I tend to write each year about the 25-man squad and the implications of the homegrown players rule. This year I’m writing about it a little earlier than usual because it will impact on Spurs’ transfer strategy. The reason being that Spurs have sleepwalked into a potential issue with homegrown player numbers which could impact on how many signings José Mourinho can make and/or the size of our squad for next season.
I wrote last June that ‘This summer will likely see Spurs re-build the squad both from the top-down and bottom up. By that I mean that we will need to add first team-ready additions in at two or three key areas, but also prepare for the future, with one eye on the home grown players rule.’
We signed Jack Clarke and Ryan Sessegnon — a nod towards some forward-planning. However, their lack of progression over this past year causes an issue. Both count as ‘freebies’ for the next couple of years – i.e. they don’t have to be named in the 25-man squad. But it does not seem likely at this point that they will get significant minutes because… well, they’ve both essentially stood still since signing.
Back to the homegrown 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 home grown players, but would need to also name fewer than 25 players in our squad — for example, if we only have seven home grown players, we can name a 24-man squad, 6/23, 5/22, etc.
Remember, a home grown player 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 homegrown players, but would need plenty of under 21 players who are ready to play (particularly if we qualify for the Europa League). For the 2020/21 campaign, players considered ‘under 21’ will have been born on or after 1st January 1999. This means that for the coming season we still have a number of ‘freebies’ who are fairly well-known names: Brandon Austin, Gedson Fernandes, Jack Roles, Japhet Tanganga, TJ Eyoma, Ryan Sessegnon, Oliver Skipp, Jack Clarke, Jamie Bowden, Harvey White, J’Neil Bennett, Troy Parrott, Malachi Fagan-Walcott, Dennis Cirkin. One would expect the majority of these to be out on loan next season, but we can probably expect Gedson, Tanganga, Sessegnon and, perhaps, White, Cirkin and Parrott to get some playing time.
Returning to the over-21s, Spurs currently have 29 players who would need to be named in the Premier League squad list in order to play. But, of those, I would expect 10 or more to leave, either permanently or on loan.
Giovani Lo Celso
Spurs’ over-21 players, ordered by DOB
Of those I would expect to stay, only five are homegrown: Ben Davies, Harry Kane, Harry Winks, Dele and Alfie Whiteman. With just five homegrown players, we would only be able to name a squad of 22 players, so if my assumptions about those that may leave are correct, we would only be able to add three non-homegrown players.
Naturally, this would make the signing of homegrown players a more attractive proposition. We have been linked with Max Aarons and Nathan Ferguson, both homegrown and, even better, not needing to be listed for another couple of seasons. Ollie Watkins is tearing up the Championship and has an £18m release clause. Eberechi Eze has long been linked with Spurs. An alternative would be to keep Walker-Peters, though Mourinho has already said that he would not stand in the way of his ‘leaving the club in search of happiness’.
Young, English players are amongst the best in Europe, but they do come at a premium because of the additional value that the homegrown tag adds.
One other consideration is the Europa League. Of course, we may not even qualify, but the Europa League rules are a little different to the Premier League rules — have a look at pages 39 and 40 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’ squad in the Europa League, we would need four ‘association-trained’ players and four ‘club-trained’ players (based on my predictions we would have just Kane, Winks and Whiteman).
With strong links to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Kim Min-jae and Arkadiusz Milik, Spurs could soon be in a position where they would need to sell (or loan) a non-homegrown player in order to buy another. It’s something to keep an eye on as the transfer window develops.
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Football’s intangibles will be forever debated because it’s almost impossible to come to a resolution or sometimes even a compromise when the arguments are so antithetical. ‘Desire’ is definitely one such intangible in this category.
‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’, Alex Ferguson famously said of Spurs. But that was at least fifteen years ago, and probably more like twenty years ago. Our players have turned over five or six times since then, our managers more.
There are a group of fans who will see a player charging into tackles as a representation of desire, but that is an outmoded view and far from the discussion that I want to have here.
I have spent a lot of the last 24 hours tweeting about Jose Mourinho’s latest press conference, in which he said ‘I believed in the evolution of the team and I thought that by a desire point of view, they [Sheffield United] put more than us. That’s something that disturbs me. It’s something that I feel, I don’t know, that’s my way of being – it’s something that destroys me a little bit on the inside because I think the last thing in football is when you have the feeling you could, you should do more.’
He thought Sheffield United beat us because they tried harder than us. They wanted it more. In explaining this, he also distances himself from what happened on the pitch. The players had shown ‘commitment and professionalism’ on the training ground, so why wouldn’t he trust them out there? They’d tricked him into believing that they cared, those little scamps! And, yet, when it mattered, they let him down.
As you can tell, I have an issue with this, but first I’ll explain why I’ve discovered that it’s problematic to even have this conversation.
When I tweeted about this it was met with a bunch of absolutely dumbfounded responses for a few reasons:
People said that our ‘pampered’ (a word that came up a lot) players needed calling out, that they’ve been ‘mentally weak’ (another phrase that was used a lot) for years;
Jose Mourinho has had a lot of success and therefore he knows best;
This strategy has worked for Mourinho before.
I’d also note that ‘Mourinho fans’ – and my goodness is that a thing, there are a rather large group of people who support him and not his teams – are next-level.
It is really difficult to debate points 2 and 3 because, at least on some level, the statements are correct. I have a feeling that things have changed since Mourinho had success using this method. My gut tells me that when you’re at a club with almost limitless resources, you can afford to be brutal with players because if you alienate them, you just sell them and move on to the next. Spurs won’t be able to do that. But they are correct; Mourinho does (did?) tend to bring success to wherever he goes. He wins trophies, he is able to point to record books and say ‘I did that’.
But I take issue with the first point, and here’s why: for every single example you can think of where our players showed ‘weak’ mentality in the past five years, I can show you two where they showed the opposite. Spurs in peak Pochettino mode were famous for punching above their weight. We did not have the resources of the bigger clubs and yet we were right there on their coat-tails, and sometimes they were even on our coat-tails. Has this already been forgotten simply because we’ve been rubbish again for a bit?
In the seasons 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2017/18, Spurs – noted bottle jobs, a gutless set of lily-livered little boys (judging by my Twitter mentions) – completed more comebacks than any other team, earning 47 points from conceding the first goal in a match. I’m pretty convinced that that wasn’t *just* because of those famous winners, Kieran Trippier and Christian Eriksen.
There we have Roy Keane in October 2017 saying ‘them [sic] days are over’, ‘very brave, showed a lot of courage’. Alllllll the intangibles.
There is absolutely no doubt that this deteriorated in 2018/19 as Pochettino’s Tottenham started to crumble. As Pochettino started to crumble, in my view. And yet, even then, we saw some of the most miraculous come-backs in football history in our historic Champions League campaign.
Mourinho may want to ‘separate the boys from the men’ as the rather toxic cliché goes, but we only need to look at Mo Salah, Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba as examples of players he famously culled who came back to prove that they did have winning mentality after all and, not just that, truckloads of talent.
I’m not saying that Mourinho doesn’t know what he’s doing – quite the opposite, I’m sure this is very targeted, very considered. What I am saying is that it seems ill-judged at a club like Spurs, where we’re not going to be able to buy a whole new squad of ‘winners’. He needs to work with these players. He needs to foster a sense of togetherness and get them all on the same page – as they clearly were in that period under Pochettino – and I personally don’t believe that this is the right way to achieve that.
And finally, in separating himself from the concept of the players lacking in motivation is a dereliction of duty. It is his job to ensure that the players are motivated. He thinks the players threw the towel in against Sheffield United. Well, so did he. In his own words ‘I feared that in the second half we wouldn’t be strong enough to cope’. Judging by the second half performance, one can assume this came through in his half-time team talk.
It’s fine for fans to scream intangibles at the pitch if that makes them feel better, rather than look objectively for possible reasons why a particular game is going wrong (bad defending with Serge Aurier playing right-back and Moussa Sissoko in defensive midfield is hardly a shock, is it?), but for the manager to join in is an admission that he has failed in some way (whilst reflecting responsibility).
As Spice put it in response to me on Twitter, on one hand you’ve got people shouting “Poch lost the dressing room, couldn’t motivate the players, had to go!” and now those same people are saying that the players should be self-motivated. So which is it?
Jose Mourinho has forgotten more about football than I’ve ever known, and who am I to tell him how to do his job? But I think a more appropriate starting point for analysing that Sheffield United game is looking at the team selection, tactics, use of substitutes and failure to adapt to their style.
I’m not absolving the players of responsibility, by the way. We have some bad players who are playing badly and making mistakes. I don’t think telling them they’re mentally weak is going to make them any better, though. And it might alienate our good ones.
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It’s been a while – too long – I hope you’re well. I hope your family and friends are well. I hope you’re coping okay with lockdown.
This has been a pretty difficult period for everyone. I consider myself lucky, but it’s still not easy. My girlfriend is shielding, we live separately. I miss her terribly. Like many others, I have not seen family or friends – or anyone, aside from delivery drivers, the postwoman and neighbours – since this all began. I am lucky enough to still have my job which has been largely unaffected aside from the move to working from home. My work has allowed me to retain a sense of purpose and a routine.
Outside work, I have enjoyed continuing to record podcasts (The Extra Inch, our Tottenham Hotspur podcast) throughout the period for the same reason – a source of purpose – and for a chance to catch up with mates as a distraction from the repetitiveness. I spoke to The Guardian for this piece on podcasting in the pandemic.
My dad was briefly unwell at the beginning of the pandemic. As it turned out, he had pneumonia. It was an incredibly worrying time, and my heart goes out to anyone who has suffered loss or has had similar concerns for the health of their loved ones.
I had mixed feelings when I saw Harry Kane, Tanguy Ndombele, Son Heung-min et al return to training. On one hand: man, had I missed these guys. It was lovely to see them, their familiar faces. It felt normal, it felt every day. We’re so used to seeing these training clips – shooting drills, pressing drills. It briefly lifted me out of what has become the ‘new normal’ (as everyone keeps saying) at home. On the other hand: why on earth is this happening now? We’re all locked down – for good reason – and we’re sending these men to their non-essential work when the virus is not even close to being suppressed in our country.
Over the past month I have recorded two podcasts with Alex Benham. He is brilliant. Alex is a listener of The Extra Inch and he got in touch with us (podcast at TheExtraInch dot co dot uk.) having heard Nathan A Clark exclaim that the idea of restarting the Premier League was ‘fucking absurd’.
Alex is a researcher working on the history of public health. He is undertaking a PhD at Oxford University and has spent the last two years researching pandemics and government responses to pandemics. He is well qualified to put what we’re all going through now into a historical context, and also to make observations about our response.
I thought it would be really useful to invite Alex to converse with me in blog form about Covid-19 and, in particular, the Premier League’s response to it and their intentions going forward.
Alex, we spoke at length on the podcast about the historic echoes of this. You talked me through the Mumbai plague and the Spanish flu, and the government responses to each, but what are the headlines here?
So the obvious headline is the striking parallels between these pandemics in the past and this one – the novel coronavirus – that is currently in the process of redefining the present. The British state’s response to both Bubonic Plague in colonial Mumbai (1896-1920), and the Spanish Flu in mainland Britain (1918-1919), is characterised by three key features. Firstly, the authorities attempt to deny the severity of the pandemic. In Mumbai, the first reports of the plague reached the British in May 1896, but they didn’t officially acknowledge its presence until October, 6 months later. Secondly, they delay acting to contain the spread of disease – Spanish Flu reached Britain in May 1918, but the authorities delayed taking proper measures until the Autumn. Thirdly, these denials and delays are driven by a desire to preserve the economy at all costs, even if that is a heavy cost to life. In Mumbai, the priority of the British was to keep the city’s thriving port open, and maintain India’s trade with the rest of the world. In 2020, as the British Government try and push people back to work amidst a pandemic – after first denying its severity, then delaying their response – it’s not hard to see the parallels.
We have history in not responding decisively then. We have dithered, and there’s a discussion to be had around the reason for this dithering – whether it is a strategy to attempt to reassure the public, an attempt to maintain the economy for as long as possible, or simply indecision. I think it’s useful to have this historical knowledge of previous responses to frame the discussion. You spoke in a lot more detail about this on the first podcast we did together (The Extra Inch – Bonus Episode: The Premier League’s Project Restart… Effing Absurd) – I had no idea of the parallels and it was fascinating to learn about those pandemics, though shocking to hear about the mass loss of life. I put a trigger warning on the first podcast because it is not content that everyone will be comfortable with.
Let’s move on to the football because that is the purpose of this blog. Here, there is also some historic significance which bears repeating. The Spanish flu had a direct impact on football, right?
Yes it did; although national competitions were suspended for the First World War, regional leagues continued. This meant competitive football was played throughout the worst period of the Spanish Flu – late 1918 – and probably contributed to its spread. Chelsea, for example, played three home games in November 1918 – Brentford, Millwall and Tottenham – each time with more than 10,000 people at Stamford Bridge. In that same month, the local area saw 100 deaths from influenza. Two Chelsea players went on to contract Spanish Flu – Logan and Ford –as did two of the club’s vice presidents – Hayes-Fisher and Joynson-Hicks. Elsewhere, footballers had begun to die: Angus Douglas, the former Chelsea outside right, Jack Allan, a forward for Nottingham Forest and John Pattinson, a winger for Doncaster Rovers. All were under the age of 35 when they died. Douglas was just 29. Even more tragically, Douglas’s wife also died of the virus, leaving their daughter orphaned.
It would be very easy to skim over that. Old, dead people. Sad. Re-read it, but this time insert the names of current players and officials in the place of Logan, Ford, Hayes-Fisher, Joynson-Hicks, Douglas, Allan and Patttison. Allow the tragedy to become more tangible, closer.
The Premier League has commenced its Project Restart plan before ‘lockdown’ has ended. 1,000 people – players and club officials – are being tested regularly for Covid-19. If they test positive, they go into isolation for seven days. But Alex, you’re not convinced by the approach to testing, are you?
So the Premier League is depending on a program of bi-weekly qPCR tests (to give them their full name, Reverse Transcription Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction tests) to protect its players and staff. The procedure is relatively simple, you take a swab sample – usually from the back of the throat – and test it to see if it contains a significant quantity of viral RNA (the molecule that stores the genetic code of the coronavirus). The problem with coronavirus is that – like most pulmonary viruses – the quantity of the virus in someone’s respiratory system varies massively from person to person – some will have large quantities, some almost none at all. The quantity also varies according to the stage of the infection – most importantly, some people will only have a detectable quantity of the virus in their system for a few days after the beginning of the infection. This is one of the reasons the coronavirus qPCR test can have a higher false negative test rate – i.e. missing the virus even though someone has the infection.
According to Dr James Gill at Warwick Medical School – when tested alone, the PCR test has a 66.7% detection rate within the first week – so about 67% of people who have coronavirus will test positive on the PCR test. Avi Lasarow, who is the Chief Executive of the company (Prenetics) providing the qPCR tests to the League, claims the test is 98.8% accurate. My scepticism about this claim is partly a product of the science behind it, and partly a consequence of the person making it. In 2015, Lasarow settled a court case with the Federal Trade Commission. The charge? Making ‘unfair or deceptive’ claims about a skin cancer test app sold by his company.
Players are likely to be mixing with others who have coronavirus but are not testing positive or not yet testing positive. The virus could spread to other players, to coaches and officials and beyond – to their families, housemates and members of the public.
Training is different – players train in small groups. Initially it was contact-free, though that soon changed.
The idea that players can quickly change learned behaviours and practices -which are so embedded into their ways of working and lifestyles and have been since they were children – is at worst, whimsical, and at best, hopeful. Even if the training pitch is a relative safe space, the changing rooms and any other inside areas are going to prove a logistical nightmare. I worry when I think of the kitchen and toilets in the office that I work in. A training ground is different – 30+ players and coaches with streaming noses, panting and puffing. And that’s before we even consider the logistics around the matches themselves.
Seamus nailed it. Why are the Premier League pressing ahead with this? Money is the main and possibly only reason. The longer that football-less society continues, the more football clubs lose money. The fear is that clubs will go out of business without the money that football generates. In the Premier League, where the risk of clubs going bankrupt is lower, the issues are that clubs will lose money and become less competitive – they will no longer be able to afford the best players. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that Premier League fans look towards the Bundesliga. The more Premier League players look towards the Bundesliga. Alex, what do you think will happen if we just crack on?
Lets get one thing straight. The week the Bundesliga returned, less than 1,000 people in Germany were becoming infected with coronavirus every day. In Britain, the same week, around 20,000 people per day were becoming infected. The Bundesliga came back because Germany had suppressed the virus. The Premier League is coming back because Britain has failed to suppress the virus, and is desperate for a distraction from the destruction being wrought by this failure. If the Premier League go ahead with this plan, players and staff are going to get sick. This week the Daily Mail reported that the Premier League has been approached by one club executive who, in the context of Covid-19, is ‘concerned about a corporate manslaughter prosecution.’ Amidst all the excitement at football’s return, clubs are quietly considering what to do if players start dying.
There is some resistance. Some players are standing up for themselves and their communities. Black players in particular. We know that the BME community is disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Alex, you discussed all of this on the follow-up podcast, and I think it’s important that we highlight the key points again here.
The reality is that Covid-19 deaths are twice as high for BME people as they are for white people in Britain, and almost four times as high for those from a Black British African background. This disproportionate death toll is partly a result of the fact that BME people are over-represented in the riskiest jobs – a ‘third of all working-age Black Africans are employed in key worker roles, 50% more than the share of the White British population.’ Even if we just look at hospitals, ‘Pakistani, Indian and Black African men are respectively 90%, 150% and 310% more likely to work in healthcare than white British men.’ This goes all the way back to the end of the Empire, the deliberate recruitment of commonwealth migrants to the NHS and Transport for London. Secondly BME people suffer the effects of structural racism – as well as riskier jobs, BME people experience poorer housing, with higher rates of overcrowding, greater levels of air pollution, and greatly reduced access to green space. This contributes to the prevalence of underlying health conditions amongst those with a Bangladeshi, Pakistani or black Caribbean background.
Black working class players, like Deeney, Kante, Willian, Rose and Sterling, have been forced to be most vocal about their concerns about the restart because they are from the group put most at risk by it. Their friends and families are more likely to have underlying health conditions – and more likely to be key workers – than those of their white teammates. Lets not forget that Sterling’s mother used to work as a cleaner, as did Kante’s mother, as did Willian’s mother. These black players will be disproportionately exposed to tragedy – to quote Sterling ‘this is massive, this is something I’ve never seen. . . I’ve had friends whose grandma’s passed away, I’ve had family members as well that have passed away.’ It’s a dire indictment of football, that, once again, black players are being forced to publicly demand the most basic rights and protections.
Solidarity with all of these players who are putting their heads above the parapets.
There will be different views on all of this, as I discovered when I tweeted about the subject yesterday. Some people believe that the risk to life is minimal (“It’s a nursing home epidemic.”) and are just delighted that football will be returning. Whatever your views, some further resources to keep yourself informed are below.
I’ve called this ‘How I Feel’ because, for me, football and the conversations around it impact on my feelings. What a snowflake. When Spurs were playing well and it felt like the club and its fan-base were together, I felt great! We all did. Now things are not going well and divisions have set in, I feel sad about it. I feel helpless, powerless, I’m not enjoying the football, I feel like part of my weekly or bi-weekly escapism has become a chore.
I don’t mean to be alarmist – I’m fine! Fortunately, I am a resilient person who has good mental health and I look after myself. But many fans are not, and this period is going to be difficult for them.*
I knew that José Mourinho was a divisive figure. But I didn’t realise quite how quickly those divides would appear. A large portion of our fan-base struggled with the idea of his appointment, not least because he followed an almost universally popular manager.
Our exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Norwich, as well as Mourinho’s handling of the Tanguy Ndombele predicament this weekend are allowing those who don’t want him at the club to vent with some legitimacy.
The position I have arrived at is that, without Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, and with other constant injuries cropping up due to a necessary over-reliance on other players, this season is not going to get any better. So I am over it. I have mentally moved on and accepted that this is a bad football team for the rest of the season.
I am ready for the summer, ready for our best players to get fit again, ready for us to sign a defensive midfielder, a centre-back, a couple of new full-backs and another striker. I am ready to see what team and what tactics Mourinho can put together for next season. I will judge him at Christmas when he has had a pre-season with his own squad.
But, in the meantime, the constant squabbling, finger-pointing and point-scoring amongst fans is almost as draining as watching this bad Tottenham team play 120 minutes against Norwich.**
It’s a bit like having a discussion about Brexit on Twitter: the two sides of the argument somehow become more entrenched, there is absolutely no progress towards a resolution and, instead, everybody comes away from the discussion feeling worse about it. So, ultimately, it’s probably better not to have it in the first place, or certainly not in this way.
If you think Mourinho is not the man for Spurs – and that’s absolutely fine, of course – then using the rest of the season as a stick to beat Mourinho with as if you’re some kind of soothsayer seems fruitless. We are playing without Kane and Son and with the decomposing corpse of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur squad. It’s not like Mourinho is suddenly going to invent a new system which fixes these major problems and immediately turns around the mindsets of the players after a year of gradually declining self-belief and confidence. And, crucially, telling everyone else over and over just how badly you think Mourinho is doing is probably going to make you feel worse. And it’ll make everyone else you’re communicating with feel worse too.
Equally, if you feel that Mourinho is absolutely the best man for Tottenham (also fine) and you continue to beat that drum despite any tangible evidence that he’s actually making a positive change, then be aware that you are rubbing it in the face of all of those fans who did not want him in the first place and now absolutely do not want him.
The football is bad enough without two sides of an increasingly toxic debate splitting our (briefly cohesive) fan-base any further. Much like our society is bad enough without two sides of a toxic debate causing yet more division, more hate, feeding into a situation which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Or, frankly, maybe I should just mind my own business. Shout into the void if you want. Get the negativity out and share it amongst your friends and followers, watch it spread.*** Because my way of dealing with this run-in is, most likely, going to be to withdraw from social media anyway. I think we’re all going to need some coping mechanisms because it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Enjoy your Spurs-free Sunday!
*If you are struggling you should know that there are people there to help. Reach out to a friend – you’ll be surprised how receptive they are. Alternatively, consider calling CALM or The Samaritans.
I convinced myself that we would beat Chelsea, that we would move into fourth and that the absence of our two star strikers, two best players would be less keenly felt than anticipated. I’m an idiot.
Jose Mourinho pre-warned of rotation for the run of three games in six days, and this team selection reflected both that plan, and a plan to match up to Chelsea’s back three. But whereas Chelsea’s was a definite back three, Mourinho set up in a flat back five. Japhet Tanganga had not played full-back before moving into the first team, but was deployed on the right of a back five here.
Serge Aurier had two poor games against Aston Villa and RB Leipzig and was overdue a rest, but this didn’t seem an ideal use of Tanganga’s skillset. Whilst he was not asked to run forward with the ball or be particularly progressive, the ball was regularly shuttled out to him as Chelsea pressed from the front. He tried three things to get out of trouble: finding an angle for a pass inside (easier said than done); winning throws by playing up the line; stepping inside to commit the pressing player. He had limited success with each, such is his skillset and he endured a difficult afternoon. Unfortunately, Juan Foyth, who is better in possession and may have been a better selection, is still recovering from injury, so Mourinho’s choice was ‘keep flogging Aurier and pray he doesn’t get injured from fatigue’ or ‘try Tanganga’. On the other side, Ben Davies was just as ineffective, playing his third game in the period – not ideal when just returning from injury.
The full-backs weren’t Spurs’ only problem, of course, but the inability to beat the press was playing into Chelsea’s hands. As Mourinho pointed out post-match ‘If they press us high, they know that if we go long we don’t win a single ball against the opponent’s defenders, If they drop the block and go with low block, they know it’s difficult for us to get into the box, especially from the sides. So opponents they know if they score a goal before us we’re in trouble.’
Frank Lampard certainly motivated and organised his players well but, essentially, without Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, we are easy to plan for.
Mourinho tried to do his best to find solutions to the press – namely by selecting our most ‘press-resistant’ midfield in Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, but then he played Lo Celso from the right, in a curious move. He still had more touches (87) than any other Spurs player on the pitch but we struggled to get him involved in the first half when his presence was badly needed to help move the ball through midfield.
Ndombele looked – as ever – unfit whilst Chelsea’s midfield of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, with Mason Mount and Ross Barkley snapping into tackles and closing space quickly ahead of them, looked the opposite: fit, sharp, spritely, motivated.
One positive came in the shape of Steven Bergwijn. Though these were small steps towards finding a solution to missing our two best goal-getters, he showed an ability to be able to play with his back to goal. Bergwijn is excellent technically – an immaculate first touch, neat turning circle and – crucially – a real awareness of those around him. His lay-offs and link-up play were impressive, particularly given he was up against three centre-backs with little support.
And thus we move onto Lucas Moura. Lucas Moura is a club legend in my eyes – his name will never be forgotten at White Hart Lane. That display against Ajax will be recounted to new fans for generations. But Mourinho’s persistence with Lucas as a starting player is hurting us.
Lucas’ first touch is an issue in itself. It’s not consistent enough, often ending up with his second being a tackle as the ball gets away from him. But it’s decision-making that’s so problematic. Like Son, Lucas dribbles with his head down. He’s an effective dribbler – those quick feet and that burst of acceleration – but the fact that he’s got his head down means that he 1. often runs into defenders, and 2. is unaware of his teammates. But, unlike Son, there’s little of note at the end of his dribbles.
Whilst Lucas’ effort levels are tremendous, they are not matched by his output. In his last ten starts he has one goal and one assist. And let’s remember that he has mostly played up front in that time.
But it isn’t just the last ten games – it’s Lucas’ productivity across his Spurs career. A goal or assist every 184.6 minutes; it takes more than two matches for Lucas to get a goal or assist. This season it’s 227.9, or 257.8 in the Premier League; this is very bad.
Lucas has nine assists in nearly 6,000 minutes played for us. It seems cruel to compare his 184.6 mins per goal/assist ration to Son’s 109.1 minutes, but even the oft-criticised Lamela manages a goal or assist every 152.9 minutes.
Of course, the other reason for removing Lucas from the starting XI for a while is that he’s a genuinely useful ‘change up’ option to have on the bench. When you need an injection of pace against tired legs, he’s ideal.
Lucas seems to be a Mourinho favourite – we all remember those quotes at the beginning of Mourinho’s tenure about wanting to sign him previously. Plus, removing him from the team now will be seen as madness, given our lack of other forward options. But, in my opinion, it’s essential that we try something new if we want to start scoring regularly again.
Mourinho’s impossible situation
It didn’t take long for sections of the fan-base to turn on Mourinho – plenty were never fully ‘for’ him in the first place. But it seems to me to be the wrong time to be judging him.
The team that Mourinho inherited was fundamentally broken. On a downward turn that – if we’re honest – had been going on for the best part of a year (the Champions League run tricking us into thinking everything was okay). There was no structure or cohesion on the pitch, team unity seemed to be lacking. I think he did the right things in letting Christian Eriksen leave, in getting rid of Danny Rose, in tying Toby Alderweireld down to a new contract. The January signings seemed sensible, albeit more reinforcements would have been nice (more on that here).
The number of matches since he arrived three months ago has meant that he has had limited time on the training ground to implement tactical improvements and, when he has had that time, he has been hit by injury after injury: Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Kane and now Son Heung-min. Giovani Lo Celso wasn’t available at the start. Tanguy Ndombele has barely been available either.
I understand that fans don’t want to see a low to medium block, inviting teams that we feel we are on a par with onto us, and trying to counter-attack them. But I believe that Mourinho has very few options at the moment that don’t involve doing that. Had he attempted to play through midfield against RB Leipzig they would have picked us off at will. Chelsea pressed us effectively and forced us to play long and then mopped up those long balls. When we tried to play it into midfield, they got bodies around us and won the ball back. These are not easy matches when you have so many limiting factors at play at once. It’s not like we had a working system pre-Mourinho and he just needed to tweak things: he had to go back to basics and try to re-build the team structure from scratch.
We now have a comparatively favourable run of fixtures in March (though it involves six matches in 20 days):
Wolverhampton Wanderers (H) – PL
Norwich City (H) – FAC
Burnley (A) – PL
RasenBallsport Leipzig (A) – CL
Manchester United (H) – PL
West Ham (H) – PL
What I hope to see from these matches is a solution forming up front that does not involve Lucas. I’d like to see Bergwijn continue through the middle, with Dele from the left and Lamela from the right, but both close to Bergwijn to try to connect with him and create opportunities through clever movement and interplay.
I’d like to see some more rotation of and experimentation with the full-backs – I’m happy with Tanganga on the right if it is the ‘withdrawn full-back’ role and Ryan Sessegnon comes in on the left. Foyth could also play there too. Aurier’s performances are so mixed, whilst Davies is clearly not the silver bullet that Mourinho hoped he would be.
I’d like to see Ndombele get a run of games to build fitness – he’s one of our biggest hopes. Keep that midfield together and make it gel.
And I’d like to see us work on set pieces. I have been shouting it into the void on Twitter, but Tanganga needs to be in the box for every corner. He is one of our best players at attacking the ball and he is always held back to cover the counter. We need goals from all possible sources, and set piece goals would be incredibly useful right now.
Fourth is still possible if we can eke out some results, and fifth may yet get us Champions League football. The run-in won’t be pretty, but there’s plenty left to aim for.
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