Tactical Analysis: How will Ange Postecoglou set up Tottenham this season?
A new message was sent to the Premier League’s elite this off-season when Tottenham Hotspur veered away from a string of pragmatic yet established managers to appoint Ange Postecoglou as their new head coach. Postecoglou was coming off a stellar second campaign with Celtic in which they bested rivals Rangers by seven points and fell two goals short of breaking the club's all-time season-scoring record of 116, which has stood for over 100 years.
While other managers were undoubtedly available with more experience in England and Europe than the former Socceroos coach, Postecoglou's positive playing style and cultured and storied football background played a huge role in putting his case forward for the North London side. With years of pragmatic and negative football tainting Spurs' last half-decade, how will Ange transform and mould his new side into a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League?
The key tactical decision Postecoglou will have to make in pre-season is the formation, with his side taking on David Moyes' West Ham at Perth's Optus Stadium later this month. The two choices likely on his mind are a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, which he deployed at both Celtic and Yokohama F. Marinos in recent years. Either system directly correlates with his coaching strengths and is preferred when employing his tenacious pressing style. Alternatively, a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 is much more suited to the current tools at Postecoglou's disposal at White Hart Lane. FPF breaks down both tactical approaches to identify the ideal system for Postecoglou’s new Spurs outfit.
Since leaving the Socceroos before the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia to return to club football, Postecoglou has employed a swashbuckling tactical approach defined by intricate build-up play through his full-backs and midfield. Meanwhile, he deploys a high defensive line to choke other teams into relinquishing possession and force mistakes that lead to chances for his side. Last season, Celtic averaged almost 70% possession in the Scottish Premiership. They conceded less than seven shots per game, not allowing their opponents to have a foothold at any point.
Postecoglou celebrates winning the Scottish League Cup with Celtic in 2021. (Sporting News)
As mentioned above, his two favoured formations, the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, made this tactical identity possible since he left Australia. The main difference between the two systems is that the 4-2-3-1 has slightly more withdrawn wingers, and one of the midfield three steps up into a more attacking number ten role instead of being a box-to-box midfielder. Several players have benefited greatly from this tactical approach: former Celtic winger Jota and the recently retired Aaron Mooy, who finished his career on a high by starring in Postecoglou’s midfield three at Celtic.
But Postecoglou's approach has its flaws. In the infancy of his time in Yokohama, Postecoglou’s side were renowned for conceding goals at the other end as much as they could score them. Even the 2019 J-League title-winning team faced defensive difficulties, with eight sides in the competition that year having a better defensive record. But they catapulted to a first-place finish by having the most potent attack in the league.
However, the primary issue with a back-four system potentially being used at Spurs is the need for more options at the club for such a system. Tottenham hasn’t consistently played a back four since under Jose Mourinho in 2019. Since then, a significant amount of their recruitment has centred around finding players to match Antonio Conte’s tactical identity, such as wingbacks Ivan Perisic and Pedro Porro. For a back four to be utilised this coming season, tailored recruitment and coaching must eventuate to ensure the side is prepared for their first game.
Postecoglou hasn’t deployed a back-three formation since his time with the Socceroos. The Postecoglou side that qualified for the 2018 World Cup before his departure, whilst ultimately successful in their goal, was criticised by Australian media for its negative and boring approach, especially against sides Australia was expected to dominate in Asian qualifiers. One of the three centre-backs was deployed more as a sweeper. Though the formation was defensively sound, a fair portion of the football-watching public was disenfranchised by the perceived boring tactical set-up.
Similarly to Postecoglou's approach with Yokohama and Celtic, a high line was used to cage opposition teams in their half. But wing play between wingbacks and wingers was preferred over the intricate midfield play that later defined his style. Arguments were made at the time that Postecoglou was creating a tactical identity that suited the players available to him. He also had a weaker squad than the one that won the 2015 Asian Cup.
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Postecoglou following Australia's 2015 Asian Cup triumph. (Socceroos)
The biggest motivation to continue utilising a back-three formation at Spurs is the continuity of system and recruitment, and it would also mean the significant money spent to appease Mourinho and Conte may be worth it. Players like Porro have played much of their career in a back-three system. They may need to significantly adapt to the skillset required for a drastic tactical change under Postecoglou.
While both tactical setups have an argument to be used at White Hart Lane next season, deploying a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 will provide Postecoglou with the best chance of long-term success in North London. The tactical identity he has built over the past five years is the key reason he was hired in the first place, and it would be counterintuitive for him to shy away from this approach at Spurs.
Many adjustments must be made through Postecoglou’s coaching and the transfer market. But with the right mix of both strategies, Spurs can eventually become a high-pressing team off the ball and an intricate side in possession and might be able to go toe to toe with any side in the league.
Statistics sourced from WhoScored and FBref.
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