Tottenham fans were promised a fresh start at the start of the 2023/24 season, but few could have expected the results and atmosphere to be this good under new boss Ange Postecoglou.
After ending their worst Premier League season in 14 years with manager Antonio Conte throwing players under the bus and his replacement Cristian Stellini looking completely out of his depth, talisman Harry Kane saw little cause for optimism at Spurs before his move to Bayern. Munich for a new start.
Tottenham have started the season well, even though they have lost the chance to claim a trophy in the form of the Carabao Cup – honestly, what’s the point of playing when that prize is off the table? – and new manager Postecoglou has managed to instill the best style of play since Mauricio Pochettino’s peak days.
But how has the Greek-Australian turned things around in north London, so much so that Spurs arguably look better without hometown hero Kane?
Kane was fighting a losing cause at the end of the 2022/23 season / Visionhaus/GettyImages
When Tottenham pushed Pochettino out the door in late 2019, little did they know they were sacrificing attacking intent for Mourinho and Conte-ball, both of whom looked well past their sell-by days as managers.
For both bosses’ love of defence-first football, the deterioration at the back was unexpected. After conceding 39 league goals in 2018/19, Spurs have recorded 47, 45, 40 and 63 appearances in the seasons since. Last season in particular, with Tottenham falling apart defensively, proved to be Kane’s final straw.
The 63 wickets conceded came in sometimes terrible fashion. In fact, their expected goals against (xGA) only hovered around 52, significantly less than their actual goals conceded.
The England captain’s 30 goals, including 12 in his last 12 games, led Tottenham to eighth place. The season before, he had played second fiddle to Son Heung-min with 17 goals and nine assists, but it was still enough for Kane to carry on for a full campaign with Antonio Conte that didn’t quite last a full campaign.
Tottenham over-performed in expected goals (xG) last season with more than 12 strikes, having scored just one more than expected in 2021/22. Only Son (10) hit double figures behind Kane, with Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg scoring five and four goals respectively.
Spurs managed to grind their way through the early stages of the 2022/23 campaign despite the team’s lack of adaptation to Conte’s tactics, even as they stormed into the top four in 2021/22. Kane took it upon himself to add new facets to his game and that helped keep his Tottenham tally high, but there was little innovation elsewhere.
Maddison and Son are Tottenham’s new duo/Visionhaus/GettyImages
It seems every part of the pitch has been given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Postecoglou.
In Guglielmo Vicario, they have a goalkeeper who has so far avoided putting the ball into his own net – Hugo Lloris made four mistakes leading to goals in 2022/23, leading the league in that negative tally.
The most striking difference is in many places. While Conte’s wing-backs remained fixed in the areas of the manager’s choosing, Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro are regularly seen in midfield and central attacking areas, offering more space for key creative centers in deeper positions.
The pair’s ease in possession helps the likes of Yves Bissouma and James Maddison to play passes to push Tottenham further up the pitch, while the progress of Pape Matar Sarr has wreaked havoc on opposition defences.
The end result is a team with a clear identity that knows how to score goals. In recent years, Spurs have been so limited creatively that handing the ball to Kane and hoping for the best became their only place.
While his magic alongside Son’s ruthless finishing propelled the Lilywhites to a fourth-placed finish in 2021/22, the ensuing campaign produced attacking football that ranged from chaotic to aimless, with no promising patterns emerging.
Maddison has since taken on that creative role with great success and with a system that suits his ambitious style of play, Tottenham are now a more dangerous side in all areas of the pitch, a stark contrast to 2022/23 when Kane shouldered the goalscoring. burdens on their own.
Sean Walsh – of Oh What a Night and general Lovely Fella™️ fame – has been a regular at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to witness the launch of Ange-ball in north London. Here’s his take on how Spurs have bounced back since Kane’s departure.
Kane is now at Bayern Munich / YASIN AKGUL/GettyImages
The stats suggest that Tottenham are now better off without Kane and it’s hard to disagree with the eye test either.
Spurs are playing their most entertaining stuff since the peak years of the Mauricio Pochettino era, and certainly their best brand of football since moving into their new £1billion stadium.
What is more impressive are the circumstances in which Postecoglou arrived, coming in as the successor of three negative and pragmatic managers in Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte.
Kane’s sample size in Postecoglou’s system is incredibly small – just three pre-season games in total – and he only watched the home game in his last game for Tottenham.
Kane struggled to link up with summer signing James Maddison – the England captain’s tendency to drop deep into midfield saw him clogging up the same space as the former Leicester talisman.
In a 5-1 home win against Shakhtar Donetsk, the two finally figured out how to stay out of each other’s way, with Kane mostly staying in the penalty area and Maddison starting deeper and soaring balls into the box.
But Kane’s departure led to another change in approach, with Postecoglou first testing Richarlison up front before settling on Son Heung-min as a number nine.
Son and Maddison work almost as a front two at times, with the latter pushing up high and pressing hard when the wingers keep wide. At this stage in his career, Kane could no longer control the pressure up front and this would have been a problem under Postecoglou.
“If you look back at the teams he’s managed, they’ve always been pushing forward,” Maddison said recently of Postecoglou. “The first day he came in and said pressing high is almost non-negotiable at any stage of the game.
Maddison then referred to the Shakhtar friendly where Spurs conceded just before half-time and how much that angered Postecoglou.
“We had a pre-season game, stopped pressing and sat in a bit and he went on the ball at half-time against Shakhtar Donetsk here,” he added. “He said that’s how Tottenham have been in the past, trying to defend a lead, and it’s not negotiable to press and keep going.”
Son has also grown into the number nine role in recent weeks, combining quick feet and thinking with an eye for goal, developing his game back to goal with each passing game.
But let’s not kid ourselves – a dynamic and prolific striker like Kane would have found a way to make it work, to make Tottenham even better than they already are. Postecoglou even said so in his last press conference.
“What I’ve been trying to explain is that individuals change the way you play. I’m not saying that we are a better team without Harry because the last game Harry played for us he did well in our system when he scored four goals. It’s fair to say we could have squeezed him in somewhere!” he said.
“Not being there just allows different people to come into the team and they change the dynamic. Again, while the way I want my teams to play has a very clear structure, what I try to do is create a balanced group there as individuals can change the dynamics in it.
“Having Sonny as a number nine is different to having Harry or even Richy as a number nine. Having Deki as a winger or Brennan Johnson as a winger changes that even if the structure is the same.
“Not having Harry there changes us as a team because we’re using different individuals but if Harry was still here the structure would be the same and we’d have the same fundamentals of trying to dominate the opposition, pressure the opposition, all that. kind of things would still be there. At the end of the day, I don’t want to suppress the qualities that they have, I want to bring out the best in them within the structure that we have.”
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