Monthly Archives: September 2015

Tottenham 3: 1 FK Qarabag: Five random thoughts

lamelaaqarabag

From Google Images.

Spurs started slowly but in the end had little problem seeing off FK Qarabag. The Azerbaijan champions could play — they were organised, efficient in possession and technically competent. But they had no answer for Spurs’ intense press. Spurs should have put the game out of sight sooner, but it made better viewing for those of us watching from home.

The only scare was Eric Dier’s injury, but fingers crossed he is OK. All round, it was a perfect start to the Europa League and there should be no excuses for a sluggish performance on Sunday.

Here are five thoughts:

KANE AND SON: With Son Heung-min named up front and Harry Kane rested, we got our first glimpse of “Plan B”. First impressions: It works. Two goals, 88% pass success and a warm ovation from the crowd — Son can be pleased with his night’s work. Watching it from TV though, I just couldn’t shake the feeling of deja vu seeing Son up front. In gait, physique, attacking movement and technique, he is almost identical to Kane. It is really weird — I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it before. They both even have the same gormless, flappy mouth that doesn’t close. Separated at birth? Kudos to Paul Mitchell and the rest of the Spurs recruitment staff — they must have spotted this, despite Son playing wide for Leverkusen.

WHO DOES ALLI REMIND YOU OF? It’s not quite the same “seperated at birth” similarity as between Kane and Son, but watching Alli reminds me of someone. Alli is long-legged and ultra athletic, but combines that with excellent technique and ability to involve himself in crucial moments of the game. We’ve not seen yet if he has the same ability to score from range as the player who comes to mind, but his YouTube highlights from MK Dons suggests it is a possibility. Who am I thinking of? Steven Gerrard. Of course, it is early days, but Alli’s ability to impact games so early in his career is hugely impressive. There is nothing wrong with getting excited about a player, and if Alli is even half as good as Gerrard, we’ve got an incredible talent on our hands.

TOWNSEND AND LAMELA: Watching the game, every touch from Erik Lamela was greeted with a groan from Clive Allen on commentary and the sparse White Hart Lane crowd. He can be hugely frustrating, and I’m not sure he can ever retain possession well enough to survive at Spurs. But, at the very least, he makes stuff happen. I’d rather a frustrating player in Lamela who is involved, than a frustrating player who does nothing like Andros Townsend. This may not fit in with the “one of our own” philosophy at the club, but I’d pick Lamela over Townsend any day of the week. All round performance in football is important, but it’s not the only thing. When you watch a game, it is about moments — moments in a 90 minute match when a player does something that unlocks the opposition defense. Lamela does this way more than Townsend, and players including Mousa Dembele. He may drives us mad, but Lamela is needed in this squad.

TOMMY CARROLL: Like Townsend and Lamela, Carroll started poorly as he was clearly rusty. But, I wasn’t impressed by his overall play. He had one or two nice passes, but he didn’t assert himself in midfield. Dier stepped forward more and tried harder to make things happen. What this Spurs team, especially without Mason, lacks is drive from midfield — someone prepared to take the game by the scruff of its neck and move the game forward. Carroll is too happy merely recycling possession. He passes off sideways and backwards, when he could be driving the game forward, especially against a defence of average quality like FK Qarabag. He will get more chances, but needs to do more.

POCH PHILOSOPHY: Spurs started slow, and the penalty concession was clumsy by Kieran Trippier on debut. Overall, i thought Trippier did fine, he had a better game than Danny Rose at left back. However, neither managed a telling contribution from the flank, meaning too much play came from the centre. But, once Spurs got up to speed, the pressing speed was good, and when Spurs tried to move the ball quickly the gaps appeared. Lamela and Townsend were wasteful in possession, but on a better day Spurs would have created more. The defence was solid enough, Rose aside, but it was tricky to balance the desire to run up the score with the importance of keeping things tight. I thought the play was much more in the Poch style than the Europa League performances of last season. Tougher tests await, but this looked like a Pochettino side.

New pieces: A column on the future of Hugo Lloris at Spurs, and a Europa League preview

I have new piece on Hugo Lloris over at The Fighting Cock, entitled “What next for Hugo?”

Lloris is 28, and is entering his absolute prime as a goalkeeper. He is a world-class player and the captain of the French national team. If ever there was a time he wanted to be playing Champions League football, this is it. If there is one player at the club who doesn’t fit the timeframe for what is being built at Spurs, namely developing a young and exciting team over the next three seasons in readiness to compete in a shiny new stadium, it is Lloris.

Please do head over and check it out.

I’ve also done a Europa League preview over at Fresh Spurs. I talk Lamela, Harry Kane’s Hamstring, Tommy Carroll, Kevin Wimmer, and whether we’ll see any evidence of the Pochettino philosophy.

Any thoughts or comments welcomed.

Please follow me on Twitter (@crg_yeah) for new articles.

Sunderland 0-1 Tottenham: Five Monday thoughts

Spurs ground out a 1-0 win against Sunderland on Sunday, thanks to a late Ryan Mason winner and beautiful assist from Erik Lamela. It wasn’t pretty, and for large parts Spurs looked average at best. But, three points was the order of the day, and that at least was achieved. Amusingly, we’re now above Chelsea. Here are five random thoughts:

SOLDIERING ON WITHOUT CHRISTIAN: I thought we missed Christian Eriksen sorely against Everton, but it was even more acute against Sunderland. The heat map for Spurs sums it up — large blobs in deeper midfield areas, and despite a small spot in the central attacking midfield area, almost nothing to the left and right of it. This is where Eriksen operates, in his constant search for space.

sunderland01spurs_heatmap_teamtotal

Watching the game, you could see a large Eriksen-shaped hole throughout. This was exacerbated by the choice of Deli Alli and his instruction to get beyond Harry Kane, and the no-show by Nacer Chadli, which I will get to. Aside from the direct consequence of a lack of chances being created for Kane, which I’ll also get to, the loss of Eriksen severely stymied Spurs build-up play and ball retention in the first half. The possession and domination of play improved as Sunderland tired and Mauricio Pochettino’s fitness regime paid dividends. Mason had huge swathes of ground to cover, and he did as well as could have been expected. His goal summed up his performance — a lot of effort, but more painful than it needed to have been. We need Eriksen back as soon as possible, because Spurs are a blunt instrument without him.

A BAD DAY FOR CHADLI TO HAVE A BAD DAY: This was Nacer Chadli’s worst performance for a long time, and he couldn’t have chosen a worse time. He barely touched the ball in the first half, and only came into the game late on when Sunderland tired and spaces opened up. I’m not sure on the reliability of the stats from Yahoo, but 10 passes seems about right. That isn’t enough and he didn’t create anything noteworthy. Spurs need players to want to dominate, not ones who just sit back and wait for things to happen. Chadli needed to perform today — once Eriksen and Mousa Dembele are fit, his place will be under threat. I feel Spurs can only play two of Chadli, Son Heung-min and Alli — they are too similar. Son showed one or two flashes of much-needed directness on debut, and surely will win a battle with Chadli once the squad settles down. Alli looks comfortable on the right side. Worse for Chadli, both Townsend and Lamela came on and made an impact. I hope he’s got some blank pages in his passport, because Chadli’s abject performance was a ticket to the Europa League squad.

FOX OUTSIDE THE BOX: Related to the two points above, the Great Harry Kane Premier League Goal Drought of 2015 continues. The heatmap pretty much shows you why — he is hardly ever touching the ball in the box.

kaneheatmapmail

He is suffering most in Eriksen’s absence, as he is being forced into wide and deep positions to find the ball. He wasn’t helped by playing alongside a Premier League debutant in Son, and Premier League first-time starter in Alli, and a missing person in Nacer Chadli. Poch’s instructions against Palace should be simple — you stay in the danger zone, leave it to the midfield to feed you. He will take the chances if they are created, because that is what he does — you can’t fluke 31-goal seasons.

JAN AND TOBY SHAKY: Jan Vertonghen received some credit from the TV commentators for a couple of stylish pieces of defending, but overall I’m concerned by the Belgian centre-back pairing. My concern is aggression and physicality, which I noticed against Everton. In that match, Romelu Lukaku won almost every aerial duel or contested long-range ball, with Spurs defenders seemingly willing to let him have it and focus on the second pass. I presumed this was a tactic — it’s an old one and can be a good one, if you know a striker is extremely physical.

Lukaku fits into that category. Jermain Defoe, however, most certainly does not.

On several occasions, Defoe won aerial duels with Toby Alderweireld or managed to secure possession from long-balls out of the back. This is unacceptable — I’m sure every Premier League analyst noticed it and will make sure balls out of defence head down Spurs right side, with a runner in behind. Meanwhile Jan presents the opposite problem — he dives in too much when balls are played through low to the opposition striker, and seems a constant risk of picking up bookings or letting a ball through. It is early days in the partnership, but I’m far from convinced. It may not be the Belgian style per se, but how about something old fashioned from balls out from the opposition keeper: One defender attacks the ball, the other covers?

At full back, I’m getting impatient to see Kieran Trippier which may be clouding my judgement on Kyle Walker’s performances. I thought Ben Davies was ultra solid and should be in the team next weekend against Palace and their dangerous wingers.

PUZZLE FOR POCH: On paper, I thought Poch got his selection right. Then the match started, and it looked horrible. Son, Chadli and Alli are just too similar, and there was no-one to take control of the attacking midfield. As stated, Eriksen was sorely missed, and while I’m not his biggest fan, Mousa Dembele would have been useful in this match. But if Poch thought the performances from his starters were puzzling, the mystery only deepened with the performances of his subs. Townsend came on and beat Patrick van Aanholt twice in succession. Meanwhile, Lamela drifted effectively into the attacking midfield space that had been vacant throughout the match, and provided the incision with a superb assist for Mason.

The Europa League may sometimes be a curse, but right now the idea of a couple of extra games to give certain players — Lamela, Townsend, Pritchard — minutes to gain fitness and prove their worth, feels a positive. I eagerly await Poch’s selection on Thursday — my guess is Lamela and Townsend both start.

An amusing aside to my piece on Adebayor

So after the transfer window I wrote about Emmanuel Adebayor — how his behaviour suggests he may need help instead of a kick up the a**e. It was headlined “Tottenham’s Duty of Care for Emmanuel Adebayor”.

It was published over at The Fighting Cock, and it certainly created a bit of chatter below the comment line during the international lull. Obviously you are going to get some stick for writing things like that, which is fair enough, but I thought it was a point worth making.

But then something mildly interesting happened.

First, in his ESPNFC column, John Crace used some similar language, as an addendum to a column on Spurs’ striker options:

It’s tempting to condemn the Togo international as some sort of football mercenary — something several have done in the past — but whatever questions now arise about his future football career, his behaviour has often appeared increasingly erratic. He deserves some help, and both Tottenham and the FA owe him a duty of care.

Then today, Darren Lewis of the Mirror, writing a column for Betway, dedicated an entire column to Adebayor. It was very similar — tracing his recent behavior and concluding that this guy may be in need of help.

Far from being money hungry and lazy, Adebayor sounded like a footballer on the edge.

He may post pictures of his bling, his cars and his life of opulence on the internet. In 2011 he talked about expanding his already-bulging property portfolio (“I’ve bought houses in places that I don’t even know… I love building houses,”) even further around the world.

But does that mean he does not – or cannot – suffer from the same kind of pressures that eat away at players with a lesser profile?

I’m not accusing anyone here, as Adebayor’s behaviour is pretty alarming and worth writing about.

Perhaps Crace’s use of the “duty of care” line may have warranted an HT to the Fighting Cock, but it’s a fairly obvious choice of phrase for the subject matter.

As for Lewis, he expanded significantly on the subject, even if he came to a similar conclusion upon considering the evidence.

But nevertheless, it is interesting to see the flow of information around the Spurs blogosphere. While us bloggers lean heavily on the information provided by journalists, just occasionally we may provide a little pointer for them too.

Either way, while Spurs are very unlikely to give a damn what I say, I’m sure they read what Lewis in particular writes. If this leads to help being offered to Adebayor, if it isn’t already, then that is a good thing.

Relative Age Effect: Patience pays off for Tottenham’s “young-but-not-that-young” outliers

androsryan2

Insert a “slow cookin'” pun here… From tottenhamhotspur.com via Google Images.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @spurs_report. It will be fun, I promise.

One of the more tedious parts of following football in the age of social media is clubs wishing their players “Happy Birthday”, an activity that has ticked up significantly post Yaya Toure and the birthday cake incident.

But over the summer, I was surprised by how many Spurs players were celebrating their birthdays, in particular our homegrown players.

I have an August birthday, so I’ve long taken an interest in what is called the “relative age effect”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Relative age effect is a bias against people born at certain times in the year when set against certain selection points, the most common of which in the UK is the standard school year running from September 1.*

Born in August, you could be almost a whole year younger than the people you are competing against for spots in football or rugby teams, which is obviously a huge disadvantage in terms physical and mental development. As Gladwell asserts in his book, people born earlier in the selection period (he studied NHL players) had a head start in terms of them making it as a pro. The numbers of pros born earlier in the selection period outweighed those born later. He concluded that those born earlier in the selection period were likely to be seen as relatively better than those born at the end, even if they were just developing at the exact same rate. This played out in giving them access to better coaching, more competitive teams, increased training time, and so forth, which then accelerates their talent.

Relative Age Effect is now something considered in football youth development circles, as this 2011 article in The Guardian illustrates. Interestingly, this piece quoted John McDermott, head of youth development at Spurs:

“At Tottenham we’ve introduced strategies to try and combat the bias [which include] putting the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds together, therefore a player moves up to the older group on his birthday. In that way he experiences being the youngest and eldest as the year progresses.”

“Tom Carroll, an outstanding prospect, trains regularly with our first team and is on loan at Leyton Orient [but] he couldn’t cope physically in matches with his own age group as he was a late developer and [had a] summer birthday. But he had outstanding perception, technique and aerobic capacity.”

“Of the [many] boys out on loan recently, Ryan Mason [Doncaster Rovers], Harry Kane and Carroll [Orient], Nathan Byrne [Brentford], Danny Rose [Bristol City], Jake Nicholson [MyPa], Kyle Walker [Aston Villa], and Andros Townsend [Millwall] are all summer babies.”

Four years on, it is clear that this strategy has paid dividends just from the names mentioned by McDermott.**

From the current Spurs senior squad, here is a list of players of various homegrown classifications — those you’d say either came through the academy or were developed at the club before going into the first-team. I’ve also listed their birth dates.

Kyle Walker: 28 May 1990
Danny Rose: 02 July 1990
Andros Townsend: 16 July 1991
Ryan Mason: 13 June 1991
Nabil Bentaleb: 24 November 1994
Tommy Carroll: 28 May 1992
Alex Pritchard: 03 May 1993
Harry Kane: 28 July 1993

It is quite a striking list. The outlier is Nabil Bentaleb, born in November, solidly in the first half of the selection period — France is on the same cycle as Britain. Of the others, four — Kane, Mason, Townsend and Rose — are in the final quarter of the selection period. Walker, Carroll and Pritchard are solidly in the second half.

Why is this so striking? Well, typically one would expect it to be the other way round — with one outlier born towards the end of the selection period, with most of the others born relatively earlier.

Looking through the dates of birth of Spurs current academy prospects, a more typical profile emerges.***

Of the development squad, nine out of 21 were born in second-half of the selection period. Three of those (Will Miller, Shayon Harrison and Dominic Ball) were born in the final quarter.

Out of the academy squads, five out of 26 were born in the second-half of the selection period. Just one — Joy Mukena — was in the final quarter of the selection period.

(The next closest is Samuel Shashoua, born 13 May, 1999, and I was tickled to read that he is from Chelsea and attended Harrow School — spiffy! I hope his career continues to develop and he brings a touch of the debonair to the Spurs midfield for years to come)

This got me wondering about how the other academies or crops of quality young players stack up. So I’ve spent a while Googling.

I will look at five teams, using information from club websites: Chelsea (the strongest youth teams for years), Man United (their website is really easy to analyze), Arsenal (for it is them), West Ham (once the power in youth development in London) and Southampton (everyone’s favourite feeder club).

Fom this data, you can see relative age effect playing out at the academy/development squad levels. If there was no bias, you’d expect the percentage of academy prospects born in second half of the year to hover about 50%. No club is close to that — Southampton are the only club to hit 30%. Likewise, without bias you’d expect about 25% of the prospects to be born from June to August. But no, Man Utd are highest at 15.4%, no-one else is above 10%.

While a small sample — just current squads at five clubs — my guess is you’ll see similar patterns emerge through other clubs and in previous years. Relative Age Effect is nothing new. My point is that, for Spurs to have 7 out of 8 of their current homegrown first-teamers be born in the second half of the year appears to be really rather unusual.****

Relative Age Effect doesn’t mean that, if you are born in August you are screwed. It just means you either have to have marginally more talent or develop relatively earlier in order to receive the same benefits of someone from earlier in the selection period. Someone like Gareth Bale no doubt transcended the bias due to his freakish natural athleticism. But this problem goes a long way back — Roy Keane was rejected by Brighton for being “too small”, while Alan Shearer famously was rejected by Newcastle as a youngster. They are both August birthdays.

What most of the Spurs young guns also have in common is the “young-but-not-that-young” tag — they are late bloomers by the standards of the English game. The likes of Mason, Pritchard, Townsend and Kane have all “done their time” in lower leagues before getting their chances at Spurs in their early 20s. They weren’t bursting onto the scene like West Ham’s Reece Oxford at the age of 16. Their talent has taken longer to develop.

I suspect that the age bias in the system may have had something to do with it. Spurs’ outliers were talented enough to survive the ruthless culls on their way up through the academy ranks, but they’ve had also to weather years as fringe prospects far from guaranteed contract extensions and chances of a first-team place.

Patience is such a rare commodity in football, but Spurs have a very tangible demonstration of its value. If the club is wondering whether or not a player is going to “make the grade” or whether he has reached the limit of his potential, the examples of our “young-but-not-that-young” outliers is instructive.

Ryan Mason by any measure should have been discarded by Spurs aged 23, but more by luck than judgement they stuck with him and he has turned out to be a useful player who I suspect will be a good first-team squad man for years to come. Likewise, the club was seemingly unsure whether to cash in on Andros Townsend this summer, or give him another year to progress into a genuinely useful Premier League winger, rather than the occasional talent he is now. He may have had enough chances by now, but maybe not.

It seems, based merely on the current youth intakes, that Spurs may have slipped back into the pack in terms of ratio of youngsters born outside peak points in the selection period. Not many summer babies, at least at the moment. However, I am sure John McDermott is continuing to keep an eye out for those like Tommy Carroll who’s struggle was primarily physicality, not footballing ability.

By far the biggest difference maker in elite sport is not when you are born, but how talented you are. But there will always be marginal talents, the Townsends and the Masons, who both struggle to convince but continue to intrigue. Spurs have some pretty clear examples of how giving them a little extra time may be beneficial.

Either way, it all makes me think that Spurs’ current crop of homegrown youngsters — a hugely likeable group of footballers it must be said — are more likely outliers than a new dawn in talent identification and development.

Big conclusion? We should enjoy them all the more for it.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @crg_yeah. It will be fun, I promise.

Notes

* Sept. 1 is the selection point for the purposes of this article, I believe the school system is the most relevant thing here, even though I believe different selection points are in place for some youth football. Also, some late August kids get to move into the year below, to great potential advantage.

** Nathan Byrne moved from Swindon to Wolves this summer for a seven-figure fee — so he is heading back up the ladder.

*** I started this article in mid-August, so one or two names may have left the academy lists since then. I’ve removed Aaron Lennon but first team stats for other teams may have changed.

**** Interestingly, the Southampton “diaspora” of talent that has long since left the South Coast is rather similar to Spurs. Here are their birth dates:

Gareth Bale: July 16
Theo Walcott: March 16
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: August 15
Adam Lallana: May 10
Luke Shaw: July 12
Callum Chambers: January 20

Callum Chambers is the exception — everyone else is from the second half of the selection period, with Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw all in the final quarter.

Tottenham’s duty of care to Emmanuel Adebayor

I wrote about Emmanuel Adebayor over at The Fighting Cock.

To read the article, click here.

If there is one player in the Premier League era who sums up the concept of the footballing mercenary, it is Emmanuel Adebayor. So the idea that this guy may be in need of help, rather than a firm kick up the backside or just booting out of the door altogether, isn’t one that sits easily.

I’ll post up the full article here in due course.

Please follow me on Twitter (@crg_yeah) for my latest articles. Follow The Fighting Cock with @lovetheshirt.