Tottenham: Success Awaits?
At this precise point in time, Tottenham are hot. Apparently secure in second in the Premier League, and certainly* secure of a top four slot once more, the team’s on field performances have been impressive throughout much of the last two seasons.That a team with a consistently outside top four budget should be entering the conversation for “who is the best team in the league?” is a testament to the significant progress made by Mauricio Pochettino during his tenure. However, as 2016-17 draws to a close and a title bid remains tantalisingly out of reach, we can reflect how this team has become so adept at killing off lesser outfits while repeatedly hitting a clear ceiling that manifests itself against rivals and in Europe. That’s the difference between a solid league team and a contender in any competition it competes in. The latter is something they are not–at least yet–and some kind of trophy would ice a pretty tasty looking cake that has been made under Pochettino’s tutelege.
Two season overview
A slight illusion last season was the final result. Third was more than expected but the 70 points secured was close to level with the better seasons Tottenham have had in recent years under Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas Boas. The health of the squad and the club in general were significantly improved, but the actual output remained similar, in a season when the money clubs took a leave of absence. This season after just 32 games, they have exceeded that points total already, which looks to signify growth and progression, in a season in which they needed to or else fall into a possible hinterland that Arsenal look to be tentatively inching towards. On the surface that review is fine and it’s not untrue, but the method underpinning growth is worth deeper analysis.
A lot has been said about Tottenham’s shooting style under Pochettino. The team regularly bombards the opposition with a high volume of shots from all ranges. Across his reign, the team has posted extremely low goal expectancy per shot–I get them bottom of the big five leagues for each of his three seasons, among sides with 50-plus goals. But this is where we encounter interesting questions of volume versus efficiency. Across those three seasons, they have rarely had problems scoring with Harry Kane the benchmark performer, more recently assisted by significant goal volume from Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli.
The last two seasons have seen the team average over 17 shots per game and land over six of them on target. These volumes are league leading and mean that even if the skew is towards long rangers, there is still plenty going on from in close. Indeed they take around as many shots as their rivals from within a median league distance of around 21 metres. So in the bigger picture, the overall profile may seem unattractive, but it does mean the team also creates a decent volume of solid chances.
Part of the reason Tottenham’s title bid faltered last season was that they enjoyed very little in the way of a boost to their shooting, in terms of conversion. We see time and again, to win a league, you tend to need a combination of quality and fortune (or at least a non-model defined positive skew). In 2015-16, Tottenham converted their shots at a league average rate. This was good in terms of their imbalance towards longer range shots, but not enough to propel them far enough ahead of an expectation to lead them to compete late into the season. Leicester absolutely flew on this front and it was just one of the factors that helped them home. This season is different–they are well ahead, beyond the flat conversion and an expected rate. This is the kind of skew a team with strong metrics needs to propel them towards a title bid. Only problem being, that it can occur at the exact same time a rival is flying. In 2013-14, Liverpool’s metrics were great and they skewed positively off them–so did Man City. In 2011-12, Man City and Man Utd both did too. This year? Well, no surprises, Tottenham have walked into Chelsea’s heat.
Now finishing skill in itself is extremely hard to identify, even career long sample sizes are too small to tease out a reliable signal, so the best we can assume here is that players with a history of overachievement compared to expectation may be above average finishers and Tottenham’s three main goalscorers all show up as ahead of expectation over samples available. Beyond this, and what’s powering the front end this season is that Kane, Alli and Son are all enjoying an extremely good run of finishing ahead of even long term rates:
Outside the ellipse can be regarded as very likely to be a temporary existence and the fringes are pretty sparse too. Last season’s numbers show quite how variable finishing rates can be, with each within “normal” range. We get information about style here on the y axis; none of Tottenham’s players record a regular high average value per shot; Kane the nominal striker in the system shoots from all areas, and he is no routine poacher. The team has the shot volume to compete, and they are over shooting expectancy; a potent blend that has meant that they have stayed in the title hunt late into the season.
Again: a hot finishing run has nearly no predictive value and because of this, teams and players can only hope that they find themselves in this exact situation, they cannot plan for it. Teams can plan to employ techniques that allow them to control play and outshoot the opposition, and the more successful they are at that, the better placed they will be to enjoy any positive skew that comes their way, as Tottenham have done here.
In simple terms, Tottenham’s defence has followed a trend around the top of the table, insofar as they have shed some of the shots they were conceding last year. Indeed it’s down around two per game from eleven to nine. There’s a resulting decline in expected goals against that understandably trends the same way. What influences are running here? One obvious change has been the addition of Victor Wanyama as a defined defensive midfield destroyer, most often in place of Eric Dier, but with the bigger teams in the league all showing extremely low shots and expected goals against volumes this season, it may well be a broader trend.
Possession (as defined by Opta) for Tottenham has risen year on year by a couple of percentage points (~57% to ~59%) and the team has added on around 40 passes per game, almost all of which can be credited as short and completed. The light implication here is a combination of patience and control. These are aspects that have not always been part of the Pochettino armoury. In his first two seasons at the club, the team often seemed to lose focus around the 60-70 minute mark, a trend that wasn’t helped by a seemingly stratified substitution rota that rarely adapted in a timely manner to specific on-field issues. It didn’t always create demise, but a 2-2 draw at home to Stoke in the second game of 2015-16 and a 2-1 defeat at home to Newcastle later on that autumn are both examples of games in which Tottenham controlled a large portion of the game before wobbling and letting winning positions slip away.
If we look at last season’s chart of expected goals by minute, this concern is borne out:
Tottenham fans will recognise that pattern, as described. Significantly outcreating the opposition until around halfway through the second half, where from then on in they actually allowed a higher value of opportunities than they created themselves, as the opposition often found their strongest period of the game. Reasons? Firstly, tiredness may well have come into play when factoring in the heavy workload and pressing Pochettino demanded from his players, but also situations in which the team was trying to sit off to protect a lead they may have earned prior. Regardless, being outperformed in that last quarter is not an optimal strategy, should the opposition finish chances, there is less time to respond and points are easily lost.
This season appears to have seen a shift in emphasis, as we can see here:
A more even spread, but importantly, the late decline we saw last year is gone, while the opposition levels decrease as games get later. Perhaps Pochettino’s hard running strategy has only got about 60-70 minutes of realistic effect? Would certainly be a more logical way to approach strategy to keep it tight to start before turning the screw.
(A quick look at game state after 32 games year on year sees Tottenham having spent very similar volumes of time winning (33-34%), drawing (53-54%) and losing (13%), so it feels like that probably isn’t something that has had a significant influence.)
One further factor that Tottenham have continued to benefit from is how infrequently they drop more than a goal behind. Last season in the league only in the emotionally empty final round 5-1 defeat at Newcastle did they fall two goals behind in a game, and this time round have only faced such a deficit for four minutes in the 2-2 draw at Manchester City and 72 minutes in the 2-0 defeat at Liverpool. They concede infrequently, but when they do, they rarely fail to respond.
Room for improvement?
The obvious gaps in Tottenham’s season revolve around two areas; games against rivals and European form. Last season, even allowing for the mixed time some of the big clubs were having, Tottenham went 3-6-1 against “big 6 rivals”. The only two times they significantly dominated the play were in the 2-2 home draw against Arsenal, in which they took 26 shots and landed 11 on target, usually more than enough to win, and in the 3-0 home win against Louis van Gaal’s Man Utd, in which a flurry of goals killed a game in which they dominated. Otherwise, games against rivals have been tight affairs, a trend that has carried on into this season. They have only won two of eight against these teams and all three of their defeats have been recorded against them, away from home. In none of these fixtures have they really shown clear dominance, even the wins came in tight affairs.
Two of these fixtures remain; by chance the two fixtures described above, Arsenal and Man Utd at home, and if the team is to transition further, Pochettino needs to identify a way of translating his tactics to tougher games. So effective when able to dominate, they have often faltered against strong teams. The Champions League defeats against Monaco read significantly better than they did at the time, but we can add in the games against Bayer Leverkusen, in which the team were comfortably outplayed. Few teams are able to dominate their direct rivals, but if Tottenham are to continue an upward trajectory, this is the next problem to solve.
A return to the Champions League augers well for the future and immediately removes one aspect that could cause players to agitate for transfers, and new contracts have secured key players on long term deals. While the team has benefited from a positive boost this time round, the method in which they have dominated lesser teams does not preclude future success by any means. They are a fit, well bonded unit that buy into their manager’s methods. Christian Eriksen, Son and Kane are all entering their peak years, while Alli remains a unique young talent with a fantastic sense of timing. The defence and goalkeeper look set to remain and are well drilled and attuned to each other. It’s an ideal basis to continue to build from and a little more shrewdness in the transfer market than was seen in the summer of 2016 might well be decisive next season.
Once more, Tottenham can see a good future ahead of them, but at some point they need to turn the promise into a trophy winning reality.
Thanks for reading
*near as damnit