Two teams looking to build around a new central midfielder for the remainder of the season. Tottenham’s decision to sign Lewis Holtby six months ahead of schedule was influenced by the loss of Sandro to injury, but in reality he will offer a more natural fit as a central playmaker than either Clint Dempsey or Gylfi Sigurdsson. Newcastle also signed Moussa Sissoko before his contract expired in the summer and his two games in an advanced midfield position have inspired Alan Pardew’s side to two victories. Both teams play a 4-2-3-1 variation, although the ambition of the managers and the identity of the players involved makes Tottenham’s shape closer to a 4-2-1-3 compared to Newcastle’s 4-4-1-1. The difference may seem trivial but it creates an interesting tactical match up. With Emmanuel Adebayor returning from the African Cup of Nations, Andre Villas-Boas will have to decide whether he is fit enough to start or whether Clint Dempsey will lead the line in place of the injured Jermain Defoe.
While generally described as a 4-2-3-1, Tottenham’s midfielders and wide players actually resemble the shape of Villas-Boas’ Porto side. Both wingers positon themselves very high up the pitch making effectively a front three, while the central playmaker is fielded ahead of two deep midfielders. In contrast Newcastle’s wingers, in the absence of Hatem Ben Arfa, drop back without the ball alongside the central midfielders to form a band of four across the middle of the pitch, with only Sissoko and Papiss Demba Cisse further forward. Newcastle have long fluctuated between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2, but without the defensively suspect Ben Arfa Pardew prefers the solidity of two banks of four.
Tottenham’s extra depth arguably gives them an advantage. Sissoko’s early form has come from finding space between the lines, especially during counter attacks. With Moussa Dembele and Scott Parker positioned deep in midfield this space should be harder to come by, and Newcastle’s new talisman may have a quieter game as a result. Similarly with Sissoko facing two opponents, Dembele and Parker will often find time on the ball to instigate attacts. Further ahead, Holtby has the positional intelligence to fluctuate between competing with Newcastle’s midfield and running beyond them.
In contrast Newcastle play without a specific holding player, with Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote playing relatively flat across the midfield. With both Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon looking to cut infield from wide positions and Lewis Holtby charging forward from deep, the area in front of Newcastle’s defence will be at risk unless either Tiote or Cabaye plays a disciplined holding role. Unfortunately for Pardew neither player is particularly adept at performing this role, meaning Newcastle’s control of the midfield, or more specifically the midfield space, will be key to their success.
Both midfield triangles oppose each other, meaning one player from either side will often find themselves in space. Tottenham will look to make Dembele the free man, although Pardew is likely to instruct Sissoko to allow Parker time on the ball, while Newcastle would prefer Cabaye to find space yet see it granted to Tiote. Should this happen there will be pressure on the two defensive minded midfielders to use the ball effectively, something neither Parker nor Tiote are known for.
Battle on the wings
As already mentioned, Tottenham’s wingers play high up the pitch as part of a front three. Bale in particular has license to drift across the pitch in search of space, while their full backs look to overlap outside of them. Fortunately Newcastle’s wide midfielders are both defensively responsible, especially Jonas Gutierrez who may look to double up on Bale and follow him infield.
Alternately Newcastle’s wingers lack the attacking threat of their opponents, but their full backs are both dangerous when going forward. While Gutierrez and Yoan Gouffran will be instructed to track the runs of Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker, both Bale and Lennon can be prone to allowing full backs to run past them. Debuchy’s positioning against Bale will be particularly interesting, the Frenchman keen to support attacks but with the risk of leaving space for Tottenham’s winger to exploit. In the possible absence of a natural striker, Bale is likely to take up central positions more than usual as the team’s most dangerous attacking player which should invite Debuchy forward even more.
The modern ‘Carilleros’ in direct competition
‘Carilerro’ is traditionally the Argentine term for the widest midfielders found in a 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond formation. The ‘carillero’ role is to energetically shuttle between defence and attack, and so irrespective of a player’s skill set they are identified by their running and their verticality. Today the role has found its way into other midfield combinations, and we now find verticality is a popular trait in a central midfielder. Perhaps Barcelona-inspired pressing now exposes space for central midfielders to burst into where previously there was none; perhaps the popular adoption of 4-2-3-1 systems has led to more broken teams, and an energetic midfielder is required to link the defensive and attacking units. Either way, in Ramires at Chelsea, Yaya Toure at Manchester City, and now Dembele at Tottenham and Sissoko at Newcastle, we are now seeing shuttling central midfield players across the Premier League.
Both Dembele and Sissoko are new to their respective clubs, Dembele joining Tottenham in the summer and Sissoko having played just two games since moving to Newcastle in the January transfer window. Yet both have had an instant impact and are already central to their respective teams’ plans. With Sissoko positioned as an advanced midfielder and Dembele fielded deep, the two players will often find themselves in direct competition, both looking to outmuscle the other and drive their team upfield. Indeed there is an irony of the positions in which they find themselves, with Dembele starting out as an attacking playmaker and Sissoko as a defensive midfielder, but both have redefined themselves and their sides.
With Tottenham as the home side, Newcastle are likely to be the more conservative which fits well with their shape. Space in midfield is likely to be available given the opposing structure of the two teams, so it will be key for both sides to use this effectively. However the main area of conflict will be the behaviour of the wingers – while Newcastle’s will stay wide and attack in a vertical line, Bale and Lennon have the capacity to stretch the play or take up central positions. In this regard, whoever has greater success in their preferred method of attack – exploiting space between the lines or attacking the flanks – are likely to come out on top.