Mauricio Pochettino, in his short time in English football, has earned a reputation as something of a full-back whisperer.
In the three years he has been a Premier League manager, almost every full-back he has coached has made massive strides forward.
Under Pochettino at Southampton, Luke Shaw developed rapidly into one of the most sought-after young left-backs in Europe, culminating in a £30 million move to Manchester United. Nathaniel Clyne made the leap from good prospect to England international, and subsequently moved to Liverpool for £12.5 million.
At Spurs, Danny Rose has blossomed into an extremely competent Premier League full-back. Having started out as a winger, at times his defensive instincts were painfully lacking. Many Spurs fans winced when he was selected ahead of Ben Davies at times early last season, but game by game, he has improved his positioning and cut out the errors.
On the right flank, however, Spurs desperately struggled in Pochettino’s first season. Kyle Walker played just 15 Premier League games. The rest of the time, it was Eric Dier and Vlad Chiriches being forced to play out of position, to varying degrees of success.
This summer, Spurs finally added cover and competition in the form of Kieran Trippier, who had performed impressively over the past couple of seasons for Burnley and was available for a relatively cheap £3.5 million release fee. But, finally fit again and able to play a pre-season, Walker was very much first choice.
Aged 25, it felt like a make or break season. Is Walker the dynamic, Premier League-class right-back we saw emerge under Harry Redknapp and impress in the early days under AVB, or is he “Bonzo”, the injury and error-prone weak link of the past two seasons?
It is still early days, but the signs are good.
Perhaps as a result of some residual trauma at our right-back performances in the past couple of seasons, I keep thinking we are due a Walker error. Against Palace, he made a poor back-pass that nearly created a chance. And most recently against Man City, he gave the ball away for the opening goal. While it was a poor pass, it was way upfield on a set piece and took a world-class breakaway from Man City to punish it to the maximum. Since then, there has been nothing — no sloppy back-passes, no positional mistakes that I’ve seen, no headless challenges that leave the defence exposed.
I’ve pulled together some stats from WhoScored that I feel illustrate changes in Walker’s game from the previous two seasons. Sometimes, it looks like he is returning closer to the strong play of the 2011/12 and 2012/13 campaigns, at other times the early signs from this season — still less than a 1,000 minutes played in the league — suggest some new developments in his game or the Pochettino magic having an effect.
A few things jumped out:
- In core defensive categories of tackles and interceptions, Walker is notably up on previous seasons. On tackles, he is at 3.1 per game currently, in previous seasons he never got above 2.6. On interceptions, again he is way up on 3.2 per game, compared with his previous highest of 2.4.
- His average passes are way down. He is currently at 39.3 per game, compared with averaging over 50 in the past two seasons. In his two strong seasons, he was averaging in the 40s. This feels like a “less is more” scenario — the less Walker is passing, the more likely it is that more creative players like Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli or Erik Lamela are passing. This can only be a good thing! Our play under AVB became very sterile — a lot of possession but it never went anywhere. The fact that the ball was with the right-back so much probably explains this. It took Pochettino a while, but he appears to be fixing this.
- Walker’s clearances are down. He is averaging 2.4 per game, in the past two seasons it was 2.8 and 2.7 per game. In AVB’s first season he was averaging 5.1 per game! What on earth was going on there? My guess, his low clearance numbers are a symptom of Spurs solid defensive and midfield play, and there being fewer balls that require clearing. Though it may not necessarily be such a positive. By way of comparison, Nathaniel Clyne averages 2.7 clearances per game through his career.
- Walker is dribbling less. He averages 0.3 dribbles per game currently, in all previous seasons it was in the 0.7 to 0.9 range. To me, this feels like Pochettino saying “Kyle, please dribble the ball less”. Perhaps as a consequence of fewer dribbles and fewer passes, Walker is being dispossessed a lot less. He averages 0.5 instances of being dispossessed per game. In the past two season, he was dispossessed 1.1 and 1.3 times per game, while in his stronger two seasons it was 0.8 and 0.7 times per game. So some reversion to when he was playing well, with a little bit of improvement thrown in for good measure.
- He is being fouled more — despite passing and dribbling less. This may be linked to fewer dispossessions. But certainly, this again feels like a potential impact of good coaching — drawing a foul is always a good piece of defensive play as it relieves pressure, while in an attacking situation it can mean a set piece.
- He is mis-controlling the ball more. This isn’t a good stat, though perhaps indicates that Spurs are moving the ball at a much faster pace now. So work to do on his technique — all those quick passing drills you see in training, basically.
I haven’t been able to find any sprint or distance stats, so this is far from a complete picture of Walker’s season so far. If anyone can point me in the right direction in terms of finding such data, that would be greatly appreciated. But, I’d say there are some promising signs there that support the feeling that Walker may be returning to his best form, and in fact improving. It is still just 11 games into the season, so early days. Let’s check back in later in the season and see if Walker sustains his strong tackling and interception numbers, and also if he stays fit.
Of course, even if Walker’s numbers are improving relative to his past couple of seasons, how does he stack up to his rivals in the position? Is he actually, to use the technical term, any good?
I had a quick play on the Squawka comparison tool — I don’t know much about the site and how reliable it is, but the comparison tool is quite fun. I compared Walker to some of the top Premier League right-backs in interceptions, tackles won and total duels won.
You have to say, he stacks up very well defensively. (He fares much less well offensively as he isn’t scoring and directly creating chances, it should be noted in this age of two-way full-backs. I’m old school though, I like full-backs who can defend.)
For Spurs, it is a huge boost if Walker can re-establish himself as a right-back of high calibre. While the stadium is being built, expenditure will be limited — money that needs to be spent on a right-back is money that can’t be spent on strikers and midfielders. It is also pleasing for fans to see someone who has been at the club so long, and experienced some low points, bounce back. Walker has always seemed an engaging fellow and a committed professional, even if he has been frustrating.
His improvement is another feather in the cap for Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team. Walker appears to be benefiting from being part of a solid defensive unit and a consistent tactical approach. Under AVB, too much of the attacking play came through Walker due to a failure by the Portuguese in getting the team to implement his tactics. Tim “Tactics” Sherwood had no idea what he was doing at all, and even put Walker in midfield against Chelsea. It didn’t go well.
Personally I’m very encouraged by what we are seeing from Walker, and am glad to have some consistency at the right-back position. The numbers would appear to bear out my gut feeling that he is playing well, but it will take a longer period of solid play before I can really start to relax when he sets himself, with a defender pressing, for a back-pass to poor Hugo.
Please follow me on Twitter for more random musings on all things Spurs. My handle is @spurs_report