Tottenham may have made a mistake. But that’s not a surprise. In the past, they have made lots of mistakes.
Between the Harry Redknapp years when they won qualification to the Champions League in 2009 and the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have always threatened to break into the ranks of the elite without ever managing to. Until now.
The signing of Pochettino certainly was not a mistake. And yet, some of the early challenges the Argentinian manager faced point to a club more or less in a mess – even if it turned out to be a mess with huge potential.
Pochettino arrived at White Hart Lane in the summer of 2014, which was the same time that Gylfi Sigurdsson left the club, engineering his own move to Swansea City. And although it looks like a classic case of a new manager deciding to get rid of a player he doesn’t fancy, Pochettino had nothing to do with the Iceland international quitting the club. Sigurdsson was fleeing a team who didn’t seem to actually want him.
If they now want him back now, however, well that wouldn’t be much of a surprise either.
The danger of two successful seasons on the spin for a young team getting better every week is that it becomes hard to think of areas where the squad particularly needs to be strengthened. Clearly depth is a problem. But bringing in ‘depth’ is harder than it looks: the best players don’t want to come to sit on the bench, and those who are willing to fight for places or accept a role as second choice aren’t often the best men for the job.
There’s also the danger of overpaying for a player who simply adds nothing in the end because he’s no better than what you’ve already got: Moussa Sissoko springs to mind.
But that just shows how big a job Pochettino has done. From a team who sold Sigurdsson without any input from their manager – perhaps significantly, Pochettino was only the ‘head coach’ at the time, but has since had his title changed to ‘manager’, hinting at a greater role in such matters – Spurs have now become a team formed in their leader’s image. The transformation has been vast, but ironically, it might just be a player who was already part of that mess Pochettino inherited who could take the club to the next level.
Perhaps the only part of the squad where ‘adding depth’ doesn’t mean adding second-string reserves is the attacking midfield section. In defence – including defensive midfield – and attack, stability is often key: strikers like Kane grow in confidence the more they start scoring, whilst defensive partnerships are the bedrock of the team. Attacking midfielders, wingers and creators, however, can be changed around depending on the game.
Against sides who sit deep and look to play on the counter attack, the need for pacey wingers is nullified and the creative maestros with vision and passing quality become all-important. Against a team who hold a high line, pace becomes more important. And being able to choose between all of these options in the middle of a game is vital.
That’s something Spurs don’t have, currently. If they’re losing, or if they need to unlock a defence, they can’t always rely on Kane – mostly because they can’t always get the ball to him in the right areas. The start of the last two seasons have been characterised by too many draws, and ultimately that’s what’s cost Tottenham genuine title challenges. The stability isn’t a problem. Sometimes the spark is.
And whilst Alli and Son have proven their worth as creative, attacking players, the only real ‘creator’ in the side is Christian Eriksen. But when it comes to the stats, Gylfi Sigurdsson matches him – all the more impressive when you consider that he’s done it from a relegation-threatened side.
This year, Tottenham’s most potent assister / striker combination has been Eriksen to Kane, a partnership which has yielded six goals. That’s the same number as the collaboration between Swansea’s Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente. And yet, Spurs scored 86 goals to Swansea’s 45. The number may be the same, but the proportion is vastly bigger.
The fact that they do a similar job for their team is significant, too. Eriksen took 94 shots from outside the box this season, more than any other player. But Sigurdsson came second on the list. Only Sergio Aguero took more shots in total than the Dane this campaign, but once again Sigurdsson isn’t far behind, coming fourth on the list and ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa.
When it comes to assists, Eriksen has 15 to Sigurdsson’s 13. Both are beaten only by Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, who has 18.
Interestingly, though, when you break down where the assists have come from, Sigurdsson has eight from crosses. That’s hardly surprising given that six his 13 assists – almost half – have been to the same player: the aerially dominating Fernando Llorente. But exactly half of De Bruyne’s 18 have come from crosses, too. And that certainly doesn’t involve Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus dominating defenders physically. Eriksen himself has six assists from crosses – only Sigurdsson and De Bruyne have more.
What that shows is how accurate balls played in from wide areas – where there’s more space – are now key to breaking down stubborn defences. Crosses don’t necessarily mean you have to be good in the air, but they do mean you have to show good movement. Manchester City, Swansea and Spurs all have strikers whose best qualities include clever movement in the penalty area.
Spurs have looked like a different club since the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino in 2014. Three years on, they are becoming an established Champions League club, having entered the competition two years in a row, and are one of the most exciting teams in the country, to boot. Ironically though, amongst the manure emptied upon Pochettino’s arrival, the perfect gem may well have been hiding.