FA Cup third-round weekend is always one of the most fascinating dates on the football calendar. It’s a competition for both clubs and players to make a name for themselves and lower league teams to test their ability against the best. This tactical analysis will look at how the game’s tactics unfolded between Middlesbrough and Tottenham Hotspur.
Middlesbrough came into this game in good form with four wins in a row. The previous two wins both coming away from home with tough opponents in West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End.
As for Spurs, they came into the game in mixed form. From their last five games, the Premier League side has two wins, two defeats and a draw to Norwich. This sort of form has represented their season as the team seems to be taking time to adjust to José Mourinho’s tactics.
With new signing Patrick Roberts available for this fixture it was a perfect opportunity to give the winger his debut. This meant a slight change in system from the 3-4-1-2 Jonathan Woodgate used last time out to a 3-4-2-1. This is also with his opponents in mind as with Roberts and Marcus Tavernier playing behind Ashley Fletcher Middlesbrough had players that would drop back and cover the space between the midfield pairing and the wing-backs. They were also in a position where they could quickly break forward with the ball.
As for Spurs, it was their first game without Harry Kane meaning José was forced to change formation. He opted to go for a 3-5-2 system with Eric Dier playing as a centre- back. This decision was made as Mourinho was expecting Middlesbrough to sit back so with Dier they had someone sitting deep but is comfortable on the ball. This would enable Spurs to move the ball around more efficiently.
From the outset, it was clear that Spurs wanted to push high against Middlesbrough. This was to try and force a mistake from the backline. Mourinho also wants his team to press like this as it will force the home side to kick it long. This plays into Spurs tactics as Fletcher has three central defenders to deal with.
The front four can press effectively as Middlesbrough only have two central midfielders. As a result, when the ball is shifted to the side either Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen can cover the pass to the middle. In this scenario, it is Alli that covers the pass to the middle while Eriksen can put the pressure on the wing-back. They are willing to do this as Spurs have wing-backs covering the line meaning there is little room for the home side to operate in.
Middlesbrough’s ridged set up
Where Tottenham can be dangerous is when their creative players can find a pocket of space on the edge of the area. The home side tactic to limit this threat was to have three players to cover the space in front of the back five. The idea of this is to force Spurs out wide. They want the away side to go wide as they have the numerical advantage in the middle and are defensively ready for the cross.
This way of defending can be dangerous as it invites the ball in the box. However, the home side is set up for this and made 23 headed clearances and 37 clearances compared to Tottenham’s 18 and 13. This did result in Spurs having 14 corners but the home side kept their discipline.
As mentioned earlier Middlesbrough wanted to force Spurs out wide. However, this is fine when they have numbers back as they can fill the space. To get around this Mourinho wants his team to mix up the way his team builds attacks. They do this by the centre backs clipping balls into either Son Heung-min or Lucas Moura. They do like the pairing to stay tight to each other ready for the knockdown. As both forwards are good at running with the ball it makes it dangerous for Middlesbrough as the more direct ball takes the midfielders out of the game.
This type of transition leads to the away side’s best chance of the half. Son can knock the ball on to Moura. This allows the forward to run at the backline causing Dael Fry to move out of position. Due to Middlesbrough’s tight formation, this quick transition leaves Serge Aurier in space he is then able to find a first-time cross to Alli who has run into the space left by Fry. On this occasion, Alli misses the ball and the home side have numbers back to clear the ball.
In the first half, it was clear that Middlesbrough tactical game plan was to try and utilise any set piece they got in Tottenham’s half. This did lead to a couple of chances however the home side did struggle to break out of their own half. As a result, Woodgate wanted to target Spurs’ high line. This was made evident as the home side went 1-0 up just five minutes into the second half.
Tottenham’s backline likes to stretch the play as it means they can rotate the ball faster. This defensively means that when they lose the ball there is then a big gap between defenders. Fletcher was able to expose this with a well-timed run in behind. The high line meant that once he was played in there was little the defenders could do to prevent the goal.
Time for change
With a cup shock on the cards, it was clear that Mourinho needed to change things. Tactically the system had been working as Middlesbrough had struggled to create much before the goal. Mourinho brought on Giovani Lo Celso and Érik Lamela. This meant there were two more attack-minded players as it was Ryan Sessegnon and Harry Winks that made way.
It took only a couple minutes for Lo Celso to have an impact as he looked to quickly release Aurier. He had once again found himself in space and had time to pick out across. Middlesbrough despite being well set up Jonny Howson lost Moura and was caught out by a quality cross that Moura was able to finish. This meant that it only took the away side eleven minutes to get back to 1-1.
The best chance the home side had at 1-1 was only due to a defensive slip and not Woodgate’s tactics. Nevertheless, his side’s defensive set up did continue to frustrate the Premier League side. Middlesbrough’s ridged system only limited Spurs to shots from range which goalkeeper Tomás Mejías was equal to. This is a credit to the home side that despite the thirty league place difference between the two teams Tottenham had to work for everything.
It was not till the 87th minute when Lamela was able to get away from Paddy McNair that they created a really good chance. Lamela’s run inside dragged substitute Marvin Johnson across to cover the space. This left Aurier free in space and with a good opportunity on goal which he was not able to take.
To conclude this tactical analysis, Middlesbrough will be delighted with this result. Despite only having 30% of the ball they were able to frustrate Spurs and limit the number of chances. The home side can take confidence from this and will look to keep their good form going.
As for Tottenham, this is another poor result. Mourinho picked a strong team for this game and would have expected his players to unlock the Championship defence. Nevertheless, the two teams will have to do it all over again which will not help Spurs as they look for the top four finish.