What’s happened to Spurs?

The last five games have seen Spurs Women’s worst run form in the 2021/2 season to-date: one win (against Championship opposition), one draw and three losses. More disturbingly, for a team that prided itself on its stinginess in defence, each of the three losses have seen Spurs concede three goals.

It could be argued that even at the start of the season, when Spurs were winning, the margins were thin, they weren’t scoring a lot of goals, and so required an exceptionally tough defence (which included the willingness of the whole team to play at high-energy across the pitch to tackle and win balls back). Over the recent period, Spurs are still finding it hard to find the net, but they’re also finding it harder to protect their own goal and are making more defensive errors.

So what’s happened?

First it’s worth remembering that these five games have been part of two three-game weeks. The first, starting on the 16th January included West-Ham (Home on Sunday); Liverpool in the Conti-Cup QF (Home on Weds) and Manchester United (Away on Sunday). The second, which started last Sunday (30th January) included Leicester in the FA-Cup (Home on Sunday); Manchester City, Conti-Cup Semi-Final (Away on Thursday); ends with Brighton (Home on Sunday).

Compare that to earlier period when gaps between games were typically longer and there were multiple breaks.

Second, it doesn’t help that Kit Graham is out for the season and that Chi Ubogagu is also currently unavailable. Additionally, as Rehanne Skinner has pointed out, the recent rash of games has coincided with the Asian Cup, and the absences of Cho So-hyun, Kyah Simon and Jiali Tang. It would be hard to argue that any one of these players (other than Graham, perhaps) were the key to Spurs’ early-season successes (for instance, Cho and Jiali were rarely starters). Rather, it’s the collective impact of their absences that’s hit hard, highlighting a dearth of alternatives.

Simply put, Spurs just don’t have a huge squad. And the juggling required is getting noticeably more complicated.

This is evident in a photo of the official Conti Cup semi-final team lists (shared by the Women’s Football Podcast). The Manchester City bench includes eight outfield players, each has played dozens of games in the top-flight (WSL or equivalent); most have storied international careers. The Spurs bench, for the club’s first ever semi-final appearance, includes only four outfield players. One, Eve Summanen, joined Spurs barely a week ago. The other three have a combined total of 21 WSL starts. The gap in experience is glaring. But it’s the radically depleted number of players that has meant Rehanne Skinner has few options for in-game management. Indeed, in this case every available player was used in the second half.

This has been a pattern across these recent games. Against both Liverpool and Manchester United our bench included only four outfield players. As a result against Manchester United (as against Manchester City), Izzy Lane was substituted on in the last five minutes, with Spurs 3-0 down. Lane has played well in a couple of Conti Cup group-games (and scored) so it is great that she is starting to get opportunities and she will need experience against top teams. She is, however, not yet listed on the Club’s homepage nor Wikipedia as a senior team member and to be on the bench, let alone to come on, in these big games, is a massive step-up.

Against Leicester all three outfield players on the bench were used in the second half. When extra-time started and we immediately went a goal down there was literally no-one left to bring on. Consequently we spent the last half hour attempting to score with six defenders playing. Both Molly Bartrip and Ashleigh Neville showed their flexibility in ably filling roles further forward than usual but in doing so broke up the Bartip-Zadorsky partnership that has been key to our defensive resilience.

Perhaps compounding the above two issues, Spurs Women have an average squad age of 29, easily the oldest in the WSL. Our senior players have brought important experience to the team and have helped institute calm under pressure. But when games pile up, over-reliance on this group may more quickly produce fatigue. The manager has tried to have some squad rotation, presumably to give key starters a little breathing time. Thus, Rachel Williams did not start against West Ham; Kerys Harrop, Ria Percival and Ashleigh Neville did not start against Liverpool; and Harrop did not start against Leicester. The problem has been that without many alternatives on the bench, and as games remain on a knife-edge, these players have nonetheless come on, continuing to rack up game-time (for instance, with the FA Cup game vs Leicester going to extra-time, Harrop came on in the second half but still played 75 minutes). This is the context in which we’ve seen drops in concentration, even among our standout players.

Looking forward

The good news is that the Asian Cup won’t last forever. Kyah is already back. South Korea and China are contending the final, but Jiali and Cho should return for Spurs’ away game at Birmingham on February 13th.

Additionally, we signed two players in the transfer window. Eve Summanen is already showing signs that she will fit well into a high-energy team, taking up a central midfield role. It’s less clear so far how much game-time Viktoria Schnaderbeck will get, given the strong alternatives at centre back. Neither is, however, a prolific goalscorer.

That said, the upside of being knocked out of both the FA and Conti cups is that our games will slow down (at least, after the coming weekend’s WSL game against Brighton). While this won’t fix our goalscoring issues, it will provide more recovery time and hopefully enable the team to return to doing the defensive basics well, Spurs calling-card in the first part of the season.

Over the longer term, Spurs are going to have to continue building the team. Rehanne and her team have done a remarkable job and our players have over and again expended monumental amounts of energy to achieve what they have, especially over the last couple of weeks, poor results notwithstanding. But his period has revealed the constraints they face.

That Spurs’ game-glut has coincided with a major international tournament and has followed on from a game-free period over Christmas, speaks to some broader issues that were identified in a recent FIFPro report. This found that the poor scheduling of the women’s footballing calendar is producing periods of underload and overload, both of which are detrimental to health and skill development of individual footballers and the game. Fixing this goes well beyond Spurs. And until it is fixed the already large advantages of those teams with deep squads will be all the greater.

At the time of writing there is one game remaining till the end of this intensive period. The team will need the support of all their supporters so that they can end it on a high. So if you haven’t yet been to the Hive, come! There’s lots of info on this site on how to watch Spurs Women live.

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