How Spurs unpicked Brighton's player-for-player press
For once at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, Ange Postecoglou was not the head coach with the most extreme defensive approach.
Brighton & Hove Albion head coach Roberto De Zerbi missed the game after undergoing dental surgery, but Brighton’s pressing strategy had the Italian’s fingerprints all over it.
De Zerbi repeatedly speaks of Brighton’s “courage” to press player-for-player away at top Premier League sides. They did it victoriously away to Arsenal last season and this season against Manchester United, and tried to do the same against Tottenham.
It made sense: Tottenham have conceded the most high turnovers (opposition open-play sequences starting within 40m of a team’s goal) in the Premier League this season. Brighton’s aggressive 4-4-2 diamond press worked in the 4-2 win over them at the Amex in December. Still, Brighton knew Postecoglou would move his full-backs inside to try and overload the half-spaces.
To counteract Spurs’ rotation-heavy approach, and the fluid role offered to James Maddison, Brighton went aggressively player-for-player. Typically, teams that employ this approach have distance or location limits before they pass marking responsibilities over to a team-mate. Brighton did not.
The key focus was No 9 Danny Welbeck dropping onto Rodrigo Bentancur, Tottenham’s key midfielder in build-up, particularly with Yves Bissouma on the bench. Centre-back Jan Paul van Hecke was tasked with following Maddison upfield, and a lot of the time it meant the Dutchman was more advanced than Welbeck, as he would drop deeper when Bentancur pushed forward.
Here is how that looked early on. In this instance, Brighton’s two wingers — Kaoru Mitoma and Facundo Buonnanotte — are mirroring Tottenham’s centre-backs. No 10 Adam Lallana is tight to Pedro Porro, though this was generally Mitoma’s role (and Lallana pressed the centre-back). Tottenham can work the ball into Pape Matar Sarr, but he has no space to turn forward.
The upside for Tottenham was getting Maddison, their best passer on the ball more. The downside was it was too close to their goal, and they missed his between-the-lines ability further forward. Here, Van Hecke presses the midfielder into playing wide to Micky van de Ven.
The centre-back can directly access left winger Timo Werner, but when he sets it back to Destiny Udogie, Buonanotte recovers and tackles the Italy international. Tottenham do not cross the halfway line.
It was a recurring first-half theme, in which Tottenham made lots of rotations, Brighton just followed, and their usual passing combinations disappeared. Only five of Tottenham’s 18 sequences of 10+ passes (open-play) ended with a touch or shot in the opposition box.
Brighton kept pressing this way in the second half, even after both sides made substitutions. Here is Van Hecke leading the press as Maddison plays between Tottenham’s centre-backs. He ends up fouling the midfielder on the edge of the 18-yard box.
As jarring as they can be to play against, the vulnerability of player-for-player pressing schemes is that they can leave the centre of the pitch — the most important part — exposed. Brighton committing Van Hecke so high meant they left a three-v-three on halfway. While centre-back Lewis Dunk is strong aerially, and full-backs Tariq Lamptey and Pervis Estupinan have the pace to match Werner and Brennan Johnson, it demands defensive perfection.
Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario has, statistically, been the best shot-stopper in the Premier League this season. Distance kicking, though, is not a strength. When Brighton pressed player-for-player at the Etihad last season, Manchester City opened the scoring by Ederson kicking in behind for Erling Haaland.
Vicario looked reluctant to do this, and when he did they lacked quality. Here, he tries to pick out Werner in behind Lamptey, but the kick is too loopy and Brighton recover the ball.
Of Premier League goalkeepers with more than 800 league minutes this season, Vicario’s 22.2 per cent launched pass completion (open-play passes kicked 40+ yards) is the second-lowest. He can play round and into feet, but Tottenham had to find a different way through.
It was the ideal game for Tottenham’s central midfielders to run beyond the ball and into the space vacated by Van Hecke. It suited Sarr’s box-crashing profile too. Here, Maddison drops in, receives from Vicario and wriggles free from Van Hecke. Sarr starts as Spurs’ deepest midfielder, with Billy Gilmour marking Bentancur on halfway.
As Maddison plays into Richarlison, bypassing seven green and black shirts, Bentancur and Sarr switch. This causes Gilmour and Welbeck to momentarily switch off.
Richarlison lays it off to Udogie, and Sarr is making a run clear through the middle — Dunk has jumped to mark Tottenham’s Brazil forward. Udogie declines the forward pass, instead playing it wide to Werner. The winger tries to complete the one-two and find Udogie on the underlap, but Pascal Gross tracks the run and blocks his cross.
“The first half wasn’t great,” said Postecoglou. “Part of that is because Brighton are well coached and very disciplined and we weren’t. We took a few liberties with our football”.
There was a similar pattern at the start of the second half. Maddison playing deep attracts Van Hecke and Udogie’s narrowness pins Gross. Spurs can easily work it out to Werner.
This time, Bentancur comes alive and runs across Welbeck. Werner has his back to goal, and the pass comes into him bouncing, but as a right-footer he could realistically whip a first-time pass in behind — with the space available, it only needs to be into an area, not a perfect pass.
Instead, Werner controls, dribbles inside, and shoots from a low-quality position.
Tottenham’s equaliser came from efficient play down the right. Van Hecke had stepped out to make an interception, then chased the loose ball into Tottenham’s half. Bentancur gets possession, dribbling away from Van Hecke and Buonanotte.
Bentancur’s pass through midfield is blocked, but when it comes back to him he goes wide to Dejan Kulusevski. Porro has occupied Estupinan, and without Van Hecke next to him, Dunk hesitates on whether to drop or pick up a runner. Kulusevski sets Sarr through midfield with a one-touch through ball.
Sarr squares it for Richarlison, but Dunk blocks the cutback, which ricochets onto the post and back to the Senegal international. From a narrow angle, he equalises.
Ironically, Tottenham’s winning goal, undoubtedly their move of the game, was the exact attacking pattern that Brighton’s player-for-player pressing prevented them from knitting together for the first 95 minutes.
Maddison ➡️ Richarlison ➡️ Son ➡️ Johnson 💫
A beautifully crafted 96th minute winner 😍 pic.twitter.com/ictBeDR8iY
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) February 10, 2024
A fatigued Van Hecke and Dunk tried to jump but Tottenham moved the ball too quickly. Down the left, they went into Richarlison and then back to Maddison, who held the ball, Van Hecke stood still, and he split the defence to Richarlison. He knocked it onto the overlapping Son Heung-min, and he pulled it across goal for Johnson to tap in.
It had echoes of Tottenham’s late win against Liverpool in September. A 2-1 win with a second-half injury-time goal, scored at the same end of the ground, against a team who had been defensively stubborn (albeit in different ways).
The pre-match expectation was that a De Zerbi versus Postecoglou game was going to be three things: high-scoring, with late drama, and tactically interesting. Two out of three — not bad.