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How Tottenham Could Shock Us One More Time

This could finally be the year when a true underdog wins the Champions League again. The last time a club not among the world’s very elite hoisted the trophy was in 2012, when Chelsea won it all.1 In the six years since, the ruling class of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid captured Europe’s most prestigious club tournament each year. In this context, if Liverpool triumphs on Saturday, despite being clearly among the best teams in the world according to the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index, the Reds would still be breaking ground.

But the real underdog here is Tottenham. Spurs rate as the 12th-best club in the world by SPI. And in many ways, the story of Tottenham is the incredible journey it took just to get close to the world top 10. Spurs languished in the middle of the English Premier League table through most of the 2000s, and unlike Manchester City, which also made the leap to the EPL elite in this millennium, Tottenham didn’t luck into an owner willing to spend at a massive deficit to take the club up the ladder. Instead, Spurs had to ratchet up their spending slowly and play the market carefully. Of the Premier League’s current “big six” clubs,2 only Tottenham has come close to breaking even on its transfer dealings over the past decade — receiving about as much money in transfer fees as it has paid out.

In this same time, Tottenham has managed to increase its wage spending from about $85 million in 2009-10 to $187 million reported last season. The money saved on transfers has, to a significant degree, been reinvested into wages. By carefully managing the club’s incoming and outgoing funds on transfers, chairman Daniel Levy has built up the quality of the squad and paid to keep better and better players.

And it’s worked. Tottenham has finished at least sixth in every season this decade, including now four consecutive berths in the Champions League.3 In the previous decade, Spurs finished in the top six only twice (back-to-back fifth-place finishes in 2005-06 and 2006-07). Tottenham has become a regular Champions League competitor through a process of careful business management backing up good player development.

This same “do more with less” mentality is reflected in the team’s performances this season under the management of Mauricio Pochettino. Faced with injuries up and down the squad, Pochettino has had to improvise. His team has given at least 1,500 minutes to 14 different outfield players,4 most among the big six sides in the Premier League. Tottenham’s 10 most-used outfield players have covered only 66 percent of the team’s total minutes, the smallest share among the big six.

The team’s injuries have hit the midfield particularly hard: Eric Dier missed most of the second half of the season after an appendectomy, Harry Winks has missed time with ankle and groin injuries, Victor Wanyama was unavailable for most of the season with knee problems, and Mousa Dembele was injured in November and has not played for Tottenham since.5 Dier, Dembele and Wanyama were three of Spurs’ four leading midfielders in tackles and interceptions won per 90 minutes this season; without them, the club had no true ball-winners in the center of the pitch. The loss of these more defensively sound midfielders changed Tottenham’s approach, forcing Pochettino to dial back his preferred high-pressing, high-possession style. The team’s pressing rate has dropped to its lowest level under Pochettino at 47 percent.6 Instead, Pochettino has had to develop a more counterattacking approach.

Tottenham has remained one of the best attacking teams in the league, with about 50 open-play expected goals created — good for fifth overall. But unlike the other clubs that rank high in this metric, Spurs complete surprisingly few passes into or within the penalty area.

Arsenal completed 459 open-play passes into or within the penalty area to Tottenham’s 310. And yet Spurs have created only about three fewer expected goals from open play.

This speaks to an unusually direct attacking style. Tottenham no longer pins its opponents back with a strangling high press but instead builds its attacks quickly to free individual players to run at the defense, in an attacking style that has been compared to college football’s “air raid.” To make passes inside the penalty area, a team must have multiple players already in the vicinity, and if one of these high-risk passes is left incomplete, fewer players are in position to stop a potential counterattack. Without the ball-winners in midfield to recover possession, such a deliberate approach would put Tottenham under too much pressure in transition. So instead, the team works more directly, bypassing midfield and quickly feeding a forward to face a defender one-on-one.

This is the attacking style that Liverpool will have to defend against on Saturday in Madrid. Liverpool has consistently been able to use its midfield press to control matches and hold possession. But against Spurs, Jurgen Klopp’s side will have to be particularly wary of the direct counterattacks that have become the team’s go-to play. If Liverpool takes risks to overload Spurs defensively in possession, looking for some of these killer penalty area passes, it will be the Reds who are at risk of being countered.

The table may be set for a more slow-paced and tactical Champions League final than either Klopp’s or Pochettino’s reputations might suggest. In the most recent meeting of the two sides on March 31, there were just 2.6 expected goals created from 25 shots. This is almost exactly average for a Premier League match7 but is far from the high-scoring barn-burner one might hope for from the matchup. If Liverpool won’t risk sending extra runners to support its forwards, while Tottenham invites some pressure and looks to counterattack, the game may slow down as it did at Anfield in March.

The final, then, could come down to one team or the other relying on its superstar forward for a moment of magic. For Liverpool, this is not such a complicated question. Mohamed Salah had a great season, has returned to fitness after a head injury and is expected to be ready to go at full strength. Harry Kane is a bigger question for Tottenham. The English striker suffered his fifth ankle injury in the past three seasons against Manchester City in April and has not played since. He has rejoined the team and traveled to Spain, but can Spurs hope to get a vintage Kane performance?

Last season when Kane returned from an ankle injury, his performance fell off badly. He had been running hot, averaging 0.98 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes in the 10 matches before he got hurt, and he dropped to about 0.73 in the 10 matches after his return. The same thing happened again this season after Kane suffered an ankle injury against Manchester United: His shot statistics declined from 0.88 xG+xA/90 to 0.52. But his ankle injuries in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017 didn’t result in such a drastic downturn in performance. In 2017, he seemed to come back stronger than he was before the injury, going on a rampage down the stretch with 1.04 xG+xA/90 compared with 0.74 beforehand.

Tottenham’s counterattacking style, and the team’s efficiency in turning passes around the penalty area into scoring chances, run best through an elite center forward. If Kane can return to form within a single game, that would give Spurs the best chance at a Champions League update. Getting an upset win probably requires a little bit of good fortune, and there is no better possible stroke of fortune for Tottenham than a fit Harry Kane.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Even that team — with its gargantuan payroll and roster of aging stars — didn’t totally fit the profile of the underdog.

  2. Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.

  3. A group stage place in the Champions League is now awarded to the top four teams in the EPL. Before 2018, the top three qualified for the group stages, and the fourth-place team had to win a playoff match first.

  4. The 10 players not in goal.

  5. Dembele was sold to Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League during the winter transfer window.

  6. Pressing rate is defined as how often the team broke up new opposition possession in open play before the other team could complete three passes.

  7. Averages are 2.64 expected goals and 25.3 shots per match.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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