A Tactical Look at Ryan Mason’s Managerial Debut

Article by Ben Griffis

Ryan Mason, whose career ended after a life-threatening head injury in January 2017, took over at Spurs on April 19th after José Mourinho was sacked. The Tottenham academy graduate and Enfield native took charge of his first senior match 2 days later against Southampton. While he coached in the Spurs youth system from April 2018, he had not been involved with the first team prior to his appointment as interim coach. Both fans and opponents didn’t have much time to prepare for his first match—and neither did he.

Mason lined up in a 4-2-3-1, which is fairly regular for Spurs throughout the last few managers. There weren’t any major changes to the team sheet from a standard Mourinho sheet, but of course Harry Kane was injured so Lucas filled in up top. Joe Rodon was notably dropped from the match squad in favor of Davinson Sánchez, and Steven Bergwijn finally made the bench again and got a few minutes at the end of the match. Højbjerg and Ndombele played in a double-pivot, which has been exceptional this season, with Højbjerg staying deeper than Ndombele most of the time.

Mason’s first Spurs lineup.

Below is a rough report on Tottenham’s tactics against Southampton. Without much time to prepare for the match, Mason didn’t choose to try anything extraordinary, but did make a few tactical tweaks from José. Mason has said he takes inspiration from his former manager at Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino, and that was evidently shown by some of his major instructions. I apologize for the lack of pictures/screenshots but will show diagrams of positions instead when necessary.

Buildup Play

Rough shape of Spurs in buildup, when Dier has the ball. He can play it to Højbjerg or Reguilón.

Tottenham’s buildup started with both Aldeweireld and Dier, which has been constant since Pochettino’s tenure. From the centerbacks, two main buildup patterns occurred. Of course, there were many different variations, but these were the 2 most evident patterns I saw.
1) Move the ball out to either Reguilón or Aurier. They then sprint into space or pass it to the nearest of Højbjerg or Ndombele, who typically pass the ball into space for the fullback or directly to Son/Bale on the wings.
2) Pass to Højbjerg who will look for Ndombele, who then plays a vertical ball to Lo Celso or Lucas or a splitting diagonal to Bale/Son. If Ndombele is covered, Højbjerg recycles possession or passes to Reguilón.

Many times, Højbjerg would drop just in front of Dier and Aldeweireld to allow Reguilón and Aurier to push up slightly to open up space for Ndombele and Lo Celso.

The centerbacks tended to stay very close to one another in the buildup. The fullbacks hugged the touchline and pushed up. Højbjerg and Ndombele were in the half-spaces in case of a misplaced pass.

Buildup went through Reguilón more often than Aurier. It appeared as though Mason was looking to use the strength of Reguilón’s and Son’s runs to push back Walker-Peters. Bale was not as much of a threat of Son for running at the defense, instead opting to drift inside sooner.

Attacking Phase

One of the double pivot stays back when the other pushes up. Højbjerg is the deeper player most often, but when he pushed up Ndombele stayed back and closer to the centerbacks.

There was more urgency in possession than under Mourinho, but there was still inconsistency in pacing. When there was no or little off-ball movement ahead of the ball, the possession’s tempo was lethargic. This happened more often than not.

The players appeared to be cautious about making mistakes, which could explain the scant movement and few vertical passes in midfield. Whether this was Mason’s direction or the players’ mentality I am not sure. However, this has been a problem recently so is most likely due to the players.

When in the final third, only Lucas and the opposite-side winger were in the box, with Lo Celso on the edge. However, Bale’s goal came from many players in and around the box. This can be risky, but allows players to get to rebounds (like Bale did).

One massive issue—which has been a problem for ages and is by no means down to Ryan Mason’s tactics—was the very little movement off-ball. Most players stand still or barely move when a teammate has the ball in the middle third, allowing an opponent to mark them or block the passing lane. Some players occasionally made runs, but there were few times when 2-3 players made simultaneous runs to confuse the defenders and drag them out of position to open up a player or space.

However, Son’s disallowed goal came when we played with urgency and simultaneous runs. Lucas and Son both cut inside which brought the defenders away from where Reguilón was running into space. He was free and had time to find Son near the top of the box who calmly slotted it in. While Lucas was called offside, this type of movement needs to occur more often or there will be no progress. 2 players made runs to draw defenders and open up space for a third.

Spurs did not sit back or lower the tempo after Son’s penalty. While the players weren’t overly urgent during the match, the past few seasons have shown they would have lowered the tempo even further after taking the lead with a few minutes left. Twice in stoppage time the ball was progressed into Southampton’s box by more than one player. This would not have happened under Mourinho—mentality boost post-sacking or Mason’s tactics aside, this is key moving forward.

Defending Phase

Example of Spurs’ defensive positioning when the ball is with a fullback/winger that Reguilón is engaging. Son and Lo Celso mark passing options on the inside, Lucas ready to come back and help if needed.

The back line was relatively high, a welcome change from Mourinho. Højbjerg stayed close to Dier and Aldeweireld, which mitigated some of the risk of a high line. They were effective at quelling potential counters, which tended to come from Southampton’s fullbacks or a long ball.

Mason utilized a pressing trigger—the players pressed only when the ball came close to them. They didn’t tend to run much distance to engage the ball. Spurs players tended to obstruct passing lanes rather than chase after the ball. Further, if more than one player was close to the ball in the middle third, both players pressed to try to win the ball back. This was more cautious than Pochettino but more intense than Mourinho—a welcome medium for players who like to press but can’t keep it going for 90 minutes.

During Southampton goal kicks, Lucas stood on edge of box while Bale and Son marked the fullbacks in an aim to force McCarthy to boot the ball up for Aldeweireld or Dier to handle. Lucas would engage the centerback if they received the ball.

Højbjerg and Ndombele moved into the backline when Southampton had the ball on the wings in Spurs’ third. The ball-side fullback engaged the player if Son/Bale was not already marking them, while the other fullback fell back in line with the defense.

For Southampton corners, the players man-marked a specific player. One major Southampton chance came from a corner where Southampton players mixed around to confuse Spurs markers.

Final Thoughts

I think that Mason’s first game as a manager can be called a success, but mainly because he had two days to prepare for his first-ever game as a manager. Many issues still permeate the team, such as lethargic passing and a sheer lack of movement ahead of the ball. Fewer mistakes meant that I luckily didn’t have to see if the back line and defensive transitions have improved. However, when Southampton had the ball deep in Tottenham’s half there were fewer gaps for opponents to exploit. Spurs were much more attack-minded than under Mourinho, and while they weren’t as agressive as the core of this team can be, it was a welcome change of pace. Finally, Mason obviously had a very good halftime team talk. The squad looked energized and motivated after halftime; it was a different attitude. Going into the second half a goal down on a bad run of form is difficult, but Mason was able to motivate the squad to turn the match around.

Looking forward, Mason will probably play a similar style to Pochettino, but with extra caution. Not risk-averse caution like José, but a conscious understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the current squad. We have many attacking players that like to press, but are prone to defensive positioning errors and mental switch-offs. Mason’s pressing trigger and preference to press with one player (or two if there are two players close) should allow Spurs to retain their defensive shape while not allowing the opponent too much time to pick a pass.

This was just one game, but there were no major red flags. There were no massive positives, but there are many more days ahead for Mason and the squad to set a tactic. Overall, this first game showed promising signs and improvement on the last months of Mourinho. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tottenham can do in the remaining games this season.

Header image source

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