Spurs play Chelsea in double-header: Will our bench-players step up?

Spurs Women play Chelsea at the Hive on Sunday (24th April) and then away on Thursday (28th April). Following that the season wraps up with three games in eight days: away to Everton (Sunday); away to Arsenal (Wednesday); and Leicester at home, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (Sunday).

After a surprisingly successful third year in the WSL these final weeks will define how Spurs’ season is ultimately viewed. On current form we’re (at best) favourites for just two of the five games. Even then, given our struggles with scoring and injury-depleted squad, wins against Everton and Leicester may be a stretch. But Spurs have made life difficult for top teams across the season and may yet find ways to do so again before the season draws to a close. If this is going to happen, how Spurs manage these first two Chelsea games is going to be critical. A win or a draw in either game, even narrow defeats, will provide a platform to build on in the final three games, including the North London Derby. Conversely a bad defeat (or two) could make it hard to regroup and may mean we limp across the line. This would not negate the many positives there have already been, but it would be a disappointing way to conclude a season marked by so much optimism.

The Challenge of Chelsea

It’s not for nothing that Chelsea currently top the WSL. They are the highest-scoring team this season with 52 goals. As we all know, Sam Kerr is prolific (so much so that the podcast Two Girls Talk Balls have an ongoing wager on whether Kerr will score more than the whole Spurs team – currently she is on 16; the Spurs team are on 19). While Chelsea will undoubtedly miss Fran Kirby up front there are another four Chelsea players (in addition to Kerr) who have scored at least five goals in the WSL this season, with Beth England recently coming into a rich seam of form. In contrast, Spurs’ highest scorer, Rachel Williams, is on just four (all coming before Christmas).

Perhaps most worryingly, we have seen that Chelsea are more than capable of ramping up a big goal margin once they’ve broken down a team’s defence: their 9-0 demolition of Leicester springs most obviously to mind. Not least because this followed a period in which Leicester had found some form.

That said, across the season Spurs have only once allowed a WSL game to get away from them: Manchester United away (which we lost 3-0). This was a game that came during the Asian Cup, when the squad was at its barest of bare bones. Across all their other WSL games Spurs have conceded no more than one goal per game.

The problem is that Chelsea’s defensive record is also impressive, conceding just seven this season, and Spurs have found it hard to score against even more apparently leaky defences. This is seen in statistics which show that we’ve underperformed our expected goals by four (19 actual goals as compared to an xG of 23). In other words, Spurs are decent at creating chances, but have performed worse than any other WSL team at converting these chances. These problems have been especially acute in the period since Kit Graham’s injury. Not least because in Kit’s absence Rachel Williams has played a deeper role, doing great work keeping the ball, but providing less goal threat.

Another key concern for Spurs is whether we can retain our defensive solidity without Ria Percival (who is out following an ACL injury incurred playing for New Zealand). Ria has started every game and while she has only occasionally been part of the back-line (most recently against Manchester City) she has played an important defensive role across the pitch, pressing as the ball gets played out from goal, making life difficult for opposition midfields and providing cover in our box.

Finally, playing any team twice in short succession is tricky. Managers are able to adjust; enmities are built up; weaknesses are exposed. This is especially true of a team like Chelsea whose manager, Emma Hayes, is well known for making astute tactical adjustments. Conversely, Spurs manager, Rehanne Skinner has done an amazing job this season, but (with the possible exception of Birmingham away) has not yet proved herself especially strong at tactical substitutions or within-game adjustments. This will have to change if she is to make the in-game (and between-game) adjustments that will be needed for Spurs double-header against Chelsea. Rehanne acknowledged the unique nature of these games in a recent interview: ‘Ultimately, when you play a double header, because it’s so close together and not focusing on another team in the meantime, you have a clear opportunity to fix it if you don’t get it right.’ This is spot on. But for Rehanne is to set up the team, and especially to ‘fix’ things within and between games, it is essential that she finds a way for Spurs’ bench-players to become both more involved and more productive.

Will Spurs’ bench-players step up?

Spurs have relied heavily on a core group of players. Six players, the majority of our outfield, have started at least 16 of the 17 Spurs WSL games this season: Bartrip, Percival, Clemaron, Zadorsky, Neville and Williams. In addition, Evelina Summanen has started four of five WSL games since she joined the club; and Jessica Naz has had periods out injured but has started most other games; while Kit Graham started all but one game before her injury. In addition, Harrop has become a regular starter as the season has progressed.

Chart showing Spurs players' game time across the 2021-2 WSL season to date

This can be seen in the chart above, which shows starts (of 17) in red, the number (of the 17 possible) 90-minutes that each player has played in yellow, and the number of games in which players have featured in blue. The above-mentioned ever-present players are clustered on the left, with blue, yellow, and red lines approximately equal and close to the maximum (17).

Interestingly, our two goalkeepers, Becky Spencer and Tinni Korpela, have shared the workload almost evenly this season: each starting about half of Spurs games, and since neither has been substituted within-game, each has equal starts, appearances and 90s. Both have good communication with the back line and are competing for league-leading save percentages so for now at least this is a position in which Spurs have some depth.

We can also see, however, that clustered to the right (starting with Chi Ubogagu, and excluding Summanen for the reasons mentioned above) is a group of eight players with more appearances than starts and relatively low game-time. Most extreme, Angela Addison has played in 15 games, but only started one. As a result she’s racked up the equivalent of just 3.3 90-minute games across the season to-date. That’s because, with Tang Jiali (8 games, 1 start) Addison has overwhelmingly been used as a late (75 minute+) substitute. Rosella Ayane has had a little more game time (totalling 4.7 games) but has again largely made substitute appearances. Cho So-hyun and Josie Green have started a little more often but neither has surpassed five 90s yet this season. Of course, a player’s contribution is not simply measured by game-time, and commentators have repeatedly reported on the strong ties that exist across the whole Spurs squad, with Rehanne Skinner commending her team’s collective identity and work-rate, but these data are useful in highlighting the relative marginality of a group of players and that even those who are regularly used as substitutes are typically given little opportunity to influence the game.

The two players who fall in-between the ever-presents and the bench-players are the forward, Kyah Simon (ten starts, eight 90s) and full-back, Asmita Ale (seven starts, 7.7 90s).

Chart showing Chelsea players' game time across the 2021-2 WSL season to date

One way to get a better sense of Spurs’ squad use, is to compare it to their upcoming opponents, Chelsea (see chart above). A couple of things are immediately apparent. First, Chelsea have a bigger squad – not least because they have had to cope with more Cup and European games. This means there is much more rotation. Only Millie Bright has started every WSL game this season (something that five Spurs players have done). Yet there are eleven Chelsea players who have played at least ten 90s, as opposed to seven Spurs players who have done this. That means that there is a wider group of players getting significant game time. Indeed, even players who are disproportionately used as substitutes (e.g. Niamah Charles or Jonna Anderson) have clocked up about twice the game time of Spurs’ frequent-substitutes, Roeslla Ayane, Angela Addison or Tang Jiali.

Now, however, with Ria Percival injured, one of Spurs’ constant-starters is out for the rest of the season. By necessity, therefore, the upcoming games will provide a little space for players who have had relatively marginal roles in the squad. As such it will require that they step up.

The most likely to take that step are Ale and Simon, who have already made important contributions, albeit not fully cementing their places. How and whether Ale is used may depend on where Rehanne Skinner thinks Neville will be most effective (right back, right wing or forward), and whether she remains committed to a back four (Spurs’ most frequent formation this season and one that perhaps suits Ale’s less-progressive defensive playing style better than other options). Simon should find it easier to lock-in her berth in Spurs’ attack, given the lack of goals coming from elsewhere. That she has only hit the back of the net in two games this season (scoring three goals) and has not yet clicked as a partner to Rachel Williams is the lingering doubt here. But the bigger question is whether any of Spurs’ other players will be given the minutes or will find the form to make a difference and fill the gap that Ria’s absence and a challenging pair of games bring.

Spurs team huddle. Image from @Spurswomen

With games against Chelsea likely to be intense and require high concentration and fitness levels, the effective use of substitutes will be critical. When players come off the bench they can re-energise the team, provide relief or cover for starters, but also (ideally) allow the manager to change the team’s shape or dynamic. For instance, we know that Jessica Naz’s pace, especially running at a tired opposition, make her a potentially impactful substitute. The problem is that with relatively few options, Naz may well start and it is not clear that other Spurs players can similarly come off the bench and change the game. Indeed, more often than not this season Spurs’ substitutions have diluted rather than enhanced the team’s performance.

Team selection and organisation is likely to be even more essential in the second of these back-to-back games, given that Emma Hayes has the flexibility in her squad and tactical nous to set her Chelsea team up to counter whatever problems Spurs create in the first game. New players, and new ideas will be at a premium. No doubt, this will be a tricky test for a Spurs team whose season to-date has relied on consistency rather than tactical novelty. But what’s marked Spurs out this season is a surprising resilience, especially in games against ‘bigger’ teams, so it’s not inconceivable that we find a way to come away with some points.

Whatever happens, with several Spurs players out of contract at the end of this season and with Rehanne Skinner confirmed in post until 2024, there is a lot to play for. Indeed, the next games may determine both how the team finishes the season and also which players remain at Spurs into the 2022-3 season.

  • Tickets are available for the final games of the season: to see Spurs play Chelsea at the Hive, our final home game against Leicester at the Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium, or the away game at Arsenal (at the Emirates) you can purchase tickets via the Spurs website.

Rachel Lara Cohen is a Spurs Women Season ticket holder. She set up spurswomen.uk and runs the @spurswomenblog twitter account.

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