It’s funny how the momentum seems to shift from game to game in the Premier League this season. Of course, in part, this comes from the media need for interest to be generated across a 38-game season. But in this case, the artist formerly known as the Top 4, now imaginatively titled the Top 6, has something of a turbulent feel to it.
Take Spurs, for example. Going from a 3-1 win over London rivals Chelsea to a 4-2 loss to London rivals Arsenal (via a 1-0 win over Inter in the Champions League), it’s hard to know exactly how we should be viewing Mauricio Pochettino’s team.
Not that a team is only as good as it’s last game. In many respects, Tottenham’s loss to Arsenal can be traced to a failure in its ‘diamond’ pressing system to account for Arsenal’s ability to use width.
In a bid to force Arsenal onto the sidelines, Pochettino had his team play a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, keeping his fullbacks deeper and shifting his outside midfielders to press in the areas you would usually expect the fullbacks to press. Unai Emery’s 3-4-3 made short work of this, using aggressive wing backs Hector Bellerin and Saed Kolasinac to offer easy outs from the press.
In their following game against Southampton, Spurs reverted to a 4-2-3-1 and the impact of this shift on the press was obvious. The graphic below shows that, in the course of the Southampton game, the off-the-ball actions for Spurs were dominated by their back line and their double pivot of Eric Dier and Harry Winks.
You need to look below the top six players for off-the-ball actions before you arrive at the three advanced midfielders: Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen and Lucas Moura.
However, compared with the off-the-ball actions from the Arsenal game, the difference is striking. As you can see below, the defence dominates the metric. This time, though, the midfield three falls well behind them, suggesting that Pochettino’s decision to shift to a 4-2-3-1 paid some sort of dividend.
This isn’t to say that Tottenham should ditch their ‘diamond’ pressing approach altogether, of course. However, thought should be given to teams who are able to utilise width well. Which brings us to Leicester City, their opponents on Saturday.
When looking at their top five player performances over the last six games per Twelve’s attacking metric, two things stand out. Firstly, the two most productive players in that regard are Marc Albrighton and Ben Chilwell: their two wide midfielders.
Comparing their maps, it is clear that a key aspect of Claude Puel’s game plan is to find these two players and look to get them to work the ball into dangerous areas.
If Spurs are worried about teams who will use width to nullify their narrower ‘diamond’ press, then you might expect Pochettino to retain the 4-2-3-1 formation he used against Southampton on Wednesday.
The second notable feature of Leicester’s attacking metrics is the fact that Kasper Schmeichel finds himself in fourth place in the list. This indicates that Leicester could seek to avoid the press altogether by going long, hitting the ball into deep areas along either touchline.
In this case, Spurs could keep their back line as flat as they did against Arsenal, looking to offset Leicester’s attempts to find their wide midfielders in deeper areas. If that does transpire, then perhaps the ‘diamond’ press might be favourable, allowing the fullbacks to sit and the midfield three to cover the advanced wide areas in the press.
If they do go with this second approach, though, the key will be to make sure Spurs can find width when they win the ball back in the midfield areas. Pochettino, then, is faced with some tricky decisions against Leicester. We will find out on Saturday which way he has decided to go.