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Some of you Internet cool kids will know the acronym IANAL: I am not a lawyer. Well, here’s IANJC: I am not Johan Cruyff. I’d like to be Cruyff when I grow up, but my tactical expertise is still in the exploratory stage and is undermined by a deep-seated skepticism over the effect of “overloads” and “2 v 1s” on a single match outcome. Though I respect those who really believe these things and take them seriously.

To that end, I think we may have this year’s Interesting Tactical Problem to talk about. If the central mystery of 2012-13 was Man United’s points total in comparison with their mediocre shot dominance, this year it’s Spurs’ basement bottom shot conversion rate, and their propensity to take more shots from longer distances than other teams.

Simon Gleave, Head of Analysis at Infostrada Sports, was kind enough to send along Spurs’ shooting stats this season. Some highlights:

  • 55% of Tottenham’s shots are from outside the penalty area this season. The Premier League average is 47%.
  • The teams with the lowest number of shots outside the penalty area are Man City with 34%, Man Utd with 36%, Arsenal at 37%.
  • Though Spurs lead the league in shot volume IN the box, their penalty area shot conversion rate is 7.6% (Spurs conversion rate for all shots this season is dead last in the Premier Leaague)
  • For comparison, the two best in-box conversion rates in the league are Arsenal 22.3% and City 21.1%.

Now this is a tactical column so it behooves me to speak about these problems in tactical terms, but I think it’s worth considering some non-tactical explanations for these poor numbers. For example, those of you who read this blog regularly will know that team shot conversion rates are more a function of luck than talent, meaning some of these numbers (particularly Spurs’ conversion rate in the box) will regress upward.

So Spurs are bad at shooting, and poor luck plays a part in that. But we also know that shot conversion rates don’t exist in a vacuum but depend on a number of factors, not least distance from the net and how many opposition players are back behind the ball. For some great reading on that score, here’s 11tegen11 from earlier this year.

No doubt teams have some measure of control over these things. One the one hand, a counter attacking strategy trades off defensive risk for more space behind the opposition defense, which can lead to better chances on the break. On the other hand, teams with technically gifted, intelligent players can use a possession-based, build-up approach, one which is happy to patiently wait for a decisive through ball and run in the box no matter how many defenders are in the area.

Then we have Spurs. Before I begin, writing this post reminds me of the value of NBA.com’s stats page, which, in addition to X,Y player tracking and advanced metrics, features annotated video of each and every box score stat. Like, seriously. That is amazing.

This would have sure come in handy when trying to get a handle on just what exactly Spurs are doing when they shoot from long distance. Instead, I may have visited a shady website and spent a good portion of the morning watching a certain highlights program hosted by a certain former England striker in order to get a sense of any patterns in practice.

Now what follows is completely subjective and speculative, but I get the impression watching Spurs, even from last night’s come-from-behind 1-2 victory over struggling Fulham, that Andre Villas-Boas’ team is on some sort of internal shot clock when they carry the ball into the opposition final third. Generally Spurs players either a) cut and shoot from slightly outside the area, even with several passing options, or b) carry the ball to the flanks and cross as soon as the winger or full back (often Walker) is in enough space to do so.

Here for example are the highlights from yesterday’s match. The first real chance of the game for Tottenham saw the team break with three in attack, led by Jermain Defoe with Aaron Lennon on his left, who passed to Paulinho who shot over the bar. Unfortunate and a poor finish, but nothing glaringly out of order.

The next major attacking moment for Spurs came in the second half, after a well won corner from some short passing outside the 18 yard box. After a poor cross which bounced outside the area, Chiriches ran in and banged a shot through a player-packed box and scored. Though he had many attacking players in an onside position in a packed area of space, Vlad felt license to “go for it.” It went in, but it could have just as easily pinged off an opposition foot and gone out for a corner or get cleared. Then finally, Spurs’ go ahead goal came from Lewis Holtby lashing one in outside the 18 with several passing options ahead of him after Walker passed to Townsend and the kid picked it off his feet. Great goal, but lucky too.

Going through highlights from previous games, this pattern repeats itself often with Tottenham, with players choosing to go it alone long distance even with passing options in the 18 yard box. You can read anything you like into this, but it doesn’t appear that Spurs players are afraid to hit it from wherever, and will often do so even with players in middling to good attacking positions.

Why do they do this? Because you can’t score unless you shoot, as Simon Gleave wrote for his own blog recently. It could also be a trust issue, with players perhaps not as confident as they should be in the movement and ability of their team-mates moving past opposition defenders.

Or, Villas-Boas might believe more shots equals more goals, and so could be encouraging his players to shoot and shoot often. This final explanation to me seems the most likely, considering Spurs lead in shot volume in the league with 247, followed by Man City and Chelsea. Spurs are trigger happy, impatient in front of goal. Shooting early and often is not necessarily a poor strategy, but it needs very, very good offensive coaching to make it work, perhaps similar to Ferguson’s emphasis on sharp finishing while at United.

In any case, Spurs a good reminder that shooting for shooting’s sake is not the same thing as shooting to score. You can’t fudge the numbers in this game. You have to play football to win.