Tottenham Hotspur, 2023–
At the age of 57, and after two seasons in which he won five trophies with Celtic, Ange Postecoglou was in June 2023 named the Tottenham Hotspur manager. The former Brisbane Roar, Australia and Yokohama F Marinos boss follows the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, José Mourinho and Antonio Conte in north London, where he will make history as the first Australian to manage in the Premier League.
After early successes as a head coach with South Melbourne in the late 1990s, Postecoglou’s rise has been something of a slow-burner. Back-to-back titles with Brisbane Roar in 2011 and 2012 cemented his reputation as a top-class coach in his native Australia, and that was only enhanced in a four-year spell as head coach of the national team.
After taking the Socceroos to the 2014 World Cup (above), he led them to a first ever Asia Cup triumph in 2015 and qualified for the 2018 World Cup before departing to take over in Yokohama. One league title in three seasons led him to Glasgow, where another pair of back-to-back championships alerted Daniel Levy to his qualities.
“Ange brings a positive mentality and a fast, attacking style of play,” said Levy of his new recruit. “He has a strong track record of developing players and an understanding of the importance of the link from the academy – everything that is important to our club. We are excited to have Ange join us.”
After domestic success with Brisbane Roar and one full season at Melbourne Victory, Postecoglou led Australia to the 2014 World Cup with an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation. His wide forwards came off the flanks and looked to get on the ball between the lines, with Tim Cahill providing the focal point up front. Mile Jedinak played a key role at the base of the midfield; he and his midfield partner held their positions to allow the full-backs to attack simultaneously.
By the time he led Australia to their first ever Asia Cup triumph in 2015, he had shifted to a 4-3-3 shape. There was a greater emphasis on retaining possession, which led to more complex rotations. The full-backs pushed forward consistently – Jason Davidson was particularly effective on the left – while both number eights attacked at the same time (below) to offer penetration inside or around the wide forwards.
Postecoglou retained the 4-3-3 at Yokohama F Marinos, who in 2019 he led to a first J1 League title in 15 years. Here, his wingers stayed very wide in front of a fluid midfield three, with the full-backs often making underlapping runs to add extra bodies in the central channel. The midfielders either dropped to encourage a full-back to attack, or pushed up close to the striker to provide an extra goal threat.
Across his two seasons at Celtic, Postecoglou used a similar 4-3-3 to that which he used at Yokohama, again using very wide wingers in the front line. The aim is to create space in the inside channels for a full-back or central midfielder to exploit. In his first season, it wasn’t uncommon to see the full-backs dribble diagonally into these spaces, with the wingers threatening the space in behind. The number eights would then adapt their position accordingly.
In his second season, Postecoglou’s back line would more often convert into a three. One full-back pushed forward, with the other maintaining their depth. This proved particularly useful when playing against teams that set up with a front two, as the widest of the newly formed back three could step into midfield.
The single pivot, mostly Callum McGregor would offer between the two opposition centre-forwards (above), with full-backs Greg Taylor, Alistair Johnston or Josip Juranovic – who left for Union Berlin in the January transfer window – all capable of pushing forward to provide crosses, invert inside to add an extra body in the middle or stay withdrawn as part of a three-man back line.
Postecoglou demonstrated his coaching versatility when using a back three and an in-possession 3-4-2-1 with Australia, at both the 2017 Confederations Cup and in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Two central number 10s operated close to the striker, while the wing-backs provided the team’s width (below). In Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine, Tom Rogic and Massimo Luongo, Australia had plenty of quality in midfield. Understandably, Postecoglou chose a formation to suit their strengths.
At Celtic, Postecoglou used his narrower full-backs to offer more varied central rotations and use overloads to dominate possession. In two league campaigns under the Australian, Celtic averaged 67.3 per cent and 69.5 per cent respectively.
In his first season with Celtic, when play was building wide, the far-side number eight pushed forward to support the centre-forward – usually Kyogo Furuhashi. David Turnbull was particularly attack-minded in this role; when used as a number eight, he took every opportunity to push forward through the inside channel to offer added threat on goal (below). Fellow central midfielders Rogic and McGregor tended to move wide to support the respective winger and full-back, rather than join the striker as Turnbull did.
As a result, Celtic’s single pivot enjoyed extra support in defensive transition. In this way, the team could lock the ball in the oppositon half to prevent counter-attacks, and the number eights could stay beyond the ball for longer. A key principle of Postecoglou is not to have the ball at the highest point of the attack, with runners in behind and rotations – mainly in central spaces – used as frequently as possible.
As Postecoglou developed his in-possession approach in his second season, the advancing full-back would often become a second pivot in midfield or advance even higher in the inside channel to become another number eight. From here, the original number eight on that side could push higher to support the striker. With the two wide attackers also on the top line, the team would almost look like a 3-3-4 in possession.
Within this, the two number eights had the freedom to roam. This could be to push forward and into the top line, drop deeper to support the single pivot, or even offer the wide support more typical of Postecoglou’s first season.
More often than not, Postecoglou’s Australia set up with a low or mid-block. The striker would screen and cover passes between the centre-backs, while the wide players looked to force play towards the touchline where possible. The closest two midfielders then moved towards the ball, with the third staying central in case the opposition attempted to switch play. Postecoglou prefers versatile and combative midfielders who can do this job effectively.
When Australia later used three centre-backs, they defended with a back five, a double pivot and a narrow front three that worked to cover central areas and force play wide. Opponents were thus forced to build around the 5-2-3 mid-block. If they progressed beyond the front three, the wing-back on whichever side pushed forward to engage the ball while the wide forward worked back.
A more attack-minded player was likelier to feature at right wing-back than at left wing-back – a natural full-back was preferred on the left – to give them greater threat on the counter. This right wing-back was more likely to press the ball aggressively than the left wing-back (above). The wider central defenders were free to move out to press the ball when the wing-backs were both in position, leaving a four-man defence behind them. If a wing-back pushed up, however, the centre-backs would be less willing to push out.
For most games at Celtic, certainly in domestic competitions, Postecoglou preferred a high press and counter-press. Some games, most notably in Europe, called for a more consistent and reserved defensive block. From their 4-3-3 shape, Celtic would often convert into a 4-5-1, with at least one of the number eights working back to cover alongside the single pivot.
As they worked across with the ball, hoping to lock play towards the touchline, Celtic would aim to cover the closest inside channel and prevent access through the spaces between the centre-back and full-back. As this is a key space for Postecoglou’s side to attack with the ball, it naturally became an area of focus when defending. Here, the central midfielders prioritised covering, blocking and screening over jumping out to press or duel.
Celtic have defended more on the front foot than many of Postecoglou’s previous teams. Under him, they pressed aggressively, often high up the pitch, after losing the ball. Their 4-3-3 structure is always ready to collapse inwards, counter-press and suffocate the opposition. A high back line has also helped them do this effectively.
Through the 2021/22 campaign, the wingers often joined the centre-forward in pressing high, bending their runs inwards to force the ball into central areas. The two number eights were then free to jump forward and press high, while the full-backs also moved forward to support the pivot in the next line of the press. Even when they didn’t press quite so aggressively, Celtic’s wingers still encouraged play infield. The position of the far-side winger often freed Kyogo to press even higher (above), often on to the opposing goalkeeper.
This pressing intensity remained in 2022/23, when the counter-press improved still further. The support from the narrowed full-back on the far side of the pitch helped form a protective double pivot that limited central, penetrative passes whenever the opposition regained the ball in the central lane (below). As a result, any direct ball threatening the space in behind the high back line would usually have to go wide and away from Joe Hart’s goal.
Both number eights and the winger closest to the ball would aggressively collapse any time possession was lost, with Kyogo back-pressing when close enough. The full-back closest to the ball also had licence to jump into midfield to aid the counter-press, with the centre-backs protected by the double pivot and so able to cover the wide areas if they needed to.
Postecoglou has spent a long and upwardly mobile coaching career developing tactical approaches that ultimately still adhere to his core principles. With Tottenham, he now has the chance to test them at the highest level.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice