July 30, 2015

MLS All-Stars 2-1 Spurs – some thoughts

First thing’s first: it was a friendly, so let’s not take too much to heart. We can get an impression of a player or a style, but the intensity of friendlies is so much lower than that of a Premier League match, especially at altitude. It’s easy for players to stand out when there is less pressure on the ball and, conversely, players can sometimes struggle to get motivated for friendly matches. But keeping all that in mind, here are my thoughts in bullet point form. I’ve split this it into halves as the teams were so drastically different in each.

First half

The MLS All-Stars (from here in on referred to as ‘MLSAS’) set up in a 4-1-3-2 (or midfield diamond) which was often more like a 4-3-3:

Rimando
Beltran Besler González Beasley
McCarthy
Zusi Kaka Zardes
Dempsey Villa

Spurs set up in the usual 4-2-3-1:

Vorm
Walker Alderweireld Vertonghen Davies
Bentaleb Dier
Chadli Eriksen Dembélé
Kane

– The first shot of the game came after  a couple of minutes when Jan Vertonghen sold Ben Davies short with a pass, and his clearance came out to Graham Zusi who struck it hard and low but wide. Mistakes leading to chances was a common theme in this half, as both sides gave up opportunities from errors. The opening goal came from a silly mistake from Nacer Chadli, who gave away a penalty when dangling his arm out in loosely challenging for the ball. Likewise, Spurs’ goal came from a wayward pass which Kane latched onto.

– It was notable that Spurs – as we became accustomed to last season – were keen to play out from the back despite high pressing from the front three of the MLSAS. Toby Alderweireld looked comfortable in possession, as did Eric Dier, who was not scared to drop deep (often between the centre-backs) and take the ball under pressure.

– Harry Kane had a few of fantastic chances in the first half and scored with by far the most difficult. First, Mousa Dembélé’s shot looped up off a defender, Kane was typically the first to react but volleyed straight at Rimando. From the resulting corner, Dier made good contact with a header but when the ball landed at Kane’s feet he diverted it wide. At 1-0, Dembélé tackled and then dribbled his way from right to left across the pitch and laid off for Chadli to pick out Kane – he should have made it 1-1 from point-blank range, but Kane hit the keeper again. In fairness to him, he was stretching a little on this occasion. Finally, he had one other good chance from the move of the half: Nabil Bentaleb stabbed an intelligent ball over the top, Christian Eriksen brushed Kane aside to take control, waited for Kane to break in behind his marker and played a firm ball across which Kane couldn’t quite divert towards goal. Kane’s goal was beautiful, though. He picked up on a loose pass, put Omar González on the back-foot before using him as a shield to stop the goalkeeper seeing where he was placing his shot, which rocketed past him. Lovely.

– Eric Dier played in defensive midfield, a position that we’ve not seen him play in previously for Spurs. He had a run of playing in midfield for Sporting in 2013 and has been rumoured to have been playing there in behind-closed-doors friendlies this summer. Where Ryan Mason’s first instinct is to press the ball, Dier’s is to jockey, to hold position, and to screen; two of the times he did commit to trying to win the ball, he gave away fouls resulting in a warning from the referee and, subsequently, a yellow card. Dier was not afraid to take the ball under pressure, and moved it left and right (mostly right) pretty well. He didn’t look like a complete natural in the role, but it might be worth another look.

– The odd thing about Dier playing in midfield is that Mauricio Pochettino has shown no signs so far of wanting to use a sitting player. If he’d wanted a player that could do that he’d surely have used Étienne Capoue or Benji Stambouli, or even our super-talented young Serbian player, Miloš Veljković. That Dier is ahead of Veljković in the midfield pecking order does not bode well for Milos, who seems likely to be farmed out on loan again this season. Stylistically, he doesn’t seem to be a good match for Pochettino – he’s not a high-tempo player, and he’s not a natural presser. Although he can play centre-back equally well, we’re fairly well-stocked in that area just now. We just have to hope he doesn’t end up leaving out of frustration at a lack of chances, as he’s a potential star of the future. That’s a bit of an aside.

– Another player in a slightly unfamiliar role wasMousaDembélé, who played wide on the right. He’s played there before, and played the role relatively well (particularly against Newcastle in February 2014) – I’ve actually previously said that I’m happier for him to play there than in central midfield, where I feel he slows things down too much with his ponderous style and limited range of passing. Dembélé had a hit and miss half. The good was that he was very good at escaping from being boxed in – something we know he can do well. His excellent close control and useful one-touch passing in tight spaces helped him escape a couple of times. He also went on a run across the pitch from right to left which allowed Chadli to set up Kane for a big chance. The bad was that he kept ignoring Walker’s frequent overlapping runs. The one time he did try to find Walker, he overhit his pass. He also delayed a pass too long for Ben Davies which led to Davies being caught offside when entering a dangerous position. He had a really poor two-minute cameo midway through the half: first he picked up the ball on his right foot, produced a Cruyff turn to get it onto his left and then looped a pass straight to the MLSAS full-back from the centre circle. Then, he let David Villa run in behind him in the box – fortunately the forward seemed to kick the ground and messed up his cross, allowing Dembélé to clear. Dembélé’s tendency to play the game at his own speed can be both a blessing and a curse.

– Alderweireld looked good in possession and strong at marshalling the defence and reading the game. David Villa lost him very easily in the box for the second goal – he briefly checked his run allowing him to prod home a cross-cum-shot from Kaka. I’m sure David Villa has done that to better players than Toby, so I’m not overly concerned. More concerning was Chadli failing to track the run from deep, which is fairly typical of him.

Second half

The MLS All-Stars second half team, was nowhere near as strong (or adventurous) as their first half team but still contained some talented players who are, I’m told, having good seasons. They set up in a 4-2-3-1, which I think was as below (forgive me if I’m wrong):

Ousted
Moor Marshall Ciman Francis
Cronin Juninho
Finlay Feilhaber Castillo
Kamara

Spurs continued in their 4-2-3-1 but with some personnel changes:

Vorm
Trippier Alderweireld Wimmer Davies
Dier Alli
Carroll Dembélé Chadli
Kane

With Alli more naturally attack-minded, and Dembélé more comfortable dropping deeper, the shape more closely resembled a 4-1-4-1 (or 4-3-3) at times, with Alli given license to push on.

Spurs ended the half with a very different side:

McGee
Trippier Fazio Wimmer Rose
Winks Alli
Yedlin Carroll Onomah
Coulthirst

– This was our first look at Kieran Trippier in a Spurs shirt. His first piece of action was an overhit cross which the goalkeeper claimed easily. He is renowned for his crossing, so I thought I’d keep a close eye on them – I may have missed one or two crosses, but here’s what I saw:

1. overhit and claimed by the goalkeeper.
2. fairly decent cross which came to Kane at waist height and so was tricky to control.
3. under-hit and cleared.
4. a little too high for Kane.
5. overhit from deep and ran out for a throw-in.
6. easily the best so far, drilled into a great area, nobody could get on the end of it.
7. well overhit on the run. NB: 7 crosses in 16 minutes!
8. very long, chested down by Onomah at the back post to keep it alive.
9. into right area but cut out at the near post.
10. aimed towards Winks, goalkeeper saved it as it was dropping in.

Crossing is a dying art-form – statistics show that not many goals proportionately actually come from crosses, and that it takes a lot of crosses to score a goal. Just hitting hopeful balls into the box is not helpful to a team that wants to dominate possession. I’m intrigued to see how Pochettino coaches Trippier. My best guess would be that ‘less is more’ is his slogan – attempt fewer crosses from better areas if possible. Trippier was barely tested defensively in this match, but I know from watching him a fair bit for Burnley that he is quite a rugged defender.

– Dele Alli looks a very confident player, and it’s so obvious that he has had plenty of exposure to first team football. Just five minutes in he was telling players where to pass to, hitting cross-field passes and roaming around the pitch as if he were the most experienced player on the pitch. Being used to playing in front of crowds will have helped him – he was not over-awed by the occasion. This video by SpursOnly captures his personal highlights from the match.

– Toby Alderweireld played an absolutely glorious pass which Chadli should have scored from. It’s totally GIF-worthy:

Alderweireld pass

– Harry Kane was getting a little frustrated in that half. First, he messed up a chance (from Alli’s pass) then he made a bad pass. He pounded the turf after doing that, and then a few minutes later he took on a stupid shot from a really way out. Desperate to impress his adoring fans?

– After a glut of substitutions were made, Tom Carroll moved inside into the number 10 role, with Harry Winks partnering Alli and DeAndre Yedlin playing on the right. Carroll was so-so – he worked hard and tried to make things happen creatively, although not even close to everything came off. Winks had a very tidy cameo and one particular moment – where he started a move deep in midfield and then surged forward – showcased his ability to play in both halves. Yedlin’s touches were often disappointing and he struggled to have an impact. Josh Onomah played out of position on the left and had a great chance to score. He was found by Kane after a neat move on the edge of the box, and tried to pass it into the far corner – unfortunately he didn’t get enough on it and the goalkeeper saved it comfortably. Onomah didn’t see a lot of the ball aside from that. Luke McGee had a stint in goal and showed great distribution.

– Danny Rose made a fantastic saving tackle after Federico Fazio was caught out over on the right – Fazio is rumoured to be one who could leave, and our depth at centre-back (Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Dier, Wimmer) means that this could happen without a replacement being sought.

– The timing of this match was really bad. I get that the US market is huge to the club, and it’s genuinely great that American fans get to see the team up close and personal, but an uninterrupted period at our purpose-built facilities right now would have been really useful for fitness and for getting the team organised and drilled. All that travelling for one match seems a really bad use of time. The same can be said of the Audi Cup – it’s far, far too close to the season opener, and is clearly more about money and developing the brand than it is about preparing the players for the start of the season.

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July 18, 2015

Football Intelligence – the game’s direction of travel

Some people are turned off by statistics in football. Frequently I get responses when I tweet basic stats saying ‘I use my eyes’ – or words along those lines – disregarding any form of data or numbers. That’s fine – we all appreciate football in different ways.

Well, I unashamedly like data. I don’t ‘do’ stats  particularly well; I don’t have a formal background in statistics and I’ve never been involved in that type of scholarly research, and so I leave it to the experts and mostly keep it simple, focusing on ‘events’ – tackles, passes, assists, shots, goals. But there’s a growing community dedicated to ‘advanced’ statistic and, at major football clubs, teams of statisticians are starting to use ‘football intelligence’ data.

I had been recommended this presentation by various people over the last couple of months, and today I finally got around to watching it. It is Damien Comolli – formerly Sporting Director at Spurs (2005 – 2008) – presenting a Performance.LAB Innovation Seminar about Squad Management.

I don’t want to spoil it, as it’s a must watch. But it’s fairly Spurs-centric, and Nabil Bentaleb is used as an example throughout. In addition, if this doesn’t make you want us to sign Christoph Kramer, nothing will.

At the same event, Paul Power gave a presentation about Game Intelligence. He states towards the beginning of the presentation that they used 260 million points of data to prepare for that presentation alone. That is remarkable in itself. But look at how they’re using it, and it will blow your mind.

It amused me somewhat that Comolli talks about how Luka Modrić – a player who doesn’t stand out when you look at event data alone – helped drive them to work on some of these models. To essentially prove, statistically, that he is the brilliant player that we know he is from simply using our eyes.

Where this will lead next is fascinating. This sort of data is already being used to recruit players, and to analyse existing players’ performance. Indeed at Spurs we have Paul Mitchell, recruited at the back end of 2014 from Southampton as Head of Recruitment and Analysis. He who is famous for his ‘black box’ and use of data. He uses data and visuals together, presumably in ways similar to what is seen in Comolli’s seminar.

The next step will be to drive coaching forward – to apply the numbers to coaching methods and to help players improve based on very specific data. To prepare players and teams for specific opponents by targeting their weaknesses and stopping them from using their strengths.

Of course you can’t just have the data. You need someone to analyse it, you need someone to present it, and you need to make judgements and have conversations – to remember that different coaches want different players to do different things. It’d be no good to give Mauricio Pochettino a player who is brilliant at controlling possession and tempo by taking lots of touches because he actually wants his players to move the ball quickly.

And so conversations need to be had, logic needs to be applied, and also personalities need to be analysed. But it’s fascinating nonetheless.

I expect some form of backlash in terms of how players will adapt to being analysed. For example, players all get their numbers back immediately after a match, and there have been stories about players playing lots of safe, square passes between one another late in games to drive their pass completion up. Advanced analytics and football intelligence will know this, and these sorts of safe passes will not allow the player to stand out – because only passes that matter will add value.

You can, of course, still continue watching football without digging any deeper – the beauty of the game need not change. But rest assured that beneath the surface is a team aiming to ensure that clubs get every inch of value from players in an ever-changing environment.

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July 18, 2015

25-man squad update – July 2015

Prior to the past few seasons I have written about how our 25-man squad is shaping up in line with the ‘home grown’ rule. I have been asked to do the same again this year.

To summarise the rule again, we are able to name a 25-man squad if eight of the players are ‘home grown’. We could name fewer than eight home grown players, but would need to also name fewer than 25 players in our squad – for example, if we only have seven home grown players, we can name a 24-man squad, 6/23, 5/22, etc. A home grown player is defined as follows:

… one who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).

We do not need to name players who are under 21 on our squad list; for the 2015/16 campaign, players considered ‘under 21’ will have been born on or after 1st January 1994.

Since the beginning of last season we have lost one ‘home grown’ player (Kyle Naughton) from our squad list, and can expect to lose at least one more (Aaron Lennon). We have added Kieran Trippier, who is home grown, but also two non-home grown players in Toby Alderweireld and Kevin Wimmer. Dele Alli falls into the under-21 category.

Also, since last season, Harry Kane has passed the age threshold and will need to be named in the squad, whereas last year he was simply included in our list of under-21 players.

As it stands, our ‘named’ 25-man squad would probably consist of the following (* = home grown player):

Hugo Lloris
Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker*
Danny Rose*
Kieran Trippier*
Ben Davies*
DeAndre Yedlin

Jan Vertonghen
Toby Alderweireld
Kevin Wimmer
Federico Fazio
Vlad Chiriches

Ryan Mason*
Mousa Dembélé
Benjamin Stambouli
Tom Carroll*

Christian Eriksen
Nacer Chadli
Erik Lamela
Andros Townsend*
Alex Pritchard *
Aaron Lennon*

Harry Kane*
Emmanuel Adebayor
Roberto Soldado

That would mean that the following would miss out:

Grant Hall*
Ryan Fredericks*

We are then able to select any players who were born after January 1994 without needing to register them. This means that any of the following (plus the other first and second year academy scholars) would be available for selection. NB: I have presented them in age order.

Eric Dier
Shaq Coulthirst
Kenny McEvoy
Nabil Bentaleb
Grant Ward (on loan at Rotherham)
Dominic Ball
Luke McGee
Milos Veljkovic
Harry Winks
Connor Ogilvie
Nathan Oduwa
Emmanuel Sonupe
Dele Alli
William Miller
Joe Pritchard
Harry Voss
Anton Walkes
Luke Amos
Anthony Georgiou
Cy Goddard
Kyle Walker-Peters
Joshua Onomah
Shayon Harrison
Cameron Carter-Vickers
Ismail Azzaoui

Essentially what this means is that if we want to add another player born after January 1994 to the squad, we have to remove another to make space. This should be no problem, as I would expect Soldado, Adebayor, Lennon, Stambouli, Chiriches, and possibly Dembélé/Fazio (depending on offers) to move on, opening up at least five spaces for new signings should we wish to make them.

Our ‘home grown’ quota is looking very healthy, with ten in the 25-man squad as it stands.

With so much young talent coming through, we look pretty comfortable in terms of home grown numbers for the coming years, although it’s worth noting that Eric Dier will not be able to be named as a home grown player when he passes the age threshold next season, as he does not meet the criteria due to his football upbringing in Portugal. I am fairly certain, though, that Nabil Bentaleb *will* be counted as home grown (depending on when he was formally registered).

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July 4, 2015

The Danger of Expectation

Let’s make one thing clear: what happened to Harry Kane last season was not just a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience for the player – it was a once in a lifetime experience for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. It was perfection. Can it ever get better than that for a player in his first full season in the top flight? It’s so, so unlikely.

In the past few weeks I have received countless tweets asking who the next young players to break through are – and I respond by reeling off the same names that I’ve been talking up for months. There are articles written each week which list the most likely academy players to ‘follow in Kane’s footsteps’. But it struck me recently that I should probably stop reeling off these names and adding to the building hype – because how can it be helpful?

Essentially we are setting these players up to fail – how can they reach the standards that we are unconsciously creating for them? What would they have to do to impress: perform at a level over and above our already high expectations?

The truth is that part of the reason that Kane’s terrific season was so enjoyable was that – for many – it was utterly unexpected. Written off as a lumbering, awkward target man (mostly owing to the way he was used in early appearances, and an unfulfilling loan spell at Norwich City), he fell somewhere between a cult hero and figure of fun after launching a ball forward to waste time and spitting on himself when trotting back into his own half having done so. What happened after that was a rare and beautiful thing that led to a lot of words being eaten.

Nabil Bentaleb was chastised in his breakthrough season – many fans questioned ‘what he did’ before it became clear to all that what he did was, actually, rather remarkable for a player of that age and in that position. Ryan Mason has received widespread criticism for his defensive play despite last season being his first in the top flight. Inexperienced players make mistakes.

We have the most talented group of academy players that I have seen at Spurs, and there are many that *could* make the step up to Premier League player status. But there’s so much that can go wrong on that journey. There’s so much that can happen between now and ‘full England international’. Just getting to Jake Livermore level – a solid Premier League player (well, pre-incident) – is absolutely not to be sniffed at. Many, many academy players fall by the wayside and end up playing non-league football whilst finding a job outside the sport.

What would help is for fans to lower expectations, and just enjoy the glimpses of youth that we will hopefully get next season. Let’s bring them into an environment where they’re allowed to make mistakes without moans and groans inside the ground, and over-analysis on social media. Let’s not be so keen to be the person that called it right first that we make a firm decision on players after just a few appearances.

Let’s let our young players make mistakes and learn from them. Let’s support them through that process and accept that it’s the norm. Alas, they won’t all be Harry Kane.

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