It’s Happening

I wrote in my last blog a month ago that it will likely to some time for Antonio Conte to implement his system, but that he could add some automations fairly quickly. It has, I confess, taken a little longer than I’d optimistically hoped for the attack to click. Look, we’ve had an international break, which deprived us of the majority of our first-teamers, and two matches a week, which means the players probably spend as much time in recovery as they do on the training pitch. But, against Brentford we perhaps saw the first automation come to fruition – an ‘up, back, through’ (with an added ‘across’).

This is, of course, a footballing automation that we’re all familiar with and, implemented well, it’s incredibly difficult to defend. With players of the talent of Son Heung-min and Harry Kane… yeah, you’re going to find that tricky to stop when they’re playing at their best levels. So here’s how the goal looked from start to finish. You can watch it here for as long as the clip remains live.

The first pass of Spurs’ second goal vs Brentford
The second pass of Spurs’ second goal vs Brentford
The third pass of Spurs’ second goal vs Brentford
The fourth pass of Spurs’ second goal vs Brentford

Very small sample sizes — three Premier League games in charge so far, and we need to take the opposition into account too — but it’s worth checking out the ‘before’ and ‘after’ data around expected goals and expected assists. I’ve sorted the below datasets from Understat by xG90 + xA90. That column is the expected goals that a player achieves when averaged out over 90 minutes added to the expected assists that the player achieves when averaged out over 90 minutes.

Before Conte’s arrival, Giovani Lo Celso and Steven Bergwijn were leading the expected data for us, despite having zero goals and one assist between them. Neither has really been involved under Conte yet for various reasons, injury mainly. Harry Kane was at 0.43 xG90+xA90, Sergio Reguilón was down at 0.08.

Understat data Illustrating xG/xA pre-Conte

The key differences under Conte so far are that Kane’s xA90 has nearly doubled, and Reguilón now tops the table. I would imagine that, having watched those three games, most fans would have predicted this — he has been such a key facet so far.

Another thing to note is Lucas having the edge over Son across these three. I think he’s looked marginally more comfortable with the role he has been asked to play. That role seems to be that when you are the ball-near number ten (i.e. nearest to the ball of the two tens), you drop into midfield to show for the ball to feet, and when you are the ball-far number ten (i.e. furthest from the ball of the two tens) you make a run to stretch the defence. Son is exceptional at making the runs, less good at receiving to feet… albeit, see above… I mean, he does a great job of laying off to Kane, so he can absolutely do it. It is a change for him, though, as he’s been so used to receiving to feet out wide and isolating a defender for the majority of his Spurs career. Lucas’ figure is predominantly made up of xA and Son’s predominantly made up of xG, which is what you would expect if you’ve watched either player for any length of time.

Understat data Illustrating xG/xA under Conte

I would fully expect Emerson Royal to start to show up in the data over the next few weeks. He has certainly shown a willingness to arrive in the box, albeit he was restricted against Brentford, partly I think due to Davinson Sánchez’s lack of ball-playing ability. I did some brief analysis of that here:

One other point to note is Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg having much more license to be involved in attacking play under Conte despite having significantly fewer touches than in the previous three matches. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps…

Newcastle United12486
West Ham United11198
Manchester United9938 (played 65′)
Leeds69(Winks deputised: 63)
Touch numbers for our midfielders, last six PL matches

Obviously the NŠ Mura performance and result were pretty gross but, aside from that match, it’s impossible not to feel very optimistic about life under Antonio Conte. He’s identified and vocalised that significant improvements need to be made, and I think he will sign a couple of players in January. But, mostly, I think he’ll set about fixing the issues through coaching because Our Players Are Good, Actually. I’m excited to see how Conte utilises the squad over the hectic next four weeks, and to see which players become more or less prominent across that period.

I recorded a brilliant (if I don’t say so myself) podcast with Alex Stoyel, a sports psychologist who works with professional sports teams. We spoke about Conte’s methods to date, including 20 glorious minutes on ketchup. You can listen to that here via our Patreon, or wait a week for it to come out on the main podcast feed.


I sort of don’t know where to start this. I’m having a thousand thoughts at once and I’m struggling to structure them into some sort of coherence. I felt this previously during a period of utter despair last season. It was similarly overwhelming. This time it’s for the opposite reason: I am giddy! I have childlike levels of excitement. My phone has barely been out of my hand for the past 24 hours, constantly refreshing my feeds. During the Wolves vs Everton match, we spent well over an hour in The Extra Inch Discord Voice Chat listening to Italian music and posting Antonio Conte GIFs. It’s like I’ve had a plumber in (Mario or his brother, Luigi, perhaps) to help turn my defective Spurs tap back on.

I said on BBC Football Daily on Sunday night that Nuno Espírito Santo had to go and that the best attainable coach we could get was Mauricio Pochettino, but that he might not be attainable for a few months. I was ready for us to appoint an interim, and was pretty optimistic that even an interim could do a better job than NES had been doing. What I hadn’t bargained for was that Antonio Conte’s arm could be twisted, having rejected us in the summer.

I’ll gladly admit that the initial links with Conte had me reasonably pleased but not thrilled. But then I spoke to Nima Tavallaey Roodsari and that all changed.

Nima was able to quell all of the concerns that I had about Conte, whilst using his significant oral bellows to grow the fire of optimism in me, a fire that has not roared in this way for several years now.

Look, this could be a tale that doesn’t take a linear path from ‘start happy’ to ‘get happier’. There will likely be bumps in the road, fractious moments, probably some pain. We all remember The Kaboul Cabal. There were necessary growing pains back then, and they will likely be repeated. But the point is that we’re on a path now. We’re moving forward. It might be a short path, but it’s a path nonetheless.

And on that, I think Conte’s stay — which will likely be short but hopefully sweet — is not unusual in football coaching in 2021; it’s very much the norm. Conte will demand a huge amount from his players over the next 18-30 months, and that will be physically and mentally draining for all involved. When he moves on, there might be another rebuild required. But that’s tomorrow’s problem, and I think it’s really important that we enjoy this whilst we can.

The fun bit with the appointment of a new manager is trying to work out which system and formation he might use and which existing players might map across to those. We know from reporting that, in Tuesday afternoon’s training session, Spurs trained in a 3-5-2 shape. This is no surprise — it’s one of Conte’s favoured formations. The 3-5-2 becomes a 4-2-4 when attacking, as illustrated in this video by Our Tactics Guy, Nathan A Clark:

As you can see, the outside centre-backs become full-backs, and the deepest-lying midfielder drops in to become a centre-back during spells of possession, with the wing-backs pushed up extremely high. On the surface, it appears that there are some players in the squad who have the cross-positional skillsets to fulfil these roles. For the outside centre-back roles, we have Ben Davies on the left and Japhet Tanganga on the right who have played at both centre-back and full-back. It is rumoured that Davies trained as part of a back three on Tuesday afternoon. For the deepest-lying midfield role, we have Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp, who both have experience of dropping into a back-line during build-up.

Of course, Conte may assess that, even with that cross-positional experience, those players are lacking the skills and abilities that he is looking for in those positions. For example, in our podcast with Nima, he explained that the outside centre-backs are required to play cross-field passes — have Ben Davies and Japhet Tanganga ever exhibited the ability to play cross-fields effectively? I would say, at best, that we have limited evidence of that. Whereas we know that Eric Dier is quite good at hitting diagonals, and Cuti Romero certainly is.

I am absolutely intrigued to see Conte’s selections as time moves on. I am intrigued to see his initial priorities, which I imagine will be to reinstate Harry Kane. By that I mean reinstate his prominence in the team, reinstate the team’s ability to provide him with the ball in the box, and reinstate his goals.

It would be fairly typical for a system manager to take some time to implement that system. Conte’s system is exacting and mechanical. Players have very particular roles and the fulfilling of their roles involves him removing some of their decisions for them and, instead, instructing them to perform a series of automations. To perfect this will take some time. However, I think that he will quite quickly transform our attack. We have been operating with very limited attacking structure this season, with the focus on individual player improvisation. Fixing the spacing of players and adding some movements can happen quickly.

In my last piece, ‘Our Players Are Good, Actually‘, I predicted that a good coach can soon change things:

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.

I remember how quickly He Who Must Not Be Named was able to initially implement a couple of automations that got us scoring again. Conte is arguably the best manager (or Head Coach) we’ve ever appointed. He is, by most people’s reckoning, in the top 5 coaches in the world. By putting our previously very good players into situations that play to their strengths will quickly see them return to their previously very good levels. I have absolute faith that Conte’s tactical acumen and individual coaching skills will have a transformative effect on our squad, and quite quickly. I think Kane will double his average of 2.1 shots per game in no time.

I think it is also worth benchmarking where we are in the table upon Conte’s appointment. In a few weeks, I suspect that this will look very different.

Premier League table, 3 November 2021,

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.

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


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.

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