At the start of the Premier League season, most felt that Tottenham Hotspur might just mount a title challenge. Despite finishing in 5th place last season, there were noticeable signs of improvement under AVB, as the team gathered the highest ever points total for a 5th placed side. The summer saw a 100 million sale, and a lot of recruitment too, with the Lilywhites signing some fantastic talent across the pitch with the aim of breaking into the top 4. Many pointed out the lack of variety in attack for the Spurs last season, as they were constantly Bale-d out of trouble. The likes of Soldado, Eriksen and Lamela were signed for big money, and teamed with players like Townsend, Lennon and Sigurdsson to create what looked like a fearsome attacking side. However, all has not gone as planned. Spurs have defended very well to concede just 6 goals, but they’ve been impotent going forward, scoring just 9. What has gone wrong with Spurs?
A look at some of the stats will leave everyone as puzzled as AVB probably is at the moment. Spurs enjoy an average of 59.3% possession every game, which is the second highest in the league. They also have the highest average for shots, shots on target, and dribbles completed in a game, aside from having the lowest number of offsides per game in the league. A large amount of their time is spent in the opposition half (31%), which is the joint highest in the league. Anyone who has watched the team play can also testify that Spurs tend to dominate the game, and boss over proceedings, but they tend to struggle in the final third.
The final third is where the team tends to have it’s struggles. Despite the addition of players like Eriksen, they’ve struggled to create clear cut chances. A large number of shots on target are quite harmless due to the fact that they’re taken from outside the box (A massive 57%). In terms of shots from inside the penalty area, they’re 17th with 39%, with a meager 4% from inside the 6 yard box. The problem evidently, is the lack of penetration.
This is due in no small part to the system Spurs employ. AVB likes to play with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation with inverted wingers. The likes of Dembele, Sandro and Paulinho play in midfield, and Soldado is the lone striker. The wingers are also inverted, with Townsend starting on the right more often than not, and Sigurdsson or Lennon starting on the left. The team likes to pass the ball around and likes to rely on the full backs getting forward to provide width, but this hasn’t worked out ideally this season. Walker hasn’t gotten as far forward as he usually does, and hasn’t attacked with the same intensity that he usually does. This is because he is prone to defensive errors, and hanging back a little is probably beneficial for the team. On the left hand side, Vertonghen has played as a left back quite often, and again, he is more of a strong defensive presence, than an attacking one. The game plan is one of all out attack, and there seems to be no plan B from the Lilywhites. They haven’t scored a single goal from counter attacks or set pieces this season, and one wouldn’t be wrong to say that Soldado has been a little starved of quality service. The problem is worsened when AVB plays with a 4-3-3 formation, because there is barely any support that Soldado gets. Paulinho running into the box is meant to be the support, but this doesn’t materialise very often, and even so, Soldado doesn’t seem to do a very good job of being a hold up striker.
When Spurs try to get forward, the other team simply gets narrow and stays deep, leaving no space in behind or in front of them for Spurs to exploit. The wide areas are left quite empty for Spurs to cross from, but this tactic isn’t very effective with Soldado in the middle. So Spurs tend to have loads of the ball, but just cannot exploit their possession.
The problem for Soldado seems to stem from the lack of quality service. Spurs play lots of long passes and lots of crosses, but the striker isn’t particularly strong at converting these kinds of opportunities. This season, he has only won 16% of his aerial duels. The number was better last season for Valencia, in a league where the defenders aren’t as willing to head the ball as in the Premier League, but still not impressive, at 28%. Only 4 of his 24 strikes last season were headed into the net. Soldado thrives on getting the ball inside the box and depositing it into the net.
The above graphic shows exactly where the Spaniard gets his business done, and this is where he hasn’t seen enough of the ball for Spurs. Along with playing an exceptionally high number of long balls and crosses, Spurs have played a ridiculously low number of through balls, averaging only around 1 per game. The quality of the through balls is in doubt, as out of 153 key passes(highest in the BPL) Spurs have only 6 assists. Teams have been much more efficient with their final ball, and if it wasn’t for their tight defence, Spurs might have been in a real mess right now. Of course, the lack of assists may mean that the passes are poor, or the finishing is poor. Soldado’s shot accuracy hasn’t changed by too much, last season’s 57% dropping to 55% this season, so we must look at the Spurs midfield.
Eriksen was recruited to add some guile to the build up play, but he hasn’t really set the stage on fire. The Dane has failed to hit an accurate through ball in his 7 appearances, and a lot of his key passes have been played outside the area, rather than into the area. In his defence, he hasn’t really had enough of a chance to make an impact. As a result of this lack of penetrating passes though, Spurs have had to take a lot of long range shots in their games (57%, third highest in the league behind Newcastle and Crystal Palace), and this isn’t a tactic that is very conducive to scoring goals. Last season, this lack of penetration was covered up by Bale, who routinely blasted shots into the top corner from impossible distances and angles, but this season, they haven’t been able to replicate the magic.
MORE Reading: Why AVB will take Spurs further than Redknapp
Speaking of trying to replace Bale, we come to Andros Townsend. The Englishman has been in good form this season, doing well enough to be called up to the national team and find himself at the centre of a controversy. His main strengths seem to be his pace and his skill. However, the winger has tried one particular move a little too often. From casual observation, one may observe that his trick of cutting in and shooting towards goal is getting a bit repetitive. As far as shots per game are concerned, Townsend has taken an average of 4.5 shots every game, the second highest in the league. However, he has only 1 goal to his name after all these efforts. The only player ahead of him in the Shots Per Game is Luis Suarez, who has scored 8 goals. In fact, others in the top 6 include the likes of Sturridge, Aguero and Giroud, which tells you how poor Townsend’s shooting has been. What Townsend does offer is speed and excellent dribbling ability (66% success from dribbles this season, 5.5 per game, highest in the league). This suggests that he may be put to better use on the left side, where he’d be able to beat defenders like he does now, but have less opportunities to shoot, and more chances to put the ball in the danger zone.
Another solution is the inclusion of Erik Lamela on the right hand side. The Argentine has hardly gotten any chances for Spurs so far this term, but his stats in Serie A indicate that he might be a useful addition to the side. Lamela is a pretty good support striker, and scored 15 Serie A goals last season, an impressive number for a player in his position. His dribbling is fairly good (43% success rate). He also seems to be fairly comfortable playing in crowded areas. His completion rate of 82% at an average distance of 15 metres in the opposition half indicates his efficacy at doing so.
As for the striker problem up front, AVB probably needs to give Eriksen a little more time to settle down in the team. Playing without inverted wingers could also work out well, as this would stretch the opposition defence and create the space for through balls and penetrating runs. Experimenting with a different type of striker could also be worth Spurs’ while, and with Emanuel Adebayor being just the kind of striker who might feed off the aerial service and hold up play well, AVB could be tempted to give the ex-Arsenal man a run in the side.
The important bit for Spurs is to change things in their forward line to become harder for defences to deal with. At present, teams that defend deep and narrow have a lot of success against them, and Spurs need to stretch these teams to create space for their own players.