By Edwin Yeo
Back in November, Jose Mourinho’s soak and strike style of football helped Tottenham Hotspur reach the dizzying heights of the Premier League summit.
Unfortunately, Spurs’ chronic fear of heights kicked in almost immediately, and they have since fallen back into the warm, comforting embrace of sixth place.
Since their comprehensive victories over Manchester City and Arsenal, Spurs have won just twice in their following nine league games, drawing three and losing four. This poor run of form, which culminated in this morning’s (Singapore time) apathetic away defeat to Brighton – a team which had yet to win at home the whole season - has highlighted the big problems Spurs have.
In fact, if the league season had started with the draw against Crystal Palace on December 13, Spurs would now be 14th, with a -1 goal difference.
By comparison, the 12-match run which got Mauricio Pochettino fired last season also saw Spurs lodged at 14th, but with a +1 goal difference. The Argentinian knew, after the loss to Liverpool in the Champions League Final, that the team needed a refresh.
What sparked excitement for Spurs fans this season was that it seemed as though the refresh happened, albeit half a season too late. Seven new players, finally a decent back-up striker for Harry Kane in Carlos Vinicius, and the return of the prodigal son, Gareth Bale.
But despite a bright start to the season, it’s time to admit that the team’s problems are significant.
Even during the height of Pochettino’s reign, the problems Spurs had were clear for all to see. And because I had guided Spurs to winning the Quadruple on Football Manager, allow me to offer my views as to what those problems are.
Caveat: The following opinions are about as scientific as drinking bleach to cure COVID-19, but no managers were harmed in the process of forming them.
1) Attacking space
Over the course of the past six or seven seasons, you would be hard pressed to find Spurs players anticipating a pass into an attacking space, be it wide on the flanks behind the full backs or centrally. Too often, Spurs players move backwards to receive the ball, and they find themselves with a defender on their backs like that ghost from the Thai horror movie Shutter. Short of outstanding players like Mousa Dembele and now Tanguy Ndombele, Spurs players often struggle to lose their markers.
The Brighton match this morning showed that in abundance. It didn’t matter who got the ball on the flanks – be it Son Heung-Min, Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura, Moussa Sissoko, Ben Davies or Gareth Bale, the player would often found himself in positions that required him to beat a man first in order to send in a cross. This allows time for midfielders and defenders to drop back to defend the cross, even if the attacker manages to beat his man.
Contrast that to the number of times Brighton managed to get behind Spurs’ full backs, one of which led to their goal, and you can see that Spurs’ ability to attack space off the ball is inferior even to a team fighting for their lives at the wrong end of the table.
So often when Spurs play ‘smaller’ teams like Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Brighton, Fulham and the likes, you hear commentators praise how well the opponents are defending. In truth, it is Spurs’ inability to find attacking space that makes their defence look world class. Spurs’ movement off the ball is very often backwards, and that makes it easier for average defenders to mark them, so long as they have the physical ability to keep up with the Spurs players.
And in the Premier League, most teams are fit if nothing else.
We do have Son who is about the only one who makes those intelligent runs, but that brings us to our second problem.
2) Attacking passes
Attacking space is one thing, but if one can’t find the player making those runs, it’s just as useless. And here, Spurs have a huge problem.
The match against Brighton was probably one of the worst attacking performances Spurs have produced in a long time. The number of forward passes that were unable to find a Spurs player, even from a player as consistent as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, is indicative of a problem Spurs have had for many seasons now, even when we were winning regularly.
So huge is this problem that when we had a player such as Christian Eriksen, we made him out to be a world class playmaker. Indeed, Eriksen was better at finding a through pass better than the rest of his Spurs teammates, but that’s like saying I pass better than six-year-olds kicking the ball for the first time.
When you look upwards at the teams above Spurs and observe the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Firmino, Bruno Fernandes, or even down below at bang average players like Pascal Gross this morning, they always seem to be able to spot that run, and play the ball precisely into the path of the runner.
Kane has filled this void somewhat this season, but such passing ability cannot be dependent on just one player finding his form. It has to be the most basic requirement when it comes to players hoping to win titles.
Statistically, against Liverpool in the last match, it looked as though Spurs matched the champions on passes – 592 to 587, with a comparable pass completion rate. But when you compare the touches inside the penalty box, Spurs made five as compared to Liverpool’s 18.
At times, Spurs have done much better on this front, especially during Pochettino’s reign, but over the season, they haven’t done it consistently enough. This could be down to each player’s individual ability, which leads to the third problem.
It seems as though passing ability haven’t been much of a priority when it comes to scouting players. Our scouts seem to be focused on an essential ability that the manager needs, rather than basic footballing skills.
For example, we needed a solid defensive midfielder and we got one in Hojbjerg, even though his forward passing has a lot of room for improvement. Yes, he has largely done the job that he was signed for, often excellently, but he can’t really affect attacking plays the way Fabinho, Yaya Toure or even Roy Keane could.
This isn’t down to Mourinho. Going further back, with a different scouting team, Pochettino wanted an attacking full back to replace the departed Kyle Walker. He got one in Serge Aurier, who does indeed love bombing forward. But how often have you seen him make unforced errors when it comes to his passing?
I say this without knowing exactly how the Spurs scouting team actually does their work, because that really requires a lot of effort. and I’m still sleepy from watching the sad affair this morning at The Amex. What is clear, however, is that too many of our players seem to struggle with passing precision. It is, in fact, easier to name the players who pass forward well - Toby Alderweireld, Kane (this season), Giovani Lo Celso and Ndombele.
You don’t necessarily win matches when you can pass well, but you certainly can’t win consistently if you don’t.
Pochettino’s Spurs were known to press high and force errors in the opponents’ half. This was, in theory, a good tactic but fundamentally flawed because Spurs players very often don’t press tight enough, or seem to instinctively know how to cut off passing routes.
When you watch how Liverpool and Manchester City press, they often force opposing players on the ball to release it fast, which leads to a high turnover rate. On the other hand, Spurs’ opponents, even when pressed, always seem to have time on the ball. This could be due to how slowly the Spurs players press, as well as how they always somehow seem to be easily sold dummies by players on the ball.
Pascal Gross is no Cristiano Ronaldo, but this morning, he was made to look like the Portuguese with simple pull backs that lost his markers.
Another sign of good pressing is the ability to come out of the 50-50s with the ball, and here, too, Spurs players often end up on the losing end.
Graeme Souness said that Spurs players lacked energy, and that could be true for the Brighton match, but season after season, we’ve seen how often lesser teams break free of our press.
That could be the reason why Mourinho decided to play the low block instead of the high press. But if counter-attacking is your main avenue of attack, then you also need to quickly solve problems 1) and 2) to be effective. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United did that to an art, but Spurs simply don’t have the players to match Fergie’s Fledglings.
Perhaps Mourinho needs one more transfer window, but he would most likely need to stamp his authority on the scouting team and also Daniel Levy to bring in the type of players that can execute his plans to perfection
Because as exciting as the summer transfer window was, they haven’t solved Spurs’ biggest problems, and without doing so, it will be a long time before Spurs consistently finish in the top four again.
This article, “Spurs' problems are huge, and it's not just because of Mourinho”, originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.