By Charles Richards / @spurs_report
The Premier League is a show that never ends, and with the 2016/17 campaign done and dusted, attention moves immediately to 2017/18.
While players enjoy a well-earned summer holiday (after the dreaded post-season tour), planning for the next campaign will intensify: the transfer market waits for no-one.
For Spurs, after a magnificent season in which only the sustained excellence of Chelsea denied the club some much-wanted silverware, the question that will be asked by the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Daniel Levy is a simple one: “How do we get better”?
Unlike the Manchester clubs, Spurs have few gaping holes to fill in the transfer market; unlike Chelsea and Liverpool, there is less need for an extensive deepening of the squad to cope with enhanced demands of European football.
But does that mean Spurs can stand still? Absolutely not. The club only needs to look at Arsenal to see the dangers that complacency can bring.
Speaking before the White Hart Lane finale, Pochettino made clear that he wasn’t going to let the summer drift by: “We are so ambitious and always want to improve. We are building step by step for our future. We are preparing for the next season in all the areas we need to improve, and we believe we can improve and be stronger.”
By way of perspective, Spurs got a LOT better from 2015/16 to 2016/17.
- Spurs gained 16 extra points — increasing from 70 to 86
- Spurs cut down the number of draws from 13 to 8
- Spurs scored 17 more goals, increasing the total from 69 to 86
- Spurs increased goal difference by +26, from +34 to +60
- Spurs were unbeaten at home, and won all home matches against top six rivals bar Liverpool
This is impressive for a variety of reasons. For starters, Spurs were improving from an already strong base — a 3rd place finish, not an artificially low mid-table position. Also, Spurs didn’t have the same luck with injuries as in Pochettino’s first two campaigns. Harry Kane, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen all missed more than a month worth of games; while Harry Winks, Danny Rose and Erik Lamela missed substantially more.
By nature of how good Spurs were in 2016/17, improvements in 2017/18 are likely to be more incremental in nature: we’re highly unlikely to improve by 16 points again. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear areas for improvement:
- Spurs won just 9 away games, joint lowest among the top six
- Spurs won just two points in away games against other top six sides
- Spurs won only 10 points out of a possible 21 in October and November, during the Champions League group stages
- Spurs failed to advance from their Champions League group, and embarrassed themselves in the Europa League
There was also the issue of the lack of silverware — it is nine seasons and counting since the last trophy, which is far too long.
But winning silverware is harder to plan for: Spurs reached the FA Cup semi-final, played well, and somehow conceded four to an utterly ruthless Chelsea. This is now seven FA Cup semi-final defeats in a row — which is a record, and a freakish level of futility. The aim must be to continue to build a squad for which reaching the latter stages of the FA Cup is an expectation, rather than a hope. The hope comes later — namely hoping that Nemanja Matic doesn’t wonderblast it into the top corner from 30 yards, and that whatever other agonies we have endured over the years don’t repeat themselves.
The areas the Tottenham hierarchy will identify as having scope for improvement will be away performance, especially in “big” games, and better balancing of domestic and European schedules.
In particular, you suspect improved away form is essential: going unbeaten at home is unusual and unlikely to be repeated. It’s going to be tedious, next season, when every home setback gets put down to Spurs not adjusting to Wembley: Spurs won 53 out of 57 points at home in 2016/17, a level accumulation that we wouldn’t repeat if we were still at White Hart Lane. It’s as freakish as the run of FA Cup semi-final defeats.
The goal will be to pick up more additional points in away games than we drop in home games.
All sounds simple, no? But here’s the hard part: how exactly are Spurs going to do this?
Here are some ideas.
Sort out the mess on the right flank
Let’s be frank: the right wing position (or whatever the correct term is for the roaming/backtracking/creative equivalent in Pochball) was a garbage fire in 2016/17. Moussa Sissoko started just eight Premier League games, and totalled 901 minutes, contributing zero goals and three assists. Erik Lamela appeared in nine league games, scoring once and assisting once, before missing the rest of the season with a hip injury. GK Nkoudou played 47 minutes of league action in total, and his sole contribution was to not look quite as appalling as Clinton N’Jie.
After the 6-1 demolition of Leicester, Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher offered a well-measured diagnosis of Tottenham’s needs — or rather need — this summer, identifying the difference a quality and pacey wideman, such as Sadio Mane, could make. The signing of Sissoko, and gambles on N’Jie and Nkoudou, suggest Pochettino agrees. These three all failed in their first campaigns to show they are the answer, and all may be sold rather than be given more time to prove their worth. They’ve been so bad it’s not clear they’ve earned another shot, unlike, say, Vincent Janssen, who has at least hinted at some modest footballing ability. It is unclear if OM have already activated their option to make N’Jie’s loan move permanent.
However, there are questions of whether this need for pace and ball-carrying ability is really required. Simply put, if Spurs signed a player such as Wilfried Zaha (who is likely staying with Palace anyway, but he’s just an example), would he be used? In big away games, sure, it would be nice to have a player like this — but you rather suspect, when push comes to shove, this player is likely to be benched in favour of an additional midfielder such as Harry Winks as Pochettino seeks to assert control. There is also the question of Son Heung-min — he may not be a ball-carrier like Zaha, but he’s fast, direct and scores loads.
You rather suspect, the decision on what to do in this position will be made at the same time as the decision on what to do with Lamela. If Lamela moves on, this opens the door for a more creative type of player; if Lamela stays and returns to fitness, expect Spurs to look for pace and dribbling ability. Either way, Spurs are pretty much upgrading from nothing in this position — the only way is up.
Deepen the philosophy
After the Leicester game, Pochettino spoke about his philosophy and how, after three years, it was now deeply ingrained. The 2016/17 campaign saw significant development with the addition of a back three as a tactical alternative to the back four used in his first two seasons. However, this new tactical approach came after the mediocre early October form that saw consecutive draws against West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester.
As James Yorke noted in his round-up of the season, Spurs continued to play the same basic Pochball as the previous season: dominating the ball, conceding few and taking a ton of shots. There are questions, though, about whether Spurs ran “hot”.
This year they shaved a couple of shots per game off their defensive end, got the breaks at both ends and happily rode the positive variance all the way up to second place. That’s maybe frustrating, and Pochettino knows it, judging by his reluctant acceptance of praise that has come his way.
It certainly sounds like there is some scope for improvement here, in terms of creating better shots, not just taking even more of them: a bit more nuance in the passing and movement, so that every match isn’t just a case of trying to batter the opposition into submission. Some of the football in 2016/17 was sensational — the first half at home against West Brom was perhaps the purest example of Pochball, utterly breathtaking. The goal will be to find that level of performance more often. It won’t happen every game, but it doesn’t need to: it just needs to happen a little more often.
The other thing Spurs should do, in addition to fine-tuning the tactical approach, is to deepen the culture.
Pochettino has assembled a tremendous team in terms of talent, but there is a togetherness to the camp, and a connection between players and fans, that can’t be matched. It’s hard to put a number on the value of homegrown players, but we can all feel that it exists.
With top six rivals all likely to spend between £100m and £200m this summer, Spurs may feel the pressure to also “show their ambition” in the transfer market — whatever the hell the pundits mean by that. Are the current Spurs players really going to walk away if Spurs don’t sign people to replace them? Whatever it means, Spurs should resist and keep the pathways to the first team open, as both Levy and Pochettino have stressed they will continue to to.
The emergence of Harry Winks was the latest example of this process working. After biding his time and learning to play the Pochettino way, Winks’ opportunity finally came this season — and he seized it with both hands. He proved a calm midfield presence, trusted to provide control in key games. Before injury struck, Winks was moving into England senior contention and appears set to be a mainstay in the Spurs midfield for years to come. He is a boyhood Spurs fan who is now living his dream: you simply can’t buy that. It helps Spurs achieve a unity of purpose that all the money in the world can’t match.
So who is the next cab off the rank? Many fans will say Marcus Edwards, or hope that Josh Onomah kicks on after appearing to stall somewhat, but most likely it is Cameron Carter-Vickers. Spurs shouldn’t bother replacing Kevin Wimmer: between Ben Davies and CCV, his minutes are more than covered plus absences for Alderweireld too. If CCV does emerge, this could also have the knock-on effect of allowing Eric Dier to play more games in midfield, or just fewer games overall given the huge workload he shoulders.
While Spurs are integrating young players who’ve had a year or more learning the system in training, other top clubs will continue to introduce three or four major new signings each season and hope they work out. Spurs don’t need to do that: if we can add one homegrown player to the mix each year, that’s the sort of incremental, organic improvement to an already-strong squad that will lead to titles. We’re already good! We just need to keep getting even better.
Throw off the shackles in Europe
Pochettino has done very little wrong in his time at Spurs, but the one area he has consistently struggled to find improvement is in European competition. In three years, there has hardly been a single European performance of note, and crashing out to Gent — or was it Genk? — in February summed up the malaise.
There’s something off about the performances in Europe. Spurs look tense, constrained, unnatural — the press is mechanical, there is a lack of movement, we barely create good chances and look shaky at the back. Spurs look like a team that fears failure, rather than sees Europe as an opportunity to shine.
Instead of amping up the pressure to perform better, you wonder if Pochettino may be better reducing it: more rotation, more attacking line-ups, and unashamedly offensive tactics. Just go for it — dare I say it, like ‘Arry did in that excellent European campaign — and get the opposition out of the players’ heads.
There was something about the performance against Leicester — Spurs revelled in the freedom of playing without pressure, and the movement was a joy. Can Pochettino and his team capture that spirit? It may have consequences for the league, too. Less inhibition in Europe may make that gruelling October/November period less of an ordeal, and maybe turn one or two draws into wins. Remember, it’s just incremental improvement we need.
Avoiding key injuries and better scheduling that ends the draining clustering of London derbies would also help, but that’s beyond Spurs’ control.
Improve the options off the bench
There were a number of occasions this season — Sunderland and Manchester United away jump out — when Pochettino looked to his bench for help in vain.
Quite simply, Spurs got virtually nothing in direct production from substitutes all season long. Spurs substitutes scored four times, and created six assists in total. Of those, three of the goals were by Son, who also assisted twice.
Some caveats: Spurs have had a long injury list, meaning the bench was often weaker than it should have been. Think back to the Autumn when Kane, Dembele and Alderweireld all missed time — take Costa, Kante and David Luiz out of the Chelsea team, and you can bet they would have dropped a few points as well. Furthermore, given the strong performances, particularly at home, Spurs didn’t “need” to go to the bench all that often. Spurs subs played an average of 42.5 minutes, well below the average of 51.6 minutes in the Premier League. The two teams with the lowest average number of substitute minutes? Chelsea (34.7) and Liverpool (37.6) — not being in Europe helps.
But, there were still moments, without doubt, when a stronger bench may have helped Spurs. Again, we’re looking for incremental improvement. In 2017, when you are a Spurs fan and you’re still thinking “I wish Jermain Defoe was on the bench and not playing for Sunderland”, it’s fair to suggest we lacked a bit of punch.
I was going to write a separate piece on transfer strategy, but time is limited. It’s all a crapshoot anyway — who knows what will happen over the next two months. Here’s what I would do, if I was in charge and was being (almost) sensible about who is leaving and potentially coming in:
Kyle Walker (£40m), Kevin Wimmer (£15m), Moussa Sissoko (£20m), GK Nkoudou (£5m); plus loanees Clinton N’Jie (£5m), Nabil Bentaleb (£18m) and Fede Fazio (£2.5m)
Ryan Sessegnon (£15m), Dani Alves (£0), Gylfi Sigurdsson (£28m), Christian Pulisic (£40m)
By the time you factor in the £20m we’ll lose on Sissoko, Nkoudou and N’Jie, that’s about breaking even: Net spend is for wimps.
Good thing I’m not in charge, huh?
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