Roberto Soldado’s penalty for Tottenham Hotspur today was enough to give Spurs three points to open the season away at newly promoted Crystal Palace. But the game was not as close as the scoreline would suggest. With every summer signing getting a debut, Andre Villas-Boas gave an indication of how Spurs are going to play this season. It seems Villas-Boas is perhaps preparing for Gareth Bale to leave, but the team is also ready made for him to slot right back in if he stays.
Tottenham played the same 4-2-3-1 they played last season; with Paulinho and Mousa Dembele holding, Nacer Chadli and Aaron Lennon wide, and Gylfi Sigurdsson behind Soldado. The three new signings who started the game all offer more than the players who played in their positions last year: Paulinho is more dynamic, more technical, and a smarter player than Scott Parker. Chadli is a true wide player, unlike Clint Dempsey or Sigurdsson, and Soldado scored, so that’s already an improvement on last year.
Even though the team looked confident and cohesive, especially given the number of new players, no one really thinks Villas-Boas is going to play this formation for the rest of the season. The signings that have come in seem to point to a 4-3-3, with Sandro, Dembele, and Paulinho in midfield, and any two of Sigurdsson, Chadli, and Lennon playing wide.
Chadli, in particular, is going to be an important player for Spurs this season. Tottenham have lacked balance in the side since Bale was given his free role in the middle. Although he is right-footed and normally cuts inside from the left, Chadli starts wide in order to do so. Unlike Dempsey or Sigurdsson last year, Chadli won’t drift in field to look for space; rather he’ll stay wide in order to open up the space for him to cut into. He offers a natural balance to the wide play of Lennon on the right, while also giving space for the forward-leaning Danny Rose to run in to. The team looked balanced and purposeful; two issues which were constant problems last year.
Whether or not Villas-Boas decides to primarily play a 4-3-3 this season or keep the 4-2-3-1 (it will probably be both in all honesty), the team is set up for Bale to slot right in. If it’s a 4-3-3, he could play wide left where he’s accustomed to playing, or more likely he’ll play wide right in order to cut inside on his left to shoot. This is where Bale looked the most devastating last season, scoring goals against Southampton and Sunderland cutting in from that side of a 4-3-3. He also played and scored from that position in the one preseason game he played this summer against Swindon. The 4-2-3-1 could see him play in the middle, where he played for the majority of the latter half of last season.
Villas-Boas is preparing his team intelligently for the new season, and is setting Spurs up to succeed in the event of the best- and worst-case-scenarios. Either way, early signs are positive for Spurs and their new signings.