Slow Starts and Hard Work

Post 31

Spurs 0 Swansea 0 (Premier League)

Spurs 1 Barnsley 0 (Carabao Cup)

 

Much has been made of the ‘Wembley Hoodoo’.

Let’s see how long that narrative lasts. But in the meantime we’ll just have to put up with wind-up pundits, bandwagon journos and, sadly, some Spurs fans. Yes, it’s not White Hart Lane. It’s a bigger pitch. It’s one Season of 38 ‘away’ PL matches. It’s not ideal. Is there really more that’s actually worth saying? # Boring.

Much more interesting is Spurs’ ‘Early Season Hoodoo’.

Since Pochettino took over, Spurs have always started slowly.

Season 2014-2015: we opened with 2 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses in our first 5 matches. We had only 7 points out of 15. We still finished the Season in 5th place.

Season 2015-2016: we opened with 1 win, 3 draws and 1 loss. We had 6 points out of 15 and lay 12th in the table. Yet we finished the ‘Leicester Miracle’ Season in 3rd place and should have come 2nd.

Season 2016-2017: we opened with 3 wins, 2 draws and 0 losses. We had 11 points out of 15. We ended up as Runners-Up to Chelsea.

Season 2017-2018: we’ve opened this season with 2 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss. We have 8 points out of 15 and are in 5th place.

Arguably, we could have won the PL title in 2015-2016 if we’d started faster than we did; a defeat at Old Trafford, then draws with Stoke, Leicester and Everton. 9 points dropped out of 12. It was only on Match day 5, via Ryan Mason’s brave late winner at Sunderland, that our season got going with a win.

Our strongest start was last season. Wins over Palace, Stoke and Sunderland, draws with Everton and Liverpool. With 11 points out of 15 we were one point ahead of Chelsea who had a 3-1-1 record (they lost their 6th game to Arsenal before going on that 13-match winning run that basically won them the title).

So over Pochettino’s 4 Seasons in charge, Spurs have taken only 32 points out of 60 available from the first 5 games. Mid-table form at best. So our ‘Early Season Hoodoo’ is the real curse we need to focus on. We need to win 5 out of 5 at the start of next season.

The first thing that could help is the Fixture Computer. For however many seasons it has been now, Spurs always start with an away match; West Ham (2014), Man United (2015), Everton (2016), Newcastle (2017). I suspect we’ll start away again next year in order to ‘play safe’ and allow a bit more extra time for the new stadium to be finished.

Basically a few fixtures like Man United have enjoyed this season wouldn’t go amiss; match-ups with out-of-form teams, home bankers and the like. Just to get some momentum going.

But is there actually more to it than that? Some Spurs fans blame Levy for our slow starts; his leaving-it-late in the transfer window, ‘not giving Poch time with new signings’, ‘distracting our existing squad’. I suspect it’s not ideal. All things being equal, I’m sure Poch would rather have our business done (sales as well as purchases) by the end of July. But all things are not equal. Poch would rather sign Sanchez and Aurier in August than less talented defenders for the same price earlier in the window.

No, I suspect there’s more to this ‘hoodoo’ than mere fixture misfortune and Levy’s poker-playing. And it’s to do with Pochettino’s style of constant evolution. Every season has been about the team / squad acquiring a new attribute; Season 14-15 was simply about learning his pressing game and fitness expectations; Season 15-16 was about adding consistency, defending as a 4-2-3-1 team (and using the unexpected talent that was Dele); Season 16-17 was about thumping mid-table teams like Stoke and West Brom 4-0 who had traditionally frustrated us, and integrating the flexible 3-4-3 formation.

Pochettino makes much of ‘hard work’. His solution to every setback is hard work. More work. The training ground. I’m sure he has the squad working hard on further evolution for this Season. Perhaps more of a ‘Plan B’ using Llorente? Even a version of 4-4-2?

But at the moment it all just feels a bit like “hard work” in that other sense. It’s all a little laboured. The potent mix of joie de vivre and power with which we finished last season has gone. Tantalising. Out of reach. The players are trying. Most fans are trying. But the spark is missing. Even the win at Newcastle was perfunctory. The loss to Chelsea unfortunate. Burnley was a throwback to old Spurs. Then came Everton and Dortmund and glimpses of the team that danced round our opposition last season. Before a combination of Mike Dean and Swansea’s 8-1-1 formation showed there is yet more ‘hard work’ required.

Or is there? The defence is solid, if not quite at its most convincing best yet; 2 PL goals conceded v Chelsea plus the late one to Burnley. Dier has slotted back into midfield. Eriksen is doing his thing, making things tick. Kane is off the mark scoring-wise. Our bench has a better look to it.

It’s the transition from midfield to the attacking third, and the interplay between the flanks and the centre, where we’re looking one-paced. Teams like Burnley, Swansea, heck even Barnsley, can come and park the bus and try to snatch a goal against the run of play. Last season’s form we’d have found a way to win 4-0. This season we can’t. Yet.

Part of the problem is that Poch hasn’t settled on his best team. He’s understandably integrating new signings and easing injured players like Son and Winks back. Wanyama’s out. Dembele has to be used sparingly. I suspect he isn’t quite sure who his first XI is?

The reality is that Spurs aren’t Chelsea or Man City. We can’t call on 3-4 top level ‘creatives’ at the same time. We have Eriksen. But having only one player like him creates two problems; (i) it’s easier for the opposition to focus on him and (ii) if he’s not on his game there’s nobody else to unlock the centre of tight defences. Of course I’m not saying that Dele and Son aren’t creative, or Dembele’s power can’t cause havoc, but Eriksen and his assists are key to one facet of our game.

Our other scoring options are (i) going wide (ii) long balls from the defence that bypass the midfield and (iii) fast breaks like we scored against Dortmund. But in the PL only Liverpool and perhaps Man City are set up to come at us like Dortmund. Aurier’s new to the team and the defence has been rejigged to accommodate Sanchez. We’re not using the flanks or surprise-long-ball as well as we undoubtedly can.

Last season we scored 86 PL goals (see Post 14) at an average of 2.26 a game. But we’d only scored 8 after 5 matches last season. It was only from January onwards that we regularly walloped teams 4-0, if not 7-1.

This season we’re at 7 goals after 5 PL matches. But our eyes are contrasting the beginning of this season with the end of last season. At the moment the goals aren’t flowing and the entertainment isn’t what we’ve become used to. Including the CL and Carabao Cup, we’ve scored 11 goals in 7 matches. Hardly a famine but not a feast either. We’re taking lots of ‘low quality’ shots; for example, 27 attempts against Barnsley, of which only 5 were on target (and all those in the second half), many were blocked.

The good news? The situation can change at any time. Dele, Son and Kane are too good for it not to. A moment of magic, a couple of silly goal celebrations, a hattrick, and suddenly the smiles will be back. What’s more, Rose and even Lamela aren’t too far away now. The Argentine hipster’s return would allow Eriksen that bit more freedom. Erik will present opposition teams with his combination of ferocious press and inventive left foot that almost no other PL player possesses.

We have a perfect ‘away’ record so far: played 2, won 2, scored 5, conceded 0. Let’s hope we gain revenge for West Ham’s win last season. COYS.

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