Our Players Are Good, Actually
I’m tired of reading and hearing about how our players are not as good as we think, how ‘the same players have seen off four managers’ (which is totally disingenuous by the way!).
There are some obvious examples, the most spoken about right now are Dele, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele, each to a different extent.
Dele has not been *the* Dele since the 2017/18 season. We know why. That was the last season that we had a functioning Mousa Dembélé. The season before everything started to go wrong, and we started to experiment in midfield to try to find solutions for a post-Mousa world. We had diamonds and back threes and Dele was often dropped into a much deeper role than he’d been playing previously. And, obviously, without Dembélé we were having to find other ways to move the ball forward to our attacking players; Kieran Trippier became an unexpected solution to that. Dele wasn’t getting the ball in the same areas and at the same volume as before and his numbers and form suffered for it.
Then, after Mauricio Pochettino had been sacked and He Who Must Not Be Named was appointed, he re-installed Dele in a more attacking role and he temporarily profited from this. Over time, the tactics became a struggle and we had relatively few routes to goal and Dele found himself out of the team. And, of course, even with Dele out of the team, the tactics were still a struggle and we still had relatively few routes to goal.
The point I am making here is that Dele’s form deteriorating was (and is) a symptom of our inferior football, not a reason for our inferior football. Since 2017/18 we have not had a functioning system. Pochettino temporarily worked some miracles to get us to a Champions League final, but playing a totally different style to that which he so famously implemented in the three years prior. Since then, we’ve had low block and counter HWMNBN-ball, a brief respite in the form of Ryan Mason Vibes FC, and then Nuno-ball.
We’re now at a point where fans and pundits are rushing to point out that Spurs can only function with an Oliver Skipp/Pierre-Emile Højbjerg pivot, that Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele simply cannot be trusted as number eights. Meanwhile, my man Graham Potter is out there playing Adam Lallana as a six, often alongside Pascal Groß.
There is probably some truth that Nuno Espírito Santo’s system is better off with Skipp and Højbjerg in the pivot. Because it’s a counter-attacking system that is not concerned with having the ball, rather winning it back and counter-attacking at speed. It’s suited to that midfield and to Lucas Moura picking up the ball in the half spaces and running forward at pace. But this is a bad system. Or, at least, it’s a bad system considering what we could and should be hoping to achieve with the quality of players at our disposal. Like, god love him and for Ajax alone he’ll forever be a Tottenham legend… but if you need Lucas Moura to make your system work, re-think your system.
It’s easy to understand why people rush to blame the players for the struggles of the team. Firstly, because it gives them an accessible target for their frustration. We’re seeing these players every week, sometimes we’re stood a few metres from them. Or we can @ them, at least. They are tangible, visible, available targets. And they do make mistakes on the pitch, like all players do.
And secondly, because it’s an easy fix. If the players are the problem, all we need to do is replace Dele/Ndombele/Lo Celso/Dier/etc etc and everything will be okay. We’re just missing that one player that will make the system work perfectly. The steps back to greatness are less steep and, therefore, more attainable.
Whereas if you look deeper, beyond the players, it suddenly feels like a lot of upheaval is needed for us to be great again, and that feels overwhelming; like it could take a long time and like, during that time, we might slip further behind other clubs — including Newcastle now! — whilst we go for the full root and branch revamp.
Football fans want an escape, a sense of hope, and want to feel like we’re constantly progressing. Having to take a step back to move forward feels at odds with the notion of being in perpetual forward motion.
Of course, some will try to insist that HWMNBN would have attempted to implement a more progressive style were it not for our rubbish players who could not possibly play that style, and so he had to play low block and counter instead. I point once again towards Brighton. And towards Southampton and towards Brentford and towards Leeds (and I could go on). All teams who play a more progressive, front-footed style than we did under him and who have, objectively, significantly worse players.
Some will also try to insist that Nuno Espírito Santo would attempt to implement a more progressive style were it not for our rubbish players who could not possibly play that style, and so he had to play mid block and counter instead. I point to all of those teams once again, and also to the fact that he’s only ever played this style throughout his entire managerial career (Nuno’s Porto, Nuno’s Valencia).
The point is that we’ve appointed managers who play a totally different style to one that, in my view, would get the best from our talented, progressive footballers who will thrive when we actually have the ball. I know that I will feel pretty unsatisfied watching Tanguy Ndombele — one of the best ball progressors around — playing as a ten in this system, being asked to challenge for second balls and feed off scraps, rather than playing in a system where he’s getting a huge number of touches because we want to have the ball and play through midfield. The same goes for Lo Celso.
And I strongly believe that should we have Dele playing at the sharp end in a functioning team that is able to move the ball from back to front consistently throughout the match, we’ll have the old Dele, with all those goals and all those assists, back in no time. Something people say regularly about our players is that were they to move on it would be just our luck if they became good again. It wouldn’t be luck. They will come good again in the right system. They are good players.
Another great example of how good players are exposed by bad systems that do not suit them, and how a system that does suit them better can be transformative is Eric Dier. Most Spurs fans were ready to move on from Dier after his performances in Jose Mourinho’s low block. Our centre-backs were being asked to defend for long periods of the game and to do so very (dangerously) close to their own goal. It meant that pressure built and built over the course of a match and Dier in particular quite often cracked and made an error that led to a goal. It was particularly exposing and led to fans getting on his back — he often served as a lightning conductor for the anger around the team conceding match-deciding goals. But with us defending a bit higher he instantly looks a lot better. He’s never going to be an elite centre-back, but he’s certainly passable, and that’s happened almost overnight.
My somewhat bleak outlook is that some of these players will leave because of the style of football we’re choosing to play. They will realise that they are not anywhere close to fulfilling their potential in this system and they’ll go to clubs that play a better style. We will regret that.
My more cheerful outlook is that the right managerial appointment can absolutely transform our fortunes fairly quickly. I’ve seen the way Patrick Vieira (sorry to mention an ex-Arsenal man, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯…) has totally transformed Palace’s style in a matter of months, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the way that Bruno Lage has begun to transform Wolves’ style from, ironically, Nuno’s counter-attacking mid-block to a more progressive approach, albeit with limited success thus far (note: they’re significantly under-performing their xG so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to pick up results and to do so quite quickly). And, of course, we know how quickly Potter moved Brighton from Chris Hughton’s fairly turgid approach to this really exciting way of playing that they currently have. Good coaches can have an impact quickly.
Clearly Nuno Espírito Santo is not here for the long term. I think whether he lasts the season will depend on whether our elite players can elevate his system and whether we can play more of the football we saw against Aston Villa than the football we saw in our other matches. It was marginally better, and at least Son Heung-min saw lots of the ball. Our next managerial appointment is huge, because not only will it determine whether we’ll become good again, but it could well decide the future of a number of our (good) players. Hopefully Fabio Paratici is working on that already.