As Spurs prepare for the start of a new era under Ange Postecoglou, there are a fair few unanswered questions heading into the 2023-24 campaign. Here, we pick out five key issues that may be central to whether or not they can call this season a success.
What Should Spurs Do With Harry Kane?
The ball is very, very, very much in Harry Kane’s court. He has one year left on his Tottenham contract and has told the club he has no intention of signing an extension any time soon. Well, why would he?
Spurs finished eighth last season – and so have no European football to play next season, let alone any Champions League football – while Kane scored a quite astonishing 30 goals. He is a world-class footballer who wants silverware and there is no great prospect of him winning any at Spurs any time soon. With teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain reportedly circling, it’s easy to understand why Kane’s head might be turned.
Spurs have remained adamant that he will not be sold, and they will push to get him to sign a new contract, but even before considering rumours that owner Joe Lewis has told chairman Daniel Levy to sell Kane this summer and avoid losing him for free, there is a good argument that Spurs might be better off trying to cash in now.
Selling him this summer would have a lot of downsides, not least in that Spurs would be losing a generational talent, probably the best player in their entire history and, most crucially, the most important player in this current team. Kane scored 43% of Tottenham’s Premier League goals last season – a higher proportion than anyone else in the top flight – and he became the first player in the Premier League era to score more than 25 goals for a team that finished outside the top seven. And he scored 30. From just 21.5 xG. He would be a massive loss.
However. Without an immediate and drastic improvement under new manager Ange Postecoglou, Kane won’t sign a new contract. He has always maintained he would prefer to win things at Spurs than do so elsewhere, but he would understandably rather win things elsewhere than win nothing at all. And if Spurs let his contract run out, they’d not only lose him for free, but he would also be able to go wherever he wants. For many Spurs fans, anything is better than entertaining the very grim possibility of a reunion at Chelsea with Mauricio Pochettino.
Spurs have a huge decision to make here, and it might be time to say goodbye to Harry at least in part on their own terms.
How Long Until the Players Get Used to Ange-ball?
You don’t have to look too far away to find a vaguely comparable situation in recent footballing history. When Mikel Arteta took over at Arsenal, they were 10th in the Premier League table (they’d go on to finish the season eighth), before their new manager spearheaded the most painful of rebuilds. To put into context just how much has changed in the three and a half years since Arteta’s appointment, the only players who still remain at the club from his first matchday squad are Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe. Oh, and they nearly won the league last season.
As Tottenham have learned in the past four years by appointing ‘win-now’ coaches in José Mourinho and Antonio Conte, this isn’t Chelsea. Teams like Tottenham – and Arsenal – need to time to establish structures that that can support sustainable change. For all the success Arteta has had at Arsenal, it did take him a while to get his team playing the way he wanted them to, and to mould his squad into the kind of group he wanted. The FA Cup triumph in 2020 was built on a favourable run to the semi-final and then wins over Manchester City and Chelsea with 29.2% and 40.3% possession, respectively. In other words, they weren’t performances you’d expect of Arteta’s Arsenal nowadays.
Tottenham should take heart from the fact that they aren’t starting from as low a bar as Arsenal. Arsenal were in the middle of a fourth consecutive season in which they’d finish without Champions League football, while Spurs finished fourth in 2021-22 under Conte. Meanwhile, although Postecoglou will certainly want more changes to his squad, it’s difficult to foresee him wanting quite the overhaul that Arteta oversaw (though time may tell on that front).
But that said, the changes will be dramatic. Postecoglou likes a high press; Spurs ranked bottom of the Premier League last season for high turnovers with 255, although they did rank joint-first for goal-ending high turnovers, suggesting they weren’t used to pressing much but were very good at it when they did press; there is certainly something there for the new manager to work with. Postecoglou also likes to dominate possession; Spurs averaged under 50% possession (49.8%) in 2022-23 for the first time in 19 seasons, last doing so in 2004-05 (49.3%). Postecoglou likes his teams to be bold in possession from the back; the declining Hugo Lloris looked very uncomfortable on the ball last season. He made more errors leading to a goal in the Premier League in 2022-23 (four) than any other player. Postecoglou also likes his teams to attack with a lot of width in the opposition half. Spurs ranked 13th in the Premier League last season for the average width of their attacks (24.7m).
Postecoglou has made slow starts at several of his former clubs, including Celtic, who lost three of their opening seven league games under the Australian before things took a turn for the better. Clearly there is plenty that needs to change at Tottenham, so it would be reasonable to expect it to take a while for Postecoglou to get his ideas across in the harsh surroundings of the Premier League.
Does Postecoglou Have the Full-Backs to Play Ange-ball?
Postecoglou likes his full-backs to invert and join central midfield when his team have the ball. That he was sticking to that way of playing was evident from the first minute of Tottenham’s first friendly under him, against West Ham, as both full-backs alternated constantly with coming infield… with mixed success.
At left-back, Spurs have Destiny Udogie, Ben Davies, the returning Sergio Reguilón and the option of using Ryan Sessegnon, though whether he could play left-back in a back four is up for debate, having previously only really played as a left-sided midfielder or wing-back for Spurs. Meanwhile, the evidence of Ivan Perisic at left-back in the 6-1 demolition at Newcastle will presumably be enough for Postecoglou not to risk him there. None of his options are accustomed to playing the inverted full-back role.
Reguilón did not look at home there in that first friendly match. He is a run-and-cross full-back rather than a passer, often struggling with short passes and much more comfortable whipping balls into the box from wide. Of all Premier League players in 2021-22, only João Cancelo (2.13) registered a higher expected assists tally from crosses than Reguilón (2.06). He is clearly very good at that side of things, but as his touch map from his two years at Tottenham shows, he sticks to what he is good at, and that means hugging the touchline.
Ben Davies played at left centre-back in Spurs’ first friendly, which might not necessarily mean Postecoglou doesn’t see him as a viable full-back option, but it also doesn’t suggest he is rushing to play him at full-back. Davies, 30, has been a reliable servant to the club for nine years, but he is also unlikely to reinvent himself as an inverted full-back. He is a good progressive passer, though, so he is a good option at left-sided centre-back. Udogie, at 20, may be most likely to be able to adapt his game and learn what is essentially a new position. He is most comfortable as a wing-back – a position he played the whole of last season in for Udinese – and tended to take up similar positions to Reguilón. It will be interesting to see if he can adapt his game. The signs were at least more positive from him in the West Ham friendly than they were for Reguilón.
At right-back, Pedro Porro is very adept technically, although he put in his best performances for Spurs last season in a wide right midfield position. Emerson Royal is a defender-first, ball-player-second kind of full-back, so it’s difficult to see him excelling in central midfield. Djed Spence, well, we’ve barely seen anything of him since he moved to Tottenham, and his 575 minutes of action on loan at Rennes last season were spent very much as a traditional right-back. In all, it’s a very similar situation to that at left-back: nobody is used to playing the Ange way at full-back, so it may be the youngest players who are easiest to ‘mould’.
Spurs haven’t been linked with another full-back, but it may be that they need a similarly transformative signing to when Arsenal brought in Oleksandr Zinchenko a year ago if they are to play Ange-ball to its full potential.
Is Vicario Good Enough for a Top-Four Challenge?
It’s fair to say when Spurs dropped their pursuit of David Raya and swiftly snapped up Guglielmo Vicario, it came as a bit of a surprise. He comes to the Premier League very much as an unknown quantity, but after the season Lloris just had, Spurs fans will be hopeful that he can’t be any worse than the Frenchman.
Vicario is a more than adequate shot-stopper. In each of his two seasons in Serie A – in 2021-22 and 2022-23 – he prevented 2.3 non-penalty goals according to our expected goal on target model. His total of 4.6 non-penalty goals prevented across these two seasons was the second best of all goalkeepers in Serie A, only behind Bologna’s Lukasz Skorupski (5.8).
By way of comparison, Lloris had a negative differential of 3.6 when it came to his goals prevented, meaning he conceded 3.6 more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to from the shots on target he faced.
Learning to play out from the back in a team that dominates possession – as Postecoglou will want his team to – may be something that takes a bit of getting used it. Empoli averaged just 47.1% possession in Serie A last season, and although Vicario was encouraged to play short whenever possible, when he was put under pressure, he would more often than not go long, ranking ninth in Serie A for the number of long balls he attempted, with 34% of his passes ending in the opposition’s half. He may also have to learn to sweep up behind a high line, having only done so seven times over the entire course of last season, ranking 14th in Serie A for a stat we call ‘keeper sweepings’.
He does make good decisions, though. He will very rarely play a pass along the floor that he isn’t sure of making, even if his long balls are often more clearances than long passes. He has made only two errors leading to a goal in his 73 Serie A appearances for Empoli, and both were when shots squirmed through his legs too easily, rather than after he misplaced a pass. There will be some adapting to do to Postecgolou’s style of football, but he looks ready for the step up.
What is the Best Combination in Midfield?
Having played with two in midfield for the best part of two seasons under Conte, Postecoglou has some rejigging to do in the middle of his team. Spurs have a lot of options in central midfield once Rodrigo Bentancur returns from injury, but there is talk that Postecgolou is seeking further reinforcements there, and also some suggestions that Pierre-Emile Højbjerg might be on his way out the exit door. While Højbjerg and Bentancur did a sterling job as a two, a midfield three will suit a lot of the players in their squad far better. The best option as the ball-playing number six at the base of midfield is likely to be Yves Bissouma, who needs a run of games to rediscover the form that convinced Spurs to sign him a year ago. He likes to keep it simple with his passing, completing 91.3% of his passes in the Premier League last season, which was the fifth best such rate of everyone to play at least 1,000 minutes, behind only Manchester-based defenders in Manuel Akanji (93.3%), John Stones (93.3%), Victor Lindelöf (93.2%) and Rúben Dias (92.7%).
To either side of him, a runner in Bentancur (or indeed, if the rumours are true, potentially Conor Gallagher) and a ball-player/creator in James Maddison will make up a nicely balanced central midfield. Pape Sarr and Oliver Skipp will be options in the number eight positions, neither having really impressed in what was a very difficult job in a midfield two under Conte. Sarr has shown real potential as a ball-carrier, and ranked fifth of central midfielders in the Premier League last season for carries per 90 (19.0), behind only Rodri, Kalvin Phillips, Mateo Kovacic and Thiago Alcântara, though Sarr’s was a very small sample size. He provides another option most likely in the number eight positions, but he could be the kind of press resistant dribbler that Spurs fans once hoped Tanguy Ndombélé might be for them.
Many supporters are hopeful of finally seeing the best of Ndombélé following his return from his title-winning season on loan with Napoli, while Giovani Lo Celso looks well suited to the advanced number eight positions Postecoglou wants his midfielders to take up, but it may be that both of those players have fallen too far down the pecking order. Neither has played enough football in the last few years: since the start of the 2021-22 season, Ndombélé and Lo Celso have played just 28.9% and 34.5% of available minutes in the league, respectively, either for Spurs on loan elsewhere. Their careers may have stagnated too much.
There is plenty for Postecoglou to work with, and certainly reason for optimism, but it’s a very long road ahead and patience will be needed. Don’t expect Spurs to be back up near the top of the table right away… although stranger things have happened.
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