Leicester might have entered 2015-16 as the most unlikely contenders for the league but few sages had too much hope for Tottenham’s chances of contending either. A flattering 5th place finish in 2014-15 had left Pochettino able to reflect positively, but masked obvious deficiencies in the team, namely a porous midfield and generous defence.
Usual fan concerns involved transfers, with the slow realisation that Harry Kane would be left to fend for himself up front and the traditional balancing of the books, at least superficially on fees. But the key impact of the deals of the summer of 2015 was squad refinement and a move towards defining a first team. In years gone by Tottenham have all too often lacked squad harmony and carried talented players on high wages, that may or may not have participated in team affairs. The cancellation of Emmanuel Adebayor’s contract represented a new way, and a farewell to disruption. Pochettino’s second year started with his players, his method and it worked. Third place and a Champions League position were a fine reward for some scintillating play, but there was also the nagging feeling that this was the year a team could sneak up on the rails and pinch a title, and so they did. But it wasn’t Tottenham.
So how are they fixed for 2016-17? Can Tottenham repeat last season’s energy, flair and dominance?
Transfers, stability and aging together
Tottenham’s first team is arguably the easiest to name in the league.
Lloris, Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Dier, Dembele, Lamela, Alli, Eriksen, Kane
It took time for this XI to bed down but from roughly the turn of the year, the only real choice was whether to fit Heung-Min Son in somewhere or given the demands Pochettino places on them, to rotate the odd full back or not. So while the old adage about continuing to improve when at your strongest could be called into play, it was more a case for Tottenham to extend the squad depth, which they’ve done.
Victor Wanyama arrives as a league adjusted, Pochettino veteran, Dier alternative and immediately combats the problem of rotating Tom Carroll or Ryan Mason into central midfield, with Nabil Bentaleb seemingly to be discarded, for reasons unknown.
Also encouraging is the purchase of Vincent Janssen, fresh from lighting up the Dutch league in the back end of 2015-16. He’s young, has had to battle to succeed in his career, has a solid on field work ethic and knows how to score goals. If you were casting “The Harry Kane Story” for a Dutch market, he’d be a shoo in for the part. Five shots per game and 27 goals is sufficiently high to defer suspicion around the effectiveness of the Dutch league as a primer for the Premier League, and Tottenham have had a lot of success buying from there with Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Jan Vertonghen all following a similar path.
No team took more shots during the 2015-16 Premier League season than Tottenham. This fed into no team managing more shots on target either. Expected goals measures were slightly less enamoured with Tottenham’s attack, but still had them top three in and around Manchester City but behind Arsenal. This was a reflection of the high volume of shots Tottenham took from outside the box, with Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane particularly prone to launch from range. Indeed though their shot volume was exceptional the locations were less impressive with an average shot distance of 19.8 metres ranking 19th and a general centrality measure ranking them dead last. This throws up a conundrum, because Tottenham’s attack was varied and shots arrived from all over, but is the exact opposite to what we would deem as shooting efficiency–shots from as close in and central as possible. A kind of mixed strategy is likely best, but the simple conceit that significantly outshooting your opponent will bear fruit still holds. And they did.
In defence Tottenham ranked fourth for shots against and first for on target shots against. And at this end of the pitch expected goals concurred. This improvement from the previous year was nothing short of remarkable. Tottenham’s 2014-15 defence was genuinely shaky, of teams playing in the big five European leagues from 2010-11 onwards, Tottenham allowed non-penalty shots from nearer than any other team (17.0 metres, sample of 588) and were fortunate to concede as few as they did. For 2015-16 this distance measure jumped forward by around a metre and a half into the realms of an average distance and for the most part, Tottenham played on the front foot and generally faced few problems. They also went from conceding 25 shots and five goals from opposition throughballs in 2014-15 to six shots and two goals in the whole of 2015-16. Organisation counts and with Toby Alderweireld a high class signing and Eric Dier miraculously transitioning from occasional centre back or right back cover into Tottenham and England’s first choice defensive midfielder, defence became stout and reliable.
One of the great mysteries of 2014-15 was how Christian Eriksen finished with two assists from 84 key passes. To undershoot by such a margin was a genuine freak and some reversion was likely through 2015-16. That took place significantly and he ended the 2015-16 with 13 assists from 115 key passes, a rate far more commensurate with the level of creation:
Of course being on corners and having a near post routine involving Eric Dier and/or Toby Alderweireld helps, but it was good to see those numbers pick up and land at an irrefutably elite level.
Erik Lamela probably has more hipster fan goodwill than any player in the squad but has evolved into an extremely solid performer. Many had written him off due to his propensity to try and make things happen and not infrequent failure, but in 2015-16 we saw a lot more of the good stuff, not least in his work rate–his tackle rate is behind only a resurgent Mousa Dembele in the squad– but also a propensity for a well timed pass, all nine throughballs he completed finished with a shot, of which four resulted in goals:
This ability to pick the ball up wide, dribble infield and look for a decisive pass is unique in the squad and the ability to find that final pass from the edge of the box is a gift that shows his talent. There’s still time for him to blow up and match his early hype. The 15 goal Roma season may be in the distant past, but he has evolved into a classy creator with a combative edge.
The one potential longer term downside to both Lamela and Eriksen in their contract status. Both have two years left and chairman Daniel Levy rarely allows his playing assets to get down to a year. Eriksen is thought to be in contract talks but both players need to be signed up and quickly, they both turn 25 this season and there is a need to ensure that they both spend their peak years at the club, and if that can’t happen, they leave for fees that reflect their quality.
And of course Dele Alli broke through continuing Tottenham’s fine recent lineage in providing the some of the league’s most exciting young players. Kyle Walker, Gareth Bale and Harry Kane all preceded his Young Player of the Year award and it’s been an encouraging trend.
Top four or more?
It’s hard to imagine that anyone working down at White Hart Lane, or at least what remains of it, expecting Tottenham to do anything less than challenge similarly to last year. The wider perception is less positive, with a presumption that with heavyweight coaching appointments, Manchester United and Chelsea will merrily bounce their way back up to the top four. As I wrote, this is a competitive battle for these places this year and focus will need to be maintained throughout to repeat the success of last year.
The major asset of this Tottenham side is it’s relative youth. To have been able to put up such strong numbers while fielding such a young team bodes extremely well. Lloris, Vertonghen and Dembele are 29 though playing in positions that mean that age may not wither them as quickly as elsewhere, otherwise the core of this team is 23 to 27: Rose, Walker, Alderweireld, Eriksen, Lamela, Son, Kane, Dier is 22 and Alli 20. They all have their peak years ahead of them. The team was blessed with a lack of injuries in 2015-16 with the one major loss, that of Jan Vertonghen inmid season, happily covered more than adequately by Kevin Wimmer. Dembele starts the season with a ban and has suffered with niggling injuries for years, but Pochettino showed he could effectively rotate his team with Europa League fixtures alongside the league. We are yet to know how the Champions League will be prioritised, and whether he feels he can rotate as effectively as he did for the Europa League but as suggested the two major signings, Wanyama and Janssen offer vital depth for such a problem.
Mentality will be interesting as at times during 2015-16 it felt as though Pochettino had brainwashed his team with a “we can win” attitude. Even when mathematics were the only friend towards Tottenham’s title hopes, and the rational fan was left just with a light dose of hope, it was noticeable that the team remained positive and focused. That focus dissipated immediately after the title was beyond reach and it is to be hoped that Pochettino will find a way to reset the mental stability of his squad. A title challenge can be wearing, and they should realise what they achieved was ahead of expectation; by achieving Champions League qualification, their original hope and aim was sated.
The team drew too many games last year (13) and found it easy to dominate but hard to kill teams off, if they are to realise further top four aspirations, they need to find an added ruthlessness in the final third. Again here is an example of where Janssen is an upgrade: he’s an upgrade on nothing and if benched behind Kane early on will find plenty of substitute minutes with a simple remit ringing in his ears.
Tottenham showed more than enough during 2015-16 to show that they can pitch hard for the upper tier in the league and there is little to suggest that they cannot find themselves there again. Whether they will find they are a 70 point team again and argue out a Champions League spot or improve to being an 80 point team and look at the title is tough to work out, but if we work through the opening weeks of the season and Tottenham are putting up the same numbers they did last year, then it will be brave to presume that they won’t keep it up all year.
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