One of the common complaints amongst Tottenham Hotspur supporters thus far has been that new manager Andre Villas-Boas is far more negative than any previous manager and that his style does not fit with the swashbuckling “glory, glory” approach embraced by a club whose motto is “to dare is to do.”
This, to me, seems an unfair criticism. When you hear that a manager is negative, what you usually think of – and what you ought to think of – is the defensive, long-ball oriented style of a Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis. And when you look at the table, you see stats consistent with their negative philosophy. The Hammers have played 15, scoring 19 and conceding 17. Stoke, meanwhile, in 15 matches have scored 14 and conceded 12. To be clear, neither is a poor team. Both are in the top half of the table for a reason. But no one should quibble with calling those teams “negative.”
When you look at Spurs, you find a very different stat line. In the same 15 matches, Spurs have scored 28 goals – double Stoke’s haul – while conceding 23. In fact, Villas-Boas’ Tottenham are tied with Manchester City for the second most goals in the Premier League, trailing only the Van Persie and Rooney-fronted Manchester United who have already scored 37.
Spurs’ attacking prowess
Most notably, Spurs are actually ahead of the pace set by allegedly more “positive” sides, such as Everton (25 goals), Arsenal (24 goals), and – most shockingly of all – Chelsea (25 goals). This is especially astonishing when you consider that Chelsea’s typical front four cost them around £130 million – over £155m when you factor in backup attacking players Daniel Sturridge, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and on-loan Kevin De Bruyne.
Tottenham’s entire starting XI for most of their games this year (Lloris, Walker, Gallas, Caulker, Vertonghen, Dembele, Sandro, Lennon, Dempsey, Bale, Defoe) cost the club at most £80million in transfer fees. (Assuming the Bale deal with Southampton ended up at £10million and that Kyle Walker’s price was £6m, hardly a sure thing given that Naughton and Walker came together for a combined fee of around £9million.)
Yet with a team assembled at such a comparatively cheap rate, Villas-Boas has managed nearly two goals a game, a rate the far more expensive Chelsea side has been unable to match. (And a rate that the equally expensive Manchester City side has only been able to equal.) In short, Tottenham’s issues are not excessive negativity, but a defensive frailty that has caused the league’s second highest scoring team to struggle at times.
Spurs’ defensive frailties
One reason Spurs have shipped so many goals so far is that they concede a number of very poor goals; four to six coming from bad clearances, depending on how you define “bad clearance.”
They have also conceded one via a bad penalty against Newcastle and had several awful defensive lapses against Arsenal and Chelsea that led to goals. (Playing a man down at the Emirates for 73 minutes certainly didn’t help.) But as it turns out, these gaffes may actually be a symptom of a larger problem relating to Spurs’ overall style.
The reason Villas-Boas’ critics accuse him of negativity is that Spurs play a very direct, counter-attacking style. Then again, they haven’t had much choice: with the summer sales of Luka Modric and Rafa Van der Vaart and Moussa Dembele’s injury problems, Spurs have lacked creativity in midfield. Even with Dembele’s return, Spurs don’t have a true midfield passer on the pitch when they start him, Sandro and Clint Dempsey. Gylfi Sigurdsson‘s performances have been too hit-or-miss to merit a regular starting spot. So Spurs lack a passer in midfield.
Pace in attack
What they have in spades is pace – Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe all thrive on getting into space and running at defenders. Kyle Walker also enjoys getting forward, as does Jan Vertonghen in a more limited way, as he did against Manchester United to score the first goal. So Spurs tend to play a style that emphasises soaking up pressure and hitting teams on the counter.
The plus side is it allows the team to score almost as many goals as Chelsea and City while not having any players that even approach the creative class of Silva, Nasri, Mata, Hazard, or Oscar.
The downside is that this approach tends to wear down a defence and make you more prone to mental lapses and mistakes that lead to goals. Add in the fact that Spurs have played most of the season without their first choice centre half and left back, forcing a skeletal crew to play all Premier League matches and the Europa League, and you have a recipe for late game breakdowns.
Given that analysis, Spurs defensive frailties begin to make more sense. Of their 23 conceded goals, eight have come in the final ten minutes (35%) and 13 have come after the hour mark (57%).
In fact, Spurs have only conceded five first half goals all season – and three of those came while playing a man down at the Emirates. What this suggests is that as the game wears on Spurs’ defenders tire and become more prone to half-hearted clearances, dropping back deeper and deeper and making silly mistakes.
To sum up, the issue with Spurs really isn’t that Villas-Boas is too negative.
It’s that the lack of creativity and midfield depth forces the team to play an exclusively counter-attacking style. While this style has been extremely effective thanks to the pace of Spurs’ attackers, it has also caused their defenders to become extremely fatigued late in matches, which leads to late goals.
Add injuries in defence and the sheer number of matches played thus far and it’s no surprise Spurs have conceded so many late goals.
It’s likely, though not guaranteed, that once Younes Kaboul and Benoit Assou-Ekotto return we’ll see the number of late goals conceded drop off. With those two healthy, Spurs will have five viable options at centre half in Kaboul, Vertonghen, Caulker, Dawson, and Gallas as well as two options at either fullback with Walker, Naughton, Assou-Ekotto, and Vertonghen.
Obviously it is possible Spurs will continue to concede late goals. This is Tottenham, after all. Spurs are no strangers to defensive frailties or innovating new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But the pattern we have seen so far suggests that fatigue – brought on by so much defensive work – is leading to late goals. With better player rotation (and perhaps more goals with Dembele’s return), we’ll likely see an improvement in Spurs’ defensive fortunes – and with it an improvement to their standing in the table.
(Photo credit: Bjørn Giesenbauer via Flickr Creative Commons)