The November international break is upon us, giving the Spurs squad a deserved break before the descent into the breathless winter schedule.
Tottenham’s England contingent head off for two interesting friendlies against Spain and France, and good performances from Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Harry Kane will add further fuel to the hype that is building around the young core that Mauricio Pochettino has assembled.
So, 12 games in, it is a perfect opportunity to take stock of what has been a hugely promising start to the season, and look forward to what is to come.
But first, some thoughts on the North London Derby.
Good performance, but could have been a great result
Spurs, shrugging off two games played previously in the week, descended upon the Emirates looking meaner, leaner and hungrier than an Arsenal squad bearing scars from its shellacking against Bayern on Wednesday night.
Spurs were respectful in the opening passages, clearly mindful of Arsenal’s performance against Manchester United. In that game, Arsenal, embarrassed by another midweek Champions League defeat, hurtled out of the gates and had the game won before the travelling Man United fans could say “Schweinsteiger”. The key to Spurs’ dominance came on about 20 minutes, when Mauricio Pochettino switched Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele. Alli’s dynamism was too much for Santi Cazorla, who was withdrawn citing dizziness at half-time. In a deeper role, the play flowed through a rejuvenated Dembele, who once again drove forward where in previous seasons he would have laid the ball off sideways and had a breather.
It was a strange game: while Spurs were far better in midfield performance, we didn’t seem to create all that many chances. None of Kane or Eriksen’s chances at 1-0 up seemed that strong, while Toby Alderweireld was unlucky that his header from an exquisite Erik Lamela corner went straight at Petr Cech. Arsenal, meanwhile, looked second-best for most of the game, but nevertheless had two very clear chances for Olivier Giroud. The XG map from Michael Caley captured this very well.
I warned in the build-up that Arsenal weren’t to be taken lightly, despite the buoyancy enveloping the Spurs fanbase. While they lack a quality striker and midfield power, they are formidable chance creators. I’m starting to get Mesut Ozil — so much of the focus from commentators is on what he doesn’t do, at the expense of what he does. He has created 54 chances this season, which is insane. His cross for the equalizer was perfection.
On the goal, there is a little blame to spread around. First, Son Heung-min made an error in his pressing, giving Ozil time to get the cross in. It’s getting weird when we bemoan the absence of Erik Lamela in our defensive shape. Second, Alderweireld lost Giroud, who was hanging deeper. This left Walker with both Giroud and Gibbs to deal with — Ozil exploited this to the maximum. Finally, Hugo Lloris should have done better. He was oddly passive throughout the game, and the goal sneaked through almost in slow motion when he really should have found a way of blocking it. But, if a Lloris mistake is what it takes for Spurs to drop points these days, then we are in very good shape because they don’t happen often.
After the goal, I was impressed with the way Spurs saw out the game. It was very mature — they recognised that the game was now gone, and focused on closing it out and making sure we at least came out with a point. A lot of reports said that Spurs tired, but I’m not sure it was tiredness — they started walking to the ball to slow it, not because they were out of puff.
I felt proud watching this performance. The midfielders tore, wolf-like, into Arsenal. It was almost poetic in its relentless beauty. We saw Spurs go toe-to-toe with Arsenal at the Lane last Spring, but this was the first time in a long time that I can remember a feeling of dominance. But, Arsenal are very dangerous, and a point against them is never bad, no matter how disappointing it may have felt on 90 minutes. Arsenal fans left the Emirates knowing that Spurs are coming for them, and hard.
Tottenham 2.0 in numbers
This is a different Spurs team we are watching, I know most fans feel this. Young, hungry, together: the Tottenham 2.0 that I talked about over the summer, that feeling of calm and direction off the field, is now manifesting on it. Some numbers paint a better picture than I can with words.
- Spurs lead the league in tackles (23.9) and fouls (14.3) per game, per WhoScored. I believe some of the fouls weren’t by Erik Lamela, but I can’t be sure. This is NOT what you expect, historically from Spurs, but it will take some time before the “Soft Spurs” narrative disappears from our TV screens, and by “some time” I mean when ex-Liverpool and Manchester United players no longer appear. More fouls and tackles aren’t necessarily a good thing, per se, but illustrates a new toughness that I welcome.
- Spurs ran 115km and made 589 sprints on Monday, played Anderlecht on Thursday, and then ran another 114km and made 516 sprints on Sunday, per F365. As far as I’m aware, we’ve outrun our opponents every match bar the Liverpool match, when Liverpool were desperately trying to impress Jurgen Klopp.
- Spurs have gone from one of the most porous defenses, to the tightest. In his metric of danger zone shots not assisted by crosses (a measure for reflecting “good” chances from open play), Michael Caley shows how Spurs have transformed this. Last season, Spurs gave up between 120-140 danger zone shots (non-crosses), this season 11 games in that number is not yet at 20. (And, against Arsenal, most of their chances came from crosses — so some work to do on aerial defending).
- Of Spurs 20 goals this season, seven have come from set pieces. This is the highest number in the league. We have two outstanding set piece takers in Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, but even so this may be unsustainable.
- Going back to the Arsenal game again, it was a good example of how we are creating chances, but not necessarily good ones. It has always felt like we shoot a lot from long range — that’s something that hasn’t changed much from AVB to Poch. This season, per WhoScored, 57 percent of our shots are inside the box. For Arsenal, that number is 72 percent, and Southampton, a real rival for 4th place, it is 71 percent. Man City are at 62 percent. Manchester United’s anaemic attack shoots from inside the box on just 51 percent of occasions. Of course, Arsenal in particular get stick for NOT shooting outside the box — but still it seems that Harry Kane is having to create his own chances, ending with a snapshot at goal from 20 yards out, too often. There is room for improvement on chance creation from open play.
- Spurs are on an 11 game unbeaten streak, but some perspective is needed on this. First, I previously stated Spurs are on the longest unbeaten streak since the peak Redknapp team of Modric and Bale in 2011/12. That is incorrect, my apologies. Under Redknapp, the longest streak Spurs managed was 11 games. The 12-game streak I have been referring to was in 2012/13 under AVB. Credit where credit is due, etc… In the AVB streak, Spurs won eight and drew four (28 points). In the streak under Redknapp, Spurs won 10 and drew one (31 points). In Poch’s streak, Spurs have won five and drawn six (21 points). So, while we are hard to beat, Spurs are still finding it a little hard to win.
- Finally, if this is too encouraging, here are two XG-based forecasts of where we stand. In short, we are right where we need to be.
Warning, Europa League scheduling may cause headaches
The Europa League trip to Qarabag, in Azerbaijan, represents a major dilemma for Pochettino. We’ve had short trips to Monaco and Anderlecht so far, but Baku is a different ball game at 2,460 miles in distance. That is a near 5,000-mile round-trip wedged between a Super Sunday clash with West Ham, and an early Sunday kick-off against Chelsea. It is a brutal bit of scheduling — just the sort of luck, perhaps, that Mourinho needs to cling on to his job.
Here are places that are closer to London than Baku: Cairo (2,180 miles), Beirut (2,147 miles), Tromso (an old and cold Europa League friend, up in the Arctic Circle but just 1,397 miles away), Perm (the Russian hairstyle capital in the Urals, and just 2,222 miles away, if you need any work done). In fairness though, Baku is marginally closer than the North Pole, which is 2,664 miles from London — and will probably feel warmer than Azerbaijan on a late November evening.
This weekend, Liverpool slumped to their worst performance under Jurgen Klopp, which came after their longest Europa League trip, a 4,000 mile round trip to Kazan. Klopp’s refusal to blame tiredness was admirable, but long-distance travel, despite all the comforts provided by rich Premier League clubs with nice planes, has a myriad of impacts that can be detrimental to performance beyond what we may conventionally call tiredness.
Having to play in Baku on a Thursday evening, fly back 2,460 miles, then play Chelsea on Sunday at midday is insane. Of course, neither the Premier League or Uefa wants to compromise their schedules, but if ever there was a contender for a Europa game to be shifted to a Wednesday, or to have an extra Premier League game on a Monday night (especially as both teams are out of the League Cup), this is it. Chelsea are playing away in Tel Aviv the same week, which is almost as far away at 2,210 miles, but they are playing on Tuesday, which means a precious and perhaps decisive two extra days of recovery,
Pochettino has insisted that he is prioritizing both the Premier League and Europa League, and has played strong line-ups throughout. The sloppy performance at Anderlecht means Spurs qualification isn’t yet assured, which they must have hoped at this stage. But, even though the group remains in the balance, I hope a number of key players are left at home. None of Kane, Alli, Dier, Eriksen and Lamela should make the trip. Qarabag aren’t the muppets we thought they might be — the team can play. They beat Anderlecht at home, and drew with Monaco. Thursday night in Baku — maybe it’s the new wet Tuesday night in Stoke. If Spurs beat Monaco they are almost guaranteed to top the group (there are a few other variables that go to goal difference and head-to-head). If Spurs can’t beat Monaco at home, then we don’t have much chance once we get into the knockout stages.
For what it is worth, SkyBet has us at 2/1 to finish in the Top Four — we are now shorter money than Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as Southampton. For the Europa League, SkyBet has us at 18/1, with Dortmund the favourites at 6/1. And this is before the Champions League teams join. It just feels a no-brainer at this point to rotate more on Thursdays to ensure we are fresh for the weekend.
Future schedule — opportunity knocks
After a gruelling first week back, Spurs schedule then softens up and presents a huge opportunity to push hard for a Top Four place. The unbeaten run can’t last — as discussed earlier, I fear it will come to an end against Chelsea due to the tough scheduling. Unless Chelsea have completely imploded by that point.
After that, the fixtures are West Brom (away), Monaco (home), Newcastle (home) and Southampton (away).
The Christmas period is Norwich home on Boxing Day, then Watford away on the 28th. We then have a nice break until we play Everton at Goodison Park on January 3rd.
Southampton and Everton are both challengers for the European places, so facing them without having played in the Europa beforehand is fantastic. They are both good teams, but are they to be feared? Not really. The only thing that worries me is that in Graziano Pelle and Romelu Lukaku they have big physical strikers of the sort our ball-playing Belgians most struggle to contain. Some high-ball training, and maybe a sharp aperitif to ensure Hugo is awake and charging off his line, would be the order of the day.
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