If this is to end up proving a breakthrough season for Tottenham Hotspur, it’s been a disconcertingly frustrating start.
Despite the relatively healthy points haul, one element of the side has looked troublingly anaemic. It was the concern raised a fair few times at the club’s training ground this week. Brazilian midfielder Sandro claims it is coming but not at the click of a finger; Roberto Soldado insists it’s “very close”.
Precision, however, has been the exact problem.
Despite hitting by far the most shots in the Premier League this season, Tottenham are the lowest scorers of anyone outside the bottom two. Worse, only six goals have come from open play and none for the last two games. Spurs just can’t seem to score.
Today’s game at the Etihad provides a contrast that could further condition the issue. While Tottenham have enjoyed one of the best defences but worst attacks in the division, Manchester City have produced the most prolific strikeforces – with 28 goals in 11 games – but an oddly error-prone back line. Something is going to have to give.
If that doesn’t quite make this game a case of the movable object against the stoppable force, it is mobility that has been something of the problem.
Most obviously, and as everyone at White Hart Lane points out, Andre Villas-Boas is trying to integrate a variety of new arrivals. It is undeniably a factor – but not the only one.
“It’s difficult when the new players come,” Sandro says. “It’s not [instant] for everyone to understand what the new players want to do in terms of playing. I don’t know. No one knows. This takes time to understand in training and games.”
That’s always going to be more pronounced at a team where the manager clearly seems to practise what coaching manuals call “automatisms”: rigorously rehearsing moves until they can be executed perfectly in matches. It is no coincidence that the team’s most satisfying performance of the season so far, the 2-0 home win over Norwich, featured two such goals.
One figure who works around the first team, however, points to another example from that very match which has been more indicative of the long term. At one point, Christian Eriksen looked set to release Roberto Soldado, only for the two to misread each other’s movements by a fraction and see the ball go wide by several acres. Both looked conspicuously frustrated with each other, but the Spanish striker admitted this week it is something he needs to work on.
“I am not combining with my team-mates how I would like,” Soldado said.
At the same time, there is a further issue with the new forward. So far, Soldado has looked a little like Dimitar Berbatov when he first went to Manchester United. Although many of his touches are undeniably exquisite, they have had the effect of slowing the attack rather than greasing the movement. That would not be a problem if Spurs had enough players running past him, and could even serve as a potentially devastating pause or change of pace, but that has clearly not been the case.
One stat beyond the goal count actually tells the story of the season so far: Spurs have been caught offside the fewest times in the Premier League, an average of just once per game, indicating that they simply do not have enough players looking to run in behind defence. No-one is suddenly breaking through. So many of those shooting stats have come from well outside the box rather than in it.
Again, part of the issue is integrating a new style as well as new players. With the sale of Gareth Bale, Villas-Boas has been switching from a counter-attacking game to a more controlled one. Spurs have gone from a side who instantly stretch teams on the break to one who gradually step up. On average, with their possession also increasing, Tottenham have spent an extra 11 per cent of games in opponents’ halves.
As Sandro also intimated, that in itself involves having to “understand more tactical” instructions in order to develop the right cohesion in more enclosed spaces – but Spurs still seem to lack a release. One of the reasons that Andros Townsend has stood out is because he is the only player in the entire attack who will suddenly break from passages of passing with a direct run. Unfortunately, that has only served to bring the problem full circle. Townsend himself has scored just one goal from 45 shots this season. That was a cross.
Loïc Rémy’s directness seemed to illustrate exactly what Tottenham were missing in the last match, when he scored Newcastle’s winning goal, but it was also that game which pointed to a potential breakthrough. With Alan Pardew’s side a little more willing to open out, it was only the brilliance of Tim Krul that closed Spurs down. Now, Tottenham must prove it is not about how you start, but how you finish - by starting to finish.
Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur is live on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 1.30pm