Third, second and third.
Those are Tottenham’s last three league finishes yet they find themselves overlooked by the betting markets, who place them squarely as fifth favourites for this year’s Premier League. The same was true prior to last season. Despite a mighty haul of 86 points in 2016-17, Tottenham were generally seen as outsiders for a top four slot with the even bigger money clubs given preference. The 77 points they accrued last season was perhaps closer to their core talent level than the year before, but it still landed them comfortably in third, ahead of Liverpool and seven points clear of Chelsea in fifth.
Why are they underrated? To understand partially why we can travel back to Spurs’ first league game after the 2015 transfer window shut, a 1-0 win at Sunderland. For season two of his tenure, Mauricio Pochettino had settled on the core of his team. That game was mildly unusual as Christian Eriksen played no part, something that has only happened for five other league games in four seasons. Mousa Dembélé didn’t feature either, but that didn’t stop it being an extremely familiar Tottenham line-up. Eight of the starting eleven that day are still part of the core first team squad today as well as another five of the substitutes. This is a team that has been together for some years. However, they were a young team then, and have now grown together towards what looks like their peak years:
The squad build is generally fine but that hasn’t stopped the skepticism about a lack of shiny new toys in the Tottenham first team. Even the fanbase is nervy about this, with the transfer moves so typical of the club’s operating style looking like being crammed into the back end of an even shorter transfer window. Rivals spend fortunes and strengthen, while Tottenham hit the zero on the old net spend, continue to put out the same old team, yet year in, year out, land in the top four.
By most advanced metrics, the top six in the Premier League last season was clearly split in two; Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham profiled like the best three teams in the league, while Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal lagged behind. The consistency City, Liverpool and Tottenham’s expected goal metrics were reflected in that they occupied the first three positions in both halves of the season; City were well clear in the first half, Tottenham second and Liverpool third, while the gap dropped significantly in the second half of the season and Tottenham and Liverpool exchanged places.
If we want to spy a quick stylistic difference here, Tottenham do not complete many passes in the opposition box:
Their strategy is clearly more related to shooting when in advanced positions than looking to carve out a better chance and that chimes with what can occasionally appear like a battering ram approach, especially against teams defending deep.
If there’s any slight concern regarding last season, it’s the way it petered out. Alongside Kane’s return, the team did not perform particularly well in the last few weeks of the season:
Really though, here’s nothing particularly complicated here. Via most metrics, Tottenham were one of the top three teams in the country, and used that to power a third placed finish.
Their personnel may be consistent but that hasn’t stopped an evolution in parts in the way they performed. Harry Kane underwent the transition from extremely good to fundamentally top class by eating a bunch of the team’s attacks and raising his shot rate up to Ronaldo/Messi levels at around five per game. The goals followed similarly at Ronaldo/Messi levels, and he remains the jewel in Spurs’ crown. The creeping concern around him is a narrative cooked up in the depths of the fanalytics bunker after he rushed back in April after only three weeks out from what looked like a six week injury. His shot rate dropped right off through to the season’s end, and remained low during England’s World Cup campaign; although that was more understandable given their limited style.
It looks like he’s not going to take any extra time off ahead of the new season and is keen to return as soon as it starts. That’s probably not enough rest–though it never killed Alexis Sanchez–and if there’s one thing for which you can criticise Kane, despite it being wholly entwined in his entire work ethic and single-mindedness, it’s that he never appears to know when to take a break, or slow down and always wants to play. With the ludicrous “Kane doesn’t score in August” narrative also about to return, his goals will be a story once more, while the smart analysis will be to keep a closer eye on his shot rate.
If you believe the lazy narrative, Dele Alli is coming off a bad season because he didn’t manage to back up his 18 goal 2016-17 season. He scored nine goals–a clip or two behind expectation–and ten assists would be good enough for most players in their 22nd year, hell, it would be good enough for most players regardless. Alli played a slightly more withdrawn role than the season before, in which he spent a deal of time pushed right up alongside Kane, so logically his creative numbers went up while his scoring numbers went down. There really is no story of woe here, and Alli remains a key contributor, still well ahead of his likely peak. In fact, the more you dig into the numbers, the more you realise that the transition of Alli’s influence was towards creativity:
Outside of the metrics shown here Eriksen and Alli are obviously very different players (Eriksen makes a ton more passes, and though they shoot similar volumes they’re from very different parts of the pitch) but 2017-18 saw Tottenham’s upfield creativity as far more of a twin effort. That #1 and #2 rank for pressing events from your team’s chief creators is quite something too:
It’s often thought that Erik Lamela is Pochettino’s football vision realised in human form, but Alli and Eriksen perhaps represent it even more emphatically.
Formation/First team choices
Tottenham were one of many teams to experiment with three at the back last season, and questions around whether it was a favoured formation lasted well beyond a December switch back to Pochettino’s more familiar 4-2-3-1, with Toby Alderweireld out with a long term injury. By the time he returned to the first team squad, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen appeared to be the clear preferred pairing. Cloudiness over Alderweireld’s future alongside Sanchez’s impressive form in his debut season at the club meant the Belgian’s inclusion in the first team was no longer a formality. For now Alderweireld remains, and that leaves a strong choice at centre back. It’s long enough now since the three centre back experiment was commonplace to presume that while it remains part of Spurs’ armoury, it will not be the default.
The full back situation may be in a slightly better slot just by chance. Danny Rose appears to be fit after missing clumps of time last time round, and even though Ben Davies will always get hammered for the one bad game he has per season, he’s ahead in the pecking order now and reliable. On the other side, Serge Aurier still needs to cut out the exuberance at times while somehow if the World Cup did nothing else it caused Kieran Trippier to now be seen as an elite full back… kinda? Wild stuff.
Central midfield is problematic with a blend of Eric Dier’s steady stoicism, and the variously injured trio of Victor Wanyama, Harry Winks and Dembélé. If they’re all fit there’s probably not too much of an issue here, albeit a lack of passing nous, but they haven’t been and a big signing in this slot would be ideal. As it is, there’s more chat about wide forwards, when the attacking midfield band is fairly deep. Eriksen, Alli, Erik Lamela, Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura are five players for three places with plenty of bench time already for those that miss out. Moussa Sissoko remains an option.
And Kane plays up front. Always. In fact so strong is the attacking midfield band, that it’s easy to argue that playing four from those five players is the answer to a non-Kane line-up, as was seen when he missed time late last season.
Last summer was quiet then came to life as the end of the window closed in. The result was as follows:
It didn’t feel like the most targeted bunch of signings and the varying success of them was probably reflective of that. A team is rarely going to nail all its transfers, but beyond the success of Sanchez, the outcomes felt fairly predictable. Lucas Moura’s January arrival is currently looking like Tottenham’s best signing of 2018 (he stands alone), for he only saw sporadic minutes last season, and we’re long used to Pochettino taking time to trust or reliably deploy new players, particularly in the hard to shift attacking slots.
The noises are that purchases will be made–almost certainly as soon as this article is printed–but so far nothing. While the first team is stable, there is never any harm in signing players with a view to them becoming starters rather than just to fill out the squad and that’s something that Tottenham haven’t always managed to do.
It is hard to know exactly how this will all pan out. The homegrown quota is looking lean and Jack Grealish had been thought close to arrival, but a change in ownership at Aston Villa may have shifted circumstances there. It also feels unlikely that a high cost purchase such as Wilfried Zaha or Anthony Martial will fit within the general budget. For once, Tottenham have not banked a big cheque this summer, having long looked likely to perhaps move Alderweireld or Danny Rose, and none of the rest of their first teamers look to be agitating for a move. The distortion of the transfer window shutting in England well ahead of the continent looks to have altered the power dynamic, and a “sell before they buy” philosophy has been impossible to lock down. Eight years may have passed, but the eternal hope remains that a last minute Rafael Van Der Vaart type deal could fall in the club’s lap; regardless it looks certain that they will be in conversation for players until the last moment. Really though, central midfield has been crying out for an off the shelf star for some while now and the club would gain a lot of fan favour if it just went all in there.
Tottenham’s metrics have been rock solid for three years, and they have basically the same team as last season predominantly arriving in peak years. Their goalkeeper just won the World Cup and they are about to land in a new stadium. They have one of their most popular managers and are once more in the Champions League.
The narrative about silverware will never disappear until it’s vanquished, but the knock on effect of Walker’s move to Man City and a title does not appear to have triggered unrest. The gap between the top six and the rest of the league remains huge and Tottenham are arguably structurally better off than a rebuilding Chelsea or Arsenal and the vibes out of the red side of Manchester are becoming ever weirder.
It’s feasible that any or all of those three teams could hit the positive end of their variance or upspin from their already high talent level and contend with Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City, who look more stable with a view towards a top six bid. Each will have to though. City are a complete lock for probably a top two slot at least, Liverpool fundamentally look like they will be better and have to be in the mix for the highest places, and Spurs just keep doing Spurs, which is usually enough.
Third, second, third doesn’t feel like it’s going to be added to with a first. Despite this, another second or third coupled with the stability that is brought from consistency would still mean Tottenham have landed in their new stadium with the team quality that the move was designed to help generate. They’re at the end of that long journey now, but what’s to say there aren’t more good times ahead?
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Header image courtesy of the Press Association