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What Matt Doherty Brings to Tottenham Hotspur

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Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Well, that all happened rather quickly. Days after being initially linked to Wolverhampton’s Matt Doherty, Daniel Levy sealed the deal and made him Tottenham’s newest signing one week before the official start of the 20/21 season. My Timothy Castagne piece (that’s now hanging in the wind) aside, its an astute signing for a team that, unlike one of its London neighbors, needs to scrimp on all incoming transfers.

Rarely does a Premier League, top 6 (technically, most of the time...) side acquire a starting player from a direct rival for what can be considered a bargain bin price (just under £15m, according to Sky.) He also counts as a homegrown player because, as Football London states, “he was bought by Wolves from Bohemians as an 18-year-old for £75,000 and spent the required three seasons with the English club.” Homegrown rules can get tricky but suffice it to say this might help Tottenham have an easier time fitting foreign players into the squad, especially as there’s a cap for European competitions.

All of this is for naught if Doherty doesn’t perform on the pitch. Let’s take a look at how Doherty has performed for Wolves, and what he’ll bring to Spurs.

Overview

Nuno Espirito Santo has built a team that has seen a good amount of success in the Premier League, with a deep run in Europa League last season. More than that, they play an attractive brand of football - with high pressing and counters as the main tenets of their style. Players like Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore, and Ruben Neves make watching Wolves a joy. Doherty played his part in making headlines as well, rounding the season off with 4 goals and 3 assists.

In my last piece, we took a look at Serge Aurier and why Spurs are ready for a new face in the right back position.

Defensive Contribution

As any football analyst will tell you, when you gauge an individual player’s performances you must also take a look at the wider picture to understand the player’s responsibilities and reactions. After all, players are all just cogs within a system, especially in defensive organization.

Nuno tends to set his team up either in a 3-5-2 formation or 3-4-3, depending on the opposition lineup and style of play.

Wolves’ lineup against Crystal Palace. Presumably, Nuno opted for a 3-4-3 because Crystal Palace use Zaha, Schlupp, and Townsend to attack the opposition flanks. In a 3-4-3, Nuno demands Traore and Podence to track back and assist the wingback in defensive duties. Notice Doherty’s high positioning - he’s an out and out wingback, and some concern has come up around his ability to play in a back four.

In the defensive phase, however, both wingbacks tuck in and create a line of five at the back with clear pressing triggers.

Wolves adapt to Sevilla’s possession with five at the back. Doherty pushes to cover Reguilon as the Sevilla leftback recycles the ball backwards. Dendocker pushed up as well - limiting the space that Sevilla players have, they are only able to move the ball backwards.

Wolves rely heavily on creating defensive numerical superiority on the flanks in order to crowd out opposition play - the ball near midfielder (Dendoncker in the above example, Neves in the one below) shifts towards the ball carrier, and a winger/forward is expected to get back and help as well.

Doherty’s defensive role depends on the progression of play - if the opposition has uncontested control of the ball, Doherty hugs the touch line to close the passing lane down the line.

Doherty blocks a possible pass down the line, while Traore and Ruben Neves use their cover shadows - the former to cover another Olympiacos player, the latter to cover the most dangerous area, the center. Olympiacos’ wide player could make himself available in the white cross hatched area, but that’s the trap that Wolves have set - both Neves and Doherty make that a risky pass, and Boly would be tracking his every move, penning him in.

If an opposing player takes a bad touch, lacks support, or receives a medium to long range pass with their back towards Wolves’ defense, Doherty is much more aggressive with is pressing. This potential pressing action necessitates that Willy Boly be fully alert. Boly is far from a fast defender but his ability to read the play enables him to position himself well to cover any potential danger areas. Of course this is the ideal situation - there are times in which Doherty presses too aggressively and leaves Boly in potentially precarious situations.

Sevilla’s player receives a ball with his back to goal, triggering the press from Doherty. The Irishman’s pressing leaves Boly in a potential 2v1 - something that a more technical team than Sevilla might have exploited.

Spurs fans should have had bells ringing for the last 5 minutes - this particular style of defending is extremely similar to what Mourinho has built at Spurs in his short time at the club. Almost famously at this point, Aurier has been asked to take very similar positions to Doherty in the images above, while Lucas tracks back to help apply pressure as well. The only difference is that in Spurs’ setup, the ball near midfielder (99% of the time Sissoko) covers the gap left behind by Aurier if its large enough to exploit, as opposed to Boly at Wolves.

Side note - this makes Spurs heavily reliant on Sissoko, but Mourinho could adopt what Wolves do and have a centerback (Sanchez is a great shout as he is the most athletic of Tottenham’s CBs) plug that hole, lightening the load on midfielders. A shift like this would mean that the ball far wingback (possibly Sessegnon) would have to tuck in order to create a compact back four.

Indeed, Doherty defensively has an almost identical role to Aurier for Wolves. This may appear obvious - “why else would Spurs buy him?” - but Spurs were also linked with Aarons and Castagne for an extended period of time; both of which offer something different to Aurier’s skillset. The similarities between the two Premier League defenders are reflected in some of their stats.

Stats can’t be seen in a vacuum - but after having examined how Doherty plays for Wolves, identifying that it’s identical to how Aurier plays for Spurs, it seems that a statistical comparison would be fair.

The main difference between the two players is their offensive style of play.

Offensive Contribution

Mourinho’s tactic of building up through the left side, then switching the ball over to Aurier as the spare man for the cross was at best just effective, at worst predictable and boring - making Spurs fans wonder why attacks were being channeled through Ivorian with talent like Kane, Lo Celso, and Dele on the pitch.

Doherty’s skillset might encourage Mourinho to build a more intricate attack on the right. Whereas Mourinho may have felt that his hand was forced into playing a certain way - due to personnel available, and coming in halfway through the season - he has little excuse to just task Doherty with pumping in crosses. First and foremost, he won’t put up much better numbers than Aurier, with a 24.3% success rate and only 1.53 crosses per 90.

It would be a shame because Doherty brings so much more to the attack. For one, he has been given license - both for Wolves and the Ireland National Team - to bomb forward if he identifies a gap to exploit.

Against Everton, Doherty plays a wall pass with Pedro Neto - effectively getting in between Everton’s lines. The move ends with Doherty taking a shot off target.

Whereas Aurier is tasked with staying in his vertical channel, Doherty is at his best when he is given the offensive freedom to cut inside. Indeed, to play him any other way would be putting a cap on his attacking output.

Doherty’s heatmap seems to indicate that he is more involved near zone 14 (top of the opposing team’s box) than Aurier.

Watching him play, one would be forgiven for thinking that he’s an out and out winger. Averaging 15.6 forward passes per 90, as opposed to Aurier’s 11, and with more progressive runs as well, its possible that Doherty will add an entirely new dimension to Tottenham’s attack.

Typically, when fullbacks are involved in attacking play, it comes from a support role. Doherty is unique in this regard - instead of setting up players for goalscoring opportunities, he has the technical ability to create, and execute, for himself. In these two clips, its apparent that Aurier and Doherty have different attacking traits. The former would never be expected to cut inside near the top of the box, the latter should not be relegated to maintaining width.

Notice in the clip above how Jimenez has moved out of Zone 14, opening the opportunity for someone to run into it. Wolves’ players have a great understanding between them and understand when to shift their positioning in order to open up space for another player.

To get the best out of Doherty, Mourinho will have to elevate Spurs attacking play. It might seem like years ago, but after the restart Spurs were languid in attack. With players like Lamela, Dele, Lucas, and Son all naturally drifting inside, Doherty will just add to the traffic jam if attackers cannot figure out their spacing. If Tottenham’s offensive players rediscover their chemistry, Doherty might become a great asset against teams that set up in a low block.

Conclusion

Doherty is not Achraf Hakimi - this is not a world class signing, and compared to Chelsea’s business, it might look like a weak acquisition. But given his Premier League experience, homegrown status, impeccable injury history, frankly low transfer fee, and his performances, he’s possibly the best right back that Tottenham could have acquired at the moment. On the pitch, he’s played in a defensive system that has a lot of similarities with the way that Mourinho likes to play - further forward, he can add another layer to Tottenham’s attacking dynamic, with the ability to link with Kane, Lucas, and Lo Celso.