End of the Year Spurs review

In the first in a series of two articles reviewing Tottenham Hotspur’s start to the WSL season, Rachel Lara Cohen reviews what’s happened and what needs to be done to ensure 2023 starts better than 2022 ended (2/1/23).

Above: Kerys Harrop’s return after long term injury has been a positive for Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: Football.London.

It’s the end of the year and time to reflect on the first ‘half’ of the season.

Spurs are lying eighth in the league, with nine points (three wins and six losses) from nine games.

They have conceded 17 goals. To put that in perspective last season they conceded just six more (23) across the entire season.

At the other end, Tottenham have scored 11, eight of those coming in the victory over Brighton. That means they’ve managed just three goals across their other eight games, and have not got the ball in the net in a WSL game since Halloween. The grimness of that picture is marginally alleviated by two Conti Cup wins against lower-league opposition (Coventry and Southampton): 5-1 and 1-0 respectively.

Above: Happier Days: Drew Spence and Ash Neville after scoring in the rout of Brighton. Photo: @SpursWomen

What does it mean for Spurs?

In the first six games of the season there seemed to be a pattern. Spurs arguably, lost to better teams and beat (and played better than) teams who we expected would finish lower than them in the league: beating Leicester, Liverpool, and then Brighton and losing to Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea. So long as that remained the pattern it could be argued that Spurs were punching at their weight.

But the three most recent losses – to Reading (a tight 1-0), West Ham (a frustrating 2-0), and Everton (a 3-0 capitulation) – have been more worrying. The final two especially so, because they suggested not just that Spurs are struggling for goals, but also that the team has lost the ability to defend or work together as a team with a plethora of problems all over the pitch: errors borne out of miscommunication; poorly-weighted passes; a lack of competitiveness in winning loose balls; and a sense that no-one knows exactly what anyone else is doing.

Kerys Harrop and Shelina Zadorsky defend as West Ham's Brynjarsdóttir has the ball. Image from Girls on the Ball
Above: Kerys Harrop and Shelina Zadorsky defend West Ham’s Dagny Brynjarsdóttir. Photo: Girls on the Ball

In terms of what that means for the league, the picture is less grim than the above suggests. Tottenham finished the 2021-2 season in fifth (outside the traditional Top Four, but ‘best of the rest’). It is still feasible that Spurs can repeat that this year. West Ham who are currently in fifth have played a game more (10 to our 9) and are on 15 points and both Everton and Aston Villa (occupying 6th and 7th) are on 12 points (having played the same number of games as Spurs). That means that a consistent spell could see the North London side moving up.

Moreover, there are teams below us, most obviously Leicester on zero points, who seem more likely than us to take the single relegation spot. In other words, our recent results notwithstanding, there is not massive jeopardy, and still time to turn things around. Meanwhile, in beating Reading, Coventry United, and Southampton the team have finished top of its Conti-Cup group and will be progressing – albeit to a very tricky tie against Chelsea in the Quarter-Finals.

However, for a club that claimed to want to build on last year’s finish and that has ambitions to achieve Champions League football within a few seasons, the first half of this season has clearly been a disappointment and the fact that both the outcomes and Spurs style of play have worsened rather than improved as the season has gone on, means the winter break is sorely needed.

So what’s going on?

There are a bunch of possible explanations, so let’s go through a few of them.

1. It’s not us it’s them

Perhaps Spurs are not going backwards but are being overtaken. After all, the teams around them are also trying to make up ground. Everton significantly underperformed last season, have a squad of elite players, including a couple of excellent loanees, and have picked up where many commentators thought they would be this time last year.

West Ham, like Spurs, had a good season last year and despite the departure of their coach and a few players, were able to retain core players and recruited a couple of game-changers, while Aston Villa, in a summer coup, brought in the goal-scoring machine that is Rachel Daly. All three of these teams are clearly stronger – whether in personnel or coherence – than they were last year.

Even below that level, there are teams like Reading and Liverpool (and perhaps now Brighton) who are showing that they can do what Spurs specialised in last year – being competitive and hard to beat. Meanwhile, the top four have gone up a level with incredible strength in depth and are pulling away from the rest of the league. In this context it isn’t enough to reach the levels of last season, rather Spurs have to improve to stand still.

Ash Neville battles against Arsenal's Beth Mead
Above: Ash Neville battles against Arsenal’s Beth Mead. Photo: Girls on the Ball

2. It’s the injuries

Spurs have been hit with a lot of injuries. Like so many clubs we have had players out with ACL injuries (four currently – two new this season; two from last season). Of the players brought in in the summer to strengthen and/or provide cover, two have been absent for most of the season (Ellie Brazil and Ramona Petzelberger) and Spurs are yet to see Kit Graham’s return, after she was injured in November 2021.

The widespread and pervasive nature of injuries in the squad has probably exacerbated the impact of this, slowing players return to full fitness. If there are so many players out that other players are brought back or given minutes a little early it may contribute to ongoing niggles and, indeed, in lots of games we have seen late notice of players unable to play or on limited minutes, in addition to the players known to be out with long-term issues.

Most critically squad injuries have meant that there have not been players available in key positions (#9 most obviously). They have also meant a lot of chopping and changing, which has probably extended the period needed for new members of the team to gel and made it more difficult to gain on-pitch familiarity and familiar passing patterns.

3. It’s the players

The players on the pitch are clearly better than their current performances. I have repeatedly celebrated the rare joy of Ash. But she’s not alone. Molly Bartrip and Shelina Zadorsky had a fantastically solid partnership last season. Asmita Ali is an emerging talent, with the game intelligence and insight to make critical interceptions. Kerys Harrop is a born leader and one of the best readers of the game – as well as being an occasional master of the dark arts (in the best way). Drew Spence is wonderfully skilled on the ball and has played in league-winning squads. Celin Bizet Ildhusøy is huge fun to watch on the wing.

Jess Naz was the team’s leading provider of assists last season and is great at running at opponents with the ball. Eveliina Summanen has a massive engine. Angharad James can thread a pass. Niki Karczewska is ‘a handful’ for defenders and has an eye for goal. Tinja-Riikka Korpea and Becky Spencer have made game-winning saves for club and country.

But there is a negative spiral going on. In game after game there are ‘mistakes’. And when mistakes keep happening they are no longer mistakes, but rather a feature of the way the team is playing. It is up to the team to change that. That means better tuning into one another’s wavelengths, not losing focus, and each taking responsibility for playing to their own strengths. This is something that Amy Turner highlighted in a refreshingly honest interview after defeat to Everton in the last WSL game of the year.  

4. It’s the manager

This time last season Rehanne Skinner was winning plaudits for what she’d done to develop and make competitive a squad that had not been highly rated pre-season. Her focus on fitness, playing to the final whistle, and smart positioning, as well as inculcating an environment in which players covered for one another, made Spurs a very hard team to beat.

Anyone watching last season would have said that there were, however, cracks. As the squad thinned through injury and other absences in the spring, the team’s resilience and creativity dropped and Skinner did not seem to be able to find ways to make effective in-game changes and we were too often conceding in the final minutes. But since in large part that was due to a weak bench it was hoped that she would resolve these issues this season.

Instead, those cracks have widened and some of the strengths from last season seem to have evaporated. It’s not entirely clear why. We still hear reports of a positive environment and that things are going well in training. And of course injuries and a thinner-than-expected squad have made it difficult to make effective in-game changes.

But there seems to be a few things that could be worked on. First, there are issues relating to fitness both fitness oriented to preventing future injury, but also fitness that relates to stamina and strength that will allow players to out-run and out-jump opponents and retain concentration for the full 90.

Both of these are about tailored training. Second, it’s not clear why players are making basic ball control and passing errors and whether this relates to skill or concentration. If the former, a focus on the fundamentals might help, if the latter then it’s perhaps about altering on-pitch communication and leadership.

That said, given the amount of positive work that Skinner has done at Spurs, she needs to be given the leeway to work out these issues – alongside those other problems, which she is far better placed to identify than I. That includes being backed by the club if she wants to bring in players to fill identified gaps.

5. It’s the club

Unlike Aston Villa (who signed Rachel Daly) Spurs did not make a marquee signing in the summer. Moreover, and unlike the top four WSL clubs, who are typically able to retain starting players, we lost two key players in the summer transfer window, with both Rachel Williams and Maeva Clemaron, ever-present parts of the 2021-22 team going to pastures new (otherwise known as the Manchester United bench; and Swiss team, Servette, and a blossoming Architecture career). We also knew that Ria Percival, who had played every minute prior to her May 2022 injury, would be out for the season. That meant that last summer the club needed to replace three key players to break even, even before starting to build the team.

Key Players Spurs lost at the end of 2021-22 Season
• Ria Percival (box-to-box, hard-tackling, adaptability),
• Maeva Clemaron (defensive cover, breaking up play, ball progression),
• Rachel Williams (goal-scoring, winning aerials, hold-up play).

The strategy that Spurs adopted was to recruit young players with potential, who had not yet fully broken through (Ellie Brazil, Nikola Karczewska, Celin Bizet) alongside players with big team experience who were no longer regular starters, for whatever reason (Drew Spence, Amy Turner, Angharad James).

The emphasis on youth dovetails with Rehanne Skinner’s experience in working with young players in England and other club set-ups. It is also a relatively cheap option – undoubtedly a consideration for a club that has not previously spent heavily on the women’s team. But it is risky because there is less evidence of how players will perform nor whether they will be at the needed standard.

In short, the roster of players recruited (both younger and more experienced) were never very likely to radically transform a team in the way that Daly has done at Villa (and yes, I’m still bitter we didn’t find a way to get her to Spurs). But there are not many players who can do that. And that doesn’t mean that the strategy that Spurs adopted was bad. It does require, however, that spaces be created for younger players to learn, and that line-ups balance youth and experience. In Spurs’ case injuries (to Kyah Simon and Ellie Brazil) meant that it unravelled a little, with the club suddenly over-reliant on Niki Karczewska as the only pure #9 in the squad, but also a young player, new to the WSL who has struggled to remain fit.

Above: Summer signing, Celin Bizet, on the ball.Photo: Girls on the Ball

This is not to criticise the recruitment strategy per se. Rather, if we step back, it is undoubtedly the case that Spurs now have a deeper squad of good players and a bench that is stronger than their bench was last year (when substitutes included Angela Addison, Jiali Tang and Josie Green).

It is, however, less clear that the gaps left by Maeva Clemaron, Rachel Williams, and Ria Percival have been wholly filled. And we have the strange situation of Amy Turner (a centre-back) starting every game at right-back, initially with Ashleigh Neville at left-back, but more recently, with Asmita Ale and Kerys Harrop alternating in the left-back position and Neville in attack (indeed Neville has been Tottenham’s most incisive attacking force, with three goals and two assists in the league). Tactically moving Neville forward has worked, at least in some games, but if the club wanted a new full-back, why buy a centre-back?

This is to say that if Spurs are entering the transfer window this January – and they need to – it’s crucial that the focus is now on strenthening the starting 11, rather than building depth. That means recruiting a few top-quality players in key positions, most obviously striker, defensive midfield, and fullback (assuming that Kit Graham is nearly ready to return as a creative midfield option).

Recruiting these players is not an easy task. With a smaller pool of top talent than in the men’s game and without the promise of Champions League football or significant (bank-breaking) money on the table it is going to be an uphill strategy to get game-changers to Spurs (though fingers crossed a deal for Beth England is proving this wrong as I write it.)

Onwards and Upwards into 2023

Clearly, it’s some of all of the above – it’s other teams, it’s injuries, it’s the players, it’s the manager and it’s the club. And probably it’s a little bit of bad luck and bad weather and the Queen dying and waterlogged pitches causing postponements. And a bunch of other stuff.

The good news is a lot of those things are past or can be changed. And with a month off between the last game of 2022 and the first game of 2023 (away to Aston Villa) there’s plenty of time to address them. So here’s to the squad settling down a little, developing fitness, no more injuries, new players bringing in new energy and skills, and a shed-load of goals (and clean sheets) from this point forward.

This article was originally published on The Spurs Women blog, run by Rachel Lara Cohen. Click on this link to visit the site: https://spurswomen.uk/

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