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Spurs are all substance, no style

FOX Soccer crew discusses Tottenham's unbeaten run in Europa League.
FOX Soccer crew discusses Tottenham's unbeaten run in Europa League.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

TOON SINGING THE BLUES

Relive the best images from week ten in the Barclays Premier League.

Mousa Dembele suggested last week that one of the reasons Tottenham has struggled to break teams down this season is the size of the pitch at White Hart Lane. Because it’s so small, he said, it makes it easier for opposing teams to pack men behind the ball and look to frustrate Spurs, denying them space to pass through.

The usual high camera angle at White Hart Lane gives the impression to television viewers that White Hart Lane is actually one of the larger grounds in England, but actually Dembele had a point. White Hart Lane measures just 101m by 66m, making it the second smallest pitch in the division. That’s some five metres narrower than Goodison Park, where Spurs played on Sunday. Or, to put it another way, the gaps between defenders in a back four are about a metre greater at Goodison than at White Hart Lane, which clear makes defending easier for Tottenham’s opponents in home games.

But Dembele’s point was undermined by the fact Spurs not only failed to score but even really to threaten at Everton, despite dominating the opening half hour. Spurs had a lot of the ball in that period, but managed just one shot from inside the box, a low Andros Townsend drive from 17 yards that was comfortably saved by Tim Howard. It’s been a problem all season. This is Tottenham’s best ever start to a Premier League campaign and it lies fourth, level on points with second-placed Chelsea. They’ve only conceded five goals all season, the second-best record in the league. But Spurs also have only scored nine goals in 10 games so far, two of them from fortunate penalty decisions; only six sides have a worse goal-scoring record.

The strange thing about Spurs’ struggles in front of goal is that they are having more shots per game than any other side. Statistics on whoscored.com show Spurs have 17.5 shots per game, 0.5 more than the next side, Chelsea. Chance creation was always an obsession of the former Norway manager Egil Olsen, who maintained that the side that creates the more chances will win 75% of games. The English theorist Charles Reep found that most sides averaged nine shots per goal, by which logic Spurs should be scoring at a rate of almost two a game: only Arsenal and Manchester City have scored at greater than two goals per game this season.

Not all chances, of course, are equal: it’s easier to score a tap-in from four yards than an overhead kick from 40. Olsen acknowledges that and, for a while, divided chances into three categories: easy, medium and hard. He found, though, that the greater sophistication yielded results almost identical to those produced by counting all chances the same.

There are two possible explanations for the apparent paradox of Tottenham having lots of shots and scoring few goals. One is that they have simply been unlucky and that there will at some point be a reversion to the mean through a couple of big wins. The other is that this is a rare case of a team creating the wrong type of chances. Certainly watching Andros Townsend shooting again and again from range gives one a sense that there is too much that is too speculative. Sure enough, 57% of all Tottenham’s shots are hit from outside the box – a higher proportion than anybody apart from Newcastle – while only 3% are from inside the six-yard box, a lower proportion than everybody apart from Aston Villa.

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The question then is why. In part, perhaps, the likes of Townsend and Paulinho are over-eager, taking on shots from range when a more productive alternative would be to have more patience and wait for team-mates to move into more advantageous positions. But there’s also an issue that Spurs don’t get players forward quickly enough, particularly from central areas.

That was an issue last season as well, that seemed to be solved by the arrival of Dembele, who made surges forward to support the striker – either Jermain Defoe or Emmanuel Adebayor – but he seems to have taken on a more conservative role this season, allowing Paulinho to drive forward. He averaged a goal every four games for Corinthians but has managed just one so far for Spurs despite averaging 3.2 shots per game. It may be, anyway, that Dembele had less impact last season than it appeared and that Spurs’ problems getting men forward were obscured by the form of Gareth Bale: seven times after Christmas he struck in the final quarter of a game to turn a defeat into a draw or a draw into a win.

What Spurs really seem to lack, though, is a true creator, somebody who with a moment of skill or a visionary pass can unlock a defence. Christian Eriksen has offered that, but Andre Villas-Boas seemed to lose patience with the 21 year old for his defensive shortcomings in the 3-0 defeat to West Ham, while Erik Lamela, who has the potential to be that creator, is yet to settle.

Perhaps Paulinho, in time, will start to score the goals he did in Brazil, but at the moment, after years of being dismissed as all style and no substance, Spurs find themselves with a lot of substance but a dearth of style.

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