Are Tottenham For Real?
With a litany of false dawns strewn liberally throughout their history, it's easy to adopt a "wait and see" attitude to the potential of Tottenham as a team that can contend at the top end of the table. After the chaos that enveloped the on-pitch activity during much of last season, it was easy to presume that a new dawn was some distance from being realised. Yet here we are in week thirteen of the Premier League and an unexpected threshold has been passed, one which makes it hard to deny that this Tottenham team, if not title contenders in this strange and democratic season, are certainly prime candidates for a top four slot:
Tottenham currently lead the league for shots on target. They have 87, City have 86 and Arsenal have 81. A small explainer here is that they also lead the league in the rate in which their shots are landing on target, which is a good enough reason to not instantly proclaim the second coming and allow a genuinely warm but not piping hot appraisal.
In itself, this is just one aspect of the game – albeit an important signal— but in a season that has seen Arsenal and Man City variously show extremely impressive attacking verve and deservedly lead projections for the title outright, this pitches Tottenham right among the contending pack as we enter the vital busy second third of the season: December, regular fixtures, no more international breaks, the tail end of European group fixtures, Christmas and beyond.
Let's look at a few more numbers:
A logical progression means that Paul Riley's Shot on Target xG model shows a close relationship between a top three:
(go here for charts and *new*: data)
I've got a bits and bobs variation of James Grayson's Team Rating that pegs them at third. Old archaic metrics such as goals scored (=third), goals conceded (second) and goal difference (second) shape up quite nicely too. This isn't Leicester miraculously landing on top spot having conceded twenty goals in thirteen games yet losing just once. These numbers are solid and have been throughout the season.
It's also an endorsement of this more cohesive Tottenham squad that they have managed to consistently out-shoot the opposition. The only matches in which they haven't have been Man Utd, which featured a dour nine shots each, Stoke, in which they wobbled badly late on, and Man City, by which time it was irrelevant. In no other game have they conceded more than four shots on target or thirteen shots, two significant numbers to maintain given they are roughly the average amount required that a team requires to expect to score once. The league leading shot on target total hasn't been accrued by a handful of freak games either, it's it has been generated by consistency: on nine occasions have they managed six or more shots on target, more than Man City (8) and Leicester (7).
More goodness exists here: only Palace (who have a game in hand) and Man Utd have spent less time losing all year and only West Ham, Man Utd and Arsenal have spent more time in a winning position. In the few minutes spent losing they have a league high on target rate and a league low rate of conceding the same. Conclusions here aren't strong but on the rare occasions they've been behind they've shown fast form to reply and given the only defeat they've met was against the belligerence of Man Utd, no team has successfully taken a lead and dominated them. It's not as if the fixture list has been over generous either having faced four of last year's top seven rivals.
So why are Tottenham back in fifth and not elbowing Leicester off the top?
All those draws.
Back in around September, Harry Kane was down on his luck. To the tabloids he was "begging for a sniff of goal", his "confidence was shot to pieces by repeated failure" and he had resorted to "spending night after night barking "Why?" into a mirror before hauling his sorry but muscular torso back into Tottenham's forward line to limply fire three and half shots per game vaguely towards but not past a series of cackling and smug goalkeepers".
Then it changed, almost as if confidence wasn't the real reason behind his brief barren streak, once more the net started to bulge and here we find a eight goal striker in November who leads the league in on target shots:
(Find your favourite PL player here)
The upshot of this cold then hot streak has been six draws, at least half of which fall into the "frustrating" category. When your (sole) forward isn't finding the net, results can be hard to come by, just look at Chelsea.
So what is against Tottenham at this stage?
Tottenham are creating and conceding around 3.5 set piece shots per game so far this year: they've scored eight, which leads the league and have conceded only once. This is once more an area where skill or random variation are typically related, insofar as there is very little that can be done to control the levels of conversion here. It's perfectly conceivable to go through a season exceeding your opposition, and by some margin, what isn't possible to predict is whether or not that will happen or continue. Tottenham are right on the sharp end of this going their way, and as ever, in a sport which averages well under three goals per game, a plus seven goal difference here in 13 games is clearly influential.
Anyone who has watched a Tottenham game recently will have noted the frenetic nature of the play. No space in midfield, hard pressing from the attacking midfielders and Dembele shielding the ball as if he's wearing armour. It's pretty relentless stuff and in Pochettino's two seasons in the league his teams haven't managed to keep up this level through until May. Of course given that two is a sample of zero consequence and neither of those seasons were buoyed by the potential of qualifying for the Champions League, it's wrong to be definitive here.
Though the squad look largely balanced, and the reinvigoration of players like Walker and Dembele has been welcome, the one glaring hole remains exactly as it was as the transfer window closed: back up for Kane. When the drop off in quality from first to second choice goes from "very good" to "doesn't exist", it's a problem.
There are memories tinged with "what might have been?" at Tottenham. Few fans have forgiven Redknapp for his half-baked coast towards the ultimately futile fourth place in 2011-12. Early on in that season, that team looked set for much better as did the one full season from Villas Boas' once Bale had kicked in the turbos. Each ended with a status of nearly but not quite but the hope this time is growing on almost a weekly basis. The forthcoming Chelsea game, though shorn of darling of the week Alli, has the potential to define a perception already boosted by the widely seen destruction of West Ham.
Taking the lead
Simple truths exist within simple measurements:
All defined from the first goal of the match, if indeed one was scored.
Analysis can be short here, in fact it can be realistically rounded down to one word, which may be a record. Anyway:
City v Liverpool
As you can see some wiseguy decided he had noted a pattern in Man City's more dispiriting recent defeats: they keep getting turned over by teams that press them. That Klopp should be getting as clear a tune as he could have wished for from a strikerless eleven gave his methods a tidy endorsement but before anyone gets too carried away with what was an exhilarating first half demolition, it should be noted that this was one of those "nearly all the shots went in" starts to a game. Man Utd did similar in a 3-0 win against Tottenham towards the end of last season and once a logically unassailable lead has been achieved, it's quite normal for games to take on a unique personality: either nothing at all happens or the strangeness continues.
Man City were so bad here – and this kind of performance is becoming frustrating when held against their overall qualities – that it's hard not to frame it against the forthcoming crucial Juventus tie. Regardless, Pellegrini looked outsmarted once more and maybe felt pressure in playing at home. It had seemed that he'd learned how to deal with pressing in the non-event 0-0 against Utd last month, but at the Etihad, those tactics weren't employed and with such pragmatism absent, familiar concerns about the long term solutions to City's central midfield once more returned.
Liverpool's quick resurgence has been powered by incredibly similar shot numbers between Rodgers' last five games and the five under Klopp:
Brendan got five points from that lot and Jürgen managed eight though he has had notably more difficult fixtures. Now, with Firmino looking like he could be the £30m player that they hoped for and now two big victories away against money clubs, the ship looks like it's being steered away from the icebergs that Rodgers found at every turn. Regardless, it could have got no worse for Brendan, he left at a low point for goal prevention and the building blocks of a useful team were already in place.
Klopp's arrival if followed by success, combined with still strong challenges from van Gaal's Utd team and Pochettino at Tottenham, offers a large enough cabal of teams to potentially affect the league and wider perception towards style. With English teams ever conservative in comparison to the better teams on the continent, the rise of these pressing outfits could well be close to a tipping point. We shall see.
Thanks for reading