1) AVB and the Crazy Contradictions

I was talking to Mike Goodman this weekend, and we both noted that we’ve never encountered a manager with such a strong tactical system, who seems to be so adept at choosing the wrong personnel like AVB.

villas-boas_contemplateAt this point, Spurs tactical system is a fairly easy read. They run a high line and two destructive midfielders to break up opponent play and recycle the ball back into the offense. They need their fullbacks to overlap and create width so their wide forwards/attacking midfielders can flood the box.  They counterattack whenever possible. And they can definitely have problems creating good chances from open play. This is especially true now that opponents understand what is going on.

This last one is kind of a big deal, because as good as they look in defense (and they are outstanding), Spurs still need to score goals to win games. Last season, they averaged 1.73 goals per game on the offensive end, all of which came from open play. Spurs probably should have had 3-4 penalties last season, but those were converted into yellow cards for Gareth Bale via the magic combination of reputation + diving.

This season, sans only Gareth Bale, but plus Roberto Soldado, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli, and Andros Townsend, they average… 1 goal per game. But three of the nine goals they have scored so far this season came via penalty. So in reality, they are averaging .66 non-penalty goals per game, or over one goal per game fewer than last season.

Knowing that they have some systemic creativity difficulties, and going into a match against Hull, a team whose only definable footballing trait is “organized defense,” who did AVB choose for his front 6?

  • Sandro, destroyer.
  • Paulinho, runner.
  • Roberto Soldado, potential penalty-box goal converter, but equally likely Spanish olive tree.
  • Andros Townsend, Captain of the Dibbles Well and Shoots from Range All-Stars.
  • Aaron Lennon… on the left. (Wait, what?)
  • And Lewis Holtby, who might be good, might be shit, and has been in England since January, yet somehow we still don’t know which is which.

On the bench were

  • Moussa Dembele, Spurs glue midfielder and their most important transitional player.
  • Christian Eriksen, a wildly creative passer and one of the top 10 assist men in Europe over the last three seasons.
  • Gylffi Sigurdsson, Icelander. Another attacking midfielder and one of the few creative bright spots for Spurs so far.
  • And Erik Lamela, £30M man, and one of the best young wide forwards in Europe. A guy who is best played as an inverted wing (on the right) because his left-footed dribbling brings him into better central shooting positions, and also helps link up with his teammates. He goes central, leaving space for the always important Kyle Walker overlaps. But who was played on the left in Europe midweek because… um… yeah.

Thus it came as little surprise to anyone that pays attention that Spurs had real problems breaking down Hull. They escaped with yet another narrow 1-0 victory, courtesy of a sketchy penalty call. Sound familiar? (Chorus: Yes!) Hull can just barely mount an attack – why not replace either Paulinho or Sandro with another good passer centrally? Why not put Sig on the left wing instead of putting Lennon out of position, especially since Lennon NEVER SCORES GOALS? Why not… well, I could do this all day. Regardless of what I think, AVB did his own thing and Spurs scrapped out another scintillating win.

It did, however, come as quite a surprise that AVB chose the press conference after this game to take shots at the White Hart Lane support.  “We looked like the away team. We played in a difficult atmosphere with almost no support.” I see…

It’s not that he’s wrong – fan support at home when your team is winning consistently should be tremendous. England would certainly benefit from having more German-style fans. Then again, English fans would certainly benefit from paying more German-style prices… The problem comes with the timing, and realization among Spurs fans that, hey our team DOES have problems creating, and double hey, that lineup was fucking terrible.

Questioning AVB’s lineups isn’t a new thing, it’s a constant. Last year, he kept playing old dudes in defense to start the season and Spurs kept giving up late goals. Huh. This year, it’s a different angle. I personally would suggest playing your most creative players away in Europe midweek in a meaningless match was stupid.

I would also suggest that leaving them out of a match where they were definitely needed in the Premier League was just asinine. Yet it keeps happening. And fans keep noticing.

AVB has a great system. Spurs have a number of quite impressive players. At some point he’ll figure out how to use them all correctly, right? Maybe?

[While I’m here… how much does Erik Lamela wish he were in Rome right now? Nine games played under Rudi Garcia, nine wins. No dodgy penalties required. And he’s probably the first choice right forward instead of riding pine every match in North London.]

2) David Moyes, Archetypical Muggle

United were almost inexplicably good last year. Everything about David Moyes suggests that he operates in the world of muggles. Fergie was secretly headmaster of footballing Hogwarts.”

moyes-resizeThat’s from the season preview. At this point, it’s probably fair to say that not only is Moyes a muggle, he is the archetypical one. His footballing system is built entirely on hard work and perspiration, lacking entirely in inspiration, especially with the ball. This is a problem, because Manchester United have a number of certified footballing geniuses in the squad who are used to magicking up amazing finishes for the entire world to see. Thus far under Moyes, United players have largely been robbed of their magic.

All of those Evertonian thoughts about how Moyes’s offensive system would be better if he just had better players? Nonsense. He has some of the best talent in Europe at his disposal at Manchester United, and they still struggle to score, just like Everton did.

Strip out 80% of the inexplicable things Fergie did – including the high tempo, and RVP taking set pieces, and the final third post-up, give-and-go game – and replace it with Moyes’s swing-it-wide, then swing crosses back in because… well, just because, and you have the 2013-14 version of Manchester United.  Including the leaky defense Fergie had in the first half of last year.

Mourinho’s Chelsea have given up 6 goals through nine matches. United have given up 12. That’s enough to be the difference in the title, though right now it looks as though United will struggle to finish fourth.

Back in that preview, I speculated that Fergie might help Moyes add his offensive system to Moyes’s defensive principles. After reading excerpts of Fergie’s autobiography, I feel fairly confident that would never happen. Despite his love for United, Fergie still needs the world to know he was the greatest. Giving Moyes that element of his genius so that United could carry on performing at such an amazing level might have diminished his legacy, and that’s something the old man probably couldn’t allow.

At the end of the day, Moyes’s greatest crime isn’t not being Fergie, though many people will see it as such. His greatest crime will be not understanding how to coach an effective offense, and subsequently stealing all the fun from the Theater of Dreams.

3) Broadsides and Barns
Up until this year, Luis Suarez was the poster boy for inefficient forwards. He was brilliant at creating shots for himself, but horrific at choosing effective areas to shoot from. His first season in England, this added up to a whole lotta shots and not much return. Last year, this added up to even more shots, but also quite a few goals. Yet it wasn’t nearly enough to propel Liverpool into the top 4. Efficiency matters.

This season… 23 shots. 12 on target. 6 goals. 26% conversion rate.  In four games!!! That is very un-Suarez-like.

Check out the guy next to him, too.

Daniel Sturridge was my pick to win the golden boot in our season previews, based in large part because of how good he was at Liverpool last year, and how many chances I expected this team to create. Through nine matches, Sturridge has 32 shots, 15 on target, 8 goals and a cool 25% conversion rate. I’m going to be really irritated if Suarez pips him to the goal-scoring title.

Up front, Liverpool are now one of the four most dangerous teams in the league, even without Coutinho. What’s weird, is that they have dramatically changed their style as part of the process. Mostly gone is the possession passing game, and in its place is a pragmatic, fast-break style that uses those quick, tricky attackers to their fullest extent. I get the sense that Rodgers figured out he just didn’t have the passing talent in the team to pull off his ideal footballing vision, but he does have the attacking talent to demolish teams consistently on the break.

It’s an unexpected change, but one that is yielding dividends, as Liverpool sit tied for second in the table. Rodgers now has two of the top 10 forwards in the Premier League at his disposal, a fairly solid defense, an excellent keeper, and a very real chance of finishing in the top 4. I’m not sure this way of playing is more effective than last season’s, and I feel like melding the two together would yield the greatest dividends (something Arsenal appear to have already done), but I am swayed enough by the results to keep giving Rodgers the benefit of the doubt.

4) Doom Patrol
Because of their early start under Crazy Paolo, Sunderland need to perform like a slightly above average Premier League team in their remaining games just to escape relegation.  That’s a huge ask for a team that is clearly “a bit challenged” in talent, but they do still get to play Cardiff, Hull, and Norwich twice. Probability says they are almost certainly doomed. To the silver lining crew hoping that Poyet is going to make them that much better… they were outshot 16-8 at home against Newcastle on Sunday.

Good result. Still the worst fundamentals in the league.

Speaking of awful fundamentals, the predictive model has Cardiff as the second worst team in the Premier League. Some of you are clearly spluttering and saying, “BUT CRYSTAL PALACE!!!”  The reality is that despite their initial beating of Manchester City, Cardiff are surprisingly bad, and it’s not just because they’ve had a tough schedule so far. This past weekend against offensively-challenged Norwich (their official name), the home team had 31 shots, 10 of which were on target. Cardiff had 6 shots, 4 on target.

To recap, Cardiff gave up the most shots in a single Premier League game so far this season to a fellow relegation candidate. They drew that match, but still… Assuming they don’t change managers, I would be surprised if they are somehow back in the Premier League again next August.

Crystal Palace may have the least talent of any team to enter the Premier League in recent memory. They have already burned through one manager and have yet to hire another. I fully expect them to pocket the Premier League money for this year, use it as a longer-term investment in the club, and rebuild back in the Championship next season.

Norwich are a tricky team. At this point, it’s clear that Chris Hughton doesn’t know how to coach an offense, but he’s good at organizing defences. This particular trait, plus a reasonable level of talent  -Redmond, Snodgrass, and Fer are actually pretty good. Hooper and Ricky from the Wolfshop… maybe not – should be enough to see them through to another season. Hull will likely do the same on the back of an even more stout defense, but less* offensive talent.

shahid-khan-locksMartin Jol needs to send Christmas baskets to the owners of Sunderland, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, and Norwich simply for existing in the Premier League this season.

Or as a Christmas gift to the world at large, he could just grow a Shahid Khan-style handlebar mustache. THAT would be awesome.

*And by less, I mean almost none.

Error, Error on the Wall
One of the things that models have a really hard time with is incorporating individual errors. Is Joe Hart going to screw up… again? Is Laurent Koscielny going to take down a forward 45 yards from goal near the sideline and get a red card… again? Is Yanga-Mbiwa going to… well, in the case of Mbiwa, you can just assume the likelihood of error is 100% and move along, but for most teams predicting when and where errors will happen is basically impossible.

This brings us to the problem of Manuel Pellegrini and Manchester City.

This team is playing outstanding football. Possibly the best football in the Premier League this season. They have the best offense in the league. They have the second best goal difference, one point behind Arsenal.


They keep committing soul-crushing, goal-yielding errors on defense.

Joe Hart is a problem, but he’s not the problem. The problem is that they have had too many injuries at center back for any sort of a reliable partnership to form, and they somehow keep letting guys run through on goal. Oh, and Gael Clichy might as well be named the team’s official bonfire for how often he gets torched. And Joe Hart is completely, and utterly unreliable right now.

Quality full backs are hugely important. So are healthy, good center backs. The margin for error in the Premier League is exceptionally low, which makes the cost of individual errors exceptionally high. City are good enough that they can overcome being 7th in the table after 9 games, six points back of the league leaders. A couple more of these, however, and another Champions League qualification will be all they play for this season.

5) That Team In First

1)      Are not as good as they were last season defensively.

2)      Went toe-to-toe with one of the two best teams in Europe for 84 minutes last week in a match that could have gone either way.

3)      Still might not make it through to the knock out stages of the CL.

4)      Have had a fairly easy run of teams in the league so far this season.

5)      Are somehow getting 43% of their shots on target, a Barcelona-like number.

6)      Still haven’t fielded their best 11 players together yet this season.

7)      Are leading the league in goal difference.

8)      Analytically look an awful lot like Manchester United last year.

9)      Have one healthy starting forward. A forward who is only getting 30% of his shots on target, and converting only 14% of his shots into goals (which is basically his career rate).

10)   Will inevitably… *CRY OF ANGUISH* *I AM NOT TYPING THIS, YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!!!!*







*…regress. Dammit.


  • http://cartilagefreecaptain.com MCofA

    I disagree with a bunch of the Spurs analysis. I don’t think AVB has found his best lineup, but I’m skeptical of your certainty as to which lineup that best lineup is.

    1) Paulinho has been one of Spurs best attacking players. He is first or second on the club in both shots inside the box and touches inside the box. He’s there in place of Dembele precisely so that Spurs have a fifth man coming into the attack and getting into dangerous positions. You might replace Sandro with Dembele if you want a more attacking set (as AVB did at half time) but pulling Paulinho makes no sense if you want to maximize the attack.

    2) Lamela has been very blah in Europa League competition so far. Maybe he should just jump into the squad now anyway based on how he played in Serie A last year, but AVB has made a practice of making his new players earn their starts. Lamela hasn’t earned it yet. It looks to me, watching the Europa games, like he’s not fully comfortable in the system. I think that will come with time.

    3) Holtby’s been excellent for both Schalke and the German U21s in an advanced creative role, and he played extremely well in that role in European games for Spurs. I don’t know why Holtby “might be shit” based on his track record but we can be certain that the rest of the squad is excellent based on their performance in previous seasons.

    My expected goals numbers suggest Spurs’ finishing has cost them a bunch of goals from open play based on the chances they’ve created. This club isn’t a high-powered attacking side like Arsenal, City, or Liverpool, but I think you underrate them if you look at just actual goals scored.

    • tknutso

      Sup MC,
      1) I actually don’t care who gets swapped for Dembele, but either Sandro or Paulinho needed to come out of that lineup for more passing and linkage. If the offense absolutely is not working, you must change and take some risks. That didn’t happen to start at least.

      2) He does make guys “earn their starts” and there’s a reasonable chance it costs the team. Beyond that, Lamela IS a proven player at the top level of European leagues. Capt Shoots from Range is not, and there is no question that an average shot distance of 26 yards plus his shooting frequency hurts the team.

      3) I actually think Holtby is good. He was excellent for Schalke in the half season from last year and I like him. Eriksen is better though. If AVB were taking any risk at all, he could (god forbid) play Eriksen and Holtby together centrally, let Holtby be the worker bee like Ramsey, and get even more creativity out of the side. That also isn’t happening.

      If you have read my stuff at all, you know that goals scored isn’t remotely the only metric I look at to evaluate teams. Sure, Spurs have been a little unlucky when it comes to finishing. But not 1 goal a game unlucky.

      Hull is exactly the type of game where you loosen the control freakishness and let the guys try to play good attacking football. That still isn’t happening and Spurs are still struggling.

      • http://cartilagefreecaptain.com MCofA

        I’m focusing on the things I disagree with first, as this is the Internet after all.

        -I’m saying it does matter that Paulinho stays in. Spurs are playing mostly creative types in the attacking positions, so Paulinho is important as the second penalty box finisher. His finishing has not been good this season, but I think that’s more a function of variation than lack of skill.

        -On Lamela, he has been really unimpressive in Europa League matches, like, anonymous for full games. It could just be random variation in performance or struggling with the travel, but as much as I love him from Roma if you watch those games, you wouldn’t want him in the XI yet. It can take time for a player to fit into a new system, or to adjust to a new league, or maybe he has fitness issues that haven’t been disclosed. (My money is on the latter.)

        -I basically agree it should be Eriksen over Holtby. I think AVB overreacted to the bad game everyone had against West Ham. I just wanted to defend Holtby a little bit.

        -I agree the problem isn’t only variation in finishing, but I think variation in finishing is an important part of the problem. I know you don’t look at only raw goals numbers, but I wanted to make the point since you focused so much on raw goals in the post.

        -I agree with the overall point that AVB clearly isn’t getting his tactics or teams right. I’m just not sure that your prescription is the solution. I have no idea what the solution is.

        • tknutso

          A perfectly fair response.

          On Paulinho, he’s probably the most confusing of Spurs midfielders because he doesn’t quite seem to fit the role (midfield runner and shooter) that he’s filling and yet he’s filling it rather well. He also isn’t a great passer, but does that reasonably well too. I’m wondering if he just needs a little better offensive players around him to fully click, or if he’s not going to get there. I don’t know – we need more data.

          Capoue was the single most impressive PL player I saw to start the season. I hope he’s back to full health soon.

          I think Lamela had one bad EL match on the right, and then was somehow plonked left last match? I also don’t know why he looks lost, but that’s usually more a manager thing than a player thing. (Wenger owns Gervinho and Arshavin’s lostness. BR gets to eat every Sahin performance for Dortmund again, etc).

          I don’t know my prescription is the solution either, but something’s gotta change. You can’t manage a team like Tottenham with your sphincter clenched tight every single game at White Hart Lane – the fans just won’t tolerate it. Also, it gives you zero margin for error on defense, and the team clearly has enough talent that they should be creating more. I said really nice things about the AVB system in the Manager Fingerprints piece I did – dude’s gotta bend a little though.

          • Ben

            RE: Paulinho’s role – seems to me that Paulinho’s role is somewhat similar to Lampard’s current role at Chelsea. Plays as an athletic box to box type in the ‘2’ of a 4-2-3-1 who succeeds despite limitations in passing and defense because of his ability to add goals. Agree Ted?

          • tknutso

            Mostly, yeah. I just meant I have yet to see any evidence that Paulinho can shoot accurately, whereas for all the flak Frank has taken over the years, he’s pretty damned good at it.

        • Ben

          Hey MCofA – I generally agree with what you and Ted are saying with Spurs’ being a little bit unlucky in terms of shots not turning into goals, but what do you think about Spurs’ shot selection under AVB. I know Ted has really given Townsend some heat for shooting so much from poor locations, but what is your opinion on it? You seem like a smart guy

          • http://cartilagefreecaptain.com MCofA

            Spurs have been an outlier in the league in terms of shots from outside the box under AVB. At the same time, Spurs expected goals numbers last year and this year are ok (5th to 7th in the league by my calculations), and obviously the club has one of the stingiest defenses in the league, so it adds up to good things overall.

            I haven’t put together my full database on shot location, but my initial numbers have Spurs putting relatively few shots on target from the most dangerous positions (close or central positions in the box), but also allowing very few shots on target from these positions as well. I don’t know to what degree you add to (b) when you add to (a). Obviously against a club like Hull you should take that risk, but honestly it seems like they did—Paulinho was bombing forward, of course, but so were Chiriches and Walker and Vertonghen—and Hull actually produced more good chances on the counterattack than Spurs usually allow. It was just, even with so many players coming forward, no one was making the pass or the run that creates a goal.

            (As an aside, where do you guys get your data on shot location and outcomes? I’m trying to cobble a database together as we speak.)

            I think this club has the attacking talent to create more than they’ve created so far, though. Surely there’s something to be done, whether it’s team selection or tactics or a combination.

            If Spurs stopped shooting so much from distance, would that mean they were just keeping possession in order to create better chances? Or would it allow defenses to drop deeper off potential shooters and prevent a few more of the better chances that Spurs are creating at other points in the match? My subjective opinion is that they’re taking too many long shots—there seem to be two or three WTF shots per game, not just from Townsend—but I’m hesitant to say that they’d be better by X% or 0.X goals per game if they didn’t do that. The trade-offs are really hard to quantify.

    • Duncan

      These complaints are becoming a regular one for Spurs fans though. AVB is sacrificing tactical flexibility for his system and it *might* be strangling our offense. His refusal to play a non-inverted left winger in the absence of Danny Rose is making us pretty narrow, and Townsend does a lot of running, and has a lot of intent, but accomplishes virtually nothing. I think the critique is valid. We should be scoring more than we are, and the team should be playing better offensively. I think the players are not being used properly within AVB’s system, anbd that’s down to AVB playing them in the wrong positions…

  • Ben

    Re: Paulinho – MCofA has made some points on his site that Paulinho has been putting lots of shots on target and those should start going in.

    Sorry this is down here – there was no reply button on your comment

  • Iheke

    I think the system is fine. The problem is form, fitness and general confidence. Eriksen > Holtby but his fitness is VdV-esque at the minute (i.e. nothing beyond 45mins). Capoue was the most effective DM but was done in by the dreaded ankle injury (who knows when he’ll be back). Sandro is returning but not quite what he was last year. Dembele is excellent in transition but a bit laborious when defences are set. Siggurdsson is still returning from injury after international break. Chadli’s pre-season form has deserted him. Townsend is the form player, but as we all know shoots way too much. Lennon played his first games last week… and Lamela – the most diplomatic thing we can say is he’s still settling. So I think AVB fully realises that he has to just keep his charges in the game until all his pieces are fit.

    Seeing the XI against Hull, it has a strange logic to it, especially after you’ve had your pants stolen by the Hammers. I know Lennon on the left raises an eyebrow but many forget he did 3/4 of a season there under Jol. Sandro seemed a bit extra but I suspect he (a) wanted to give the guy some minutes for fitness and (b) wanted to see how Hull were setting up (in the event they were actually better on the counter than West Ham but were attacking through the sides rather than running through the middle). I suspect that things will start to come together for the back to back Manchester games, if he can get everyone fit.

  • http://na jair1970

    Only the most myopic points-centric fan is happy with the integration and style of Tottenham this season.
    Results have been largely good, the defense has been sturdy, the possession stats & seeming dominance high, yet fluidity has been lacking, goals in the EPL rare & a deep squad has yet to gel into the sum of its parts.

    Partly this is understandable when trying to integrate 7 new players bought from the far reaches of the world, but it has so far been an infuriating mish-mash of talented players sitting on the bench whilst nobody, least of all the coach has an idea of what his best team is.

    So far Paulinho starts, Townsend (subbed in early due to a Lennon injury) starts, Lloris, Vertonghen, Dawson, Walker, Rose (when fit) and Soldado all start too.

    That leaves 3 spots in the team in midfield/on the flanks
    Alongside Paulinho you firstly had Capoue (who was great) then Dembele (talented but frustrating) & latterly Sandro. Squad depth sure, but who should play?
    Then for the left forward role you have Chadli (started OK), Sigurdsson (scored but did nothing else), Lennon (mystifyingly in favour when fit, so anonymous) and maybe Lamela? Eriksen and Holtby compete for the no.10 role. Defoe, as ever ineffective against anything but pub teams, is the striking ‘option’, Adebayor has reverted to type. (which is a shame as he’s exactly what is needed.)

    After Rose got injured (he’d been excellent), Naughton played 3 matches with Sigurdsson in front and Walker/Townsend played the opposite flank. That’s a conscious selection of two inverted wingers PLUS an inverted fullback.

    For three games in a row.

    The West Ham aberration was the culmination of that & Naughton currently looks shot & was horrible vs Sherriff last Thursday.
    Eriksen, despite media fawning, has had one good match and a nice goal in a European cameo but has been lightweight and ineffective otherwise. He needs the grit that Holtby can show. Sadly, grit is all Holtby has shown in the EPL & he’s been similarly ineffective in the no 10 role.

    Chadli seems to have been relegated to back of the pack, for no obvious reason, I thought he was settling OK & Sigurdsson’s goal return masks some abject overall performances. Lamela has been horrible in the last two ELmatches he’s played & been subbed off early, reports his family are joining him soon are a rare positive in what has so far not been a successful transfer.
    Lennon got the start this week and as ever, coming off an injury was terrible.

    So there has been no consistent solid output from the left side since Rose got injured and the no 10 position has had two players who have shown very little in EPL games so far. Townsend looks dynamic & contributes because he dribbles a lot & shoots, (he even seems to have tempered his shooting a little bit recently) but he’s the sole bright offensive spark apart from Paulinho’s energy & ability to get into the box.

    Soldado? It’s not his fault. He’s got the nous of a crafty veteran but hasn’t been given the chance to show it.

    The crux of it is, Villas Boas is wedded to his main starters & all the fun players (Dembele, Eriksen, Chadli, Holtby, Lamela, Capoue, Sigurdsson) are vying for 3 positions with stagnant players like Lennon getting in the way. Poor old Sandro just isn’t what you need against weak teams. That’s not his fault as he can be your main guy when up against a strong midfield.

    Also, these players weren’t bought by Villas Boas, they weren’t bought for his system. Some may thrive, some may flounder & the Sahin at Liverpool assertion is painfully apt.

    Chiriches looks good though 🙂

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