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Tottenham’s set-piece defending is a problem, and it may cost Ange Postecoglou and Spurs Champions League spot

LONDON — Ange Postecoglu might think otherwise but there is surely no one else who could convincingly contend that Tottenham do not have a problem when it comes to defending dead balls. Two conceded to Arsenal on Sunday, another two, one of the most basic variety, given up to Chelsea on Thursday night. No points taken. Champions League qualification dependent on the whims of Aston Villa’s domestic form.

Postecoglu has his sights set on a bigger reset of Tottenham’s culture. At a macro level, it is hard not to contend that whatever he is doing is working, even amid the first murmurings of dissatisfaction from the Spurs fanbase. A team that no one expected to be in the mix for a top-four finish might at least end the season concluding that they took their pursuit into May, much longer than their conquerors at Stamford Bridge.

A low-scoring sport, however, can turn what some managers might view as a microscopic flaw into defeats that change the course of a season. About all you could say in mitigation this time was that Spurs wouldn’t have merited any points even if set pieces were taken out of the game. Second to every ball, lacking the intensity in the press that is a prerequisite for any team playing with a line as high as theirs, they were fortunate to not be behind before Trevoh Chalobah’s unmarked header gave the Blues a 24th-minute lead.

A cruel assessment of Spurs’ woes defending dead balls might ask if more could have been done to get to the rebound off Cole Palmer’s second half free kick before Nicolas Jackson, neither Heung-min Son nor Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg really attacking the ball as it bounced back off the bar. The reality is goals like that will slip through the cracks, no matter the work that anyone does at the training ground. The issue is when you add them to the altogether more preventable you have a major problem.

Postecoglu might contend otherwise. He was out of his post-match press conference before the dead ball questions came. He might also have given enough of an answer on Wednesday, his blunt assessment of set pieces being, “I’m not interested, never have been, not in the least.” His opponents certainly are when Tottenham roll into town.

Chalobah’s was the sort of concession that a specialist set piece coach would surely go some way towards eradicating. As Conor Gallagher stood over a free kick from the right channel, Marc Cucurella firmly but fairly pinned Brennan Johnson and Chalobah glided around towards the back post. It was about as prime a spot as an attacker could wish for to meet a fizzing delivery. Chelsea didn’t need anyone interfering with Guglielmo Vicario, the Italian was never getting close to the header as it arced into the far post.

There was certainly good execution in the goal, a good delivery met with the right header. Sometimes those happen and there is nothing a defending team can do about it, even when Chalobah is scuttling like a man who knows the ball is heading in his direction. Shouldn’t someone have identified that movement or reacted to the screen set by Cucurella? The problem for Tottenham is a lot of the deliveries they have faced of late end up looking like wonderful execution by their opponents. Kai Havertz getting an unmarked header in the six-yard box. Kurt Zouma outjumping a cadre of his own teammates to flick in.

At some stage, 16 goals conceded from set pieces, two of them own goals, can’t be explained away. It can’t just be a string of coincidences and uncoachable moments that have allowed opponents to create 14.66 expected goals (xG) from set pieces this season, a tally exceeded only by Luton Town and Manchester United. Spurs are not doing a good enough job of defending the most dangerous spots on the pitch. They have allowed 26 headed shots off dead balls in their six-yard box this season. The three best defenses in the league by that metric — Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool — have given up five, nine and 11.

Adjusting the numbers based on the number of set pieces faced does Postecoglu few favors either. Brentford and Spurs have faced a comparable number of dead balls. The former have given up 7.2 xG from those situations. They have employed some of the best set piece coaches in the business over recent years, including Arsenal’s Nicolas Jover and Bernardo Cueva, who has just been poached by Chelsea.

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Set piece shots allowed by Brentford and Tottenham this season, sized by expected goal value TruMedia

Spurs are hardly a squad of Santi Cazorlas and Ryan Frasers either. The squad as a whole has an average height of 185cm, making them one of the tallest in the top flight. Spurs had big bodies like Micky van de Ven, Cristian Romero and Dejan Kulusevski back to defend Gallagher’s free kick. The issue is that they were mostly at the front post or in the center of the box, leaving Emerson Royal as the man to scrabble across and try to compete with Chalobah, four inches taller than him and with the wind in his sails thanks to the Cucurella screen.

It’s hard to find much in the way of mitigations beyond the obvious: Tottenham don’t have a set-piece coach. They don’t even have one man in Postecoglu’s staff assigned to deal with them, Ryan Mason dealing with the attacking phase (from which Cristian Romero went close in the first half) and Mile Jedinak the defensive. The status quo evidently isn’t working. Then again, precious little was in any facet for Spurs tonight, Postecoglu uncharacteristically fuming with his players before the half ime whistle had blown.

“It wasn’t a great night,” he said. “We didn’t play anywhere near the sort of football and didn’t have the mindset that I expect us to have. That’s on me. I’ve got to take responsibility for that. Ultimately I’m the one putting them out there, preparing them for it. We were so far off it,I’ve got to look at myself and see how I’m preparing this team.

“We lacked a real conviction and positive mindset in our football. We didn’t really have any fluency, any sort of aggression with and without the ball. It’s a bit unlike us. If nothing else we’ve always been very competitive. Especially in the first half that was missing today.”

He has a point. Halves like that were altogether more frequent under past regimes than they have been this season. In totality, clearly Tottenham are a better team 35 games into Postecoglu’s tenure than they were when he took the helm. Given another summer of recruitment, a preseason to hone a squad that still seems to be learning a style of play that must become instinctive, and this squad could take major strides forward next summer. However while they are leaving so many goals and chances on the table for their opponents, there will always be a limit to what they can achieve.

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