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.

Lo Celso Discourse… Brings Back Memories

Just a quickie from me on this but it’s something I might revisit later.

I’ve been thinking about the Giovani Lo Celso discourse (mainly because I’m staggered that some people think he’s rubbish) and I’ve realised what it reminds me of: Mousa Dembélé discourse before he became good.

Prior to Mauricio Pochettino getting hold of him, I was ready for us to sell Dembélé. He was being inked with a move to Sunderland. That’s the sort of level he was considered to be.

I was *so* wrong. I was on the wrong side of history. And I think the Lo Celso-sceptics will be proven equally wrong.

It feels similar because he’s considered an injury prone player without a position. We’ve not seen him get a proper run because he picks up knocks that restrict him. It was the same with Mousa. And his versatility is seen by some as more of a problem than a solution. It was the same with Mousa. He’s exceptionally one-footed. It was the same with Mousa.

The difference with Lo Celso, perhaps, is that his data is already exceptional.

Giovani Lo Celso FBRef Data

There’s loads to work with there but Nuno Espírito Santo perhaps needs to find the right role for him before people will start to appreciate him. I like him from the right of a front three as it gives him a view of the whole pitch given his typical body shape when receiving the ball, and suits his natural inclination to come inside. I’m down with that being the right role.

I am the host of The Extra Inch; a Spurs podcast that delves into the analytical side of Tottenham games. Check us out! If you already follow the podcast, consider becoming an xSub for additional content, including videos, and loads more podcasts.

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I don’t really know what to think about Spurs’ start to the season. So I’ll tell you what I feel.

My enthusiasm from just a month ago has been sucked out of me by a series of performances which have left me wanting a lot more. I feel like I’ve got all excited for a weekend away in an Airbnb somewhere; I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks after these crappy last eighteen months or so but, on arrival, I’ve found that there’s not even a double bed, it’s just two singles pushed together. And there’s a dodgy looking stain on the carpet and a pubic hair in the shower. I’ll be typically English and tell the owner that everything was just fine even though I’m secretly seething and I feel like my precious holiday time that I’ve waited all this time for has been wasted.

When I wrote in Nuno Holy Spirit about how passive Wolves had become in Nuno’s last season, it was meant to be a warning rather than a prediction. We’re so tired, as fans, of our players waiting for the opposition to do something – particularly when, during our best period in recent history, we went out with the intention of not even giving them a second to think about what it was they might do.

Look, there is definitely some logic in being difficult to beat early in the season. Particularly when a new coach is establishing his tactical style and has absentees for a whole variety of reasons. And he’s achieved three wins out of four playing this way, so it can’t be all bad. But then I look over at Bruno Lage at Wolves, or even Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace, and I see the transformational effect they’ve both had already, totally changing their teams’ styles for the better, and doing so this early and with more complex, detailed tactics (and, frankly, worse players). That is not to say that those two coaches will continue having success throughout the season, but I think it gives us a bit of a benchmark in terms of what tactical progress we might expect by this point.

I think the reality might be that this is Nunoball and maybe we sometimes see a bit of what we saw in the second leg against Paços de Ferreira — a game in which we had complete control so could have some fun — but also we maybe see quite a bit of what we saw against Wolves and Watford and maybe even Crystal Palace. Games where we’re caught between jostling for control and allowing the opposition control but only in the areas we’ll let them have it in.

Personally I think our squad can achieve so much more. I look at what Graham Potter is achieving at Brighton with substantially inferior players and I dream on what he could get us playing like.

But I need to stop myself as longing for Potter or Lage or whoever is just going to make the next however-many-months drag. Instead, I need to see if Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso being back might break the Nunoball mould a bit and deliver something more exciting. So, for now, I’ll try to convince myself to ignore the fact that against Rennes he brought on Pierre-Emile Højbjerg when Steven Bergwijn went off, or — worse — Emerson Royal when Lucas Moura went off.

In theory, the difficult to beat style is the correct one to use against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, so maybe this weekend will be a reminder of the upside of this. Or maybe we’ll concede early and then he’ll have to try something else and we’ll get an idea of what that is (yeah, not optimistic about that).

Either way, the reality is that being a nice bloke is not going to wash with our home crowd for long if the football doesn’t get a bit more front-foot. The pandemic did He Who Must Not Be Named a big favour, and it looks like NES won’t get that same breathing space. Whilst you’re winning you can just about get away with pubic-hair-in-the-shower football, but the second the winning stops, the pressure grows, and we’ll all be a little less English about not complaining.

Come on, Nuno, give us something to cling onto. And if you’e not going to do that, at least give us more Tanguy.

I am the host of The Extra Inch; a Spurs podcast that delves into the analytical side of Tottenham games. Check us out! If you already follow the podcast, consider becoming an xSub for additional content, including videos, and loads more podcasts.

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Harry Kane… I Can’t Even

Minutes after I’d decided not to write about the tedious Harry Kane situation in last night’s post, The Telegraph posted an article which is the closest thing I’ve seen to client journalism since the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg passed on Dominic Cummings messaging verbatim. I am absolutely staggered that Jason Burt would do this, he’s always been someone that I’ve respected and who has been pretty good on Spurs.

The Kanes have essentially, through The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun — i.e. the baddies — submitted a press release. It reads something like this: wahhh wahhh wahhh I want my own way and I’m not getting it wahhh wahhh wahhh. Cry more, Harry. Pathetic.

When you’re up against Daniel Levy and you are seen as the villain, you know something has gone wrong. Levy was public enemy number one for Spurs fans at the back end of the season and throughout much of the summer and there were even some continuing protests against him and ENIC outside the stadium on Sunday. This should have been an open goal for Kane PR-wise. The sort of tap-in he’d have sworn his daughter’s life on. Kane could have left on his terms, with his head held high and our fans largely understanding and even supporting his decision, his legacy in tact. But the Kanes have truly blown this in every conceivable way.

The latest grumbles don’t even stack up. He claims that at the end of the 2019/20 season, Levy told him that they’d go “all out” in pursuit of a trophy and Champions League qualification (hindsight lol) and, if we did not achieve that, he would be allowed to leave. But Levy’s not an idiot; on no planet would he allow Kane to leave for significantly under his market value.

It goes on, ‘It is why Kane also then felt empowered to conduct a Sky Sports interview with former England coach Gary Neville’. These are weasel words. This is gaslighting us, as fans — we have every right to feel upset about the interview because it was not a matter of empowerment, it was a matter of his greasing of the wheels. And, if we are to believe the rest of his side of the story, giving this interview before the season had even ended in order to try to ready the path for his move was not even necessary due to his ‘gentleman’s agreement’.

Then we move on to his late return. Kane ‘feels’ he’d been given an extra week away. The Sun’s version of the story (don’t worry, I used a proxy to read it) offers more detail. Of course, once again, it’s not Kane’s fault.

‘Kane believes he had permission from Levy to take an extra week’s holiday after spending time in the Bahamas and Florida. But it is claimed that two days into his stay, Kane was told new boss Nuno Espirito Santo wanted him back for pre-season training.’

‘CITY BREAK Harry Kane expects breakthrough in Man City transfer move before the weekend as Tottenham now resigned to losing striker’, The Sun, I’m not linking to it

Does he ‘feel’ he had permission, does he ‘believe’ he had permission, or did he ACTUALLY HAVE PERMISSION? Nuno Espirito Santo is hardly going to renege on an agreement Kane had made with Levy before he even arrived at the club, is he? This seems like a pretty clearcut issue — you either have a WhatsApp or an email telling you when to be back or you don’t. If you have it, if it is as straightforward as he makes it out to be, the story would have been shut down minutes after it was run with a firm statement (‘I’m here because I have permission from the club to be here’.) — not by an opaque Instagram statement days after it broke when the tabloid press had already got to work.

It is just so disappointing that this is playing out in public in this way, all orchestrated by Kane. The Neville interview, the article in The Sun by a gossip reporter who knows the Kanes, the Instagram statement and now this. Everything Kane is doing now is an attempt to force Spurs to lower their asking price; he’s out there wrecking his reputation to save the richest club on the planet a few quid at the expense of our club. By creating toxicity to the point where the club just wants rid of him, he thinks he can force Levy’s hand. We — the fans, his fans — are being punished when, ultimately, there is only one party in this deal who can decide if the transfer happens: when City make a fair offer, the deal gets done.

I am the host of The Extra Inch; a Spurs podcast that delves into the analytical side of Tottenham games. Check us out! If you already follow the podcast, consider becoming an xSub for additional content, including videos, and extra podcasts.

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Straight Back In

You’ll know that I… was not fond of last season. I was glad when it ended and then I was hopeful about a quick manager search but it didn’t happen and it felt like we were flip-flopping our way through a list of inconsistent targets. But, despite initially being pretty underwhelmed, I have felt pretty good about Nuno Espírito Santo ever since his first interview, and I have also been pretty happy with Fabio Paratici’s work to date (caveat that that may change over the next two weeks if we’re still lumbered with deadwood!). But I didn’t expect to be emotionally all in again so soon.

Honestly, it was like my candle had gone out and rather than striking a match to light it, Nuno’s Spurs grabbed a lighter and a deodorant can. Whoosh!

The last minute of the match had a real sense of early Mauricio Pochettino Spurs about it. It was imperfect, i.e. we tried to keep the ball in the corner and failed to do so, but the players fully committed to seeing the match out. What that looked like was a dead-on-his-feet Dele tracking back and attempting a desperate lunge to foul a breaking player, Davinson Sánchez making a huge tackle and then the aforementioned Dele collapsing from the weight of his insane 10.97km covered.

Throughout the 90 minutes there was an impressive game plan in place that seemed to utilise each players’ talents to their maximum. I am happy to be proven wrong on Dele, who I couldn’t really see as a central midfielder in a three, particularly as the last time he played that role was when his form started to take a dip. I’ve long wanted to see him used further forward again, like he was in his first couple of seasons. But Nuno’s post-match comments – “Dele is a runner. He has this ability to go box to box and as a team we should take advantage of it.” – were absolutely underlined by the performance he put in. He’s always been a genuinely elite presser but this was next level, particularly considering it was the first game of the season when fitness levels are notoriously not at their peak.

We played a narrow front three that was focussed on stopping City finding the feet of their midfielders through the middle, instead channeling them to the wings where our full-backs were alert and tenacious. Both had excellent games, but especially Japhet Tanganga, who rightly took home the Man of the Match award for his remarkable individual performance, in which he stopped Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish making progress down his side of the pitch.

The benefit of the narrow attacking three was that when we did pounce on a loose ball and were able to find one of them, they had their partners in crime to play off. Typically one ran away from the ball to drag defenders away and that was true of Son Heung-min’s goal, where Steven Bergwijn casually dragged three players out of the way to create a space for Son to step into. In the final match of pre-season against Arsenal, Son had a couple of chances to cut in onto his left foot and chose not to, instead switch back out onto his right, shooting across goal. He is so good at cutting in and curling the ball into the far post, from either side, and he should always look to do that where he can.

The icing on the cake was the crowd — incredible. ‘Are you watching, Harry Kane?’ was perfection, and it certainly sounded from the tele like this was the best atmosphere at the new stadium to date. Really, properly electric.

The incredible start for the first team was neatly backed up by an excellent performance by the Under-23s against Chelsea on Monday night. It finished 2-2, but Spurs were utterly dominant, and Chelsea’s goals came from a penalty and their forward pouncing on a loose back pass, whilst we kept their goalkeeper busy all night and missed a penalty at the end. A number of players really shone — there wasn’t a poor performer — but Harvey White, Alfie Devine, Dilan Markanday and Jneil Bennett stood out for me. Just a great watch.

And I mentioned transfers at the start of this post. I’ve been pretty impressed with the transfer business so far — happy with the ins, happy with the outs — but I would be disappointed to end the window with Serge Aurier and Moussa Sissoko still on the books. It’s pretty clear that neither is in Nuno’s plans and so taking a price and getting rid seems the best option for all parties, else we end up risking the Danny Rose situation all over again, with players that can command fairly significant fees running down their contracts. I would put Harry Winks in a similar category, though I’m happier with him being in the squad (partly because he’s younger and so will hold value) and, of course, we still have the perennial task of doing something with Cameron Carter-Vickers.

There’s another bit of business to do too but it’s had more than enough attention by now and the last thing I need to do is waste any more time on a, frankly, highly tedious situation.

Honestly, it feels soooo good to be back in the game. I’ve been chugging Spurs content throughout pre-season and I’ve got a week off work this week so that’s gone up a level. I’d listened to all of my favourite Spurs podcasts by midday today! More! Give me more! Thursday can’t come soon enough.


Some other bits I’ve written recently:

A bit on Dennis Cirkin for Sunderland Fanzine ‘A Love Supreme’: https://www.a-love-supreme.com/single-post/dennis-cirkin-a-view-from-tottenham

A season preview for BT Sport: https://www.bt.com/sport/football/premier-league/tottenham-2021-22-season-preview

Exclusive Interview with Degefors’ Sporting Director on Alfie Whiteman: https://www.patreon.com/posts/exclusive-with-54960969

I am the host of The Extra Inch; a Spurs podcast that delves into the analytical side of Tottenham games. Check us out! If you already follow the podcast, consider becoming an xSub for additional content, including videos, and extra podcasts.

I recently added a Donate button to this site. It’s on the ‘About‘ page. I explain why on there. Cheers!