Considering we’re halfway through the highest-scoring Premier League season to date – in terms of goals per game (3.09) – it’s somewhat surprising that Brighton & Hove Albion’s win over Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday i.e. its first result 4-2.
But this final score probably does not reflect Brighton’s domination. Tottenham’s goals were late consolations in the final 10 minutes of normal time and, scoring four times, Brighton also hit a post with a James Milner curler. This was an excellent and confident performance from Roberto De Zerbi, who, as always, had a smart plan and executed it well.
Brighton’s wings are clipped but De Zerbi continues to dream up new ways to ensure they fly
De Zerbi’s system was, simply put, a diamond in midfield. Danny Welbeck joined Joao Pedro up front, with Facundo Buonanotte in the No.10 position, then Milner and Pascal Gross lined up either side of Billy Gilmour.
This shape made it easier for Brighton to press when Ange Postecoglou’s visitors looked to play out from the back.
Joao Pedro and Welbeck are both hard-working center forwards who are quite happy on the pitch. So they were content to follow Emerson Royal and Ben Davies, full-backs deployed as makeshift centre-backs due to injuries, when they split out to the flanks. .
In this situation, Tottenham usually places one of their central midfielders in the middle of the defense, and in this system, Buonanotte was in the right position to follow Pape Matar Sarr. Brighton therefore often pressed three against three.
Spurs tried to get around this by also putting their other central midfielder, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, in defense. But that prompted Gross to step forward and silence him.
So things often ended up in the situation below: four versus four, with center forwards tracking down center backs and central midfielders against central midfielders.
Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, usually assured with his distribution, was forced to make longer passes than we are used to and often conceded possession. This diagonal attempt for Son Heung-min, for example, was badly overshot and allowed Brighton to restart their build-up play.
Gross’s responsibility to advance and stop one of the central midfielders meant that Dejan Kulusevski, playing Tottenham’s number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, often dropped into this area to provide the option with a forward pass to the feet.
This could have caused Brighton problems, but they responded aggressively with Jan Paul van Hecke coming out of his centre-back position and sticking closely to Kulusevski. This happened in the first few seconds…
…again after four minutes…
…And after 16 minutes the same thing happened.
Kulusevski rushes his pass, Hojbjerg cannot control it…
…the ball bounces well for Gilmour, and Brighton are on the attack…
…with Joao Pedro cutting inside to have a decent effort on goal.
Throughout the first half, Tottenham’s build-up play did not work and Brighton stole the ball early and created chances.
By the way, Brighton also dropped a midfielder into the backline to help with their build-up play, but they did it in a different way.
Gross would move from his right midfielder role to right back to receive a pass, with true right back Jack Hinshelwood pushing higher up the pitch. Brighton generally looked to play down the right and although this was not always entirely successful, with possession turned over on several occasions, Tottenham’s press was disjointed.
In possession, Brighton went from a diamond to something approaching a 3-1-6.
Left-back Igor Julio dropped back to become a third central defender, players at the outer points of the diamond – Milner and Gross – moved forward into the channels, while Hinshelwood also pushed up to become the sixth striker. It’s not quite visible in the image below – its approximate position has been highlighted in the bottom right corner – but it was often their form in possession.
At the start, here is an example of Brighton attacking with a front five.
Welbeck has the ball on the left, with Gilmour inside, having briefly swapped roles with Milner and three others in the centre. Hinshelwood, at the bottom of the screen, is not involved in this decision – but, worryingly for Spurs, there is space to exploit.
And here was an almost identical situation six minutes later, which led to the opening score.
It was Joao Pedro on the ball on the left and this time Hinshelwood pushed forward to become the sixth striker. Tottenham, in fairness, also have six players along their defensive line, but they inevitably get sucked towards the ball. Gross calls for a cross in the middle, but the dangers are the two teammates closest to the camera.
The objective is actually very simple: Joao Pedro cuts inside, passes a few slalom challenges and then passes the ball to Hinshelwood. He was a center forward who assisted a right back. Or, in a different sense, it was the outside left throwing the outside right on opposite sides of a six man attack.
Hinshelwood’s shot was unusual – hammered well above Vicario rather than either side of him, and the young right-back seemed somewhat surprised that the ball had gone in.
From there, the floodgates opened.
The subsequent goals were not very interesting from a tactical point of view: two penalties from Joao Pedro and a superb long-range strike from Pervis Estupinan on his long-awaited return from injury.
The choice of the other ‘goals’ was actually denied, when Welbeck crossed for Buonanotte’s run in behind and he finished with a clinical half-volley. He had made his run too early and was caught offside, but it was another example of how many players Brighton attacked.
Here, even though Gross is a little deeper and doesn’t sprint fast enough to become a real participant, it’s the same six players on offense as on Hinshelwood’s goal.
The two late concessions were significant. Not only have they reduced Brighton’s margin of victory, but they also mean they still haven’t kept a clean sheet this season, which is something of a failure as we reach the halfway point.
But this is part of De Zerbi’s calculation: his system is based on high risk, high pressing and, this time, six attackers high up.
When it all comes together, Brighton can outplay anyone.
Tottenham’s efforts are a reminder that this team is not ready for ‘Angeball’
(Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
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