People say that a week is a long time in politics and based on the opening months of 2020/21, you would have to say the same applies to the current Premier League campaign.
The fluctuating fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur make for a great case in point. Were it not for the woodwork denying Steven Bergwijn and Harry Kane heading over from close range at Anfield in December, with the scores level at 1-1, Jose Mourinho’s side could have potentially opened up a three point lead over Liverpool at the top. Instead, after conceding to a late Roberto Firmino header (at the time their seventh goal conceded after the 80-minute mark this season) followed by a home defeat to Leicester, they found themselves dropping from first to seventh in the table within the space of seven days.
Their 3-0 victory over Leeds saw them regain a place in the top four, which continued a season-long trend where Spurs have achieved better results in games where they have seen less of the ball. In total Leeds completed more passes (500 vs 261) attempted more passes in the final third (141 vs 111) and made more penalty area entries (33 vs 17) than their opponents, but Spurs still generated chances worth a total non-penalty xG of 1.83, compared to Leeds’ 1.14.
In fact, the match away to Liverpool is the only game that Spurs have lost when seeing less than 50% of the ball.
If terms of results, they are securing fewer points, scoring fewer goals and conceding more times in games where they enjoy more possession.
Whilst the game state has to be a consideration when assessing possession figures, which will influence the totals, it is worth noting that in four of the five matches Tottenham have won so far with less than 50% possession, they were recording a 45% possession share or less when the scores were level, which further reinforces how allowing the opposition the ball forms part of their game plan in many matches.
This begs the question: do Spurs need a Plan B when facing teams who allow them more of the ball and who are less likely to allow them the space they crave when looking to break forward on the counter?
In this piece we are going to look into the underlying numbers to try and attain a better understanding of the differences in Tottenham’s approach when they see more of the ball to when the opposition takes the game to them, to try and understand if they need to adapt their approach against certain opponents to maintain a title push into the latter part of the season.
Soaking Up Pressure and Making Transitions Count
In total, Spurs have secured ten points over their traditional big-six rivals in 2020/21, however in all but one of these games they saw less of the ball than their opposition and even in the game where they did see the majority of possession – their 6-1 victory over Manchester United – they enjoyed a man’s advantage for over an hour.
The Stats Perform Playing Styles framework provides some insights into how Tottenham have been effective when coming up against teams who look to take the game to them.
In these matches the Spurs defence, set up in a low block, soak up huge volumes of pressure. Their opposition enjoy sustained periods in the Tottenham defensive third, moving the ball quickly and delivering a high volume of crosses into the box. However, despite this pressure, Spurs have only conceded chances worth 1.04 xG per 90 during these matches, a figure lower than the Premier League xG average of 1.33.
When opposition play breaks down, Tottenham look to get the ball forward quickly and exploit space. There is very little emphasis on ball retention and playing in front of the opposition, particularly in the opponent’s half, and whilst their volume of counter attacks sits in line with the Premier League average, only Wolves (1.4), Aston Villa (1.2) and Manchester United (1.1) have generated more shots per 90 following a counter attack than Spurs this season (1).
As illustrated by the graphic below, when Tottenham’s opponents allow them more possession, they tend to move the ball at a fast tempo, but the number of instances where they are engaged in sustained threat, which is classified as being in possession for at least six seconds in the attacking third, remains below the Premier League average.
Spurs still look to counter against these teams and if we plot their four most dangerous movement chains across these eight matches, we can see that, with one exception, passing patterns which progress the ball over longer distances, either directly up field or across the pitch, have been more impactful in terms of increasing the probability of them scoring a goal in the next ten seconds of play.
Although results would appear to indicate that Tottenham are better equipped to play against teams who take the game to them, when we start looking at some more underlying numbers, we start to see a different story.
Using Width to Get Creative Players On The Ball
If we look beyond the total number of goals scored and conceded and instead compare the quality of chances at both ends of the field, we can quickly attain that Tottenham actually create a substantially higher volume of chances from high quality locations in matches where they have more possession, compared to those games where they have secured more points.
Being forced to come out of their defensive shape and play the ball out has also meant they have conceded higher quality chances at the other end, but as illustrated by this table, the differential between the two outputs is substantially higher when they have more possession.
In the matches where Tottenham have less possession, the attacking quartet of Giovani Lo Celso, Heung-Min Son, Tanguy Ndombele and Steven Bergwijn have proved very influential, being the four top ranking players in the club’s squad for both expected assists per 90 and net possession value. As illustrated by the graphic below, Lo Celso and Ndombele’s passing in advanced areas have played a big part in increasing goal probability when Tottenham do get on the ball, whereas Son makes a significant contribution through progressive dribbling.
In the matches where Spurs have more ball and are more engaged in the build-up phase of the game, where Lo Celso and Ndombele have less space, we see that Harry Kane becomes more influential in the deeper Link Forward role he has adopted under Mourinho, with Son’s dribbling again also helping Spurs progress the ball into good goalscoring locations.
However, what is also noticeable is the influence of the Tottenham full backs in these matches, with Mourinho’s quartet of Serge Aurier, Matt Doherty, Ben Davies and Sergio Reguilón occupying four of the top six places for PV in these matches.
With Spurs not placing a great emphasis on crossing – their 7.4 open play crosses per 90 ranks them bottom in the Premier League – the full backs are getting involved instead by looking to play shorter combination passes to get these attacking players onto the ball in the half spaces.
Reguilón’s pass map below is a good illustration of this. In the matches he has featured where Spurs have enjoyed a majority of possession, the most common receivers of his passes from the attacking half are Ndombele, Son, Højbjerg and Kane, with the vast majority of these being played into feet in these central areas.
In these games, the Spaniard ranks behind only Son and Kane for xA per 90 (0.15), compared to 0.03 per 90 in the games when Spurs had less than 50% possession, which further illustrates how the full backs have a bigger role to play offensively when they need to break a team down. This is further highlighted with the numbers for Aurier and Doherty down the right, who record 0.12 and 0.09 xA per 90 respectively when Spurs enjoy 50%+ possession, but only 0.02 and 0.01 in the other matches.
Closing Matches Down and Defending Set Pieces
Tottenham’s underlying numbers indicate that despite their record, the approach they adopt against less possession-orientated teams is still enabling them to create chances well above the league average.
However, there are two other areas of their game which may require improvement if they are to sustain a title challenge, which appear to be linked.
Tottenham have conceded eight times after the 80-minute mark this season, which equates to 53% of all their goals conceded. No other team has conceded more goals during this period.
If we break down the amount of time when Spurs have been leading matches, we can see that they have been in front for over 50% of all league minutes, which is the best record in the competition, and have only been behind in 5% of minutes.
In total, Spurs have dropped nine points from conceding late goals and what is noteworthy is that five of the eight goals they conceded came from set piece situations – and each set piece goal has resulted in dropped points.
In the 2019/20 campaign, Spurs only conceded six set piece goals, which was the best record in the competition. However, after just 16 games in 2020/21 they have conceded the same number already and their 0.38 set piece goals conceded per 90, which closely mirrors their set piece xG conceded (0.34), is the sixth-worst output in the Premier League.
So, whilst on the surface it may appear that Tottenham possessed an Achilles Heel when it came to coming up against teams that didn’t look to open up, it could be their performance at defensive set pieces, particularly during the latter stages of a game, which could determine whether they can maintaining their fight for honours, on all fronts, as 2021 progresses.