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Tactics Tuesday: The Limitations of DESK Alone

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Spurs have an elite attacking band. But that will not be enough to reach the club’s goals.

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Let’s start with something obvious and hard to dispute: Scoring goals is hard.

This is something we all know, but that simple fact is significant: It’s easier to win soccer matches 1-0 than 4-3. Usually if a team is aggressive enough to score four it is also open enough to concede three. And, given the many variables that affect every scoring chance, teams can easily lose these kind of fixtures simply due to bad luck.

In contrast, a well-organized defense that limits the opposition to few real chances is still generally going to be able to generate enough chances in the attack. Truly elite defensive managers like the younger Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone, and Antonio Conte win trophies by grinding opponents down and picking up lots of 1-0 results. Managers who can set up good attacks but don’t know how to defend, in contrast, generally end up bouncing around the lower levels of Serie A if you’re Zdenek Zeman or inexplicably coaching Belgium in the World Cup semifinals if you’re Roberto Martinez.

The real genius of the genuinely elite attacking managers is that their best teams are often as good or better defensively as teams managed by defensive coaches like Mourinho or Conte. Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have shown that they can produce teams with a devastating attack and elite defense—just look at the top two defenses in the league according to expected goals against. (Spoiler: It’s Manchester City and Liverpool.)

Pochettino’s Defensive Record at Spurs

Traditionally, Mauricio Pochettino has been a defense-first manager. At Southampton he benched club-record signing Gaston Ramirez and big-money striker Dani Osvaldo because the defensive pressing system worked better with the unheralded Stephen Davis in the attacking three and Rickie Lambert leading the line.

Similarly at Spurs, though his teams have played some great attacking football, if you look at the underlying numbers from his time at the club Spurs have usually been elite defensively—conceding a very low volume of average quality chances—and simply above average going forward—taking a very high volume of average to below-average shots. It has been the finishing genius of Harry Kane that has inflated Tottenham’s attacking numbers under Pochettino.

This year’s team, however, is increasingly looking like an odd ball relative to a normal Pochettino team. Injuries (and perhaps the return of Spiteful Poche) have limited the time that Tottenham’s best defenders have played together. The fullbacks are still extremely limited: If they are attacking well, that almost certainly means they’re going to get caught out of position in defense. If they’re defending well, it probably means they’re adding nothing to the attack.

Now with the decline of Mousa Dembele, the midfield is now vulnerable to the press in a way it hasn’t been since Pochettino’s first year at the club. The consequence of this change can be seen in the table below. Note that the numbers for the 2018/19 season are based on taking the averages through the club’s first 14 fixtures and then multiplying that out over a full campaign.

Tottenham Defensive Record Under Pochettino

Season xGA Shots Shots/Match xGA/Shot
Season xGA Shots Shots/Match xGA/Shot
14-15 51.06 483 12.71052632 0.1057142857
15-16 35.56 420 11.05263158 0.08466666667
16-17 32.26 346 9.105263158 0.09323699422
17-18 33.48 349 9.184210526 0.09593123209
18-19 44.27 494 13 0.08961538462

The main thing to note is that the problems with this team are not quite the same as the 14-15 team, although that is, sadly, the closest defensive parallel to the 18-19 Spurs side. The 14-15 team had a non-functioning midfield and relied almost exclusively on the high press as a defensive system. When the press failed, as it often did, Spurs conceded extremely high-quality chances. This year’s team, unsurprisingly given that this is Pochettino’s fifth season at the club, generally does not have as many breakdowns leading to high-quality chances. So the shot quality being conceded compares favorably to that of years 2-4. It’s the volume of shots being conceded that is hurting Spurs the most. Indeed, they are currently on pace to concede more shots than the 14-15 team, even if those shots are not usually as dangerous.

The result is that Spurs now find themselves having to outscore their opponents to pick up results. And sometimes they manage it. Three of Tottenham’s ten wins this season have come in games where they conceded more than 1.4xGA and in two of those three they still won on xG. The problem is that, even with a fit DESK and a Maybe Finally Fixed Harry Kane in particular, outscoring opponents consistently is really hard. But it’s actually more than just “winning 4-3 on a regular basis is really hard.”

The defensive and structural problems in a team also end up hurting the attacking players. If you can’t rely on your defense to be mostly error free and you can’t count on midfield to control the pace of play, then your attackers will not get the kind of service they need to be at their best and they will often find themselves playing in adverse conditions where they need to chase the game in order to recover a result.

The North London Derby

This season’s first North London Derby is an example of these problems. Though the fan base was understandably pleased with the 3-1 win against Chelsea and the midweek Champions League win against Inter, the underlying problems with the team were still the same:

  • Serge Aurier, Moussa Sissoko, and Ben Davies handle being pressed very badly.
  • Juan Foyth is young, inexperienced, and has the problems you expect from young, inexperienced center halves.

Theoretically the second problem should have been off the table for the derby: We saw the return of Janby Alderweirtonghen midweek and there was no reason to think that we’d see a different pairing at the Emirates. But when the lineup was announced, there was Juan Foyth partnering Vertonghen in defense with Toby Alderweireld on the bench.

You might argue that it was a rotation sub—due to injuries to Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez, Toby hasn’t rested in awhile. But in that case one would think that a midweek home date with relegation-threatened Southampton is a better time to rest Alderweireld. Doing so on derby day suggests that Pochettino still prefers to exile the Belgian defender and has only played him as much as he has this season out of necessity.

That said, even if Pochettino had started his normal defensive pairing, the team would still need to deal with the problem that three of the positions most vulnerable to pressure—fullbacks and a ball-progressing midfielder—are all filled by players who handle being pressed very badly.

To his credit, Arsenal manager Unai Emery exploited this to great effect, using Lucas Torreira to harass Sissoko as well as Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan up top as wide attackers who could press the fullbacks.

Though this meant benching Alexandre Lacazette, the risk paid off: The work rates of the Arsenal midfield and attack disrupted Tottenham from the start and meant that DESK never got the consistent service they would need to expose Arsenal’s below-average center backs.

In doing this, Emery demonstrated to anyone watching how you can beat this Spurs team: Press high, exploit the weaknesses in midfield and at fullback, and simply do not let Tottenham’s attackers influence the match.

Conclusion

The good news for Spurs is that all is not lost. Manchester United is in the midst of the Jose Mourinho Year Three experience:

Though they battered us at the Emirates, Arsenal has their own problems. So far this season, their defense is as ropey as Tottenham’s, but their attack has not consistently performed at the level that Tottenham’s has. While it is certainly possible that Arsenal could finish above Spurs, most advanced stats models still think Tottenham is in good shape to finish in the top four. FiveThirtyEight, for example, has Spurs at a 68% shot of finishing in the top four.

That being said, as others have also noted, Tottenham’s fullbacks are a massive liability. Midfield is also a concern. If the club is going to lock down a top four spot and keep Arsenal at arm’s length, they will need to fix these issues. Otherwise, we’ll be relying on DESK to carry us to 4th. And that’s a much riskier bet than most of us care to admit.