Dilan Markanday… And What It Means (Part 1)

Here’s the headline. If Dilan Markanday had two and a half years left on his contact, we would not be entertaining bids below eight figures. Instead, we have reportedly accepted a six figure bid.

I could happily write this blog from the perspective of an advocate of academy players who wanted to see Dilan Markanday play more first team football for Spurs. But I think that it would be written off as agenda-driven youth football extremism, perhaps rightfully.

So, instead, I’ll write it from the perspective of a fan with no interest in promoting academy players, simply frustrated at the potential loss of revenue from the sale of (currently) our highest-performing academy asset for an up-front £500,000 according to Dan Kilpatrick.

Tweet from Dan Kilpatrick, the Evening Standard’s Chief Football Correspondent

The reason we are selling Dilan Markanday for an up-front £500,000 is because his contract expires in a matter of months. And the reason that his contract expires in a matter of months is because we couldn’t get him to sign a new contract. And the reason that we couldn’t get him to sign a new contract is: why would he sign a new contract?

Markanday can go to Blackburn Rovers, who are currently third in the Championship, and can play first team football between now and the end of the season. He might get promoted to the Premier League — at least, that’s what he’ll be thinking. He could be a Premier League starter next season. I’d imagine he’ll be on better money, and will benefit from receiving a signing-on fee too. This is clearly win/win for him.

In his five years at Spurs, Markanday has accumulated 15 minutes of adult football. At any level. This is an absurd situation. And those 15 minutes came in what now looks like a token appearance in the Europa Conference League which was, presumably, a last ditch attempt to encourage him to sign a contract. I suspect that he and his agent were too smart to fall for that old trick!

The closest comparison I can reasonably make to Markanday’s situation is Alex Pritchard’s, though I personally believe that Markanday has a higher ceiling than Pritchard (when compared with Pritchard at the same age). Pritchard left Spurs in February 2016 having actually played three fewer first team minutes for Spurs than Markanday has! 12 minutes in the Spurs first team. But he left for a reported £8 million.

The main difference between the two — the thing that added value to Pritchard (aside from the obvious, i.e. his having a longer contract in place) — was that, unlike Markanday, who has only played youth football, Pritchard had played 262 minutes in the Championship for Peterborough United, 3,645 minutes in all competitions for (at the time League One) Swindon Town, 3,869 minutes in all competitions for (at the time Championship) Brentford and and a handful of minutes for (at the time Premier League) West Bromwich Albion.

Nearly 8,000 minutes of men’s football made Pritchard much more of a sure thing but, more importantly than that, that initial loan move in 2013 when Pritchard was 19 and a half, and, presumably the discussions around what that move would lead to, gave him the exposure and career path that made renewing his contract at that point a no-brainer.

Markanday and Pritchard are similar in many ways. They play in similar positions on the pitch (attacking midfield), they were both late developers physically compared to their peers, and they both drew plaudits for their performances in youth tournaments. Markanday was named ‘Best Overseas Player’ at the Under-17 Borgaro Maggioni Righi tournament in Italy in 2018 as a 16-year old, whilst Pritchard lit up the NextGen Series in both 2011/12 and 2012/13. Anyone who watched either of them at 16 or 17-years old could see that they had excellent close control and dribbling ability, which made them stand-out.

Personally, I was unsure whether Pritchard was a Premier League level player but what was always clear was that he would make a good career for himself, and he is now excelling for Sunderland in League One, as one of the division’s best players who is clearly able to play at a level above (and probably will next season!). But this is all beside the point. Whatever he ended up as was secondary to what he was worth at the time, and creating value was done through exposure to actual first team football.

Markanday’s developmental explosion happened around eighteen months ago, when his physical development started to match his technical development, and he visibly bulked up and began to hold his own at Premier League 2 level against players who would previously have been able to dominate him. The mistake was to not tie him down to a longer contract and send him on loan at that point. Rather, we left him in the PL2.

If we look at Markanday’s goal and assist productivity across his five years of Scholarship and subsequent contracts at Spurs, we can see that 2019/20 and 2020/21 saw him struggle to adjust to the Premier League 2. But, for context, I would add that the Spurs PL2 team was generally struggling during that period, and that this season benefits from Spurs’ changed approach to youth development, i.e. having Harvey White, Jack Clarke and Nile John (and Markanday) in the side, players who I believe are all far too good for the level. The previous two seasons saw Covid disruption, key players on loan, short-term signings to fill gaps, and – frankly – some poor players playing regularly. Am I making excuses for Markanday’s performances in 2019/20 and 2020/21 knowing what I know now? Probably. But there were reasons.

What we know is that Spurs have offered Markanday a contract this season which he has rejected. We also know that he signed a new contract this time last year, though we suspect that this was the club exercising ‘an option’ to extend. What we don’t know is whether Spurs wanted to tie Markanday down to a longer contract last year, or whether they had concerns about his productivity. Or whether it was simply that we didn’t offer him a lucrative enough contract.

2021/22 PL21,219 (to date)171.3
2020/21 PL21,56960.3
2019/20  PL21,29770.5
2018/19 U18 PL1,743150.8
2017/18 U18 PL1,09180.7
Dilan Markanday’s goal and assist record 2017/18 to date

If the club were not sure that Markanday was worth investing in (and, let’s remember, he would not have been on big money, far from it), the best I can say was that it was short-sighted given his previous levels of productivity.

Spurs now have a significant history of getting themselves into these contract stand-offs with young talent. Milos Veljovic, Marcus Edwards, Luis Binks, Jack Roles and presumably Dennis Cirkin. I’m sure there are many others that I have not remembered at this point. Then we have the likes of Reo Griffiths, Keanan Bennetts, Elliot Thorpe, Omari Forson and Noni Madueke who all left in search of a better career path. When I make this argument people typically say ‘yes, but only Madueke has made anything of himself’. And my response to this is two-fold. Firstly, progression isn’t linear. And secondly, and more relevant to this particular blog piece, their value at the time was significantly more than what we got for them at the time which, in most cases, was nothing or a pittance. So what they became is somewhat irrelevant, because we were still losing out on potential income.

My tweets (from @WindyCOYS) about Dilan Markanday’s likely departure

We can look at the sales of Jake Livermore to Hull City (£10m), Steven Caulker to Cardiff City (£8m), and the aforementioned Alex Pritchard to Norwich (£8m) as a job well done, selling players who were ultimately seen as not good enough to help the squad for good money which could be re-invested into the squad. But, alongside these, there are countless players who have been sold well beneath their peak value.

Josh Onomah, Marcus Edwards, Milos Veljkovic, Reo Griffiths, Keanan Bennetts, Ismail Azzaoui, Jack Roles, Luke Amos, Luis Binks, Dennis Cirkin, Omari Forson, Noni Madueke are all players that should have collectively made us tens of millions more than they ultimately did. There will be more that I am forgetting. Cameron Carter-Vickers (when he goes) will go for a reduced fee. I even believe that Kyle Walker-Peters was sold beneath what his value should have been at £12m, though some see that as a good deal. On the point of Walker-Peters, I think it’s also worth noting that we spent over £60m on Serge Aurier, Matt Doherty and Emerson Royal in trying to replace Kyle Walker (or Kieran Trippier if you’re being charitable) whilst Kyle Walker-Peters played pretty much no football – is he significantly worse than them? If we had just played him during that period and not spent that £60m would we have been any worse off? Did we get £60m of value?

Aside these financial losses, it is also objectively Not A Good Thing that our best youth players, like Markanday, are choosing to leave us. It cannot be a good message for other youth players that the peers that they see as the best in their group are choosing to leave because they cannot see a path to first team football. It will encourage more players to do the same, and will also deter prospects from joining us for their scholarships. You can you imagine what all the dressing room talk is right now amongst those academy groups, the conversations that will be had between parents and agents over the coming weeks. This constant cycle significantly weakens the club’s negotiating position.

Ultimately I think the club need to take urgent action to stop this happening, because it is has become an ingrained pattern. We have a habit of focussing our efforts on the very best players in the Academy and forgetting about some of the others. For example, we have now got Dane Scarlett, Alfie Devine and Jamie Donley all tied down to contracts. This is truly excellent news, they are the jewels in the Academy crown right now, the players that everyone has very high hopes for. But there are other players who could well become Premier League players, and who we should not neglect, and Markanday was one such player.

I’d like to end by wishing Dilan Markanday all the very best at Blackburn should the move be completed as expected. I have really enjoyed watching him at Spurs over the last five years; he was the first British Asian to make a first team appearance for the club, which will be a source of immense pride for him, his family and his whole community. I think he will go on to have an excellent career.

This is part one of a two part look at where Spurs are going wrong. I’m quite excited about the piece of analysis that I will be doing for part two, so be sure to look back in a week or so to catch that.

If you’ve enjoyed this or have any interest in Spurs’ academy, I released ‘Windy’s Youth Update – Episode 6‘ yesterday, 48 minutes of chat on the Markanday situation.

Happy New Year – We Back

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

It’s good to be Spurs, again, folks!

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

Ten match rolling expected goal difference by @rtjenky

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

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

Lucas Moura / Son Heung-min

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Winks

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

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

Tweet from @TheExtraInch (me) about Harry Winks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, WhoScored.com

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.