Spurs sacrifice shape in pursuit of fluidity

Back in early January I wrote an article on Tottenham discussing the change in their approach this season from last (https://nasher3230.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/wingers-take-central-role-in-tottenhams-title-challenge/). To summarise it seemed clear that Tottenham’s wingers, usually Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, were given license to roam across the pitch to help Rafael Van der Vaart support the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor. However, since writing the article, Spurs have taken this strategy to the extreme and now look completely devoid of width, and in the North London Derby with Arsenal at the Emirates they turned a 2-goal lead into an embarrassing defeat through a lack of shape and positional discipline.

In the first half of the season the plan was extremely effective as opposing defences were faced with the duel threat of Tottenham’s wingers either attacking down the flanks and crossing or cutting inside to shoot. Both Bale and Lennon seemed to grow as players and provided more assists and goals. However, to emphasise the point, this was a case of specialist wingers given the freedom to occasionally move infield or switch flank.

Gareth Bale in particular has now seemingly adopted a central position that has ruined Tottenham’s shape and also nullifies many of Bale’s biggest attributes. Playing centrally neither Bale nor Lennon gets to use their pace as much as playing out wide (save for running on to the occasional through-ball such as the one Bale received from Luka Modric that earned Tottenham’s penalty against Arsenal). Both Bale and Lennon are also decent crossers of the ball but it is telling that Tottenham have not scored a headed goal in the league since September, despite having Adebayor to aim for in the box. Finally, when opposing teams crowd the central areas Bale and Lennon lack the ball skills to keep possession like Modric and Van der Vaart.

The worrying thing for Tottenham fans may be Bale’s attitude. Since becoming one of the team’s stars he increasingly seems intent on taking centre-stage, even at the expense of the team’s shape. Whether Harry Redknapp is encouraging this or whether this is simply a result of the winger’s ego is not certain.

To solely blame Bale for the Emirates debacle is unfair, and tactically Tottenham were awful. As already mentioned Bale won the penalty in the first half running between Arsenal’s centre-backs, despite starting wide on the left. This seemed to make his mind up and it is difficult to remember him running at Arsenal’s right-back Bacary Sagna again in the match. After half-time he drifted all over the pitch, at times dropping deep to collect the ball from the defence, but spent the majority of his time attacking the inside-right channel and running into Arsenal’s midfield. If Arsenal were concerned with how to neutralise Bale they needn’t have worried – Bale neutralised himself with his positioning.

Elsewhere, Tottenham’s midfield lacked any sort of balance. In the first half, Modric and Scott Parker sat very deep to watch Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta, with Louis Saha dropping onto Alex Song. This largely removed Saha as an attacking threat, despite his opening goal. Modric and Parker’s positioning gave Arsenal lots of possession which allowed them to go in at half-time level.

At half-time Redknapp rejigged the midfield, bringing on Sandro and Rafael Van der Vaart. His wholesale changes were a surprise – Arsenal lined up exactly as they have done for the last few years, yet Redknapp was happy to completely scrap a pre-planned strategy that had initially put them 2 goals ahead. Sandro was supposed to provide extra midfield protection with Parker, and Van der Vaart was deployed wide right. Unsurprisingly Van der Vaart provided no width down the right, and with Bale attacking through the middle Tottenham became extremely narrow. Sandro and Parker both lacked the discipline as defensive midfielders, often leaving Modric as the deepest Tottenham midfielder by charging forward themselves, and Arsenal ran riot.

Ironically losing shape is usually Arsenal’s biggest fault. Theo Walcott is often criticised for not playing his wide-forward role effectively, and Alex Song is prone to charging forward from his holding midfield position leaving the defence horribly exposed. Arsene Wenger trusts his players to make the right decisions and refrains from giving them individual instructions, often to Arsenal’s detriment, but Redknapp will want to rethink his strategy and convey that to his team quickly.

In the last few weeks the individual qualities of Tottenham’s attacking players have often masked some disjointed team performances, although the tepid draw against League 1 Stevenage in the FA Cup demonstrated that they wouldn’t get away with it forever. If Harry Redknapp is looking to distance himself from the England job, then he is going the right way about it.

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How do Premier League clubs’ 2011 form compare to 2010?

The league season may be the obvious way to track a club’s success, but a calendar year might be a better method to track a club’s progress.  Many teams begin a league season with a host of new players who naturally take time to integrate with the squad and adapt to the team’s style of play. Usually in the early months of a season, managers will gradually incorporate new signings into their existing side. If we accept that by the halfway point in a league season, most clubs will have a settled team and system, it may be true to say that a team in January will have more in common in terms of unity and ability with the team that begins the next campaign than the one that started the current one.

Similarly managerial dismissals are more common in the first half of the season than in the second half. Of the current Premier League managers, nine were hired between August and December compared to only five between January and May. Managers tend to get closer to completing a calendar year than they do a league season, and a change in manager is arguably the biggest catalyst to a dramatic change in form. Therefore, judging a team’s average points-per-game over a calendar year rather than a league season should offer a better guide to their progress as a club, rather than simply their performance in a given competition.

The Statistics

The table below shows the current Premier League clubs’ average points-per-game (PPG) achieved in the league in the last two calendar years. The Change column represents the difference between a team’s ppg between 2010 and 2011, while the % Change column represents the percentage difference. A team with positive change will have improved in 2011 from the previous year, whereas a team with a negative change will have declined during the same period. The league is ordered by the points-per-game earned in 2011, and so reflects how the league would look over the calendar year.

Naturally the newly promoted sides, Norwich, Swansea and QPR, have no comparison with 2010, and to use their Championship performances would be flawed due to the obvious difference in quality between the divisions. Their points-per-game for 2011 is still listed, but it should be noted this is only based on roughly half of the games of the other teams, just as Newcastle and West Brom, newly promoted in 2010, played a smaller number of games in the previous year.

The ‘Big Six’

At the top of the division, the ‘Big Six’ have shown themselves to be superior to the rest of the league being the only clubs to average over 1.50ppg in 2011. This may seem obvious, but in 2010 Everton were averaging 1.61ppg, while Liverpool dropped to 1.44ppg. However Liverpool have progressed well under Kenny Dalglish and are the second most improved side in 2011, improving to an average of 1.80ppg.

The only team to improve by more than Liverpool were Man City, rising from 1.80ppg in 2010 to 2.17ppg in 2011. This reflects the excellent job Roberto Mancini has done, turning an expensively assembled squad into a coherent attacking outfit. Man City now sit alongside Man Utd (2.23ppg) as the only teams to earn over 2.00ppg in 2011, taking Chelsea’s place from 2010. Last season’s champions Man Utd have actually improved in 2011 which makes Man City’s position at the top of the table all the more impressive.

2011 reflects Chelsea’s decline, dropping from an average of 2.03ppg in 2010 to 1.87ppg in 2011 and making them the fourth worst performers in terms of their previous year’s results. Andre Villas Boas has struggled to rejuvenate an ageing and inflexible squad and will be watching his back if he fails to qualify for the Champions League, whatever the compensation may turn out to be.

The statistics also tell us that Tottenham are gaining more and Arsenal less points-per-game in 2011 than they were in 2010, but neither team has changed as much as some would have you believe. Tottenham’s increase of only 0.05ppg would suggest that consistency is still a problem over a calendar year, and that they would do well to maintain their excellent start to the season. Similarly Arsenal’s decrease of only 0.05ppg rubbishes talk of a team on the wane and reflects how well they have coped with the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.

Mid-Table

There are nine Premier League clubs that average over 1.05ppg, which is the required average to achieve the accepted survival target of 40 points. Two of these clubs, Norwich and Swansea, are new to the division, yet their points-per-game averages of 1.16 and 1.05 respectively should keep them up if they are able to maintain their current form. Swansea in particular have shown remarkable composure on the ball for a newly promoted side, and their ability to calmly retain possession would surely give them an advantage should they be lured into the panic of a relegation dogfight.

Other members of the mid-table group have had mixed years. Everton’s decrease of 0.13ppg (8.3%) reflects the difficulty David Moyes has faced in the transfer market and his lack of firepower in front of goal. Despite still averaging a respectable 1.47ppg, they achieved the fifth largest decline in points-per-game from 2010 to 2011. The loss of Mikel Arteta seems to have taken a lot out of a side that has had to grow accustomed to losing key players every summer.

Meanwhile, Newcastle and West Brom have prospered under new managers and are the fourth and fifth most improved sides of 2011 respectively. The team that finished one place higher in third comes as a surprise, but Fulham improved by an impressive 0.32ppg (31.6%) in 2011. Considering Martin Jol’s slow start to the season, this statistic closer reflects Fulham’s poor 2010, when the Europa League led to a poor end to the 09/10 season and Mark Hughes struggled at the beginning of the 10/11 campaign. It also demonstrates how well Hughes performed once settled at his new club, and makes his decision to resign all the more puzzling.

Another club suffering from a poor end to a previous season are Stoke, who despite looking more efficient than ever have actually averaged 0.05ppg less in 2011 than in 2010, a 4% dip. Although this is hardly decisive, it may surprise some who believe the club are improving year-on-year. In contrast, it will surprise no-one to discover that Sunderland have averaged 0.21 fewer points-per-game in 2011 than in 2010, giving them the third largest decline (16.4%) in the calendar year. The club has seen a huge turnover of players over the last twelve months and it will be up to Martin O’Neill to bring some stability.

O’Neill’s previous club, Aston Villa, are the final club in the mid-table cluster of teams. Fans have been disappointed with the appointment of Alex McLeish, but Villa have had a marginally better 2011 than in 2010 when O’Neill was in charge for over half of the year. Considering how difficult Gerard Houllier found taking over at the start of the 10/11 season and the sale of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing in the summer, McLeish should get more credit with what he has done in the short space of time he has been at the club. Whether he has the style to appease the fans and help the club progress is another matter.

Relegation Strugglers

At the bottom of the league, five clubs have averaged less than 1.05 points-per-game which would result in them failing to achieve the survival benchmark of 40 points come the end of the season. The last few seasons have suggested that fewer points are now needed to stay in the league, and the statistics support this. Both Wolves and Wigan averaged less than 1.05ppg in 2010 and successfully survived. Wolves have slightly improved in 2011, but Wigan have not changed in the last twelve months. Roberto Martinez’s commitment to an attractive style of play may conceal the fact that Wigan have made no real progression in 2011.

QPR may currently lie above the relegation zone, but their form would suggest they may struggle over the season if they don’t start picking up more points. Their promotion was followed by Tony Fernandes taking over as chairman and promising sizable investment. QPR may have to repeat their late August transfer spree in January if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Finally, the two clubs at the bottom of the league are also the year’s worst performers. Blackburn have taken 0.56ppg (39.1%) less in 2011 than in 2010, while Bolton have declined by 0.44ppg (35.1%). Also, the fact that they are least successful teams over the calendar year as well as the current league season proves that both clubs have been struggling for some time, and that their current form cannot simply be put down to a slow start to the season. The pressure on both managers is well known and the statistics would suggest a change may be necessary to stay in the division.

Summary

So, a good year for Man City, Liverpool, Fulham, Newcastle and West Brom, and a poor year for Blackburn, Bolton, Sunderland, Chelsea and Everton. How will this affect their 2012 performances? Sunderland have already changed manager, and Steve Kean, Owen Coyle and Andre Villas Boas are certainly fighting to keep their jobs. Everton’s situation is different with their lack of investment, and David Moyes’ consistently good record means he is certainly under no pressure from the fans or the chairman. However, the club’s stagnation must be starting to frustrate Moyes, and I suspect this may be his last season at the club. Kenny Dalglish, Alan Pardew and Roy Hodgson all deserve great credit for an excellent 2011, and it will be interesting to see whether they can take their clubs even further in 2012. Martin Jol should get 2012 to really show what he can do with a decent Fulham side having shared the 2011 record with Mark Hughes. Finally, Roberto Mancini is surely the ‘Manager of the Year’, turning Man City into not only title contenders but a team capable of running away with the Premier League in 2012.