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Do Spurs have the (through) balls?

Originally published on Spursstatman.com

Author’s note: Article was written before Tottenham’s 1-0 victory over Sunderland, in which Erik Lamela managed to play a through-ball, leading to a Ryan Mason goal. As you were.


Moussa Dembele has not made a through-ball since the 2012/13 season. Not one. The following is the Cambridge dictionary definition of a through-ball.

“In football, a pass that is kicked forward between an opposing team’s defenders.”

To reiterate, one of Tottenham’s supposedly most creative central midfielders has not kicked a football to a teammate between two opposing defenders in over two seasons. That is mind-blowing. Disgraceful. Sad. So very Tottenham. However, while it could easily be, this piece is not a rant about Moussa Dembele, rather a question about this Tottenham midfield, and where the penetrative passes are going to come from.

That the club has never adequately replaced Luka Modric is no secret, and he was absolutely vital to the success of the team under Harry Redknapp. He became known as the pre-assist player. He fed Bale on the left and Lennon on the right with through-ball after through-ball, subtly splitting opposition defences, taking players out of the game and making the most of the pace his teammates offered.

The game has changed somewhat since then. In Son and N’Jié, Spurs now have two pacey wide-men who will have as much responsibility to cut inside and score as they will get to the byline and cross for Kane. While both Son and N’Jié can dribble and create space for themselves, their long-term success is going to largely depend on the kind of service they receive. If they mostly get the ball to feet and have to turn and face ten defenders behind the ball, they will be blunted. If they receive early passes into space behind the opposition full-backs, they will do a lot of damage. The question is, though, who is or are the players that will provide the passes for the two new recruits to run on to?

A quick look at last season’s statistics is frankly concerning, and proof that Moussa is not alone in his creative failings. The most any player averaged was 0.1 through-balls per game. Most averaged zero. It is no wonder that Harry Kane was so often described by commentators as one of the rare strikers that can create chances for himself. He had little choice.

This season, while the sample size is small, things don’t look any better.

Tottenham’s Pass Type Per Game 2015/16

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The transfer window is closed. The opportunity is gone to purchase the creativity that is so sorely needed. While he is not a world beater, I can’t help but wonder how much a player such as Cabaye would help this team. Any combination of Dier, Mason, Bentaleb and Alli will bring with it energy, heart and hard work, but the chances of any of them being a key provider are slim.

Dier gets a pass (so to speak). He is there to defend, and little else. Mason, while extremely useful, is more of a runner than a passer. His importance is that he is one of a few players who are willing to break beyond Kane and get into goal-scoring positions. Bentaleb, on the other hand, does have a good range of passing, and I would expect to see him utilize that more effectively this season, especially if he isn’t going to be considered the more defensive of the two central midfielders.

Dele Alli is less of a known quantity. He seems so far to be an all-rounder, with pace, strength and particularly impressive dribbling skills. I do recall a few neat passes in pre-season including one through-ball that set Kane in on goal against the MLS All-Stars, but how frequently he will play, we don’t know. Nor do we quite know yet whether his passing is the foundation of his game, like it was Luka’s, or whether Alli is more of a dribbler in the style of Dembele. I suspect the latter, although with any luck, with much better results.

At this point you may think that I’ve overlooked Christian Eriksen. Not so. I am a fan of the Dane and he is by far the side’s most creative player. That said, he is one of the players who averaged 0.1 through-balls per game last season. Erik Lamela ended 2014/15 with more assists, despite playing many less minutes and mostly on the right. Eriksen scores key goals – notably late in games – but his contribution in the final third towards the goal-scoring efforts of his teammates is not where it should be for a player of his ability. Lamela, meanwhile, is unlikely to start too many league games.

So, I’m excited to N’Jié and even more intrigued to see Son, who is a t’rrific player (and by all accounts, a top, top, top lad). They will bring pace, dynamism and a goal threat to the team that is much, much needed. The question remains, though. Who will pass them the ball?


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