Sunday’s North London Derby is when it will officially feel real that Harry Kane is gone from Tottenham Hotspur. He’s the record scorer in the fiery rivalry match with 14 goals, and Tottenham haven’t had to prepare for a derby without Kane since September 2014, a match that ended in a draw. Kane’s debut in the derby helped spark new hope for the club, eventually leading them to a Champions League final and a period of relative superiority over their rivals. That period came crashing to an end last year, however, when managerial issues and a lack of direction saw Spurs fall well behind Arsenal while the Gunners fell just short of winning the title.
While it’s still early, things are looking up for Spurs under Ange Postecoglou, with the club scoring the third most goals in the Premier League through five games, remaining undefeated at the start of the season, even after selling Harry Kane to Bayern Munich. However, an away trip to Arsenal will be their biggest test of this young season.
Without Kane, Spurs have been able to score, but there are still questions about whether the attack is sustainable without him. Seven different players have registered a goal, including four goals by Heung-Min Son and Richarlison deputizing at the nine, but all four of those goals only came in two games.
With all that said let’s take a dive into how Spurs are attacking this season, and whether or not that will work for the long haul.
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Focus has been on the duo at the top of the attack, but the center forwards have been inconsistent to start the season. Richarlison has been used more as a target forward to get onto crosses from the wide areas, but he isn’t proficient enough in the air to convert crosses into goals. He’s only averaging 1.84 shots per 90 minutes on the field, which is simply not enough production from the player at the top of the attack.
When Son is at the nine, on the other hand, he needs space to operate, but he isn’t as good as Richarlison at bringing down the ball in the air, creating issues for Postecoglou in the center. So while Son is averaging a more robust 2.61 shots per 90, it’s harder for Spurs to reliably get into dangerous areas when he’s leading the line.
Tottenham added Brennan Johnson from Nottingham Forest, but he still doesn’t solve the issue, having done his best work on the right wing with Nottingham Forest. Johnson will likely be biding his time behind Dejan Kulusevski unless he shows something different than his previous career suggests he’s got in his locker.
Despite these struggles at the top of the formation, however, goals have still managed to come with ease for Tottenham. They’re third in the Premier League, scoring 13 times, after all. That success is thanks to another new signing.
The midfield reign of James Maddison
James Maddison’s integration into midfield has been a breath of fresh air. For years, Kane was forced not only to be the team’s best finisher but also the best creator on the team after Christian Eriksen’s departure in 2020. The entire attack has gone through Maddison in the middle, with Postecoglou handing him the keys to driving the attack. Maddison has responded by not only taking more shots per 90 minutes than ever in his career at 3.37 but also by putting two shots on target per 90 minutes, scoring two goals and assisting two more. These numbers may not seem sustainable, but if Maddison continues to stay healthy while Tottenham focuses on him, the talent is there to keep it up. And it’s not like he’s particularly outstripping his underlying advanced statistics. His expected assists per 90 minutes is 0.38 as compared his assist total of 0.37, and his expected goals are 0.33 per 90 as compared to 0.37 expected.
Helping Maddison find space has been the play of Pape Sarr, who slips into open positions to fire shots on target when a team forgets about him. With at least one shot on target in every game this season, along with a goal and an assist, Sarr is coming into his own since returning from loan at Metz. He’s averaging an absurd 3.71 shots per 90 minutes from midfield, that’s a top ten total in the league. He has been able to handle the step up to the Premier League and, along with Maddison in the middle, has been the engine of the attack. The wing backs provide the width and it’s down to them to make things happen or set up someone from a set play.
With it being so early, it’s tough to tell how the team will perform in the long term, but the early signs under Postecoglou are promising. Even without coming close to replacing Kane, Spurs have created the third most chances in the league (77), the fifth most passes attempted, second best goal difference (eight), and seventh best xG (9.47). The xG will point out that regression could be coming, but even if it does, this will be a very good team. Winning or even being competitive in the North London derby is what can really push them into the stratosphere.
This is supposed to be a rebuilding year for Spurs, but at the pace that they’re going, they may be able to at least return to European soccer ahead of schedule. They may not qualify for Champions League but any chance to test themselves on the bigest stage will be more than welcome.