The number of midfield options available to Villas-Boas has improved significantly after the signing of Paulinho. However, it also poses new dilemmas.
The addition of Paulinho to Tottenham’s array of midfielders is far from a luxury signing. Spurs were crying out for extra depth and quality in central midfield. Both Sandro and Mousa Dembélé suffered injuries last season, leaving AVB few and unsatisfactory options to compose a balanced central midfield at times. Both Scott Parker and Tom Huddlestone were positioned next to Dembélé in order to deal with Sandro’s long-term absence but neither formed a convincing partnership with Dembélé.
Although the January addition of Lewis Holtby did provide extra options, the young German was yet to completely settle in at his new club and therefore didn’t start many games. Holtby’s qualities are obviously very different to those of a midfield enforcer like Sandro, although we could’ve done with some extra creativity in midfield at times. Dembélé, although solid in his passing and strong in possession, still leaves something to be desired when it comes to setting the pace of games and spotting that one defence-splitting forward pass.
The arrival of Paulinho, a real all-round midfielder, provides both a strong back-up for Sandro and also opens up a wide variety of options in terms of midfield formations. Whether AVB decides to move to 4-3-3, which has been widely suggested in the media, or stays faithful to the current 4-2-3-1 system, Paulinho will be able to fill a number of positions and roles.
The obvious choice
Many people think a midfield trio consisting of Sandro, Dembélé and Paulinho is a shoo-in for the midfield next season. I think that’s a highly simplistic view and tactically questionable if not daft.
First of all, a midfield of Sandro, Dembélé and Paulinho would provide an overkill of recuperating power whilst not in possession, but will pose a lack of both goalscoring ability and genuine attacking creativity when going forward. Paulinho gets his goals but he’s a box-to-box midfielder, not a goalscoring attacking midfielder. He’s also a tidy passer, but not someone who dictates games like a true playmaker. He’s an excellent all-round midfield player but he won’t fix ‘the Modric problem’. Dembélé isn’t much better either in these respects.
Paulinho obviously will be a primary candidate for a starting eleven place but his versatility makes him a great option for rotation with both Sandro and Dembélé. £17m is a bit much for a rotation player, but his versatility makes it easier to move him about within the starting eleven if injuries leave other spots in midfield open.
The Brazilian/German triad
If (and it still is a big if) we move to a 4-3-3 formation (midfield deployed as a forward triangle) we will need a player who can surge up field and pose a significant goal threat on the edge of the box and who can also provide assists. Whenever Holtby plays for the Germany U21 team he manages to move into that space on many occasions. He has scored 14 goals in 24 appearances for Germany’s U21 side. At Schalke he ran about 1 in 5 goal-wise, which is not that impressive, especially compared to a real attacking midfielder. However, last season he did manage to get 7 assists in 19 games in the Bundesliga prior to his January move to Spurs. We need that kind of creativity behind our front line, since it was lacking on so many occasions last season and we had to rely on individual moments of brilliance (or should I say moments of Bale?) in so many games. Holtby might not have convinced some Spurs fans up until now but with a full pre-season and a role that better suits his strengths he could become a top performer in the Spurs team.
A midfield triad of Sandro, Paulinho and Holtby seems to be a great mix of physical strength, stamina, ability to regain possession, passing accuracy, creativity and attacking intent. This formation also provides a lot of flexibility and could easily be adapted if either injuries or in-game tactical decisions require alterations in personnel. Dembélé could slot into any position in this midfield three, Paulinho could also fill any of the three if either Sandro gets injured or if we like to rotate players, and Gylfi Sigurdsson or Clint Dempsey could play Holtby’s advanced role as well.
Other 4-3-3 options
Although Sandro, Paulinho and Holtby would be my first choice picks in a 4-3-3 midfield, there are other ways to fill in the three midfield positions, especially the most advanced one. These combinations involve Dembélé, Sigurdsson and Tom Carroll. All these players bring something different to the table, and certain games might require a different approach or substitutions to swing the pendulum our way. Within the 4-3-3 system, they offer some interesting possibilities.
Dembélé’s main qualities are his strength on the ball (hardly ever loses possession) and his ability to win back possession through interceptions. He isn’t a big goalscoring threat, he lacks the presence of mind to spot a quick through-ball and he often releases the ball too late, thereby slowing down the game. Dembélé is great in more of a holding role in a 4-3-3 or to play in the midfield 2 of a 4-2-3-1, although you’ll need a creative player in that midfield 2 to make up for his deficiencies.
Sigurdsson could do really well in a 4-3-3, having played a similar system at Swansea where he racked up plenty of assists and goals. Sigurdsson has the vision and awareness to provide a creative impulse going forward and he can also hit them from long range. The only thing I worry about with him is his pace. Is he quick enough to get back and defend when he commits forward? Other than that, his height makes him a great outlet for long-range passes, which he could knock down to a striker whose not as strong in the air, for example David Villa, if he were to come to us.
Last season Carroll proved he can bring that extra bit of pace and forward momentum in midfield when needed. He moves the ball on quickly, always moves into space to receive the ball and he has a real urgency to pass forward rather than square. Can he play the attacking role in a 4-3-3 midfield? I’m not sure. He surely has the creativity but compared to Holtby and Sigurdsson he might lack a bit of physical strength in certain moments. However, he could add an extra creative spark next to either Paulinho or Sandro whilst someone else takes up the most advanced midfield role. There’s only one way to find out and that’s giving him a try. He has so much potential but we’ll never know how good he really is unless he gets a fair chance to make his mark in the first team.
The Bale dilemma
There’s one big problem in all these possible 4-3-3 formations: Gareth Bale.
The Welsh boy wonder enjoyed complete freedom in terms of where he plays last season, which resulted in a lack of width on either side of the attacking line. Because he roams inside quite a bit he also cannibalises the space for any central attacking midfielder. Villas-Boas tried to resolve this by fielding players (e.g. Sigurdsson, Dempsey) who would switch position which allowed Bale to roam and play more centrally. It still didn’t completely solve the problem but at least it did make it less of a hindrance.
Obviously Bale is our undisputed star player at the moment. Any team with a player of his calibre should build a team around that player to get the absolute maximum output out of him. Whether this means we will have to change our formation, or field certain players who combine particularly well with Bale, if it only adds to the team’s overall performance then there’s no reason not to do it. Right now, 4-2-3-1 seems the best system to get the best out of the team. AVB will definitely experiment with other formations and tactics during pre-season and if he finds a way to get even more out of the team, all the better.
I still think we’ll play 4-2-3-1 next season, possibly with Bale playing as the central attacking midfielder. If we sign a rather diminutive striker like Villa or Soldado, Bale could make up for the lack of height by providing an athletic aerial presence in open play (long balls to knock down to the striker, crosses) and a goal threat during corner-kicks. I do hope we sign another winger though, cause we need more quality and depth in the wide areas. Playing Bale as a Messi-esque false 9 would not be a good idea in my opinion. Bale’s free role allows him to go look for space both out wide and behind the striker. In a false 9 role there would be no striker left for the opposition’s defence to worry about, thus putting even more emphasis on tracking Bale.
However, you have to remember that a system is just a system, a theoretical depiction of a team’s formation. During a game, a team’s formation is completely fluid. Full-backs bomb forward, attacking midfielders drop off, strikers wonder out wide to find space. Whether we play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really matter. What’s most important is that AVB finds the right balance within the team, players know their role and execute the tactical plan well, and for our best players to shine so we can all enjoy our team playing ‘the Tottenham way’ that we all love so dearly.