How not to play in possession

What went wrong for Mourinho at Spurs and what can we learn from it

An earthquake hit the football world last week. 12 teams from Spain, England and Italy published their plans for a Super League which effectively would destroy the whole competitive landscape of football. While I could write thousands of words on this terrible idea as well as the new Champions-League-reform which is not necessarily better, I don’t want to do this here.

One topic almost got lost in the discussion about the Super League – the release of Jose Mourinho from his task as Spurs manager. To be honest, it was not really a surprise. Under the Portuguese, Tottenham was underwhelming. 50 points after 32 games, only seventh and no realistic chance to compete in the Champions-League next season. Let alone worthy of being a Super-League-participant. 

There is just one big problem, I’ve prepared this article and studied the possession game of Tottenham under Mourinho. Well, too bad, I will share my thoughts with you anyway. Instead of discussing Spurs, I decided to use Tottenham under Mourinho as an example of common mistakes in possession which led to failure rather than success. 

To be clear, José Mourinho was never an advocate of a well-structured possession game, we knew that. Over all those years, he was successful with his rather conservative approach to football. But I’ve rarely seen a Mourinho side this unorganized in possession. Tottenham, although packed with outstanding players, never seemed to function as a unite under the star-coach. His predecessor, Mauricio Pochettino managed to implement a rather stable ball circulation which gave the players the necessary structure to perform at their best. There is not much left after a disastrous beginning of the 19/20 season under Pochettino and then Mourinho. 

Disconnected, unbalanced and simply not on the same page. This might sum up the way Tottenham performed over the course of the last months. Of course, I don’t want to blame the coaches alone, the players are also responsible for the drop in their recent performances. We also don’t know what happens within the team, even if we watch the Spurs documentary. 

Enough said about the specific problems of the Spurs. Let’s focus on the analysis.

How to position to challenge the pressing of the opponent

The objective in build-up is clear. You want to progress the ball from your own goal into the opponent’s half while remaining in a connected shape. To reach this goal, you have to move the opponent and lure him out of position. How do you accomplish this? By using the ball to attract the defenders and occupy the vacant spaces to be able to overplay a defensive line and exploit the open spaces. Besides the actions on the ball, the correct off-ball positioning is required.

What does this mean? Let’s take a look at the way Tottenham positioned during the build-up phase and why Mourinho’s side struggled to advance the ball on a consistent basis. 

The graphic above demonstrates why Tottenham struggled to properly build-up from behind. Even though Manchester United pressed high-up the pitch, the Spurs opted to go short and build-up from behind. However, several issues prevented a seemingly transfer of the ball into the middle third.

It all starts with the lack of support for Eric Dier once he was pressed by Bruno. Neither did Dier have a connection to the double pivot, nor a passing option in the halfspace. Moreover, Rashford closed down Aurier, so the English centre-back didn’t even have a wide option. 

Against a two-striker-pressing teams like to use a back-three to create numerical superiority and ensure a smooth first opening. In this instance, Lloris and Rodon could form the two remaining parts of a back-three with Dier. Consequently, the England international had to no real option to progress or relocate. 

Why he let the ball cross him, effectively cutting his available space in half remains elusive. Maybe, he expected to find Lo Celso in the halfspace. The Argentinian would occasionally drop to support, however, inconsistently, and often sloppy. I will show you an example later. 

Now, the question arises how Tottenham could have been positioned to successfully overplay the pressing of Manchester United. 

Starting with one of the more prominent principles of football might have been helpful. Pep Guardiola always stresses the importance of the right positioning of his players to maximise the available passing option. Therefore, the City manager has the rule that there should never be more than three players on the same horizontal and not more than two players on the same vertical line. This rule stems from the division of the pitch into in five vertical lanes (wing, halfspace and centre) and should give the players guidelines to position correctly.

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In general, it is more important that the players position in relation to their teammates, opponents, available spaces and the ball. Training the principle over and over again should ensure that the players never close passing lanes to a teammate, always position between the lines and offer the ball carrier a multitude of passing options. Similar to what Chelsea does under Thomas Tuchel.

In isolation, this rule is not enough to ensure the proper structure. One also has to understand the concepts of relative width and depth. It is not enough to make the pitch as wide and as deep as possible in possession. If the ball carrier is not able to reach you with a flat pass, you’re effectively out of the game, thus you can’t provide the proper width or depth. 

In the context of our scene from above, this means that, even though Lo Celso is positioned in the halfspace, he can’t be reached by Dier. Consequently, he does not provide depth. Despite, Lucas and Lo Celso occupy the same vertical space violating the rule of only two players on the same vertical line. 

If we apply the discussed principles an improved structure could have looked like this.

 This structure would have allowed for a better ball circulation. Dier already receives the ball in position giving him enough time to scan for potential passing options. In comparison to the scene above, Lo Celso is positioned deeper. Hence, he is reachable for Dier. Moreover, the offensive midfielder forms a diamond along with Aurier and Ndombele. To maximise the advantages of the diamond, Lo Celso has to remain higher than the other two. If he would be on the same horizontal line, the two Frenchman could not be reached with a first touch pass due to the suboptimal angle. Then again, Lo Celso would be the perfect pressing victim. However, by staying higher, the Argentinian can easily play a layoff pass to Ndombele and Spurs could have used the available space behind the strikers. 

Generally, Tottenham struggled to occupy the space behind the opponent’s strikers consistently. Even though Höjbjerg was positioned there on occasions, he often found himself in the cover shadow of a striker without trying to move out of it. It seemed like Tottenham didn’t want to risk losing the ball close to the own goal. However, settling for the seemingly less risky move is often even riskier. 

What do you think? Can Mourinho’s conservative approach in possession be successful in the future? Let me know what you think

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Anyway, this optimized structure might have forced Edinson Cavani to stay deeper to press Ndombele. Then, Tottenham could have used the back-three to quickly switch to the far side and attack from the left halfspace. 

Besides the lack of connectivity between the offensive players and the players involved in the build-up, Spurs also lacked the proper connectivity within these groups. If you take the picture above, you might think that Tottenham offered Dier two passing option which could be considered good. Nevertheless, this structure was doomed to fail. 

It starts with Dier being forced towards the wing. Likewise, both passing options (Lo Celso is almost not reachable due to the angle) could be pressed immediately. Despite those two problems, Lo Celso even moves closer to Eric Dier pulling his defender with him. Due to those movements, Spurs invite the pressing of Manchester United and reduce their own space effectively. 

Besides, Höjbjerg is covered by a player of Manchester United. As a consequence, even if Dier reaches Lo Celso, Tottenham can hardly move the ball out of that space. 

In order to optimize this situation, we have to introduce more principles. First, one should create numerical superiority in the first build-up line. Hugo Lloris can’t be considered a goalkeeper which you involve in your build-up which leaves Tottenham with three players against two. However, they did not create the necessary width and depth to ensure that Dier upon receiving can attack open spaces. Quite contrary, the fact that the English centre-back had to move towards the sideline to protect the ball is often a good sign of suboptimal structure and the lack of planned ball circulation. 

Ideally, Dier would have received the ball in an open body position. Additionally, Aurier could have positioned little bit higher while Lo Celso could have opened the passing lane to Lucas Moura by moving more towards the centre. Remember, no more than two players on the same vertical line. Dier, Lo Celso and Lucas all pretty much occupy the same vertical channel. 

Attracting defenders and executing switches – the essence of possession

Against United’s 4-4-2 it might have been beneficial to consistently form a back-three. Occasionally they did so, but it was never coherent with the movement of the rest of the team. 

Take this scene. Once again Eric Dier is the ball carrier. This time, however, Höjbjerg moved towards the left creating a back-three. Regarding the numerical superiority, Tottenham should have been able to build-up more easily. However, there was still something wrong, but what?

On a positive note, by dropping to the left, but staying a bit higher, the Danish midfielder created a V-shaped back-three which is beneficial for attacking open spaces after the switch. Compared to Chelsea, which I’ve analysed recently, Manchester United could easily press this build-up. Bruno could have pressed Dier without any concerns while by performing a curved run, Cavani could have denied the switch once Dier would have wanted to involve Rodon. 

There are a few details worth mentioning which hampered Spurs build-up in this sequence. First and foremost, no one occupied the space behind both strikers. While Lo Celso was once again positioned rather wide, Ndombele also pushed forward. It did not seem that he would fill the vacant space (red-marked) left by Höjbjerg. This in turn, encouraged Bruno and Cavani to press high without caring what happens behind their back. If, for instance, Ndombele would fill that space, Cavani had to decide whether to press Rodon risking that he could pass the ball to Ndombele or allowing the switch to Höjbjerg. Remember, forcing the defenders to make decisions is the objective of moving the ball in the first line. 

Moreover, if Lo Celso would be positioned closer to the centre, Lucas could be the vertical passing option in the halfspace (only two players on the same vertical line). Along with Aurier, those four would form a diamond making it harder for Fred and Pogba to close every passing lane. Chelsea, at whom we looked last week creates those situations on a consistent basis. 

Don’t forget, in possession our goal should be to move the opponent to lure him out of position and then exploit the opened spaces. Therefore, attracting the opponent in one space is the basis. Once the opponent tries to close this space, spaces becomes available elsewhere. Through clever switches the team in possession can exploit those. Here, a back-three can be beneficial because it not only supports a quicker ball circulation but also allows for the ballfar halfback to push a few meters higher. In the moment he receives the ball, he then already conquered a few meters of the open space. 

Unfortunately, it was rarely observable that the Spurs tried to actively attract the opponent. Their only goal was to quickly counter-attack out of an interception close to their own goal. Although, this is a valid strategy, it left too much on the table. The problem with defending deep in the own half is that once you conquered the ball, the distance to the opponent’s goal is quite large and you have to overplay a multitude of lines.

When Tottenham was not able to counter-attack, their sloppy structure made those possessions rather useless. 

But back to the structure and the use of switches. In situations in which a team uses a switch, one can identify whether the team utilizes those switches in a pre-determined way or whether the team just moves the ball without a clear purpose in mind. 

It appeared that Tottenham under Jose Mourinho only have a few principles and guidelines in possession. Too often the team overloaded the ballnear space too heavily. Remember, in order to successfully utilize a switch, it is crucial to attract the opponent. This often goes hand in hand with overloading the ballnear space. Supporting the player in the underloaded space to which the team wants to switch is as important as provoking the opponent to press ballnear. Without proper options to continue the attack, the player receiving the ball after the switch faces the risk of losing the ball in a situation of numerical inferiority. He will likely lose the ball while his team might not be in position to effectively counterpress because too many players still have to switch to this space. 

Take this scene from Tottenham’s display against Manchester United. Aurier has the ball and is supported by Lucas, Kane and Lo Celso. Once again, the unconnected shape of the Spurs is immediately visible. The lack of structure hampers the possibilities to switch. 

Another interesting point visible in this scene underlines the argument made above. Take a look at the positioning of Ndombele and Son. As you can see, they moved extremely towards the centre. Therefore, their left side is poorly occupied. Besides Reguilon, no one functions as a passing option. Consequently, the Spanish right-back faces a problem when Spurs manage to switch the ball to him. You might argue that Son and Ndombele would move towards the right in the meantime, and although you’re right, this movement into position is far from optimal. 

The distinction between moving in position and being in position might be tedious but is from great importance. When a player receives the ball while still moving into position, his movement limits the possibilities of action. Use the simple example of Reguilon receiving the ball on the left. Son would move in the left halfspace from the centre. However, the Spanish fullback is put under pressure, thus has to pass the ball immediately. Hence, Son receives the ball with his body facing the sideline. Moreover, his body position might not be well-aligned, thus he can’t turn around with the ball quickly. As a result, the South-Korean has only a limited number of options to continue, while Manchester United can force him towards the sideline. 

In contrast, if he is already in position, Reguilon can pass the ball earlier while the defence is not already in position. Furthermore, Son’s body position would allow him to either turn towards the sideline or the centre, alternatively to lay off the ball to a midfielder positioned in the centre. Once again, such a small detail determines the success or failure of an attack. I don’t want to put all the blame on Mourinho. As I said, we don’t know what happens in the team and the Portuguese proved that he is (was) one of the best coaches in the world.

I would rather emphasis the importance of implementing the right guidelines or principles for the players in possession. The job of coaches is to support the players in moving correctly in relation to their teammates and the opponent’s as well as to the available space and the ball. To avoid situations like that, one could introduce the rule of occupying all vertical channels at all times with at least one player. Thus, Son or Ndombele would have to remain in the left halfspace, creating a more balanced attacking structure and the possibility to exploit open spaces after a switch. 

The missing balance in attack was often visible. Either the team missed to support the ballfar player after a switch or their poor occupation of the centre didn’t even allow for a switch.

Take this scene for instance. Once again, their poor build-up structure forced Tottenham to the wing. Here, however, they missed the proper options to continue the attack. While Kane and Reguilón occupied the same vertical space, Ndombele’s and Höjbjerg’s positioning led to a lack of options to evade the pressure. To even provide a passing option, Son had to diagonally drop. However, similar to Lo Celso’s movement in one of the scenes before, his opponent’s followed him. Due to the location, Manchester United can easily isolate Tottenham. 

The three players ballfar are unconnected to the rest of the shape while no one occupied the space in the centre. Based on what we’ve learned in this article, an improved structure could look like this. 

This structure would be far superior and is a good summary of the discussed principles. For one, the team has a better balanced, every vertical line is occupied by only two players, except the centre. We would have to dividie the centre into two zones as well. Moreover, the team is well balanced because the players are more evenly distributed. Once the ball travels to the left wing, Son, Ndombele and Höjbjerg can immediately support and create multiple passing options. Despite this support, Manchester can’t press Reguilón that quickly because the right midfielder has to close the passing lane to Son or he leaves it open and risks that Spurs could advance into the space between the lines. Decisions lead to mistakes and advantages. Only by positioning correctly in possession we can force the opponent to make mistakes. 

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Furthermore, the back-three would allow for quick switches while the ballfar player Aurier could continue the attack due to several passing options nearby. Last but not least, the superior occupation of the space between strikers and midfielders of the opponent as well as the numerical superiority in the first line facilitates the build-up for Tottenham.


This analysis is far from complete. One could discuss various different aspects of Tottenham’s possession play under Mourinho. Nevertheless, I hope I improved your understanding of the way a team should be organized in possession. As always, feel free to comment and ask questions. If you want to support this project, spread the word and share this article. 

In the next edition of this newsletter, I will take a look at Edinson Cavani and what makes him one of the best strikers. So stay tuned.