After a draw in the first leg of the third round in this year’s FA Cup, Tottenham and Middlesbrough went head-to-head again in the replay fixture. Jonathan Woodgate’s side made Spurs fight hard to get the equalizing goal back at the Riverside Stadium, but the story was different in London.
With a more comfortable game this time, Tottenham built an early lead to go through the next round, while Boro struggled to create chances. This tactical analysis will show how José Mourinho guaranteed his team’s success while changing his tactics from their last game.
Both teams changed a lot since their last encounter. For the home side, four personnel changes: Japhet Tanganga came in for Serge Aurier and Davinson Sánchez entered in Toby Alderweireld’s place in defence; in the middle, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso started while Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli were resting. But more than who was playing, how they were sent out to play was what determined Tottenham’s success.
Mourinho has been implementing a 3-5-2 formation in some matches and it was working quite well. Even so, the Portuguese boss changed his tactics to get up the field from behind and quickly, opting for a 4-2-3-1 this time, with three well-rounded offensive players behind a kind of “false nine” Lucas.
Analysis of Middlesbrough’s tactics can show their preference for the three centre-backs in contention of their defence, and it stayed this way again. From their last match at the Riverside, Woodgate also provided some changes: Marvin Johnson got Hayden Coulson’s spot at left wing-back; Ben Liddle made his senior debut in George Saville’s place in midfield and Lewis Wing got a start while Patrick Roberts was resting; in the attack, Lucas Nmecha made his first start.
Like Tottenham, Boro changed their scheme, shifting from a 3-4-2-1 in the first leg to a more conservative 5-3-2. This way they could rapidly put more players behind the ball to try to prevent Tottenham midfielders from infiltrating.
Tottenham adapted their style of play
With their 4-2-3-1, Spurs overloaded the middle area while they had options on the flanks. With quick and close passes going along with intense player movement, Mourinho could get his players to draw Boro’s defenders out of position to create space to attack.
Because of this adaption, Middlesbrough could not build-up from the middle and had to pass the ball wide to get the opportunity to create. Trying to compensate this, Boro’s captain Jonny Howson went up to give his fellow centre-backs another passing option upfront. Even so, their passing map analysis shows how Tottenham closed the midfield and forced them to either get wide or long.
When building-up, Vertonghen, Sánchez, and Tanganga form a flat three. While Sessegnon overlaps, their three-man line behind Lucas keeps on changing positions and going back to help to construct plays. These tactics provided good passing stats, once they finished the first half with 88% passing accuracy and, at the same period, only 4% of the total passes were long ones.
Tottenham’s early pressure
It was the strong defensive system Mourinho imposed that got Spurs the early lead. Their high pressing arrangement was made to cut the opposition’s angles and force them to either get rid of the ball or try the most difficult pass possible. They tried to get a numerical advantage while pressing to limit opposing chances of passing through the first combat.
Also, their successful press led directly to the first goal. Three players formed a diagonal line to cut the opposing keeper’s options on his good foot, while their angulation made possible for them to reach the ball if it was passed to one of the pressed centre-backs – and that generated Lo Celso’s goal.
Middlesbrough’s style of play and changes for this game
In their previous FA Cup match, Woodgate’s side opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation, one that could give them more players in the middle to fill the gaps between the lines, especially their midfield pair and the wing-backs. With this 5-3-2, Boro went with a defensive mindset and tried to create with long balls – 46 tries, in fact.
In addition to that, they had lots of difficulties to maintain possession, and from the 75 times Middlesbrough got the ball in full control, in 55 of them they lost it with 10 seconds or less. Their long and wide dependencies also provide a curious statistic, showing how poor they were at creating dangerously: in the middle area, they had a 0.12 xG – on the other side, Tottenham had a game-high 0.77 mark at this zone.
Creativity and Stagnation
When creating, the visitors were lacking some key things: passing options, players between Tottenham’s lines, players attacking spaces and players that could get the ball up themselves.
Marvin Johnson, on the left side, was their best player, creating chances when they had the opportunity and being an important part of their offence. His statistics are by far the team’s best, as he had the second-most tried passes (41), third-most completed (23), most successful dribbles (4 out of 5) and a game-best xA ratio with 0.58.
Even though Middlesbrough was not a creative team at all during the game, their goal came from a long ball – a resource that they were using in bunches. Woodgate’s team is not known for a patient build-up phase or short passes as they constantly try direct long balls and quick attacks with few passes. This time, the substitute Rudy Gestede added height and strength to these long passes and connected with Saville to originate their lone goal.
On the other side, Tottenham filled their midfield with talented and creative players that could get the ball up the field dribbling or cutting after quick one-two passes. For Boro, this player was Tavernier, that entered only at the 74-minute mark. During the season he has been the main creative player for them, important at the transition from defence to offence, once he gets the recovered ball to move fast up the field. In his absence, Middlesbrough had difficulties in finding someone capable of doing so, with limited passing options (nonetheless they finished the first half with only 94 completed passes).
In the first leg, Middlesbrough had moments where they put a high-marking system that led them up the field with four players cutting Spurs’ passing options, creating a square and angling well to inhibit their quick passes. This kind of marking did not happen in this fixture, as they sat and waited in their 5-3-2 shape.
Along with this, Woodgate’s side had some problems when concentrating on one side of Tottenham’s creation.
As for Tottenham, they held their attacking formation when transitioning to defence, and posted themselves in a 4-2-3-1 in the defensive phase. Mourinho made his team reduce spaces – closing gaps and trapping the opposition. They had 92 recoveries during the game against 75 from Middlesbrough, going along with 45 defensive duels won. That way, they could steal the ball quickly and, when possession was regained, spark a rapid counter.
Although Tottenham stuck to their 4-2-3-1 system, it was not always like that during the game. They had build-up with a variation of players positioning, as they transited to a 3-3-4 and a 2-4-3-1, with Lucas either getting in the middle of Boro’s defensive lines or going back to create space for their midfielders.
For Middlesbrough, they attacked with a 3-5-2 as usual, with Howson placing himself close to the midfield line on the right and Liddle (and after him Saville) moving up to create angles on the left side.
Also, defensively they had their own variations. When strongly pressed down to their defensive field, Woodgate put his team in a 5-4-1, with almost every player closing narrowly the spaces. Tottenham, on the other side, started defending in a conventional 4-4-2 when Alli entered in the closing minutes. Mourinho chose this approach to inhibit Boro’s players to get between his lines.
In the end, the two early goals helped Tottenham a lot, but statistics – and, of course, their well rounded great game – proved that they were capable of creating positive results. Now, Mourinho and his guys are going to face Southampton in the next round at the FA Cup, a chance for the Portuguese to lift a trophy in another English club.
For Middlesbrough, they held their tactics and tried some variations of their well-known scheme, but could not repeat their first-leg performance. The tactical battle was not in favour of Woodgate, that went back to the Riverside with total focus on the Championship.