The glaring Tottenham weakness Ange Postecoglou must sort out before Spurs can succeed

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Tottenham Hotspur have some serious defensive issues - and set pieces aren’t the only problem that Ange Postecoglou needs to sort out before next season.

Their fruitless late rally at Anfield notwithstanding, Tottenham Hotspur have fallen apart in recent weeks. The 4-2 loss to Liverpool marked their fourth consecutive defeat, and now their chances of making the top four seem slim to none. After such a promising start to the Ange Postecoglou era, it’s all getting a little bit Spursy again…

And Sunday’s defeat highlighted some defensive issues that the manager will need to get sorted before next season. Their first-choice back four consists entirely of players who have been broadly praised this season – Pedro Porro, Destiny Udogie, Micky van de Ven and Cristian Romero – but it has some structural issues that are setting Spurs back, and which opposing teams are now ruthlessly exploiting.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Set pieces have been a regular topic of discussion of late. Spurs conceded for set plays in the defeats to both Newcastle United and Arsenal, and both of Chelsea’s goals in their recent 2-0 win came from dead balls. In total, Spurs have now shipped 14 goals from such positions in the Premier League – not ideal.

But also not necessarily disastrous in its own right. Five teams have been worse from dead balls (Nottingham Forest have conceded 22, the most and more than 50% worse than Spurs) and some of the problems they had against Liverpool suggested failings from set plays are more of a symptom of the problem than the central issue itself.

One big problem Spurs face is that they are simply not good enough at defending crosses. Whether it’s from a dead ball or not, they are struggling to deal with aerial balls – and Van de Ven is a big part of the issue here. Despite being 6’4”, he struggles to win aerial duels, losing more than half of those he’s been involved in this season. Combine that with a problem at left-back and crosses from the left over to the far post (and to a lesser extent near-post crosses from the right) were a massive issue for Spurs at Anfield and it was stand-in full-back Emerson Royal’s lack of positional sense and ability to handle a deep cross that led directly to Mohamed Salah’s opener.

Romero, for his part, is excellent in the air and despite being three inches shorter than his defensive partner wins a much higher percentage of balls in the air, but he can’t cover both sides of the box. Liverpool clearly knew where the weak point was and targeted Van de Ven and Royal’s side of defence relentlessly.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That wouldn’t necessarily be too much of a problem if Spurs weren’t getting themselves in so much trouble in wide areas in the first place. Liverpool found it so, so easy to create overlaps and two-on-one situations in the wider portions of the final third all game, and the visitors never really found an answer.

Much of the focus will be on Royal, who struggled horribly against Salah for large periods, and the circumstances that led to a man who has spent most of his career on the right side of defence looking so uncomfortable in his new role. Spurs are without Udogie, Ben Davies and Ryan Sessegnon right now, and as such are forced to hammer a square peg into a round hole. It isn’t working very well, but that isn’t entirely on the unfortunate Royal.

Yes, he was at fault for the first goal when he completely lost track of Salah, and it wasn’t the only time he was left all at sea as he struggled to make sense of the positional demands of left-back play. But then he was also left outnumbered time and time again by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deep runs and by Harvey Elliott, who came across to the right repeatedly to support attacks while Spurs allowed Royal to be isolated and picked off.

The same situation was mirrored on the Spurs right, where Pedro Porro took a battering too. Royal is copping the most flak, but this was a structural issue more than a problem with any given player. The midfielders seldom went across to help out, and the wingers were too slow tracking Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s runs. Time and again, Spurs’ full-backs were overwhelmed and Liverpool made hay.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sunday’s match may have been the most glaring example of the issue, but it’s not a new concern, just one that’s finally being picked up on by opposing teams. Only four teams have won a lower percentage of aerial duels in the top flight this season – and other teams are getting wise to the weakness.

And the problem doesn’t only exist out of possession, judging by a few passages of play this weekend. There’s a video which has been shared on Spurs fan accounts on social media from the 35th minute of the game, showing Spurs beating Liverpool’s press with an expansive passing manoeuvre which starts with Porro and Romero in the right-hand corner of their own area. It’s an impressive passing passage, but there’s a pretty big caveat to it – it was the third time Spurs had attempted the same sequence from the same area, and the first time it had worked.

Twice before that, in pretty quick succession, Spurs had started playing out from the back by passing it out to the right side of defence, and twice Liverpool had immediately pounced on Porro and Romero and won the ball back, creating dangerous chances as a consequence.

Passing out from the back is obviously a tactic used by plenty of teams, but few attempt to do so from out wide and from so deep. Most top-level teams no longer press hard up the centre, preferring to force sides to pass out wide before springing the pressing trap when the ball comes out to the full-backs – the logic simply being that they have nowhere to go in one direction, reducing their options and the space in which they have to try and find a way out.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

As a consequence of that, the vast majority of teams will try to avoid passing to the wide defenders until they’re a decent way up the pitch – that way, if things go wrong, there’s more time for players to get back and cover before the pressing side can play a cross or get a shot away. In all three of the instances in which Spurs played right into Liverpool’s wide press in that passage of play, both the time it worked and the two it didn’t, they passed the ball to the right-back before he was even 20 yards off his own goal line. It’s a very dangerous way to do business, and doesn’t seem to be playing the percentages very well.

The lesson isn’t that Spurs have bad players in defence who need to be replaced – the lesson is that the structure has to be reviewed. They have to find ways to compensate for a weaker aerial presence in one half of the penalty area, they have to find ways to avoid being pushed into two-on-ones and three-on-twos in wide areas and conceding crosses, and they have to play out from the back in such a way that they don’t put themselves into the situations that have become so dangerous to them.

Get all that right, and Postecoglou will have the foundations of a strong defence as he looks to renew his push for Champions League football next season – but ignore it, and we could find ourselves back in the same place in a year’s time. Spurs have a lot of good players and a lot going for them, but they have some pretty glaring weaknesses to shore up before they can reach their full potential.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.