Spurs Women: What went wrong?

At the time of writing, March 15th 2023, Tottenham Hotspur Women have beaten Leicester City WFC 1-0, in what was being termed as a “Relegation 6-pointer”. On Monday, March 13th, their manager, Rehanne Skinner, was sacked after the club lost their 9th consecutive Women’s Super League (WSL) game. The club finished 5th in the WSL last season, their highest ever finish in the top tier of women’s football in England. The numerous tributes shared by the players on social media were a clear indication of the admiration and respect they held for Rehanne and a testament of how popular she was within the club. On a personal note, I was lucky enough to have gotten the chance to meet her, when Spurs Women made their pre-season trip to the USA. It’s sad how her time as the Spurs boss came to an end, I wish her nothing but the best, for whatever she has got lined up in the future. In this piece I look at various things that went wrong at Spurs Women, which eventually led to Rehanne’s sacking.

Season 21-22 : The best of the rest

Last season Spurs finished 5th, 10 points behind Manchester United and 5 points ahead of the sixth placed West Ham. It was a season where they won away at Manchester City, took their first ever WSL points against Arsenal, but also got a fair share of thrashing against the top 4 (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United). Taking a look at the underlying numbers also suggested that they probably deserved the 5th place finish. Spurs Women were 5th best in terms of xG (chance creation) and 4th best in terms of xG Against (chances allowed). While they were far away from the top 4 in terms of Goal scoring, scoring 21 fewer goals than Manchester United, they only conceded 1 more goal than them. Although the games against the top 4 showed that there still was a big gap to be filled, the season ended with a sense of optimism that the club was on the right track in order to bridge that gap.

Most played 11 in the WSL 21-22 season

Post season came in with a wholesale of changes, where Spurs had to address the lack of depth in the attack as well as the midfield. The ever-present French midfielder, Maéva Clemaron, and the hard-working English striker, Rachel Williams, left the club after being a core part of the 21-22 season. The season also saw Spurs lose the versatile New Zealand midfielder Ria Percival and the linchpin Kit Graham to long-term ACL injuries. Rather than going too much in depth of how the last season panned out, I would recommend you to read this season recap by Lilywhiteladies. In short, Tottenham’s defense played a vital role in spurring them to their highest ever finish.

21-22 vs 22-23

Coming back to now, the 1-0 win against Leicester City has certainly bolstered Tottenham’s bid of staying in the WSL, if not guarantying it. Fivethirtyeight’s prediction model now has Tottenham at just 1% chance of relegation. But after last season’s high, why did Tottenham drop into such a position in the first place?

Injuries in the attack:

Let’s start from the top, the attack. After losing Rachel Williams, Spurs brought in Nikola Karczewska, a 23 year old Polish striker who played in the French first division last season. There were rumors of Bethany England signing during the summer transfer window, which didn’t materialize until the halfway mark, when she eventually signed in the January window. Spurs also signed a couple of young wide attackers to share the attacking burden, Celin Bizet joined from Paris Saint Germain and Ellie Brazil joined from Brighton. Drew Spence and Ramona Petzelberger also joined to help out on the creation front, as Kit Graham was expected to miss out most of the season. Lastly, Angharad James along with her partner Amy Turner joined from Orlando Pride, the former being a direct stylistic replacement for Clemaron. The pair had prior experience playing in the WSL before moving to the States.

Player availability for 22-23 season (till the game against Liverpool)

The season started with a win away at Leicester City, Spence, James and Turner were the new signings who started the game. Soon enough though injuries (long-term & short-term) started to hit the squad. Ellie Brazil & Kyah Simon sustained ACL injuries, Ramona Petzelberger disappeared from the scene after playing just 28 minutes of football, for still undisclosed reasons. Massing of injuries led to Ashleigh Neville being sometimes played as a winger in the attacking 3. Ayane and Jessica Naz also missed their fair share of games during different spells. Nikola Karczewska, although has been available and named in every single match day squad, has seen very few minutes in the WSL. For context, she has only played around 90 more WSL minutes than Beth England has for Spurs, who only arrived in January.

Comparison of last season’s attacking numbers vs this

The attacking numbers (shown in the above image) also highlight the fact that the thin attacking force of Spurs have struggled to match the performance of the last season. The team is getting fewer passes into the attacking third, taking fewer shots and on average creating lower quality of chances. The drop in the progressive passes completed underlines how the team has missed its focal point of last season, Rachel Williams. The ball isn’t sticking up top as much, as it was during her presence. Not everything is gloomy though, the carrying ability of Drew and Celin has led to an increase in the number of carries into the penalty area. The winter signings Mana Iwabuchi and more so Beth England, have only bettered the depth and quality of the attack. Beth in particular, has already shown how she can single handedly keep the team in games.

New faces on the defensive side:

While the attacking side of things have seen a big overhaul from the last season, Amy Turner has been the only new face in the back line. She has played most of her minutes as a right back in a 4, with Asmita, Kerys or sometimes Ashleigh playing as the left back. Another thing that has changed is the midfield in front of that back line. Angharad James – Eveliina Summanen have mostly shared the task of screening the back line. Drew and Cho have also played a few minutes in a midfield 3 along with the previous two, but the defensive responsibilities have mainly lied with James & Summanen.

Comparison of last season’s defensive numbers vs this

As seen in the above image, the defensive statistics so far this season are no where near the numbers of the last. The defense has been leaking goals, conceding the 4th highest number of goals in the league. Opponents have been able to get into Spurs’ penalty area more times than last season and subsequently have been able to create more shooting opportunities. The number of opposition shot attempts coming from a successful take on, or after winning the ball back have almost doubled, hinting at the shaky nature of the defense, as well as at Spurs’ inability to control the ball. There have also been instances when the goal keepers have been at fault, with Spencer making a goal-conceding error against Everton and Korpela conceding “savable” shots from distance.

Others got better:

Earlier, I mentioned how Tottenham were edging closer to the top 4 last season. This season, Aston Villa have proven to be the biggest challengers to that Best of the rest spot. Their summer signings Rachel Daly and Kenza Dali hit the ground running, on top of which they added Jordan Nobbs in the January window. As the below graph shows, they have been the biggest movers towards the island of the top 4, while Spurs have moved away compared to last season. Everton’s underlying metric haven’t varied much, but their defense has been really meager, 3rd joint lowest number of goals conceded. Apart from xG, Spurs were 5th best in a lot of other attacking metrics, touches & passes into the penalty area, key passes, etc. This season both Aston Villa and Everton have surpassed Tottenham in those metrics. Thus, Tottenham’s current position in the table hasn’t all been a result of their own undoing, other teams getting better has also contributed to that.

Chance creation for & against. Better teams tend to be on the bottom right of the graph.

What could Rehanne have done different?

The foundation of Rehanne’s stint was based on solid defensive football, where the opposition was pressurized by an energetic mid-block and the turnovers then led to scoring chances. This season that foundation collapsed. Based on the squad she had available through out the streak of 9 consecutive loses, there weren’t many different things she could have tried in terms of personnel. Her options in the attack and midfield were limited. She did try switching between the midfield players she had available, with Angharad making way for Cho for a couple of games. Maybe the Amy Turner at right back experiment could have been cut short? Or maybe Spurs wouldn’t be fighting the prospect of relegation had Bethany England signed in the summer?

Women’s football is weird, even more so with Spurs, as you don’t know what level of managers they are supposed to attract, given the financial backing possible. Buying managers out of their contract being an extremely rare phenomena makes it even more ambiguous. But now that Rehanne is gone, it will be interesting to see who comes in next. In my opinion, if Tottenham want to bridge that gap to the top 4, they will not just need their new signings to hit the ground running, but also a manager who can help them persistently create goal scoring chances.

Harsh Mishra @SimplyWink

This is a repost of a blog that was first posted on spursmishra.wordpress.com

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