We’re now almost 20% of the way through this year’s Premier League. We’ve had the first Champions League group stage match as well. So let’s do a bit of digging into the numbers to see how Spurs look so far. The general feeling around the fanbase seems to be one of low-grade panic at the team’s form and Harry Kane’s ongoing struggles in particular.
The big picture numbers suggest that some of that may be misplaced. But if we take a more granular look at the data, there are some causes for concern.
On expected goals, Spurs are basically fine.
Let’s start with the most basic advanced stat we can get: expected goals. (Reminder: Michael Caley has a good primer on xG that you can read in the Carty Free archives.
So what do the xG numbers say about Spurs? Dutch analytics account 11tegen11 has us at seventh on xGD so far this season:
Let's go over some early #EPL numbers, starting with Expected Goals per match.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) October 1, 2018
Already, we see City are in a league of their own.
Liverpool are a firm second, and then we see... Wolves.
Arsenal and Manchester United are in obscure mediocrity here. pic.twitter.com/k6uMyrntUM
Note that we’re basically level with Bournemouth and Watford, both of whom one would expect to regress as the season continues. Wolves will likely have more staying power near the top simply due to the quality in their squad, but they too would be expected to regress enough to slip behind the normal big six.
Meanwhile, if you look at Arsenal and Man United the numbers are bleak. Arsenal is basically neutral on xGD this year. That will improve as the team continues to embrace Unai Emery’s solid defensive methods. Further, if their exceedingly talented attack can score enough, then the numbers might begin to look very good indeed. But that is mostly suppositional at this point and there are big reasons to think that Arsenal’s back line and midfield is not good enough defensively, even with the boost that Emery’s organized style can offer. United, meanwhile, is in full blown Year Three Mourinho Crisis mode. The fate of their season may well hinge on the question of how long Ed Woodward is willing to tolerate Mourinho. An early season sacking and replacement with a less mercurial manager may salvage the Red Devils season. But this is a United team that has been objectively bad for a year and a half. If David De Gea is not going to replicate last season’s form (and even elite keepers shouldn’t be expected to consistently perform at that level) then it is likely that this United team is a solid sixth in the Premier League at season’s end.
There is another surprising nugget in the xG numbers as well. So far this season Spurs have looked poor defending set pieces. But the xGA numbers actually suggest that the team is one of the Premier League’s best at defending set pieces:
On the defensive side, we can see where Fulham and Brighton get hurt, everywhere.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) October 1, 2018
City are just plain good, both defending in open play and in set pieces.
Spurs defended well from set pieces, but less so from open play.
And the running theme of all numbers, Wolves are good. pic.twitter.com/yI3SAotniu
The real danger for Spurs is in defending from open play, where the only teams with worse records than Tottenham are West Ham, Burnley, Huddersfield Town, Brighton, and Fulham. We’ll come back to that point later, as this data point helps us to define the single biggest problem that Tottenham is going to have to fix this year.
Harry Kane is probably OK.
The biggest source of anxiety for many Spurs fans this season is that Harry Kane “Torres’d” himself by returning too soon from injury last spring and that he is no longer at the level he was prior to his ankle injury. That said, the underlying numbers suggest he is probably fine.
First, consider this chart on combined xG/xA from Michael Caley:
Premier League expected goals and assists leaders.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 25, 2018
It's very early to draw positive conclusions, but it's very funny that people are complaining / worried about Mo Salah. pic.twitter.com/jvW8l10PE6
Kane’s xG numbers are down slightly, but his average position this year has been much deeper as Mauricio Pochettino has spent much of the season attempting to play a two-striker system with Kane as the deeper player and Lucas Moura leading the line. It looks likely that Pochettino has abandoned that experiment, but it’s hard to be certain. It is often November or even December before Pochettino arrives at his normal best XI—in his second season at the club we didn’t start to see the Dier-Dembele midfield behind the Dele-Eriksen-Lamela attacking band until late October or early November. In year three, he didn’t begin using the 3-5-2 until after Christmas. While it would be helpful if Pochettino began to figure his teams out a bit sooner—it’s likely that we could’ve made a more serious bid for the title in both year two and three if we found our best system earlier—it is not unusual for Spurs to be entering October in the uncertain tactical position we now find ourselves in.
That said, while Kane’s xG numbers are down slightly, he is posting the best xA numbers of his career. In this sense, it may be helpful to recall the half-season Dani Osvaldo experiment at Southampton during Pochettino’s second year on the English south coast. Rickie Lambert had a very good first year under Pochettino as the focal point of a 4-2-3-1 system. But in year two Pochettino often attempted to play a 4-2-2-2 system with Lambert sitting deeper as a playmaking forward alongside the more attacking Dani Osvaldo. The system failed for many reasons (primarily Osvaldo’s temperament), but it may help to explain what Pochettino is doing with Kane. (Of course, the decision would be more reasonable if Kane’s striker partner actually had any experience playing as a center forward.) If Spurs can find a better striker partner for Kane, then there are some interesting possibilities that open up for the team in the attack.
Dele might be making a leap?
When you have a club on a limited budget trying to compete with far wealthier rivals, like Spurs, one of the essential pieces is that returning players improve significantly year-over-year. In the past we’ve seen Kane and Christian Eriksen make those kind of leaps. Son Heung-Min’s numbers also improved dramatically last season. We may now be seeing the next phase in Dele Alli’s development.
First off, in a Spurs team that includes a lot of very good pressers, Dele Alli is the best of them all:
But it isn’t just defensively where Dele is doing elite-level work. He’s also a very good attacking midfielder:
Obviously Dele has always been an essential part of the team, but I think in years past if you asked me “you have to play six weeks without one of the following players: Kane, Eriksen, or Dele” I probably pick Dele every time. Now... I’m not so sure. Obviously Kane and Eriksen are still very hard to replace, but Dele does so many things to make the team work. His extended absence is going to be a tough blow to absorb.
Kieran Trippier is continuing to develop.
Perhaps the signature question for Spurs these past several seasons has been how the club copes when Mousa Dembele is not available. Dembele defends well in midfield, progresses the ball with his dribbling, and has often been the key press-breaker for Spurs thanks to his other worldly ball retention. When he is not available, Spurs have often struggled. Now with Dembele having turned 31 in the summer, Spurs must figure out what life after Dembele looks like long-term.
One significant aspect of that question is how the team will reliably progress the ball if Dembele is not doing that through his dribbling. So far this season the answer has been right back Kieran Trippier. Here you can see Trippier is third best in the league in combined progressive passes and progressive runs:
Leaders in progressive passes and runs per 90 in the Premier League so far.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 28, 2018
It's early and numbers like this bounce around a lot. Still some fascinating names on there. pic.twitter.com/MCh2MuS0bg
If you looked only at progressive passes, he’s actually second in the league.
Not only that, Trippier is frequently on the receiving end of the progressive passes made by other Tottenham players. In fact, he is one of only three players in the league who is in the top five in both progressive passes played and progressive passes received.
We’re about to talk about why this development is not altogether good news for Tottenham, but before we get there it is worth noting that Trippier has matured into a very good fullback and now fulfills an important role in the squad.
Tottenham’s open play defending is bad and there’s a systemic reason for that.
The good news is that Kieran Trippier is progressing the ball well and helping to compensate for the decline of Dembele. The bad news is that doing this work requires Trippier to play in more advanced positions and he is not fast enough to get back and defend. Here is a map from StatsBomb explaining the problem in graphic form:
This is what happens when you have a right back who has to push forward more and can’t get back to cover defensively.
The obvious fix here is to move back to the 3-5-2 system that Pochettino used two seasons ago. In this scenario, the right-sided center back (probably Toby Alderweireld) can cover the area vacated by Trippier. But there are problems there. The 3-5-2 leaves us narrower up top. It’s also not clear how you fit all three of Dele, Eriksen, and Son-Heung Min into the XI while playing 3-5-2 but if all three are fit you probably want all three to start. Also, it’s not clear how Spurs midfield would even work in the 3-5-2 system. The best scenario is probably to play Dele and Eriksen ahead of Victor Wanyama because that system allows Wanyama to screen the back line and does not require as much passing or ball progression out of him. Due to Eric Dier’s lack of pace, he generally isn’t a great single-pivot option. But Wanyama has not been regularly fit for over a year. Can he be counted on? And if he can’t, then can you make a Dier-Eriksen-Dele system work enough defensively?
Essentially we have three inter-locking problems here: First, Spurs do not have great ball progression options outside of Kieran Trippier. Second, Spurs need something like a versatile, physical midfielder who can play a box-to-box role alongside Dier in a 4-2-3-1 or play more of a defensive screening role in the single pivot role behind two other more attack-minded midfielders. Third, in the absence of that sort of midfielder, it is hard to figure out how Spurs can consistently play Son, Dele, Eriksen, and Kane together except by playing a Dier-Dembele midfield, which requires asking more of Dembele than he is able to give at this phase of his career.
Whatever else you want to say about our transfer window—and, yes, there were no doubt extenuating circumstances that made life harder for Daniel Levy—the club’s dithering over transfer fees for a new midfielder—whether that was Jack Grealish, Tanguy Ndombele, or someone else—certainly looks like it could cost the team far more than what it would have cost the club to simply make a signing.
At this stage, Tottenham appear to be the likeliest team to finish fourth in the league. We likely won’t go higher than that since City, Liverpool, and Chelsea all look quite strong. But as long as Arsenal and United continue to struggle, it is unlikely that we drop lower than fourth. But if Arsenal’s defending improves and the individual attacking stars perform at their level, the race for top four could get very tight indeed. And that is to say nothing of what might happen if United fire Mourinho early in the season and give his replacement enough time to right the ship. United probably has enough talent to finish above a good Spurs or Arsenal club.
So while the numbers would tell us not to panic, they also give us good reasons to be concerned. A summer of inaction may well mean that Spurs miss out on elite European football next season.