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Opposition Research: Q&A with Cartilage Free Captain

Tottenham Hotspur v Sheffield United - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

With the North London Derby on Sunday, we chatted with our friends down the digital hallway at Cartilage Free Captain, as we usually do. Deputy Editor Matty Flatt was kind enough to answer our questions about Tottenham’s new folk hero manager Ange Postecoglu, Spurs’ summer signings, and a few different things we might see in the match.

He also spoke eloquently about Richarlison’s courage to open up about his mental health. I wanted to highlight that particular answer because mental health is a topic of great importance to me personally, and I think what Matty said was excellent. I know that y’all will be classy and appropriate about Richarlison, and I hope that the Emirates faithful will be, too.

My answers to his questions about Arsenal are here. They, uh, didn’t go over so well.

TSF: The story coming out of Tottenham Hotspur from the summer and early days this season is Ange Postecoglou, Big Ange. Talk a little bit about him. What is it about him that has people gravitating to him? And on the football side of things, how does he want Tottenham to play?

Carty Free: Big Ange has been a breath of fresh air after the last few years. One thing I’d say about him (that doesn’t sound like a compliment but totally is) is he’s just a regular bloke! We’re so used to these monolithic personalities in football management: Ferguson, Mourinho, Conte; but those sorts of personalities have a tendency to make the football about themselves.

Ange is all about the collective. He clearly loves being at the club, and he seems to really understand what it means to be a football fan, as well as having a simple desire to win. The guy has a real passion for what he’s doing, and when you combine that with his openness about his journey to get to this point you can’t help but root for him to succeed.

In terms of the football, this goes back to my point before, where he gets what it means to be a fan: he’s been quoted as wanting his teams to play football his dad would love to watch!

In a bit more detail, his teams play an ultra-aggressive style: capitalising on space and utilising vertical movement and positioning to pull teams around, before flooding the box with bodies. Though he ostensibly sets up his teams in a 4-3-3 formation, it’s not uncommon to see the play shift into a 2-3-5; though this does mean his teams can leave a lot of space at the back.

TSF: A close second for biggest story is James Maddison. Why has the summer signing started off the season like gangbusters? And talk a bit about the other new faces on the Tottenham roster, too.

Carty Free: Honestly, I think James Maddison is just a quality player, and he’s just doing what he’s always done; however, he’s now surrounded by higher quality players in an attacking system that suits him (as opposed to the counter-attacking football at Leicester). Maddison has a lot of freedom in Ange’s system to attack the box, engage other attackers, and move around the pitch, and he’s taken to it like a duck to water.

In terms of other signings, Guglielmo Vicario in goal has helped us move on quickly from Hugo Lloris’ decline, and Mickey Van de Ven has filled a much-needed gap at center back, albeit with a certain amount of rawness that is compensated for by his blistering pace. The other two signings, Manor Solomon and Brennan Johnson, provide a bit of pace, trickiness, and aggression in attack, though are still somewhat unknown quantities. Johnson especially seemed a bit of an odd one: while he has some quite useful physical tools, his output (both in terms of underlying stats AND in actuality) has been extremely lacking up to this point in his career.

TSF: Shifting gears to another important story out of Tottenham: Richarlison. The Brazilian recently spoke openly and honestly about his mental health and some difficulties he’s been having. The response from the club and the football world at large has been fantastic, offering him support and praising his courage. I’ll give you an open floor to take this in whatever direction you’d like.

Carty Free: It’s been great to see. It’s easy to forget with all the money and fanfare involved that footballers are just people when it comes down to it; and love him or hate him (and most rival fans hate him) Richarlison’s willingness to be open about his personal struggles and battle with mental health is a real inspiration.

Often when you’re struggling, the easiest thing to do is hide away from the limelight and push your feelings down deep inside – especially as a public figure! It takes a whole new level of strength to be vulnerable and candid about your journey and the steps you’re making to grow and heal.

Richarlison speaking out normalises the struggle, and says to other players and fans alike that it’s okay to not be okay, it’s okay to share with others, and if you need help – ask for it! My respect for him has grown massively over this period.

TSF: Spurs have had a number of false dawns in the past few years. New managers have come in, had a period of success, and then turned back into pumpkins. What, if anything, about this particular resurgence gives you confidence that the club isn’t setting you up for more disappointment? What signs point to “yeah, this is sustainable?”

Carty Free: Well, I’m not sure that the current streak is sustainable! We’ve only played five matches, and our opponents in those haven’t exactly been at the pinnacle of performance (#sorrynotsorry Manchester United). There are some red flags, especially in defense, that point to the possibility of a drop-off when the quality of the competition takes a step up.

With that said, the fact that this Tottenham squad has taken so quickly to a completely new system and way of playing football speaks volumes to Postecoglou’s ability as a coach, as well as providing encouragement as to the quality of the players at hand. I have a lot of hope moving forward!

The big difference here though is some of the work done on the backroom structures. I spoke further up about “coaching monoliths”, and that has been part of the reason for Spurs’ struggles in recent seasons. In the latter part of Pochettino’s tenure, as well as with the appointments of Mourinho and Conte, Daniel Levy essentially turned the strategic direction of the club over fully to individuals in an effort to achieve short term success; and that’s just not a sustainable way to run a football club. Whenever those individuals failed, it in some ways meant the club had to start from scratch again.

With the appointment of Ange, Levy has also appointed Scott Munn, a former City Football Group executive, to take charge of football matters (including revamping scouting and the hiring of a Director of Football) and build continuity across the first team, academy, and women’s teams. This means that success will become less dependent on individuals, so as coaches and players come and go the club can hopefully continue to build organically in a push for long term success.

TSF: Those of us who read The Sports Guy (Bill Simmons) before he became a problematic sellout will be familiar with his “Ewing Theory” that basically states teams with stars who leave can sometime experience addition by subtraction and find more success without the star player. Is Tottenham experiencing that with Harry Kane? Why do you think that is?

Carty Free: This is an interesting one, and a challenging hypothetical to entertain. One of the things you often see football clubs struggle with (and is incredibly important for continued success) is continual refreshing of your squad. There is a strong argument from a neutral perspective that selling a player with one year left on their contract for £100 million plus to reinvest in the team is a net positive.

Does that argument hold up though when the player in question is Harry Kane? Look, I have mixed feelings on Kane’s departure (that I plan on writing a piece on in the coming weeks – SPOILER ALERT), and it’s hard to say whether Spurs’ uptick in performance is due to or in spite of Kane exiting the club.

There are arguments both ways: Kane has been “the guy” for Tottenham for many years, scoring bucketfuls of goals and torturing rivals, but that hasn’t resulted in any meaningful success. One of the things Kane would often do is attempt to take the game by the scruff of the neck by dropping deep into midfield and unleashing his exceptionally good passing range to drive Spurs forward; this is counter though to the #9 role in Ange’s system, which is expected to stay high, occupy defenders, and engage the other attackers in the squad.

We saw in preseason (and in the recent internationals for England) Kane’s playstyle at times caused problems where he would get in the way of others who were now more naturally playing those deeper roles, resulting in a lack of fluidity: in fact, Spurs actually scored more goals in the preseason fixtures (Shakhtar Donetsk aside) when Kane was off the field.

Now, a lot of rival fans are screaming this is absolute cope coming from me right now; and maybe they’re right! Kane is an elite player, and I have very few doubts he would have been able to adapt his game to the new system and score freely in this new attacking system. Would that have been to the betterment of the team? It’s hard to say; but less reliance on individuals and a focus on the collective I think is undeniably a good thing.

TSF: What are realistic expectations for Tottenham Hotspur this season? Neither Spurs nor Arsenal or Liverpool, certainly not Brighton, and probably not Manchester City are going to challenge the Invincibles’ record 20 years on (yes, it’s the 20th anniversary of that fantastic season). Are Spurs title challengers?

Carty Free: I think only the most optimistic (read: deluded) of fans would say Spurs are title challengers. As I mentioned previously, we’re only a few fixtures in and are yet to really play a quality team. The real focus of this season has always been to rebuild after the carnage of the last few years and so our expectations aren’t especially high. Style of play and the implementation of a new system while bedding in new players is the aim right now.

I’d say most fans would be happy with a finish in the European places, though as we reassess through the progression of the season a Champions League spot might begin to look realistic! As long as we’re playing quality football and pushing for improvement, I think the fans will be largely happy.

TSF: My read on Spurs is that in some ways, they’re similar to Arsenal of a few years ago. They’ve got a strong starting XI and maybe one or two guys on the bench, but after that, it starts to fall off quickly and dramatically and that injuries could really sting them. Is that an accurate description?

Carty Free: That’s probably a fair assessment, especially in defense. Spurs are paper-thin at center back, and we’re one injury to Cristian Romero or Van de Ven away from having to start the shuffling corpse of Eric Dier at center back. The guy has been a faithful servant to the club over the years, but no longer has the physical tools to play in a high line.

There is a bit of depth in midfield, but until Rodrigo Bentancur makes his way back to full fitness there is a bit of worry if Yves Bissouma goes down. He’s really made things tick for us this season, and though Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg can step in to cover that position, he’s also the cover for one of the more attacking CM roles. The bonus here is no European football, so hopefully lack of fixture congestion can aid in staving off injury.

TSF: I like to ask a variation of this question in every Q&A: say Arsenal win convincingly on Sunday, what happened? How did Spurs come undone?

Carty Free: The defense in the wide areas.

Ange plays ultra-aggressively; we’ve already established that. The drawback to that is his teams are often pretty open at the back. Vicario, Romero, and Van de Ven have done an excellent job thus far of shutting down any opposition forays, but there’s the fear that things are maybe a little fragile currently.

One of the things about Ange’s system that can both hurt and help Spurs is how he uses his fullbacks. They come very narrow, and become almost auxiliary midfielders, contributing to ball progression and pushing forward in attack. That can leave the wide areas exposed, and the Spurs’ right back, Pedro Porro, isn’t the greatest defender on the best of days. He’s improved so far this season but his space could be one to target.

TSF: And the flip side of that - imagine Spurs win on Sunday at the Emirates. How did that come about?

Carty Free: The Spurs high press has been extremely effective and the midfield corp has been one of the best in the league at pouncing on loose balls and punishing opposition mistakes. Spurs will not give the Arsenal defense any time whatsoever on the ball. If Tottenham can corral Arsenal in their own half, the pressure may result in mistakes upon which Spurs can capitalise.

Additionally, if Maddison gets any time and space on the ball, he will make Arsenal pay. He’s really stepped up so far this season, and I imagine he is going to be fizzing to make an impact on this match.

TSF: And finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s match?

Carty Free: The way Spurs are playing means there will be goals galore, and which way those goals fall is really the big question. There’s a bit of tension between my heart and head: my head says Spurs aren’t quite there yet, and their record at the Emirates is historically poor. Throw in the fact that this is a very strong Arsenal side and the signs are that Spurs are unlikely to take anything away from this match.

Sometimes though my heart overrides my head, and the way Spurs have been playing this season makes me believe that anything is possible. Ange himself came out and said fans should be excited, and should feel free to get carried away, so I’m going to choose belief. Spurs win 3-2 in a barnstormer of a match.