Why Tottenham's weak midfield will impact their Champions League aspirations
Tottenham Hotspur have never shied away from reaching for the stars. Their lofty ambitions and propensity to achieve these ambitions are laudable. In recent years, high-calibre coaches were brought in to fulfil Tottenham’s never-ending objective of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. Shrewd signings and bombastic performances enabled the club to qualify for Europe’s premier cup competition once in the last five seasons. The team has consistently finished around the fourth spot during the same period.
The Premier League is widely regarded as the best league in the world. Although this comment is debatable and is met with rampant resistance, what remains a fact is the marketability of the league. Television rights, ticket prices and sponsorship revenues give English clubs a significant advantage over clubs from other countries. Inherently, the bigger clubs in England become financial beasts for the lesser clubs to compete with, as they consume a greater portion of the pie.
Amidst this hostile economic climate, Tottenham bare their intentions on their sleeve, taking on the clubs which sit on the periphery of Champions League qualification. Tottenham have the 6th highest turnover in the league, according to The Guardian. Their league positions over the last few seasons indicate that they are punching slightly above their weight. The monetary complications and management speak aside, it’s players on the pitch that help win football matches, notching points on the table.
Tottenham’s midfield lacks depth after recent departures
Some say that the midfield department is the most important in any team. It’s that part of the pitch in which most of the play is controlled or cancelled. Unfortunately, Tottenham’s midfield pair of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason doesn’t inspire confidence in a tightly contested league.
The club has sold three central midfielders of note in the summer transfer window. Tottenham cashed a cheque worth €14 million for Paulinho and transferred Etienne Capoue for roughly €9 million to Watford, while selling Benjamin Stambouli to PSG for a similar figure. Mauricio Pochettino has evidenced his trust in Mason and Bentaleb, stripping the squad of valuable depth.
Paulinho, Capoue or Stambouli aren’t bad players. On the contrary, each of these players represented high-value when Spurs acquired them. Paulinho was bought for £17 million from Corinthians two years ago. Capoue, in his early twenties, attracted interest from the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal and arrived at Tottenham with bags of experience in Ligue 1. Stambouli, all of 24, had appeared 124 times for his former club, Montpellier. Tottenham signed him on deadline day last summer as a replacement for Sandro.
These midfielders struggled to establish themselves, as they played under three different managers over the last two seasons. Pochettino clearly lost faith in these players, facilitating their departure. Mason, Bentaleb, Moussa Dembele, Dele Ali and Tom Carroll are his current options in central midfield, a worrying proposition not just for him, but for any Spurs fan.
Do Mason and Bentaleb have what it takes in midfield?
The appalling lack of quality in depth aside, Mason and Bentaleb are unlikely to be the fulcrum of a Champions League team. For the purpose of comparison, let’s consider the statistics of players belonging to Southampton, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United – teams Spurs might have to directly contend with for that coveted fourth spot.
Ryan Mason – the more attacking force of the two-man partnership – provided four assists last season. Angel Di Maria, Santi Carzola and Jordan Henderson provided more assists, while being played centrally for their teams. A more telling statistic is that Danny Rose equalled Mason in the number of assists.
Mason was not prolific in front of goal either, as he scored just once during the entire campaign in the league, the goal coming against Swansea in early March. Paulinho, a player with similar characteristics, scored 6 goals in 45 Premier League appearances for Tottenham, when compared to Mason’s 1 goal in 31 appearances.
Bentaleb has a more defensive mindset and plays in a relatively deeper position. He should typically have a high number of interceptions and tackles given his profile. Strangely, Bentaleb had fewer tackles and interceptions per game when compared to Capoue. Bentaleb also clocked fewer tackles than Mason.
Francis Coquelin, Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama and Lucas Leiva engaged in more successful tackles per game when compared to Bentaleb. Coquelin, Schneiderlin and Daley Blind intercepted passes with greater success than the Algerian midfielder.
The duo’s passing statistics, albeit good, was inferior to the partnerships at Liverpool, Southampton, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Lack of quality midfielders puts pressure on Tottenham’s attack
The footballing limitations in Bentaleb and Mason place a heavier emphasis on other players in the team, especially in attack. Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane were phenomenal, carrying the team on their shoulders for large chunks of the season. Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela also chipped in with contributions. But, too much pressure is being put on too few players. This season, Kane will have to play out of his skin to replicate his form.
Only three strikers scored over 20 goals last season – Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and Harry Kane. Two of these players possessed a reputation of being world-class prior to start of the season, which suggests that scoring 20 goals in the EPL in a season isn’t a walk in the park. Lamela was the club’s highest assist provider with 7. But, he was bettered by 17 others in the league, which is arguably an unacceptable number for the men of ambition at White Hart Lane.
Daniel Levy appears focussed on trimming the squad and recovering some of the money spent so flippantly following Gareth Bale’s sale to Real Madrid. Along with the departing midfielders, Vlad Chiriches, Lewis Holtby and Younes Kaboul have also exited the club. Levy has reinforced the defence with Toby Alderweireld and Keiron Trippier, both of whom are excellent footballers.
There exists now a greater impetus for the team to improve. The team has spent a year with the current manager and the revolving door looks rather static at the moment. Players such as Lamela and Roberto Soldado are capable of offering more to the team, and they should.
However, with Tottenham’s competitors strengthening boldly this summer, the management must put their hands in their pockets; open the bank vaults and splurge, lavishly if necessary, to upgrade the midfield. The race for the fourth spot would be tighter this year as United and Liverpool start their campaigns with renovated, bolstered squads. Spurs must respond, in cash and in kind.