Tottenham Hotspur opened the season with a victory a against Crystal Palace, but doesn't mean that the team has all the kinks worked out of the way they play. Certainly, many fans would have wanted a more dominant performance against a newly-promoted team, something more akin to the 4-0 thrashing that Manchester United delivered to Swansea City than the 1-0 victory Spurs had. However, we should all take solace in that we came away from the opening weekend with three points.
While Spurs earned a victory, they didn't exactly look smooth in earning it. As some of you are aware, there is a Cartilage Free Captain "Newsroom" and much of the talk post-game was about a critique of AVB's style of play from our resident Englishman (Edward F.). The critique is that Tottenham play ugly football and that the lack of ball circulation from the midfield is the main culprit. While I disagree completely that Spurs play ugly football, I do think that there is some merit to the opinion that our midfield is not doing what it should be doing.
As we go forward in this piece, I want us all, myself included, to remember that we're looking at Tottenham's first competitive fixture of the season. We played four new signings, three of which started the match. No one (except Ed) would fault this team for looking slightly disjointed for those two reasons. So, take analysis based on this one match with a grain of salt.
When I started this piece, I began with the hypothesis, that Tottenham's midfield we're not making the right passes to facilitate successful ball circulation. One can simply watch the play of Mousa Dembele and Paulinho and tell that they both prefer to advance the ball via the dribble as opposed to the pass. It was my belief that because of the types of passes they were making and the positions from which they were making these passes Tottenham were turning the ball over more and the attack was getting bogged down because the ball wasn't being moved on quickly enough.
Unfortunately, there's not much in the stats that would seem to bear that hypothesis out. Fortunately, however, will looking at passing charts, it occurred to me what the problem might be. The problem, in my opinion, is that Tottenham Hotspur's midfielders are not receiving the ball in the right positions. That is to say, Spurs' midfielders are not dropping deep enough to pick up the ball from the defenders, who are being forced to start the attack in their stead.
For instance, let's look at the most common pass combinations for the Crystal Palace match (via FourFourTwo's Stat Zone app):
As you can see, all of the top nine pass combinations involve at least one of Tottenham's defenders and three of them are between defenders (one is between the goalkeeper and the defender). Defenders, especially the fullbacks, are often involved in circulating possession, but this is excessive. Not a single midfield to attacker or midfielder to midfielder combination cracks the top 9 combinations. I'd have done the top 10, but I couldn't fit that many on my phone. For the curious, you have to go all the way down to number 13 to find a combination that doesn't include a defender (Nacer Chadli to Gylfi Sigurdsson).
One of the hallmarks of manager Andre Villas-Boas's system is having defenders who are comfortable with the ball at their feet. Both Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson fit that bill. If these players (and the fullbacks) are become more involved in the circulation of the ball due to midfielders not doing there job then we would see a them attempting more incisive passes. Here are the passes that Dawson attempted against Palace (via Statzone):
Look how many of Dawson's passes are going into the attacking third. Now I know Dawson is known for his ability to kit long diagonal balls, but the sheer number of long balls, nine, however, is outweighed by the number of incompletions, five. As good as Dawson is at diagonal and long passes, he shouldn't be the man instigating Tottenham's attack.
If Dawson is starting the attack, then what exactly are the Tottenham midfielders doing? The problem is that I'm not sure if they know what they're doing. The problem, as stated above, is that the midfielders are not getting into the right positions in order to receive the ball. Let's look at the spots that each of Tottenham's three starting midfielders were receiving the ball against Crystal Palace.
Mousa Dembele seemed to be playing as the holding midfielder against Palace. He broke up what few attacks the Eagles had through the center of the park, but he did not do much else. He received only 27 passes. That is simply not enough involvement for a player who was, last season, one of the most influential players in the team. This looked more like the more ineffectual player we saw paired with Scott Parker toward the end of the season, than the one that played with Sandro earlier in the year.
So, if Dembele was holding, then surely Paulinho was the one charged with circulating possession. Unfortunately, he mostly received the ball in more advanced positions. He seemed to mostly be sucked out to the right. A lot of Tottenham's attacks came from the right flank, but that doesn't mean that Paulinho shouldn't have been available in more central positions. Looking at both Dembele and Paulinho's charts you can see that both players often took possession on the right side of the pitch and were less present in the center or the left.
Well, what about the third member of the midfield, Gylfi Sigurdsson? Sigurdsson was a midfielder in name only and was supposed to be playing more in the whole behind the striker. Oddly enough though, it was Sigurdsson who most often dropped deep to receive the ball. Sigurdsson played well and did a good job distributing the ball. Ideally, his role would be that of chief creator. However, that role doesn't quite fit Gylfi's skill set. The Icelandic midfielder hit some nice crosses and accurate long balls, but he's not the kind of Luka Modric-esque player who's going to pick the lock of opposing defenses.
One midfielder who did seem to perform well for Tottenham Hotspur was Etienne Capoue. The new signing made only a brief cameo, but was very impressive in limited time. He, more than anyone, got into good positions deeper in midfield to receive the ball.
Almost all the passes coming into Capoue are directed to the middle of the pitch. Capoue was brought on to play a similar holding role to the one that Dembele was playing earlier in the match. The difference is that, in right around a half an hour of football Capoue received almost as many passes as Dembele did in an hour. Capoue did a much better job of making himself available to receive the ball from his teammates. He then managed to take that possession and turn it into passes in more advanced positions.
The above chart (via squawks.com) is the reverse of the previous charts, so it reads a bit funny, but after receiving a number of passes in his own half, Capoue made a great number of passes in the attacking half. This style of play seems to be the exact kind of play encouraged by Villas-Boas' system and the exact kind that my colleague finds so detestable. This is not the quick one and two touch passing that Ed might like to see, but this sort of powerful dribbling movement combined with actually picking up possession in deeper positions proved pretty effective in the latter stages of the match.
So, now that we've looked at what Tottenham had at their disposal in the first match, let's look at what they could have to use in matches in the future. First up is Sandro. The Brazilian is just now returning to full fitness, having played just over an hour for the U-21's yesterday. Here's an example of what Sandro did last year. The below information comes from Tottenham's 2-0 victory over Aston Villa in 2012.
Again, Sandro has dropped deep to receive possession quite often. He is pretty consistently in the middle of the pitch, but does also seem to have shifted out to the right occasionally. Sandro is very skilled at getting into position to receive the ball from his teammates, similar to Capoue, the difference lies in what Sandro does once he has the ball.
As you can see, many more of Sandro's passes, as compared to Capoue, came in Tottenham's half. This would seem to indicate that Sandro does a much better job of using quick passes to move the ball from defense to attack. Sandro is certainly capable of powerful dribbling runs, but he prefers to get the ball of of his foot and into the control of someone with more passing skill.
Sandro's ability as a link between defense and attack cannot be discounted, but Sandro's particular brand of passing isn't the kind of thing that's going fuel a team's engine. He completes mostly short passes many of which are square balls to his midfield partner. While this is certainly useful when he's partnered with a more creative midfielder, like when he played alongside Luka Modric, it may have limited value in a midfield with players that are more dribblers than passers.
So if Sandro is a good solution, but not quite right, then who would be Spurs' best option. Allow me to introduce you to Tom Carroll.
Keep in mind these stats come from a Europa League match against Panathinaikos. I'm not saying that Carroll could replicate the above performance in the Premier League against Chelsea or City, but I think he certainly could have done something similar against Crystal Palace. Look at the positions that Carroll receives the ball. He is consitently in the middle of the pitch. He doesn't stray too far from the center circle. His position in the center of the park makes him consistently available to receive the ball from any and all of his teammates.
Here's what Carroll did when in possession. His passes also seem to be sideways, much like Sandro's, but as you can see many of his passes are longer than the Brazilians. He even attempted some adventurous passes and tallied three assits (though none of those passes look terribly impressive). We've all seen the types of passes that Carroll is capable of and it's these sorts of passes that Tottenham need to really make their team go.
You'll notice I've not included Lewis Holtby in this discussion. Holtby has yet to play in a deeper-lying midfield role for Spurs and as such his passes received and attempted are all much further up the pitch than any of the other players. As such, his inclusion just would have muddled things.
In sum, Tottenham lacked, at least in the opening fixture, a player who was getting into position to receive the ball from the defense and then start the attack. Without this player the team was forced to rely on the passing of the defenders to jumpstart any attacking movements and because of this, Spurs looked disjointed. There are plenty of solutions to this though. More playing time for Sandro and/or Etienne Capoue would not only provide the midfield with some steel, but also with a man capable of linking the attack with the defense. One, Capoue, provides that link through his dribbling, and the other, Sandro, provides the link through short quick passes to more creative teammates. Both are likely options and will work quite well, but the best option is Tom Carroll. The diminutive youngster is perfect for games like Palace where he can pick up the ball in deeper positions and then make incisive passes. He won't be handed the keys to this Tottenham team anytime soon though, so let's just hope Sandro and Capoue start playing more.