1. Fixing Tottenham piece by piece
It’s been a mixed start for Jose Mourinho at Tottenham. A 4-0-2 Premier League record is broadly fine, but in both defeats the team has created next to nothing in attack and the win at Wolves came distinctly against the balance of play. Direct play appears to be in vogue at the New Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with keeper Paulo Gazzaniga favouring the long bomb clearance and newly contracted Toby Alderweireld also bypassing midfield and looking for runs from the speedy Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura and occasionally Dele Alli. Midfield is currently staffed by Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko, with Harry Winks entrusted at times, Christian Eriksen as a first change emergency substitute, Tanguy NDombele hopefully just feeling his way back to a guaranteed starting slot and Giovani Lo Celso getting splinters on the bench. Regardless, it ain’t fixed yet. Son’s petulant kick against Chelsea means enforced rotation over Christmas which will be enlightening given that Mourinho hasn’t typically, in any job, been too happy to mix it up. The attack needs a little vigour anyway given the 11 shots per game it’s currently mustering, for all that goals have followed fairly readily.
Perhaps it was ambitious to think Mourinho could just wave a magic wand and fix this team? After all their metrics across 18 months or more were mediocre, and Rome wasn’t built in a day. However, one hope for Tottenham was that perhaps the defence could be fixed–and quickly. A run of 2-2-2-0-1-2 goals conceded in the Premier League (plus another five in two games in the Champions League) doesn’t lend a lot of support to this but if we look a little deeper, there is a noticeable trend:
In those six games, Tottenham’s non-penalty expected goals against is 0.76 per game and only Manchester City’s is better (0.69). The volume ain’t great at 13 per game, but on the whole these aren’t good shots. Consider the difference in the prime location highlighted. Under Pochettino, Spurs were conceding a goal a game from shots in that close, optimal zone. Now? A couple of headers and less than one footed shot per game (I count four in total and just one goal). In fact the two goals near the penalty spot were both 95th minute efforts to bring West Ham and Bournemouth back to 3-2 with no time left to even think of an equaliser.
Essentially, the majority of the goals they have conceded that mattered have been either fairly low probability (Marcus Rashford: 0.02, Willian: 0.03, Adama Traoré: 0.05) or penalties that were, well, avoidable. The average value of an opponent shot since Pochettino left has almost halved, particularly in open play with a drop down from 0.10 per shot to 0.06. What’s the flip side? Three goals allowed from set-pieces compared to none before. Still, it’s a start.
Now what about that attack? And the midfield?
2. Riyad Mahrez should play more
Over at Manchester City, Raheem Sterling has been near ever present and solid as ever while Kevin De Bruyne has rightly garnished many plaudits with an electric combination of relentless assisting and superlative finishing. However, injuries and selection choices have meant Manchester City’s barnstorming attack has seen a varied mix of players contributing. As such, Riyad Mahrez’s influence on the side may have been overlooked a little, not least by Pep Guardiola as he’s only played about half the available time in the Premier League this season. Amazingly, the top five players for a combination of expected goals and expected goals assisted are all Manchester City players:
Mahrez refreshingly took no interest in going easy on his former side Leicester at the weekend recording ten shots and four chances created–De Bruyne had another four shots and six chances created himself–and Guardiola’s task in fitting all his pieces together remains intriguing. This time Bernardo Silva made way from the attack and slotted into the centre and he fulfilled a soldier’s role. He barely featured at the business end of the pitch with no shots and just one chance created. City overall racked up the goals and the chances with 3.45 xG the most Leicester have shipped in a game under Brendan Rodgers and this the first time in his whole tenure that they’ve found themselves two goals behind in a Premier League game or conceded three. Mahrez starred though and in any other team, you’d imagine he would be ever present and feted as a star man; he’s essentially worth a goal a game so far this season and ranks behind only De Bruyne for open play xG Assisted (his 0.41 per 90 to De Bruyne’s 0.51 are both well clear of third placed Raheem Sterling’s 0.27). As it is, for now, he’s just one of the gang, but can hardly have done more to make the right forward slot his own for now.
3. Jesus or Agüero?
One aspect that has lingers over this City team is the eventual succession plan for a post-Agüero world. Never too far from an injury, Agüero has continued to be excellent when on the pitch, and will feature deservedly in many Premier League “Team of the Decade” lists. As we can see from the chart above, he leads the league this season in expected metrics and has seven non-penalty goals and two assists to show for his work. Close on his tail though is Gabriel Jesus who actually leads the Premier League for non-penalty expected goals with 0.78, Agüero is in second on 0.69 per 90 then Tammy Abraham on 0.56. This is impressive stuff from the still-just-22-years-old Brazilian and he’s turned that into six goals himself with two assists too in similar minutes to that of his older colleague. The difference between the two appears to be that you get more creative passing from Agüero but more workrate from Jesus, and it’s arguable which of these two is more useful to City on any given day; but where’s the added esteem for Jesus?
It could be down to the fact that Jesus is two and a half goals behind expectation this season and that itself is nothing new. Last season he had a lot more substitute minutes and found himself three goals behind expectation, while the year before he was about break even. Is he a sub par finisher? It’s a consideration to make, for sure. It might seem odd to conceive a 39 cap Brazilian international Copa America winner as a potential breakout player, but Jesus is probably one finishing bender away from being considered effectively world class. At his age playing for one of the best teams in the world, he should get all the help he needs to step up to the true elite, but perhaps it’s a shame Mikel Arteta has gone to Arsenal, given the reporting around his help to Raheem Sterling over the years. Jesus has all the makings and has every opportunity, he’s just got to find a way to score more goals.
4. Jack Grealish
In April 2016, I watched a doomed to relegation Eric Black-led Aston Villa lose 4-0 to a Chelsea side that included Matt Miazga and Alexandre Pato. That day, most of the crowd were dead set on hurling abuse at Leandro Bacuna who had been recently interviewed and suggested he would like to play in the Champions League. It wasn’t the best environment and with fifteen minutes to go a deluge of protest leaflets were hurled onto the pitch in paper airplane form, some travelling well into midfield as they cascaded down from high in the stands. On the bench to start and on the pitch by then as a 66th minute substitute was Jack Grealish. In warm-ups he was the only Villa player who engaged with the fans and after the match he was the only player who went round the pitch and applauded them. This bond between the local lad and his supporters may go some way to explain why Grealish remains at Villa; and the only player who remains from that ill-fated campaign. He may have been Villa’s brightest future star then, but now, at 24 years old he is now clearly their best player and in his first season back in the Premier League is showing all the hallmarks of an elite talent.
The parallels with James Maddison are obvious, in both hair and output as well as how they lit up the Championship before showing their worth in the top division. While Maddison’s comfort in the league is certain as he occupies a top four slot with Leicester, Grealish’s future remains less clear in two ways; Villa are parked precariously in 18th with the worst expected goals against in the league (1.9 per game) and his best position remains uncertain. He’s on record as saying he prefers playing in midfield, but his recent burst of form has been from a place on the left side of a front three.
If we dive into the stats we see a player with a fairly scarce profile: he ranks seventh for successful open play passes into the box but completes these passes at a rate higher than anyone who attempts them at this kind of volume:
He’s second behind Kevin De Bruyne for open play key passes, although a good volume of these are horizontal shuttles outside the box. These two passing tics are an interesting blend, and suggest he’s good at finding the pass before the key pass, and teeing up space at range. His versatility here is clear. When in his preferred “number eight” role he has the room to carry the ball, yet ultimately his passing looks more like that of a traditional number ten, facing the box, and infrequently running into deep positions. Now he’s playing in a left forward role but with an emphasis that is slightly withdrawn compared to many players in that position. Either way his skill set looks like it would have a solid chance of translating to a team with a higher emphasis on ball retention high up the pitch, and heavy possession. Would Arsène Wenger have bought him? I’m tempted to say yes.
He is a prodigious ball carrier too: he carries the ball in possession further than all but four players (from which are included stat favourites Adama Traoré and Allan Saint-Maximin) and he wins more fouls than anyone in the league by a large margin: 4.71 per 90, the next best is more than one whole foul behind. And all on essentially a struggling team. Four assists and five goals specs out at a goal contribution of around once every two games and he is well on target to exceed totals from his previous seasons. He dominates the Villa roster in nearly all creative and passing metrics and in a team that enters the box via crossing more than any in the league (38% of box entries are via a cross) he is the solitary antidote (his rate is 7%). If we’re being critical that propensity to carry the ball and not release sooner could be worked on, but as long as his passing metrics are progressing as they have this season, it’s a minor gripe.
What’s next for Grealish may well be dependent on his own form. With Villa under threat of relegation his creativity may be decisive in how many points they pick up going forward. With good form and good fortune, he could stay in the league as the king of a smaller castle (if a question remains– it is if this is what suits him best?), but should they fall through the trapdoor and return to the Championship, it will be illogical for him to stay on again. A top six club is surely his next destination–after all Tottenham were thought to have pursued him in the summer of 2018–but which one?