Tottenham’s Newest Weapon?

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur players react after the 2015 MLS All Star Game against the MLS All Stars at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur players react after the 2015 MLS All Star Game against the MLS All Stars at Dick /

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There’s a chance you might have noticed something during Tottenham’s opener against Manchester United Saturday. Centre-back Toby Alderweireld, thus far the brightest light among Tottenham’s new summer signings, was keen with a long ball when he reclaimed possession. According to FourFourTwo’s Statszone, he attempted 17 such passes and was successful with six of them.

Now, of course, that might have merely reflected the circumstances of the game. Tottenham were likely never going to play a patient build-up game away at Old Trafford. Besides, Eric Dier, ahead of Alderweireld in defensive midfield, isn’t exactly prized on his distribution. Nabil Bentaleb, alongside Dier though in a more advanced role, performed so abysmally that no doubt Alderweireld and the rest of his teammates were eager to play around him as much as possible.

So it would make sense then that as the game wore on Alderweireld might be more inclined to utilize the hallowed English tactic of a long punt upfield. That said, it shouldn’t be a surprise if we see more of such play in the coming weeks.

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Unlike some other Spurs spending sprees of late, the player turnover this summer has seemed to be the result of a focused and methodological plan. The incoming players thus far have to a man been defensive. Alderweireld has been joined by Cologne centre-back Kevin Wimmer and Burnley right-back Kevin Trippier. They share many of traits you’d expect of players being recruited to play in Pochettino’s high-press, high-energy system. They’re all durable, turn in a good amount of minutes and seem eager to contribute to the press when needed.

They also share another skillset that hints what the next stage of Pochettino’s Spurs project might be. Your humble writer composed a piece about it toward the end of June. The one area where each of Spurs’ new defensive signings stood out compared to the club’s existing defenders were long balls. All three of Alderweireld, Wimmer and Trippier averaged over twice the amount of long balls per 90 minutes than any of the Spurs defenders used as comparison.

At first glance, this might seem regressive. Long balls are a key component of England’s oft-reviled football DNA, a vestige of a time when there was simply no such thing as a creative midfielder. Why would Spurs suddenly embrace it?

The fact is that there’s nothing sudden about it. The long ball might still be a niche tactic, but over the past two seasons it has slowly grown in prestige. Manchester United utilized the long ball more than any other team in the Premier League last season. According to WhoScored’s numbers, United average 45.7 accurate long balls per 90 minutes last season. The next closest was Southampton at 34.9.

It’s not just an English trend, either. Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich led the Bundesliga with 46.8 and 42 accurate long balls per 90 minutes, respectively. Roma finished second in Italy’s Serie A while punting accurately up field 40.7 times per 90.

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  • These aren’t desperate teams reverting to some ancient tactic out of sheer necessity. Rather, these are teams that have emphatically embraced the idea of the quick transition from defense to offense. Often the fastest route between a freshly reclaimed ball and the goal is a punt over the heads of all that would otherwise get in its way.

    Naturally, the favoring the modern long ball isn’t simply about recruiting players with a propensity for producing them. It’s about finding a player with vision sharp enough to recognize the best moment for such a pass. It’s about finding wide players and strikers who are willing and able to run down those balls starting from an onside position. It’s about overall nurturing a pressing culture in a team that, as a unit, will be able to capitalize on catching their opponents off guard as soon as possession is reclaimed.

    Viewed through this lens, it’s easy to see why Pochettino and company might be eager to acquire the signatures of players like Clinton N’jie and Saido Berahino. Both are quick and able to test the opposition’s offside trap early and often. They would no doubt be expected to run down those long balls when they came.

    None of which is to suggest that suddenly the long ball will become the center of Spurs’ tactical plan. Overall Saturday the long ball wasn’t used significantly more than the averages Spurs as a team put up per 90 minutes last season. The inclusion of Alderweireld into the starting XI merely adds the long ball as another tool to the team’s Swiss army knife. For a team that has often been criticized for rigidity, that extra option might just make a significant difference.

    Next: Tottenham To Buy All The Strikers