Son and Alli go unmarked as Tottenham's 3-4-3 outsmarts Leicester
While the big story on Thursday was all about how Harry Kane scored four as Tottenham trashed Leicester 6-1, the tactical talking point centred on how a 3-4-3 once more outsmarted a 4-4-2.
The 3-4-3 has become the tactical trend of the season, with Chelsea using it to transform their campaign and Arsenal turning to it in times of need. More than once, teams playing four at the back have struggled so badly to control it that they have resorted to copying it. That happened again here.
In the first half, roaming forwards Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min tormented Leicester down the middle, picking up passes between the lines and running in behind an exposed defence. The Foxes were unequipped to deal with it, and also offered little going forward beyond hopeful balls towards Jamie Vardy, which had Spurs 2-0 up at half-time.
Craig Shakespeare then mirrored Mauricio Pochettino's 3-4-3 and triggered an immediate response, as Leicester pinned Spurs into their own half. They scored once and looked likely to get another, only for Spurs to make it 3-1, after which Leicester collapsed to a 6-1 defeat.
Son and Alli go unmarked
Before the game, Pochettino said he might try a new formation, though the Spurs system initially looked like the tried-and-tested 3-4-3. Moussa Sissoko played right-wing-back in the absence of Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier, while a rest for Christian Eriksen handed Alli and Son free roles behind Harry Kane.
The one variation was that Spurs defended in something closer to a 3-5-2, Son staying up with Kane. Yet the main feature was how Son and Alli moved so freely near the centre-backs.
Facing a 3-4-3, the challenge for a team using 4-4-2 is normally to pick up these roaming attacking midfielders. Numerically they are supposed to be tracked by the full-backs, but that becomes impractical if they drift too far infield, and so the danger is that they outnumber the centre-backs. That happened here: Spurs pushed Sissoko and Ben Davies up as wingers and moved Son and Alli close to Kane, which meant centre-backs Christian Fuchs and Yohan Benalouane had to mark up to three players at once.
What Leicester had to rely on, then, was to stay solid as a block and stop passes from reaching Alli and Son in these areas. They did not succeed. Inside five minutes, Kane had taken down a simple pass and released Son, who should have scored. Another 10 minutes on, Alli won the ball centrally and played in Son, who missed again.
Leicester's problems continued until half time. On 25 minutes, Son ran on to a long ball in behind the defence and cut back to Kane for the opener. The South Korean had gone untracked partly because he had stayed close to Fuchs, who already had Kane to mark. When Spurs made it two 11 minutes later, Alli popped up unmarked in front of the defence and chipped through Son, who this time found the net. The duo were giving Leicester nightmares.
Spurs build from the back
Another part of the process was the Spurs centre-backs. Leicester largely defended inside their own half, which gave Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen time to pick out players further forward. That they played in a back three also provided neat angles for such penetrative passes, and they repeatedly found Kane, Alli and Son.
Particularly Vertonghen and Alderweireld launched neat forward passes, either lofting them over the midfield or zipping them straight to feet. These were the kind of deliveries Shakespeare's narrow midfield four should be snapping up, particularly the central midfielders Daniel Amartey and Wilfred Ndidi, but their positioning offered their defence little protection.
The Spurs centre-backs could also lift passes directly in behind the defence, and it was Alderweireld who released Son when Spurs got the opener. Shortly before half-time, Leicester tried to solve this by pressing higher, only for Vertonghen to glide past Vardy and find Dembele with a pass that opened up the entire midfield, before Kane had a shot blocked. The combination of ball-playing centre-backs and roaming playmakers was outplaying the Foxes.
Leicester try to release Vardy
Down the other end, the hosts offered little initially. Spurs generally pressed high, but looked comfortable when retreating into a deeper 3-5-2 as well, apart from one early moment when Riyad Mahrez cut inside and slipped through Vardy, who fired straight at Hugo Lloris.
The main strategy for Leicester was to play through-balls to Vardy, who operated on the left with the aim of running in behind Alderweireld. They tried this often, but the passes usually lacked timing and precision. The one time Vardy did break loose, his cross landed too far ahead of Shinji Okazaki.
Shakespeare copies 3-4-3
At the break, Shakespeare knew he had to act. He introduced Islam Slimani for Okazaki, told Vardy and Mahrez to play off him and went 3-4-3, which matched Spurs man for man. "I couldn't see us getting back into the game with the shape we were playing in," he would say.
He also decided to press higher, and the effect was immediate. For the next 15 minutes, a galvanised Leicester attacked in numbers, won tackles upfield and denied Spurs time and space. Having mustered two shots in the first half, they unleashed 10 in the second, and before long Lloris rushed out to make a clearance, only for Ben Chilwell to get the ball and score.
The formational switch now seemed to be hauling Leicester into it, but then Kane struck four minutes later. Shakespeare responded by attacking even more, putting on Demarai Gray for Benalouane and moving Mahrez into central midfield, but Leicester fell apart completely. Son soon curled home for 4-1 and Kane got two more, as Spurs recorded seven attempts from the 80th minute onwards.
That inflicted a 6-1 scoreline, and offered further evidence of the benefits of the 3-4-3.
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