Opinion: Spurs’ defence – Analysing player problem or manager problem

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Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

Tottenham Hotspur have found themselves in the spotlight recently after they suffered a humiliating defeat to arch-rivals Arsenal in the North London derby.

Alongside this, the Lilywhites were dumped out of the Europa League following a sensational comeback by Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb.

Once again, this has resulted in the club coming under scrutiny from pundits and fans alike. Seemingly, there is a split in opinion regarding Spurs’ current woes. Is the player’s fault, or is it the manager?

Jose Mourinho has been consistent in his interviews this season. He constantly insists that he does not instruct his players to sit deep. Contrastingly, he argues that he insists on a high press to kill games off.

Spurs have dropped a total of 13 points from winning positions during the 2020/21 season (football365). This has largely been a result of the defensive play that has been evident during Spurs’ performances this season.

The argument remains, is it Jose Mourinho who sets his team up to sit on leads and see games out? Or do the players lack the mentality and the confidence to implement the manager’s game plan on a weekly basis?

The North-London club surprisingly have the third-best defence in the Premier League, conceding only 30 goals all season. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have conceded fewer (Premier League).

However, those who watch the club regularly will not fail to point out how unstable and leaky our defence is. Could it be a mixture of both players and manager?

Arguably, there may be a combination of underwhelming players, alongside out-dated tactics, that lies at the heart of the club’s problems on the pitch.

Below we can find the case for each branch, alongside my overall opinion on the matter.

The players

On the one hand, the players are undoubtedly part of the problem. It does not take an expert analyser to infer that the weakest area in the Spurs squad is their defence.

Davinson Sanchez, Matt Doherty and Eric Dier are regular features of what is usually a back four. It is unsurprising that teams often find themselves scoring past the 80th minute.

Furthermore, a problem lies at the front of the team. Harry Kane has thrived in a deeper role this season, scoring 17 goals and accumulating 13 assists in the league. Yet, he is often seen defending in his own box.

Interestingly, it seems to take a monumental amount of shouting from the side-line to get the front three to press higher up the pitch.

Spurs journalist Alasdair Gold whilst at a game this season noted that first-team assistant Joao Sacramento was constantly telling his players to press.

This would suggest that the problem lies on the pitch with the players. By dropping into deeper areas of the pitch, it invites pressure from the opposition.

You can understand from a player’s perspective, that they may want to hold on to any advantage and protect it. But the opposition will see that as an implication to start playing with more confidence and fluidity.

Therefore, the players must be brave enough to work as a unit, to beat the press, and retain the ball.

There is a lack of evidence demonstrating this over recent games, and it is ultimately up to the players on the pitch, to perform.

The manager

On the other hand, blame must also be placed on the manager. Jose Mourinho is renowned for his ‘park the bus’ tactics. Whilst it has been successful in nearly every team he has managed; the evidence is there to suggest that this defence is the worst he has overseen.

Mourinho has seen this his team sit deep on multiple occasions this season, undoubtedly through his instruction.

The games against Arsenal and Manchester City have emphasised the success that defensive tactics can still have in the modern game. This has led to the Portuguese boss implementing this tactical approach more frequently, and sometimes unnecessarily.

Most of the frustration has come from the defensive approach against weaker teams. Those against Brighton and Fulham springs to mind. Allowing these teams, who have weaker players, to control and dictate the tempo of the game, is unacceptable.

However, some in the Spurs camp have come forward during interviews and verbalised the desire of the manager. Hugo Lloris recently stated that the message from the manager is to press and kill the game.

This suggests that the blame cannot be solely on the manager. These tactics may be necessary for the tougher games. However, the message coming from the coaching staff is undoubtedly the opposite of what the players sometimes demonstrate on the pitch.

My verdict

Overall, there is evidence to suggest that a combination of player error and manager setup is to blame for the poor approaches to games this season.

Whilst I would lean into saying that it is up to the players to perform on the pitch, the influence from the manager in preparation for each game is monumental.

Therefore, it is fair to judge that both factors are equally to blame.

There are areas in which the players must improve. All the while, the manager must consider how to motivate his players to greater avail. Mourinho’s contract warrants a greater influence over his players. It is largely up to him as to how the squad plays.

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