Despite narrowly missing out on the Champions League in Andre Villas-Boas’ first season in charge, last season Tottenham showed signs of progress from the Harry Redknapp days. They played some entertaining football and a generally solid outfit, with some of the best defensive statistics in the division. Although, a lot of this was overshadowed by the performances of Gareth Bale, who was the team’s star player, scoring 21 Premier League goals and assisting 4. After such a season, and no Champions League football, Bale’s exit was almost inevitable as he became the most expensive player in the world, with Real Madrid shelling out something in the region of £85,000,00 for the Welshmen. If Tottenham fans had to have patience in the first season of the Villas-Boas reign, they’ll need even more in his second season, after the team has been almost completely overhauled due to the departure of Bale.
With around £100,000,000 coming in and going out of White Hart Lane, Tottenham have all but bought a new attack and midfield, whilst also signing Vlad Chiriches to bolster the defence. They’ve smashed their transfer fee record bringing in Roberto Soldado from Valencia, before breaking the record again as they brought in Erik Lamela from Roma. Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Etienne Capoue were all also signed, giving Villas-Boas many options in midfield, even offering the team many styles of play – that can be chosen depending on opposition.
A criticism of Villas-Boas so far this season has been his choice of midfield. He’s been criticised of choosing a physical team, rather than the best team available. It’s a fair criticism, as this could have a link to their inability to create good quality chances and also their inability to break down defences who are willing to sit back. Whilst Spurs have been dominating games, they’ve looked ‘flat’ and dull. Teams have been sitting back with two banks of four, whilst Spurs pass around them, unable to pass through them. It was a similar situation last season, but the pace and power of Bale often helped in times of need. They were by no means a one man team, but the direct approach of Bale was important to their style of player, and a huge reason in why they won the points they did.
Andros Townsend has been a bright spark in the side this season, and has given the similar kind of direct approach as Bale, but the England international – obviously – doesn’t possess the same quality as Bale, and is a lot more wasteful, with his decision making not quite up to scratch. Townsend has had the most shots in the Premier League this season with 35, but only one of these has resulted in a goal for the team. He’s also been the most creative player for Tottenham this season, creating 19 chances, though 69% of these chances have come from the central area, which is part of Tottenham’s problem.
Creating chances hasn’t been a problem for Tottenham. They’ve had the most key passes in the league and the most shots in the league, yet have only scored nine goals – only Crystal Palace and Sunderland have scored fewer. However, Tottenham haven’t created quality chances, as they also have the joint most shots from outside the area so far this season. This could come from their lack of width and inability to penetrate opposition defences. 62% of their chances have come from central areas, which could be due to the fact they can’t penetrate so long shots are being taken out of desperation, rather than keeping the ball and trying again and again to pull the defence out of position. In order to pull the defence out of position and create gaps in the oppositions defence though, they need width and players who are willing to go between the lines and move into channels pulling the opposition out of position. At the moment, they don’t have either of these things. With Townsend on the right and usually Gylfi Sigurdsson on the left, they have no natural width, as they both prefer to come inside, or dribble inside, rather than provide the width. Kyle Walker overlaps Townsend on the right, but his final delivery and decision making aren’t the best, so he’s not that effective. Whilst on the left hand side Jan Vertonghen is a bit more conservative, so although he does go forward and create, he doesn’t necessarily bomb forward and overlap in the same way as Walker.
If Tottenham want to improve in attack, I feel as though Eriksen and Mousa Dembele are crucial to their system. Eriksen is their best playmaker to go behind Roberto Soldado. A product of the Ajax academy, the Dane is skilful with great technique and can drift between the channels brilliantly, pull defenders out of place and receive the ball from deep and run at the defence – a quality Dembele also offers. In the modern game, a dribbling midfielder seems to be becoming more important to teams aspiring to play a possession based game, as it helps break down defences who are happy to sit back. Barcelona have Andres Iniesta who can receive the ball from deep and dribble at the defence, creating gaps and sliding players in, whilst Arsenal have Jack Wilshere who has a similar mould. Dembele can do this job for Tottenham, he has the dribbling and passing ability, but unlike Iniesta and Wilshere, he can combine his technique with some physicality, making him an incredibly useful player for Spurs. Partnered with Sandro or Paulihno, they can sit back as Dembele moves forward and creates a ‘1-2′ midfield, alongside Eriksen rather than Sandro/Paulinho. With Dembele moving further forward, the burden of creativity won’t fall on Eriksen’s shoulders as much, meaning he can drift a bit more – as long as Dembele holds the centre – in a similar style to how he did at Ajax, moving from flank to flank creating 2 vs 1 situations with the full-backs, particularly in his last season at Ajax, with fellow Denmark national Viktor Fischer.
Then, with Eriksen drifting, this means the two wide players can come inside, as Eriksen should have created some space, and then this means the two full-backs can overlap and provide width. So, it would look something like this:
The final part of their attacking problem’s are Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela – Tottenham’s two most expensive signings of the season. Roberto Soldado is leading the clubs scoring charts with four goals, however, three of these have been from the penalty spot. A lot have people have been quick to slate Soldado, however, I don’t think it is entirely his fault. Soldado is a good goalscorer and a clinical finisher, however, he’s the type of goalscorer who relies on the service and doesn’t really offer much apart from his goals. Last season all of his league goals for Valencia were inside the area, so he’s not the type of forward to fashion out chances for himself. Now, Spurs haven’t been creating good chances, they’ve been having long-shots or general half chances as they haven’t been able to penetrate defences, so Soldado isn’t getting great service. If Soldado is given the service, I’m sure he’ll score goals, but until then I think he will struggle.
Lamela is a great talent, and already a great player. Being a standout player in an inconsistent Roma side last season, finishing the campaign with 15 goals and 5 assists. However, due to the form of Townsend he hasn’t really been given a chance to showcase these talents at Tottenham, and has been on the bench for the majority of games. However, this can’t last for long, you’d be a very brave person to leave such a good (and expensive) player on the bench for a long amount of time. Lamela brings a direct approach to the team with his dribbling, but he is a much more accomplished finisher and goal-scorer than Townsend. Though, I don’t think it should be a question of Townsend or Lamela. I feel Tottenham will benefit more if they both play.
Tottenham need someone with the quality of Lamela, who can unlock defences, but also need width. So, why don’t they play Lamela on the right, who can come inside and allow Walker to overlap, and then play Townsend on his natural left-side? There he can provide width and directness that can help create gaps and penetrate the defences. If you have Lamela and Townsend on the wings with Eriksen between them, you’re sure to threaten defences and be able to dominate games. Also, with a natural winger, you feel as though Soldado will get more service, as he’s a real danger inside the box, so if some quality crosses are put in he can definitely make the most of them. So, I think their whole attack should look something like this:
I feel as though this gives them a good amount of technique, whilst keeping enough physicality and directness. They have pace on the counter, they have a clinical goalscorer, they have technique, they have a physical midfield that can also use the ball well. I think Villas-Boas is in a situation where he has such a good squad, that he isn’t yet too sure of his best eleven, so it’ll take some trial and error, but I’m sure it will all click sooner or later. With quite a complete squad, it’ll be good for the neutral to watch when it all does click together, as the players they have are more than capable of producing aesthetically pleasing football.
After all this, Tottenham do have positives to take from their start to the season – their defence. They’ve only conceded 6 goals, which can only be bettered by Southampton, whilst they’ve also kept the most clean sheets, keeping 7 clean sheets in 11 games. They have a solid midfield, and lots of good central-defenders, as well as one of the best ‘keepers in the league in Lloris. If the attack can click and finally get going, then they will begin to move up the table and progress. Keeping clean sheets is huge, particularly in a league as open and competitive as the Premier League, they just need the attack to improve.
Overall, Tottenham fans are going to need to have even more patience. It’s a year of rebuilding and change, again, where problems won’t be solved overnight. Everything seems to be in place for them to really push on, the finer details just need perfecting. Similar to Arsenal this time last year, Spurs have a brand new attack that looks good in phases, but struggles to break down defences. However, look at Arsenal’s form since around February time where it started to click and new players became used to their new teammates and surroundings. It’ll be frustrating, but should be worth it.