Tottenham Hotspur headed into this fixture looking to go six games unbeaten in the EPL and bounce back after a disappointing midweek loss to Antwerp in the Europa League. Tottenham haven’t lost at home to Brighton in the English top division for an impressive 39 years, and Brighton manager Graham Potter will be hungry for his side to break that record and kickstart their 2020/21 campaign as the Seagulls are winless in their last 4 in the league.
A game of very opposing tactics from the two managers was on show and created fine phases of intricate build-up play from both sides, but ultimately lacked efficiency in the final third. Through this tactical analysis, I will discuss Harry Kane’s tactical shift in positioning for Spurs, as well as how teammate Pierre-Emile Højbjerg instigated forward rotations for Tottenham. I will also discuss in this match analysis the importance of Brighton’s front three and what the versatile trio offered with the absence of the team’s main striker.
Mourinho lined his side up in there usual 4-2-3-1 formation with two changes from their last outing, Sergio Reguilon and Erik Lamela were in for Ben Davies and Lucas Moura respectively. Having been rested in the Champions League midweek, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane started fresh for Tottenham adding the main attacking threat, with Son looking to add to his 10 goals in his last 10 games. Notable was the persistence from Mourinho to play Tanguy Ndombele in the attacking midfield role in recent games for Spurs, with the Frenchman struggling to impress in the position thus far and not completing a full 90-minute game in his last three league starts. Reguilon and Matt Doherty were very much used as wing-backs through this game when in possession as we will touch on later, with Mourinho attempting to add offensive support in the wide areas for Spurs. Out of possession, Tottenham defended in a compact mid-block with the winger’s Son and Lamela tucking inside to neutralise the middle of the park for Brighton, although this wasn’t as effective as they would have hoped. This defensive shaped changed drastically after Spurs took the lead into a typical Mourinho ‘shut-up-shop’ dense low block.
Brighton and manager Graham Potter stuck to their usual 3-4-3 formation relying heavily on the flexibility and inter-rotation of their front three to progress the ball through Tottenham. Playing with pacy wingbacks Tariq Lamptey and Solly March allowed the team to drop into a 5-4-1 out of possession and manage the forward runs beyond from Tottenham forwards. Neal Maupay’s exclusion from the eighteen would have come as a big surprise to Brighton supporters with no report of injury from manager Potter suggesting this was a disciplinary move instead. Without Maupay, this initially suggests Leandro Trossard will be operating in more of a false 9 role without a clear out-and-out striker for the seagulls. Alternatively, Potter used the flexible front three of Trossard, Adam Lallana, and Pascal Groß to roam in and out of position with the freedom to trade positions throughout the 90 in an attempt to unsettle Tottenham’s backline. Robert Sánchez was given his debut in goal with Australian Mathew Ryan being dropped to the bench, and I particularly admire Potter’s commitment to deploying young England prodigy Ben White in a more advanced 8 position in comparison to his usual centre-back role he has gathered positive attention for.
Harry Kane Dropping Deep
An interesting observation of Tottenham’s possession play in the 7 games so far this season, and in-particular this match has been the change in movement and role of main man and traditional number 9 Harry Kane. Mourinho is clearly attempting to add a new tactical element to the strikers game we haven’t seen before, demanding the England forward to drop very deep at times to receive from the Tottenham 6’s when in possession, creating a new and more modern pattern for Spurs to play through their opposition and break down compact structures. Kane is known for being a conventional striker with little movement staying. In the highest position for his side as to stretch the height off the pitch and create space below for more dynamic attackers to work in. His physical presence and deadly finishing ability have frequently been enough for opposition centre-backs to try and manage, but possibly in an attempt to purely surprise the rest of the league sides this season and create problems for opponents, Mourinho has the forward now moving down off his line in a style we haven’t seen before from Kane. First reactions would be negative from Spurs supporters when we admit we this means Kane will generally be in and around the penalty area less as he operates in a deeper position, but for Mourinho, this has proven already to ultimately benefit his side more with the movement striving to free up forward runs from wingers Son and Lamela. This pattern has been a huge contribution to Spurs’ bright start this season and was particularly demonstrated well in Tottenham’s 6-1 thrashing of Manchester United earlier this season, with Kane combining with Son through this unique movement for the duo to get 6 goals and assists between them. We see from the illustration below how Kane’s movement enables Tottenham to break forward and progress the ball. Kane moves down off the line attempting to find spaces between Brighton’s defensive and midfield line’s also attempting to drag a central defender out of position deep with him. If one of the three Brighton centre-backs Joël Veltman, Adam Webster, or Dan Burn decides to follow Kane down this works perfectly for Spurs as it opens up space in behind the Brighton defence for diagonal wide runs from outside-to-in of wingers Son and Lamela to penetrate, becoming targets of a long ball from lower Tottenham players.
Equally with Kane moving down this creates a high central zone he previously occupied for Ndombele to progress into and receive in a higher position, with the simple changing of positioning enough to throw off the Brighton defence and catch opposition players out of position. If Kane isn’t tracked down by a Brighton centre back he can receive in spaces between the Brighton lines with ease and progress the ball forward himself for the same forward runs of Son and Lamela, or into the feet of Ndombele. From the image below, we see how deep Kane is receiving from the fullback Doherty and the angle he creates for himself to play a first time ‘around the corner’ through ball for the on running Lamela. Behind him, we are also shown Ndombele moving into the advanced area left by Kane with the pursuit to move forward quickly and support Lamela offering an option from a cross once he receives. This pattern works in more than one way when we see Spurs use the ‘up down and through’ tactical approach to this progression motion also with the aim being to play in behind an advanced fullback on Brighton’s weak side. We see a perfect example of this from the image below where Kane has dropped deep again into his own midfield line, and in tangent, Son had moved inside from the flank into the 9 position. This time Kane doesn’t receive the first pass from Tottenham centre back Eric Dier with the ‘up’ pass from the right being direct into Son’s feet in his temporary central striker position. Son can’t turn being tightly marked on the edge of the box but Kane is in a free position below to receive the ‘down’ pass. When Son has drifted inside from the left he pulled Brighton right back Lamptey inside with him creating open space on Tottenham’s left for the on running left fullback Reguilon. This now makes the ‘through’ pass easy for Kane with time and space to pick out Reguilon’s forward run into the Brighton penalty area and create a goal-scoring opportunity for Spurs. This tactical pattern of play enables Mourinho’s team to target the oppositions weak side through Kane’s shift in positioning and utilise the attacking abilities of fullbacks Reguilon and Doherty.It’s important to note this movement is made possible by the fact that Brighton’s central defenders have decided not to track Kane down in the first instance or successfully communicate with their central midfielders to mark him, allowing Kane the space to receive and play forward. Again this demonstrates the dilemma created for opposition defences with Kane’s new movement.
Brighton’s Front Three
Brighton’s progression of the ball through the thirds was always going to be interesting with an ‘out and out’ striker in the side to target as Potter’s side have previously done. In this match, the seagulls heavily relied on fluent and effective rotation from the front three of Lallana, Trossard and Groß. For large portions of this match, the trio were successful at creating problems for the Tottenham defence and in particular the ‘central defensive square’ consisting of the two centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Erik Dier, accompanied by the two central midfielders Moussa Sissoko and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. With Brighton maintaining height and mainly width throughout the match, they were able to separate and spread this Tottenham defensive square through shifting the play from side to side, thus creating space in between the Tottenham centre backs and central midfielders previously mentioned for the Brighton front three to move into and receive. In review, Mourinho would have been disappointed with how disconnected this pivotal square was out of position, and how easily disjointed the four became as Brighton moved the ball horizontally in possession looking for the opportunities to play the forward trio in-between the Tottenham lines in this square zone. This is dangerous for spurs when opposition attackers can receive in these area’s beyond the midfield line as it means the attackers can turn and run at the centre backs Alderweireld and Dier in 1v1 situations, or create a 3v2 superiority with the front three operating narrowly and the Tottenham fullbacks unable to move inside to support the centre backs as they are occupied defending the Brighton high and wide wingbacks Lamptey and March. Potter demonstrates the advantage of a 3-4-3 formation here and the ability his side had to stretch Tottenham and isolate their central defensive players against Brighton’s skilful forward trio.
For me, Tottenham’s two central midfielders Sissoko and Højbjerg were too far away from their centre backs out of possession, and this allowed Brighton’s front three to receive in central areas and breakdown Tottenham’s backline through well-knitted combination play, all resulting from the narrow positioning of the front trio to create this numerical advantage, additionally supported by Lamptey and March providing Brighton’s width on the flanks and pulling out Tottenham’s fullbacks. We see from the image below the distance from Tottenham’s central midfielders and centre backs is too far, leaving Alderweireld and Dier 2v2 against Lallana and Trossard if either were to receive in this Brighton build up.
Conversely, when Tottenham’s fullbacks Reguilon and Doherty did move inside to support central defenders Alderweireld and Dier, this would leave Lamptey and March in acres of space in the wide area’s, which Brighton exploited on multiple occasions throughout the game. At times a simple switch of play was enough for Brighton to get in behind spurs optimising the space left out wide as the narrow Brighton front three attracted Tottenham’s fullbacks inside to support defensively. From the image below, we can see the huge amount of space March is left in on the opposite side for Brighton in possession, with his marker Doherty being pulled inside to defend Brighton’s front trio. We also see the type of movements he could offer in this position now, and the threat the opposite wingback will always hold against opposition for Potter’s side in this structured 3-4-3 set-up.
Højbjerg in Spurs Build Up
Højbjerg played an important role in Tottenham’s build-up play throughout this match, offering fullbacks and wingers the opportunity to roll and rotate through his decision to receive the ball and position himself between his two centre backs. Højbjerg would often be seen splitting centre backs Alderweireld and Dier when Tottenham had the ball down low, creating a temporary back three for the North London club. Alderweireld and Dier could now position themselves in wider channels with Højbjerg taking up the central defensive role, enabling spurs to push fullbacks Reguilon and Doherty higher up the pitch. As a result of this, wingers Son and Lamela would tuck inside of the flanks into central channels inline with defenders Alderweireld and Dier presenting a more immediate threat to Brighton’s back three, effectively man-for-man in the middle with the inclusion of Kane upfront favouring the attacking side. This also created a clear passing channel direct from Tottenham’s central defenders into the forward line which meant they could bypass Brighton’s midfield. Tottenham’s newly shaped front three could now pin back Brighton’s back three creating space underneath for Sissoko to operate in or better Kane to drop down into and complete the patterns we previously mentioned in new tactics under Mourinho. Højbjerg’s positioning in build-up to split the two centre backs aided his overall game as he was allowed time and space to pick out the most effective forward pass and attempt accurate long balls and switches of play for forward runs of Son and Lamela or into the wide channels for Reguilon and Doherty which he specialises in. Consequently, the Brighton midfield was forced to drop down and support the backline to avoid a numerical disadvantage, resulting in more time and space for Højbjerg, Alderweireld, and Dier to shift and progress the ball forwards themselves, all three of whom are comfortable in possession and more than capable of stringing together key passes to break through Brighton’s lines.
From this image, we see Højbjerg successfully drop and receive between the Tottenham centre backs, and the roll-out effect this has on the rest of his team with Doherty in loads of space on. Brighton’s weak side, as well as Lamela moving inside and the danger this creates for Brighton if he was to receive between the midfield and defensive blocks. Another example here shows how Højbjerg positioning means when Dier receives the ball he has time and space to drive forward himself out of the defensive line and penetrate Brighton with the two Brighton forwards being caught attracted to the ball on one side. I believe Mourinho uses this rolling out tactic as a way to optimise the impressive distribution and general on-ball play of his centre backs, in particular Dier who throughout his career has often been deployed as a central midfielder by trade. Here Dier can dribble into the channel created, or play a direct pass into the feet of Son who has moved inside off the flank.
In conclusion, out of the two sides Brighton played the better football and didn’t deserve to lose on the day. Potter’s side were more efficient at breaking down Tottenham through their patience in possession and bouncing the ball between the forward and midfield pack to shift Tottenham players out of position. Brighton were dangerous on the counter-attack also looking to play in Lamptey and March at every opportunity taking advantage of their acceleration and dribbling ability to create crossing opportunities. Potter’s team did struggle in the final third for a bit of presence that a well-established striker like Maupay brings to the team, and it will be interesting to see how long Potter decides to not use the Frenchman for. In saying that, the movement and rotation of Brighton’s front three was excellent to create pockets of space, especially from Lallana who added high technical skill on the ball to play acute forward passes and quick one-two’s in the final third for the Seagulls. By pushing forward relentlessly and taking the game to Tottenham, Brighton were able to immediately smoother Spurs in transition moments to defence with bodies around the ball and high up the pitch, often forcing Tottenham players to playback to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris who put his foot through the ball out of danger… a successful turnover for Brighton.
Tottenham were very predictable at times in possession and relied heavily on Kane for progression through the thirds. Many sidewards and backwards passes were accompanied by frustrating phases of possession, often ending in a meaningless long ball looking for Son or Lamela. After going 2-1 up after Gareth Bale’s winning goal (due to some pretty awful Brighton marking), Tottenham in typical Mourinho fashion shut-up-shop and defended very deep in a very compact 4-4-2 shape. Not thrilling from Spurs at all, but enough to get the three points.
The result leaves Tottenham in third place just two points off the top, and Brighton in sixteenth dangling just two points above the relegation zone.