Green shoots: Or, why Spurs Women’s last two losses give reason for optimism

Spurs Women lost their last two games: 2-1, away at Aston Villa and 1-3 at home to Chelsea. The loss to Chelsea saw them exit the Conti Cup at the quarter final stage, while the loss to Aston Villa was the fifth straight loss in the WSL, where Spurs have not won since their increasingly anomalous-looking 8-0 thrashing of Brighton in late October.

Spurs most recent defeat seems to have awoken women’s football commentators to the fact that the team is struggling (with Flo Lloyd-Hughes in the Athletic typical).

And yet, for those of us who have been watching closely, and who followed Spurs pre-Christmas – spluttering to get going against Reading; failing to prevent an entirely preventable 2-0 loss to West Ham; and (in what was hopefully the nadir) capitulating in a chaotic 3-0 defeat to Everton (that also resulted in yet another long-term injury and a red card for Ashleigh Neville) – the two most recent games suggested signs of life, and enough passages of quality to hope that this season might end better than it has begun.

Spurs team huddle after defeat to Chelsea. Image: @Bethany_Eng15

There are four main reasons for optimism: 1) Spurs scored in each game, the first goals against top-tier opposition since Brighton. 2) Despite conceding five goals there was shape to the defence, with the team on the same page most of the time and no massive clangers. 3) In the first half against Chelsea, with Mana Iwabuchi making her debut, Spurs moved the ball and controlled the pace of play in a way that they have not done consistently all season (that Brighton game excepted). And 4) all of this was without the player that has been Spurs’ standout in the first half of the season, Ashleigh Neville, who is due to return in the next game.

The following takes each of these four points in turn.

1.    Scoring Goals.

When Spurs bought Beth England it was about fixing a goal drought, extending back into last season, in which the team repeatedly failed to make or convert chances. This season that has been slightly masked with a glut of goals in the rout of Brighton. But across the other eight WSL games that were played before the winter break Spurs scored just three goals. In other words, the team failed to find the back of the net in six of nine WSL games; including the four games leading into the break.

In that context, Spurs’ January form, in which they have scored a goal in each of the last two games, with England getting a goal on her debut, is clearly a step in the right direction.

Beth England on the ball and already scoring for Spurs. Image: GoTB

Whether it is about confidence or technique, we know that scoring goals can become a habit. Likewise, not scoring them. To the extent that the last two games break a bad habit, they may mark a significant moment in Spurs’ finding the attacking form they will need for the second half of the season. Hopefully, this will be cemented with a plethora of goals (or at least a win) when Spurs take on the currently high-flying Championship side, London City Lionesses in the FA Cup on Sunday.

2.    Defensive cohesion.

I have previously suggested that a back four with Amy Turner at right-back (Rehanne Skinner’s favoured backline this season) has not been working. The past two games have given us the opportunity to see two different alternatives, either of which might be a way forward.

Against Villa, when Turner had to leave the pitch, with what was reportedly a bug, Rehanne Skinner moved Asmita Ale from left back to right back and brought Kerys Harrop on at left back. Instantly this looked more balanced. Ale is more natural on the right and is excellent at winning and moving the ball forward; Harrop seems to combine better with Chioma Ubogagu, playing at left wing. And indeed, both fullbacks were integral to the goal Beth England scored, which started with Ale as an outlet on the right before the ball was switched to the left, reaching Harrop who produced a fizzing cross for the assist.

In the game against Chelsea, Skinnner chose to set the team up in a back three for the first time this season, something she previously did when Spurs played Chelsea twice in quick succession at the end of the 2021/2 season. This time round we saw Molly Bartrip in the centre, Shelina Zadorsky at LCB and Turner at RCB. Outside them Kerys Harrop and, in a new position for her, Celin Bizet, played as left and right wing-backs, respectively. This allowed Bartrip to at times man-mark Sam Kerr, giving Zadorsky and Turner the responsibility of taking on the rest of the (intimidating) Chelsea attacking line.  It was notable that at RWB Celin had an ongoing good-natured tussle with her compatriot, Guro Reiten, coming out well from this. Bizet did a lot right in fact, intelligently using the side-line to dribble past players, move the ball forward and join the attack. On the other side Harrop was less attacking, and at times found Lauren James a handful, but who wouldn’t? Taken overall, however, the setup produced an unfamiliar but welcome solidity (somewhat diminished with Iwabuchi’s substitution, after which there was more sustained pressure on the defence).

Celin Bizet had a good game against Chelsea as right wing-back. Image: GoTB

Neither defensive set-up prevented the opposition from scoring. But in both games Spurs’ defence was beaten by very good attacking players (Daly and Dali; and then Kerr and Kirby). In previous outings Spurs have leaked goals to much less impressive forward lines, players have too often been unaware of one another or have left gaping holes, have made a series of unforced mistakes in playing the ball out or failed to respond to quick transitions. So, there is work to do and it is not time to sit back, content that Spurs have found the defensive answer, but if Rehanne persists with one of these two set ups, there is reason to hope that the team can re-find the defensive coherence they were known for last season.

3.    Progressing the ball

One of Spurs’ biggest problems this season has been keeping and progressing the ball. When Beth England was signed an obvious question was whether the team would even be able to get the ball to her in shooting positions.

In the first half of the Aston Villa game, and despite scoring against the run of play (thereby proving that Beth England can indeed create chances from very little) this remained a problem. In the second half of that game, with the entrance of substitutes, Eveliina Summanen and Celin Bizet, we started to see passing triangles and players anticipating one another’s movement. We also saw a greater urgency and ability to win back loose balls in the midfield (with Summanen and Bizet critical here) and Beth England’s leadership in organising the press. Even if we accept that Spurs greater posession was partly the product of Aston Villa tiring and trying to close out a game they were leading, this was the first time Spurs have played better in a second half than a first this season and this provided something to cling onto.

In the first half against Chelsea, with Mana Iwabuchi on the pitch, we saw renewed hope. Iwabuchi was everywhere. She made tackles, turned with the ball to escape the legs of Chelsea’s players. And was central to all Spurs best ball movement. Over and again the ball was cleared from defence to Iwabuchi who, if it fell to her feet moved it onwards with one touch, or if it was at head-height headed it on, always to the feet of a waiting Spurs player, most often Eveliina Summanen or Celin Bizet, who then moved it forwards toward Spence or England. This was the sort of one-touch progressive football that we have rarely seen from Spurs this season. It did not result in a goal. It sometimes hit a blue Chelsea wall or a Spurs player overhit or misplaced a pass. But it was a way to move the ball up the field that worked, not just once but repeatedly. And that is a big improvement.

Iwabuchi provided a vision of what might be possible now that Spurs have a player who is able to control midfield. Image @Spurswomen

Against Chelsea Spurs also continued to win second balls and contest the midfield more effectively than they had done pre-break. In this Iwabuchi, was again key, making a series of interceptions. But it was not just her. The whole team seemed more alert than they have in previous games this season. Most critically, this meant that Spurs’ own goal was less constantly under attack and the defence had time to reset.

4. Ashleigh Neville’s return  

Despite progressing the ball better in Wednesday’s game, we saw attacking moves break down when the ball ended up on our left wing and Rosella Ayane ran into a Chelsea player or was otherwise slow to react. At those moments more than a few Spurs fans were imagining an alternative scenario: Ashleigh Neville in for Ayane. How might Neville link up with Iwabuchi to progress the ball? What would our attack look like with her and England on the pitch? We don’t know because Neville’s suspension has meant that she has not yet played with either new signing. But that scenario is coming. Neville’s suspension is served.

Neville is the only Spurs player to have won a WSL Player of the month award. Image: @Spurswomen

Obviously, Ashleigh Neville is not going to transform the team single-handedly. But she has, for a while, been Spurs’ standout creative force. The player who tries to make things happen. Who picks up the ball and, wherever she is playing, drives forward, seeks to play others through, takes a shot; and then goes back to make the last ditch tackles or headed clearances that Spurs style of play too frequently necessitates. With greater quality in midfield, and with Iwabuchi’s ability to hold up the ball reducing pressure at the back and providing more opportunities to progress the ball, what might Neville do? Earlier in the season she linked up with Spence to good effect. How might she and England combine? We know that Neville will take on players, find space to play through balls, cross from the baseline, or get a shot away. In England, Spurs finally have a player that plays on the shoulder, looking to run through, will take advantage of crosses and get onto second balls. It may not come together all at once, but there’s lots to imagine going right.

As a side-note, it is worth spending a little time on Ayane, who played every minute of the last two games in the absence of Neville and Jessica Naz (Naz picked up an injury in December). Ayane is perhaps the most divisive current Spurs player: There are fans who love her, she is clearly popular among team-mates, and she has a big social media following. But there is a large proportion of the fandom who groan when her name appears on the start-list or the ball is passed to her. This is not to ignore the glimmers of potential she has shown. Indeed, in the second halves of the last two games she has made good runs down the wing with the ball and even produced dangerous crosses. But these moments have been few and far between and an attacker with the paltry return of two WSL goals from open play alongside a single assist from four seasons at Tottenham is going to have detractors (Ayane’s full statistics are below).

Ayane’s statistics are poor across most dimensions. While the numbers cannot be read in isolation they provide some indication of contribution. Statistics: FBRef
Neville’s statistics are largely in the 90th percentile. In one area she scores below Ayane, pass completion, but given that she attempts more passes, she still completes more passes per game. Statistics: FBRef

For Spurs fans, even accepting that there are times when Ayane does a job for the team, her name on the start-list has become a sign of a lack of ‘good’ options. Conversely, Spurs having the depth of players available that she is used sparingly, would signal a return to strength.

There are of course scenarios in which Neville’s return may not see Ayane moved to the bench. For example, if Neville is used at fullback or wingback, we could see Ayane remain in an attacking position. Although, in this scenario, there would be the opportunity to instead play Celin Bizet further forward or even to bring in Jess Naz, when she has recovered fitness.

If there are reasons for optimism, it remains to be seen whether Spurs become an effective force, nor yet fluent footballing side, this season.

Many of the remaining questions relate to things that are outside the control of the manager or players, including the high number of long-term injuries and players unavailable (most impactfully Kit Graham and Ria Percival). There are of course questions about Rehanne Skinner’s management: While she has clearly produced a squad with solid collective bonds, some of her choices are questionable – most obviously in-game adjustments and a reluctance to use substitutes. But lacking the type of players who can make a difference and with thin benches it has been unclear whether she has had sufficient options. With the Spurs’ Board seemingly backing Skinner to strengthen (bringing in England and Iwabuchi) we will have a better opportunity for scrutiny.

Given Spurs’ upcoming run of games in the WSL (Chelsea at home; Manchester United at home; Manchester City away) it is also possible that the losing run in the league is extended, perhaps even reaching a wince-inducing eight on the trot. As fans we can hope this will not happen and that the team gets points in at least one of these games. But whether or not this happens will not define Spurs’ season. What will, is how the team emerges at the other end, and whether across their three games against top-three sides Spurs continue to score goals, defend effectively and link up play in midfield. If they do, there is a decent chance that the team finishes the season significantly stronger than it began it and the green shoots we have seen in early 2023 start to bloom.  

Rachel Lara Cohen is on twitter @Spurswomenblog

11 Replies to “Green shoots: Or, why Spurs Women’s last two losses give reason for optimism”

  1. Green shoots yes, but there is still a harsh cold snap in our game as February “blast from the east” comes knocking. You have mentioned all that I moan about with our team, it’s development, the management indecisions, the style of play (or not) etc, and underperforming players.
    As far as the WSL is concerned with these established players still (even today) constantly underperforming we will find it very hard to bag points in the up and coming games for sure and if those below us make up the deficit somehow then we could soon find ourselves in a relegation battle.
    So will 9 points be enough? Let’s face it once the big teams come along, we will not even survive the FA Cup run, we are so predictable in our play.
    We must still try and find 2 new wing attackers to shore up the wings and make us more lethal on attack.
    Even in today’s game (Yes 5-0) the Lionessess wing players were far better than ours and Harrop could not cope yet again and was easily out run. Maybe we should go swop Ayanne and Ubogagu for them before the window closes if we do not have the money to invest in top drawer wing attackers.
    As for our passing game, it is still woeful at best, and a top half WSL side would have easily capitalised on our failure to find players. We obviously can not cope with the hard press game, and teams know that and why we are so easily pushed off the ball. We either play the ball behind our advancing player so they have to track back or too hard and they lose it or to someone not expecting it and a turnover happens – that is panic play rather than thinking before playing the ball.
    At least Korpella had a better game today.
    Thanks Rachel – another moan over … sorry but I just want us to build a team like Manure and fight up the top in nosebleed territory and we have 2 more days to try do that. If not, then it must be haberdashary classes on the cards for curtain making… as it could be curtains for us come the end of the season … we just have to hope Leicester do not beat us in the postponed game. That would be a 6 point game for sure.
    Fingers crossed with still go get more statement players.


  2. Maybe Adrian Leon from Manure is worth a loan punt ? .. she has’nt really lit up the WSL with Wet Spam nor Man U but she must be an upgrade on Ayanne and Ubogagu (even Naz) although she is mainly a right footed wing attacker


  3. Well I am not impressed that we appear not to have made a move to get more top players in, especially when the likes of Adriana Leon who was available for a short loan stint from the Manure patch. We needed to try someone new into the wing attack so as to reduce the need to keep picking Ayanne Ubogagu or Naz – all of which need to be replaced when their contracts end this summer. Sorry but that is where we are the weakest and offer minimal creative chances. Yes we get the odd goal from the wing supply but that is against weaker teams not those who are always above us as we are always pushed off the ball in those games.
    I just hope we can win enough points from the rest of the WSL games to stave off relegation – that for sure will keep the heat off Skinner.


  4. Sorry but re-signing Naz is not the way forward and I hope we are not doing the same with Ayanne Ubogagu Simon Harrop and Morgan… we need far better players than these if we really have ambition to do better


  5. Another expected loss but a glimmer of hope for theses shoots of Spring but I fear not getting 2 more better wing attackers and an upgrade for Harrop may well see our team in a serious situtaion and the possible downfall of RS by end of season. I just can not see where we will bag points .. only the games againt Leicester Brighton and Reading (who have become much stronger teams in Jan) may it be our saviour but by then we will have a very low morale as we would have the biggest continuous loss run is our club’s history. Let’s hope 9 points will be enough or we have to reset and start all over again


  6. Another loss expected today against the manure patch especially is RS continues to pick Ayanne Harrop and/or Ubogagu on the left wing …. put Ale and Neville here please and we might fair better


  7. Well we lasted half the game at 0-0 but lets be honest here Summanen has been very poor yet again and that has affected Spence. She is having an off day as well. Please bring on James and see if she is any better.
    Just cannot see us holding them off in the 2nd if we continue to play this panic passing play from the back and midfield which we do so often now. We are only 1 decent over the top pass from losing this and the flood gate being knocked open.


  8. Harrop yet again lets the side down with poor defending and our team collapse like a pack of cards … boy we are so poor
    And now they bring Ayanne on ! crazy … so we will probably lose even more goals


  9. Great goal from Beth from nowhere and then Harrop yet again lets her player thorugh and Bartrip scores an own goal from panic defending … this team is going downhill fast. Beth must be wondering why o why? did I come here to Chesham Butlins holiday camp


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