The state of our defence under Mauricio Pochettino

We take a look statistically and tactically at the state our defence under Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs.

At Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino implemented his high pressing system and turned them in to a solid defensive unit. His Saints side kept 15 clean sheets in the Premier League last season, only Man City (16), Arsenal (17) and Chelsea (18) were more frugal.

While the attacking side of our game is on the up, its not quite happening at the defensive end, with just 6 clean sheets in 28 Premier League matches so far. Earlier in the season Pochettino talked about how we lacked ‘mental strength’ and that we made ‘rash decisions on the pitch’ and he went about correcting them. Recently though, we’ve seen the defensive errors creeping back in to our game.

On my post prior to the QPR match, a long-term reader asked why we are conceding so many goals?

So, prompted by this and what we’ve seen out of our back line in recent matches, I decided to take a statistical and tactical look at the state of our defence.

Goals conceded

Before getting down in to the nitty-gritty of where and how we are conceding chances, I though I’d start with the top line of goals conceded.

For some perspective, I’m going to compare it to the last two seasons. This is the 2012/13 campaign where we had AVB in charge. In 2013/14 I’ve split out AVB and Tim Sherwood’s time in charge to see how we faired under each manager. The stats are for Premier League games only.

PL Games28221638
Goals Allowed39302146
Per Game1.391.361.311.21

Already we can see that this season has us shipping the highest average number of goals in the last three seasons (1.39 per game). AVB’s first, and only full season in charge, saw our defence at it’s meanest, with 1.21 goals per game conceded.

Shots at goal conceded

Goals come from shots and their location, so if we delve a bit further we can see just where the chances are coming from.

Shots Allowed In Box Per Game8.976.55.9
Shots Allowed Outside Box Per Game44.54.43.9

On average, Mauricio Pochettino is conceding the highest number of goals per game and our defence under him is allowing the highest shots in the box per match too.

He fairs better with shots from outside the box, with only AVB’s side in 2012/13 allowing fewer. The problem for Pochettino is that a higher percentage of goals are scored from inside the penalty area.

If we look at where the chances we are allowing come from, it makes it just as unclear as to where to pinpoint the weakness.

Chances Left897543119
Chances Centre88463477
Chances Right87603968
Avg, Allowed Per Game9.

In seasons past we had a definite source of where we were conceding chances. AVB’s team of 2012/13 were extremely vulnerable to giving up chances from the left flank. This was highly understandable given that he didn’t have a first choice left back. Danny Rose was out injured and he rotated the position between Kyle Naughton, Jan Vertonghen and Benoit Assou-Ekotto. We conceded 40 more chances from this area of the pitch as a result.

The partial season AVB coached, there was more balance to where we were conceding chances. When Time Sherwood took over, the problems in the left back zone continued with Danny Rose out for much of the time he was in charge and Sherwood relying on Kyle Naughton and Jan Vertonghen to cover.

Unlike the other two coaches, Mauricio Pochettino has had plenty of cover in this area. Left back had long been an area many of us had been calling for the club to address and finally we signed a proper one last summer in Ben Davies. The problem area for Pochettino prior to Kyle Walker’s return was right back, but the chances we have allowed this season have come equally in all three areas, left, centre and right.

Without a clear zone of weakness, chances allowed under Mauricio Pochettino are also at their highest level in the last three seasons. Interestingly they’ve increased year-on-year from AVB to Sherwood to Pochettino.

Big chances

Opta defines a ‘big chance’ as “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.”

Big Chances Allowed55352558
Per Match1.961.591.561.53

Once more under Pochettino ‘Big chances’ are at their highest level than under AVB or Sherwood. With us conceding more shots in the box, overall chances and big chances, it’s not surprising that we’re conceding our highest average goals per game under Pochettino.


Errors have been the one thing creeping in to our game more and more as the season has progressed, but interestingly they are down under Pochettino.

Errors Per Match0.61.00.680.76
Error = Goalevery 4.6 Gamesevery 1.4 Gameevery 2.6 Gamesevery 1.3 Games

Our errors per game are the lowest under our new coach, despite their increasing frequency in recent matches. Although this is just for the Premier League.

Unsurprisingly Tim Sherwood’s time in charge saw a ridiculously high number of errors and goals conceded from them.

Pochettino’s ratio of an error leading to a goal every 4.6 games is by far the best.

Tactical considerations

Despite it not looking good for Mauricio Pochettino overall when the statistics stack up, we are still having a very good season. We are currently sixth in the Premier League, just three points off the Champions League places.

What’s more, there are several tactical considerations to take in to account with his system.

– It’s more attacking as we look to get the ball forward quicker, but also leaves us more open and vulnerable at the back by committing men forward.

– The Full backs are an obvious position to highlight; they are open to being exposed by their high positioning. This is the system we play though, as they are required to get forward with us using inverted wide players that move inside ahead of them.

– Our high defensive line is vulnerable to pace when they squeeze up the field. Fazio is the obvious example, but neither Jan Vertonghen nor Eric Dier are rapid across the ground in recovery situations either.

– Pochettino seems to coach front foot defending from his back four. Impetuous decisions being made by the likes of Rose and Vertonghen, who can often dive in needlessly trying to stop an attack when higher up the pitch, have hurt us.


Vertonghen’s challenge puts him out of position.

– Poor tracking by players in the wide positions. For example, Eriksen when on the left and Townsend when on the right. Eriksen does drift in to the centre and this makes it difficult for him to get quickly regain his position to help his left back. Townsend is often slow to track his runner e.g. on both Sheffield United goals in the 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane.


Eriksen caught infield.

– Sloppy turnovers by those in vulnerable positions e.g. Kyle Walker’s ill-advised back header against QPR. Mousa Dembele on West Ham’s first goal at the Lane. Bentaleb and Mason gifting passes straight to Liverpool players to run at Hugo Lloris.  Although not in the Premier League, Jan Vertonghen and Fazio’s blunders against Fiorentina were both committed when we were in extremely vulnerable situations.

The state of our defence under Mauricio Pochettino

Whilst the attacking side of our game has flourished this season, the defensive side is still a work in progress.

We are conceding more shots inside the box, overall chances and most worryingly ‘big chances’ where an opponent is reasonably expected to score.

Mauricio Pochettino pinpointed our ‘mental strength’ earlier this season and it has improved over the campaign. Recently, it appears as if our mental focus is being called in to question with the number of errors creeping in to our game.

Pochettino’s system is high risk-high reward and this needs to be taken in to account when assessing the state of our defence under him. His Southampton side massively improved from his first half-season in charge to his first full season, keeping 15 clean sheets in the Premier League. Next term, if he is able to bring in the players he wants, will be the one to judge him on.

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23 Responses to The state of our defence under Mauricio Pochettino

  1. SpurredoninDublin 12th March 2015 at 4:40 pm #

    As usual, a very detailed analysis.

    Just to raise one point with you. Regarding your final sentence, do you really think that Poch needs to make too many changes to the team? The reason I ask is that after a shaky start in which I admit to have expressed reservations about Poch, I can now see that he does have a good game-plan.

    So looking at the team which is the youngest in the PL, it looks to me as if they have about three years before they reach their peak. We have some “Crown Jewels” players, but the rest of them function pretty well as a team. The only first choice player I have reservations about is Townsend, and that is purely because of his habit of showboating.

    I know there are some areas where better players can be found, such as Rose, Mason and Bentaleb (not that they are bad players), but they will all improve. And one of these days, Bentaleb is going to score a wonder goal, preferably against Arsenal.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 12:05 am #

      Good question SpurredoninDublin. I think Pochettino does want to make a few changes, but whether he is given the money or if he gets the targets that he wants could be a stumbling block. In an interview with a Spanish radio station translated here, he reveals that:

      “For years Spurs invested a lot of money, more than 140m€ in transfers and later sacked Villas Boas. In that moment the club needed a specific person (to take over) and we arrived. There isn’t any money to spend. We need to get the most of the players that were signed previously.”

      I guess these are the reasons why he has used a lot of academy players. Whether the view on having no money to spend changes by the summer will be interesting to watch. Also just how much influence and who Paul Mitchell recommends I will also be curious to see. Maybe he is scouting cheaper more bargain talent given we only bought Dele Alli from MK Dons? Also, just what role Baldini plays or if he is on his way.

      • SpurredoninDublin 13th March 2015 at 12:42 pm #

        Not doubting your word, but I can’t believe there is “no money to spend”. Bale comes pretty close to balancing the “Magnificent Seven”, and at the time we were doing that business, between prize money, sponsorship and TV money, we brought in about £90 mill at the same time. Since them we have had even higher revenues due to the latest TV deal, whereas our transfer spending has been pretty much neutral.

        I know it may not be your field, but where has all the money gone?

        • Reinert 13th March 2015 at 1:01 pm #

          The money might have gone elsewhere in the club, since we are building on all fronts – stadium, players lodge, new staff, wages, and so on and so forth – I don’t know.. Tottenham is more than it’s players!

          • SpurredoninDublin 13th March 2015 at 3:46 pm #

            I am soeey but you seem to have missed the point. Over the past tree seasons, we have been pretty much revenue neutral wit regard to transfer spending. But also in that time, we have seen huge increases in TV, Shirt and Prize money. The amount is in the region of £150 mill plus.

            All the PL clubs are awash with money as we speak, as I think the minimum amount of TV money is £50 mill. What you are saying is that they “MIGHT HAVE” spent it in various places. So far there is no stadium, though there will have been some costs, but regardless of that the likelihood is that the Stadium will be built on borrowed money (to take advantage of FFPR)and though it might be predicted to cost £600 mill, much of the costs will be taken care of by the sale of the current site with the shortfall being made up from increased ticket sales. The Lodge is paid for. Harry Kane recently signed two new contracts which took him reportedly to £1 Mill, then £2mill a year, so you can imagine what most of the players like Mason, Rose, Bentaleb must be on.

            Yet the likes of Soton and Stoke are awash with money, and we have no money for players. I am not alleging anything underhand, just that I can’t understand this. This is an extra £75 mill per year that we are talking about fpr the past two years.

            When you start looking at these figures

            • Reinert 13th March 2015 at 4:42 pm #

              Surely, you are correct! However, the way we are run as a club makes sense only when you view it in the long term. Since I am not a footballer or a business-man, I cannot argue my points with any weight, but it does seem to me that there is a plan behind what we are doing (again, in the long-term). Since we now have a core of young and dedicated players, a stronger link to the academy and a fantastic pedagog and boss in MP (not to mention the modest and brilliant cpt.Lloris), I see no reason to complain at anyone right now, only marvel at what happens next. In my humble opinion, we just exited at the right path of the footballing cross-roads to glory.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 5:11 pm #

          The quote is lifted from an interview in which Pochettino says it – you can read it in full by clicking on the link – so for me it’s better than a lot of speculation in the media. He may of course be lying, but there could be a number of reasons, amongst which… 1) Levy feels burned by splashing the Bale cash so wastefully and therefore he wants to develop the academy players and this has ‘cut off’ funds. 2) Maybe he is being more prudent and only buying development prospect players eg Dele Alli – a player with a skillset that we maybe don’t have in our academy already. 3) To finance the new stadium if this is ever built and the new lodge which has been. 4) He could well be waiting for a buyer to come forward, such as we saw with the Cain Hoy bid, and is not investing heavily in the squad until this is settled.

          I should think there is money there, but we have to remember this is a business so they are not going to spend it as you or i would. What’s more, this could be a change in overall direction by the board to grow organically from within rather than buy talent. To say there are no funds is a way of doing it. If results go bad, then the fans aren’t getting restless and saying we should be chucking £20 milion at a player.

          Just thoughts, but without communication from the club or access to insider info, i’m afraid we’re left speculating on the fence.

          • SpurredoninDublin 13th March 2015 at 5:32 pm #

            Thanks to both you and Reinert for the replies. They both make sense.

            I can quite imagine that Levy, when considering the “Magnificent Seven” saw the promise of the AVB first season, and £100 Mill later, realised that it was yet another false dawn and was not going to get caught like that again.

            I notice Mark’s earlier reference to Baldini. and you have to think that he should be bearing the burden of the £100 mill, though to be fair to him, Eriksen and Chadli were not bad business. The case can be made that AVB should have done a lot better with those players, but then you see that Poch has fared no better, you have to consider that the players themselves were (in the main) unsuitable, and that comes back to Baldini. And yet he is still there?

            • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 6:32 pm #

              I imagine Baldini will be gone in the summer, i just can’t see him and Mitchell co-existing together.

  2. Mike J 12th March 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    The question I would ask is how tactically were his Southampton side better at defending – i..e what specific things were they doing that made their defence better? Better tracking back? Less errors, faster center backs?

    Also… not being any sort of theorist on football tactics – could you explain why the ‘inverters’ (presumably giving more ‘numbers’ to the center) can’t be the full-backs – and the wide attackers the ones to take the ball to the ‘cross’ – thus leaving the full backs less extended when an opponent ‘break’ begins.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 12:19 am #

      Southampton definitely got better as they learnt his system. Last season Pochettino did make a comment about how the team could train itself after he’d been there for a season, so he must have drilled them so that everything was intrinsic. Maybe our guys are still a little way off being at that level.

      They are also different personnel to work with compared to his Saints team. He made Lovren and Shaw look like world beaters whereas currently they both look extremely ordinary for Liverpool and Man Utd.

      With regards to us, Fazio doesn’t look comfortable in the system, but he did arrive without a full preseason so i am prepared to give him time. Vertonghen is very impetuous and that is costing us chances when he dives in to tackles when he should stay on his feet. Dier is still young and learning the game.

      With regards to inverted full backs, i’m not sure why you’d do this as they would have to underlap. This would merely add more congestion down the centre of the pitch, which is the area you’d be trying to stretch by having the wide attackers cross. They are also generally smaller, so wouldn’t win headers etc in the box. When the ball is turned over then they’d have further to recovery their position by having to get back from a more central location to their defensive position on the flank. It would also mean that they are further away from the man they are marking and the wide attacker would have to track the opposition’s wide player and possibly full back if they couldn’t recover in time, creating 2v1 overloads. Hope that makes sense?

      • Mike J 13th March 2015 at 7:52 am #

        Well explained – thank you.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 10:59 am #

          Great, like the way you are pushing the tactical boundaries :)

  3. iain 12th March 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    great post as always mark.
    I think we have to take into account just how young and inexperienced our team is and how well they are doing given that. Conceding so many chances must be down to inexperience and tiredness in at least some of the cases. I agree about the front foot approach of all the back 4 (regardless of who they are) and so that has to be coaching and a “calculated risk”. Im just wondering just how Poch did it at the saints and whether it was down to ball retention and teams maybe not really being familiar with his tactics. He is now a year more known and at a much bigger club. Teams are much more likely to sit deep and try and hit us on the break , whereby the may not have shown saints that level of respect last year, attacked more and got caught out by the high press and turned the ball over. It would be interesting to compare his stats in the same way as you have for the managers – perhaps they also gave away a high number of chances but teams just didnt score!!
    I think we need to get a quick solid defender to help the likes of DIer develop, and Im not convinced Jan is the man! Maybe he is just too impetuous and prone to lapses in concentration – we need a Ledley (if only!) type who is always in the right place at the right time.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 12:29 am #

      Thanks for reading Iain and i agree with you with regards to how young and inexperienced our team is. You make a good point about how opponents might not have been familiar with his tactics at Southampton and how they would play against a bigger club in Spurs. This would have a significant bearing on the performance and how to attack his defence.

  4. Ashley Collie 13th March 2015 at 1:56 am #

    Well done, Mark. You nailed all the salient points. Now, those clean sheets — in 1986/87 when we finished 3rd, we won 21 of 42G and had 17 clean sheets, there’s an obvious link there. So your final sentences cut to this point: “His Southampton side massively improved from his first half-season to his first full season, keeping 15 clean sheets in the PL. Next term, if he is able to bring in the players he wants, will be the one to judge him on.” Totally agree. One other point, our GF puts us 5th, our GD puts us 7th, and we’re in sixth, right about where we should be, and probably where we’ll end up — unless we over-achieve in last 10 games. So next season, increase GF, get more clean sheets (less GA), and get a better GD which will move us up, hopefully. But we’ll need more better players beyond our starting 11 or so. COYS!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Great points Ashley, especially with regards to goals for and against. Our goal difference is something that needs to improve if we’re going to climb higher!

  5. Mike 13th March 2015 at 8:11 am #

    Playing a high backline is such a risky tactic and it will make the defenders look very incompetent when it fails. We have also seen Liverpool and Man City look very incompetent in defence for the same reasons. I would hate to be a defender in such a system because it could be career suicide.

    I think often its not even the defenders fault. If there are players further up the field that arent pressing like they should in this system and running back helping the defence like they should then it really exposes the defenders and makes them look stupid. The system takes a long time to perfect but hopefully Pochettino will make it happen next season.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 13th March 2015 at 10:57 am #

      You’ve hit the nail on the head Mike in that it does take time to perfect such a system, but also requires intelligent defenders that know how to play it and have the physical attributes as well.

  6. iain 13th March 2015 at 3:50 pm #

    Another interesting point is that saints have gotten even meaner in defence since potch and two key defenders left. Only 20 goals so far this season, compared to our 39! Last year their goals per game was 1.21, ours was 1.32. This season theirs is just 0.71 with ours climbing to 1.39. I would love to know what they are doing differently now at saints to make them so hard to score against!

  7. bradical 14th March 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    As much talent as Walker has, he could use a dose of patience. He often seems so eager to make a run, sometimes putting us at risk. Can’t help but think we’d have a higher goal differential if he took a slight defensive tact.

  8. Chris 14th March 2015 at 11:50 pm #

    I am not looking forward to reading this …

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 15th March 2015 at 12:05 pm #

      Maybe time to hide behind the sofa…