There are plenty of reasons to praise Ange Postecoglou for the start he has made to life at Tottenham Hotspur, but he has also, in one sense at least, been rather fortunate.

Back in the summer of 2022, the decision to sign Yves Bissouma seemed like a smart one for the club. A Premier League-ready player who had excelled under Graham Potter at Brighton and provided reinforcement and competition in midfield for a reported initial fee of around £25 million, there appeared to be little reason not to sign him.

But with former Spurs manager Antonio Conte insisting on playing the 3-4-3 formation that has long served him so well, there were only two spots up for grabs in central midfield.

Only Conte didn’t trust Bissouma in a midfield two. The Italian even went as far as speaking publicly about how the Mali international had been “struggling a bit with the tactical aspect” of his football.

“With the ball, he’s really good,” Conte said in September last year – only a couple of months after Bissouma had joined. “[But] defensively he has to pay more attention. More attention because especially we only have two midfielders and then they have to be good with the ball and without the ball.”

Conte insisted that a little more time “for him to understand” would lead to more game time for Bissouma, but the cautious Italian proved unwilling to take what he clearly perceived as a risk. By the time the 2022-23 season stopped for the FIFA World Cup, Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had respectively started 13 and 14 of Spurs’ 15 Premier League games. Bissouma had made six league starts by that point, but five of those were in a 3-5-2 formation, with the added security of an extra man in midfield.

Conte wasn’t convinced, and he also wasn’t willing to try and let Bissouma learn on the job. It meant that when Bentancur suffered an injury at the World Cup that ruled him out of domestic action in late December and early January, Bissouma wasn’t ready to step in as a direct replacement, despite having been at his new club for half a season and – as he showed at Brighton – being more than capable of playing at Premier League level. Bissouma even found himself behind a 20-year-old debutant in Pape Sarr for January’s north London derby against Arsenal. That game resulted in Spurs’ first home defeat to their local rivals in nine years.

It was galling for Spurs fans to watch. They knew there was a very good player in there, and with other signings from last summer in Bissouma, Richarlison, Ivan Perisic, Clément Lenglet and Djed Spence all struggling to improve the first team, there were concerns that the transfer strategy wasn’t working. Why had Spurs signed Bissouma if he wasn’t exactly the type of player Conte wanted?

Move on a few months and things are now looking rather different. Given how well Bissouma fits into new manager Ange Postecoglou’s style of play, you’d be forgiven for thinking signing him a year earlier might have been part of some grand plan by Daniel Levy. Along with James Maddison, Bissouma has been one of the most important factors in Spurs moving so seamlessly from Conte’s reactive game to Ange-ball.

Nobody who has watched Spurs this season will find any of the numbers in the following graphic surprising, but it highlights just how stark the difference has been. After four games of the Postecoglou era, Spurs have seen an increase in possession, pressures in the final third, touches in the opposition box, shots, goals, expected goals and field tilt (which measures territorial dominance by comparing passes made in the attacking third to those made by the opposition. In other words, a higher percentage indicates the field being ‘tilted’ towards the opposition’s goal by Spurs making more passes in the attacking third than their opponents).

Tottenham stats Antonio Conte vs Ange Postecoglou

Bissouma has been integral at both ends of the pitch. Having him at the base of midfield has helped Spurs build out from the back almost fearlessly, with Postecoglou insisting his players are bold in possession, take risks in playing through the thirds and trust in the system.

The 27-year-old has had more touches this season than any other Spurs player (367), while his total is the 11th most of all Premier League players and fourth most when excluding defenders. He is safe in possession when he chooses to pass the ball (90.7% success rate), but there is so much more to his game; 27% of his on-ball actions are made up of actions other than passes. Of the top 20 players in the Premier League for touches of the ball, only Pervis Estupiñán (28%) has used a higher proportion of his touches for actions other than passes. Rodri is probably the world’s best pivot player right now, and he unsurprisingly leads the league for touches, but his game is based far more around moving the ball with his passing than Bissouma’s (89% of his touches are passes). That’s not a criticism of either player, but rather an indicator of the variety that Bissouma brings to Tottenham’s midfield.

He is a very adept dribbler, and will look to get past his opponent far more often than the other players who touch the ball as much as him. His 11 completed dribbles is second only to Eberechi Eze (13) in the entire Premier League this season. While Eze does most of his damage near the opposition’s goal, Bissouma’s dribbling has proved useful all over the pitch. In the attacking half, he helps Spurs break down an opposition block, but closer to his own goal, his press resistance has been a very useful asset in helping Spurs play out from the back.

Yves Bissouma dribbles 2023-24

Bissouma has genuinely world class awareness. He seems to feel pressure before an opponent has even got within touching distance of him, and pre-empts attempts to tackle him by turning away from pressure effectively. His exceptional ability on the ball can lead to an ounce of overconfidence, though, and as his dribble map above shows, he has failed with a few attempts in potentially dangerous areas inside his own half. None of those losses of possession have led directly to an opposition goal yet, but his decision making at these crucial times is an area of his game that he needs to work on.

But he does have good reason to be confident; his first touch, close control, awareness and passing ability are the perfect tool at the base of midfield for Postecoglou’s team. He brings a calmness to Tottenham’s game deep in their own half that was decidedly lacking last season – no team conceded more goals following a high turnover in the Premier League in 2022-23 than Spurs (nine) – and they have been able to play out of defence in precisely the way their new manager wants. So far, there have been no calamities that one might expect of a team playing an entirely new and very risky brand of football, and much of that is down to Bissouma.

The extent of how much Spurs have changed their build-up can be seen in how they have approached goal-kicks this season. They are now taking almost all of theirs short, with only Brighton seeing a higher proportion of their goal-kicks passed within their own penalty area (94%) than Tottenham (86%) this season.

Tottenham's goal kicks 2022-23
Tottenham's goal kicks 2023-24

As a result, Spurs have been able to draw their opponents out by inviting pressure in their own third, playing through their opponents’ structure, with a decent portion of their shot-ending sequences going through Bissouma.

Spurs sequences 2023-24

But Postecoglou hasn’t ripped up everything that Conte did. The Italian’s Spurs side were brilliant in transition, and with Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski still in the front three, there is every reason to keep attacking at pace when there is space to break into. Spurs rank fourth in the Premier League this season for direct attacks (10), which are defined as ‘open-play sequences that start just inside a team’s own half, have at least 50% movement towards the opposition’s goal and end in a shot or a touch in the opposition box.’ They are mixing up their approach under the Australian, and the addition of the lightning-quick Brennan Johnson in the summer will only help that.

It says something about Bissouma’s ability that we are still yet to mention his ball-winning ability, which is a huge part of his game. He reads the game exceptionally well, with no other player in the top flight having made more interceptions than him (11), while he is also very rarely beaten by an opponent. Only two players in the Premier League have made more tackles than his total of 16.

Yves Bissouma defensive actions

Spurs are not the finished product, of course. There is plenty of improving to do, and they could do with tightening up at the back. They have conceded four goals already – with two goals apiece coming in away games against Brentford and Burnley – and their total of 6.31 expected goals against is only the eighth best in the league, behind the likes of Crystal Palace and Brentford. Indeed, goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario has prevented 1.7 goals according to our expected goals on target model – the third best rate in the Premier League this season behind Sheffield United’s Wes Foderingham (3.1) and Fulham’s Bernd Leno (2.1) – with Spurs having relied on their new number one a little too often in the first few games of the Postecoglou era.

They might have been punished for being too open more times than they have this season, and Bissouma could be key to shoring things up. He plays an important role in helping Spurs keep the ball high up the pitch (aiding those aforementioned field tilt numbers) and has even got into positions to have seven shots in open play and eight in total this season – his average of two per game is more than you might expect from a deep-lying midfielder.

But there is an argument that Spurs might be better off with the Malian sitting deeper and in a central position to help break up opposition counter-attacks than he has been so far this season. That might be something we see more of as Tottenham come up against stronger opposition than they have faced so far, with games against Arsenal and Liverpool on the horizon.

But in truth, there is little to be unhappy with about Bissouma’s start to the campaign. It is chalk and cheese comparing this season to last for Tottenham as a team, but also for their sensational anchorman in midfield.

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