Spurs were sucked into the Tony Pulis vortex on Monday night, and the failure to emerge with three points means that the Premier League trophy is almost certainly heading to Leicester. The Foxes only need three points from their final three games, and even that is assuming Spurs win their remaining three.
After the game, Spurs fans were understandably downbeat. Spurs have not seriously challenged for the title in the Premier League era, and it hurts to fall short.
It should be remembered, Spurs led the league for a grand total of 13 minutes all season. The title was always just out of reach, as Leicester rolled remorselessly — and freakishly — on. Spurs clung on longer than anyone else, an impressive enough feat. We didn’t “lose” the title: it was never our title to lose.
Once the initial disappointment fades, cause for pride and optimism abounds. This Spurs team is just scratching at the surface of what it can achieve. Does anyone seriously think we’ll be back to contending for fifth of sixth next season?
A key to success in the future is learning from the failings of the past. You can be assured, Mauricio Pochettino and his staff will be looking back at certain moments and certain decisions over the course of the season with a view to improvement next time around.
So, did Spurs leave points on the table? And what lessons can the team take to ensure the title challenge is even stronger in 2016/17?
I will sketch out some of the scenarios that I believe may be in play. As you will see, there is overlap — it would be wildly oversimplifying the situation to claim there was one reason, and one reason alone, why Spurs came up short.
The “second striker” shortage
While Harry Kane has banged in 24 Premier League goals (and counting), proving conclusively that he is a world-class centre forward, the rest of the goals have been spread around the team.
The next highest scorer in the league is Dele Alli with 10, followed by Christian Eriksen with six. No other player has scored more than four.
This is no great surprise, given Kane is the only out-and-out striker in the squad. The other players identified as forward options — Son Heung-min, Clinton N’Jie and, at a push, Nacer Chadli — have five goals in the league combined.
I was curious to see if any recent Premier League winners have been as reliant on a single goalscorer as Spurs are with Kane. The following table shows the champion’s top scorer, “second scorer” and others who notched more than 10 goals.
As you can see, every Premier League champion, going back to Arsenal in 2003/04, has had at least two players score more than 10 goals. The majority have at least three, and more often strikers than midfielders (although the names “Ronaldo” and “Lampard” appear repeatedly).
Spurs are more like last season’s Chelsea, or the 2003/04 Arsenal team, with their reliance on one striker and one goalscoring midfielder. Leicester are similar, although Mahrez’s 17 goals makes him the joint-second most prolific “second scorer”. Alli’s 10 — and that may well be it given a potential suspension — makes him the least prolific “second scorer” on the list.
WIth the best goal difference in the league, a whopping +39, it can be argued that this lack of a second banana up front hasn’t been an issue for Spurs. But, there have undeniably been games — Everton at home, West Brom home and away, Swansea away– when another forward option may have been the difference between one point, and three. Per The Telegraph’s Matt Law, in 19 games Kane has failed to score, Spurs have failed to win 13 times.
Monday night was a case in point. With West Brom lining up with four centre backs and three defensive midfielders, they built a formidable wall. After a while, Spurs’ attacking play became predictable, and West Brom were very comfortable in the final 30 minutes.
Once the equaliser was conceded, Spurs had no need for a defensive midfielder given West Brom’s lack of attacking intent. Another out and out striker, while Kane went deep and wide in search of space and the ball, may have posed a different problem for the West Brom defence. Pochettino simply doesn’t have the sort of goal poacher he may want to call on in this situation. You don’t think an in-his-prime Jermain Defoe wouldn’t have bagged a dozen or so goals in this Spurs team?
Spurs evidently were unable to identify and secure a second out-and-out striker in the summer, most notoriously Saido Berahino. Pochettino opted to keep his powder dry in the January window — laudably refusing to compromise future recruitment for a roll of the dice on a face that may not fit.
But, if Spurs had been able to secure another striker, that may have made the difference in a number of tight games.
Struggling to grind it out
Leicester’s ability to grind out narrow wins was extraordinarily. Out of 22 wins (with three games to play), Leicester won by a single-goal margin 14 times.
By contrast, just six of Spurs’ 19 wins have been by a single goal. When Spurs win, the wins come in some style — hence the +39 goal difference.
A common complaint this season has been that Spurs draw too many games, but is this true? Spurs have drawn 12, but Leicester have drawn 10, a fair number. Both teams are very hard to beat — you rather suspect the settled centre back situations (both teams have only used three each all season) may have an impact here. By contrast, Manchester City drew seven while losing nine — Leicester and Spurs have lost seven combined.
This ability to see out narrow games will surely be a focus of Pochettino’s tactical training over the summer. This Spurs team is fundamentally an attacking one — it’s what the fans demand — but being able to see out 1-0 win is something every champion needs in its locker.
While Spurs lack attacking options, they also lack defensive midfield options off the bench. Monday night was a good example where this may have been needed.
In the second half, Spurs struggled to create, but with West Brom posing a limited attacking threat, if ever there was a game to take a 1-0, this was it. The danger from West Brom was always physical, fielding four centre backs, and there was always going to be at least one set-piece where the delivery was perfect. Another tall central midfield player, capable of contesting aerial balls, may have made a profound difference.
From a different viewpoint, this may be an area where “experience” — or rather Tottenham’s lack of it — comes into play. The way Spurs ran out of ideas and ceded control against West Brom carried a sense of deja vu, as it was almost identical to how things played out against Newcastle. West Brom’s Darren Fletcher certainly thought experience was an issue, and he is clearly an intelligent player.
Pochettino has always spoken about trying to kill the game through scoring a second goal, rather than locking down the defense and midfield and seeing it out. I’m sure he would like to be able to do both, depending on the situation.
Spurs opened the campaign with a narrow defeat at Manchester United, followed by draws against Stoke (H), Leicester (A) and Everton (H).
Spurs may not have been expecting 12 points from these fixtures, especially in light of what Leicester would become, but the home draws against Stoke and Everton were disappointing, as was failing to secure a point at Old Trafford. These fixtures warranted more than just three points.
Spurs are often labelled slow starters. Is this fair? And are there any underlying reasons for this that can be addressed?
I’ve pulled together some data to try to illustrate this. You can see the number of points dropped in the games before the first international break, how many points we finished behind Arsenal and/or the top four, and any major signings Spurs made between the opening day of the season and deadline day.
As you can see, for more than half of the campaigns, we’ve finished a long way short and have had all manner of problems. We’ve had our fair share of bleak moments in the last decade.
But in 2005/06, 2011/12 and 2012/13, we started poorly, without key signings in position, and finished within a win of where we needed to be for Champions League football.
2011/12 is the one that sticks in my memory — we took a hammering at Old Trafford and at home against Manchester City, shipping eight goals, and then decided we needed to bring in Scott Parker to stiffen the midfield. The blame for failing to finish third that season gets laid at Harry Redknapp’s door due to his flirtation with the England job and the failure to strengthen in the January window, but we’d given everyone else a head start in August.
By contrast, in 2009/10, Spurs came flying out of the gate, and secured Champions League qualification by three points. That season, the only late arrival was Nico Kranjcar — who was only ever a squad player, albeit a handy one.
This time around, we started the season with zero striking alternatives to Harry Kane. Son Heung-min and Clinton N’Jie would arrive after opening day. Would this have made a difference? The team was still in the early stages of its evolution at that point. But it wouldn’t have hurt.
One thing we shouldn’t forget: In the week before the match at Old Trafford, we played two games in two days versus Real Madrid and AC Milan. In hindsight, this was utterly insane. No amount of commercial income can be worth the cost to preparedness for the Premier League opener, surely?
I appreciate, it is not always simple to bring in targets early in the transfer window. There is a chain, just like in the housing market, and Spurs are never at the top due to the financial constraints. But, without wishing to disappear too far down the rabbit hole, it’s not so simple as just saying “it’s not so simple”. Spurs could bid relatively more aggressively, Spurs could take more risk in terms of bringing in new blood while outgoing players were still on the books.
Ultimately, the financial benefits of having the squad ready for the start of the season may outweigh the financial gains of the extreme prudence typically shown by the club.
If ever the calculation tipped in this direction, it is this summer coming up. With Man City and Chelsea starting new eras, Spurs have a chance to come flying out of the blocks while other challengers find their feet. It bears considering, at the very least — although, I say this more in hope than expectation.
The curse/mild irritation of the Europa League
Earlier in the season I looked in some detail at the impact of the Europa League on Premier League performance.
In the past three seasons, Spurs averaged 1.50 points per game after Europa League matches, compared to 1.91 without. While home or away matches made no real difference, the distance travelled for away matches did (albeit in very limited sample size). After Spurs travelled further than the median distance of 2,280 miles, the record was appreciably worse than when Spurs played closer to London.
The table below shows our record after the Europa League this season.
Spurs average 2.0 point per game after Europa League games, compared to 2.13 point per game without Thursday night football. This is only modest underperformance — but, Baku aside, we didn’t have any long trips, while our slate of Sunday games was generally very soft.
Why does the Europa League make a difference to league form? There are two reasons above all: long distances mean fatigue, and also the Thursday to Sunday cycle always means that there is less time to prepare for the upcoming Premier League match. In the Champions League, half of your games will be Tuesday to Saturday (if not Sunday), meaning more preparation at least half of the time.
Does preparation time make a difference? Just look at West Brom on Monday night. After a rough outing at the Emirates in midweek, they arrived at White Hart Lane in perfect order and drilled to perfection. Those two extra days on the training ground with the game on Monday rather than Saturday had been put to productive use by Tony Pulis — the shape and pressing were superb.
More time between European and Premier League matches also means more rest. Against Arsenal at the Emirates, Spurs played superbly for 70 minutes before tiring. Against Chelsea, after the long trip to Baku, Spurs were never able to find any intensity.
After years of struggling with Europa League commitments, the boot should be on the other foot next campaign. I have faith in Pochettino to put the extra time on the training pitch before Premier League games to full use.
Shit happens, and other explainations
There are a few other obvious areas where Spurs have lost points that need mentioning.
- Our record against Leicester: We drew at the King Power, despite scoring a late goal, and contrived to lose at home despite dominating. If we end up five points behind the Foxes, there’s your margin right there.
- Our record against “bogey teams”: Spurs failed to beat Arsenal and Liverpool this season, and lost points at home to a struggling Chelsea. There is room for improvement still against our bogey sides.
- An inconvenient truth about our captain: Hugo Lloris is, by a margin, the finest Spurs goalkeeper I have seen (I date back to Erik Thorstvedt…), and he has led this young team with aplomb. But he has also made some errors. In both North London derbies, he conceded “soft” late equalisers. They weren’t howlers, due to the way the ball bounced, but he would have liked to keep both out. Against West Brom on Monday, while he was impeded, he would have expected to do more on the cross. For the late Newcastle winner in December, that was just an old fashioned clanger the likes of which all keepers let through now and again. Lloris makes very few mistakes, but the ones he did make this season were very costly.
- Shit happens: Spurs hit the woodwork against West Brom three times before letting the lead slip. Sometimes in football, we’re talking about fine margins, and it is understandable how a team can lose confidence if they feel the ball isn’t bouncing their way. We’ve only played “badly” a couple of times this campaign — against Newcastle at home, West Ham away — and when we have played badly, we have been punished. Leicester were dreadful against Southampton recently, but won the game regardless. There is skill in grinding it out, for sure, but there is luck too.
Thanks for reading. I welcome any suggestions on where you think Spurs lost ground. As I say, there is no right or wrong answer here, just a number of areas where Spurs can look to improve.
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