December 23, 2018
Spurs have a number of players out on loan as it stands:
- Cameron Carter-Vickers (1997) – Swansea City, Championship
- Josh Onomah (1997) – Sheffield Wednesday, Championship
- Connor Ogilvie (1996) – Gillingham, League One
- Marcus Edwards (1998) – Excelsior, Eredivisie
- Sam Shashoua (1999) – Atlético Baleares, Segunda División B – Group 3 (Spanish third tier)
Carter-Vickers has played 413 minutes for Swansea City across eight appearances, four from the start. He has essentially been unable to displace Mike van der Hoorn or Swansea’s own Academy prospect, 21-year old Joe Rodon. Rumours suggest that talks are ongoing as to whether Carter-Vickers will be recalled, with Ipswich waiting in the wings to take him for the second half of the season if that is ultimately agreed.
Josh Onomah has endured another unhappy loan spell. Jos Luhukay was sacked as manager last week — one of his final duties was to publicly criticise Onomah, who he withdrew at half-time in his final match.
Caretaker manager Lee Bullen put Onomah straight back in the line-up for the match against Preston North End and was rewarded with an assist. I was able to watch the game, and had a few thoughts on Onomah which I tweeted in this thread:
Sheffield Wednesday grew in confidence as the match went on. This coincided with them playing through Onomah in midfield rather than bypassing him, and it ultimately led to the goal, which Onomah created with a cross.
From my perspective he did not have an outstanding game — certainly not close to the levels we’ve seen him at for Spurs Under-18s, Under-23s, or England Under-20s, but he was good, and a lot of Wednesday’s fans were raving about him afterwards and hoping that this is the start of things to come.
The problem is that Steve Bruce is likely to take over. The same Steve Bruce who had Onomah at Villa, and arguably did not make the best use of him; it will be interesting to see how Spurs handle this one. On one hand, they could argue that adversity is character-building. On the other, Onomah needs to be playing in a possession-based team to be able to showcase his talent.
At this point it looks likely to me that Pochettino has made his mind up on Onomah, and I suspect he will move on at the end of the season. I personally think that that is best for his career; he would be better off joining a Championship club, establishing himself and working his way back up to the Premier League. It’s a pity that the stars haven’t aligned for Onomah in the same way that they did for Harry Winks, but the reality is that in the current climate, Premier League managers see less risk in spending money on players who had already got some games under their belts, something I wrote about last week.
Ogilvie has found starts trickier to come across in his second spell at Gillingham, though he has been back in their first team for the past four league matches. Ogilvie turns 23 in February and I presume this loan must be another ‘audition’ for a permanent move to the Gills, where he seems to fit in reasonably well.
Edwards has found himself out of the way Excelsior team lately after a good early run in which he’d started seven straight matches, so when he was named on the bench against Heracles last night I didn’t pay much attention. With quarter of an hour to go, I noticed he’d come on – streams of Eredivisie matches are very easy to find so I managed to catch a bit. His side were 3-0 down at the time and the team were struggling to move the ball out of defence. Edwards was coming into the centre of the pitch and willing to take the ball anywhere, turning sharply and committing players. His teammates seemed to have been directed to give the ball to him, which hopefully suggests that he might find his way back into the starting XI next time out. I also saw him tear back into position to cover breaks a couple of times; his lack of defensive instinct was something people had previously criticised him for, so this was pleasing.
Sample sizes are relatively small and he’s at a struggling side, but their points per game are 0.57 when he doesn’t start compared to 1.14 when he does. I’ve caught three or four matches and he’s generally been their most lively player, though his decision making has been an issue and he’s only registered one assist so far. Still, as long as he plays some games in the second half of the season then you’d have to say that this is infinitely better for him than occasional Under-23 matches.
Best case scenario: he establishes himself again in the second half of the season, registers a few goals and assists and is given a clean slate in pre-season 2019/20.
Sam Shashoua, or just ‘Samuel’ as the Spanish commentators charmingly refer to him, is having a lovely time at Club Deportivo Atlético Baleares in Majorca. The Spanish third tier seems to be a good fit for his physical development, and a season of regular matches out on the left wing will stand him in good stead for next year.
He has so far racked up 3 goals and 2 assists in 997 minutes, a goal or assist every 199 minutes; not bad for a 19-year old making his first steps into competitive men’s football. Shashoua could easily play League One football, but given how well he seems to have settled, it makes sense to leave him at Baleares and to see how he looks after a full season. I suspect he could be a player who goes on the first team’s pre-season tour, and from there who knows what can happen: just look at Luke Amos before injury cruelly robbed him of potential opportunities.
December 16, 2018
It was fantastic to see Oliver Skipp make his full Spurs debut against Burnley on Saturday, and the 18-year old — the second 2000-born player to step onto the pitch for Spurs, after Tashan Oakley-Boothe — looked the part; his Academy-ness did not stand out.
As per Dan Kilpatrick’s tweet, Mauricio Pochettino has now given debuts to 13 Academy players since he arrived at Tottenham in May 2014 – let’s look at those 13, and the total minutes they have since had for Spurs.
- Oliver Skipp (2000): 84
- Kyle Walker-Peters (1997): 608
- Luke Amos (1997): 2
- Tashan Oakley-Boothe (2000): 0 (added time sub)
- Kazaiah Sterling (1998): 2
- Anthony Georgiou (1997): 6
- Cameron Carter-Vickers (1997): 360, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Anton Walkes (1997): 10, NB: moved permanently to Portsmouth in July 2018.
- Shayon Harrison (1997): 7
- Marcus Edwards (1998): 15, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Filip Lesniak (1996): 4 NB: moved permanently to AaB in July 2017.
- Joshua Onomah (1997): 807, NB: currently on-loan for the second season in a row.
- Harry Winks (1996): 3998
(Numbers correct as of 16/12/2018)
What we can see from this is that only really five players (Winks, Onomah, Carter-Vickers, Walker-Peters and now Skipp) have had real first team involvement, the rest more token gestures — perhaps as a ‘reward’ for training well, or as a carrot: ‘here’s what you could have’. Given that a number of these players were or are players not expected by most watchers to make the breakthrough to Premier League life permanently, I would suspect that it is a combination of both.
I think it’s fair to assume from this that Pochettino aims to bring through one player from the Academy a season, with Winks the only real success so far in terms of establishing himself, though we hope that after his Barcelona showing and the glowing mentions from his manager since, that Walker-Peters may be the next to become a squad regular.
We should not ignore the fact that Pochettino has established other young players in our first team squad: notably Harry Kane, Dele, Eric Dier, Davinson Sanchez, Juan Foyth, Ryan Mason Nabil Bentaleb. These players were given debuts pre-Pochettino or signed from elsewhere. I personally think that Pochettino prefers using players who have had experience elsewhere, which to me slightly contradicts his loan policy, or certainly the policy he had before he finally sent Onomah, Edwards and Carter-Vickers out.
I would need to take some serious convincing that 1995-born Georges-Kévin N’Koudou is a better footballer than some of the young attacking midfielders that our academy has produced over the past three or four years, but the 4,936 minutes he had racked up for FC Nantes and Olympique Marseille made him worth £11 million. My own view, of course, is that it may have been an idea to ‘try out’ one of our own young wingers first, as that £11 million could have been saved and, indeed, we could have created a player of our own worth a similar amount. Perhaps there were good reasons why Edwards, for example, was not deserving of an opportunity at that time — as fans, we are not privy to all of the information — but alas, part of me wonders what might have been had Edwards been integrated at that point. Two years on and he’s on the bench for Excelsior in the Eredivisie which some fans will tell you categorically confirms that he’s ‘not good enough’.
How are our rivals doing?
Spurs are not particularly behind the curve in terms of giving opportunities to young players, but this should not be a race to the bottom. All Category 1 clubs need to find a way to better bring through their talent, since it is undeniably some of the best young talent in world football.
Indeed, we are lagging behind some rival clubs, most notably Arsenal, who have utilised the Europa League to establish some very exciting players in their squad. They have used Bukayo Saka (2001): 112 minutes, Emile Smith Rowe (2000): 402 minutes, Eddie Nketiah (1999): 180 minutes, Joe Willock (1999): 180 minutes and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (1997): 292 minutes) plus given a handful of minutes to three other young players across cup competitions.
Perhaps Spurs are at a disadvantage compared to Arsenal with regard to opportunity. Their being in the Europa League gave them a series of ‘easier’ matches where the risk was lower. They could afford to play two or three youngsters knowing that they should still safely win the match.
The ‘risk’ element of blooding a youngster will not have been helped in the eyes of Spurs fans and possibly coaching staff by Walker-Peters’ unfortunate early error against Barcelona or by Juan Foyth’s handful of errors in otherwise highly promising displays.
That said, I cannot remember too many high-profile errors by young players in matches. Bentaleb made a couple in his early showings; I vaguely remember a square ball across the box vs Manchester United but could be wrong. I also remember a large number of high-profile errors made by more established players this season alone. Kieron Trippier has been guilty of several, Serge Aurier and Moussa Sissoko spent a lot of last season making errors which could have cost us. Obviously the idea is to minimise risk, but all players are capable of errors, regardless of age, ability or experience. Less experienced players making more errors may be true, but I also think it’s exaggerated.
Jesus Perez claimed in this wonderful interview with Alasdair Gold that young players making mistakes is not an issue to Pochettino and, instead, their progress is dependent on being accepted by other first team players:
“Mauricio got his chance when he was 16 or 17 at Newell’s Old Boys and that is always in his mind. No one has to explain to him what it means to give a chance.
Mauricio is not the person who says ‘It goes there, this is good, play’, he’s more like ‘let’s see what he’s like training for two or three months with the first team and see if he’s good enough’. Then once the first team accept this guy is good he plays.
Then you can fail, it’s not a problem. Mistakes with Mauricio are not a problem, if you behave properly, if you want it and you try and your will is good. That’s why he improves a lot of players.
He doesn’t teach players. He proposes to the player a scenario, a platform to improve. If they take it they will improve. It’s just practising and having the backing of your manager. That’s how you improve.”
English football needs to change its collective mindset towards giving young players an opportunity. How good should a young player have to be before they are given matches? Should they be better than their positional rival before even getting a few minutes? Is that a realistic aim? Can we expect young players to improve *without* opportunity within a fully-functioning team?
Let’s use the Academy
And now we come to the central part of my argument – forgive me, I’m an amateur. We should use young players more – they are a valuable resource which can help keep our first teamers fresh. And they allow us to better manage the ‘homegrown’ requirement within the squad. Exposure to the first team squad creates value, and so even if they are deemed to not be at the required standard for Spurs, we can then sell them on for huge profit, as we have with Nabil Bentaleb, Jake Livermore, Steven Caulker, Andros Townsend, Ryan Mason, etc etc.
Typically at Spurs young players get opportunities when there is an injury crisis. This was true of Harry Kane and this season it has been true of Foyth, Walker-Peters and Skipp. This means that they are often thrown into a sink or swim scenario with very little preparation or thoughtful integration. Better would be to do what we did really well with Winks; we had him on the bench and brought him on at key points of games, slowly integrating him, before giving him starts as a rotation. This approach allows the player to build confidence and also allow first-timers the time off that they need to recover properly between matches. Given how many players we have in our squad with chronic injuries, this seems to be a no-brainer.
Putting a number on it
Currently in our Academy we have 10 first years and 16 second years. Typically over the past ten years, around two or three from each group have been players identified as potentially good enough for first team football in the Premier League — let’s generously say 20% of our Academy players *might* have ended up integrated into first team training previously. Of course, there are exceptions – e.g. the 1991/1992 group featuring Andros Townsend, Steven Caulker, Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll, Adam Smith, etc; Alex Pritchard and Harry Kane were often playing ‘up’ in this group too.
This season’s Under-18s are some of our best yet. They might just be the best group of young players our Academy has produced, though it’s too early to say for sure. That 20% figure may need to be revised, as I think as many as 40% of these 26 players could be first team training contenders (that’s around 10), and from there – who knows?
What could we change?
I’ve had a fair few discussions on Twitter over the past eighteen months around whether we trust that Pochettino is doing the right thing with the way he manages the integration of youth players. Pochettino is — quite rightly — adored, and it is assumed that he is right about everything. He’s right about most things, I agree. Fans believe that if a young player doesn’t play it is because he is not good enough technically, not good enough mentally, or not good enough physically. Or that he’s not been knuckling down in training or has the age old ‘attitude problem’.
My own belief is that we wait until players are 100% ready in all aspects then we will lose more quality young players in the same way that we have lost Keanan Bennetts and Reo Griffiths (and Milos Veljkovic before them). I think there is a middle ground, and it involves a few more bench places and opportunities across the season.
To me, this makes total sense. It would be absolutely crazy to be adding three or four untested players to our match-day squad at one time, but dipping three or four players in across a season feels entirely reasonable. 800 minutes (9 matches) split four ways feels like a realistic target.
If we’re not going to do this, though, it is absolutely essential that we start getting players out on loan. Walker-Peters has had two years with barely any football; I fail to see how this has helped him. Were it not for this latest injury crisis, Skipp could have ended up in the same boat. We need to be identifying good loan clubs and letting our young players go out and get minutes and try to impress. For example, I strongly believe that Jack Roles would gain so much more on-loan at a League One club (a team trying to play football like Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers, for instance) than playing Under-23 football in the PL2.
Hand being forced
With Eric Dier’s latest setback, and the ongoing injuries to Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama, Pochettino has had his hand forced, somewhat, and we can probably expect to see Skipp get plenty of minutes over Christmas. We might also, therefore, see another young midfielder included on the bench since there’s little other midfield back-up throughout the squad (unless he tries to convert Juan Foyth to a defensive midfielder).
I expect 1998-born George Marsh is the most likely, but my personal preference would be for one of the 2001-born central midfielders Jamie Bowden or Harvey White to be the ones elevated ahead of time. Both show enormous potential and, in my opinion, have a greater chance of making it as Premier League players than Marsh in the long-term. Indeed, one must really feel for Luke Amos in this situation: he was in a great position at the start of the season to get some really decent minutes, and then sustained an injury which will keep him out for the entire 2018/19 campaign. Heck, Josh Onomah might finally be getting games for Spurs in his favoured position were he not on-loan at Wednesday, being savaged by their ‘on the brink’ manager.
Spurs aren’t doing a horrible job of bringing young players through, but there’s room for improvement, and the summer showed that, unless we change, we will lose good players from our set-up. We have had a few ‘less productive’ years in terms of talent coming out of the Academy, but we now have a glut of quality players, and we can but hope that a good number of them ultimately become first team squad players, saving us a fortune in the process.
December 10, 2018
Yeah, I’m a glass half full kinda guy but I can’t help but see tomorrow’s match as win-win. We win and we qualify for the Champions League. It’s where we want to be, it will galvanise the club ahead of the impending move to our new home, and it will go down as one of the most famous victories in our history.
If we lose: it’s Barcelona! There’s no disgrace in losing away to Barcelona! We’d drop into the Europa League, we can give some of our young players some much-needed first team exposure, we can rotate the team and focus on securing top four again in an ultra-competitive Premier League season.
So ultimately I’m seeing this as a shot to nothing. It’s a little frustrating, because it needn’t be this way at this stage, but the Champions League is ultra-competitive itself and one or two slip-ups cost you. So I will be relaxed, letting it play out without feeling overly concerned about the consequences. I’ll be able to enjoy the match for what it is.
We’ll hopefully be doing a bit of a Barca de-brief on The Extra Inch so do keep an eye (or ear?) out for that. We’re now on Spotify and Stitcher if that helps. If you enjoy it, please consider leaving us a review, as it helps us attract sponsorship meaning that we can pay Nathan for producing the podcast.
I’ll hope that Barcelona it’s the turning point in our season in terms of consistent performances, because *that* hasn’t happened yet. I keep seeing articles in which Spurs’ numbers look bad. In almost every metric I’ve seen, we’re some way off nearly all of the clubs around us; the latest being some pass-chain data that Duncan Alexander used in this article for the BBC:
The numbers of 10+ pass sequences seem staggeringly low, even taking into account our style.
And yet having beaten Leicester City we’re a point worse off than our best ever points tally (37 in 2011/12) after week 16 in the Premier League. Grinding.
We all know the reasons, but let’s summarise them again:
- The World Cup
- The lack of summer signings
- Stadium delay
- Broken Harry Kane (fixed now?)
- Broken Mousa Dembélé (fixed never sad face)
- Broken Victor Wanyama (I can’t even)
- I could go on…
Pochettino has had to change formation to adjust for life post-Dembélé. He’s had to play Lucas up top with Kane to do some of his running. He’s had to re-establish Moussa Sissoko in the team. And he’s made it work. The guy just continues to work miracles, and – despite the Arsenal nightmare – I continue to think he’s one of the best things to ever happen to us.
One more positive before I sign-off. Have you seen how well our Under-18s are doing? I’m a bit down on the situation with our Under-23s (for various reasons, perhaps I’ll blog on them sometime) but the Under-18s are unbelievable. I can’t get down to Hotspur Way much these days but I’ve been living vicariously through Lennon McCandless-Branagan (hope I’ve got that right, Lennon!), who has barely missed a match across all youth levels and writes the most thorough of reports on his website. Kudos to Lennon for his incredible support and thank you for making it so easy to follow our fabulous Under-18s (who have a plethora of individual talent).
September 21, 2018
Spurs are in a bit of a pickle. It could be a minor pickle, it could be a major pickle — predicting which way this is going to go is so difficult right now due to the sheer number of variables. I’m going to look at some of those variables, be smart after the fact and see if some could have been avoided, suggest some solutions, and consider how much of an impact they might have.
Our midfield / Mousa Dembélé
Not addressing some of our midfield concerns this summer was negligent, particularly when Jack Grealish’s transfer was in our hands for the entire window. We’re now left in a difficult position, with Dembélé no longer able to do all of the Dembélé things, Harry Winks (along with his chronic ankle injury) and Victor Wanyama both still returning from injury, Eric Dier suffering a drop in form, potentially due to having no rest over the summer, and Mauricio Pochettino experimenting with his selections (as I discussed here) as a result of all of the above.
There are a lot of things we could have done to mitigate all of this:
- We could have bought two new central midfielders.
- We could have bought one new central midfielder.
- We could have spent the past three years grooming Josh Onomah to take over from Mousa Dembélé (controversial one, that, as many Spurs fans think he’s useless) rather than playing him out wide.
There are a lot of things we could *still* do to improve the situation:
- We could integrate Luke Amos and Oliver Skipp.
- We could use Under-23 matches to get Wanyama match-fit as soon as possible.
- We could revert to a formation that our midfield players are *all* comfortable with (4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3).
This does not need to be the disaster it currently is. Dembélé’s obvious decline can still be mitigated. And when I say mitigated, absolutely not by playing him at the base of the midfield with Dier in the shuttling role on the right, because if I have to watch that again I’ll snap a pencil.
I’m at the point where I believe that anyone that does not think that Harry Kane is in some way broken is lying to themself. It could be mental fatigue, he could be physical fatigue, it could be the ankle injury still plaguing him, it could be a combination of all/a couple of these. But: Something. Isn’t. Right. His reduced shot volume post-injury has been discussed over and over and so I won’t repeat it again, but it’s not just his shot volume that’s the issue; he’s just not passing the eye test generally.
I also believe that we’ve adapted our whole shape to compensate for Kane’s current state; that Lucas is playing up with him because he just can’t do the running and isn’t posing his usual threat. It’s worked to some degree (i.e. Lucas is scoring) but it is arguably hurting us defensively.
Harry Kane is our best player but I can’t remember the last time he was our best player in a match. I think we could continue to play him and we’ll probably still get a reasonable tune out of him, but I’m now so firmly in the ‘give the guy a rest’ camp. Pochettino accepts that rotation is required but also says he would be ‘crazy’ to rest Harry Kane. He’s the one that needs it most! This is madness, right?
But there are things we could do to improve the situation:
- Give him four weeks off; temporarily make do with a fluid front-line of Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and Dele Alli. Watch Kane come back on a hot streak.
- Rotate him. If we’re not going to give him a proper break, at least let him have the odd game off.
Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but something has to give.
Yes, I’m back on message — sorry to the many Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies fans out there.
We have a major problem at full-back. We’ve gone from having the best two in the Premier League two seasons ago, to making tactical decisions based upon covering the weaknesses of our current incumbents. And part of the issue is that they are sort of opposites.
I would be a fool to still not accept that Trippier adds value offensively. It may not be to my taste — i.e. I’m a staunch believer that crossing is overrated, and particularly the type of crossing that Trippier does — but he is very, very good at it. He’s also very good at passing a football. But he’s a bad defender, he’s a bad fit for the style of football that Pochettino had us playing at our best. James Yorke‘s piece for Stats Bomb — Tottenham’s Defensive Issues: Fixing the Right Side — does a great job at illustrating some of the issues, but the problem has now become a stylistic and systematic one.
Because Trippier is not a good defender Pochettino sometimes wants to play three at the back to support him. In playing three at the back, we’re taking out a potential attacking midfielder who can run with the ball to add in another centre-back. Trippier cannot run with the ball. He’s 11th in our squad so far this season for dribbles per 90 minutes. Jan Vertonghen is ahead of him. This creates a problem; the ball frequently ends up funnelled out wide to Trippier, and unless he is already high up the pitch and can put a cross in (we have poor cross completion, and often this leads to a turnover), or has a passing option up the line (he’s very good at delivering these types of passes), the ball frequently goes right back (geddit?) to where it has come from and we struggle to progress.
The same can be said of the left-hand side, where Ben Davies is struggling to recreate the good patch of form he had at the beginning of last season. Davies’ strengths at that point were his ability to marry reliably solid defending with well-timed bursts forward which culminated in two goals and two assists in his first six league appearances. Regrettably Davies’ regression has coincided with Danny Rose’s regression. Spurs should have sold Rose when he sold his story. Alas, we’re a year on and from his perspective his bargaining position with his wages has deteriorated and from our perspective, his transfer value has plummeted. Rose is — as with Dembélé — a shadow of his former self.
There are a lot of things we could have done to mitigate all of this:
- Sold Rose in any of the three windows after his comments.
- Bought a left-back. Pochettino has a great relationship with Luke Shaw, who was unhappy at United. In many ways that seemed a no-brainer.
- Upgraded our right-backs in some way: either through properly integrating Kyle Walker-Peters (if he is deemed good enough) or by signing a player more suited to Pochettino’s best system than Serge Aurier and/or Kieran Trippier. 24-year old Ricardo Perreira (more than double Trippier’s dribbles p90) at €25million looks a real coup for Leicester, for example.
There are things we could do to improve the situation:
- We could play Kyle Walker-Peters or Serge Aurier at right-back. Aurier can run with the ball — and did a fine job of it against Inter Milan, creating chances consistently with his bursts towards the by-line.
- We could only use Trippier solely as a wing-back, but we *must* play someone who can carry the ball and hit the line (and cut the ball back) elsewhere in the side to compensate for his lack of dribbling.
- Try to find a way to nurture Rose back to his previous form, or play Kyle Walker-Peters at left-back.
So, having written the above I’ve just spotted that my mate Nathan A Clark highlighted the exact same three issues in his preview piece Brighton vs Tottenham: Snuffing out or just stuttering? I take this as reassurance that I’m on the right track because Nath is great. But we do talk football together a fair bit so maybe this is an echo chamber effect. Hopefully, I’ve put a slightly different slant on this to Nathan, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this despite the repetition.
If you want to do some more reading on this gloomy Friday, here are some great pieces I’ve read about Spurs this week:
- Michael Caley: Spurs’ midfield changes, plus lack of chances for Kane, are behind their three straight losses
- Mark (Spurs Fanatic): Inter 2-1 Tottenham: space around the six
- Seb Stafford-Bloor: Something is amiss with Harry Kane – but it’s not all his own doing
- Jack Pitt-Brooke: No pain, no gain for Harry Winks as Mauricio Pochettino looks to get the best out of Tottenham
- Dave Tickner (Football 365): Tottenham: Five reasons to be cheerful
- Nathan A Clark: Brighton vs Tottenham: Snuffing out or just stuttering?
And here’s the piece I mentioned earlier that I wrote for Football.London post-Liverpool: Spurs players were not up to the task against Liverpool, but Pochettino’s tactics did not help
August 24, 2018
Two matches of the 2018/19, two new shapes for Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino was initially wedded to his 4-2-3-1 as Spurs manager, briefly becoming a 3-4-3 convert before going back to his previous shape once Toby Alderweireld’s transfer ambitions became clear. He has dabbled with a three-man midfield in both a 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, but has never stuck with either for any length of time and it seems to have largely been due to circumstance.
That circumstance has partly been a lack of available central midfielders, and that has been the case this season so far.
Thanks to WhoScored.com we can neatly see the average position of Spurs’ players in both matches.
Against Newcastle, Dele played nominally on the left of the midfield three, with Moussa Sissoko on the right and Eric Dier as the pivot. But Dele was given the job of ghosting forward and interchanging with the unusually-advanced Christian Eriksen, whilst Sissoko was responsible more for protecting Serge Aurier on the right.
Against Fulham, Pochettino ‘rotated’, as he hinted he might. He took out Aurier and Sissoko – Spurs’ least effective players against Newcastle – and brought in Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier.
Notably, the tactics changed wildly with the change in personnel. Suddenly we had a player at the back with a terrific range of passing, and a wing-back known for his crossing ability. Spurs often used Alderweireld’s passing to get the ball wide early, and used Trippier to stand in advanced areas and send crosses into the box.
To emphasise this point, only five outfield players in the Premier League (David Luiz, Conor Coady, Jonjo Shelvey, Ruben Neves, Ben Mee) have played more accurate long-balls than Alderweireld this season, and all five have played in both of their team’s opening matches. Only three players have made more crosses than Trippier (14) in the Premier League this season – Johann Berg Gudmundsson (21), Trent Alexander-Arnold (19), Benjamin Mendy (16) – and all three have played in both of their team’s opening matches. The volume of both was significant.
As an aside, I would add that none of Spurs’ three goals came from Trippier crosses, and indeed the opener came on one of the rare occasions that Trippier opted *not* to cross and instead played a clever, chipped pass into the corner of the box for Eriksen who was able to make a cut-back. That said, we did score from a wonderful Aurier cross against Newcastle. Personally I am of the belief that crossing is an inefficient route to goal and would rather we dropped our cross volume by at least 50%, but thats a blog for another day.
Spurs’ two three-man midfields have probably come from necessity. Aside from Dier, none of our first choice central midfielders are fully fit, with Victor Wanyama just resuming training, Harry Winks building up fitness after a lengthy lay-off, and key man Mousa Dembele not quite ready post-World Cup.
But in both matches, as Nathan A Clark points out in his latest article for RealSport, Spurs have been reliant on Dembele’s 20-odd minute cameos to reassert dominance after briefly wavering.
Pochettino has yet to find the perfect balance without Dembele, and that was particularly evident in the second half against Fulham, where the press of their physically dominant midfield became a problem, and Dembele became an essential change. This will lead to an interesting selection dilemma against Manchester United, which I will return to shortly.
But in Nathan’s article he also makes the point that Spurs’ midfields have both been borrowed from World Cup teams – the Newcastle shape from Didier Deschamps’ France, and the Fulham shape from Gareth Southgate’s England. With the latter, we can take this a step further as there are many similarities and it is useful to highlight them.
Pickford – Lloris
Maguire – Vertonghen
Stones – Sanchez
Walker – Alderweireld
Trippier – Trippier
Lingard – Eriksen
Henderson – Dier
Dele – Dele
Young – Davies
Kane – Kane
Sterling – Lucas
There are some obvious differences: England would kill for a player like Eriksen, and Ashley Young is more cross-heavy than Ben Davies, but there are plenty of similarities, and this is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Lucas Moura played ‘the Raheem Sterling role’ remarkably well against Fulham, pressing with an intensity that will have caught Pochettino’s eye, but also being willing to vary his play, one moment running in behind and stretching play, the next dropping short and using his quick feet to get himself out of tight spaces. Jan Vertonghen is a close match for Harry Maguire in terms of carrying the ball from the back, and though Davinson Sanchez is not as good as John Stones in possession, they both tidy up effectively in different ways.
The approach to the Manchester United match may see a further change in shape. United have approached both of their matches with Andreas Pereira as their deepest-lying midfielder, Fred to his right and Paul Pogba to his left. Fred in particular has disappointed and I suspect that if either Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera are fit and able to play one or both will come in (Herrera was on the bench against Brighton).
A midfield of Pogba, Matic and Herrera will concern Pochettino, and I think he will want to start a more naturally defensive-minded player alongside Dier to counter it. Dembele seems the most ready, but he has history with Pogba.
Slight flashback to 2016 when I noticed Pogba bully Dembele like few others ever had. He’s done it again today and Dembele is a bit rattled. It’s so rare to see him beaten physically. https://t.co/uZh6qkOgHr
— Chris Miller (@WindyCOYS) April 21, 2018
Though Dembele had the better of Pogba in the league at Wembley last year, I have rarely seen any other midfielder have as much success as Pogba has in physically and mentally dominating him, particularly obvious in the league game at Old Trafford and the FA Cup Semi-Final.
My suspicion is that Dembele will come in with ‘revenge for the cup semi’ as motivation, as Spurs will fear being over-loaded in midfield. That creates a selection dilemma, with Pochettino probably needing to choose between Sanchez/Alderweireld and Lucas for who to rotate out. I would lean towards leaving out Sanchez, as the prospect of a fresh and confident Lucas running at United’s vulnerable centre-back pairing is one which excites. I think a diamond-ish midfield could be a nice compromise, but it would put pressure on Davies and Trippier to cover the flanks, which is a concern, neither being particularly naturally athletic or possessing ball-carrying ability.
Eriksen has had a quiet start to the season, looking far looser than usual in possession, but he will be a key man at Old Trafford if we are to play this shape, as he will be required to protect Trippier against the threat of United’s winger (be that Martial, Sanchez or AN Other) as well as be our chief playmaker. Having Lucas up with Kane may relieve some of that pressure, as it gives us an out-ball and an option in the channels.
Jose Mourinho has often had the upper hand on Pochettino, but early season form suggests that Spurs stand a good chance of some sort of result despite history pointing towards a home win. Though it would be just our luck if Mourinho stumbled into a balanced midfield after the Brighton disaster.