In Praise of Spurs’ Mean Defence

So far this season Spurs have let in just 12 goals in 16 WSL games. Given that three of those came in one game, away against Manchester United, that leaves just 9 across the other 15 games.

It’s a pretty amazing record. In fact only Chelsea (7) and Arsenal (10) have conceded fewer. Conversely all seven teams below Spurs in the table have conceded at least 25 goals.

Obviously this is a slightly skewed statistic – we are yet to play Chelsea (home or away) or Arsenal (away), each games where a clean sheet would be a major achievement. And we currently have at least a game in hand on other teams in the league. But we’ve played both Manchester clubs twice and Arsenal once and a whole lot of other clubs that are more than capable of scoring on their day.

To get a sense of what a massive improvement this is, we can look at our last (2020-21) season, during which we conceded 41 goals across the 22 games. To reach that total this season we’d have to leak 29 across our final six games (or about 5 per game as compared to the 0.75 per game we’ve seen so far). Unless something goes disasterously wrong it isn’t going to be close.

Image: @Spurswomen Twitter

Another measure of our defensive strength is that we’ve over-performed our expected goals against (xGA) of 15, conceding three fewer. This measure estimates how many goals would typically be conceded given ball and player positions.

In contrast our goal-scoring has improved on last year (when we netted 18 times across the season), but by much less. This sesaon we have scored 19 times, fewer than Reading, West Ham and Brighton. And this is where the gap remains – with Spurs to date scoring just half as many goals as any of the four clubs currently above us. Moreover, and in contrast to our goals conceded figure, we have under-performed our xG (expected goals) by three: scoring 19 as opposed to the expected 22.2.

Given the above it is crystal clear that it’s Spurs stinginess in defence that has driven this season’s improvement in form and move up the table. So, what is our defensive solidity down to?

First off we have to give a massive shout out to our central defensive pair, Shelina Zadorsky and Molly Bartrip who have developed a fantastic partnership. Both display maturity and leadership, covering for one another across the back line. Their consistency and constant-presence has been the heart of what Spurs have been getting right. Bartrip has played every minute of every game so far, while the only WSL game this term in which Zadorsky didn’t start (she was on international duty), away to West Ham – was a loss. The new solidity she’s brought to this partnership lies behind so many Spurs fans nominating Bartrip as one of their players of the season so far.

Obviously our two keepers (Becky Spencer and Tinni Korpela) are another big part of the story. They rank 3rd and 4th in the league for percentage of shots saved, with Tinni on 78% and Becky 74%. To have two keepers of this quality has been huge, with both making important saves in key games (Tinni’s series of acrobatic saves against Arsenal springs to mind, especially). With each so far playing 8 games (of the 16) the load has been truly shared, giving both the opportunity to develop strong relationships with the back line and ensuring that our defensive solidity is not affected by either’s occasional absence (something we saw negatively impact Manchester City at the start of the season).

Image @spurswomen Twitter

Spurs full-backs have rotated more than our centre-backs. But they have been a critical part fo the back line. Kerys Harrop has shown all her experience, providing a reassuring presence at left-back, and an impressive ability to pressure players and produce turnovers (and occasional forward runs). Ashleigh Neville has increasingly caught the eye going forward (especially playing on the overlap with either Ale or Percival), but her tackling from right-back has been league-leading (winning 49 tackles to date; a whopping 14 more than anyone else in the WSL) and she has made a series of key arial clearances in the box. Meanwhile, Asmita Ale has grown into the season, following some slightly nervy performances, demonstrating good pressing skill and both defensive and attacking prowess, her recent performance against Birmingham away was a stand-out.

But Spurs’ defensive performance is perhaps as much down to our midfield and forward players’ willingness to pitch in, to get back and to press aggressively as it is our defenders. Standouts here include Maeva Clemaron who, after joining in the summer, has ably occupied a defensive midfield position, playing an essential role in mopping up problems and moving the ball forward; Ria Percival, who’s been played in various positions this season (from right back to striker), but whose desire to defend the box has seen her sprinting back from positions across the field to make critical goal-line clearances; Rachel Williams, nominally a striker (and our top scorer this season), has been everywhere, breaking up play, holding the ball up, when necessary and generally making life difficult for opposition players; our January-signing Evelina Summanen, has quickly embraced Spurs’ style, showing the strength of her end-to-end game. Even players for whom this is perhaps a less natural style-fit (Naz or Cho, for example) make important interventions in the defensive third.

Tactically this has meant that Spurs often play with defensive and midfield lines relatively close to one another, leaving opposition teams little space. But more than tactics, what Rehanne Skinner has managed to instill is a sense of togetherness which has apparently resulted in a team that wants to support and back one another up, that sees defence as everyone’s responsibility, one for which all are required to play their part. There are occasional games when this has broken down; the FA Cup game at home against Leicester for instance where, when the game went to a final period of extra time, some of the forward players stopped chasing back and Leicester found space. But these exceptions are few.

Indeed, watching this Spurs team reminds me of how much there is to appreciate in good backs-against-the-wall defending and, as per the iconic Italian men’s national teams we all grew up with, how closely these kinds of defensive performances are rooted in a strong sense of togetherness.

So, much as I want to see Spurs scoring more goals, for now I’m all about celebrating how few we are conceding.

3 Replies to “In Praise of Spurs’ Mean Defence”

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