Supporting Tottenham is a traditionally fraught experience. Each segment of hope is quickly countered by the emergence of a false dawn and the cusp of success is rarely breached. The fan-base is widely split along lines drawn either side of a line metaphorically populated by Daniel Levy. The man characterised with a trigger-happy firing finger, a man of fiscal prudence and a man more capable of extracting an inflated transfer fee from Major League Soccer for wobbly old players than most. The old “net spend” line is rarely approached, the squad rolls on inflated by whimsical purchases unwanted by coaching incumbents and miraculously, new stars emerge to replace those that went before.
Only this summer, there has been a softening of internal conflict- Daniel Levy’s collection of itinerant players has been streamlined and the unwanted big earners have been cast out. The squad construction now resembles something more akin to a successful Championship Manager 01/02 save and we see youth and potential married to the military work ethic installed by the deceptively cheery Major Mo Pochettino.
This reforming of the club has been a long time coming. The Villas Boas era was a false start hampered by conflicting egos and the inevitable troubles involved in replacing Gareth Bale’s contribution and it’s only now, 18 months on that we find manufactured stability, a scenario unaccomplished since the club last penetrated the top four:
2012/13: New coach (Villas Boas), Modric sold
2013/14: Bale sold
2014/15: New coach (Pochettino)
All positivity around transfers is in the “departure” section. Much like Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators many centuries ago, early November 2014 was rumoured to have seen a failed coup. This plot involved less gunpowder and more complaining but a small group of senior pros led by team captain Younes Kaboul and vice-captain Emmanuel Adebayor were thought to have sent message to the boardroom regarding their dissatisfaction at the workload being thrust upon the team by Pochettino. Also thought party to the malingering were Lennon and Capoue and regardless of any truth in this fishwivery, they are all soon likely to end up residing elsewhere having barely featured. Stambouli, thought blameless amongst this but a mysteriously pointless signing last summer, has mercifully managed to infiltrate PSG’s bench whilst the often criticised Paulinho has rocked up in China. And poor, dear Roberto Soldado, a man afflicted by a malaise that dates back to at least Sergei Rebrov may well be returning to sunnier climes soon too.
Each of these perceived miscreants and unwanteds has realised a fair fee and reinvestment has so far been entirely focused on the defense with Alderweireld looking the pick of a bunch that includes Trippier and Wimmer. Berahino or AN Other is hoped to be coming in, and will provide at least an option in the front line with Kane likely unable to play and complete 50+ games singlehandedly but there is a definite need to bring further reinforcements in. A top line attacker hasn’t been bought since Lamela and the forthcoming weeks are as key as ever. To slightly whet the appetite, 19 year old former League One starlet Dele Alli has genuine potential to be this year’s break-out talent but the squad is currently and predominantly a slightly strange mix of Belgians and youngsters.
The fifth place secured almost in lieu of Liverpool last May was a position that didn’t just paper over the cracks, it allowed fans to confidently state that the cracks did not even exist. But as even a rudimentary study of the numbers shows, cracks in performance were plentiful and undermined any goodwill earned from the “best of the rest” positioning.
First up we can go to the traditional shot ratios, a pretty solid method of benchmarking the team:
Did it improve in the second half of the season as the team adapted to Pochettino’s methods?
Alright, we’re not getting a positive storyline out of this, so how about Expected Goals? Let’s turn to Michael Caley’s numbers and see how things fare: Okay, a ~48% exG ratio and enough for a 9th place ranking. Can Paul Riley’s Expected Goals model with a slightly different methodology shine a light into what is becoming a dark pit? Haha! No, it cannot. Another ~48% exG ratio and 10th place BEHIND NEWCASTLE.
If I try and run simple regressions to the points gained, the best I can suggest is that Tottenham overachieved by around eight points last season. This implies that a true talent level of the team in 2014-15 was around 56 points, or in the ballpark of 8th place in the league.
Y’know, I’m a fan, none of this pleases me!
“But we came fifth”
I wrote an article late on in the season looking at simple location stuff for shots and what that revealed was also entirely grim. The rate of in box shots compared to the opposition positioned the team amongst the relegation candidates and the team ranked top of an out of box ratio measure. Echoes of Villas Boas? Sure thing, plenty of shooting from range but in contrast to Handsome Andre, the defensive end was terrible; they struggled to create shots inside the box and allowed them at an extremely high rate, all the while conceding as many goals as Sunderland and Burnley.
The rigid 4-2-3-1 you find hallmarking each and every Pochettino side made it seem as if the key position to suffer within it was Ryan Mason’s central midfield role, and I certainly felt he seemed underpowered in there but it’s conceivable that it’s just a tough spot in a demanding system. I did a couple of things to try and represent the similarities between Pochettino’s players in the rigid set-up we have seen since he arrived in the league. Firstly I ran some correlations between the numerical outputs of Southampton’s 2013-14 squad and Tottenham’s 2014-15 squad. Without any adjustments, the joint highest correlations I found were between Younes Kaboul and both Fonte and Lovren, which maybe explains to some degree how he found early favour from the coach, a decision that surprised many fans.
The other joint highest correlation was between Schneiderlin and Mason. Again, viewed this way, it starts to become slightly more understandable why maybe Mason was preferred and retained his place deep into the season; he’s a good soldier, he follows orders and his output seems consistent with what Pochettino demands from his central midfielders. And I can throw Bentaleb and Wanyama into that mix, here, take a look:
As a broad comparison, we see similarities, particularly again between Schneiderlin and Mason.
So is Mason the problem? Well, we have yet to see moves from the club to suggest that might be the case. In fact having shipped out four players that could arguably play in his role (Stambouli, Paulinho, Capoue and Holtby) alongside replacing two who would often position behind him (Chiriches and Kaboul) with new signings (Alderweireld and Trippier) it is certainly arguable that the view from inside the club is very different.
Linked to this potential weakspot in and around Mason, Dustin Ward’s recent midfield study here on Stats Bomb shed further light onto a pretty dark subject matter when looking at Tottenham:
Only Man United and strangely QPR are better at stopping passes through the midfield than Tottenham, the main problem with their defense was the passes that get through are long and dangerous, and are converted into shots at a higher rate than any other EPL team. This would suggest at first glance that the backline is more of a problem than the midfield.
Later, the study ranked Tottenham second behind Man Utd for controlling midfield via volume of passing- and the two sides ranked first and third for pure possession rates in the league. What this implies and is borne out by watching is a prescriptive and clinical method of ball retention, in itself neither particularly dangerous going forward, hence Tottenham’s proportionally poor shooting numbers or defensively secure, given the propensity for allowing a comparatively high shot rate.
Amongst the playing staff, there were three key skews that may regress going forward into this season: Chadli and Kane’s extremely high conversion rates and Eriksen’s extremely low rate of conversion for his shot assists. To take a positive slant from this trio of issues, one could hope that Eriksen’s regression could offset some of the goalscoring regression from the two forwards, but that could well be wishful thinking… *sighs*
Analysing the positive in Tottenham’s future expectation is sadly, almost entirely speculative and hopeful rather than rigorously backed up by the numbers. The squad is looking lean, hungry, young and cohesive, which is generally a really positive move. Ruthlessness in sales has rid the club of high earning bloat and the super hard work ethic installed by the coach at least gives cause for optimism. In Lamela, Eriksen and Kane, there is still the potential for a very high class attacking unit, for all that it being realised is more of a coin flip than a certainty and alternatives are unproven (Alli, Pritchard) or occasionally wayward (Townsend).
So young is that squad that i’m prepared to concede that the fruits of the club’s repositioning may not be reaped until further into the future. “Always next year” is a slightly fatalistic way of looking at a season in August but this team looks set to thrive in the longer term rather than magically improve on the mundane and mediocre set of underlying numbers posted last season.
The fundamental point here is that whichever way you cut the cake, in 2014-15 Tottenham projected to finish in a significantly lower position than fifth. And to finish even fifth again, they are going to have to improve significantly. It’s great to believe that Kane can replicate his breakout season and indeed he may, but right now he is the only striker on the books likely to start the new season in the squad. I like the way the club is moving towards a more sustainable transfer methodology and see it as a viable business model; what I don’t see is a team blending the usual challenges of the Europa League with a run at the top four.
All the smart work being put in is designed to consolidate Tottenham’s position behind the wealthy elite and endeavour to take a run at that same elite in time. Not now. But Pochettino cannot afford to veer too far from the upper echelons as pressure will remain both internally and from the fan base; an 8th place finish would be tough to survive; they must at least improve or seem to be growing. It will never be the stated plan, but fifth place looks to be the absolute ceiling for 2015-16.
And that’s something even I have to accept.
Thanks for reading!
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