Tottenham Hotspur are a really good team right now. This is pretty much impossible to argue against. How and why they're good is another thing all together.
Ever hear one sentence, or see one picture or short video, that burns an idea into your brain and sends you down a stupid wormhole? Windy did that to me on Monday night.
Struggling to adapt to the system a little - pass success 5% down on season average, Trippier (60%) in particular struggling to keep ball.— Chris Miller (@WindyCOYS) December 28, 2015
I wondered what our season average passing percentage is and looked it up. It's 80 percent. So I wondered what it was last season. It was 82 percent through 19 games and 83 percent by the end of the season. Spurs are a much better team, but their passing accuracy is down, and they scored a couple of awesome goals against Watford, in a game where they didn't pass the ball particularly well. What's going on?
My theory is that the team is playing more risky passes than they did last season and that it's working. We have more turnovers and less possession, but that's just fine. We're defending well when we turn the ball over, and our ambitious passes are leading to excellent scoring chances.
Via Michael Caley, here are some really impressive statistical comparisons between Spurs at the half-way point of this season and the same point of last season.
Holy crap, those are all dramatic differences. And they're all coming with everyone giving the ball away a bit more than they did last season.
Besides the team passing percentage, our attacking midfielders' individual numbers are all down too. Christian Eriksen's has dropped from 82 percent to 80 percent and Lamela's has dropped from 83 percent to 79 percent. And despite that, we have nine more goals than we had at this time last season, and we're about five goals better on xG.
Good news! Passing percentage means F all!
This season, Tottenham Hotspur are ninth in the Premier League in passing percentage. The top two are City and Arsenal, the two best teams in the league. Concerning, right?
Nah. Everton are fourth in this category, Swansea are fifth, Chelsea sixth and Bournemouth seventh. Despite our low passing percentage, we're still sixth in possession and fourth in shots.
How do we explain these stats? I think there are three big reasons why Spurs' passing percentage is down, but they're better than last season in basically every other way.
1. More creativity on the pitch
With no disrespect to Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli, they are not really creators. They don't try ambitious passes nearly as often as the new additions to Tottenham's lineup, Son Heung-Min and Dele Alli. And Alli, in particular, is Chief Trier Of Stuff. His passing accuracy is only 77 percent, but he's had more passes leading to shots than Mason and Bentaleb had combined at this point last season. And, though this isn't a recorded stat so we can't provide quantitative proof, he appears to be doing a lot more in the pass before the assist/hockey assist department too. It's hard to make a direct comparison between Alli and those two (or Alli and Chadli) because he's not exactly playing the same position, but he's clearly brought a more direct, ambitious element to the team. And Son is better than Chadli at literally everything, except maybe being large.
2. Increased familiarity with Poche's system
Last season, everyone was in the process of learning what Mauricio Pochettino wanted from them -- pressing triggers, when it was OK to get risky and when it wasn't, etc. There was some personnel that clearly wasn't suited to a high pressure, direct counter-attacking system. There were a lot of players who were getting their first long stretches of first team football. It makes sense that with all those factors in play, players would prioritize not giving the ball away and would err on the side of caution when it came to their passing. This year, everyone has a better understanding of what Poche expects from them.
3. Confidence in Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele and Toby Alderweireld
Having better personnel helps a lot too. It's a lot easier to take risks when you know that your mistakes are unlikely to be badly punished. Alderweireld's signing and Dier's move to defensive midfield have been huge. Dembele has found his home in midfield, where he brings a bit less forward passing to the table than Mason, but better defense and ball-retention.
Last year, Spurs' attacking midfielders had reason to be afraid. Turnovers would lead to big chances regularly. Now, with a more solid central midfield and a better partner for Jan Vertonghen in defense, more counter-attacks are getting slowed down. If your turnovers aren't likely to lead to big chances for the other team, you can play with more freedom. That leads to better shots.
Quality shots lead to quality shooting percentage
So we're manufacturing better shots by being more ambitious and creative. Great! But how sustainable is our success?
Tottenham currently have the best shooting accuracy in the Premier League at 58 percent. Between how far Spurs are ahead of the rest of the league and their slight overperformance of Expected Goals, it's fair to say Spurs have been pretty lucky in this regard. However, it's not unreasonable to think that Spurs can continue to be the best in the league in this area, even if they come back to earth a bit.
The good news is that there's no one ultra-hot player. Dier's shooting accuracy is 50 percent, Lamela's is 56 percent and every other occasionally first choice forward or midfield player is above 60 percent. This is likely a little bit luck, but a lot of creating quality shots.
Harry Kane's 64 percent shooting accuracy is very good, but less than Sergio Aguero or Riyad Mahrez's 68 percent. During the second half of last season, Kane's shooting accuracy was 62 percent. There's no reason to believe that his finishing is unsustainable.
OK, so what does all of this mean?
It means that our drop-off in passing percentage is a feature, not a bug. Passing percentage is a crappy stat that tells you absolutely nothing about how good a team is.
We're prioritizing risky, creative passes over ball retention. We're doing this because we can. We have actual creative players now, and defensive players behind them that don't suck. The guy up top is a genuinely good shooter who is going to keep shooting as well as he has so far this season. Pochettino's strategy is being executed well and it's working.