In gameweek 26 of the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur find themselves meeting Aston Villa at Villa Park in Birmingham chasing a top-four finish for the year, while Villa fight to stay out of the relegation zone. Spurs have picked up seven points from their last three matches to gain on currently ranked fourth-place Chelsea. Jose Mourinho’s brief time at the club has not been a Cinderella story but with wins over Norwich City and Manchester City, it has put them in a good position to challenge for the top four in the table. Dean Smith’s side has taken seven wins and four draws from the 25 matches this year leaving them just above the relegation zone on 17th.
They are looking forward to an EFL Cup final in March, but have only won one of their last four league matches. They are looking to make an impact with their tactics at home against Spurs as Mourinho tries to counter those tactics with his defensive positioning.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how each team’s tactics matched up and provide an analysis of how each team progressed through the game in a 3-2 match where Tottenham took the win and three points to continue to fuel their hopes of Champions League football next year.
Aston Villa came out in a very defensive 5-4-1 formation. This was a departure from the 3-4-3 formation that the team has taken in their latest outings. The last time Villa played this formation was against the very counter-attacking Leicester City team in early January. The centre-back three of Ezri Konsa, Björn Engels, and Korney Hause have not seen sufficient time together to operate as a defensive unit. With Tyrone Mings out, the communication of these players will need to be exceptional to handle the Spurs high power attack. With players like Anwar El Ghazi and Jack Grealish, Villa is looking to control the ball on the width of the field. Danny Drinkwater and Douglas Luiz will look to sit in front of the backline to absorb the direct balls into the forward line.
Mourinho came out in a traditional 4-2-3-1 with Son Heung-min playing up top for the injured Harry Kane. The newest signing Steven Bergwijn, Bamidele Jermaine Alli (Dele Alli), and Lucas Rodrigues Moura Da Silva working to push the ball quickly to Son. The attack is set to push the backline of Villa. These players’ speed and skill on the dribble will look to take the Villa defensive players on to create the overloads in forward positions. With Eric Dier and Harry Winks playing defensive midfielders Spurs look to play forward quickly to keep the pressure on the newly formed backline of Villa.
Villa’s positional play in attack
As one looks at Villa’s positional play in the attack, you end up talking about one person a lot. Grealish has been in good form for Villa and it shows in his week to week stats. He will line up on the left side of the field, but he will switch during the game causing the opponent’s defenses to have to shift support and cover to either side as needed. His creativity when on the ball is why he receives the most passes during a game. He moves in between defensive lines well and makes himself available to his team as an option when in possession. He received 48 passes from his teammates and completed 84% of his passes against Spurs. His ability to take a player off the dribble and force the defending team to commit players to the ball opened up other players like El Ghazi and Mbwana Samatta. As you can see below, Grealish took Toby Alderweireld off the dribble just inside the Spurs half. Due to his speed and precision in passing, Spurs had to drop in behind the ball to cut off the dangerous space. As they did this they were so focused on stopping Grealish they had no marking on the backside of the goal. As Grealish recognized this he squared the ball across the top of the six to Luiz. Luiz did not hit the target but how Grealish drew four Spurs players to him is one of his strengths.
Grealish took up space in between the advanced position of the attacking midfield players and the defensive backs. Grealish delivered five out of five passes into Spurs’ defensive third and split Spurs’ lines with two brilliant through balls. As you can see below Grealish was found by Villa’s defensive midfield and was allowed to turn and face the Spurs defence. Ben Davies, the Spurs left-back, had to drop to cover the outside run of one of the Villa players. This forced Winks to pick up Grealish. The movement gave Grealish the time on the ball to look up and find Mahmoud Ahmed Ibrahim Hassan (Trézéguet) running through the backline. Grealish played the ball over the line to Trézéguet. His poor first touch allowed Serge Aurier to win the ball from him without giving a foul away in the box. Villa’s quality in these moments seems to let them down.
Spurs’ team tactical shape
Mourinho wants to set his team up to have players responsible for creativity and players responsible for defensive responsibility. Let’s look at Spurs’ defensive-minded players first. The two holding midfield players, Winks and Dier were set inside to win and keep possession. One of the two players would always be in the middle of the field while the closest one to the ball would be in close support of the player in possession.
Now that is not to say they do not get into the attack. One must understand that when Tottenham Hotspur are in possession of the ball they have a very direct style of play in their own half vs the attacking half of the field. In the attacking half of the field, they become a very short creative passing team. As one can see below the passing maps of Winks and Dier change as they move into the opponent’s half. Their play into their attacking third is very direct when started in their own half, but transitions to a short diagonal passing game in the opponent’s half.
In this direct play, a team playing a high line like Villa did at the start of the first half, 46 meters from goal as compared to 34 meters from goal as at the end of the half, can and were exposed to quick balls over the top. As you can see below Winks delivered the early long pass to Bergwijn as he ran past the Villa centre-backs. The retreating Villa defence fouled Bergwijn in the box and resulted in Spurs’ first goal from the penalty spot.
The attacking players in Bergwijn, Son, Alli, and Lucas are very open. Alli especially has a free role, he moves throughout the ground depending upon the situation knowing that he has support behind him in Winks and Dier. In the example below, he shows short for a throw-in. The overload that this creates is found by a smart through ball by Son. Alli’s creativity in passing and movement joined with Son and now with Bergwijn’s speed makes them a team that can get the ball and run at defenders with speed instead of the hold-up play seen in the past with Kane. The isolation of their forwards is critical to the tactical setup.
Second half changes
Both the managers tweaked their playing style in the second half. They both seemed to feel like the three points were attainable and pushed their full-backs forward. As you can see below Villa had seven dangerous crosses come in the first half compared to 10 in the first to the middle part of the second half. This 30% increase with the service that they were getting from Matt Targett and Frédéric Guilbert put the Spurs under considerable pressure. They had a hard time dealing with the well-placed balls of Villa. Villa’s first goal came from a well-placed cross that led to an own goal from Alderweireld. Better running in the box and better finishing would have given Villa a really good chance to pull the win.
Spurs also showed an increase in the number of crosses that were given during the game. As you can see below they only registered one cross during the first half but had seven crosses in the second. Spurs seemed to not push Davies into the attack seeing how 86% of these crosses came from the right side of the field and Aurier’s right foot.
In the end, a long ball by Spurs and a mistake by Villa’s backline allowed Spurs the ability to take the three points. For Villa to stay in the EPL they will have to have better quality in the final third to match Grealish and El Ghazi’s service and stop the mistakes close to their goal.
As this analysis showed, Spurs are playing very direct and causing problems for other teams. If teams can take those options away with pressure on the ball or forcing the faster players to isolate themselves by using their speed against them they may not reach the top four. It will be interesting to see how Mourinho will continue to develop this team.