And So It Begins

It’s the day of our first pre-season match! Our first glimpse at Are [sic] Boys since Ryan Mason’s Vibes XI twatted Leicester 4-2.

We face Leyton Orient for the JE3 Trophy, in honour of Justin Edinburgh. Justin, our former left-back who then went on to be manager of Orient, died of cardiac arrest aged just 49. You can support the Justin Edinburgh 3 Foundation here.

My initial hope was to watch today’s game and to try to catch a few potential blueprints for the style that Nuno Espírito Santo will introduce this season. However, at his press conference he was keen to separate the fitness work that is currently ongoing, from the tactical work which will follow.

We have to be really careful and how we want to play. Now we have to prepare the players in terms of fitness, in terms of mentality, the focus so then we’ll put our ideas together.

Now it’s about preparing themselves to be able to do whatever comes in situations, to become faster, to become stronger, competitive and intense in every action. Then will come the moment that to deliver our idea, how we’re going to play, the lines of the ball, how we’re going to defend, but we have to be organised and that’s the main point.

These two weeks has been a focus on fitness and we work fitness inside of the game, without separating, so if we want to prepare fitness we have to be intense in our training sessions, inside of the game, but like I said, the players have been great. Fantastic.

Every word Nuno Espirito Santo said on Harry Kane, transfers, how Tottenham will play and more‘, 16 July 2021

It has been really interesting to watch the pre-season training clips released so far, which are quite markedly different from what I’ve seen at Spurs in the recent past. There is a real focus on drills in which the players are grappling with one another in some way before doing something with the ball. Or, in the most recent clip, tethered to some sort of resistance machine to ensure that they are working harder to achieve the task set out for them.

Some of the ITK suggests that NES found our players too easy to knock off the ball. Even disregarding that — because, let’s face it, it could be complete nonsense — it does seem clear that the coaching team are focussing on adding a base layer of core strength to the players. Nuno’s own words — ‘to become faster, … stronger, competitive and intense’ — imply that perhaps he saw a weakness there. We know from previous reporting that the squad was not in peak condition last season and so this seems like a sensible place to start.

So I am not expecting to see too much in terms of key tactical approaches today, but we might get an idea of intended team shape, and we might see some young players in action, as so many of the first teamers are still away. Nile John seems pretty prominent in the training videos so far — it’d be great to see him play a part in the middle of midfield. And TJ Eyoma, who did so well at Lincoln City last season, has a chance to show how far he has grown as a player on his gap yah.


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Squad Building

This is the fun bit of the off-season — the hope! Wondering how your squad will look, welcoming new players, waving off old players who you’re a bit sick of. Though it must be said that Spurs have done very little business so far, selling Juan Foyth (who I definitely was not sick of) and releasing a bunch of young players. Elliot Thorpe is about to join Hoffenheim having rejected a contract. That’s a loss in my opinion; I mentioned him in The Fonseca Files (Part 2) as someone who could play a part in pre-season.

I published Home Grown Players (HGP) Quota – Summer 2021 Transfer Window earlier, in which I look at how the HGP quota impacts upon our squad building. Things don’t look too bad, though some forward planning in terms of bringing through more ‘club-trained’ players would be useful for future European campaigns. We clearly do need a mass clear-out this summer, though. Not just to recoup wage funds or to build a transfer kitty, but to ensure that we do not go into the season with high-earners unable to be listed in our Premier League squad.

I’ve used my fine friend Nathan A Clark‘s squad depth chart format to look at ours as it stands. I’ve added in an ‘up for sale’ section, in which I’ve optimistically left out Harry Kane. I’ve generally included youth players who have been seen training with the first team.

Spurs Depth Chart as of 15 July 2021

I think this shows neatly how much work there is to do. Not just in terms of the player sales to finalise, but in terms of filling first team squad gaps. I make it eight first teamers (including Dele, including Kane). You can make an argument to include Rodon in there, but certainly not based on what his opportunities at Spurs so far.

If we sign Takehiro Tomiyasu, as expected, he’ll slip into this in the same way that Davies and Tanganga do — a hybrid FB/CB. I have watched some scouting clips and he strikes me as quite similar in style to Vedran Ćorluka, who I was very fond of. He’s not especially good in the air for a tall player, but he’s very handy on the deck. He’s an aggressive, ‘handsy’ defender who uses the ball well both through his passing and dribbling out. He is both-footed in a way which is unusual, i.e. he can pass and dribble with his left foot, to the extent that, before the reports emerged suggesting that he was being signed to play a defensive right-back role, I had ear-marked him for the left sided centre-back in a back three.

And so onto Kane. Rumours emerged this week that we are chasing Danny Ings in order to play with two up front. Putting a player alongside Kane to do some of his running for him is eminently sensible. But I can’t shake this feeling that a story about us wanting to sign Ings ‘to play with Kane’, days after rumours that we’ve decided that we will not accept any offers for Kane is a bit suspicious and that perhaps we are letting these stories emerge to avoid paying a ‘Kane tax’ on any incoming replacement… or maybe I’m over-thinking it all.

I suspect I may be revisiting the depth chart prior to 15 August, particularly once we’ve seen a few pre-season games and have an idea of which formation(s) we might be using.


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Home Grown Players (HGP) Quota – Summer 2021 Transfer Window

Each year I write about the 25-man squad and the implications of the home grown players rule and how it will impact on Spurs’ transfer strategy. The home grown player numbers could impact on how many signings Fabio Paratici can make, the nature of those signings and/or the size of our squad for the rest of the season.

The Premier League ‘Home Grown Players (HGP)’ Rule

The misconception about the requirement itself is that clubs must name eight home grown players in their squads. We could name fewer than eight HGPs, but would need to also name fewer than 25 players in our squad — for example, if we only have seven HGPs, we can name a 24-man squad, 6/23, 5/22, etc. 

Remember, an HGP is defined as one whom, irrespective of nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to The Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons, or 36 months, before his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21). Source: Premier League.

As ever, we will not need to name players who are under 21 on our squad list, so could augment our squad with youngsters. This would mean that we could manage with, say, a 22-man squad with just five HGPs, but would need plenty of under 21 players who are ready to play. For the 2021/22 campaign, players considered ‘under 21’ will have been born on or after 1st January 2000. This means that for the current season we still have a number of ‘freebies’ who are fairly well-known names, the likes of: TJ Eyoma, Ryan Sessegnon, Oliver Skipp, Jubril Okedina, Jack Clarke, Harvey White, Troy Parrott, Dennis Cirkin, Nile John, Dane Scarlett and Alfie Devine. Some of these players will ultimately be sent out on loan, of course.

From this season, Brandon Austin, Japhet Tanganga and Tobi Omole would need to be named on our squad list should we wish to use them as they were all born before 1st January 2000. The fact that they are considered home grown is useful, though I would suspect that only Tanganga will be named in the initial squad list.

The Europa League ‘Home Grown Players (HGP)’ Rule

The Europa Conference League rules are a little different to the Premier League rules — have a look at article 45 (‘Player Lists’) of the regulations. UEFA don’t just want clubs to have players trained elsewhere in the FA structure; they have additional requirements for club-trained players. They want to encourage clubs to bring through their own young players.

If we want to name a ‘full’ (25-man) squad in the Europa League, we would need at least four ‘association-trained’ players (we have lots) and four ‘club-trained’ players (we currently have: Harry Kane, Harry Winks, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Alfie Whiteman, Brandon Austin, Japhet Tanganga). Austin is on-loan at Orlando City until December.

Players under 21 can be included on List B so long as they have been ‘eligible to play for the club concerned for any uninterrupted period of two years since his 15th birthday by the time he is registered with UEFA, or a total of three consecutive years with a maximum of one loan period to a club from the same association for a period not longer than one year.’ This excludes Sessegnon and Clarke due to their loans, and Devine is also not eligible for List B as he only joined us last year. All three would need to be included on List A should we wish to use them.

Summary

We currently have 26 players who would need to be named on the Premier League squad list if we wanted to play them. Many of these players are expected to leave and so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about whether HGP will be an issue for us at this point; but probably not.

As ever, it’s a slightly more delicate situation in the UEFA competition due to the relatively low number of club-trained players. Depending on how the summer transfer activity goes, we may end up having to select a slightly smaller squad than the maximum allowed. This is unlikely to cause an issue, though, as it is expected that a lot of young players (who will be on List B) will be used in the Conference League in order to give them experience.

#PlayerDOBAgeStatusPL HGPEL Locally Trained
1Hugo Lloris26/12/198634   
2Joe Hart19/04/198734 YAssociation
3Toby Alderweireld02/03/198932   
4Moussa Sissoko16/08/198931   
5Matt Doherty16/02/199229 YAssociation
6Erik Lamela04/03/199229   
7Son Heung-min 08/07/199229   
8Lucas Moura13/08/199228   
9Serge Aurier24/12/199228   
10Ben Davies24/04/199328 Y 
11Harry Kane28/07/199327 YClub
12Eric Dier15/01/199427   
13Pierre-Emile Højbjerg05/08/199525   
14Harry Winks02/02/199625 YClub
15Giovani Lo Celso09/04/199625   
16Dele 11/04/199625 YAssociation
17Davinson Sánchez12/06/199625   
18Sergio Reguilón16/12/199624   
19Tanguy Ndombele28/12/199624   
20Steven Bergwijn08/10/199723   
21Joe Rodon22/10/199723 Y 
22Cameron Carter-Vickers31/12/199723 YClub
23Alfie Whiteman02/10/199822 YClub
24Brandon Austin08/01/199922On-loanYClub
25Japhet Tanganga02/05/199922 YClub
26Tobi Omole17/12/199921 YAssociation
27Ryan Sessegnon18/05/200021 YAssociation
28Jack Clarke23/11/200020 YAssociation
29Alfie Devine01/08/200416 YAssociation
Spurs’ over-21 (and UEFA List A under-21) players, ordered by DOB

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Nuno Holy Spirit

Welcome, Nuno! Sorry, that should probably be #WelcomeNuno.

Nuno Espírito Santo is our new Head Coach (note, not Manager). Spurs have managed to make me feel relieved and somewhat excited about an appointment which, until a few days ago, would have felt pretty bland, uninspiring and out of kilter with the expectations which Daniel Levy so publicly set (“free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football / promoting young players).

I’m not going to write about how we got here because Jack Pitt-Brooke has written about that really well in all of its horrifying detail, and you should all read that. I’m not linking to The Athletic because I have a (legitimate) personal beef with them and I am a stubborn man, but go find it posted elsewhere and read it and shake your head and maybe your fist and reflect on just how easy it would have been to appoint Graham Potter and cry. But then shrug it off and look to our new future under NES! Because it’s not half as bleak as I’ve made it sound so far.

First and foremost, Nuno is not a bastard. As well as not being a bastard, he seems actively decent and pleasant and likeable and charismatic. So that’s a welcome change!

He is also our first (permanent) black Head Coach. This is significant. It shouldn’t be, but it absolutely is, and people trying to minimise this are being deliberately contrary for literally no reason and I would question their motives for doing so. Anyway, it makes me feel quite warm inside.

I also really liked this initial soundbyte:

“Our philosophy is not only about me, it’s about staff, the coaching staff – it’s simple, we improve players, we try to make them better, to improve them every day and by that, it’s no matter which age the player is – young, old, experienced, no experience at all – it doesn’t matter.”

Nuno Espírito Santo, tottenhamhotspur.com, 30 June 2021

I’ve a lot going on at the moment so I’m not going to be able to repeat the depth of research that I managed for The Fonseca Files. Fortunately, Nathan A Clark is putting together a detailed analytical video on NES for The Extra Inch Patreon. He will do this in video form far better than I could have managed in written form anyway. 

I have watched a fair bit of Nuno’s Wolves, though and I have some #takes.

So, to start, we did a podcast with Tiago Estêvão on Wolves back in November 2018. Tiago speaks (from 29:00 on) about NES’s journey and tactical style, focusing on how he re-invented himself tactically with Wolves in the Championship. He also speaks about the connection to Jorge Mendes, and I think the analysis stands up now, two and a half years later. So definitely go and listen to that.

And then if I talk chronologically, I think the starting point is the 2018/19 Wolves team and the 2019/20 Wolves team, their first and second seasons in the Premier League. These seasons were undeniably impressive. Undeniably impressive. We know they had a team too good for the Championship and that promotion was an almost an inevitability, but what they achieved in those two seasons was pretty remarkable.

Across the 2018/19 season, Understat has them 6th on xPTS (expected points) and 4th on xGA (expected goals conceded). As I say, undeniably impressive.

2018/19 Premier League table, sorted by xPTS, Understat
2018/19 Premier League table, sorted by xGA, Understat

It gets even better in 2019/20. 5th on xPTS (14 xPTS better off than Spurs) and 2nd defensively. Resolute.

2019/20 Premier League table, sorted by xPTS, Understat
2019/20 Premier League table, sorted by xA, Understat

I tweeted this in August 2019:

I remember loving that Wolves side because they were unusual. I saw them keep the ball really well at the back with what is known as ‘deep circulation’ — lots and lots of passes between their three centre-backs and the deep-lying midfielders (Rúben Neves and João Moutinho). Then, when they’d dragged their opponent towards them sufficiently, or across to one side sufficiently, Connor Coady or Neves or Moutinho — but most-memorably for me, Coady — would ping a cross-field out to Jonny on the left or Matt Doherty (ooh) on the right and suddenly Wolves would be away and Raúl Jiménez or Diogo Jota or Adama Traoré or Ivan Cavaleiro or Hélder Costa or Daniel Podence would come to life and drift to the wings and create overloads and there would be technically impressive interplay and the opposite wing-back would arrive late in the box and Matt Doherty scored four league goals for four seasons in a row (!!!) and that is Undeniably. Impressive. Breathe.

But they were doing this as underdogs and, I think, this is why I found it so impressive. As well as their deep circulation and excellent switches of play when they had the ball, they were often ceding possession and playing on the counter. Jiménez received a lot of long balls and made them stick, holding up play and waiting for the rest of the team to join him, such had been their defensive low block. This felt like a logical and appropriate strategy for Wolves, but not one that I would necessarily want to see employed at my team, which had (and still has) better talent at its disposal.

So we come to this season’s Wolves.

2020/21 Premier League table, sorted by xPTS, Understat

It’s just undeniable that things went quite sour. 13th in the actual Premier League table and 13th on XPTS. 10th in terms of xGA. Sixteenth in terms of xG.

As I say in the tweet below, I’d not seen much of them up until December. I knew they’d played badly but I also saw from these readings that they had played well against Chelsea.

A previously beloved manager seeing his key striker suffer a bad injury and his key midfield lynchpin falling off a cliff and, in trying to find solutions, tearing up his original tactical plan and flailing around hoping for the best? Yeah, that sounds eerily familiar. So yes, there are lots of mitigating factors to take into account.

But what became clear to me last season was that Wolves were so passive. Where previously they were effective at pressing, particularly out wide with the aggressive positioning of their full-backs, this was no longer a real facet of their play. But I think this has much to do with the issues I just mentioned. Or, hey, maybe losing Matt Doherty was actually more important than we all suspected.

I’m finding it really difficult to draw conclusions about what NES will do at Spurs. This is because he played 4-2-3-1 at Valencia and even a 4-4-2 at times, adapting to the players he had available. Obviously this was not the case at Wolves until this season.

What I can say decisively is that he will use attacking full-backs, if not wing-backs. That might mean that Doherty becomes key or it might mean that we need to urgently sign a right-back. Or both, we need two right-backs across a long season with many games, right? I would sign an attacking right-back as top priority.

The way NES has used Neves and Moutinho as very deep central midfielders screams Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp to me, but 1. maybe Harry Winks gets a stay of execution and 2. what does this mean for Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso? He’s said to be adaptable, so hopefully he seems value in building the team around our two best midfielders.

As for the attacking midfielders, who knows? In the Wolves 2018/19 3-4-3, Dele is best suited to the left-sided of the three due to his pressing qualities and ability to play quick one and two-touch football. But Son Heung-min is Son Heung-min and you need to find a way to accommodate him.

Basically: there’s lots to work out, it’s very difficult to draw conclusions at this time, and I think we need to wait until we see some signs of a tactical plan emerging in pre-season to really know which players are going to work out and which are not.

Daniel Levy’s quote, upon making the announcement, is intriguing:

“I’ve spoken already about the need to revert back to our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football and Fabio and I believe Nuno is the man who can take our talented group of players, embrace our young players coming through and build something special.”

Daniel Levy, tottenhamhotspur.com, 30 June 2021

It implies that NES will play a style that he’s not *really* played since his time at Valencia. I guess we’ll see.

What’s interesting is that the young players — who Levy says will be “embraced” — will have a real opportunity to impress over the first few weeks of pre-season, with many players still off representing their countries. This is particularly true of our young centre-backs, with Eric Dier our only recognised first team centre-back present for the start of pre-season. I mentioned TJ Eyoma in The Fonseca Files, but I think Jubril Okedina is also worth a mention here too.

I’ve not mentioned Jorge Mendes too much here and I’d rather not do a deep dive on that for now but I will say that Fabio Paratici being in post could be seen as protection against Mendes getting his claws too deep into the club. Or we can simply recognise that Mendes did some valuable and impressive work in attracting elite players to Wolves and hope (like, really, really hope) for the best.

So good luck, Nuno. I’m happy to have you, I’m interested to see what you can do, and I’ll be getting behind you with fulsome vigour. Come on you Spurs!


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!

The Fonseca Files (Part 2)

Firstly, go back and check out Part 1 if you haven’t already. It was my most read blog article in a couple of years, and I appreciate everyone who shared it, as well as the kind words on Reddit. I hope that you enjoy/enjoyed that and that you watched the documentary. The documentarians got tremendous access and it’s very insightful.

When a new coach is appointed I find that the really fun part is to speculate as to which players already at the club would fit the coach’s system, which youth players might get a look-in, and which areas he would need to prioritise in terms of adding new players. It’s nice to look forward, to translate the squad over a coach’s assumed system and to consider how that might go.

Of course, modern coaches tend to be more flexible now and will have more than one way to play, and that is certainly the case with Paulo Fonseca, as it was with Mauricio Pochettino. With Pochettino, whether he played three at the back or four at the back, though, there were over-arching principles that remained, even if the players fulfilling them changed. I.e., even with a back four, it became a three in build-up as one of the pivot players split the centre-backs, five attacking players would generally be spread evenly across the five vertical channels of the pitch and pressing would occur. The same is the case with Fonseca — his principles remain, build from the back, have wide players keeping width extremely high, overload the midfield.

Caveat: it’s only a few days since Fonseca was linked, and I’ve not yet watched as much of his Roma or Shakhtar Donetsk teams as I’d have liked. I’ve focussed so far on highlights and clips from players, as well as the full-match vs AC Milan from October 2020 which I found on footballia.net.

Whilst we know from the documentary I referenced in Part 1 that Fonseca’s intention is to stick to his system and have the players adapt to it, I’ve made a lot of assumptions in this article and, to be honest, it’s pretty speculative stuff. As I say, I’m mainly doing this for fun rather than to make bold predictions.

Goalkeeper

I’ve read and listened to lots that says that Fonseca’s keeper supports playing out from the back, and becomes part of the build-up. However, I’ve watched some clips of Pau López’s distribution for Roma from this past season and it’s not as fancy or radical as I’d expected. He does, however, go short whenever possible and often from deep inside his own box. This is really not a strength for Hugo Lloris. Assuming he’s not going anywhere, I anticipate a few nervy moments where he hangs on to the ball a little late, or gets his pass wrong. We saw plenty of those under Mauricio Pochettino and it’s, I guess, the price we pay with Lloris — his shot-stopping qualities are still there, so will hopefully compensate, but it’s not a great fit. If a goalkeeper that can pass the ball accurately and calmly under pressure is a deal-breaker, we should look at Brentford’s David Raya.

Centre-backs

Fonseca’s centre-backs have to be exceptionally comfortable in possession. They get a decent number of touches and not only pass out from the back, but also carry the ball forward. Juan Foyth would have been so perfect; such a pity that we agreed to that option to buy (and for so cheap – gah!)! Joe Rodon will definitely be a good fit, Japhet Tanganga might be too (though, unfortunately, his injury record is a concern) as his ability to drive forward with the ball (mainly form right-back) was a very pleasant surprise this past season. Toby Alderweireld is great at passing, but not a natural ball carrier, and with Fonseca’s line being far higher than we’ve become accustomed to, I’m not convinced that Alderweireld will be suited, certainly not in the long-term. To be brutally honest, Davinson Sánchez’s on-the-ball ability is inadequate for this system. And Eric Dier on the turn in a high line frightens me. Personally, I think it’s clear we need a quality ball-playing and ball carrying centre-back, and the obvious solution is Ben White, though he would be expensive.

In Fonseca’s system, the two wide centre-backs move out towards the flanks in possession with the wing-backs aggressively push high up the pitch. Ben Davies would, therefore, be quite well-suited to the left-sided centre-back role and, in terms of young players who might come from nowhere and get a look-in, TJ Eyoma is one to keep an eye on over the next season or two. He had an excellent season at Lincoln City, playing as a right-back for the first half of the season and a centre-back for the second. This illustrates, I think, how comfortable he is in possession and he’s a good match for that hybrid role on the right.

Wing-backs

I think this is the most interesting of all of the Fonseca roles. Out of possession, the wing-backs drop in and make-up a back five, with the near-side wing-back pushing out to engage his man and the far-side wing-back dropping into a neat line of four. As soon as they win the ball, the wing-backs are off — they push up incredibly high; you can think of them as traditional wingers in possession.

This is a good example of Roma’s attacking shape. This is from the 3-1 win against Juventus in August 2020 in which Roma played 3-4-3. The two wide players are the wing-backs, the three in-field that are close together are the front three.

Sergio Reguilón and Ryan Sessegnon are absolutely ideally suited to the left wing-back role. They have acceleration to energetically spring forward, are happy to position themselves high, and also have natural recovery pace. We know that on the right we have a problem, with Serge Aurier likely to leave and Matt Doherty so far having struggled to settle, though we need to acknowledge that he had Covid. I’d need some convincing that Doherty has the athleticism to cope with the aggressive transitions, but what we do know about him is that he is excellent at timing a run and has ability to contribute in the final third, often arriving in the box, something that Fonseca likes in his far-side wing-back.

What’s interesting is how much Fonseca has developed Leonardo Spinazzola, who played so well for Italy against Turkey in the Euros opener. He is a right-footed left wing-back who mostly played as a winger (though he did have full-back experience too) before Fonseca got hold of him. He is a terrific ball carrier and really makes that count. However, I don’t think ball carrying is an essential Fonseca wing-back trait as Rick Karsdorp’s carrying numbers are low. Rather, he positions himself high, waits for it to come to him, and delivers crosses, or bursts into the box at the far post if the ball is on the opposite side. That feels very Doherty.

I was surprised that both Roma wing-backs average under 10km per match despite the role being a demanding one. I’d love to see the sprint numbers as I bet they are high as the transitions from defence to attack are pretty intense. But, without that additional context, I think there’s some hope for Doherty. Of course, we absolutely need to sign another right wing-back, because we can’t go through a demanding season with just one, and I’d be all over Tariq Lamptey if that deal were possible. But, in terms of what’s already in the squad, I’d say Jack Clarke is the player with the most potential to fit this role with some close mentoring. Perhaps that will be something to look out for in the Europa Conference League.

Central midfielders

Fonseca’s centre-mids are real all-rounders. They collect the ball from the centre-backs and help break the lines in build-up, they cover in behind the wing-backs on transitions when needed, they get beyond the front three with late runs and arrive in the box. They carry the ball forward where possible, they pull strings, they pass quickly and fluidly, and they find the attacking midfielders often.

A lot is made of Jordan Veretout’s goalscoring exploits, but it must be noted that the majority of his goals were penalties. That said, he is in the 90th percentile for non-penalty goals in the top 5 leagues: very impressive.

Jordan Veretout Scouting Report, fbref.com, generated 12/06/2021

I had a look at all of his Roma goals and they are nice and varied — some from the edge of the box, a third man run, a supporting run on a counter, a couple where he took up nice positions in the box from crosses.

Fonseca’s central midfield at Roma has been made up of two from Veretout, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Gonzalo Villar or Bryan Cristante. Cristante also plays centre-back regularly, and Pellegrini often plays in the attacking midfield band; like us, they have quite a bit of versatility amongst their squad. Villar’s numbers illustrate that, when he plays, he’s playing a more conservative role, but he carries the ball well. His defensive actions are not exactly anything to write home about.

Gordan Villar Scouting Report, fbref.com, generated 12/06/2021

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg seems to be the best Villar equivalent, but Oliver Skipp will surely give him a run for his money, and what Skipp brings that Højbjerg arguably doesn’t is a nimbleness in being able to break forward at speed — not that he did it often at Norwich, as he mostly played at the very base of the midfield in a very conservative role. But he has terrific box-to-box energy. I think either he or Højbjerg could be viable options throughout the season and would expect plenty of rotation. Harry Winks could absolutely do a job in this system — in fact, I think he’d be rather well-suited and it would protect his defensive frailties — but, at this point, I’m expecting him to move on.

Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso are the two players I’ll be desperate to see work in Fonseca’s system, as I believe they’re two of the best players at the club. I really like the idea of Ndombele in the Veretout role, and Lo Celso playing as one of the attacking midfield band… more on that in a moment.

In terms of youngsters for the midfield role (aside from Skipp, mentioned above), that may well be determined by what’s best for their development. Harvey White will surely be out on loan again, Jamie Bowden will hopefully get his first loan too, and that probably leaves Nile John and Alfie Devine as next in line. They are dynamic, versatile, technical players and I’d love to see them both play some Europa Conference League minutes in midfield. Quick shout-out too to Elliot Thorpe, a ball-carrying midfielder. I think he could be a surprise inclusion in pre-season.

Attacking midfielders

The two behind the striker play incredibly narrow in Fonseca’s 3-4-3, forming a pentagon with the striker at the tip and the central midfielders at the base. They make lots of movements towards the (high) wing-backs to create triangles and are constantly probing from those pockets of space. They are very much link players as well as attacking threats themselves, often dropping deep to pick up the ball and carry it forward with the wing-backs running past them on the way, and they help enable the team structure through creating overloads in the middle of the pitch.

Dele is absolutely perfectly suited for this role. His close control, speed of thought, ball carrying and one and two-touch passing would work wonderfully in these pockets of space, as it did under Pochettino when he played as a 10. He also possesses the athleticism and responsibility to drop deeper into midfield when necessary, another characteristic of Fonseca’s style, which can resemble a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase. I think Bergwijn is also a good fit for many of the same reasons as Dele, though he does play it a lot safer. My gut feel, as above, is that Lo Celso fits best on the right of the front three. He has the probing qualities, tenacity in the press, and would enjoy coming in from the flank and playing off others. This role is really not one that provides width, and the idea of Lo Celso being on the ball in the half-space and playing through-balls to a predatory forward is an attractive one.

My initial thought is that I don’t quite see that this role plays to Son’s strengths as we know them right now. We’re used to seeing Son start wide and come inside either in possession, dribbling into space to get a shot away, or out of possession, to get on the end of a long pass and run through on goal. This role sees the opposite – the attacking midfielder starts inside and moves out, sees a lot of the ball, and is expected to create. Son is an elite player, but does he have good enough close control and awareness of those around him to excel in this role?

The one of our youngsters that I think fits this role particularly well is one I’ve already mentioned — Alfie Devine. He’s excellent in the half-spaces and working one-twos with teammates. I can see him fitting this just as well as the central midfield role.

Forward

I watched all of Edin Džeko’s goals from the last two years at Roma and, of those, I recall one where he dropped deep to link play. All of the others involved him being at the sharp end — he’s the spearhead, in the box, attacking crosses with movement, using those poaching instincts. Harry Kane would score bucketloads. I then watched a bunch of his key passes, and the vast majority are one or two-touch lay-offs to players around him or rushing past him.

I wondered if that was just Džeko being Džeko and so I wanted to look at Fonseca’s strikers at his previous clubs. I skipped his first four clubs, so ended up looking at his main strikers for the last nine seasons.

  • Paços de Ferreira (2012/13) – Cícero, 13 goals in 37 matches, 189cm
  • Porto (2013/14) – Jackson Martínez, 29 goals in 51 matches, 185cm
  • Paços de Ferreira (2014/15) – Bruno Moreira, 14 goals in 31 matches, 185cm
  • Braga (2015/16) – Ahmed Hassan, 14 goals in 44 matches, 191cm and Nikola Stojiljkovic, 15 goals in 46 matches, 185cm – they played 4-4-2 in this season.
  • Shakhtar Donetsk (2016/17) – Facundo Ferreyra, 17 goals in 28 matches, 183cm
  • Shakhtar Donetsk (2017/18) – Facundo Ferreyra, 30 goals in 42 matches, 183cm
  • Shakhtar Donetsk (2018/19) – Júnior Moraes, 26 goals in 39 matches, 176cm
  • Roma (2019/20) – Edin Džeko, 19 goals in 43 matches, 193cm
  • Roma (2020/21) – Borja Mayoral, 10 goals in 31 matches, 182cm

I then queued up all of Júnior Moraes’ goals from the 2018/19 season. Yeah, it’s the same again. It’s getting on the end of crosses, it’s back-post tap-ins, it’s opportunistic goals, getting squared the ball on a counter, penalties. Nearly all penalty box stuff.

The striker stays forward. The striker leads the line. He is a platform for interplay, but not integral to it, and the majority of the time can just focus on being aware of what’s going on around him and getting into the box.

I say again: Harry Kane would score a hatful. He’d sure assist a lot less, though. But, if anything, this has made me feel a tiny bit better about the idea of Kane leaving. Which, obviously, would leave a huge hole, a hole impossible to fill with an individual player, but the striker is not the be all and end all in this system… aside from that little thing of putting he ball in the net.

And here’s a plot twist. The reason I included the height of the strikers was because knowing that Džeko played under Fonseca a lot at Roma (until they fell out) I wondered whether he had ‘a type’. I don’t think he necessarily does aside from good predatory movement in the box. So in terms of our squad, and potentially in planning for life after Kane, I’m wondering if we will see a new role for Son Heung-min who, by the way, is 184cm tall. Maybe I’ve got this totally wrong and Son will play the narrow attacking midfield role superbly. Or maybe Fonseca changes things up and goes back to a 4-2-3-1 because Son is a wonderful player and that system suits and accommodates him. But I’m just throwing it out there as a point to consider.

Of our youngsters, Scarlett is the one for this 3-4-3. He is a typical penalty box poacher and is ideal. Our other exciting young striker, Troy Parrott, is a bit like Kane in that he likes to be heavily involved in build-up play. He is a quality player with bags of potential, but not such a natural fit in my view.

Conclusions

I plan to do some more analysis of Fonseca’s teams once the announcement is made and I’m sure I’ll revise some of the points above once I become more familiar with his set-up. But, on what I’ve seen so far, I feel confident about Reguilón, Rodon and Dele fitting, but less confident about Son (unless up front), Sánchez, Alderweireld and Lloris.

This is not my first-choice XI by any stretch but an XI I can see fitting the system using existing players, obviously assuming that Kane is not there. If he is there, I imagine Fonseca would revert to a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate Son. I think this also illustrates the key positions we need to strengthen.

Potential Tottenham Hotspur XI under Fonseca

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments about which players you think fit and which don’t. And also, on whether you think I’ve missed something or misinterpreted something about Fonseca’s system(s).


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