Are Spurs’ Clean Sheets Improvement or Luck?

Jul 28, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen during training in advance of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 28, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen during training in advance of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

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It is not a large or meaningful sample size, but Spurs’ 1-0 win over Sunderland on Sunday marks the club’s second consecutive clean sheet after their 0-0 draw with Everton just before the international break. The three games preceding that had been marred by multiple defensive errors, including a penalty and an own goal. So while it might not yet be something to brag about, those clean sheets at least represent an improvement.

But how exactly? What has changed at Spurs to allow for these improved defensive performances?

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One, the advent of Eric Dier as a capable, even quality, defensive midfielder. He was nearly indomitable against Everton and was a key factor in stopping that side’s tendency to funnel attacks through the center of the pitch. He recorded five tackles and two interceptions on the day while also turning in the highest pass count – 56 – at the highest accuracy rate – 98% – of either team’s starters. That performance was impressive enough that Spurs didn’t put too much effort into signing a ‘proper’ defensive midfielder in the last few days of the transfer window.

Dier lost that passing game against Sunderland – he recorded an 80% success rate on 26 passes – but his defensive game improved, perhaps as a result. Eight tackles and two interceptions were by far his best performance in the defensive midfield role so far. That kind of shielding of the defense was a vital component of keeping Sunderland occasionally tricky counter-attack in check.

Two, the backline is working together. The partnership of centre-backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld is still evolving, but they already show a level of awareness of one another that previous such pairings at Tottenham have often lacked. Dier’s presence ahead of them has helped tremendously, but that should not detract for how well both players have played together in these last two games.

Related to that cooperation at the center of the defense is what’s happening out wide. Kyle Walker, Ben Davies and Danny Rose have been important parts of Spurs’ game going forward, but they’ve also been quick about tracking back to defense when necessary. That workrate has been a problem in the past – particularly for Walker – but this summer’s renewed concentration on solidifying the defense seems to have gone a long way to improving that.

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Three, Ryan Mason has contented himself more with a deeper role in midfield – with the exception of Sunday’s game against Sunderland. Mason’s general lack of concern last season with dropping deep when out of possession meant that Spurs’ midfield was left criminally open to through-balls and long shots on goal from the area the English midfielder should have been occupying. The side has benefited immensely from Mason’s discipline in that area so far this season.

Except in the game against Sunderland. With Dier preoccupied on defensive duties, the role of midfield engine fell mostly to Mason. He completed 56 passes – more than anyone else on the pitch – but did so in an acutely more attacking role. Among his runs forward, of course, was the goal that won the game, but they happened with such regularity that considerable space opened up beside an already-occupied Dier. Yann M’Vila in particular thrived in this area, sending two passes forward that threatened to undo Tottenham’s backline. With equal bits of skill and luck, Sunderland were kept to a mere two shots on goal the entire game, though that could have been much different.

The offseason’s evident concentration on rebuilding and fortifying the team’s defense has worked no small amount of magic so far. It’s safe to actually say that Spurs have been unlucky to have conceded the goals that they did. Barring such exceptional errors, Spurs might be one of the standout defensive teams in the Premier League.

Next: Spurs' DeAndre Yedlin's First Sunderland Interview