November 28, 2013

Spurs youngsters to make debuts this evening?

Will we see some Spurs youngsters making debuts this evening. As you may know, we have a few young professionals in the Europa League squad:

Archer
Miles
Fryers
Fredericks
Stewart
Dombaxe
McEvoy
Kane
Coulthirst

Some of these were only added to the squad in the last week – Miles, Fredericks, McEvoy and Coulthirst.

Harry Kane has a back injury, and Kevin Stewart hasn’t travelled, but we know that Coulthirst, McEvoy, Dombaxe, Fredericks and Miles are in Norway. I would presume that Archer and Fryers are also there.

Nabil Bentaleb, who is training with the first team squad regularly, is unfortunately unable to be included as a List B player as he’s not been at the club long enough.

In case you are unaware of those players likely to be in the match-day squad, here’s a line on each:

Jon Miles – 20-year old goalkeeper who started two games on loan at Dagenham & Redbridge on loan last year. You may recognise him from some of the Spurs TV online videos.

Laste Dombaxe – an 18-year old central midfielder from Angola. Came into the Under-18 side very early (at just 15), and has progressed to the Under-21s since then. A midfielder who is a good all-rounder – has a decent short-passing game, but good defensively too.

Kenny McEvoy – 19-year old winger, who mostly plays on the right. Good pace, decent delivery, and a goal threat too.

Shaq Coulthirst – 19-year old forward, who often plays on the left, cutting in and using his right foot. A tenacious player with a bit of a spring in his step – puts defenders under pressure, and knows where the goal is.

It would be excellent to finally see some of the younger players getting an opportunity – even if it’s just being included on the bench, it can really motivate our youngsters to want to get back there again.

I’ve personally been a little disappointed with the lack of opportunities for young players on the whole. Some would argue that the involvement of Rose, Fryers, and Kane shows a willingness to play them, but I personally take issue with:

– Not using Kane more after he made an impact against Cardiff City in the league, and Aston Villa/Hull City in the League Cup.
– Sending Carroll on loan when we really lack a passer in deep midfield – I personally think that just the occasional few minutes at the end of last season could have seen him fully integrated by now. And even without that, he could have been a useful impact sub (at least) this season.
– Selling Luongo. A decision I think we’ll regret at some point.

Levy fought so hard to have an extra two substitute spots added, citing the option of involving young players as one of the reasons… yet we hardly ever have youngsters on the bench.

The Under-18s are going along pretty nicely, but the Under-21s league is a shambles, not helped by the lack of NextGen Series (at least partly thanks to the UEFA Youth League, I think). Our Under-21s have not played an official match in November. In fact, they’ve not played a competitive fixture since 21st October (one was scheduled but postponed).

The development squad play infrequent friendlies (apparently McEvoy impressed in one last week), but the issues are:

That the matches aren’t regular enough.
That means that scouts don’t get to see the players often.
It also means that players lack match sharpness.
Which means that scouts don’t get to see them at their best when they do see them.
Culminating in a lack of loan opportunities for our 3rd year scholars/trainees – and there are plenty of them.

I think the big emphasis on nurturing youngsters is paying off to an extent. We made great money on Caulker, and of course we got £400k (+ a sell-on clause) for Luongo. We’ve also got Townsend who is now worth a considerable amount of money, Livermore who we could sell for upwards of £4m in Jan should we want to, as well as Kane and Carroll who are turning heads. Bentaleb’s probably next in line, with Veljkovic hopefully not far behind. But obviously we need to be aiming to bring through first team players rather than bringing them through to sell them; that has to be the ideal.

For me we have so much talent bubbling under the surface that we could be doing even more. I look at Ryan Mason and I look at players like James McCarthy at Everton or Tom Cleverley at United, and I don’t see much difference. For me, if Mason had been given a few opportunities earlier in his career he’d be an established squad member by now. He’s a real talent. Injury prone, but a real talent. Check out what a Swindon fan thinks of he, Pritchard and Hall.

Good luck to our youngsters this evening.

As an aside, the Emergency Loan window closes for Football League clubs at 5pm today, so there is a chance that we could see young players leaving on loan.

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November 26, 2013

Loanee update – Spurs youngsters to be sent on loan?

Jake Livermore has started ten games for Hull City (and made one substitute appearance) and has become a firm favourite. He’s impressed so much that the majority of Hull’s fan-base want Livermore to sign permanently. When questioned on whether he’d consider signing for Hull permanently, Livermore said

“I’m prepared for anything in football. I’m enjoying my time here, I love the lads, the manager and the fans. Everyone here is brilliant and I’m getting a run of games so it’s so far, so good.”

He gave The Telegraph a very interesting interview on young, English footballers in which he spoke a lot of sense:

“I don’t think the biggest problem facing English football is producing players, I think the biggest problem is giving young players enough experience in the Premier League.”

Steve Bruce  has admitted that he’s worried about Livermore returning to Spurs in January, saying: “There is a possibility that Jake and Danny [Graham] will be going back to their parent clubs, and that is something we just have to live with. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened, and we have to be ready for it. It’s a concern.”

Most Spurs fans were surprised to see Benoit Assou-Ekotto sent on loan to QPR at the end of the transfer window. There were rumours of an off-pitch incident with Andre Villas-Boas, and you’d have to think that this was the case, given that Assou-Ekotto is so far beyond Kyle Naughton in terms of left-back competition; it can surely only have been a breach of discipline or a falling out that triggered the move. Assou-Ekotto insists that playing for Redknapp was the reason that he was tempted to QPR:

“I’m enjoying being here. I love working with Harry. He was the main reason I came. The fans have been great to me too.”

He’s made nine starts and one substitute appearance so far, and the fans seem to have taken to him judging by this thread.

Tom Carroll played four matches for QPR before being struck down by an ankle injury. The fan verdicts were mixed, but the players seem keen, Karl Henry saying:

“We’ve missed Tom Carroll since his injury, because he’s done fantastically well for us.”

The good news is that Carroll is due to return to QPR early next week after recovering from injury.

Whilst the fans don’t love him (yet), his statistics look mighty impressive. Across his four appearances, he’s averaging 13 more passes (82.3) than the next player in the Championship (Joey Barton, 68.9), which is remarkable (NB: I’m ignoring George Thorn, who has played one game for Watford, but made 84 passes). Impressively Carroll’s also averaging the most tackles per game (4.5) in the division.

Adam Smith has started nine matches and been brought on as a substitute in one as he attempts to establish himself as Derby’s first-choice right-back. He has been in and out of the side, and has been an unused substitute in their last four.

Smith is now competing with another loan signing, Andre Wisdom, and new boss Steve McClaren commented on the pair after the recent game against Birmingham:

“Adam Smith has done very well for us and I have no qualms with Adam, but Andre Wisdom came in and adapted very well. He showed his quality, his strength and he was good on the ball. All the qualities you expect from a player from Liverpool.”

For me, it would make sense to recall Smith at the earliest opportunity and move him somewhere where he’ll be guaranteed starts.

Simon Dawkins recently joined Smith at Derby County, where he’s made five appearance so far on the right of a front three; four as a starter, and one off the bench. He’s managed one goal so far (at 20 seconds here).

This fans seems impressed by Dawkins so far:

Derby though dominates, Simon Dawkins, always an option, gets better with each match, he excites the crowd and promises so much.

Bongani Khumalo has turned out 18 times for Doncaster Rovers so far (16 in the Championship). I asked local journalist Paul Goodwin (of the Doncaster Free Press & Doncaster Star) how he’d done so far – Paul’s impressed:

Excellent Chris, slotted in seamlessly – very calm, good in air. Big test for him now fellow CB Rob Jones is injured though.

It’s also worth pointing out that Khumalo played for South Africa as they stunned Spain to win 1-0 in the international break.

Centre-back Grant Hall has played 23 matches for Swindon Town (17 in League One) thus far. He’s played mostly in a back four, but more recently in a three.

Alex Pritchard has played 21 times (20 starts) for Swindon, and in his 15 league appearances, he has two goals and five assists – the most assists of all of Swindon’s players.

Ryan Mason has had yet another injury-hit season, playing 12 matches in total for Swindon Town, eight of which were starts. He has scored four goals and got one assist in those matches, playing mostly as number 10, but dropping deeper more recently.

Swindon fan Nigel has been pretty pleased with the Spurs players so far – his latest update for me at the start of November reported the following:

Ryan Mason returned from injury two weeks ago and has started twice since then. Played superbly in a deeper role of CM rather than CAM.

Alex Pritchard played as perhaps a second striker (No.10 sort) and played very well. Had great work rate and moved the ball on the floor quickly. Did get booked, in the end, for diving though.

Grant Hall doesn’t look like he suits a 3-5-2 formation (been playing it last 4/5 games) makes a few mistakes but has the ability to make up for them going forwards.

EDIT: Today I’ve received a further update from Nigel:

Alex Pritchard: Played in a number of formations, playing most effectively as a no.10 just behind a target man. Has shown great technical ability & can beat a player.

Ryan Mason: Although slightly injury prone he has arguably been our best player this season when fully fit. Passing & skill on the ball is on another level to most players in L1. Has a goal or two in him.

Grant Hall: Very good on the ball for a league one CB,  however lacks strength, composure & pace. He may look better next to a quicker/better defender, but he does not get that playing alongside Darren Ward. Has slightly improved as a centre back as the season has gone on, but his rather frequent mistakes, which unfortunately are usually punished, has overshadowed this.

Lawrence Vigouroux joined Hyde of the The Skrill Premier (Conference Premier) for a month at the end of October, and has so far made five appearances. Unfortunately four of those have been defeats – 2-1, 4-0, 3-2 and 2-1 – but they managed to draw one 2-2. After his debut the Manchester Evening News reported that he made “a string of excellent saves”. Fans on their forum seem very pleased with his performances so far.

Tomislav Gomelt has only played 39 minutes across two appearances so far for Royal Antwerp in the Belgian Second Division (for comparison, John Bostock – at the club permanently – has made 16 appearances). He has had a number of injuries that have disrupted his season, and he was also away representing Croatia U-19s in October. It’s worth noting that Antwerp are now managed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

Yago Falque has played 492 minutes across eight starts for Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, including a start against Real Madrid at the beginning of November where he actually had the ball in the net (although it was ruled out). Despite being involved from the start a lot, he has been substituted in seven of his eight appearances.

Cristian Ceballos has managed 336 minutes across five appearances for Arouca in the Portuguese Premier League. He’s made four starts, one substitute appearances, and has also been an unused sub three times.

Loan window

The loan window for Football League clubs closes at 17:00 on Thursday, 28 November. I would not be expecting a mass exodus of Spurs youngters going out on loan, because they’ve simply not had the opportunities to showcase their talents.

The Under-21 fixtures – where scouts get an opportunity to watch our young talent – have been few and far between. This means not only that there are fewer opportunities to impress, but that when they do have opportunities, they are not match sharp.

I gather that there was a behind closed doors friendly last week in which Ken McEvoy impressed – if any players are to go out on loan, perhaps he will be one.

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November 24, 2013

23/11/13 Tottenham Hotspur U18s 4-2 Arsenal U18s, Hotspur Way

Luke McGee (18)
Kyle Walker-Peters (16) Cameron Carter-Vickers (15) Filip Lesniak (17) Connor Ogilvie (17)
Harry Winks (17)
Josh Onomah (16) Will Miller (17)
Emmanuel Sonupe (17) Daniel Akindayini (18) Nathan Oduwa (17)

Subs:
Joe Pritchard (17) for Harry Winks, 60.
Anthony Georgiou (16) for Emmanuel Sonupe, 70.
Shayon Harrison (16) for Daniel Akindayini, 70.

Sub not used:
Liam Priestley (18)
Anton Walkes (16)

Arsenal XI:

Matt Macey
Chiori Johnson Alfred Mugabo Lenader Siemann Arinse Uade
Renny Smith Jack Jebb
Tarum Dawkins Daniel Crowley Alex Iwobi
Steffy Mavididi

Spurs were nearly full-strength, just missing the injured Christian Maghoma from their strongest XI. Lesniak dropped into central defence to cover him, allowing Winks and Onomah to share duties as the midfield “pivot”. On the other hand, Arsenal fielded a weakened team due to their UEFA Youth League fixture against Marseille this coming Monday – they made five changes from their previous match against Chelsea, and Chuba Akpom was one of those omitted.

Arsenal started quickly and looked keen to get the ball forward quickly on the deck. It took a few minutes for the Spurs boys to get going, before they managed to play out from the back, and Akindayini held the ball up and won a free kick, which gave them a chance to get organised.

Sonupe had the first opening as he got onto Harry Winks’ pass, cut in from the right touch-line, and smashed his shot well over.

The impressive Alex Iwobi, nephew of Jay-Jay Okocha, was unhappy when he was adjudged to have fouled Harry Winks in midfield – he may have got some of the ball, but it was a very physical challenge and he came in from the side, so I could see why the referee stopped play.

Sonupe’s dangerous low cross was cleared for a corner, which Winks took. The goalkeeper rose to claim the delivery, but spilled the ball and it was worked back to Winks after a scramble. He created space and struck goal-wards, but his effort was deflected over for another corner. This time Miller met the set piece at the near post, but sent his attempt wide.

Oduwa carried the ball forward and sent Sonupe a little wide with his pass. He stood a cross up to the far post, where Miller controlled a volleyed effort nicely, but couldn’t generate any power.

Carter-Vickers committed a foul, but Ogilvie towered above his opponent in the air and cleared Jebb’s free kick.

Arsenal’s left-back, Uade, let the ball drift out of play for the second time in quick succession, before Miller lost the ball in a dangerous area, with Lesniak reading the situation well and stepping in.

Akindayini then had a fantastic opportunity to open the scoring. Winks strode forward and slid a pass to Sonupe – he beat his man and sent in a perfect cross. Akindayini arrived in the six-yard box at the right time, but his volleyed effort flew over.

Spurs then showed their counter-attacking brilliance. With Lesniak struggling to dispossess his man, Oduwa dropped back in to the left-back area help out. He won the ball, carried it forward, played two give-and-gos, and slid in Sonupe, who had his effort blocked. A superb run from the talented Oduwa nonetheless.

Crowley curled over after McGee’s throw out to Sonupe was cut out – Crowley had some neat early touches, but seemed to get frustrated with himself and his teammates, and was not shy in letting them know.

McGee’s distribution was better the next time, as he sprayed an excellent pass out to Ogilvie. He headed on first time for Oduwa, who nodded the ball down into his own stride, and showed terrific pace to beat his man on the outside. He took on the cross on his weaker left foot, but it was cut out.

Winks’ free kick drifted just over, before Lesniak and Miller sandwiched Smith after Ogilvie had committed himself on halfway. Ogilvie cleared the resulting free kick with ease.

Spurs took the lead, and it required some excellent refereeing to allow it to happen. Sonupe turned away from his man, Mugabo, who did everything he could to stop him progressing – grabbing at him and attempting to trip him. Sonupe regained his footing and carried on regardless, with the referee indicating the advantage. He continued on and fed Akindayini with a slide-rule pass. It looked from my vantage point that Akindayini toe-poked beyond the goalkeeper, but I’m told that it was a defender who actually put the ball into his own net.

At the other end, Winks made a good saving challenge on Jebb on the edge of the box, before Oduwa set off again on another excellent driving run. He slipped Miller in on the right and he shot low and hard back across the goalkeeper and found the net to make it 2-0.

Ogilvie was forced to foul Dawkins on the edge of the box as he found space. McGee went to great lengths to organise the wall appropriately, but Jebb curled the kick over the angle of post and bar.

Uade made a fantastic challenge on Walker-Peters to stop a break forward, and a minute later Arsenal pulled a goal back. Jebb – Arsenal’s best and most influential player – rose unchallenged between the Spurs centre-backs to meet a cross from the young full-back, Chiori Johnson. He nodded it back in the direction it had come, beyond McGee.

It occurred to me at this point that Winks and Onomah had switched roles – Onomah dropping back to play as the pivot, with Winks moving further forward. In truth, they probably showed the flexibility to switch roles more frequently than I’m giving them credit for.

The last real action of the half saw a bit of Sonupe trickery create a crossing opportunity, but it was put out for a corner, which Winks curled out of play.

Spurs made it 3-1 after the restart when centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers was on-hand to tap home from about a yard out, after Onomah’s low cross had eluded the Arsenal defenders. Carter-Vickers had pushed forward to press the ball and continued his run.

Spurs should have gone further ahead when Akindayini met another excellent Sonupe cross, but Macey made a fantastic stop – in truth, Akindayini failed to make a clean connection, and should have given the goalkeeper no chance.

Arsenal replaced Dawkins with Kaylen Hinds, who was originally listed on the team sheet as starting the game.

McGee fumbled a cross slightly, but Ogilvie mopped up well, before Arsenal’s forward, Steffy Mavididi, struck a loose ball cleanly goal-wards, with McGee equal to it

Joe Pritchard came on for Harry Winks – he went to play at left back, with Ogilvie shifting across to centre-back and Lesniak moving to his more familiar holding midfield role.

Spurs grabbed a fourth with Oduwa again at the heart of the move. He weaved his way forward before scooping the ball over the back line towards Miller. Johnson missed his clearance, leaving Miller in the clear to slam a textbook volley past Macey.

Hinds nipped in to take advantage of a loose pass from Miller, but Carter-Vickers swept in to usher him off the ball effortlessly.

After Arsenal had a spell of possession around the edge of the box, Pritchard dived in with a very strong tackle to win the ball and get it to safety.

Spurs replaced Akindayini and Sonupe with Harrison and Georgiou for the final 20 minutes, but in truth Spurs took their foot off the gas a little at a time when they could have added a few more goals.

Oduwa burst through and played the ball on to Onomah. He cut in but didn’t get his shot away early enough; instead, he had to lay off to Georgiou, who took on a shot from a far more difficult angle which flew wide.

Spurs nearly had a fifth when Georgiou pounced on an error and played across for Oduwa, who drew a fabulous save from Macey.

Oduwa then beat his man with a piece of skill on halfway, got down the left, hit the byline, and played a ball inches ahead of the onrushing Harrison.

Onomah put an effort wide from an Oduwa cross, before Oduwa showed a terrific attitude by dropping in to cover at left-back as Pritchard went forward.

Lesniak played in Oduwa with a lovely pass, but his firm snapshot was saved when it looked to be heading towards the top corner. Following the resulting corner, Pritchard’s shot was blocked for another corner.

As Arsenal looked to keep the ball at the end, one of their defenders shouted “we’re playing as if we’re winning” – this seemed to instil some urgency, and Jebb had a shot which was saved by McGee. They went a step further minutes later when substitute Jamal Raage got on the end of a terrific pass from Crowley and sent a tidy finish into the bottom corner.

Arsenal have tended to ‘save’ players for their UEFA Youth League fixtures so this wasn’t their strongest XI. That said, you can only beat what you’re up against, and Spurs missed a string of chances and could have won this more handsomely.  The approach play was generally excellent, with both wide men a constant threat.

Luke McGee 7 – He is an exceptionally vocal goalkeeper, giving clear instructions throughout. Did pretty much everything asked of him.
Kyle Walker-Peters 8 – The best word to describe him is “swashbuckling”; he is up and down the line constantly, competent at both ends of the pitch, and has a great work ethic.
Cameron Carter-Vickers 8 – It’s hard to believe this kid is just 15. So strong, so dominant, and so calm in possession.
Filip Lesniak 7 – Did really well filling in at centre back, and then seamlessly moved to play the holding midfield role in the second half.
Connor Ogilvie 7 – To put it simply, he’s too good for this age group now, and needs more games for the Under-21s. It’s just a shame there aren’t more matches available.
Harry Winks 8 – I really enjoyed his first half performance, where he moved both the ball and himself gracefully and with style.
Josh Onomah 7 – Another solid performance from a talented player. I would like to see him get beyond the striker a little more often, but I’m not sure if that’s something his role would allow.
Will Miller 7 – Not his greatest game overall, but he came away with two very goals from tidy finishes and that will please his manager.
Emmanuel Sonupe 8 – A constant threat, with consistently dangerous end product.
Daniel Akindayini 6 – Some decent runs to stretch the defenders, and it was nice to see him putting the defence under pressure with his work rate… but I still feel like he needs to involve himself more.
Nathan Oduwa 8 – Tricky, creative, strong, direct. I like him. I like him a lot.

Joe Pritchard – a steady showing in an unfamiliar position.
Anthony Georgiou – had a chance to show his terrific pace, although came on at a time when Spurs seemed to take their foot of the gas a little.
Shayon Harrison – as above, didn’t get an opportunity to have a major impact.

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November 16, 2013

So, what’s going wrong? Part 2

In Part 1 I discussed:

– The high line leading to an overly compressed pitch.
– Inverted wingers failing.
– The number ten struggling to create.

In this section I’ll focus on:

– Soldado not doing enough.
– A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′.
– No Plan B / ability to change our approach.

Soldado not doing enough

There are two main schools of thought on Roberto Soldado:

1. We’ve bought a dud; he’s not good enough.

2. We’re not playing to his strengths.

I think the truth is somewhere in between. He hasn’t played especially well – and I’ve voiced concerns before about him not doing a great deal other than finishing off chances – but we’ve not found him in the box enough. The question, then, is: is that due to his lack of movement, or is it due to the lack of incisive passes finding him?

I think at times we delay our passes too long. For example, as you can see from this still of the Everton game, Lennon has an opportunity to cross for Soldado – he could cross with his left foot, or the outside of his right, such is the space that he has.

Lennon Soldado
Against Everton, Lennon didn’t play the early pass.

Instead Lennon checks back onto his right, and curls in a cross which leaves Soldado having to create power on his header from a standing start. Effectively, the opportunity is lost.

Here, against Newcastle, Soldado links well with Paulinho and then makes a tremendous run in behind Williamson as Townsend strides forward to get on the end of a fabulous Paulinho pass. Townsend takes on a shot when any kind of accurate cross would surely find Soldado in space.

Soldado2

Soldado gets onto the rebound, but is unable to direct it into the corner.

In this example, though, Soldado should surely do more – Eriksen creates a yard of space on the right and whips in a well-shaped cross. Soldado lurks around the penalty spot, but then fails to make a decisive run, and is caught on his heels somewhat.

Soldado1

Generally speaking, Soldado’s movement in the box is good, and he thrives on finding pockets of space which allow him to take on shots early.

This video gives a good indication of the types of goals he typically scores – he’s a real poacher in the six-yard box, but also scores lots of volleys from a little further out. For me, we need to feed the ball into the box earlier and more frequently, and allow Soldado to develop some faith in the ball coming to him more quickly.

A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′

Sandro is probably our best outfield player, and should start nearly every league game for which he is fit. Bold statement, perhaps, but I am such a huge fan of the Brazilian, and I think he adds so much – at both ends of the pitch.

Not only is he a tremendous defensive shield, but his incredible energy means that his proactive pressing wins us the ball high up the pitch. Alongside this, he also frees up his midfield partner to do the same, safe in the knowledge that he is there to mop up if necessary.

It’s not a good idea to use a single game as evidence, but I think a comparison of the first half of the Newcastle game (without Sandro) and the second half (with Sandro) speaks volumes.

1st1st half defensive dashboard vs Newcastle

2nd2nd half defensive dashboard vs Newcastle

Key

Key

Whilst none of those tackles were Sandro’s, five of the interceptions were – including two of the four in Newcastle’s half. Although viewed as a defensive player, he is critical to getting us playing further forward and on the front foot.

There have been times this season where I’d have liked us to select a passer alongside Sandro. André Villas-Boas used to frequently use the phrase ‘vertical’, referring to the ability to move the ball, directly, towards the opposition goal. Dembélé’ is terrific at dribbling with the ball (he averages 2.4 dribbles per game) and protecting it, and Paulinho is an all-action player who gets up and down the pitch a phenomenal amount, but neither excels at distribution. Both Dembélé’ (91.4%) and Paulinho’s (86.3%) boast decent pass completion stats, but it’s fair to say that both of these players favour moving the ball laterally.

Étienne Capoue is a good passer of the ball, and his return could signal a return to slightly more direct football, but personally I think that using Holtby in a deeper midfield role would offer greater ability to move the ball vertically. Holtby himself has said in the past that he sees himself as an ‘8’, and it would seem logical to me to give him an opportunity alongside Sandro against teams that want to sit back and play on the counter.

No Plan B / ability to change of approach

There’s little doubt that AVB’s pragmatic tactical approach is not for everyone. However, even for those like myself for whom that pragmatism is Not A Bad Thing per se, his absolute rigidity can frustrate.

There have been times when we have played 4-1-4-1 (particularly before Capoue’s injury). There have even been times that we have played 4-3-3. But essentially these formations are slight variations on the 4-2-3-1 that we mostly play.

The only other substantial tactical switch this season has been the switch to 4-4-2 after bringing Jermain Defoe off the bench. AVB tried this against Arsenal, Hull, and Newcastle, and indeed both Soldado and Defoe were on the pitch when Vertonghen’s cross was handled by Elmohamady, leading to Soldado scoring a penalty against Hull. But, frankly, the switch to 4-4-2 has been bizarrely illogical, and the two forwards look ill-suited to playing together. In the Newcastle game we lost momentum almost as soon as Defoe came on (I’m not blaming the player for this, but the change in shape).

AVB could argue that he’s been deprived of the services of Emmanuel Adebayor. Adebayor is still to be re-integrated following the death of his brother; initially he was not in the right mental state, and now he’s presumably not match fit. He has been included on the bench just once. Adebayor is a player who, in theory, should be able to strike up a partnership in a 4-4-2 – he is an unselfish player who looks to link with others as much as he looks to find the net himself, and works hard to drop deep to show for the ball, as well as moving wide to receive the ball in the channels.

But AVB has had the option of using Harry Kane – a player who, like Adebayor, likes to drop deep and link play, and who has impressed when given the chance this season. However, Kane has been used very sparingly, and mostly from the left.

I think there are quite a few things that AVB could try that would not be overly damaging to his and our defensive shape: more direct (long) passing; switching the wingers every now and again; asking one of the centre backs to carry the ball further; dropping Holtby or Sigurdsson deeper to play as one of the midfield ‘2’ when we’re chasing a goal. Simple things that could have a positive effect.

Final thoughts

Firstly, there’s no need to panic. It’s early days for this Spurs team, who are accommodating seven new first team players. There is a need for the new players to settle into English football, for the rest of the squad to get to know their games, for the coaches to fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses.

We’re pretty dominant when it comes to possession and shots, and it’s hopefully a matter of time before the goals follow. Some tweaks are surely needed though – the fact that Townsend is averaging more shots per game (4.5) than any other Premier League player and that Paulinho (3.3) is not far behind him (he’s 6th in the list) tells me that our midfielders are taking on too many long-range efforts.

It might not please fans, but *more* patience is required from our players in certain circumstances – i.e. there will be times when we need to pass sideways more, and when we even need to pass backwards more. We can’t let the frustration of not creating lead to Townsend and Paulinho giving up possession up to eight times a game through taking on wild shots. We need to cycle the ball, keep it moving, provoke the opposition into coming out of their defensive shape, and look to unpick them with accurate crosses and clever through balls.

But on the whole, I’d much rather we attempt to play the ball forward more quickly, rather than the tepid build-up play leading to teams getting bodies behind the ball, and our midfield taking on a long-range shot as a result. Townsend is so good at tempting players towards him with his driving runs, but he can’t let his youthful enthusiasm lead to frustration. As he tempts players in, he needs to get his head up more quickly and lay-off to his teammates.

On the whole, the season has got off to a solid if unspectacular start. We are five points off the top of the league, having made progression in the League Cup and Europa League. I am hoping to see some positive changes, but am also keeping the faith that AVB has the intelligence and foresight to make them.

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November 14, 2013

So, what’s going wrong? Part 1

I started writing this blog post almost immediately after the Newcastle game and, between then and now, I’ve read some fantastic articles on Spurs. So a quick shout-out first to the following, which are all worth your time (but not before you’ve read the rest of this post, eh?!):

18 Lessons Villas-Boas, His Team And The Fans Have To Take On Board by Raj Bains.

Tactics Tuesday: Bad Townsend, Good Townsend by Brett Rainbow.

Statsbomb Mythbusting: Christian Eriksen vs Newcastle by Ted Knutson.

Before I begin getting my teeth into where I think it’s going wrong for us, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not all doom and gloom for Spurs – certainly not results-wise. For example, if you replace the relegated clubs in alphabetical order (i.e. QPR are replaced by Cardiff, Reading by Crystal Palace, and Wigan by Hull City), Spurs are three points better off than they were in the corresponding fixtures in 2012/13 – the season in which we famously achieved our highest Premier League points tally (with thanks to @EdwardPrz for the stats).

However, it would be foolish to pretend that everything is rosy, and the style of football and – more importantly to most – the lack of goals, have led to many Spurs fans starting to grumble about Andre Villas-Boas.

I wrote back in October that AVB needed to find a Plan B, citing the following reasons as to why I had some concerns over the direction we’re going:

– Tactical inflexibility
– No ‘passer’ in midfield
– Set pieces
– Lack of involvement of youth players
– Potential short-termism

Nothing I’ve seen since then has changed my mind on any of the above, although we’ve actually managed to score from a set piece; Vertonghen scored against Sheriff and had a very good chance with a back post header against Newcastle too.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where things are breaking down, except of course for the obvious; we’re not scoring. Is one or a number of the following to blame?

– The high line leading to an overly compressed pitch.
– Inverted wingers failing.
– The number ten struggling to create.
– Soldado not doing enough.
– A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′.
– No Plan B / ability to change our approach.

I think it’s simplest to take each in order.

The high line compressing the pitch too much

Our high line – Villas-Boas’ most famous tactic – has been a defensive success overall, although when it goes wrong, it looks very, very bad (see the West Ham game for an obvious example). However, looking at how it impacts on our attacking abilities, many have begun arguing that opposition teams have sussed out the tactic and are using it against us.

If our opponents get bodies behind the ball it means that, given that almost half of the pitch is already ‘out of bounds’ due to our central defender’s positions, the likes of Soldado and Eriksen are incredibly restricted in terms of space to move into, and space to work in.

It’s all well and good controlling possession, but if there’s no space to make a late dart into or to find a killer pass from, the conversion of that possession into genuine chances is highly restricted.

Personally, I think the benefits outweigh the negatives. Aside from West Ham – which we have to see as a blip (the poor marking for the opener, the lack of pressure on the ball for goal two, and Vertonghen, Dembele and Dawson committing themselves for goal three were individual errors, for example) – we’ve looked compact, solid, organised, and 13 clean sheets in 19 games suggests to me that the high line is working from a defensive viewpoint.

At the other end, I think AVB puts a lot of faith in our players (rightly or wrongly) to play in tight spaces, and we mostly have players technically good enough to do that – Paulinho’s perfect first-time assist for Soldado against Villa is a good example of when it can work. Lamela’s lovely cross for Paulinho’s cheeky goal against Cardiff is another.

Also, when you look at how Bale (and Townsend to an extent) played, there’s still space to be had – it just depends on other players helping to create it, and how we use the ball once we have it in the final third.

I don’t think our deep midfield players help us by carrying the ball forward. In doing so, they just encourage the central region to become even more congested as they are pressed in the opponents’ half, and also put pressure on themselves to find an eye of a needle pass – and let’s be honest, neither Dembele or Paulinho have that in their locker. And they certainly don’t have the ability to do it more often than not.

The key is to pass the ball quickly and early – to get it to the front four ideally as soon as we win it back. I think Sandro will be vital in this – he doesn’t dally. He wins the ball high up the pitch with his incredible pressing, and looks to offload it quickly – the others need to learn a thing or two from that. Of course, Capoue’s return will also help; he’s a talented passer, and an excellent reader of the game.

Inverted wingers failing

Many see the inverted wingers that we utilise as our main problem, as they come inside and congest the central region which we want to exploit. I wrote in October that inverted wingers can work well – and indeed are used by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – but that overlapping full-backs providing the width, and quick, direct passing from midfield are vital.

A wide player coming inside creates an overload in a vital area, and a technically-gifted team should be able to use this to their advantage. However, we’ve not made the most of this numerical superiority for a number of reasons – one of which is, probably, the personnel selected.

Rather than spend time analysing Andros Townsend specifically, I’ll instead signpost you to Brett Rainbow’s excellent article, which summarises the good and bad aspects of Townsend’s play.

One thing I’d add is that, for me, Townsend needs to play higher up the pitch. Too often he is found dropping deep to collect the ball, and I’ve no doubt that this mostly comes about because our central midfield two are not good enough at taking the ball from the centre-backs, and moving it forward quickly. Townsend’s great at driving forward from deep areas, but it means that by the time he’s required to make an incisive pass or beat the last man, he’s lost the impetus he initially had.

Townsend
Townsend’s heat map vs Newcastle – I’d like to see him hit the byline more often.

Given that Walker is so good at carrying the ball forward, I would ask Townsend to start 10 or 15 yards higher than he currently does, and to look to link-up in the final third rather than in front of the defence, where he often frustrates by taking on ambitious shots due to lack of other options. I would also suggest that if there is no pass on, then he should turn and play back out – he needs to retain possession nine times out of ten, whereas currently he is more likely to strike at goal from range.

On the other side of the pitch, Sigurdsson is not the most popular player in our squad, but he has managed three Premier League goals this season (33% of our total league goals). He has scored these at a rate of a goal every 191 minutes, whereas Townsend, Lennon, Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli and Holtby have managed a single goal between them in 2161 combined minutes – and that was a cross that flew over everybody and in.

Looking back to last season, Sigurdsson’s current competition for the left-sided berth, Lennon, was our top assister with seven, and also managed four goals. Sigurdsson ended the season with three goals and four assists. However, forgetting appearances and instead focussing on minutes on the pitch, Lennon ended with an assist every 403 minutes played in the league, with Sigurdsson managing one every 309 minutes – a far better rate.

Lennon ended the season averaging a goal or assist every 257 minutes, whilst Sigurdsson had a goal or assist every 176 minutes (Bale 117 for comparison). Sigurdsson may not have the pace and ability to carry the ball a long distance up the pitch, but is, simply put, a much more “productive” player than Lennon.

Many fans seem to want to play Lennon on the right, where they think he’ll beat his man on the outside and produce crosses for Soldado. Personally, I can’t remember Lennon terrorising defenders too much since the 9-1 win over Wigan Athletic four years ago.

Lennon most certainly has his uses, and I like him as a squad player/impact sub, but in my opinion, the fact that he’s renowned mostly for his steady defensive performances – tracking back and providing cover – speak volumes, and I see Sigurdsson as far better suited to our current style; selecting him is a no-brainer whilst others aren’t scoring.

Sigurdsson needs to up his game, and will benefit from Rose being back. However, he’s our most viable option on the left. Townsend has had good and bad games this year, and I think a few subtle changes could lead to him causing far more damage than he currently is. If, however, he doesn’t start to add more goals and assists to his game, Lamela will surely get a chance to play from the right soon.

The number ten struggling to create

Holtby is often referred to as a functional player, and he was rightly praised for his role in stopping Everton playing in our recent 0-0 draw. However, given his creative abilities displayed for both his former club, Schalke 04, as well as the German Under-21 side, it is unfair to tag him as purely a grafter, although it’s fair to say that he puts in a shift. He came back into the starting eleven after strong performances in the Europa League, but has struggled to nail down the starting spot, with Eriksen starting against Newcastle.

On the other hand, there’s little doubt that Eriksen has the ability to spot a pass, although questions remain over whether he is doing it enough. Ted Knutson puts forward a convincing argument for Eriksen’s performance against Newcastle being a productive one in his article Statsbomb Mythbusting: Christian Eriksen vs Newcastle, where he highlights Eriksen’s 9 key passes – a rare feat. The fact that one of these was a nudged tee-up for a free kick, and three were square passes in deep areas leading to long-range efforts mean that, for me, the truth is not quite so clear.

I still feel that Erlksen is struggling a little physically, and drifts in and out of games. It is still very early for him as he attempts to adapt from life in the Eredivisie. Whilst some players have settled tremendously well having made that same move – the likes of Luis Suarez and Jan Vertonghen, for example – there are others that did not impress so much – Mateja Kezman and Afonso Alves spring to mind. Eriksen seems to have many of the required attributes though and, at just 21, time is on his side.

Whilst Eriksen is flitting in and out of form, I think there’s an opportunity to experiment with Erik Lamela as our ten in certain matches. It was a role he played on a number of occasions for Roma and, having excelled against Sheriff, I felt that he deserved to keep his place in the Newcastle game – probably in the centre.

He is a talented dribbler and also has a bit of presence, so might help us to retain the ball better around the edge of the box. However, there is certainly no rush to bring him into the team; he is going to take time to settle to a very different way of life both on and off the pitch.

That’s your lot for today. In part 2, I’ll be covering the following:

Soldado not doing enough.
A lack of passing ability in the midfield ‘2’.
No Plan B / ability to change of approach.

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23 Jun 2017