Four defeats in 29 games, second place behind er.. Leicester, fewest goals conceded and second highest scorers, we reach early March with the health of Tottenham’s season looking undeniably perky. Regardless of the failings of others, to reach this point and be having non-comedic conversations about the potential of this team to win the title is unusual, so much so that it has almost been forgotten how far the team has risen and that a top four slot was a high ambition back in August.
So what the hell happened? Last season Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb habitually formed a guard of honour in central midfield and made life far too easy for the opposition. They have now been largely relegated to the fringes and replaced by the deceptively child-like visage of converted centre-back Eric Dier and whomever sits alongside. Chances are far less simple to find for visitors down at the Lane, or indeed anywhere else this team rolls up. Work ethic, shots–a lot of them–and dominance are the order of the day. So what is the limit for this side? Is this the start of a golden era or are we just looking at yet another strange feature of this odd season, a Tottenham that no longer crumbles at the first sign of pressure?
What came before
Last season was, in the world of performance metrics, pretty grim. At no point did Tottenham project to be anything much more than an upper mid-table side, various expected goal models pegged them around eighth or ninth, as did general shot analysis. Not good, yet somehow, in a signal of things to come, other teams failed to translate performance into points and the team ended up fifth with a slightly bemused fan base not sure whether to credit the finishing position or bemoan the grim method. Summer transfer dealings were necessary and early moves saw defensive selections. Eventually, Toby Alderweireld, Heung-Min Son, Kevin Wimmer, Kieren Trippier and N’Jie Clinton were purchased alongside the delayed arrival of some kid from the lower leagues, Dele Alli. Primary complaints involved the lack of a Harry Kane alternative for the front line and expectation was muted. Of those signed, Clinton apart, each has had a role to play and unusually none can be considered to have had an unsuccessful year.
Meanwhile, leaving with passports in hand were an array of presumably shirking types, out of love with the barracks mentality of Pochettino and off to continue their footballing lives in Guangzhou, Naples, Sunderland and “unattached”.
Zero wins in the first four games including an unfortunate defeat at Old Trafford and a dismal wobble to allow Stoke to draw made it appear that little had changed. However, a couple of 1-0s and the eyecatching 4-1 demolition of Manchester City showed there was a little more going on; maybe this team was quite good?
Embers are glowing
In a warm but cautious appraisal of a promising start back in November, it was starting to look clear that pre-season hopes of “something a bit better” were undershooting reality. Lots of early draws kept wider recognition away and at that point, with Chelsea’s season already resembling a fire in a park bin, Tottenham looked like they had a reasonable shot at the top four: the top end of the more pragmatic of predictions. And as time has moved on, they have found themselves ensconced towards the top end of the table, with a cushion to teams beneath. If we take a look at the shot metrics, there’s a good argument that they have actually underperformed.
All the shots, all the time
What can we take from this and the numbers that form it?
So when we look at charts and numbers like these and reflect on the exalted company this team appears to be in, it begs the question: why isn’t this team crushing the league? Firstly and simply, the close games in which Tottenham had such a good record in last season haven’t broken as kindly: they are running at 6-10-4. The volume of time spent as a clearly superior team drawing in games likely feeds somewhat into the enhanced shot volumes and more than once, it has been noticeable that Tottenham have changed their strategy once securing a lead and turned quickly to defend. In fact, the derby against Arsenal is a microcosm of the entire season; Tottenham took 26 shots and found the target 11 times compared to Arsenal’s ten and four. Clear shooting superiority yet a close, and ultimately drawn game.
That Handsome Man
The elephant in the room here is a team that sits in among those Manchester City teams referred to in that previous paragraph. It also offers a clue to the disconnect between this season’s shot volumes and success. Tottenham’s 2012-13 side, managed by Andre Villas Boas, was even more shot heavy yet in a stronger league and powered by Gareth Bale could only finish 5th. However, parallels are far from ridiculous:
So as far as alienating comparisons go, this one is pretty big but maybe history should be kinder towards Villas-Boas’ ability to organise a disparate rabble of players around Gareth Bale and be this good. They lost three of their last 26 games too, their middle and end of season was as strong as this season’s start and middle. No capable team in recent history took shots from outside the box like that Villas Boas team, ignoring location and encouraging volume appeared to be part of his method and it’s hard to definitively state that in that season it did not work. Sadly, Bale departed and 2013-14 saw a complete breakdown of method and belief.
Expected goals, accuracy and locations
So what has this to do with Pochettino’s team? If we look at an all shot expected goals model, we find Tottenham rate around 3rd best in the league, which reflects that while they have volume, they have found it harder to create shots in closer locations. A large part of Tottenham’s shot volume in comparison to other strong shooting teams is coming from outside the box. Think Christian Eriksen firing a free kick on target from literally anywhere in the final third of the pitch, or Harry Kane attempting a shot (not against Arsenal) from 25 yards. These are regular but low expectation opportunities and Tottenham take a hell of a lot of them. Here we can see Eriksen from range in particular:
The rate in which shots have been landing on target is extremely high–40%: the highest rate in the league, and so high that it would be perfectly reasonable to expect this to reduce over time. Harry Kane is the highest volume shooter in the league this year with 116 shots taken at a rate of 4.1 per game. Of these shots, 47% have landed on target; up from 40% in his hot breakthrough season. Eriksen had bad accuracy last year (27% on target) but has leaped forward this season, he also leads the league in out of box attempts (53, 2.2 per game) and has an all shot accuracy of 48%, higher even than Kane and despite a huge volume from range. A classic example of a metric that can fluctuate over relatively small samples. With these two taking nearly 40% of Tottenham’s total shots, the influence of their accurate shooting on team rates is clear.
Reflections of location can also be found in the conversions. This team converts all shots at no more than a league average rate and for on target efforts is actually notably under par. There is room for a positive skew here and this being a frequent hallmark of a championship challengers, it should come as no surprise that Leicester are the only contending team to be significantly ahead of average here.
Goal contributions- assists and goals- are spread around the core of attackers. A fluid interchangeable front four has been largely populated by five players: Eriksen is running at 0.55/90, Kane is at 0.46/90, Alli 0.60/90, Lamela 0.42/90 and Son 0.31/90. Even Chadli, largely used as back up is at 0.52/90. Since the injury to Clinton, there have been fewer options but everyone has contributed.
The one unarguable difference between this team and any iteration of Andre Villas Boas’ Spurs or Pochettino’s first season is in defence. The signing of Toby Alderweireld seems to have been key and his partnership with first Jan Vertonghen and more recently Kevin Wimmer can be toasted by the best defensive record in the league, only 24 goals conceded. But perhaps equally important was the deployment of Eric Dier into a screening midfield role, a position that was inhabited during 2014-15 by a vapour trail.
Tottenham’s opposition have secured only 3.1 shots on target per game, which is the lowest and best in the league and this is an area where expected goals agrees: Tottenham have conceded the fewest goals both in reality and in expectation. As well, no team has secured more than four shots on target in a game against them since Manchester City in their 4-1 defeat on the 26th September, a sterling and impressive run and a strong indicator of defensive consistency. People may also be aware that the team has not been two goals behind in a fixture all season, where all other Premier League teams have spent time at least three behind. Defeats have been rare, narrow and on occasion unfortunate.
Team ethic and methodology
For so many years Tottenham have appeared as a non-coherent team, with talented individuals but without an effective group ethic. Often there have been players banished from the squad, fighting to secure transfers away and generally spoiling the ambiance. It seems that under Pochettino this is- at least for now- a thing of the past. Team and methodology are everything. There is a core squad of at least 16 players that can start a game on merit without a noticeable reduction in quality and a handful of others slightly further down the pecking order.
Evidence of the press employed can be seen in the opposition pass success rates: the lowest in the league (70.7%) and more advanced methods endorse the same. Tactical fouling appears to be part of the style too, Tottenham have made the third most fouls and received the second most yellow cards but are yet to have a man sent off.
The increase in Tottenham’s performance levels from last season to this are so extreme that there is a solid argument that Pochettino has improved Tottenham to a greater degree than Claudio Ranieri has improved Leicester. Aspects of Leicester’s success have been built from a remarkable sequence of beneficial skews: first scoring at an extremely high and unsustainable rate then following it up with a rate of goal prevention at a similarly high and unsustainable rate. Their underlying performance metrics peg them as a Europa League challenger and reversion to that level, if not lower, seems almost certain for next season. That is not a slight on their achievements but the context is there. In contrast, Tottenham have built their challenge differently; by enhancing both their attack and defence and moving both their outputs and methods from the lowly levels of 2014-15 to genuine league challenging levels. In any season this Tottenham side would likely be residing in the top four, whereas it seems that Leicester have found a perfect storm only in this season, their chance to repeat is slim.
One aspect that is less likely to sustain is success from set pieces. With fifteen goals for and only five against, a +10 goal difference in this area leads the league. Of their top four rivals, only Arsenal have a positive goal difference here (+3) and rates of set piece conversion are well renowned for being non-reliable and unlikely to intrinsically repeat. While Eriksen is a quality contributor here and again we can see his importance, it is unwise to presume that such an advantage can be maintained moving forward into further seasons.
The leap in performance is huge but prospects are likely good. The team is young and developing, it needs little remedial work in the summer and while Eriksen and Kane are the current jewels, that players like Lamela and Alli and a rejuvenated Dembele have taken their share of responsibility mean that this isn’t the one man team of 2012-13. Champions League qualification and a successful project are each huge carrots to dangle for the prospective retention of both coach and star players and Pochettino seems genuinely invested in his project; it would be surprising to see him tempted away. Maybe only Eriksen is vulnerable to outside bids? There is talk that he has a contract offer and his worth has gone slightly under the radar. His reputation isn’t quite as high as that of Luka Modric prior to his move away, for all that he is equally key.
With nine games to try and overhaul Leicester’s five point lead and some tricky fixtures, it’s possible that the title may be beyond them. Concerns about the sheer physicality of Pochettino’s style causing late season tiredness remain, though it would be a harsh assessment to note the defeat at West Ham and late concession to ten-man Arsenal as indicative of this. Borussia Dortmund will offer a unique test in the forthcoming Europa League tie and the squad depth will be well tested.
Expectation should be tempered against a wider perspective. When measured against shooting metrics and the likelihood of a team improving year-on-year, this team has come from further away than Liverpool’s 2013-14 team to bid for glory and has done so with a steady defence and high attacking shot volumes. That’s an enormous achievement in itself and projects positively going forward. Liverpool lost Suarez and had huge room to revert, much like Leicester now, but Tottenham’s potential is perceptibly different, their rise has been built on stronger foundations and even a drop back should see them continuing to challenge for Champions League places in years to come. Manchester United and Liverpool continue to be in flux, Chelsea are in repair and while a Guardiola fuelled Manchester City look likely to contend well, the top four is more fluid than it has been at any point this century. Spurs are well placed to capitalise and in advance of their stadium move, consolidate. It should be remembered that for 2015-16, top four is a success, second or third even moreso and whether they manage to win the title or not, they have managed to put together a genuinely high quality season, with a strong likelihood of more to come.
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