Now that we know how to pronounce his name, the more important question regarding Tottenham Hotspur’s recent acquisition of Toby Alderweireld is how they plan to use him. Tottenham’s defense was abysmal during the 2014-2015 campaign, and that may be giving them too much credit. If Tottenham hope to compete for a Champions League spot, Mauricio Pochettino’s number one concern must be how to improve his atrocious back line, and the addition of Alderweireld should help fix their defensive woes.
Those woes will persist if Pochettino does not use a tactical approach that allows him to get the most out of his shiny new toy. Alderweireld will certainly start along fellow Belgian Jan Vertonghen on the backline. Both players are most comfortable playing as center-backs, but have the ability to play wide, with the former preferring the right and the latter the left side of the field. Pochettino will most likely deploy the two in the center with some combination of young fullbacks flanking the two. An interesting option for Pochettino to consider, however, is the 3-5-2.
Back threes are not quite en vogue, despite Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers both using back threes at some point during the most recent Premier League season (Rodgers used a 3-4-3, though). Antonio Conte used a 3-5-2 while winning two scudetti with Juventus and Netherlands employed it against Spain in the 2014 World Cup. The 3-5-2 is either enjoying the beginnings of a nascent renaissance or is simply a flash in the pan. Regardless of where one falls in this debate, the aforementioned successes are not aberrations, and for a team trying to punch above its weight class, as Tottenham is always trying to do, a trendy formation may be exactly what they need.
So what would a 3-5-2 look like in North London? Tottenham is an interesting team to play around with when it comes to formations because they have a lot of young, exciting talent. This means that a lot of these players are not as wed to a static position as, say, a veteran winger who has spent his entire career outside. This means Pochettino has more leeway to play someone out of position. This starts with that back three. Vertonghen and Alderweireld are locks. As I mentioned, both are best in the center, but in a back three, of course, only one can actually be in the center. Alderweireld does not do as well when he has to play on the flank, so he can stay in the center where he is most comfortable. Vertonghen can easily play on the left side, he is such a talented and versatile back that there is no real discernable drop-off for him when he plays wide.
Right-back is where we begin to see come controversy. The simplest answer is to plug newly-acquired Kieran Trippier in there. He is a promising and young and playing alongside the more experienced Vertonghen and Alderweireld will help his progression. As an American, I would be remiss not to mention that DeAndre Yedlin could start at right back, but Trippier has already spent a year competing against the Premier League’s best. While Yedlin does have more raw talent, it is never wise to force a player into a position he is not ready for simply because his ceiling is high. Pochettino can play around with some other combinations, throwing Eric Dier in at right back is tempting; he could also switch Vertonghen and Alderweireld and play Danny Rose at left-back. One other option would be to play Kevin Wimmer in the center with both Alderweireld and Vertonghen out wide.
Things are just as fluid in the midfield. Assuming he goes with the Vertonghen-Alderweireld-Trippier back three, Pochettino needs a defensive midfielder in the center. He’s shown a fondness for Dier, understandably so, and he would do well in that position, where his errors can be hidden by Alderweireld. Dier is not a true defensive midfielder, but Spurs’ only real defensive midfielder of any repute is Benjamin Stambouli, and he did not impress last year. Placing youngsters Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb on either side of Dier will also help him. Mason and Bentaleb are only slightly more seasoned than Dier, but they each showed a lot of potential last year, and have great chemistry together. I do not like the idea of putting Dier between them, but hopefully that will allow both of them to press forward more, something Mason especially shows a propensity for. The two wing positions would most likely be filled with Nacer Chadli on the right and Christian Eriksen on the left. Alex Pritchard, returning from loan at Brentford, is yet another exciting young talent who could usurp Chadli on the right side.
The real problem with the 3-5-2 for Tottenham is the front. Who plays alongside Harry Kane? Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor are not legitimate options should they remain in North London past the transfer window. The best-case scenario would be if Spurs could somehow sign Christian Benteke from Aston Villa. Liverpool appears to be a lock to land the striker, but he would fit perfectly up front with Kane. Saido Berahino is another option and he would be an easier target for Tottenham, but once again will require Daniel Levy to open up his wallet.
The best option they have amongst players the actually employ is the mercurial Erik Lamela. While he has had his fair share of struggles since joining Spurs, he is still immensely talented and is just 23. Being pushed out of his comfort zone and up front alongside Kane may be exactly what he needs to take a step forward developmentally. Kane will pull defenders toward him naturally, giving Lamela more space to work, and in this formation he will be playing directly in front of creative genius Eriksen, who would be able to set the table beautifully for Lamela.
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