Well, it’s been two days since star striker Harry Kane injured his right ankle against Millwall in the FA Cup quarterfinals. We still have no word on his status because the swelling on his ankle has not gone down enough to allow for a scan. Obviously we all hope that the injury is minor and he only misses one league tie thanks to the upcoming international break. But even there, we’ll need a plan of attack for the one match he misses—which is against a decent Southampton team. In a worst-case scenario, we may need a plan to guide us through the remainder of the season as well, should the injury be more serious.
There are three main options before manager Mauricio Pochettino:
- Start Son Heung-Min in Kane’s place.
- Start Vincent Janssen in Kane’s place.
- Start Dele Alli as a false nine.
All three players are very different and so each option represents a very different approach.
In addition to this, there is also an obvious question about playing the 4-2-3-1 or the 3-4-3. Given what we’ve already said about the 4-2-3-1 with Wanyama in the pivot, I’m not going to talk about how a 4-2-3-1 would work because any 4-2-3-1 with Wanyama in the pivot is not going to work, regardless of who we have playing up top. If we are going to finish in the top four, it’s going to be with the 3-4-3.
The Case for Sonny
Son Heung-Min has made several appearances at striker in his two seasons with Spurs already. Generally, he hasn’t left much of an impression save in the early season 2-0 win against Manchester City at White Hart Lane where his pace was instrumental in the counter-attacking style we used to such devastating effect. Save that appearance, Son’s other appearances up top have been forgettable.
There is an important caveat here, however: Son has not gotten a full 90 minutes in the 3-4-3 system. So it’s hard for us to say how he would do operating in this new system that Spurs have still only been using for a relatively short time. Given what we know about Son, it’s not hard to make a case that he could work well in the system but it is also easy to make a case that he would struggle in it.
These are the things Son does well:
- He is very fast.
- He’s a confident, direct runner with the ball.
- He can score with both feet.
- He knows how to get into dangerous positions.
These are the things Son struggles with:
- His touch in crowded areas is poor—which can destroy whatever benefit that might be gained by his ability to get into dangerous positions.
- His decision-making with the ball is also often quite poor.
To see an example of the latter, we need only look at his opening goal from the weekend. It’s a great finish and I’m delighted he got a great goal, but he definitely takes an extremely low-percentage shot rather than playing the obvious ball to Dele which would almost certainly have led to a much higher percentage scoring chance. Here is the buildup:
Son gets the ball in space and has Dele making a run to the far post. If he whips a ball into the box, there are all sorts of good things that might happen. In the best case scenario, Dele gets the ball in a dangerous spot. But if the ball is short, it may fall to Christian Eriksen. Plus putting the ball into the danger zone against League One defenders could definitely end up with an own goal. The right decision here is almost certainly to put the ball into the box.
Instead, this is what Sonny did:
Obviously this is a first-rate finish. But it’s not the sort of goal he’s going to score often. The amount of skill required to pull it off is considerable. This is a very low-percentage chance. The better move would have been putting the ball into the box. (NOTE: If you want to argue that Son couldn’t put the ball into the box because he didn’t control it well with his first touch... well, see my other point above.)
Here is the basis breakdown: On the one hand, the idea of Son stretching the defense while playing just ahead of Dele and Christian Eriksen is intriguing. Dele is a master at playing that final ball to create a chance and Eriksen is very good at spotting a player making a run. Son could thrive on getting that kind of service as the focal point of the attack.
On the other hand, the 3-4-3 system often leads to a ton of players pushing into the attacking third. You’ll have all three attackers, plus one or both wingbacks, one or both midfielders, and maybe even Jan Vertonghen pushing into the box.
This makes the space for each attacker much more limited and when Sonny doesn’t have room to use his space, his inconsistent first touch becomes a much greater problem as does his questionable decision making. One of Harry Kane’s most under-appreciated qualities is his close control in crowded areas. Son doesn’t have that sort of ability. How much will that hurt him in the 3-4-3?
In terms of being a known quantity and sheer individual ability, Son is the safest option, which is why I expect it’s what Pochettino will do. But he is hardly a sure thing in this new system.
The Case for Dutch Soldado
(Sorry not sorry.)
The good news: Vincent got a goal from open play!
The bad news: Soldado got a few odd open play goals too and it never went anywhere:
More seriously, the nice thing with comparing Janssen to Sonny is that the two are almost nothing alike so it’s easy to draw strong contrasts. Janssen is not particularly fast, he’s not great running with the ball, and he’s not the sort of player who is ideal in counter-attacking systems or who is good at stretching a defense. Janssen is much more of a straightforward number nine.
- His hold-up play is very good.
- Related, his close control is good.
- He can finish in a variety of ways.
That said, there is a signature weakness Jansen will have to overcome if he is going to be a serious option for us as a striker.
In the past I’ve compared him (favorably) to Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud. But there’s a key difference between Janssen and Giroud. Giroud routinely gets into dangerous positions to receive the ball. He’s masterful at finding space in the box and showing for the ball. Here is a chart of the shots he has taken this year in the league:
Note the extremely tight cluster around the six yard box. He takes a few shots from outside the box, but Giroud’s game is obvious from looking at the chart. He gets into advanced central areas inside the box and waits for the ball. Thanks to his close control, size, and strength, he’s able to excel in that kind of role.
Now here is Janssen’s equivalent chart for this season. (To be fair, he has played fewer games than Giroud. But the contrast is still... stark.)
It’s hard to count exact numbers for Giroud because of how the dots stack, but just from eyeballing it you’d have to say ~80% or more of Giroud’s shots are in the danger zone. If you remove the penalty, Janssen has 19 shots by my count. Three shots are in the danger zone. That’s 16% of his shots.
This is Janssen’s problem: He has the raw physical tools that Giroud has. But he is not in Giroud’s league as a striker because he does not get into the positions that Giroud does.
The hopeful read on this is that he is adjusting to a new league. Once he adapts to the EPL’s speed and physicality, the game should slow down a bit and he’ll be better able to read the game and find the right positions in the box. The less hopeful read is that Janssen simply doesn’t know how to read the game on that level and has made little-to-no-progress in this area even after 2⁄3 of a season in England.
If Janssen can improve in this area, he could be a very good striker in a 3-4-3. His hold-up play could be hugely beneficial for Dele. Spurs could play the ball into the box to Janssen’s feet with the big Dutchman’s back to goal. From there, Dele simply needs to pick out his run and wait for the ball. Given how good Dele is at making those sorts of runs, it’s possible that he could score a lot of goals playing off Janssen.
Janssen’s close control would also be beneficial in games where the attacking third becomes congested by opponents sitting deep and Tottenham pushing forward with numbers. If the team can play the ball into Janssen in the box and he can make the ball stick there and allow teammates to make runs around him, that’s a recipe for consistently creating high-quality chances.
The big question is whether or not Janssen can do that.
What about Dele as a false 9?
This is the wildcard option. Dele has often played as a functional second striker in this 3-4-3 system, which has led me to sometimes call it more of a 3-5-2 with Eriksen dropping into midfield and Dele supporting Kane up top.
The trouble here is that it’s almost impossible to say what would happen here because anything we can say is pure speculation. Certainly Dele has the technical skills to be a good false nine. He is intelligent with his movement and very good at playing delicate little through balls into the channels for wide attackers to latch onto. But playing as a false nine is difficult. It’s also far from clear to me that Dele would work as well as he does as a striker if asked to be the primary striker. The skills needed to be an elite second striker are not the same as those needed to be a great primary striker.
For these reasons, I suspect that this is a distant third in terms of probability of happening. The likeliest solution is to play Son as a striker. The second most likely is to play Janssen as a striker. After that, everything else is basically educated guesswork and far less probable than either of the obvious first two options.
Hopefully this discussion ends up being moot after we find out that Kane’s ankle injury is not as bad as first feared and that he’ll be back for our April 1 trip to Turf Moor. But if Kane’s injury is more serious, then it is almost certain that our top four odds hinge on whether or not Son or Janssen can step up and provide some key goals for us in the upcoming fixtures. Depending on how you rate those two, that prospect is probably anywhere from “mostly OK” to “completely terrifying.” Right now my own inclination is to be more the former than the latter. But we’ll have to see how the team looks against Southampton this Sunday. Let’s talk more next week, eh?