Attack the Centre

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Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

After 11 domestic matches producing seven clean sheets yet only nine goals, Tottenham fans are in two camps: those willing to give AVB and his selected squad more time to improve and those ready to torch everything for a return to flowing “Spurs football.” On either side, fans are openly questioning the manager’s in-game strategy.

Perhaps because I’m a newer fan with little attachment to the style of the past, I’m open to AVB’s changes and foresee the squad flourishing in his system. Through that lens, I prefer to look at statistics (via whoscored.com) to determine where the real problems exist.

First, here are the areas where Spurs are tops in the league: shots per game, shots on target per game, dribbles per game, penalty goals, shots from the right side, opposition half action, and long balls per game. Not a lot of surprises there. Most of those can be explained with a simple “Townsend,” but the most promising figure is the Spurs’ spending tons of time in the opposition’s half. If Spurs are attacking and teams are on their heels, they’re right where we want them.

Now, here’s where Spurs are bottom of the league: set piece goals (0), through balls per game (1), and offsides per game (1). I include offside penalties here because although we have the fewest of any other team, I don’t necessarily see that as a positive. As another negative, Spurs are third in the in the league in shots from outside the penalty box (57%, consistent with last season). There are big problems here that warrant serious attention.

The issue with our set pieces have become regular fodder for forum fans grown comfortable with the super-exploits of one Gareth Bale. The return to Earth has been precipitous and painful. Although the Spurs have earned free kicks and corners early and often – 15 fouls drawn and 11 corners against Newcastle – the execution has been poor and an utter waste of opportunities. While we can’t expect Bale-like wonder-goals from every set piece, not occasionally capitalizing has been a huge failure.

The lack of through balls and offside penalties go hand-in-hand. Gone are the days of 2011-12 when Spurs could rely on Modric and Van der Vaart to slip passes through the back line, but the question is where will the creativity come from in this new batch of uber-talented midfielders? Spurs do not appear to have a Fernando Torres or even a Loic Remy that wants to consistently beat the offside trap without fear of a few sprints being flagged. Does Soldado have the willingness to create these runs? The answer to first question is Eriksen and Paulinho, while the second answer is more blunt: we sure as hell better hope so.

Both Eriksen and Paulinho have great passing skills and are certainly not short on touches each game. However, it would appear many of their passes are distributions to the wings – which given the numerous shots from the right side often feel like passes into a black hole, never to return – rather than penetrating passes that challenge the central defense. Teams are familiar with the pass to winger, pass to attacking fullback combo – Spurs are third in the league in crosses per game, consistent with previous seasons – when they have yet to be heartily challenged through the middle.

So fans can continue to complain about inverted wingers clogging the middle, Townsend being selfish, and AVB playing a too-defensive style of football, but the fact is Spurs are shooting the ball and getting shots-on at an unexpectedly high rate. However, until Eriksen, Paulinho, and Soldado start pressuring the center backs and creating more opportunities from inside the penalty area, fans should prepare for a long, painful season.

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