Andros Townsend in space

Jamie McDonald

The neverending debate is about to get a lot more heated.

To most fans of Tottenham Hotspur, Andros Townsend is either the team's most dangerous attacking player or a liability that should be replaced with Erik Lamela or Aaron Lennon immediately. He has a rocket left foot, dribbling skills and the kind of fearlessness you only see in players who don't know any better, but he also dribbles into traffic and hits inaccurate shots more often than he makes passes that beat defenders. He is simultaneously the only player creating dangerous attacks on his own and an attack killer.

The debate about him and his place in the team is so polarizing because his game is inherently polarizing. He tries lots of spectacular things, and often, players who are very good but not elite who try spectacular things usually also do lots of agonizingly bad things. His biggest doubters admit that he has flashes of brilliance and his biggest supporters admit that he occasionally makes poor decisions. The debate is over whether or not he has enough flashes of brilliance and whether or not those flashes are brilliant enough to make up for his giveaways and the opportunity cost of playing someone else.

I am, in most cases, not a supporter of starting Townsend. I think that he has done more to hurt the team than help so far this season, as evidenced by our very low rate of shot conversion. The low number of goals that Spurs have relative to their possession and shot numbers is pretty staggering. Some of that is down to bad luck and some of that is down to underperforming strikers, but I think a lot of that is down to our right winger who does a lot of flashy things that ultimately produce very little.

However, you can expect me and those in my camp to look very, very wrong over the next two games. Because even if Townsend doesn't rack up the scores and assists against Manchester City and Manchester United, he's going to look very dangerous. So dangerous that the bad decisions he makes will not stick in your mind, even if you've descended into outright dislike for the guy.

Townsend makes bad decisions in tight spaces, probably due to some combination of inexperience and not picking his head up when he dribbles at defenders. Spurs' off the ball movement has also been pretty poor, but it's not like he's ever looking for early passes. Basically, teams know that they can pack 10 behind the ball and it'll be more effective than it is against other teams. Townsend and Roberto Soldado, in particular, seem to have no idea what to do against teams who play like that and just give the ball away repeatedly.

City and United are going to attack us, and especially given that we're in pretty lame form with only nine goals on the year, are not going to be afraid of us. Their fullbacks and central midfielders will push forward and there's going to be a lot of space to counter into when Spurs win the ball back. If Sandro is healthy, they're going to win the ball back plenty, and their distribution to attacking players should at least look respectable.

Every attacking player looks better in space than they do in tight spaces, but the difference in effectiveness for Townsend in the two situations is much bigger than others. Lennon gets slagged off all the time for dribbling too much and hitting poor crosses, but he's a lot better at beating one defender in a tight spot and hitting a cross or a pass than Townsend is. Christian Eriksen and Lewis Holtby aren't that much more effective on the counter than they are during a slow build-up. But Townsend is at his best when he can build up steam and he only has one or two options, along with one or two defenders to beat. His game breaks down when he gets crowded and has a lot of options for what to do with the ball, but in space and on the break, he truly is an elite winger.

Townsend is going to look really good over the next two games. It's a good thing and we should be really happy when it happens, but it's not indicative of him getting better or being an obvious choice over other players for games against lesser opposition. He's just getting a chance to do what he does best.

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