Recent performances have suggested Tottenham’s young team are stumbling towards the 2023-24 finish line. But what would success look like for Ange Postecoglou’s side this season?

Four wins in their last seven games hardly makes it time to panic for Tottenham Hotspur. They are still in with a chance of making the top four, and this season has, overall, felt largely positive.

They might not have any chance of ending their wait for a trophy, but getting back into the Champions League would have been one of the main aims at the start of the season. There is still a chance that happens, although after Manchester City and Arsenal crashed out on Wednesday, the chances of the Premier League earning a fifth Champions League spot have taken a major hit.

Manager Ange Postecoglou has, however, repeatedly insisted that getting back into the Champions League isn’t his aim. Instead, it is something less tangible – he wants to see evidence that the team is progressing on the pitch.

“What’s more important is that come the end of this year, we’ve got a team that’s going to challenge the following year and keep growing,” he said last month.

He cited the season Newcastle have had after qualifying for the Champions League last year as a cautionary tale for Spurs. Being in Europe’s premier tournament hasn’t exactly helped Eddie Howe’s team this term. They will end it trophyless and almost certainly outside the top five.

But if Spurs are to finish this season with a whimper – and recent performances suggest they might – and miss out on the Champions League, it will be difficult to appreciate any progress they have made. The fans are particularly desperate for a return to Europe’s grandest stage.

Recent form hasn’t exactly been disastrous, but the manner of last week’s 4-0 mauling at Newcastle suggested any concerns that Spurs had been running out of puff in the season’s final few weeks may well be warranted. It certainly gives the results of the last few weeks a different overall context.

Since the 4-0 win at Aston Villa – which felt like one of the team’s best performances under Postecoglou – Spurs have two wins, two losses and a draw. And the wins – at home to Luton and Nottingham Forest – haven’t come without a scare. They needed a late Son Heung-min winner to see off Luton, and the Forest game could have been very different had the usually clinical Chris Wood not somehow missed from one yard out when he had the chance to put his side 2-1 up.

So, has there been a growing problem of late?

The injury and suspension crisis that disrupted their remarkable start to the season in that Chelsea game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in November has long since abated, and Postecoglou has been working with an almost fully-fit squad of late. But having most of his players back hasn’t simply solved all their problems.

James Maddison has been a huge success since joining from Leicester last summer.

The below graphic comparing Tottenham’s expected goals for and against over the course of the season shows just how much of a difference Maddison makes. When he was out through injury, Spurs created less and conceded more chances.

Of course, their improvement with Maddison in the side can’t be attributed entirely to the midfielder, but he certainly makes a big difference.

Tottenham xG difference 2023-24
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

However, his influence has waned in the second half of the season and his form suffered.

Opponents have realised that stopping Maddison often represents a big step towards stopping Spurs, and many have taken to stopping him by any means possible.

Only Jordan Ayew (3.4 times per 90) has been fouled more often in the Premier League this season than Maddison (3.2) of players with 1,000+ minutes to their name.

james maddison fouls won

Maddison’s frustration at this treatment has been palpable, and it boiled over and very nearly got him into trouble when he swung an arm at Nottingham Forest midfielder Ryan Yates in the recent win.

Maddison’s output has dropped significantly, too, which will only have added to his frustration. After registering three goals and five assists in his first nine Premier League games for Spurs, he has just one goal and two assists in his last 13. The numbers suggest he might have been rushed back from his ankle injury too quickly and is now suffering the effects of that.

Spurs undoubtedly improved after Maddison returned to the team – as the above xG graphic shows. They have largely generated more xG in attack than they have faced in defence when Maddison has been present.

But the two lines for their six-game rolling average of xG for and against have almost collided after their last result. That means that over their last six games, Spurs’ average xG for and against have been identical; in other words they are conceding as many chances as they are creating. That may be because the team is running out of steam in the season’s final few weeks.

Spurs haven’t faced anything like the gruelling schedules that many of their rivals have had. They failed to qualify for Europe this season and played only three games in the two cup competitions, knocked out of the EFL Cup by Fulham in August and the FA Cup by Manchester City in January.

But Postecoglou has a favoured first-choice XI and hasn’t done a great deal of rotating, which has led to tired legs and tired minds.

And many of the players he has relied on are young, inexperienced and new to the Premier League. Of the 10 players he has given the most minutes to this season, five are playing their first full season in the English top flight.

Guglielmo Vicario, Destiny Udogie, Pape Sarr, Micky van de Ven and Pedro Porro are guaranteed starters for Spurs when they’re fit and will rarely get a rest but are all very much still learning to play in the Premier League. Udogie (21), Sarr (21) and Van de Ven (22) are all aged 22 or under at the time of writing.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this Tottenham team haven’t been able to play to their full potential for a whole campaign, even if – in terms of quantity of matches played – it could scarcely have been less demanding.

Consistency at the top of the game is something that comes with time, and those young players will be better next season for their experiences and exposure to Premier League football this term.

Both Porro and Udogie made uncharacteristic errors leading to Newcastle goals in the defeat at St James’ Park last week, which may point to fatigue.

Maybe it won’t come as a surprise then to see that Spurs’ players are covering less ground of late.

It would be misguided to read too much into the number of kilometres they are covering (because running a lot doesn’t necessarily mean anything positive), but it is telling that their five-game average for distance covered is trending downwards, and is currently at a lower point than in any other stage of the season.

Alongside players appearing leggy and making silly mistakes, it doesn’t make for great reading.

Their five-game average for pressures – a player moving towards an opponent who is on the ball – is also at its lowest level for the season, suggesting they are pressing with less intensity, too.

It is noteworthy that Tottenham’s peaks for both came around the turn of the year when Maddison was injured, perhaps suggesting the other players felt that more effort was needed in the absence of their most important creator.

Now, they need those work rates more than ever, but that is easier said than done when the players are coming to the end of a long season.

Spurs have come in for criticism for being too open of late, allowing their opponents too many good chances.

They have conceded chances worth 53.9 xG this season, with only eight teams boasting a worse record, and Vicario has had to come to the rescue time and again in the Tottenham goal.

The Italian has prevented 5.3 goals with his saves according to our expected goals on target model – the third-highest total of all Premier League goalkeepers.

But Spurs have had a particular problem of late at set-pieces. Only Manchester United (14.8) and Burnley (14.3) have faced a higher xG from set-pieces this season than Spurs (13.8).

And their issues at set-plays have come to light in the second half of the season, with opponents spotting a weakness in Vicario’s game and now looking to put him under as much pressure as possible in dead-ball scenarios.

Spurs have allowed their opponents more than 0.5 xG from set-pieces in 11 Premier League games this season, and four of those have come in their last five games, including 1.1 xG vs Fulham.

A few weeks earlier they threw away a lead against Everton, having allowed Sean Dyche’s side 2.1 xG just from set-pieces.

It’s another issue that suggests a lack of experience. As time goes on, Vicario and centre-backs Van de Ven and Cristian Romero will grow in confidence and perhaps learn to deal better with the pressure they come under at set-pieces. This team needs time to grow and improve.

After a genuinely extraordinary start to life under Postecoglou, plenty of fans adjusted their expectations for the season. A title challenge became a realistic possibility for them.

The reality is, though, Tottenham are still at the very start of this new era with a very new playing style and a very new team. They have already surpassed expectations, and a longer-term view of their success is necessary.

They have a very difficult run-in, facing all three of the title-challenging teams, starting with Arsenal in the north London derby a week on Sunday.

A few positive results in this final stretch of games and – even without Champions League qualification – Postecoglou will surely be able to point to the on-pitch progress he is after.

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