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Are Spurs actually good?
How much has "Big Ange" already improved them?
We should remember that all of this is above expectations.
This summer, Tottenham Hotspur sold their best player in the history of the football club and hired a new manager to radically change the style of play. This team finished eighth last season with Harry Kane. It's truly Year Zero at the stadium that should be called White Hart Lane.
At least it was supposed to be. Spurs and new boss Ange Postecoglou came flying out of the gate, winning eight of their first ten matches and encouraging everyone to say “mate” a lot. It was as though Kane never even happened. It was as though the last four years never happened. Then the last two matches brought them down to earth a bit. More significantly, they now have some real injury concerns that could derail the good work done so far. This feels as good a time as any to take stock on where Tottenham actually are.
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It has to be said that Spurs are handily outperforming their expected goals, scoring about five more goals than the models would “expect” while conceding just under four fewer than they “should”. At the attacking end, the number one cause has been Son Heung-min finishing exceptionally well, getting eight goals from 4.6 xG. Son is an excellent striker of the ball, there’s no doubt about that, and his finishing tends to come in streaks. Whereas some above-average finishers will pretty consistently score 20% more than the model says, Son has often gone on very hot runs before cooling off a bit. This is one of those. Overperforming today doesn’t mean he’ll underperform tomorrow, but he’s an up-and-down finisher, so we should expect both hot and cold streaks (by his standards) between now and the end of the season.
At the other end, Guglielmo Vicario has been outstanding so far, with FBRef’s post-shot model claiming he’s saved 3.7 goals above expected. He certainly seems a good goalkeeper, but this is really exceptional and should come down at least a little bit. Spurs will not outperform xG at both ends by this margin forever. ESPN writer (and friend of the newsletter) Ryan O’Hanlon wrote an article recently that included the xG difference per 90 minutes this season, “adjusted to account only for minutes when both teams had the same number of players on the field”, for every team. Spurs are solidly above average but don’t exactly look like title contenders.
This is why we need to maintain perspective. Tottenham have been around that sub-elite grouping for several years now, and that’s before selling their best player. The second half of last season saw Spurs play at pretty much league average rate, so this is an improvement. Despite joking that he’s “just copying Pep, mate”, Postecoglou’s tactical demands are pretty specific and certainly a long way from anything these players did under the several managers from the last few years. Of their most used eleven this season, five were signed to play under Antonio Conte and two for Nuno Espirito Santo. That leaves just four players who were brought in specifically for Postecoglou, and Son Heung-min as the last man standing from Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs team that did want to press and possess. So it should take time to adjust. These numbers should not change the course even a tiny bit.
Without the ball, Spurs are much more aggressive than before. No team allows the opposition to make fewer passes before attempting to win the ball back. Last season, Tottenham were 14th by this same measure. With the ball, they’re playing it measurably shorter. The average successful pass this season is 1.5 metres (five feet) shorter than last year. That’s not innately a good or bad thing, but we can see how it’s making Spurs better at getting the ball into dangerous areas. They’re making 55% more touches in the opposition penalty area, a metric they now lead the league in after being eighth best last season. Their touches in the final third have similarly increased by 45%, from below average to third-best in the division. It’s clear in the data that Tottenham are a more front-foot team under Postecoglou, looking to dominate territory around the opponent’s goal. That’s obvious to anyone who watches them, but it’s nice when the data backs up the eye.
In this sort of system, the striker is as important as a first line of press and defensive trigger as much as a goalscorer. So it made sense that Postecoglou’s instinct was to play Richarlison upfront. We saw the Brazilian play that position for the first three game. While a Postecoglou striker is supposed to press, the Australian is happy to use the nine as more of an out-and-out goalscorer with the ball. The number nine typically isn’t that involved in the build-up. But if your striker isn’t going to be offering a lot in possession, he has to score goals, otherwise there’s no point of having one. Across those first three games, Richarlison scored zero times from four shots and 0.5 xG. It felt like a waste to see him playing there while Tottenham’s most obvious goal threat, Son, was stuck out on the left. Flipping it round made all the sense in the world, and Son has been an ideal fit for this team since moving to the striker role.
Postecoglou always likes to press in a 4-4-2 shape even as his team usually start in more of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (credit to Nathan A. Clark of The Extra Inch, whose homework I am blatantly copying here). In this team, that has often meant James Maddison pushes all the way up alongside the striker when Spurs are pressing the opposition defence. I’m going to have to take the L on Maddison, because I really never thought he could be this good. He’s playing for a more possession-dominant team, making more touches than ever before in his career. But at the same time, he’s taking fewer shots outside the box. His progressive passes and progressive carries, meanwhile, are higher than ever. He’s turned down the desire to be the protagonist every time he gets on the ball and looks more like an ideal playmaker. He’s first in the league for passes into the penalty area, first for shot-creating actions, and third for progressive passes (all per 90, with at least half the available minutes played). To call his injury a major loss is an understatement.
Reports state he’ll be back around January. But in the meantime, Tottenham need a solution. In the defeat to Wolves, Postecoglou used Pape Matar Sarr as the most advanced midfielder, with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg filling Sarr’s usual role alongside Yves Bissouma. It didn’t really work and felt more like three functional midfielders together rather than the usual shape. I personally would quite like to see Dejan Kulusevski at least tried in that number ten role. He’s not a flawless fit, but he’d at least offer more in the final third than they had against Wolves. Perhaps Kulusevski could play there against smaller teams, while they instead pack the midfield against top sides.
That’d leave a bit of a gap out wide, though. With Richarlison injured until who knows when (and Manor Solomon also out), Spurs’ current first choice wingers are Brennan Johnson and Kulusevski. Johnson looked productive at Nottingham Forest without offering a great deal in the numbers, but that was a poor Forest side and he’s playing with much better talent now, so we’ll see what he can do. Bryan Gil still technically plays for this club, but it would be a remarkable turnaround for him to force his way into the team now. They need to sign someone.
Yves Bissouma looks a transformed player from last season. I don’t know if it’s tactical, fitness-related, or he just feels more confident than he did under Conte, but this is the Bissouma we saw at Brighton. Every top-line stat is up compared to last season. He’s generally a deeper defensive midfielder, but with the ability to evade the press and drive forward. Sarr is the more adventurous of the two, getting a greater number of touches in advanced areas. The pair have worked well in tandem and I think it would be a mistake for Postecoglou to change that dynamic to compensate for Maddison’s injury.
Postecoglou likes his full backs to invert while joining the attack. I’m surprised how well the players have adapted to this. Neither Destiny Udogie or Pedro Porro, both signed for Conte’s wing-back system, had been renowned for playing this way, but they look pretty comfortable doing it, especially Udogie. All of this, though, does demand a lot from the centre backs. When you press as high as Postecoglou wants to, you’re always running the risk of having to defend in huge, open spaces, and it’s hard. We all remember those Liverpool sides before Virgil van Dijk was signed, as Dejan Lovren et al just couldn’t do what the system asked of them. Micky Van de Ven was proving a vital figure in this regard, but his unfortunate injury will see him on the sidelines until the new year. Cristian Romero had generally played well until he lost his head against Chelsea and got sent off. We saw Eric Dier and Ben Davies against Wolves and, shocker, they weren’t great.
That’s kind of the whole story with Spurs right now. Really good ideas impressively adapted to, some players of real quality, some players who can’t really do what’s needed. I think any Tottenham fan with half a brain would’ve happily taken this six months ago. I don’t know where this project will go in the next few years, but I do think Postecoglou is giving them a much better chance of success than I expected.