Tottenham’s number nine is on the best goalscoring run of his career, and yet questions still remain for some as to whether Ange Postecoglou could upgrade up front.

Richarlison is in the form of his life.

A run of nine goals in eight Premier League games that started in December and ran through the period in which Tottenham had to make do without star man Son Heung-min – who was away at the Asian Cup – signalled his best ever run of form in England.

There have been a fair few obstacles to success since he moved to Spurs, not least the immovable presence of Harry Kane up front in the starting lineup last season – Richarlison’s first at the club. Then, earlier this season, he admitted to struggling with his mental health for an extended period.

“I’ve been suffering,” he said in November. “Fighting for my national team and my club for eight months and haven’t been taking care of myself. I think it’s time to rest, to stop for a second.”

He would have a break from the game to “seek psychological help,” and took the opportunity to undergo an operation on an ongoing pelvis issue.

The Brazilian then sat out for just over a month, but returned in December with a bang. Two goals against Newcastle in his first start back sparked this fine run of form, and he has looked a different player since.

However, a blank from Richarlison in a stop-start Spurs display against Brighton at the weekend has reopened the debate around Totteham’s number nine. There are plenty of people who remain unconvinced by the Brazilian; people who don’t believe that this run of form – the only run resembling anything like a purple patch in his Spurs career – proves he is the long-term answer up front.

Those same fans are once again wondering whether Richarlison is good enough to lead the line for a team likely to be playing Champions League football next season, and that is desperate to end a trophy drought that now stretches to 16 years.

It seems harsh to judge a player on that one game when he’s been scoring for fun of late. In fact, even after failing to score against Brighton, he has scored at least two more goals since the start of December than any other player in the whole Premier League (nine).

But he has never before had a better Premier League run than four goals in four games, and many other players before him have hit as many as nine in eight only to fall by the wayside. The signs are positive, but it remains to be seen if Richarlison has turned a corner with his goalscoring now.

He isn’t the most technically gifted or aesthetically pleasing footballer the Premier League has ever seen, so some people find him difficult to watch. That same issue leads some to wonder what it is he brings to the team if he isn’t scoring goals. 

That problem has been exaggerated playing in an Ange Postecoglou team. Postecoglou wants his team to dominate the ball, but the centre-forward’s job is rather more limited than for other managers.

At Celtic, Kyogo Furuhashi averaged just 5.4 touches per shot and 17.7 touches per goal in 2022-23, Postecoglou’s second and final season at Celtic. Both were by a distance the lowest in the Scottish Premiership by any player across the Australian’s two years in charge. He of course did more than just shoot and score, but Furuhashi’s primary focus was to threaten the opposition’s goal, and for long periods he would be distinctly uninvolved.

For Spurs fans accustomed to having all-rounder Harry Kane up front, it’s been quite the change.

Over the past couple of months, Richarlison has appeared to come to terms better with Ange-Ball. He knows now when and where to make runs to meet balls across the penalty area, and the goals have flowed as a result. They are exactly the kinds of chances that Postecoglou wants his teams to create – getting in down the flanks and playing a ball across the face of goal – and Richarlison has been doing the most important job in the team exceptionally of late. He has looked something like the perfect striker for Postecoglou’s football – should we really be asking much more of him?

It wasn’t always this way, though. Richarlison had spent much of the early part of Postecoglou’s reign playing off the left or coming off the bench to replace Son up front, and a recent consistent run of games as Tottenham’s number nine has benefitted him. He has got into dangerous positions more consistently and goals have bred confidence, as is shown by his record in front of goal either side of 8 December: one goal from 3.0 expected goals before; nine goals from 5.2 xG since.

richarlison xg map pre Dec 8
richarlison xg map post Dec 8

Since coming back into the starting XI in early December, Richarlison has scored with all but one of the nine shots he has had closest to goal. He is getting into better positions more often and finishing chances more effectively too.

His rising confidence was such that against Everton he scored a Premier League goal from outside the penalty area for the first time in more than three years.

His hold-up and link play are improving, and for a team that has as much of the ball as Tottenham (averaging 59.8% possession), he is always going to have to do more than just finish off chances. But even though he has played 20% of his Premier League minutes this season on the left flank, Richarlison ranks third in the Premier League for the number of times his only involvement in an open play shot-ending sequence is having the shot (1,000+ minutes), with 3.1 such shots per 90. The two players he is behind are Darwin Núñez (3.7) and Erling Haaland (3.2).

shot only sequence involvements premier league

Richarlison has had 53 shots in Premier League games this season, and 44 of them (83.0%) have been in open play with him having no other involvement in the sequence. He is of course sometimes involved in sequences without having the shot – as was the case in the build-up to Brennan Johnson’s winner against Brighton at the weekend – but more often than not, he is on the end of chances without otherwise touching the ball.

His off-the-ball work and movement is, however, an important part of his game. He works extremely hard, ranking third in the Premier League in 2023-24 for pressures in the final third per 90 (min 1,000 minutes), with 21.5, behind only Rasmus Højlund 23.2 and Dominic Calvert-Lewin 23.0, and he also drags defenders out of position to create space for others – namely the wide forwards who get in behind so frequently.

This is the kind of work that will go unnoticed and underappreciated. It’s more than just trying hard – something that nobody could ever accuse Richarlison of not doing. It is smart running, clever timing of slow-then-fast movements, and intelligent pressing. Spurs have won the ball within 40m of their opponents’ goalline more times this season (249) than any other Premier League team, and only three teams have scored more goals from such situations than them (six). Richarlison more than plays his part in Tottenham’s out-of-possession game.

tottenham high turnovers

But while Richarlison has done a better job than many had expected or possibly even hoped he would this season, there are still moments when Spurs are left longing for a more clinical finisher.

On Saturday, he was put clean through on the Brighton goal by James Maddison in the 22nd minute with Spurs 1-0 down but, after taking a touch that left the ball slightly under his feet, struck his effort straight at goalkeeper Jason Steele. There were a couple of back-post chances from crosses that he put wide against West Ham and Luton when he might well have done better. There was the ball that sat up perfectly for him inside the box against Bournemouth from which he failed to find a corner of the goal.

In clutch moments, it’s not entirely clear that he is the ruthless goalscorer that a team yearning for a first Premier League title might need.

Back in September, Richarlison came off the bench at Arsenal and had three chances in second-half injury time with the game finely poised at 2-2. For the first, he received a pass from Dejan Kulusevski in the box, and turned and struck the ball against the feet of William Saliba. He was slightly lacking in match sharpness and was up against an excellent defender, but watching that sequence back, it is stark how swiftly a promising position came to nothing.

ball in to Richarlison vs Arsenal
richarlison shot blocked by Saliba

For the third of those chances, in the 100th minute, he received a cut-back from Kulusevski but his effort was side-footed meekly wide of the target.

richarlison movement vs arsenal
richarlison shot wide late vs Arsenal

In those big moments, or when he has to be a bit creative or imaginative with finding a route to goal, he can leave a lot to be desired. All but one of his 10 goals this season have been first-time finishes, the exception being his two-touch goal against Newcastle when he took down Pedro Porro’s long ball and slotted past Martin Dúbravka to score.

The problem for Richarlison is that breathing down his neck at Tottenham is one of the best attackers in the world and one of the best players in the club’s recent history. Son, the team’s captain, is clearly a better player and better finisher than Richarlison, and he has shown this season what he can do when he plays through the middle.

Earlier in the season, Son enjoyed a fine run of goalscoring form up front. In 2023-24 so far, he has scored 11 goals from 36 shots while playing up front, compared to two goals from 16 shots when out wide.

Postecoglou has decided, however, that the team benefits most overall from Son playing on the left and Richarlison playing through the middle. In Premier League games this season, Richarlison has 10 goals from 42 shots playing up front, compared to zero goals from 11 shots when on the left.

Some fans will wonder what might have happened were it Son bearing down on the Brighton goal last weekend, or if the South Korean had met Kulusevski’s cut-back at the death at the Emirates.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare Richarlison to Son. Son is a genuine world-class forward, and Spurs have gained a great deal from having him out wide – not least his ball-carrying ability and creativity, both of which came in very handy for Johnson’s winner at the weekend. Richarlison will never be Son, and he is doing an admirable job up front for Spurs in a system he hasn’t had long to learn.

After all, he wasn’t a Postecoglou signing, and the current manager has got far more from him than Antonio Conte, who was in charge when Richarlison was signed for the not-insignificant amount of £60m.

That fee might well mean the Brazilian always faces a level of scrutiny that few others do, while Son’s presence may mean Spurs fans hold everyone else to unfair standards. Richarlison is therefore up against a lot, but as we have seen, he is one for overcoming adversity, and he’ll believe in his ability to be the centre-forward Tottenham need if they are to take the step up to challenging the Premier League elite. Even if he does, the doubters will still take some convincing.

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