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Tottenham Hotspur: Season Preview 2021/22

By James Yorke | August 6, 2021 | Premier League

It's the end of an era over at Tottenham, but which era?

When Mauricio Pochettino left the club in November 2019, a Champions League final was fresh in the memory yet team metrics had declined precipitously. A week before he left he commented thus:

"We are in the process to build and we will see if we have the time to build what we want"

With a team largely powered by a core of players remaining from Pochettino's era, a season and a half of Jose Mourinho followed. Talks of rebuilding continued to surround the team but despite vigorous work in the 2020 transfer window, the innate core of the team remained similar to before, and results and metrics continued to plateau. When Mourinho himself was jettisoned in April 2021, it came as no real surprise. In particular, Tottenham waned against the better teams in the league, and a 4-3-9 WDL record against teams in the top half under Mourinho in 2020-21 simply didn't cut it. When your entire schtick as a manager is that you're a winner, you really need to win games at a faster clip than that. Now Mourinho certainly chose a reactive style of play but we can see here that he failed to fundamentally improve the team's metrics to even the level of Pochettino's declined 2018-19 outfit:

With Mourinho's departure entirely justifiable, an extended recruitment process eventually landed on Nuno Espírito Santo, fresh away from Wolves after a tough season saw them part ways.

What Espírito Santo will bring to the team is somewhat open to interpretation; his Wolves teams often played with apparent caution in a 3-5-2 and he had a small squad. Tottenham also saw time with three centre backs during Mourinho's time, and played in a similarly reactive style, but are awash with talented attackers, to the extent that it seems feasible that Espírito Santo may deploy a more offensively charged system, much as he has in former jobs. Indeed, pre-season has seen more of a 4-3-3. But who will form the core of the team? That question is harder to answer and the arrival of Juventus' former Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici has accelerated early summer transfer activity both in and out of the club; one thing is for sure now: it is rebuild time.

The good news is that two of the team's main attacking stars appear likely to be retained for 2021-22 albeit under slightly different circumstances. Son Heung-Min had another great season and recently signed a new four year contract. His shot map shows quite clearly what Mourinho tried to get from him: open shots off throughballs, and he exceeded his expected goals by a decent margin for the fifth straight season:

There's an interesting question around Son's new contract--he's 29 years old, somewhat of a speed merchant and signed up until he's 33. The next four years may not be his best four years, but his elite finishing ability may keep him as a significant net plus contributor ahead of what may normally be expected from a player with his style. Balancing these decisions is never easy--see Liverpool's trio of late-peak forwards as a case in point--but at the very top of the sport, I suspect a player as an asset to the team persists longer than general age curve work suggests. Similar comments could apply to Harry Kane, who has never been a speed guy, but has always been a plus finisher. However, there's enough noise in the room to suggest that Kane is more inclined to finish his footballing days outside of North London than within, albeit his contract situation (3 more years), likely asking price (a lot) and Manchester City already dumping £100m on Jack Grealish all look like reasons that may preclude his departure, at least this summer. That said, those of us who recall the departure of Gareth Bale back in 2013 will not be wagering on any specific outcome.

The big analytics story on Kane is that in 2020-21, he was very much back and there will always be the suspicion that the enforced pandemic break was the best thing that could happen to him. Prior to that a series of injuries and quick returns had apparently derailed his overall effectiveness and seen his underlying metrics drop off, albeit without the goals ever really disappearing.

 

Mourinho certainly set up teams to get the best out of Kane, and 2020-21 saw his highest shots per 90 (3.6), xG per 90 (0.48) rates since 2017-18 and the added boost of high volume creation, in particular towards forward partner Son. From a metric perspective, it's fascinating to note that essentially what Kane is doing on the pitch is broadly the same as before--apart from the key aspects of well, shooting and creating shots. Back when he declined from nearly five shots per game in 2017-18 to around half that in early 2019-20, I attempted to investigate what he was doing differently and found scant evidence outside the shot decline, his average touch was slightly deeper, but little more. It seems that Kane is resilient enough to endeavour to play a similar game to that which he has found great success with, but how or if a manager uses him as a focal point within the team may well define outcomes. Mourinho recognised that and built a team to get the best from Kane, and he got that. Did other players suffer by way of comparison? Perhaps? Either way, this season will be informative once more.

The under-the-radar story for this team is the second departure of Gareth Bale. In a fitful season, when he was on the pitch (around one third of available minutes) he was lights out good. He scored eleven goals at around double his xG, added a couple of assists and was the only player in the league with above one goal contribution per 90. For shot contribution, only Kevin De Bruyne (6.7) and Bruno Fernandes (5.5) exceeded his 5.2 per 90. He also ranked second in the division behind Grealish in our OBV/90 metric.

Any way you slice the Bale pie, it came up tasty. Sure he wasn't a key starter and in the aggregate trailed Kane and Son, but having this kind of weapon as a bench option will be missed.

Personnel

So far the rebuild has been as follows:

1. New goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, initially on loan from Atalanta.

This makes some sense, as Joe Hart was the back-up to Hugo Lloris and with Lloris entering the last year of his contract, a degree of succession would be logical, possibly Gollini represents that.

2. Left footed left winger 20 year old Bryan Gil swapped for a chunk of cash plus club legend Erik Lamela with Sevilla.

Lamela at 29 was good to go, and this kind of one for one "past out, future in" equation is nice and tidy from a squad management perspective. Dissecting a stats case for Gil is curious as playing for a stylistically distinct and struggling Eibar team in 2020-21 wasn't the passport to ballooning metrics as we can see here:

Okay, so what's the story here?

Much of what we see here grades out at around league average, and the combination of team style and his age enables us to be perhaps more positive than may seem at first glance. If you're 20 years old and clocking league average metrics, the prospect of what you can do down the line is pretty positive. People who watch football, which couldn't be me, also appeared happy with this deal.

3. Probably Cristian Romero

No Tottenham fan is likely to complain about defensive reinforcements and the departure of Toby Alderweireld makes that a pertinent detail. Given how readily media talk around moves has turned into reality this summer, it very much appears that the Argentinian international centre back Cristian Romero is likely to arrive shortly from Atalanta via Juventus.

Fresh from being crowned Serie A Defender of the Year and a Copa America triumph with his national team, it's easy to see why Romero is coveted and could attract a large fee. A twin effect jumps out from our metrics: during both his time at Atalanta and Genoa he has recorded extremely high pressure volumes and extremely high foul volumes. The centre back archetype in the modern Premier League is somewhat opposite to this, for example Virgil van Dijk pressures and fouls infrequently, and it's a logical detail. If you enact pressure, you may well get beaten and leave space behind and be forced to foul. Atalanta routinely play high up the pitch and need robust and active defenders, Genoa in 2019-20 less so, but Romero was notably active in both teams. How Romero slots into Espírito Santo's presumably more cautious set-ups and how active he is will be a story to follow, as the handful of Argentinian Copa America games are less conclusive here.

What else occurs personnel wise is hard to know. At Juventus Paratici frequently oversaw large scale squad turnover on a season to season basis, and having already sold Alderweireld to Al-Duhail in Qatar (as a natural replacement for Mehdi Benatia who he sold there in 2018 from Juventus), it's clear he is well capable of finding clubs where others may not. However should Romero follow Gil in though the door, that would be around £75m invested in the squad, and it's hard to see the club allocating significantly more resources for player purchases without some balancing of the books. We shall see.

Projection

In 2016-17 Tottenham finished second, the following year they finished third, then fourth, then sixth and in 2020-21 seventh. With Leicester apparently well in the mix for top four places these days, the big six appear to have either shrunk to four (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd) or extended out to seven (add in Arsenal). Either way, Tottenham's desire is to be firmly in the mix with the smaller group, and the Mourinho experiment did not slow a decline that was straightforward to forecast via metrics even as they finished fourth in 2018-19. As such, bookmaker predictions have them in that second tier alongside Leicester and Arsenal and an estimation of around 60 points doesn't deviate far from either of the last two season totals (59, 62).

None of this is easy to counter in either direction. The squad remains fairly deep and talented while appearing to lack some of the cohesion and clear ethos that we see from the league's best sides. Last season's top four will be a hard nut to crack for all teams this year and a deal of hope has to surround further recruits and whether Espírito Santo can take a more talented squad than he had at Wolves (two seventh placed finishes) and land them higher up the table. Fifth to seventh remains by far the most likely outcome and anything over 65 points would represent a step in the right direction. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor just one transfer window.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here

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Article by James Yorke