Tottenham have a woeful recent record at set-pieces, but their manager insists he doesn’t need to hire a set-piece coach. The numbers suggest he could be mistaken.

It is quite something that Ange Postecoglou’s attitude towards his team’s set-piece problems will not be changed.

In the face of mounting evidence that suggests Tottenham are behind many of their Premier League rivals when it comes to their performance at dead balls, their manager has dug his heels in.

“I’ve never had a specific set-piece coach,” he said in early March when the issues were becoming increasingly apparent. “I’ve always had someone who’s responsible for that. I always think it’s better if that’s somebody who’s a part of the coaching staff because then that’s an extension of how we play our football.

“I don’t separate set-pieces from everything else we do, in terms of the team we want to be. It all hopefully links in.

“Here we’ve split the roles between Mile [Jedinak] and Ryan Mason in terms of attacking and defensive set-pieces and they put a lot of work into it with the analysis staff. I’m sure every club does. Some have gone down the specialised route which I understand. It’s just it’s not how I work.”

Some have suggested it is naïve of Postecoglou to assume that his current staff can do a job for which many Premier League teams now employ a dedicated coach.

And yet, in the aftermath of Sunday’s north London derby defeat at home to Arsenal, in which the visitors scored two goals from corners as they raced into a 3-0 first-half lead, Postecoglou remained resolute.

“If I thought fixing defensive set-pieces was the answer to us bridging the gap then I’d put all of my time and effort into that. But that’s not where we’re at.

“I was focused on the details of [the game], not just set-pieces but a lot of moments in games where we don’t sense that you give good opposition the time and the space to do things then they’re going to hurt you.

“I don’t think it’s about one part of it, I think it’s a bigger, broader picture than that, but our defensive set pieces for those two were very poor. But there’s a lot more than that to fix.”

Maybe it was Postecoglou just not wanting to publicly admit he is worried about Tottenham’s set-piece problems and fuel the fire. It has become a talking point and an issue that opponents seem to be cottoning on to. Every team now loads the box when they play Spurs and crowd goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario – something with which he struggles.

But while there haven’t been many reasons to complain about Postecoglou in his first season at Tottenham, there have been some concerns about his unwillingness to compromise.

The wild high line Spurs stuck with when down to nine men in the 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in November was cavalier in the extreme, and while he drew some praise for sticking to his principles, there was also some criticism given they gave up so many huge chances, and only a woefully wasteful opponent saved them from losing by a bigger scoreline. Postecoglou insisted afterward that “even with five men” he would not change the way his team plays.

In more recent times, some fans have wondered if there should be a little more pragmatism to his approach. Sunday’s defeat brought even more scrutiny on Tottenham’s set-piece work, and left many wondering if Postecoglou will recognise the need for specific coaching in that department.

Their numbers for the season make clear how much of an issue this is.

Five teams have conceded more goals from defensive corners in the Premier League this season than Tottenham (9, when including own goals), but only two – Manchester United (11.1) and Sheffield United (11.0) – have allowed their opponents more expected goals than Spurs (10.6).

tottenham xg conceded following corners - Premier League 2023-24
Own goals are excluded from this graphic as they have no xG value

Each shot Spurs have faced at a corner this season has had an average xG value of 0.11 – the second highest in the league after Aston Villa (0.14). Spurs have conceded 97 shots following corners, though, compared to just 68 for Villa.

It’s a similar story from set-pieces in general. Five teams have conceded more goals than Spurs from set-piece situations (12), but only United (15.3) and Burnley (14.9) have allowed their opponents a higher cumulative xG than Spurs (14.3).

tottenham xg conceded at set-pieces premier league 2023-24

But given nine of those 12 have come from corners, that is clearly where Tottenham’s biggest dead-ball problem lies.

Spurs fans have undoubtedly enjoyed the attack-minded football Postecoglou has brought to the club. They have largely been happy to accept the other side of the coin – lots of goals and chances at the other end – because the football has been entertaining. One consequence of this along with having a very good shot-stopper in goal in Vicario is that they concede a lot of corners. Only three teams – two relegation-battlers and Manchester United – have conceded more corners per game this season than Spurs (6.5).

But Spurs also play themselves into trouble rather too often, when one place to start if you have a poor record at defending corners might be to avoid giving so many away. They have lost possession in their defensive third of the pitch more times per game this season than any other team in the Premier League (6.7), and they were punished once again on Sunday.

After making a positive start to the game, in the 14th minute Spurs quickly went from comfortable possession in defence to Vicario playing Micky van de Ven into trouble on the left. The Dutchman then gave the ball away and in the blink of an eye Arsenal were in. Only a Cristian Romero intervention denied Declan Rice a goal.

tottenham vs arsenal
Romero has the ball under little pressure and plays a pass back to Vicario
tottenham vs arsenal
Vicario plays a poor pass behind Can de Ven
tottenham vs arsenal
Van de Ven tries to find Davies down the line but gives the ball to Partey
tottenham vs arsenal
Partey finds Ødegaard, who plays Rice in, and his shot is deflected behind for a corner

Arsenal did have a corner, though. And 30 seconds later the ball was in the back of the Tottenham net.

Arsenal favour inswinging corners over outswingers, with 198 of their 199 crossed corners in Premier League games this season being inswingers. Even so, they would have been likely to use that approach when facing Tottenham.

Spurs have faced shots totalling 7.8 xG from inswinging crosses from corners this season – at least 1.4 xG more than any other team (Man Utd 6.3), and more than twice as much as 13 of the Premier League’s 20 teams.

Spurs’ players clearly don’t like it when the box is crowded, and opponents have cottoned on to what is a real weakness in this Tottenham team’s game by piling men into the box and curling the ball towards goal. On average, opponents put 2.25 players in Spurs’ six-yard box at corners – the third-highest rate in the Premier League this season behind City, who face very few corners, and Burnley, who have similar problems to Tottenham at set-pieces.

Average Opponents in Six-Yard Box at Defensive Corners

Something that has been apparent watching Spurs defend corners under Postecoglou is how easy it is for opponents to score. Both of Arsenal’s set-piece goals on Sunday were clearly well-planned, but Spurs will surely have been disappointed that they were both scored with the first contact from the cross into the box.

There have been 161 goals scored from corner situations in the Premier League this season, but only 64 have been scored from the first contact after the corner has been taken. Arsenal scored 3.1% of those goals in the first half of Sunday’s north London derby.

No Premier League team has conceded more goals this season from the first touch after a corner has been taken than Tottenham (six). Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s opener was the only own goal scored directly from a corner in 346 Premier League games so far in 2023-24. Meanwhile, 25.6% of the corners Spurs have faced have resulted in a shot from the first contact – a higher proportion than any other team.

This is clearly a huge problem. It’s one thing half-clearing a cross and then not being organised enough at the second phase, or failing to win the second ball after a flick-on. All too often, Spurs are being outfoxed and beaten to the very first ball and, as we saw on Sunday, it is happening in dangerous positions.

Spurs’ problems also aren’t limited to defensive set-pieces, either. Only Burnley (8.0) have generated a lower xG total at attacking set-pieces in Premier League games this season than Spurs (8.2), while only Chelsea, Burnley and Sheffield United (all 5.1) have a lower xG at attacking corners than Spurs (5.6).

Postecoglou’s side have, at least, outscored their xG at attacking set-pieces (11 goals) and corners (nine goals), suggesting they are making the most of their chances, but that may not be all that sustainable. Nor does it suggest that their goal record is the result of rigorous work on the training ground to create lots of good chances.

Quite what the solution is remains to be seen, but if it wasn’t obvious already, Arsenal made it painfully apparent that Spurs need to spend more time working on set-pieces – at both ends of the pitch.

Unless something improves quickly, Postecoglou can expect to come under even more pressure to hire a dedicated set-piece coach.

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