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Davies. Wanyama retained his place in the team as the 6, with Eriksen and Alli in variable roles in centre-midfield to to his left and right. Sissoko and Son played as the wingers whilst Vincent Janssen played as the 9 in Harry Kane’s absence.

Influence of Central Defenders in Possession

Suggested to be the best centre-back partnership in English football at the moment, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are clearly trusted by their manager Mauricio Pochettino not just as defenders but in the possession phase. This was clear in this match vs. Middlesbrough where they played important roles in Spurs’ progression of the phases of possession.

Against the uncompact first lines of Middlesbrough pressure, it would be expected that Spurs’ central midfielders, particularly their deepest midfielders would be key players in generating and utilising superiorities behind the first line of pressure. This wasn’t the case however. Perhaps due to Spurs’ dedicated pivot being Wanyama, a defensive midfielder not exactly known for his quality in build-up, Alderweireld and Vertonghen often made use of this space by quickly bypassing the initial wave of pressure.


Alderweireld and Vertonghen played combination passes between both themselves and Lloris in order to draw Negredo and/or Ramirez into a high press without an effective second wave of pressure behind them. When the combination passes eventually found the free CB, Alderweireld/Vertonghen would dribble forward into the space between Boro’s first and second pressure lines. Here, the Boro midfielders had poor defensive access on the ball due to firstly, the overload this would create for Spurs centrally and secondly, the vertical distance that would be required to be covered to actually press would be near impossible to do without Spurs moving into effective positions to receive and progress.

Intelligently of Wanyama, realising he wasn’t required in the majority of build-ups, the Kenyan often made vertical movements away from the ball while Negredo uselessly pressed Spurs three players in order to drag Ramirez away, creating more space between the lines for Alderweireld/Vertonghen to move into with the ball.

Though very important in the early phases, this wasn’t the only stage of possession where Alderweireld and Vertonghen had a key influence in Spurs progression of the ball. During circulation, in more established advanced possession, Spurs would often slowly horizontally circulate to a wing whilst maintaining strong structure in the sub-areas around the ball to resist Boro pressure which has been drawn in. Due to maintaining these strong structures in close relation to the ball, Spurs were able to escape this pressure and now switch the ball to the underloaded opposite halfspace/wing, to the opposite CB.


Despite the benefits of Spurs centre-backs moving in between Boro’s lines, it didn’t actually have that much of an impact on Spurs performance or breaking or Boro’s lines. Due to the central compactness focus of Middlesbrough, it was difficult for Alderweireld and Vertonghen to play their favoured line-splitting passes into the 10 spaces.


Credit to @11tegen11: We can see the passing plots shows Toby and Jan rarely managed to connect with the forwards.

Lack of Access To Key Spaces

Deploying a slightly different 4-3-3 formation, it could be said that one reason Tottenham were unable to frequently access Zone 14 between the lines was due to their lack of a dedicated 10. This wasn’t the only factor though, as Aitor Karanka again set up his side’s two banks of four in a very compact fashion which made finding the space difficult for Spurs attackers.

In somewhat desperate attempts to get on the ball following many unsuccessful movements into small spaces between Boro’s lines, Christian Eriksen often found himself deep in the right halfspace. This subtracted his needles and spatial awareness qualities required in order to make the most of the small spaces between the lines.

In order to occupy the spaces which are pretty necessary in order to aid effective penetration through midfield, Dele Alli had to now make diagonal movements from his left halfspace base position, otherwise there would be no occupation of Zone 14, making effective penetration through the centre near-impossible. Moving from his left halfspace position, whilst Stuani of Boro positioned himself in the same halfspace, Tottenham were hit on the counter through this open space a few times, due to Alli being out of position at the time of turnover.


Though running out as winners of this match, it was yet another underwhelming performance by Pochettino’s Spurs who look incapable of producing the same level of performance as Tottenham Hotspur did in the 15/16 season. The absence of Moussa Dembele continues to cause Spurs issues in possession, with his dynamic style again missed, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of penetrating a compact shape.

Karanka’s Middlesborough weren’t too poor and caused Spurs a number of problems in both transitions, though their display of absolutely no considerations of compactness between the first and second pressing lines was rather disappointing and a key factor in their lack of control of the game, which ultimately watched them lose 2-1.

Read all our Tactical Analyses here.

Ross Eaton

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