Whilst Spurs’ new look attack struggles to find its way, it is their quality at the other end of the pitch which sees them amongst the early pace setters in the Premier League.
Tottenham are hardly a side renowned for their stoic efforts in defending their own goal. The White Hart Lane faithful have been treated to scores of individual creative talents and sides full of fair and attacking intent down the years. Managers and players alike have regaled fans with much-loved quotes, rightly praising the club’s culture of taking the game to their opponents. However, frequently this has come at a cost to the less glamorous other half of the glory game – defending.
Superb early leads thrown away; lightweight attacking talents who vanish when the other team has the ball; infamously hopeless defenders (particularly if you supported through the 1990s) – the team’s wondrous attacking play, frequently undone by calamity at the back. Of course, there have been exceptions – the double side, led by Danny Blanchflower and enhanced by players of the defensive quality of Maurice Norman and club legend Dave Mackay, springs to mind. But, does the form of the present side indicate something of a change in mentality under current boss André Villas-Boas?
The statistics to support the progress the side has made defensively is overwhelming. After nine Premier League games this season, the team has conceded just 5 goals, with three of those coming in one rather forgettable collapse against local rivals West Ham. In the first nine league games last season, the side had conceded more than twice that (13), whilst two seasons ago, under Harry Redknapp, 14 had been shipped in that time. In fact, in all competitions so far, Spurs have conceded just those 5 goals, keeping 12 clean sheets in a total of 15 competitive matches. Last season, it was May by the time that number of clean sheets in all competitions had been achieved. Additionally, whilst Spurs have one of the best goalkeepers in the league in Hugo Lloris, the Frenchman has been kept relatively quiet so far this season – only Manchester City (9.3) have conceded fewer shots per game than Tottenham (9.7). When, finally, they do get near the Spurs goal, opposing teams find themselves up against a keeper whose saves-shots ratio of 83.3% puts him only behind Artur Boruc, of those goalkeepers playing regularly in the league so far.
Of course, much of this is down to the tactical set up of any side visiting White Hart Lane, with Hull, visitors last weekend and again this week in the League Cup, one of many sides to sit deep, with men behind the ball, and allow the home team to dominate possession. This isn’t new, however – lower placed sides have been content to sit deep at White Hart Lane since our Champions League qualification in 2010. The difference now being that this Spurs side looks far less susceptible to the counter attack. Even on the road, when teams are more likely to employ a positive, offensive style of football, Tottenham are able to dominate possession, and protect their own goal resolutely when the ball is given away. At Aston Villa last week, the home side were able to muster just two shots on goal; at Cardiff in September, the newly-promoted side did not test Lloris with a single shot on target.
Much of the praise for this improvement should fall at the feet of Villas-Boas. His favoured high-defensive line, much maligned whilst he was in charge of Chelsea, means the majority of our defending is done in the opposition’s half, with quick pressing employed to win the ball back quickly. Fast, strong and mobile central midfield players such as Paulinho and Etienne Capoue were sensible and effective summer purchases to complement existing midfielders such as Sandro and Lewis Holtby. The performance of Sandro at Aston Villa, in particular, highlights his effectiveness on the road as a screen for the defence. The high line also allows the wide players to defend in pairs, with our full-backs comfortable pushing slightly higher than they might be used to in order to help the winger win back possession, whilst said wingers are happy to track back to help out when necessary.
Those responsible for the club’s recruitment should also be applauded. Whilst in years gone by the Tottenham board might have been accused of over-spending on the wrong players at the back, recently they have made astute acquisitions for significant, but realistic, fees. The purchases of top-class players such as French international captain Lloris and versatile Belgian centre-half Jan Vertonghen, stand out. Lloris is almost the complete keeper – a fantastic shot stopper, quick and brave off his line, adept at communicating with his back four. He is arguably the best goalkeeper in the league, and there are few better in world football at present. Vertonghen is a cool, classy, Rolls Royce of a centre half in the Ledley King mould. Both settled almost immediately and have continued to improve this season. In addition, the club has sought to bring in and develop top young talent, with the presence of players the likes of Kyle Walker, Danny Rose and Vlad Chiriches boding well for both the present and the future. Retaining club captain Michael Dawson – who, despite his detractors, remains an important member of the squad – has also worked out favourably, whilst many hope that the injury-prone Younes Kaboul can yet reassert himself as the club’s number one centre-half. The sheer depth of quality is astounding, particularly if you look back over the previous two decades at the club and note the contrast.
Of course, there remains work to be done. The risk posed to the high line by quicker players such as Fernando Torres and Theo Walcott was evident in the games against Chelsea and Arsenal this season. The side still looks somewhat suspect from set pieces, the first goal conceded against West Ham being a case in point. These are areas that must be worked on, particularly if we are to take points from those sides around us, such as Manchester City and Chelsea, whose pacey attacking players have the ability to move the ball quickly and to exploit space in behind a full-back.
As a Tottenham fan, it is an unusual situation to be in – relatively confident in our ability defensively, but desperate to see us click in attack and offer a real goal threat going forward. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll get to enjoy both at once.
Statistics via www.whoscored.com