Reflecting on the state of the defense at Tottenham Hotspur last season
Having reflected first on the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper position, it was determined that the 71 goals shipped, were not because of a major dip in goalkeeper performance. However, the fact remains Tottenham gave up a ton more goals than just two seasons ago when Spurs gave up 53 goals in 55 games. Add in the increase of 53 more shots on target to go with the 18 more goals and what we have is a defense on the decline, something obvious as we go deeper in the numbers for Tottenham in 2019-20.
Tottenham and the Tackle
I recently made a big deal about the success at tackling of Spurs transfer target Pierre Hojbjerg, who has attempted more than 170 tackles over the last two seasons. But in truth, when Spurs were at their best defensively back in 2017-18, they really did not tackle all that much. Jan Vertonghen led the team that year with some 69 attempted tackles, then only two more Eric Dier (56) and Serge Aurier (50) attempted even 50 tackles.
This past season while only 1 Spur had more than Vertonghen’s 69 tackles, there were 7 different Tottenham players with at least 50 attempted tackles. Serge Aurier attempted a mind-boggling 109 tackles and an increase of 59 attempts more than doubling his efforts. Add in Moussa Sissoko attempting 48 more tackles than in 2017-18 (66 to 18) and Davinson Sanchez attempting 26 more having tried 33 tackles in 2017-18 compared to the 59 he attempted this past season.
Even Toby Alderweireld, king of positional football was part of a major increase in tackle attempts, trying some 50 tackles this past season compared to only 15 attempts across all of 2017-18. What these statistics tell us is that Spurs defenders were more often on their heels and scrambling defensively this past season than they were in the past. As players lose the position you have to try to do something to stop the play and in comes the tackle.
Making matters worse with tackling is the overall lack of wins in the tackling attempts. Aurier won 66 tackles or 60.5%, which means on 43 other occasions, he tried to go for the ball and missed, leaving someone else to cover. One can begin to see, if the player in front of you misses a tackle, then the next player has to tackle, and the numbers just go up and up. Both the lack of success and the sheer volume of tackles attempted, particularly in the defensive 1/3 need to come down next season if Spurs plan on giving up fewer goals.
Spurs Cannot Stop the Dribble
Another calling card of that 2017-18 team was the fact that the defense was simply difficult to get past. Just as when a player attempts and misses a tackle it leaves the defense out, the same is true when a defender is beaten off the dribble as now teammates have to help.
Unlike, in 2017-18 when the entire team was difficult to dribble by the same could not be said this past season.
It is a weird statistic, but there is a tackle percentage statistic that combines tackles with times dribbled past to determine how easy or difficult it is to beat an opponent. Back in 17-18 Spurs had 10 players with a score of 40% or higher and 5 were above 50% as a rate.
However, looking back to this past season, the number above 40 is only six players and only 1 who plays regularly Serge Aurier, was above 50%.
So, what does this mean? It means it was a lot easier to dribble past Tottenham Hotspur defenders this past season, which of course puts the next guy out of position too and leaves the team exposed. To really highlight this, Moussa Sissoko defended dribblers at a 66.7% rate in 17-18, which means only 1 in 3 were getting past him defensively and frankly only 4 did all season. This past season, Sissoko’s rate was only 40% and he was beaten on the dribble 33 times and he is our best defensive midfielder.
The rest of the defense really was not any better, as only Serge Aurier of the regular defensive players improved his success defending players off the dribble, going from 42.5% success to 50%. Toby’s rate went down 5%, Sanchez went down 7.3% and Jan Vertonghen’s rate when down 18.3% as he was beaten off the dribble as many times – 13 – in 2019-20 as he was in 2017-18 in 1/3 fewer games.
If you combine the fact that Spurs were tackling too often, and were more often than not unsuccessful, along with the fact they were beaten more off the dribble, particularly in the middle of the park and you can begin to see why the defense gave up so many more shots and goals. Put together, this left the team too often defending desperately and desperate defending will get you beat.
What do I mean by desperate defending, more often than not, Tottenham defenders were left doing one of three things during this past season – usually after the man in front of them was beaten – which was to clear the ball, tackle the ball, or stand there and block the shot. For Spurs, all of these categories were much higher than they were only 2 seasons ago.
In 2017-18 Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld combined for some 158 clearances in 55 games. This past season Sanchez had 175 clearances himself in 53 matches. Sanchez himself attempted 59 more clearances on the season, but that was nothing compared to Serge Aurier and Toby Alderweireld. Aurier attempted 122 clearances 91 more than just two seasons ago and Alderweireld has some 269 clearances this year compared to just 42 in 17-18. That is 227 more clearances on the year in 3 fewer games. With this many clearances, the defense was clearly under enormous pressure and was often left to make a decision and the safe one is when in doubt kick it out. Clearly, there was a lot of doubt in the Tottenham back-end this past year.
Similar rises can be seen in both tackles + interceptions and in blocked shots. This past season four Spurs had at least 100 tackles + interceptions, whereas only two did back in 2017-18. Additionally, four Spurs had more blocks this season than anyone on the squad did back in 2017-18. Toby, Aurier, Sanchez, and Dele all had more than 60 blocked shots, whereas Eric Dier led the team with 59 on the season two years ago.
Bottom Line and Future of Spurs Defense
The imbalance across the Tottenham Hotspur squad is found more in any place than the defense. The team started the season disinterested and then struggled to adapt to a coaching change initially defensively. However, over the last six weeks of the season, following project re-start, promising signs were the defense started to improve.
While it was obvious Hugo Lloris was on fire, the defense overall was less prone to mistakes and just seemed more mentally aware of what was going on. Sure, Sheffield scored three, but no other team managed more than 1 goal versus Spurs during that time. This leads one to believe with more time under Jose Mourinho this defense can again find its footing and be the backbone of a successful Tottenham Hotspur squad. Not to mention having Ledley King as a defensive assistant can only help this as no-one was better at getting the ball and playing positional football than King.