QPR 0-0 Tottenham: Tottenham dominate but false nine Taarabt creates chances

January 13, 2013

The starting line-ups

Harry Redknapp and his successor at Tottenham, Andre Villas-Boas, settled for a point apiece.

Redknapp reverted to the system he used in the surprise 1-0 win at Chelsea, although Shaun Wright-Phillips started rather than Junior Hoilett, and Park Ji-Sung played in the centre of midfield instead of Esteban Granero.

Villas-Boas went for his 4-4-2, the same XI as the side that defeated Reading in Spurs’ previous game – with the exception of Gareth Bale’s return, in place of Gylfi Sigurdsson.

This wasn’t an open match, nor was it particularly attractive – but it was an interesting tactical battle. While Tottenham dominated possession and tested Julio Cesar frequently, QPR had chances on the break.

Different systems

Redknapp and Villas-Boas are completely different coaches, of course – Redknapp claims to ignore tactics and give players individual freedom, while Villas-Boas is depicted as the obsessive tactician that confuses his players with complicated instructions. The caricatures are exaggerated, of course – Redknapp has proven himself to be a decent tactician many times, and credited the victory at Stamford Bridge to lots of work practising defensive positioning on the training ground, while attempts to cast Villas-Boas as a theory-obsessed geek have often been rather desperate.

Still, strip away the hyperbole, and there’s a fascinating contrast of styles, even without considering Daniel Levy’s decision to replace one with the other. It was particularly surprising, then, that it was the up-and-coming continental coach that opted for the apparently outdated 4-4-2 system, while the old-school English manager went for a false nine upfront.

False nine v two up top

It was these areas that provided the most interest. Taarabt played upfront, to the right-of-centre, and dropped away from the Tottenham centre-back duo readily. In response, Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson played high up the pitch, and attempted to stick tight to Taarabt, in order to prevent him turning.

However, Taarabt played his role well. There were, inevitably, times when he overcomplicated things and lost the ball in unnecessary situations, but his skill and imagination when playing the false nine role was marvellous. It must be stressed that Taarabt was often isolated upfront alone, and the role of a false nine differs significantly in a side like QPR here (who spent the majority of the match without the ball, and were forced back into their own half) compared to a side like Barcelona, who dominate possession. Lionel Messi gets the ball with two wingers high up the pitch and ready to sprint in behind, but Taarabt frequently received possession with Wright-Phillips and Jamie Mackie twenty yards behind him, and no-one immediately able to exploit the space his movement towards play had created.

Three times, he drifted away from the centre-backs, held onto the ball and allowed runners to make up ground, before sliding the ball expertly through to Wright-Phillips. Granted, the winger was unable to provide the finishing touches despite being in some fine positions, but the principle remains – Taarabt saw little of the ball in dangerous positions, yet managed to manufacture genuine goalscoring opportunities. He did something similar late in the game for Stephane Mbia, who was offside.

Defoe and Adebayor

Aware that QPR had both a numerical advantage in the midfield zone, and Taarabt moving deep, Villas-Boas asked both strikers to drop away from the QPR defence, with Jermain Defoe playing permanently in a support striker role, close to Shaun Derry.

But Adebayor also drifted in pockets of space, and the move leading up to Defoe hitting the post (via Julio Cesar’s fine save) saw both strikers in into the zone between QPR’s defence and midfield. That space was particularly easy to exploit, because the QPR defence started amazingly close to their own box, terrified at the prospect of Defoe and Adebayor outpacing them. However, after around ten minutes Clint Hill ordered the back four higher up the pitch, while the midfield seemed to sit slightly deeper. QPR continued to play with a ‘low block’, as Villas-Boas would say, but they minimised the space between the lines, and Tottenham’s forwards found it more difficult to get the ball.


Aside from the deep positioning of the three central forwards, the key battle was Mousa Dembele against Stephane Mbia. Dembele has often appeared Tottenham’s key player this season, the man who can pass reliably and attack directly, but he had little impact on this game, largely thanks to Mbia. He was physically strong and intelligent positionally, and often broke past Dembele to support Taarabt – unfortunately, his technical quality was lacking in the final third, with plenty of misplaced passes and one hopeless shot. Still, Redknapp would have been pleased at the how quiet Dembele was.

There was also a surprising amount of movement into central positions from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon at times – they combined on a couple of occasions when both in central positions, but Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton (very obviously on his ‘wrong’ side) didn’t stretch the play effectively. In the second half, Lennon and Bale switched wings for a period, although it felt like Tottenham needed them to play wider on their natural sides, to stretch the QPR defence and provide crosses.

But there was no major tactical progression – Clint Dempsey replaced Adebayor and Sigurdsson came on for Lennon very late, while Scott Parker was forced to replace Sandro through injury in the first half. Redknapp didn’t use a single substitute, despite three centre-forwards in reserve, which summed up how pleased he was with the system.


Although not a new role – he did the same against Chelsea – Taarabt’s performance was particularly interesting. After a couple of sloppy moments in the first half, he mastered the art of receiving the ball with no support, keeping the ball under control to give runners time to meet him, then sliding the ball through the defence. His right-sided positioning allowed angled balls towards left-winger Wright-Phillips, and better finishes from the winger would have seen Taarabt’s role hailed as a tactical masterstroke from Redknapp.

That caused Tottenham’s forwards to play deeper than usual, although this was only really effective in the first 10 minutes before QPR became compact. Spurs were allowed to dominate possession and therefore created more goalscoring opportunities, but there was a lack of genuine creativity from midfield, with the wingers coming inside quickly, and Dembele nullified.

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