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.
We have conceded seventeen goals. To put that in perspective last season we conceded just six more (23) across the entire season.
At the other end we have scored 11, eight of those coming in the victory over Brighton. That means we’ve managed just three goals across our 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.
What does it mean for Spurs?
In the first six games of the season there seemed to be a pattern. We, arguably, lost to better teams and beat (and played better than) teams who we expected would finish lower than us 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.
In terms of what that means for the league the picture is less grim than the above suggests. We finished the 2021-2 season in fifth (outside the traditional Top Four, but ‘best of the rest’). It is still feasible that Spurs repeat that this year. West Ham who are currently in fifth have played a game more than us (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 us 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 and Southampton we have finished top of our Conti-Cup group and will be progressing – albeit to a very tricky tie against Chelsea in the Quarter-Finals.
However, for a team 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 us 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.
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 we 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. For instance, Ellie Brazil was injured in a game where she was occupying the position that seemed designed for Niki (who was out injured), which meant that Jess (coming back from injury) was substituted in. 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 and Shelina had a fantastically solid partnership last season. Asmita is an emerging talent, with the game intelligence and insight to make critical interceptions. Kerys 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 is wonderfully skilled on the ball and has played in league-winning squads. Celin is huge fun to watch on the wing. Jess was our leading provider of assists last season and is great at running at opponents with the ball. Eveliina has a massive engine. Angharad can thread a pass. Niki is ‘a handful’ for defenders and has an eye for goal. Tinni and Becky 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 Rehanne 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 Rehanne has done at Spurs, she needds 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 4 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 (box-to-box, hard-tackling, adaptability), • Maeva (defensive cover, breaking up play, ball progression), • Rachel (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’s experience in working with young players in the 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 as the only pure #9 in the squad, but also a young player, new to the WSL who has struggled to remain fit.
This is not to criticise the recruitment strategy per-se. Rather, if we step back, it is undoubtedly the case that we now have a deeper squad of good players and a bench that is stronger than our 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, Rachel and Ria 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 and Kerys alternating in the left-back position and Ash in attack (indeed Ash has been our most incisive attacking force, with three goals and two assists in the league). Tactically moving Ash forward has worked, at least in some games, but if we wanted a new full-back, why buy a centre-back?
Which is to say that if we are entering the transfer window this January – and we 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).
Recruting 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 – and Beth if you’re reading this, we want you and you’ll fit in great!).
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.
Rachel Lara Cohen is on twitter at @spurswomenblog.