Opinion: A defensive midfielder holds the keys to Spurs success for Postecoglou

Ever since the crushing end of Tottenham’s incredible start of the season run, where the recently appointed Ange Postecoglou incredibly had won eight of his first ten Premier League games, topping the table with 26 points and only conceding nine goals in that time, making them the third best defence in the league.

Ange Postecoglou
(Credit: Sky Sports)

However, fast forward seven months and Spurs have conceded a concerning 52 goals in their remaining 28 games, dropping them down to the 7th best defence in the league.

It could have been foreseen that, with the drastic difference in mentality between Antonio Conte and Ange Postecoglou, Spurs would leak goals, even more so, with the back line seeing three new starting additions to it (Vicario, Udogie & Van De Ven).

Interestingly though, Tottenham fans and the wider media have often remarked upon Spurs’ ‘leaky defence’, the actual backline and goalkeeper have frequently received a large amount of plaudits, and rightly so.

It’s also remarkable that Micky Van De Ven a man who played in games such as a 4-2 loss to Liverpool & a 4-0 loss to Newcastle was awarded the Tottenham Fan’s Player of The Season award (Official – Spurs), with his fellow defenders likely being close runners up for the award with many supporters often discussing the brilliance of Vicario, consistency of Porro or the impressive debut season Udogie has enjoyed.

Micky van de Ven
Credit: @shooting.practice on Instagram

Although due to the injury & suspension massacre that the Chelsea loss at home ensued the ‘first-choice defence’ of Udogie, van De Ven, Romero and Porro didn’t actually feature all that often together, with games such as the 4-2 loss away to Brighton, both losses top Wolves & the home defeat to West Ham perhaps being a harsh representation of what was, in reality, a makeshift defence at the time, which has led to a poor reflection in the league table in both goals conceded and points collated.

The counterargument to that point is obviously that most top clubs should and could deal with one or two defensive absences that Spurs sometimes had. The addition of Dragusin has gone some way to elevating that risk, but it is undeniable that a target for Spurs this summer should be to improve the depth of defence, especially at right-back where it’s reported that wheels are already starting to be in motion with Emerson Royal being highly linked with a move to Italian giants, AC Milan. (Sky Italy)

With injuries accounted for, Tottenham’s defensive record still simply isn’t good enough if their ambitions are to be a top-four team, and possibly beyond, as well as competing for trophies with 3rd placed Liverpool conceding twenty goals less, and North London rivals, Arsenal, conceding an incredible 32 goals fewer.

What is causing such a leaky defence then? All signs point towards the midfield. If a team is conceding shedloads of goals even with a good quality defence, it likely means you are allowing too easy access to your defensive third of the pitch, something which a good midfield nips in the bud.

Postecoglou himself has alluded to that issue, stating ‘we allow them too far easy access to our goal’ (BBC Sport) after the 3-2 loss to bitter rivals Arsenal. A game which Hojbjerg and Bentancur started as Ange continued to toy with his midfield, trying to find the perfect combination which it still appears that he hasn’t found.

For the majority of the season, it appears that Yves Bissouma is Postecoglou’s defensive midfielder of choice, with another midfielder playing slightly in front with James Maddison ideally topping off the midfield as an attacking option.

The Malian midfielder hasn’t enjoyed a clean run of games or form since his dismissal at Luton however, facing a flurry of issues after his red such as another suspension for a collation of bookings followed by suffering from Malaria ‘for weeks’ after contracting the illness on internationals duty that already saw him miss games (Mirror), to cap the season off the former Brighton midfielder picked up a new knee injury, meaning Bissouma only started 68.4% of Premier League games this season.

Yves Bissouma
Credit: @shooting.practice on Instagram

Bissouma’s statistics this season paint an interesting picture, one of a player that could be key for Tottenham but his lack of consistency and discipline refrains him from being so. Bissouma has the 7th best tackles in the midfield 3rd per 90 (in comparison to other players who’ve tallied more than fifteen 90s) with 1.57 per 90 minutes, Fulham’s Joao Palhinha is the league’s leader with 2, more on him later though. (FBRef)

The issue for Bissouma more comes when the opposition gets towards his side’s goal. Tottenham conceded the 5th most opposition touches in their third of the pitch, trailing the top four by some way. The statistics display that Bissouma doesn’t go far to help prevent that statistic, often being bypassed. 33 players in the division have a better rate of tackles in the defensive 3rd of the pitch per 90 than Yves Bissouma, an especially poor stat when you consider how frequently Spurs allow other teams in their third.

Palhinha once again leads the statistic with 2.67 per 90, a stark comparison to Bissouma’s 1.39 per 90 (FBRef). Tottenham’s other defensive midfielders are hardly pushing Bissouma close in that department however with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg only recording 0.89 tackles in the defensive 3rd per 90, a career low for the Dane. (FBRef)

A further imperfection within Bissouma’s game that points towards him needing to be improved upon should Tottenham want to progress as a team and defensively is his poor discipline. Bissouma committed 35 fouls this season, with many leading to bookings or red cards which led to suspensions, but it’s something he has a track record of and doesn’t seem to be improving upon.

In 2020/21 Bissouma committed an incredible 55 fouls across the season, playing almost every game, and in 2018/19 committed 40 fouls despite playing even less than he did this season (FBRef). This routine fouling is usually an issue in most teams, but with Tottenham being a side that particularly struggles at set pieces and has had those issues well documented, conceding such a high volume of fouls from defensive midfield will only lead to more set-piece woes and possibly allowing oppositions to score goals that could be easily prevented. In short, Bissouma is and likely will continue to provide Tottenham & Postecoglou with an unnecessary headache.

To add to the stats is the bare and striking reality of Spurs’ results with a fit and firing Bissouma, which was at the start of the season, coinciding with Tottenham’s incredible first ten games; there’s plenty of proof that suggests Spurs need a fully fit and on form Bissouma for success, and if they feel that isn’t sustainable or reliable enough, the Malian should be upgraded upon.

Ange Postecoglou Yves Bissouma
Credit: @shooting.practice on Instagram

Who should Tottenham sign this summer?

So, who would be the ideal fit? It will come as no surprise following his frequent references in this piece that Joao Palhinha is an ideal solution, a leader in most defensive statistics across the league such as the league’s most tackles in the defensive third (2.67 per 90) second highest % of dribblers tackled for his position (67.8%) and his 57 interceptions being the 5th most in the division. (FBRef)

Although, like Bissouma, Palhinha isn’t a stranger to being booked and giving away a foul, his injury list is far shorter, missing only a single game due to injury since joining Fulham two years ago. Bayern Munich are reported to be sniffing around the former Sporting midfielder so Tottenham would have to be quick if they wanted to sign the man who statistically appears to be the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League barring the ‘big six’. (Plettigol on X)

Another, younger, option would be Leeds United’s Archie Gray who has performed impressively for the Championship promotion chasers all season at the age of just 18. His 1.25 defensive 3rd tackles per 90 (FBRef), just shy of what Bissouma has recorded this season is respectable and when you partner the statistics with his age as well as his versatility, being deployed as a right back for numerous games this season, means Gray could be an exciting option, albeit one more angled towards improving the squad in the future.

However, defensive midfield probably isn’t a position that Spurs and Daniel Levy should cut corners upon. If it is either the excitement and promise of someone like Gray or the defensive solidity and instant improvement of Palhinha, the right decision will undoubtedly reap rewards for Tottenham.

All you would have to do is look up the table to understand the magnitude of a top-quality defensive midfielder. Pep Guardiola needed the quality of someone such as Rodri to succeed at the summit of domestic and European football, the Spain international boasts an almost unbelievable 50-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, a stat that speaks volumes about the importance that he has had to such a successful team.

Arsenal have also experienced a significant boost in performances from acquiring a new midfield enforcer, signing Declan Rice from West Ham in the summer for around £100 million. An eyebrow-raising fee that has soon been forgotten about thanks to Rice’s brilliance and the solid midfield base that he has provided Arsenal with this season, allowing them to push Manchester City even deeper into the season than they had last time.

Ange Postecoglou hasn’t been shy about wanting to join Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of the table and be battling alongside them for major honours stating ‘I want to build a club where every year we are fighting for trophies’, and if Ange wants to do that, he’ll have to go some way to emulating the top team’s blueprints that they have left, therefore, a top class defensive midfielder would be a big step towards doing that.

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