This past weekend, Tottenham Hotspur played hosts to the high-flying Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. This match was highly anticipated due to the league positions of both sides. Spurs entered the match just outside the UEFA Champions League qualification spots which are up for grabs. With Chelsea slowing down and Manchester City looking as if they will have a European football ban for the next two years, the top four suddenly has become readily available for its’ suitors.
While Tottenham would seem like a favourite to take a top-four place, Wolves are not too far behind. A win against the north London club would mean they would leapfrog Tottenham in the table; the match had huge implications.
Tottenham and Wolves lined up in a fairly similar formation. Both managers looked to have three at the back while having attacking wing-backs that would hopefully push forward. Jose Mourinho and Tottenham preferred a more narrow approach. They set up in a 3-4-2-1 with Giovani Lo Celso playing as a more creative deep-lying midfielder. Due to Spur’s lack of striking options (because of Harry Kane and Heung Min Son’s absence), Mourinho was forced to try and overload the midfield. His tactics reflected the decision to play a set of five midfielders in the middle of the pitch. Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn provided the pace Jose needed to get in behind the Wolves defence. Furthermore, Tottenham looked to utilise Serge Aurier and Ben Davies out wide. During the analysis piece of this match analysis, you will see the defenders pushing extremely wide during attacks.
Wolverhampton Wanderers started in their typical formation, the 3-4-3. Pedro Neto was rotated and the powerful winger, Adama Traoré, entered the scene. The midfield was fairly balanced with the emphasis being on the wide play in order for Wolves to score goals. After advancing in the Europa League competition, Wolves and their manager were beaming with confidence. This tough trip away from home could be a defining moment in their season.
Tottenham’s Attacking Shape
Tottenham Hotspur started the match very well, controlling early possession of the ball. Within the first 20 minutes, there was a 76% to 24% possession advantage for the home side. This created a huge advantage and can be credited by the way Mourinho set up his attacking shape. As stated earlier, Tottenham was without their main strikers, Kane and Son. This forced them to play with a midfield five and a “false nine.” Technically, Dele Alli was the main striker during the match, however, his positioning on the pitch did not reflect the team sheet. Mourinho had him dropping deep into the midfield to affect the build-up play.
The heat map below shows where Alli was during the match. Typically, a striker’s activity would be in and around the box in order to get on the end of crosses and take high percentage opportunities. However, Alli was on the ball just before the attacking third. Instead of being on the last man, Alli dropped back to retrieve possession. Mourinho hoped this tactic would draw defenders into the midfield, which would allow space in behind for the pace of Moura and Bergwijn.
An example of this analysis can be shown in the image below. Despite the centre-back not following Alli into the midfield, you can see the confusion Mourinho hoped to cause by using these tactics. Here, Alli is on the ball in the midfield and has space to drive into the attacking third. He has two options in front of him as well as wide options, allowing him to create chances.
This set up in the midfield was an inverse to the triangle that Tottenham started with on the team sheet. By being able to interchange and provide the midfielders many different options throughout the opening minutes of the match, Tottenham was able to take control. By the end of the first half, the score was 2-1. In order to achieve this success, Tottenham utilised the width of the pitch while providing another defensive headache for Wolves.
In the image below, the ball is played out wide and the midfield begins to take its shape. This differs from the analysis above, where there was an inverted triangle. Now, you see Mourinho’s set up. This midfield shape creates problems for Wolves. Because they only have two midfielders covering the middle of the pitch, they are left isolated. In the image, you can see Joao Moutinho in the centre of the pentagon. As the ball progresses, if he is to gravitate toward it, that leaves too much space for Winks and Alli behind him. However, if he does not move towards the win, it may leave a passing option to the Tottenham forward. This is how Mourinho toyed with Wolves by constantly giving them different attacking shapes to deal with. It was effective until the second half where Wolverhampton changed their tactics.
Nuno Espirito Santo had a lot to change after the first half. 2-1 did not reflect how dominant Tottenham was on the match. While wolves did have their chances, they were having problems in the midfield. This was partly due to their inability to win a majority of duels in the middle of the pitch. Winning 50/50 balls can be the difference-maker in a match with such high-quality players. In the periods of the match where Tottenham scored their goals, Wolves had a 34 and 45 percent duels win rate. This allowed Spur’s midfield to drive at goal and create more chances. However, the key to the second half lies in the statistics. Wolverhampton won 65 and 57 percent of their duels during a period that saw them bag two crucial goals. Santo wanted his players playing more direct, a tactic that helped his side win back the ball with greater purpose.
Wolves began to drive forward with their limited possession and attacked with speed and directness. One player that was a key part of making the tactical change effective was Traoré. He’s known for his brute strength, power, and pace – attributes that allow him to run at the defence like a hot knife cutting through butter. Santo knew he was the key to his side retaining possession and progressing the ball up the pitch, something Wolves failed to do a lot of in the first half. Traoré managed to take on players 10 different times with dribbles. He completed 7 out of 10, which led to the powerful playmaker creating a few chances.
In the analysis below, you can see Traoré coming into a more central position, allowing for the wingback, Matt Doherty, to overlap into space. This was a tactical decision that very much differed from the first half. Traore would have been out on the wing hoping to take the ball and cross it into Raul Jimenez. In this situation, he takes the ball and drives into the box, doing what he does best. This creates a chance for Wolves that was inspired by Santo’s tactical switch.
Another tactical change that was necessary for Santo was to get his team higher up the pitch. In order to do this, he had to ensure that the ball was held up effectively so his team had time to progress. From the earlier analysis, we determined that Wolves won more duels in the second half, which led to them needing an outlet ball to launch a counter-attack. This is where again, Traoré becomes a key man for Santo’s plans. Traoré is strong enough that he can hold up the ball with this back to goal and allow time for his teammates to advance up the pitch. If he can turn the defender, then even better, but this tactic worked well for Wolves. Their average formation during the period where they scored twice, was 60m up the pitch (10 m inside the oppositions half) compared to under 50m (inside their own half) for much of the first half.
In the analysis below, Traoré is being utilised as a target man due to his size and strength. Doherty plays him the ball to his feet. Despite Traore’s back being to goal, he can hold up the ball long enough. This allowed Doherty to overlap and create space to attack. These actions caused problems for Tottenham because Traoré would bring another centre-back with him.
In conclusion, this match was a tale of two halves that was determined by the ability to win midfield battles and create space to score goals. Both squads found success in similar areas of the pitch. Tottenham won the first half and Wolves won the second half. However, it was Tottenham’s inability to create clear cut chances and win the midfield battles in the second half which dictated the outcome of this match.
It was a fantastic and entertaining fixture with Spurs and Wolves having much to play for in the remaining matches in this Premier League season.