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Daniel Levy’s Imaginary Shortlist: Options for Tottenham at Right Back

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Tottenham need a right back. This is an evaluation of possible options available this summer.

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Norwich City v Burnley FC - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Jose Mourinho found a way to grind out results after the restart, with Spurs outscoring the opposition 14-9. But forty seven goals let in over the entirety of the season are the results of a mid-table team; enough has been written about Pochettino’s dire last months at Spurs, and it’s tough for any coach - even the Special One - to markedly improve a team halfway through the season.

Almost as soon as the Portuguese manager set foot into Enfield, Spurs spurs switched to a mid to low block. A more compact effort at occupying the central area by Winks/Sissoko/Lo Celso forced opposition attacks to funnel the ball towards the flanks. With the likes of Lucas/Son tracking back to help their respective fullbacks, Tottenham were able to keep a fairly resolute defense towards the tail end of the season.

The fullback position, however, poses a challenge for Tottenham. Going from having two of the world’s best fullbacks in Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at one point, to accepting the current standard that fills Spurs’ ranks has been a tough pill to swallow. Neither Serge Aurier or Ben Davies are particularly awful in their positions, but one would be hard pressed to say that Spurs can’t improve on personnel on either flank. For the sake of this piece, we’ll focus on right back.

Serge Aurier’s 19/20 Season

Serge Aurier has had a tough season - personal news notwithstanding, on the pitch he has gone from being a starting right back for Pochettino to being absolutely key for Mourinho. There are still large question marks as to whether he’s up for the task. Aurier has received a lot of criticism from the Tottenham fanbase, due to fairly glaring mistakes committed against the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool earlier in the season. Since his transfer in 2017/18 to Spurs, he’s picked up 2 red cards and conceded 4 penalties, giving him a reputation of being rash.

That said, his defensive numbers aren’t horrible. He has a high number of defensive duels per 90, at 7.53, and wins just over 60% of them. He’s active in the air as well, with 4 aerial duels per 90, and racks up about 5.29 interceptions a match (not necessarily regaining possession, just breaking up play.) As stated above, he makes very clear and silly mistakes often, but there is a solid foundation of a defensive player in there.

If Mourinho does bring in a right back it’ll be for two reasons - Aurier’s attacking output and defensive decisionmaking.

First, Mourinho is intent on having a foundation of four defenders at the back but building with three (going as far back as September 2019, he referred to clubs that play this way as having a “different vision”.) In his time at Spurs Aurier has played as a wingback to facilitate this system, and create a spare man on the right attacking flank. But Aurier has struggled to consistently create danger from the right.

Aurier’s heatmap for the 19/20 season. He’s given license to roam forward due to his crossing ability and athleticism, which enables him to shuttle back and forth and play progresses.

He averages 4.21 crosses p/90 with a 23% success rate - a high number of crosses per game but very few are successful. When one considers the fact that Sissoko plays largely to help him defensively, and Mourinho has seemingly ignored implementing an attacking system apart from utilizing Aurier in this role, it’s simply not enough. In comparison - Azpilicueta and Sheffield United’s Baldock had 37.5% success rate with crosses from the RB position.

There are certain parts of football that are hard to quantify into stats. Solid defensive numbers tell only one side of the story, and it’s important to actually view how Aurier plays in order to understand that defensively, his decision-making can be, to be kind, baffling. When he gets dragged out of position, he struggles to keep up with play in order to help out his teammates.

Crystal Palace regain possession in the middle third, and Aurier is caught upfield. This is an accepted risk by Mourinho, but Aurier (or Sissoko) should be able to predict the pass as Zaha releases Ayew. A top grade right back might be able to block the pass, and a good right back would simply sprint back into the dager area. Aurier does neither and jogs back to cover Alderweireld as he’s dragged out.

Additionally, Aurier is eager to get stuck in which is something opposition players can easily exploit.

Against Leicester, Aurier is dragged out of position by Harvey Barnes. Barnes catches his wrong sided and easily bypasses ham to release the onrushing Leicester player down their left.

These are just a few, recent examples of Aurier’s shortcomings. It’d be harsh to say Aurier is a horrible player, but it’d be equally naive to think that Spurs do not need an upgrade in one of their main attacking and defending pieces.

Looking Internally - Can Kyle Walker-Peters Fill the Role?

Kyle Walker-Peters (KWP) has had a tough going breaking into Spurs’ starting XI, and has been loaned out to Southampton. Having only played 9 matches for the Saints, it’s tough to ascertain whether KWP will have a shout at dethroning Aurier from the starting XI. Hasenhüttl and Mourinho are night and day when it comes to tactics, and they expect wildly different things from their fullbacks.

KWP regains possession against Bournemouth and cuts straight through the middle - a space that James Ward-Prowse has vacated. At Southampton, he’s tasked with carrying the ball forward and recycling possession. He hasn’t been used as an attacking outlet.

Additionally KWP has averaged 4.46 dribbles/game (as opposed to Aurier’s 1.9 in the same time period) and 1.66 crosses per 90.

It’d be great to see another academy player come through the first team at Spurs, but if KWP wants to find success, it doesn’t seem like Mourinho’s system would suit him.

Looking at Other Leagues - Max Aarons

At the end of every season, teams circle top stars and prospects from the relegated teams looking for bargains. It’s no different this season and Norwich’s (who are now in the Championship so the subheading is still accurate) Max Aarons has garnered a lot of interest, especially from Spurs.

As talented as Aarons is, it’s important to note that he’s far from the finished product. He averages around 6.9 tackles / 90, with a success rate of 55%. He has a high number of offensive duels as well (7.27/90) which is likely due to his tendency to take players on. His stats reflect how Norwich play around him as well - for example, Norwich don’t tend to rely on crosses to create chances (lowest in the league per 90 at 8.21), so Aarons has a low cross/90 ratio (2.11). His cross completion % is just above 30%, so even though Norwich don’t rely on his crossing game, he can still put in a quality ball. Encouraging signs for a side like Tottenham.

Regardless of crossing opportunities, Aarons still gets forward. A bit more conservative with his positioning, his heatmap is quite similar to Aurier’s.

What’s most encouraging, however, is the inkling of potential for high attacking output, specifically in regards to expected assists (xA). Having notched up only one assist in the 19/20 campaign, his xA was 3.9. Simply put, Aarons created quality chances that statistically should have seen him end the season closer to 4 assists rather than just one. Impressive when one considers that Norwich was the worst attacking team in the league, and only five fullbacks had a higher xA (Liverpool’s duo, Digne, Azpilicueta, and Pereira.)

His high xA might be a result of sending in quality crosses (although, again, at a lower volume).

Aurier tends to make progressive or lateral crosses, rarely carrying the ball to the byline or cutting the ball back towards the top of the 18/penalty spot.

Aarons makes progressive crosses, but also mixes it up with cutting it back, presumably to find a late run from a midfielder or center forward. His crossing graph indicates he mights be better at picking up his head and seeing where his teammates are at to try to find them rather than drilling it across the box.
Against Spurs, Aarons dribbles past Vertonghen, and cuts the ball back to onrushing Norwich players to create a goalscoring opportunity.

In short, Aarons’ end of season attacking stats are encouraging as he tends to mix up his approach to the 18 yard box, and should have finished the season with more assists to his name. Defensively, Aarons does protect his goal a bit more with his positioning (as seen in his heatmap). But if one looks solely at stats, Aurier is the busier than the two. The Frenchman is involved with more defending duels per 90 (7.56/6.78) and a much higher aerial win % (52%/34% - this stat might indicate that Aarons’ height might be somewhat of a defensive concern, something that Mourinho will be all too aware of.)

However, anyone watching him play can see that Aarons remains concentrated throughout the match, with great awareness for danger.

Sterling looks to exploit the pocket of space that Zimmerman has left behind. Aarons reads the danger and tracks Sterling’s diagonal run almost to the opposite flank to put in a tackle.

Although he might lack the height that Mourinho might be looking for, he has the physical stamina to bomb up and down the pitch. Having played 100 more minutes of league football than Aurier this season, he has the physical capacity to quickly change direction and keep up with opposition players down the wing.

Sterling receives the ball but is unable to turn due to Aarons’ tight marking. The ball is laid off to de Bruyne who in turn passes into the space that Aarons has vacated for Cancelo to continue the attack. Aarons is able to turn quickly however, and pressures Cancelo enough to make him overhit a cross past the goal line.

Aarons is very quick across short distances. This gives him an advantage on both parts of the pitch - he can explode alongside the opposition player to either keep a tight mark or get that half yard of space to send in a good cross.

Aarons is adept at showing wingers and flank players to the outside. It’s hard to see here, but Aarons body positioning is perfect for showing Sterling to the outside, while also being able to explode with speed and keep up with the pacy winger. The move results with Aarons blocking the cross.

Conclusion

Whether Aurier stays or leaves, Tottenham need reinforcements at right back. As the transfer window chugs on, there’s more noise of Aurier departing, perhaps to Italy. With KWP highly unlikely to play a game for Spurs again due to him not fitting into Mourinho’s system, Spurs might quickly find themselves a bit desperate for a fullback. Aarons is a great talent, and his stats indicate that he might be able to excel as an attacking outlet for a Premier League. However, his performances do not indicate that he would be able to help Tottenham higher heights in the short term - given that short term success is one of the main reasons Mourinho was brought in, the need for a starting right back increasing + Norwich in no rush to sell, its not surprising that there hasn’t been more news about Tottenham’s reported interest.

On the contrary, as this piece has been written, it seems that Tottenham has shifted its sights to Mehmet Celik and Timothy Castagne. I will be looking at both prospective Spurs players, in a similar way that I looked at Aarons, in the upcoming days.