Are Spurs* bad?

sorry Harry, not you

*except for Harry Kane?

I am not a Spurs fan and watch only snatches of their games. So my perspective as an outsider, listener to experts (including all those on the 606 Phone-In) and peruser of league tables was that Spurs had improved from last season. My impression was Pochettino is a much better manager than Sherwood and Kane is on fire so of course Spurs are doing better than last season. They are doing fine in the table, only recently falling out of the race for the Champions League and made the League Cup final as well, sliding them solidly into the “solid season” portion of my mind. Then I started looking a little deeper at the stats and it became clear my perceptions were not correct. Spurs are not a good team. They might even be a bad team. And they are heading in the wrong direction when you look at previous seasons. You might not agree with me, but let me make my case.

Exhibit A: Spurs get awful shots

The raw shot numbers and raw goal numbers are misleading in Spurs case. They fire at the 6th-highest rate in the league and have scored 50 goals, giving the illusion they have a strong offense that can generate good opportunities alongside good volume. They do not. Spurs shot quality ranks 18th in the league mainly because they take shots from a long way away (distance in feet):

Unsurprisingly, they take 2nd most long shots in the league (70 feet or more)

…and the 2nd fewest close shots (30 feet or less from the center of the goalmouth)

When you look at where Spurs are shooting from, you wonder how they don’t have one of the worst offenses in the league. The main reason is they are good at putting the ball on target (7th) despite taking those bombs. When they do put the ball on target, it goes in a lot (3rd in the league). If Spurs were just league average at putting the ball on target and getting it to go in when on target, they would have 7 fewer goals.

Exhibit B: Spurs allow great shots

Spurs allow fewer shots than they take (by about 1.5 a game) but the shots they allow are as high quality as the ones they take are low quality. They allow the closest average shot of any team in the league (measurement in feet again):

With this comes a high number of close shots:

and a small number of long, speculative shots:

For every 10 long shots Tottenham allow, their opponents get nearly 9 close shots. Meanwhile, on offense Spurs get just 2.5 close shots for every 10 long ones they take. Unsurprisingly, Spurs allow a higher shot on target% than any other team. They also block very few shots (19th most in EPL). This shouldn’t really surprise anyone, they have allowed 45 goals. This is basically just clarifying the fact that they haven’t been unlucky to allow those goals, their defense is just not any good.

Exhibit C: Game state stats help Spurs shot numbers

Looking at traditional, unadjusted numbers like TSR are somewhat favorable to Spurs. They rank 7th in total TSR. However,  teams generally shoot more when they are behind:

and Spurs are behind a good amount more than the teams around them in the table. Liverpool and Southampton have both led nearly for nearly twice as many minutes as they have trailed this season while Spurs have trailed more than they have led, leading to them spending a good amount of time in a negative game state which helps with their raw shot total numbers. West Ham, Everton, and Swansea have also spent more time ahead. In an even game state, Spurs have taken 163 shots and allowed 158, which is 8th in the league in total shots ratio but as close to 11th as they are to 7th.

Those three pieces of evidence: they get awful shots, allow great shots, and have their shot totals boosted by trailing a lot, seem to imply that Spurs should be 8th at best and maybe down around the low-mid teens if you think they get a bit of bad luck. Why aren’t they so low? Of course, it’s Harry Kane.

If you removed Kane’s numbers, the rest of Spurs would drop from 7th to 17th in SOT% and 3rd to 15th in G/SOT. That’s not really a fair comparison because someone else would be getting at least the chance of getting the higher quality striker shots but it tells you how Kane-reliant the team has been. A fairer comparison might be comparing expG to actual goals.

Is Harry Kane this good? No one is this good. His shooting and scoring rates match up favorably with some of the best in the game but scoring almost 2.25x your expG is not sustainable. I can’t find a post from the end of last season but I’m almost positive either Ted Knutson or Michael Caley talked about Kane converting shots at an elite level for a significant sample size and that was before this madness. With that vague recollection done and dusted, I am ready to say Kane is a very good striker. He’s very good, but he’s also probably going through the best stretch of his career right now.

So where does that leave Spurs going forward? They can’t get good shots, allow very high quality shots and can’t dominate the shooting rate when playing at an even game state. They’ve got a great striker who is running hot right now carrying them, and their goal difference is still just +5. What happens if Harry regresses, cools off, or gets injured? What happens if Spurs run into a few hot goalies and their goal/SOT rate falls to middle of the pack and they face teams that start shooting well and convert goals at a high rate? I’d say they could “pull an Everton” except if you look at the underlying stats, Everton are arguably playing better than Spurs right now. Wigan played at a level somewhat comparable level to Spurs back in 2012-13 and they got relegated. That’s obviously the worst-case scenario and Spurs have a much better ability to get the ball on frame than Wigan did so relegation is not really a worry (though I will be taking a peek at how long the odds are next season), but a bottom half finish is what you expect when you play like this. Spurs have tons of work to do to get their team anywhere near the Champions League.

Spurs expG% trends (ratio of exp GF to exp GF + exp GA)

Other EPL teams with similar expG% to this years Spurs team and their final spot in the table:

On twitter someone mentioned looking at Saints to see how Pochettino’s full year there matches up with this season at Spurs compared to how last season at Spurs correlates with this year:

Spurs already got very bad shots last season (though they got a good amount more per game last season) but the major change is they give up almost 60% more close shots this season. Saints have increased their close shots by almost 50%.


3 thoughts on “Are Spurs* bad?

  1. Pingback: European Top 10 Lists | Saturdays on the Couch

  2. I recently came upon your website and am going through your old posts. This is of course very interesting and explains mathematically what many Spurs fans have been seeing. I do not know much about data analytics, so I really appreciate how clearly you state the variables that you consider.

    I saw from your post on European defenses and wonder if this is symptomatic of a certain style of defense or a reflection of poor defensive players. In other words, is this bad defense, a tactical choice or something else?


    1. I can’t say for sure really either way. they don’t press very well but yet still seem overextended so allow a high rate of shots to passes. they also do very poorly stopping teams inside the box. if you had a manager who was exhorting his players to press high, but they hadn’t gelled and weren’t the type of players to do it that’s the kind of profile you’d probably expect. someone with more Spurs-specific knowledge would be better equipped to answer specific player questions though


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