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Spurs Women’s NLD-winning goal was a 13-pass back-to-front play, and a sign of things to come

Martha Thomas’ winning goal involved

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal FC - Barclays Women´s Super League Photo by Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

It’s really difficult to fully express what a transformational win Tottenham Hotspur Women’s victory over Arsenal in the home North London Derby was to the club. Yes, it was the club’s first win over their North London neighbors in their history. In fact, it was only the second win over a member of the WSL “Big Four,” the first since Rosella Ayane’s “hand of God” goal to beat Manchester City away in September, 2021.

And what a goal! Tottenham had been under massive amounts of pressure from Arsenal the entire match, with Spurs’ few chances mostly coming on the counter-attack. That said, this goal wasn’t that. Martha Thomas’ second half strike was the culmination of a 13-pass move that started with the ball in starting keeper Barbora Votikova’s hands and ended with it in the back of the net.

The highlight clip above doesn’t show the entire 13-pass play, which contains an attempt to build out of the back that ends up with a pass back to Votikova. That’s okay. The fun stuff happens ten passes in anyway. Harsh Mishra, who has done some excellent tactical analysis on Spurs Women this season on social media and the Spurs Women blog, diagrammed out the entire passing sequence from start to finish, which involves ten Spurs players touching the ball.

But as nice as that chart is, that’s not the full story either. In addition to making the correct passes, Spurs players did some fantastic work off the ball to make that goal happen. Arsenal were pressing high up the pitch trying to force a turnover as Votikova and Spurs’ defense tried to play out from the back. This left a lot of space behind, which Spurs exploited magnificently. As soon as Thomas receives the ball from midfielder Grace Clinton, who had taken a touch to evade Alessia Russo, both Naz and Celin Bizet start runs up field, with fullback Angharad James trailing deeper as a safer outlet pass if needed. Arsenal midfielder Lia Walti is caught in space by the center circle between marking Thomas or Ramona Petzelberger, and ends up not marking either.

Thomas is able to find Bizet in transition on the right side of midfield while Walti makes a lung-busting run back to try and assist her central defenders. Naz, meanwhile, makes a diagonal run from the left to receive a central pass from Bizet. She’s closely marked by Lotte Wubben-Moy and Bizet, with Steph Catley tracking her and Walti also running in to close her down, smartly opts not to cross into the box immediately. Naz’s run drags Wubben-Moy out of position to that same part of the area. Thomas has continued her run from midfield into the box, completely unmarked. Wubben-Moy eventually sees the danger and checks her run such that before Bizet makes the pass to Thomas, she has three Arsenal players around her: Wubben-Moy, Walti, and Catley.

Bizet’s pass is a fantastic one — it looked like she considered cutting the ball back to James or kick it wide to the now-unmarked Naz, which might have killed the move. Instead she continues her dribble into the box and makes a perfect pass within the gap between Catley and Walti to the feet of Thomas, who one-times it with her left foot past Manuela Zinsberger before Russo, who had run all the way back into the box, can make a challenge or contest the shot. The goal was finished by Thomas, but you can make a strong argument that it was made by Naz’s run to pull Arsenal’s defense out of shape, and by Bizet who anticipated Thomas would not check her late run into the box.

It’s a hell of a goal, a real team effort that required not only vision, but quick passing, verticality, and awareness to pull defenders out of position. This was a fast goal, but it wasn’t a counterattack — it was the product of the entire team playing out from the back, exploiting Arsenal’s high press, and finding the space to get forward at pace.

After the match, Spurs manager Robert Vilahamn said that, despite Spurs still lagging behind in talent compared to the top WSL clubs, he is implementing a style of play that isn’t just low-block-and-counter against the top teams. This was a full-team, back to front goal and is exactly how Vilahamn wants Tottenham to play.

“That’s how we want to score goals. It’s not on set-pieces or a quick ball in behind, we want to be playing through lines, want to have speed and score in those ways. That’s how a Tottenham Hotspur team should score a goal and it was brilliant.

“The last couple of weeks with the harder opponents and losses, it has been — for the self-confidence — a little bit tricky, but the players keep working for what we want to do. Today you can see they are there to do it at this stadium. Arsenal are a very good team.

“They pushed us down, but we were still being brave enough to try and play them out. The goal is evidence of what we want to do with this team. Also the defending today with the compactness and how we found the right press triggers. Barbora [Votikova] as well. A lot of good defending.”

Spurs Women are still very much a work in progress. As emphatic a statement as this win was, you don’t have to look back at Spurs’ recent results — losses to Manchester United and Manchester City by a combined 11-0 — to see there’s a lot of work left to do. There’s no question that Arsenal are a better team top to bottom, and while Spurs played extremely well they also rode their luck on many occasions on Sunday. But what this result does is give the club the confidence that they’re on the right path. It’s taken a long time for Spurs to get to the point where they can beat a full-strength Arsenal in league play. Now the work continues so Spurs can get to the point where they can beat anyone.