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Are Spurs really a title contender?

And what does that even mean?

Tottenham Hotspur v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images

Moussa Sissoko will soon have played more minutes in midfield than anybody in the squad this season, and while Sissoko Is Good Now (TM) has taken off, more accurately, Sissoko is OK now. Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier, Hugo Lloris, Victor Wanyama, Danny Rose, Serge Aurier, and Kieran Trippier have all missed time this season, and Wanyama and Dembele seem particularly broken. Then again, Danny Rose has recently risen from the ashes to look like 90% of his 2016/2017 self.

Tottenham’s once indomitable press has faltered this season. With Harry Winks taking over many of Mousa Dembele’s minutes in midfield, Spurs have gone from having one of the elite players at defensive actions in the world to one of the worst in the league at breaking up play. (I am aware I am going to get a lot of stick for pointing at the truth, which is that Harry Winks cannot defend right now.)

The best way to see the result is in Spurs’ passes per defensive action numbers, which essentially measure opponent passes divided by team tackles and interceptions. In 2016/2017, Spurs were at 7.4, and third in the league behind Manchester City and Liverpool. In 2017/2018, Spurs were at 7.58 and second behind Manchester City. This season, Spurs are in third, but that number is all the way up to 9.58 passes per defensive action allowed. With that weakened press, Spurs’ depleted backline has been exposed. For three seasons running, Poche’s Spurs have averaged about 35 xGA over the course of a season. Half way through this season, Spurs are on pace to give up 46 xGA over 38 matches.

And yet.

Coming into the season, 538 projected Spurs to finish with 72 points and gave them an 11% chance to win the title behind Manchester City and Liverpool, who were projected for 85 points and 72 points respectively. Spurs are now on 45 points through the first 19 matches of the season despite playing eleven of those matches on the road and not truly having a home. The squad are now projected to finish the season with 83 points and finish in third, behind Liverpool with 94 and Manchester City 87. Spurs are now projected to win the title just seven percent of the time on 538, but are 8 to 1 at the bookmakers.

Spurs are only really in the title race because the team has over-performed xG and goal differential in terms of converting expected goal into goal and goals into wins. So why does the chance of winning the title feel more real now than it did in August?

One reason is that bad injury luck. As I wrote earlier this month, Spurs are much better than their underlying numbers when Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen both play, Spurs have been excellent. The club’s defensive issues nearly vanish as Dele and Eriksen fill in gaps, press, and recover loose balls. Dele and Eriksen have rarely missed much time over the course of their careers and are quite young. While Dele is currently recovering from a tweak, we can expect them to play a lot more this season than they did in the first half. More concretely, Spurs have suffered from excessive injuries and the 538 model does not know that, perhaps explaining why the bookmakers are more optimistic than the models.

We should also expect Liverpool to have some more key injuries than they have, which 538’s model also doesn’t know. Liverpool’s most important players, Salah, Firmino, Mane, Allison, and Virgil Van Dijk have missed a combined two matches. Spurs have had 18 players play 500 or more minutes this season. Liverpool have had just 15. City 16, though they have suffered injury luck themselves. If you price in injury regression, Liverpool will likely fall back some.

Second, while Spurs are overperforming their expected goals totals, that should be expected. Last season Spurs outperformed xG by just 5 goals attacking, and not at all defensively. That was an aberration for Spurs. One recent study noted that Harry Kane and Heung Min Son are two of the 25 best finishers in the world, and Christian Eriksen is also excellent, particularly outside the box, where he has scored 16 career goals from just 10.6 expected. Similarly, there is nothing magic about Pochettino’s defensive tactics, Hugo Lloris is one of the world’s best goalkeepers. Last year he was merely solid, whereas this year he has been excellent by advanced metrics. Before last year, Hugo was the best shot stopper in the world according to at least one study.

Add it all up, and Spurs have over-performed xG and xGA by a combined 57.5 goals and goals allowed over the past 4.5 seasons. While the nearly 13 goals of over-performance this season is likely unsustainable, we should still expect Spurs to outperform what models believe about their underlying talent.

Third, and most importantly, Mauricio Pochettino really does seem to be magic, this year changing his tactics on the fly to unleash Spurs’ attack. Without his classic midfield dominator in Dembele or Wanyama, Poche has unleashed something new on the world, taking advantage of the immense attacking talents of DESK, the long range passing skills of Spurs’ center backs, all while maximizing Moussa Sissoko’s one truly elite talent, running really really fast in transition. What this has meant in practice is that the grind you to death Spurs of 2015 through May 2018 are dead until further notice (notice that Daniel Levy has signed an all around central midfielder).

Spurs are now playing the soccer equivalent of the NFL’s Air Raid offense, eschewing short plays and instead moving down the field quickly and vertically:

Take the Air Raid’s signature play, Four Verticals. It sounds like an 8-year-old’s preferred play call, the real-life version of Da Bomb from NFL Blitz, but it does more than just stretch defenses deep. Four Verts also exploits the field horizontally, by having four receivers run evenly spaced routes across the gridiron. Not every pass is a deep shot; in fact, many Four Verts plays end with midrange attempts to receivers whose defender is trying to prevent a deep heave. As Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown explains, the idea isn’t “just run into the end zone.” It’s “stay in your vertical lane, but get open.”

This is not the stuff of mid-table hoof it long on a cold night in Stoke, keeping nine men behind the ball. Spurs are, instead combining DESK into an attack that sees runners coming from all angles. Spurs are constantly sending runners from odd positions, with not just attackers but defenders playing quarterback and launching attacks from everywhere, whether a Toby Alderweireld diagonal or an out ball from the keeper to Harry Kane who springs the attack in one pass. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Dele Alli score on a three action move against Arsenal in the League Cup, Hueng Min Son get one on one with the keeper from a nothing play against Chelsea, and Spurs score six against Everton without ever truly controlling the match, instead racing up and down the field in all channels.

One way to see this in the numbers is to look at Spurs’ deep completions. Deep completions measure passes completed within 20 yards of the goal, excluding crosses. The leaders are as you would expect. In 2017/2018, Manchester City at 541, leading the league, with Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Spurs behind them. Spurs had 339, or about 8 deep completions per match, a good number. This season, again City lead the league in deep completions, at 283 half way through the season, right around last year’s pace. Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal are behind them.

This season, Spurs are 9th in the league in deep completions, with 124, or just 6.5 per match. Teams don’t really do this. Deep completions correlate with expected goals quite strongly, and the R^2 between the two numbers last season was .89, showing a very strong relationship between teams with many deep completions and those that score many goals. Spurs’ deep completion numbers this season are consistent with teams in the midtable that score 40 goals per season. Instead, Spurs are constantly springing incredibly direct attacks, or seeing Harry Kane through on goal with a classic Christian Eriksen ball over the top of the back line.

The DESK line had not truly assembled this season until after the November international break, when Harry Kane starting to regain his elite balance, Eriksen and Dele got healthy, and Son finally got some rest after playing in the World Cup and then going straight to the Asian Games. In the 7 matches since that break, Tottenham lead the league in goals with 22 (on just 46 deep completions). Spurs have 13.5 xG, which is second behind Liverpool. Spurs are also 6-0-1 in that stretch, losing only at the Emirates, and are second in xPoints from those ties, again to Liverpool, who have taken all 21 points over that stretch.

So while Spurs are not particularly likely to win the title and have been struggling in all sorts of ways this season, there’s a coherent story to tell about why what they’re doing is real and potentially sustainable. Their injury luck should improve. Their xG over-performance may be more sustainable than the staterati tend to think. Finally, the Mauricio Pochettino Air Raid offense is real and is taking advantage of Spurs’ peculiar blend of talents, showing a flexibility from Poche I certainly did not know he had. With Spurs set to open the new White Hart Lane this winter, a real title challenge is not crazy. Spurs will still need luck, and will need Liverpool (and City!) to calm down a bit, but it’s not hard to see Spurs making a real push.

Of course, Liverpool could beat Arsenal and City over the next week, or Spurs could drop points to Wolves and Cardiff, and a title push will be over before it really started. But this is getting published before that, and why not dream a little?