A deep dive into the construction of Tottenham’s team, their performance this season and the changes that need to be made to take the final step.
Tottenham Hotspur are armed with a deep, talented roster littered with world-class talent at various positions, a tidy mix of veteran experience and youthful vigour, headed by a sharp manager with a clear understanding of the trends, concepts and styles dominating world football and a schematic idea to convert that knowledge into results.
Despite this, they’ve hovered around the top four of the Premier League table for the last few seasons, unable to make the leap into true contention since their breakthrough 2009/10 campaign. Last year’s second-place finish was their best in 56 years, and the hope was that, with continuity and development on their side, they could come out of the gate hot and make a run at the title. Their Premier League form has been far from poor, objectively speaking, but measured against internal expectations, they will be disappointed with their start (seven wins, two draws, three losses), especially in their inability to measure up with the top teams in the division.
Conversely, their form in the Champions League has been outstanding: monumental, franchise-empowering wins over European heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund the highlights of a promising start that builds hope of a deep run. For a major club having repeated success in both domestic and European competitions, trophies are the final frontier, and after years of coming up empty, they are in dire need of a breakthrough
Something is holding them back against Premier League competition, and those flaws threaten to creep in and derail their encouraging Champions League campaign should they continue.
First, let’s get a grip on the Spurs formation, game-plan and playing style. Mauricio Pochettino’s preferred formation through the first 17 games of their season has been a 3-4-2-1, deploying three centre backs and two true midfielders flanked by wing backs, duel attacking midfielders and Harry Kane alone on an island up front.
The plan is to keep the ball in the opposition half — either by slowly drawing the defence out and slipping in behind for chances, or pressing hard to regain possession when the other team has the ball and play quick counters from advanced positions. Their aim of controlling territory and the ball is paying off: they trail only Manchester City in average possession with 58.1% each game, but even with that successful implementation, they’re failing to convert it into a formidable offence.
In the EPL they average only 1.6 goals per game despite jacking up 17.1 shots each night. Fascinatingly, despite an ordinary UCL night finishing with less ball (only 44.5% possession average) and taking less shots (12.4), the Spurs are putting up 2.4 goals a game — almost a one-goal increase against tougher competition. It’s a fair indication that their game-plan, although effective in controlling games, is getting muddled somewhere along the line and halting their productiveness. Basically, there is a point of diminishing returns that comes with having the ball at your feet for long stretches and not knowing what to do with it, and Tottenham have hit that point.
— Tottenham Hotspur FC (@_THFC_) November 21, 2017
There is some substance here. Part of their scheme is working: Tottenham are a really, really good defensive team, conceding 9 goals in the Premier League (tied 3rd with Burnley) and only 4 in Champions League (1st in their group, impressive when facing Madrid and Dortmund, two of the best attacking teams in the world). Their press is (excuse the pun) impressive and imposing, they track back and defend their goal marvellously and restrict their opposition to very few chances.
An elite defence is the ideal anchor for a successful team, but their offence doesn’t hold up, which is inexplicable for a squad containing so many potent options. Something needs to change.
They have to start winning big games. To challenge for the league title, or even to qualify for the Champions League again, they’ll have to surpass at least two of the other ‘big 6’ in England and no matter who they draw in UCL knockouts, it will be an elite team. Their wins so far are encouraging, but obviously two games is far too small of a sample size to show a turnaround.
The difference in form between the two competitions has more to do with the common style employed and the familiarity with the opposition. In England, regular competitors have come around to Spurs style and found it increasingly easier to adapt to. And whilst it appears on the surface that their struggles are related to the level of opposition, digging into the numbers deeper shows that their problems are very much internal.
Quality over quantity
If we separate their 17 matches (12 EPL, 5 UCL) into the success (11 wins and draw with Real) and disappointments (4 losses and a draw against Burnley) the emerging trends follow a familiar pattern:
In their successful performances Spurs have taken 13.9 shots (with 5.0 of those on target) and converted that into 2.5 goals a game. The poor performances: 19.8 shots (5.4 on target) resulting in an average of 0.4 goals. These numbers are right in line with those that were previously mentioned separating the prosperity of the UCL and the inconsistencies in the EPL.
They manage to control the ball regardless of the opposition and have little trouble defending against all classes, the determining factor being their shot efficiency. In their strong showings they converted 37% of shots into on-target opportunities, far more efficient than the 27% rate in their bad games — hence why they managed more goals despite less shots in the former category.
The magic number that keeps appearing is 35% — when Tottenham can ensure 35% of their shots will be on target, and convert 35% (season conversion rate of 36.7%) of those shots into goals, they win. Dip below 35%, which they have in all their losses, they stagnant and fail to convert enough chances for victory. Generating clean looks is the name of the game.
— Ryan Mcfc (@ryanl2801) November 20, 2017
What’s most poignant is that, unlike most teams, more shots doesn’t result in more goals. Teams that are comfortable sitting back don’t fall victim to the press and are able to suffocate Tottenham into lazy shots that don’t challenge the keeper; the teams they’ve stumbled against — Chelsea, Burnley, Swansea and Arsenal — all fit this mould preferring to work from their own half and play on the counter. This underlines the simplest way to conquer their game-plan, and the biggest threat to bring them undone.
(United are the outlier here, but they are a very talented team that play a whole range of styles at once, and it was a weird game — if we played that game 10 times there might’ve been a different result every time. Spurs were also missing a few key pieces due to injury, but a system-specific team can’t just use that excuse when convenient.)
This is where the first change needs to come: stylistically. The press works fantastically against those who fight fire with fire — if you want to meet Spurs head on, they are happy to go toe-to-toe and will probably beat you — but when their opponents sit back and there’s nothing to press against, they’re bringing the fire to a water fight, and if they have the ball for long enough, it diminishes from a flame to a candle. Their overzealousness translates into pondering that voids them of any vigour they generate from the press.
Tottenham haven’t lost a game when their opposition has taken more shots than them or had more possession. With such security at the back, they can stand to play without the ball a little more — especially in games where they get bogged down and their offence becomes stagnant —
trust their defence and work the ball from different areas. Any way they can create more efficient shots, the better.
Small changes, big goals
To implement this style effectively, they’ll have to make slight edits structurally. Pochettino has rotated their lineup in search of an answer, but the solution lies in tweaking the formation, ever so slightly. Their back-set seven has worked perfectly, so the changes will have to come up front.
It might sound overly particular, but a 3-4-2-1, playing with two attacking-midfielders and one striker has holes compared to the alternative. Switching their forward set up to one central midfielder and two forwards — a 3-4-1-2 — will be far more effective in generating chances.
Firstly, Danny Rose and Serge Aurier have to be their wing backs. Both possess pace and defensive chops it requires to hold down an entire flank whilst providing width up front. In their first game playing together for the season, they were excellent as a duo and providing a dynamic streak the Spurs other option just don’t provide.
Alli can operate in the No.10 role, whilst Eriksen can sit deeper — in the same vein as David Silva has for Man City — and help orchestrate from behind the play rather than holding the ball up and waiting for the options to arrive. It will also ease his defensive burden and might improve their press with quicker feet up front. He’ll need to be paired with a true midfielder — take a pick from Sissoko, Dembele and Winks, all suit the role fine — but going with a three centre-half look with wing-backs creates such an insular structure that any defensive concerns that might bring reservations are completely negated.
Delle Alli pic.twitter.com/KSfdrgYhoY
— Said Ahmad (@SaidAhm20251057) November 21, 2017
With how effectively they press up front and their solidarity at the back, they will essentially be creating a protective force-field around Eriksen that opens up his passing range once the ball falls to his feet. Their counter-attacking numbers (only 1 goal in all comps) will fly through the roof, and their tendency to lose their direction with the ball will be mitigated by committee and structure.
It also means Heung-Min Son can feature in the starting XI, and playing alongside Kane means he can shift between operating as a midfielder and a striker — Son has been involved in five goals in his last five starts for Tottenham (three goals, two assists), and the spark he provides helps break open the their often-laborious attack.
His presence, paired with Alli at CAM, should help the attack better break down defences and create when stuck in the half-field set. At the very least, it’s another body to throw forward that can penetrate, providing a link man for Kane and an option for Eriksen. Poch moved away from playing Alli and Eriksen together after a string of bad results, but causation does not mean correlation; it was the formation, not the personnel that needed to change.
This set-up is the best option for their style, but it doesn’t prevent variability. Alli can slide froward and play alongside Kane, Eriksen moving forward to the CAM role with two true midfielders playing behind him for a more defensive look, or throw Llorente up front and play Alli, Son and Eriksen in the middle triangle for more offence — the options are vast.
The Spurs are on the brink of something real. They’ve tiptoed on the edge of a breakthrough for years, and by keeping a squad together through that period have every right to believe their time is now. If they stay the course, they’ll finish this season stuck in the same loop — they’ll qualify for the Champions League without challenging for an EPL title and get eliminated from the UCL in the knockout stages when one of the elite teams scouts them properly and dismantles them across two legs. But the slightest of tweaks to their formation and game-plan and they’ll be in the running for both competitions. The change has to come soon, especially as City threaten to run away with the Premier League, but success on either stage would be a well-earned payoff, years of preparation in the making.
Of course, none of this matters when Harry Kane does stuff like this:
Harry Kane levels the score! Dortmund 1-1 Spurs
— The Spurs Web (@spurs_web) November 21, 2017
That other stuff’s a bit complicated — maybe they should just give it to Kane more.