Happy New Year – We Back

Happy New Year to all; I hope you’re well, had a healthy and happy holiday period, and I wish you all the best for the year ahead.

It’s good to be Spurs, again, folks!

Our friend Rhys has been tracking the ten match rolling expected goal difference, and it turns out that Antonio Conte is quite a good manager. Stonks.

Ten match rolling expected goal difference by @rtjenky

It’s wonderful to go into the start of 2022 absolutely brimful of optimism about the club, even after a frustrating draw against Southampton.

There are some interesting take-aways, I think, from the start of the Conte era at Spurs, and the shape he seems to have settled on (so far). Here are a couple of expanded thoughts.

Lucas Moura / Son Heung-min

In researching for the video I made about Lucas’ performance against Crystal Palace, I found that this is his best year so far at Spurs in terms of ‘expected’ productivity. He’s currently at 0.37 xg+xA/90 (expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes), which he is currently slightly over-performing with 0.40 actual goals and assists per 90. His previous Spurs seasons saw him achieve 0.29, 0.33 and 0.32 xg+xA/90 (roughly Andros Townsend levels). If we just take the period for which Conte has been in charge it goes up to 0.43. This higher figure puts him level with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ollie Watkins, and below Ademola Lookman and Armando Broja. And well below Son Heung-min’s 0.58, Harry Kane’s 0.65 and even Steven Bergwijn’s 0.49 during that period.

None of this is to say that Lucas isn’t playing well. Clearly he is adapting well to Conte’s system and is adding value, and we can also expect him to continue improving under a coach who has created a system in which the players he selects tend to flourish. But we do need to acknowledge that Lucas at his most productive does not come close to touching Son’s goal and assist productivity.

Where I do think Lucas is doing especially well, though, is in the ‘ball-near’ part of his role as one of two dual ‘tens’ (as Conte calls them). The role requires the one of the two closest to the ball (hence ‘near’), to drop deep to receive, either from the centre-back, central midfielder or right wing-back. Lucas is doing this very successfully, showing good control and strength with his back to goal (and, therefore, under pressure from opposition players). The idea seems to be that the receiving ten either makes a first time lay-off if the conditions are not quite right, passes sideways if it can open up a passing lane for a teammate, or take a touch, turn and play forward. It’s the latter which Lucas has done really successfully, turning his man and bursting forward. This was noticeable against Palace in particular.

I believe that Lucas has, so far, looked better at this part of the role than Son, who can look quite cumbersome and awkward when dropping deep to receive to feet. Son, however, is far better at the ‘ball-far’ aspect of the role. In possession, the ten who is furthest from the ball of the two is expected to make a run forward between the full-back and centre-back to create space both for the other ten to receive in, and for the wing-back to run into. We saw a lot of this against Crystal Palace where our wing-backs received a lot of the ball in the final third. This is where Son is so effective and probably why his data looks so much better than Lucas’ — those shoulder runs are great for his productivity.

But the fact that Son is *so* good at this part, and can help Kane out with some of the hard running, is why I hope to see us use the 3-5-2 more as time goes on. That performance against Liverpool was our best so far, and I think Kane and Son up front together is us at our best and that we should try to maximise this as much as possible. I think it also better suits the majority of our midfield players too.

Harry Winks

It is astonishing how the narrative around Winks has changed based upon two 90 minute appearances. Every Spurs fan has a list of players in their head who they think we should look to move on at the next possible opportunity. Harry Winks would have been on most of those lists until the Liverpool match (note: he did actually play quite well against Leeds a few games before too).

Here’s me back in October wondering where he can re-find some of the ‘old’ Harry Winks:

Tweet from @TheExtraInch (me) about Harry Winks

Turns out it’s here, under Conte. He’s been playing a lot more like *that* Winks (do watch the video) than the more risk-averse version we saw from when Mauricio Pochettino tried to convert him to a defensive midfielder alongside Moussa Sissoko (man, that was such an awful combination).

Hopefully Winks will continue this form — I see no reason why not — as it is hugely beneficial to us to have a pool of midfielders to select from, rather than just playing Pierre-Emile Højbjerg until his ankles fall off.

I think we also need to use this insanely quick turn-around as a lens through which to view our other, less-fancied players. Conte has transformed the perception of Ben Davies and Eric Dier (plus the aforementioned Lucas) too, and in all cases he’s done it by putting them into a system which accentuates their strengths, and minimises their weaknesses. Dier, for example, is trusted to play passes out from the back, win his battles and cover in behind the wide centre-backs, but is rarely having to turn and run towards his own goal.

There is no reason why Conte cannot transform the fortunes of others so long as they buy into the tactical plan.

This year has largely been a pretty miserable one as a Spurs fan. After sacking He Who Must Not Be Named (I only use this rather than his actual name to avoid his weird cult causing me admin) it felt like a weight had been lifted, but some of the weight was slowly… un-lifted (what’s the opposite of a weight being lifted?!) through a dreadfully unedifying manager hunt and the subsequent appointment of poor old Nuno Espírito Santo, who was never the right man for the job.

But, throughout this whole period, I have always maintained that we had good players, and that we just needed to make the right managerial appointment again to show that to be the case — and to have got to where we are now from there really does show how quickly things can change when you have significant resources at your disposal. It’s why I believe that Spurs are largely well protected, and that we are basically only one good decision away from fun at all times. Credit to Daniel Levy for getting us to this point, albeit obviously he loses plenty for the previous very bad decisions!

We move into the new year with hopes of a top four finish (I am absolutely adamant that we will do it, with or without signings), and then we build for next season, when I believe we can set our sights higher. Over the next two transfer windows I would like us to sign a centre-back (ideally left-footed or at least left-sided), an elite right wing-back to compete with Emerson Royal, and another forward to allow us to be able to rotate Kane and Son and remain competitive. It also seems that we are targeting Milan’s Franck Kessié and I think that would be a smart move.

Alongside my renewed optimism for Spurs, The Extra Inch (Spurs Podcast) continues to go from strength to strength. If you’re reading this and you’ve not listened yet, ask yourself why, because it’s basically this but in audio form once a week! More people are now listening than ever before, but it’s difficult to get complete listener numbers, partly because over 1,100 people are now listening to an ad-free version via their unique Patreon feed. We currently have 16% off the annual Patreon subscription, ending today. Additionally, Spotify now allow you to rate podcasts — it would be great if you’d consider leaving us a 5-star rating.

For some reason, bonus episodes never get as many listens as the regular, weekly episodes. If you have not yet listened to some of our recent bonus episodes, I strongly recommend these — some of our best ever content in my humble opinion!

Thanks to everyone has supported me this year, either on Twitter or via reading and sharing this blog, listening to the podcast and telling your friends, or being an xSub. It honestly means the world and it has allowed us to create a full-time job, essentially, for my dear friend, Nathan A Clark, who I strongly believe is one of the best analytical minds working in football. Thanks also, as ever, to Bardi for being Italian. HNY everyone.

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