How Spurs Went From Top Four Outsiders to Favourites

How Spurs Went From Top Four Outsiders to Favourites

Last season Tottenham finished six points off their goal of fourth place and Champions League football.  This summer, most people thought they’d finish somewhere between fifth and seventh, once again missing out on the top four.  Now at the turn on the year, Spurs are favourites to not only finish in the top four, but the top three.


Tottenham’s increased top four chances are partially down to the under-performance of Chelsea and Manchester United.  No one could have seen Chelsea’s dramatic drop off, which has obviously helped Spurs.  Still, don’t be mistaken, Spurs’ top four chances are down to their own improvement more than anything else.

Spurs have improved massively in Mauricio Pochettino’s second season, both in terms of chances created and chances conceded.  Starting with their offensive numbers, they scored 58 goals in the league last season.  Through 20 games, they’ve scored 34 goals. If they stay on that pace for the rest of the season, they’ll end up with 64.6 goals, so an increase of roughly six goals.  That’s solid, but their improvement in their underlying numbers is even more impressive.  According to the expected goal model created by Paul Riley, they created only 49.3 expected goals last season.  This season they’ve created 36.6 through 20 games.  If they stay on the same pace, they’ll create 69.5 by the end of the season, an improvement of 20 expected goals.

Defensively, Tottenham were quite poor last season.  Their 53 goals conceded is worse than anyone outside of the bottom seven.  Their expected goals against were about the same at 53.4, which would put them 13th in the league.  This season, they’ve conceded only 16 goals in 20 games, fewer than anyone else in the league.  They’re on pace to concede 30.4 this season.  Their expected goals numbers back up this improvement at 19.29, second best in the league and less than half an expected goal behind Arsenal, who are at 19.08.  They’re on pace to concede just 36.7 expected goals, an improvement of nearly 16 ExpG.

This overall team improvement is likely down to three things; upgrading the midfield two of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb to Eric Dier and Dele Alli, finding Jan Vertonghen a capable centre-back partner in Toby Alderweireld, and the improved understanding and execution of Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing system.

Upgrading Ryan Mason to Eric Dier is a big reason why the pressing has improved.  Ryan Mason may have run a lot, but his positional discipline was very poor and his running often left holes in the press that allowed teams to get at the back four and create big chances.  This was a big problem with Tottenham last year.  Too often their midfield would get caught out of position allowing teams to create big chances.  Dier’s improved defensive instincts and position discipline has helped cut the number of counter attacks down.

When teams are able to break the press, the improvement at centre-back has helped Spurs limit the damage.  Last season Vlad Chiricas, Federico Fazio, and Younes Kaboul combined to make more than 30 starts at CB.  It’s safe to say Toby Alderweireld is a huge improvement over all three of them.  His quality has helped Spurs improve defensively even after their initial press is broken.

Finally, their press has been coordinated much better throughout the team this year.  This has allowed them to win the ball back in dangerous positions more often allowing them to create more chances, as well as stop teams counter attacks more often meaning they concede fewer chances.

Tottenham’s improvement is an example of why promising young managers should be given time.  They have improved massively with Pochettino as manager despite having a net spend of a reported negative £10m with him in charge.  After looking like outsiders for top four in August, Spurs seem about as safe a bet to make top four as there is outside of Manchester City and Arsenal.

*All expected goals data is from Paul Riley