Ruth_NZ’s guest posts on this blog this week (part one and part two) were interesting in the way they categorized defensive solidity. It seemed to me – and I’m sure Ruth will jump in on the comments if I have misunderstood him – that he was suggesting the balance between offence and defence is a zero sum game. In other words, a team has to sacrifice attacking intent for solidity at the back or vice versa.
That might be true in a lot of cases, but I think it is also possible for teams to transcend this; some teams can be defensively sound and attack with gusto. At a guess, Ruth might respond by saying these would be Group B or Group C teams, which are balanced defence or balanced offence respectively.
The problem then is which one are they? For example, the 1997-98 title-winning Arsenal team, with the legendary back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn behind a defensive shield of Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit, recorded 19 clean sheets. But their attack, featuring Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka and David Platt, also managed to score three or more goals on nine occasions that season. You might say they were a “balanced defensive team”. Or you might say “balanced attacking team” when you consider they also conceded three or more goals on four occasions that year. Or maybe they were both a good attacking team and a good defending team.
This matters because of the prescription Ruth suggested for each group: Play Group B players against most opposition, but Group C players should be bought in for attacking returns or good fixture runs. The reason I am talking about an old Arsenal team is because of their present day north London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur.
Ruth has categorized Spurs as a Group C team because he thinks the manager has a more defensive inclination but the fans or board expect a more offensive approach. I would broadly agree with that. Mauricio Pochettino likes his sides to be defensive but the Tottenham faithful like their teams to attack. But does that mean we should only buy Tottenham players for their good fixtures?
Spurs started the season slowly, conceding four goals and not recording one clean sheet in their first three matches. Since then though they have clocked up three straight clean sheets almost unnoticed. They were not greatly troubled last week by a Crystal Palace team that is gunning for goals. A clean sheet in their previous game against Sunderland may not be unexpected, but Everton, their opponents the week before, cannot be classed as easy opposition. The Toffees sit joint seventh with Palace and Bournemouth for goals scored this season.
Tottenham are now the second best team in the Premier League for goals against, ahead of a host of teams that are being much more widely talked about as being defensively solid.
Has Pochettino got his way and left the fans disappointed? Despite only five goals scored, the statistics and the evidence of my own eyes watching last week’s match against Palace suggest not. Spurs sit in the top five in the Premier League for shots, shots in the box and shots on target. So, are they really a balanced attacking side or are they a balanced defensive side? Or are they good at doing both (albeit with Kane misfiring up top)?
I would say it’s still too early to tell. The good news though is we have a set of fixtures coming up (MCI, swa, LIV) which should test Tottenham’s defensive solidity. If they can get through those without Hugo Lloris having to pick the ball out of the net frequently, I might suggest we take a closer look at whether Spurs have a defensive unit this season that can be relied on for the long haul and not just for brief spells.