Spurs are level on points with an absurd Manchester City, a point behind a flying Arsenal and have just won 6-2. So why do we still think they’re, well, a bit sh*t?
Over the years we’ve all had our fun with The Things That Brendan Rodgers Says, haven’t we?
He’s a fascinating character. Clearly and obviously a very good coach but one often prone to the most astonishing braggadocio and a man tragically doomed to be ever so very slightly less clever than he thinks he is. Believe me, that’s a horrible place to be.
After the 6-2 defeat to Spurs at the weekend, there was a moment in the post-match presser that should have been peak Brendan, yet more grist for the banter mill. But it wasn’t. And that’s because a) his face and voice and every utterance were those of a man who realised that he is doomed, that he won’t make it to the other side of the international break; b) despite the inherent and apparent absurdity of it all, he sort of had a point; and c) because we’re about to do a version of it in reverse, so strap in.
Anyway, what he said in attempting to mitigate a sixth straight league defeat included the phrase “four of the goals we conceded were…”.
And that’s the point where you have to stop, really, isn’t it? As soon as you hear the words “four of the goals we conceded” in a sentence that is supposed to be making things better you surely have to just stop talking and accept your fate. But he wasn’t entirely wrong: four of the goals Leicester conceded were from corners or daft individual errors. Lots of the other things Leicester did were very decent.
It was the least bad 6-2 defeat we’ve ever seen. And thus logically, and here’s where we’re going to try and avoid going full Brendan ourselves because nobody wants that, the worst 6-2 win. ‘Four of the goals Spurs scored…’ if you will.
Leicester didn’t play that badly at Spurs. And just as importantly Spurs didn’t play that well.
We absolutely cannot get our heads round this season’s Spurs. They confuse us. We are confused. Angry and confused. Angry and confused and tired. And hungry.
Spurs have a whole bunch of extremely good players. That feels uncontroversial to say, doesn’t it? All over the pitch, really good footballers. Some of them are truly exceptional. The manager, he’s absolutely excellent as well, isn’t he? A brilliant coach, one of the very best in the game. No question about that.
But we’ve watched every Spurs game this season and our naked eye assessment is that they are really quite shit. This is backed up by all manner of stats as well, right up until you start getting bogged down in really obscure boffin-bothering data points like ‘goals’ and ‘points’ and ‘league position’.
Because by those measures, Spurs are a really very good football team. They have started the season with five wins and two draws, precisely the start the genuinely brilliant 2016/17 Spurs team made under Mauricio Pochettino.
They are level on points with a Manchester City side that is already making us ponder the point of it all and only a single point behind the greatest Arsenal team ever.
None of which makes a single lick of sense.
Having let it just mainly annoy us for the last couple of months, the events of Saturday evening have proved a watershed. If they’re winning 6-2 when still looking really not that good, then we’re going to have to start looking into why rather than just getting agitated by it all.
Only four teams have conceded fewer goals this season, and only Manchester City have scored more. They already have a five-point cushion over fifth place. They are seven points ahead of Chelsea and eight clear of Liverpool.
At some point you have to stop just insisting such a team are shit.
So what actually are they, then?
For one thing, they just don’t play football like any of the other really good teams. They don’t look anything like any other current iteration of elite football. They don’t dominate possession, but (unlike last season) nor have they for the most part particularly looked like a lethal counter-attacking team either. Their midfielders are seemingly playing quite well, and yet every game they seem to find themselves overrun and losing the battle for control of the middle of the park.
They don’t attack with great frequency or in great numbers, and they have a terrible record for actually getting the ball into the final third. They don’t create a great many clear-cut chances and are frequently out-shot by their opponents.
So they don’t dominate the ball, or territory, or chances, or anything else. And then they win.
At the risk of over-crediting something which cannot in its current extreme guise be going entirely to plan, you have to acknowledge that is to a large extent intentional. Conte’s brand of sufferball is generally more about effectiveness than beauty; it’s just that Spurs have some very beautiful players that give it, at its very best, a far more aesthetically pleasing edge.
If they are absolutely nothing else, then Spurs are a very effective team. They don’t create a great many chances, but the ones they do are extremely high-percentage chances. Look, for example, at Harry Kane’s six Premier League goals this season: tap-ins and close-range headers the lot of them. It’s no criticism – as much as anything, these are the goals people have spent the last two years telling him to score more of instead of trying to be a false-10 quarterback or whatever.
Eric Dier has already scored twice in the Premier League this season. Spurs lead the division for headed goals. This is a double threat: they might not pass through you in the middle of the pitch but they will get it wide and cross. They can score from those crosses and if that doesn’t work, then they’ll just score from the resulting corners instead.
The addition of Ivan Perisic to take those corners has added further to the effectiveness of this tactic. Any teams that can effectively weaponise corners, such a key feature of the game but for the most part so wildly unproductive, is always going to be in with a chance.
In this sense, Leicester’s now legendary incompetence in defending set-pieces made them the ideal opponent. All the apparent flaws of this Spurs team were on show. Leicester created by far the better opportunities from open play and were enjoying control of midfield for the most part. But Spurs scored twice from corners, one played short and one played long, and could have had two more. One corner produced a goal disallowed under the long-established if frequently disputed Keeper Protection Laws; another would have produced a goal but for a wonderful save from Danny Ward, which is a sentence very rarely required.
Spurs also threw in uncharacteristic mistakes in that first half, Davinson Sanchez clumsily giving away a needless penalty and Ryan Sessegnon making a naff effort at keeping Thomas Castagne at bay. Because the other feature of this Spurs team is the solidity of the defence, something that does admittedly suffer a touch when Cristian Romero isn’t there.
It is one thing that is perhaps missed by those who judge Spurs purely from stat sheets. Their opponents may frequently have more attacks and more shots, but Spurs are for the most part very effective at keeping these to low-percentage chances. The chances Spurs concede are mainly long-range pot-shots; Leicester were actually unusual in being able to get in behind Spurs the way they did.
And yet even then, a first half that featured Spurs at their worst and Leicester at their best ended all square. And then in the second half Son Heung-min happened having pointedly not happened all season up until now.
Maybe it really is as simple as that. Maybe Son’s effervescent brilliance made Spurs look more fun and exciting on those counter attacks than they should have done. Maybe his drop-off in form this season exposed the lack of edge-of-the-seat excitement that sits at the very heart of Conteball.
Maybe that’s what has made Spurs look a little bit rubbish. But here’s the kicker. It didn’t make them any less effective.
Is it sustainable, playing like this? And how far can it take them if it is? We don’t know, obviously, but our suspicion is that for this team in this league with this manager it is far more sustainable than data or logic or reason would suggest. But it surely can’t take them any higher than third.
Ah, there it is. We finally went full Brendan, didn’t we? We’ve concluded that Spurs are so shit they will probably only finish third.
A real ‘Four of the goals we conceded’ conclusion if ever there was one.