The Five ways Tottenham have improved this season and what it means going forward
After the 4-1 thrashing of Sunderland, Tottenham are currently the most in-form team of the last 6 games, earning 13 points (and you could argue, they could have had 18, after outshooting Everton 19 to 12 in a 1-1 draw and Leicester 21 to 10 in the 1-0 loss, where two Spurs defenders sumo-wrestled each other to allow Robert Huth to head in the game winner.) The Lilywhites have competed and were in every single game – notwithstanding the home upset to Newcastle on a 93rd minute goal, that Hugo Lloris should have done better on-, despite starting out the campaign with an unlucky loss to MU. At the time of this writing, Spurs are sitting on 39 points in 4th place, 5 points off leaders Leicester (Arsenal are to play Stoke City later today), with a 4%, puncher’s chance at winning the title.
Let us look at in more detail at how they got here and what the future holds at White Hart Lane. In other words, here are 5 ways Tottenham have improved this year.
- Pochettino’s mentality created an identity
- Getting rid of players who don’t fit his system (Capoue, Adebayor, Younes Kaboul (after making him captain!, Aaron Lennon, Roberto Soldado)
- Pressing and young players
- Internal improvement (Alli, Dier, Mason, Eriksen)
- Defensive improvements – goals not allowed
- Appointing Mauricio Pochettino has been an enormous blessing. The Spurs who in previous years employed “tactical geniuses” such as Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood were often considered pushovers both physically and mentally. The famous Sir Alex Ferguson story about motivating his team at halftime to the tune of “come on lads, it’s Tottenham” is but one example, to say nothing of their Arsenal complex and St Totteringham day. The Argentine comes from the Marcelo Bielsa school of no-nonsense, hard working, heavy pressing, physical football, installing an ethos of resilience and giving Spurs a sorely lacked identity. As a sidenote, I highly recommend reading this long feature on the manager, by the excellent Thore Haugstad of twentyminutereads.com.
- The Sheriff, in his 2nd season as Spurs manager has overhauled his squad completely, saying goodbye to several experienced quality players such as Adebayor, – about whom former Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp shared this endearing moment:
“In training, the worst player on a Friday used to get a £50 fine which would go to a charity up the road, a little kid’s hospice,” Redknapp started.”Adebayor never paid his and Sebastien Bassong said, ‘come on Ade, you earn £200,000-a-week, and you haven’t paid £50 to the charity for being the worst player last week’.”He [Adebayor] said, ‘don’t insult me… I earn 225 [thousand pounds a week]’.”
Other Spurs castoffs included Capoue (now shining at Watford), Paulinho, Vlad Chiriches, Stambouli, Lewis Holtby, Younes Kaboul (after making him captain!), Aaron Lennon and Roberto Soldado. That is 70 million Euros in transfer fees! The explanation was, that those players were unwilling to put in the type of workrate that is required in the manager’s high-pressing system. So he probably went and got some players, right? If you thought, that Spurs have gone and bought enormous impact players, you would be completely wrong. In truth, 45 million was spent on Clinton N’Jie and Heung-Min Son, who have struggled to break into the starting XI playing 665 combined minutes this season so far! The lone notable signing was Toby Alderweireld,
who played underwho just missed Pochettino at Southampton and has earned rave reviews. The Belgian has been remarkable this year, ranking 4th in Squawka’s ratings for defenders. He is that rare breed of center back, who is quick enough to run with counterattacks (the rejuvenated Jermain Defoe had no chance against him on Saturday), while dominating the air (winning 12 aerials in the game vs Leicester). The former Ajax player is also a threat on offense, as he also had 4 shots vs LCFC. More about the Spurs defensive improvements a bit later. Let’s see who the Spurs have used to replace all that outgoing talent.
- The Argentine manager’s development of young talent is not exactly a mystery, Liverpool (Lallana, Lovren, Clyne, and Manchester United (Shaw, Schneiderlin) can attest to that. So, rather than spending big, it was an infusion of youth as the medicine that dr. Pochettino has subscribed for his Spurs. After incorporating Ryan Mason and Harry Kane into the squad, it was Eric Dier and Dele Alli who have become fixtures for Spurs and have even made their England debuts. Adding those 4 players and Alderweireld, to already excellent players like 23-year-olds Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela and midfield dynamo Mousa Dembele has resulted in a young, physical squad of excellent depth with a bright future. I would even go as far as to disagree with my TBR colleague Darren Choong, who ranked them third, and would anoint them as the team with the best core going forward.
- Selling those aforementioned players and giving youngsters a shot was a calculated part of a tactical shift on behalf of the Argentine manager. While Spurs were one of the highest pressing teams under Andre Villas-Boas, they lacked the bodies and physicality to execute that system. That is no longer the case with Spurs fielding the youngest team in the Premier League with an average age of 24. Joshua Olsson and stats guru Michael Caley have done two separate excellent breakdowns of “the Pochettino Press” which I’ll summarize as follows: with the installation of Harry Kane (taking the place of slouches like Soldado and Adebayor) Spurs have a forward who has the stamina to disrupt defenses in possession. In midfield, guys like Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele can press all day. and get a ton of easy chances, turning defense into attack in an instant. The slight downside perhaps is that Tottenham have become the 2nd least disciplined team in the Barclay’s Premier League with 44 yellow cards, Arsenal has 20. They are also first in fouls per game with 12.7, up 1 from last season. It has not cost them so far, but ideally, it would be better to play defense without fouling.
- Speaking of defense, it’s the last area, that Tottenham have massively improved upon, as they have only conceded 18 goals in 22 games, the fewest in the league. This puts them on pace for a stingy 31 goals allowed, while last season they allowed 53 goals! Last year’s champions, Chelsea let in 32… So, overall, this is a great defense, thanks to Alderweireld and Vertonghen (rated 2nd and 4th by Squawka) defensively, as they allow the fewest 7.7 dribbled past, after giving up the 3rd fewest last year with 8.3. The 2 Belgians have also been beasts in the air, they can allow more crosses (3.4 blocked last year, 2.4 this year). The wingbacks, Danny Rose (excellent in pressing) and Kyle Walker (leading the team with 2.8 interception per game) have been solid and Hugo Lloris has consistently been the 4th or 5th best keeper in the league.
As far as their future is concerned, Spurs have a lot to look forward to, both this season and beyond. A 4% chance at winning the title does not seem like much, but nobody really thought The Lilywhites would even have a shot, with Chelsea, City, and Arsenal (and one could even include MU and Liverpool in this group) all projected ahead of them. While Leicester have surprised everybody and Chelsea have been a gigantic dumpster fire, to say nothing of the struggles of Liverpool and United (playing a bleak game at the time of this article), were it not for the exploits of Mahrez and the storybook stuff of Jamie Vardy, Spurs would be the talk of the League. Under Pochettino, they have a revamped squad with a confidence in their abilities, that has already improved tremendously. The advanced statistics also love them: In terms of total shots, they are on pace to eclipse their 527 total from 2014/15 by 81 shots! They are also doing a better job of shooting from closer (projected inside the penalty area shots are 287 to 227). Goals are projected to be at 66, a whopping ten more than last season. The notable improvement is not from super close range (inside the 6), but from the penalty are, where Tottenham are on pace to score 41 goals from, a huge upgrade over the 33. Their passing game has also seen a great improvement to 12.3 key passes/gm from 10.7, 5th to 4th in the league and an improvement in assists 43 to 39. Their equalizer over the weekend was the culmination:
Harry Kane lays the ball off to Ali, and make an overlapping run for some 15 yards, as Eriksen releases him perfectly. Just 3 guys occupying 7-8 defenders!
A solid goalkeeper with the best defense (Alderweireld and Vertonghen) in the EPL is topped by established (Eriksen, Lamela) and emerging stars in midfield, such as Alli and Dier and spearheaded by the 12 goals of Harry Kane. It appears that after transforming Southampton, Senor Pochettino has done it again!