Tottenham Hotspur 2023/24: Ange Postecoglou’s philosophy and attacking tactics – tactical analysis
Asked about his utilisation of inverted full-backs following the impressive 2-0 victory against Bournemouth, Ange Postecoglou joked, “There’s no secret, I’m just copying Pep, mate.”
The 57-year-old coach was in fine spirits, having a promising start in the Premier League despite losing Harry Kane to Bayern Munich.
In this tactical analysis, we investigate whether Postecoglou’s words were indeed in jest. Exploring his playing style, previously distinguished at Celtic, and dissecting the tactics of his Tottenham.
The first Australian manager in Premier League history continued: “We do a lot of work on it. A lot of it is on instincts, but we’re trying to create a system, wherever I’ve been, that is as fluid as it can be.”
So let’s see which playing style Tottenham Hotspur theoretically tend with him before delving into the tactical dissection.
Out of various philosophies, where does Ange sit?
Football is considered a perceptual sport in which 90% of actions impact a player’s unconscious responses. Over time, distinct theoretical styles developed, creating a spectrum between rigid system adherence and individual reliance, shaped by differing space interpretations.
In the positional approach, the most famous system in modern football, popularised by Pep Guardiola and others, the patterns are predetermined in all phases of the play. The players are less encouraged to problem-solve, and the system hands them to succeed in answering questions in every situation, reducing the need for improvisation.
In contrast, the functional approach developed recently in Benfica, Real Madrid, Napoli and others views space as a dynamic and constantly evolving entity. The core concept of functional play is to create emergent patterns that arise naturally from the individual actions and decisions of players who become more fluid rather than relying on predetermined patterns.
Ajax’s diverse iterations under Erik ten Hag presented a hybrid approach termed Automatism— a style that did not belong to the positional entirely nor to functional. Instead of a strict system, It marries strong coaching principles with player fluidity.
Players are trained individually and collectively on problem-solving within the framework, so their tactical awareness and chemistry grow over time to treat every situation under the coach’s principles.
Ange Postecoglou occupies a middle ground, not as fluid as Ten Hag nor Pep’s strict system.— The players are committed to the structure in principle; each has an initial position. However, they remain dynamic, shifting seamlessly in response to the present circumstances. Players fluidly transition between zones, maintaining a firm adherence to the general framework with great fluidity; all this happens with very intuitive understanding.
His philosophy encourages players, as he expressed, to exploit space without hesitation, maintaining structure while allowing for spontaneity:
“If there’s space there, forget that you’re a full-back; you’re a footballer, get in that space. It’s up to us to ensure we’re covering the gaps that are left.
I think once players realise that they have the freedom to do that, it’s still very structured, then they don’t second guess themselves. They know it doesn’t matter if they’re a left full-back; if there’s space there, they get into it.”
Spurs’ players can decide within Postecoglou’s system based on the situation and various factors. Tottenham now have a solid foundation, but players need time to develop tactical awareness and chemistry.
Next, let’s look at how philosophy has impacted the Spurs during various phases.
Spurs’ fluid attack
Ange Postecoglou’s attacking style focuses on fluid rigidity to achieve various pitch superiorities (numerical, qualitative, dynamic, and positional). Rather than just possession, Spurs are attempting to accelerate play at the right moment to strike.
Starting from the back, Postecoglou tries to build with the least amount of players as possible. His typical base is a 2-3 (without the goalkeeper), wherein full-backs invert alongside the No. 6. This configuration offloads the sides and facilitates exploiting them dynamically to progress through finding the spare man by creating a triangle (3rd man combination) with two centre-backs.
In the graphics provided, Tottenham utilise a 2-3 base to outplay high pressing from both Bournemouth and Manchester United.
Against the five-man press from the latter, Vicario, under Garnacho’s pressing, plays to Bissouma, who finds the spare man Romero. He has then the time and space to advance.
During the same phase, Maddison and Pape Sarr occupy the half-spaces, while the forward trio of Kulusevski, Son and Richarlison pins the opponents’ backline.
Maddison and Sarr’s centring positioning is pivotal, enabling vertical or diagonal drops to the side to add +1 according to the situation or to join the front line to create 5v4 immediately and position to win second balls.
The following graphics display multiple build-up patterns. Pape Sarr drops diagonally to receive from the advanced centre-back into vacated spaces after the 3rd man combination. Sarr then progresses or plays to Porro, who quickly finds Kulusevski out wide in 1v1.
In the second illustration, James Maddison adjusts his positioning deeper or drops dynamically while left-back Destiny Udogie spreads wide.
Occasionally, when the striker Richarlison drops off, drawing a defender along, the goalkeeper Vicario can surprise to catch opponents off-guard by delivering a well-placed long ball into the space behind the lines for the running wingers, Son or Kulusevski.
In the advanced phases, Ange Postecoglou’s team maintains a fluid 2-3-5; the structure is consistent while having fluidity, and players are competent to occupy various zones to keep the advantage.
Spurs attempt to possess the ball with a tendency towards the Y-axis, averaging 60% possession. By comparison, Chelsea maintains a high 69% possession average at the top.
Both full-backs are still inverting from the side to the depth alongside Bissouma while Maddison and Sarr operate the half-spaces. Both wingers Son and Kulusevski play high and wide to maintain the width while Richarlison is in front.
Bissouma’s role stands out for his exceptional ability to create passing lanes and angles in tight spaces, change directions of the ball and body swiftly from the 1st touch (Thiago Alcântara’s technique), and handle pressure adeptly. Bissouma, alongside Micky van de Ven, boasts the highest number of passes in Tottenham, with 185 and 192, respectively.
In the illustrated examples, while they are in 3-2-5, full-backs (Porro and Destiny) invert to open the passing angles for the wide players and create overloads to facilitate clean progression. Both No. 8s drop wide from the interior channels to receive.
As time progresses, the full-backs (Porro and Destiny) will see advancements in their scanning ability, tactical awareness, and capacity to navigate the field in 360°.
In the same play and after Maddison and Sarr drop-off, Maddison returns inside to open the pass angle from Van de Ven to Son.
In the opposition’s half, the team keeps a dynamic structure, generating potential for combinations through triangles and diamonds in close proximity to lure the maximum opponents to penetrate vertically or re-circulate to the weak side.
The illustrations depict movements. Maddison’s freedom to drop to add a free passing lane to receive and create from deeper or exchange positions with the inverted full-back Destiny Udogie confuses opponents.
The other expresses that fluid movements exploit spaces. The winger drops, the full-back moves to the flank, pulling a defender out wide, and No. 8 moves vertically in an empty space, gaining the dynamic advantage over his marker.
Full-backs from deep engage in progressive runs and attacking channels to disorient opposition full-backs to enable a switch to the wide winger and then receive as a 3rd man behind the backline.
With No. 8s, the inverted full-backs usually create waves of movements into the half-space that are very confusing. Usually, that’s followed by a diagonal movement for the reverse No. 8 in the gap between the opposition’s centre-backs. At the same time, the striker drops off/takes the attention of the other defender.
In their first goal against Bournemouth, while Porro was stuck on the side, the distribution of players was fine. As Sarr moved higher into the half-space in the blindside of his marker, Richarlison dropped off dragging the centre-back, and Bissouma approached as a relay player, providing a lane for Porro to escape.
After receiving the ball, Bissouma deceived the opponent with a quick, dynamic movement. Then he played to Sarr and ran to his right in the half-space. At the same time, Maddison launched diagonally into the blindside of the furthest centre-back to receive.
The English midfielder finished it with a soft touch.
Against Manchester United, Romero finds Son in between the lines brilliantly.
After dropping to receive, followed by Varane, Son played to Maddison and then blocked the French defender to give Maddison time and space to play a long ball towards Ivan Perišić on the left flank. From his internal position, Ben Davies moved toward the generated area, confusing Dalot.
Ivan Perišić crossed the ball to Ben Davies, who made a slight touch before Martinez scored.
Moreover, the positioning of the inverted full-backs serves a valuable purpose in counter-pressing situations (2-3 rest defence). This approach not only facilitates swift ball recovery but also directs the play effectively towards the flanks.
As the analysis indicates, the current iteration of Tottenham under Ange Postecoglou is truly impressive. In the years following Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure, the club struggled to establish a successful project. However, with a promising coach at the helm and despite the absence of their historical star player, Tottenham find themselves on the cusp of a promising era.
The Australian coach’s success this season is exemplified by the team’s comfortable qualification for the Champions League, a particularly challenging feat in this competitive league. Additionally, winning a cup would mark a significant milestone for Postecoglou and the team.