The best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons? It’s got to be Tottenham hasn’t it? More points than any other team, the league’s top scorer in both years, a solid defence, a growing but still youthful squad, and of course not a trophy in sight. If anything, that’s the frustrating part, but it overshadows the genuine achievement of becoming contenders off a comparatively small budget, at least compared to the petrodollars elsewhere.
There are fascinating similarities and differences between Tottenham’s last two seasons which won’t necessarily be apparent to the casual viewer, some of which hint at continued success, and others that sound a note of caution. Beyond that, a potential transfer of Ross Barkley–a story that has loomed large all summer–feels like it could represent some of the stylistic quirks the team has featured over a long enough time to be considered representative. Is he the heavy shooting Christian Eriksen alternative the squad has long required? Where could he fit in? He certainly matches Eriksen, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min as a player that is rarely shy to shoot on sight, and this apparently inefficient method of attacking has yet to impact the team in the aggregate.
Metrics and suchlike
The league table says Tottenham bounced forward by sixteen points year on year. This was a fine achievement. There was no fade off like the season before once the title had gone and while expected goals placed them firmly among their peers, they still do it differently to the other big sides. They shoot more, from anywhere. They test the opposition keeper more. And this time thanks to the couple of end of season routs they scored more too.
The defence did a good job too but both ends of the pitch saw Tottenham ahead of the models, in particular, and unlike 2015-16 the attack was in front, by a lot. Now this has happened often enough to be notable; some models say all of Pochettino’s Tottenham seasons have seen a positive skew, all certainly agree that his first and third have. Regardless Tottenham play a very cohesive game with a rather ragged shooting strategy attached to it. It doesn’t look optimal, yet somehow it works. That said, the ragged shooting does offer one benefit, in both the last two seasons, Tottenham’s on target rate has been top two in the league and the difference between their rate and the opposition’s league leading. This team may boom shots from all over, but a hell of a lot test the keeper and they restrict the opposition from doing the same.
All three of Tottenham’s main goalscorers scored both freely and ahead of expectation last season, but there is some evidence to imply that it’s recurrent enough to include some signal. Kane has been ahead in all his three full seasons of play albeit by varying degrees (2016-17 by far the heaviest overshoot), Alli in both his and Son has a strong long term finishing record too. For Son, as the chart shows, he doesn’t get many high value chances, but continues to rack up the goals.
Of course goals don’t make themselves, so ticking away behind this deadly trio was the ever under heralded Christian Eriksen. Quietly, the most dangerous open play combination was Eriksen to Alli, but if we look at how Eriksen creates chances for his attackers we can see Tottenham’s attacking gameplan in front of us; indeed that’s exactly it: Tottenham play a system that pushes defences back. They rarely draw teams out to create space behind and instead tend to squeeze the play:
Two passes that Eriksen creates for Tottenham’s shots are sideways for long range efforts or vertical but not deep. Indeed, Tottenham do not create a lot of deep chances outside of set pieces and this undoubtedly impacts on their expected numbers.
This retained strategy has had improved success year on year against weaker outfits, but does not always work as erratic displays in Europe and against some of their peers demonstrate. Tottenham can be unplayable on their day–witness the utter hammering of Arsenal at White Hart Lane–but equally find a good team that knows how to press and they can be quickly undone. Liverpool under Klopp and Man City have caused Pochettino’s men severe problems on more than one occasion.
The major challenge for the side is to work out a method of nullifying the opposition in these type of games. They look to be drilled well enough to continue to overrun teams, but to make the next step they need to find extra from somewhere. Whether Pochettino has the flexibility to recognise this is hard to know but prior to 2016-17, nobody thought that he would veer away from his stock 4-2-3-1 but he did, and the way that Son and Alli joined Kane in attack so regularly certainly challenged the orthodoxy of the attacking midfield and forwards roles in his system.
This time last year, Tottenham had already made two signings of the in Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen. Others followed later on–to lesser degrees of success than the Kenyan, about par with the Dutchman–but it was probably the first summer in memory that Tottenham faced a transfer window without an essential need to improve the first team. That Wanyama did was a bonus, and his recruitment explained Mauricio Pochettino’s surprise repositioning of Eric Dier into defensive midfield the season prior. That experiment went so well that Dier became England’s defensive midfield lynchpin too, but not so well that any idea that he was going to be placed there long term for Tottenham dissolved once Wanyama arrived.
A similar situation faces the club now. The first eleven when fit pretty much picks itself and there’s probably enough depth to allocate anywhere around 15 or 16 of the first team squad as genuine first teamers and options, with perhaps less need than a nervous fan base might think to make big adjustments. That said, no team can rest on its laurels with regard to recruitment and there are areas that could be improved or given better depth.
Decisions that look like they could be made include:
*Kyle Walker replacement
*More Mousa Dembélés
*Someone of the imagined calibre of Moussa Sissoko
*Someone for the “promising ex-Ligue 1 winger/forward who won’t get in the team” role most recently inhabited by Clinton N’Jie and Georges Kevin N’Koudou
*A mythical Mousa Dembélé / Christian Eriksen hybrid, like… say… er… did I mention Ross Barkley?
One thing that seems certain: Tottenham are not going to spend a fortune. Kyle Walker’s departure has stuffed the hamper for a summer fund, while bits picked up for a departing Federico Fazio and N’Jie should help too. Hell, Nabil Bentaleb brought in £16million at some point since the last bit of money was spent. However, it’s now August, the pre-season is complete and all we are seeing are light promises that the club will buy. Nothing concrete and a nearly neutered and silent rumour mill.
If the first team is not easily improved and certainly not within the wage structure, then that shouldn’t stop the club stuffing the bench with coin flip potential stars aged 18-23 years old. Wages can be afforded for promising talent and for a club that acquired and developed variously a 23 year old Luka Modrić, Gareth Bale as a teenager and much of the current first team from near birth, a reticence to go again is so far disappointing. On the other hand, that only Kyle Walker has departed from the first team feels like a necessary but best case and small exodus.
Pochettino has said they will buy, so presumably they will. Identities remain unknown, but Ross Barkley continues to play wall ball against the side of his garage waiting for his phone to vibrate.
Last season it was simple to presume that Tottenham would do little more than maintain, and instead they bounced forward. This season it is again straightforward enough to presume that they will maintain, but more towards the level that some of their structural metrics suggested rather than a dreamy land of 80+ points. Expected goals and bookies like them more or less the same as a year ago and think the 70-71 point baseline we have seen so frequently remains their true level. The Wembley factor looms and will no doubt be cited as the reason for any normal reversion but with a non-zero possibility that Pochettino’s systems do create some kind of positive skew against expected goal models it feels most likely that they will end up on seventy-something points.
Should this transpire, and regardless of what position it lands the team in, it should not be considered disappointing. The whole club philosophy is to become a Champions League side in time for the new stadium, and so far the team’s performance is two years ahead of plan. But the whole game is also a balancing act. If Kyle Walker picks up a trophy this year, how many players will look on with envy? The best way for Tottenham to keep the band together is to win something themselves. It will not be easy, but it feels like the Pochettino era needs something tangible to represent the undeniable progress towards stability.
The year before Pochettino arrived, in which Andre Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood competed to out-backend of a pantomime horse each other, only one outfield player played three-quarters of Tottenham’s league minutes. In year one, 2014-15, as Pochettino found out about the players he had that number crept up to four. In the last two seasons Tottenham have had eight outfielders play that frequently. The team picks itself, but can it make the next step? It could be vital that they do.