Anyone who has watched Tottenham Hotspur recently will not have been especially surprised by Everton’s stoppage-time equaliser on Saturday.
In three out of Spurs’ last four wins, Ange Postecoglou’s side came very close to doing the same thing. Starting with the reverse fixture at home to Everton in December when former Tottenham loanee Arnaut Danjuma was literally millimetres from making it 2-2 in the 96th minute and earning his side a deserved point. A game when the question was asked: are Spurs becoming too reliant on the excellence of their goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario?
Then, against Burnley in the FA Cup, Zeki Amdouni put a volley just wide in the 98th minute with the score at 1-0. On Tuesday night, Vicario made an excellent save to tip Shandon Baptiste’s 93rd-minute volley over the bar and prevent Brentford levelling the game at 3-3.
Spurs’ luck ran out on Saturday when Jarrad Branthwaite headed in from close range in the 94th minute of their 2-2 draw at Everton.
The Briefing: Everton 2 Tottenham 2 – Spurs switch off but Richarlison is one-touch wonder
Despite those recent escapes and before Branthwaite’s leveller, Tottenham have still made a habit of letting in late goals this season. The Everton defender’s equaliser means they have now conceded eight goals in the 90th minute this season, their most in a single Premier League campaign (even allowing for longer stoppage times this season, we’re only just into February, so that’s pretty striking) and the most of any side in the division this term. There was also the 88th minute-winner scored by Manchester City to beat Spurs in the FA Cup just over a week ago.
It’s worth pointing out that Spurs have also scored late goals this season — grabbing four in the 90th minute, which have been worth six points to them, a higher tally actually than what the eight 90th-minute goals have cost them points-wise (five).
Apart from Saturday, the only other time that conceding in the 90th minute has cost Postecoglou’s side in a game this season was away at Wolverhampton Wanderers in November when two stoppage-time goals turned a win into a defeat.
The others, to be fair to Spurs, have been consolation goals — or in the case of the Chelsea game at home four days before the Wolves defeat, two goals that turned a 2-1 defeat into a 4-1 loss (though the first of those was scored when Tottenham were pushing for an equaliser).
Maybe Spurs’ issue with late goals isn’t so serious then. And yet, even if a few have been consolation goals, the volume of them, coupled with the number of near-misses in recent weeks, does support the eye test, which says that Tottenham never feel especially comfortable seeing out a lead.
The data says the same thing, with only two teams dropping more points from winning positions this season than Tottenham’s 18. Again, there is some nuance here as Spurs have led in a staggering 20 of their 23 matches this season, so there has been quite a lot of scope for dropped points. They have also rescued 13 points from losing positions, the joint-third-highest in the league.
Points dropped from winning positions
But there’s no getting away from that feeling of vulnerability when Spurs are in front.
This has been a season, after all, when they became the first Premier League team ever to lead in five straight games and not win any of them, and though that was largely when they were missing a lot of players, looking at the season as a whole, there have only been a handful of games where the final few minutes have felt comfortable.
It would be easy to put the nervousness towards the end of games down to Postecoglou’s tactics and his general refusal to deviate from the same game plan. Certainly, this is a factor in it, with both the Everton and Brentford games a reminder that even with a lead going into the final minutes, the Tottenham head coach is not going to instruct his defence to drop any deeper. That was, of course,what ultimately cost them late against Chelsea, the sine qua non when it comes to Postecoglou resolutely refusing to compromise — irrespective of game state, opposition or personnel.
And this is possibly what makes Postecoglou most unusual. There are plenty of managers who favour attacking football and will always start games with the same sort of approach, but most change it if the flow of a game dictates. Postecoglou is far more resistant to making systemic changes mid-game than pretty much all his rivals.
That said, what’s been interesting about Tottenham’s last couple of games has been the fact that Postecoglou has tried to tweak things tactically. Against both Everton and Brentford, Radu Dragusin has been sent on to give Spurs a third centre-back, trying and make them less vulnerable to teams with a sizeable aerial threat. It certainly didn’t work against Everton, given the nature of their equaliser.
Postecoglou wants his team to be the fittest in the league and so the concession of so many late goals will frustrate him immensely, as will any suggestion or evidence that his players start to focus too much on outcome rather than process as the stakes get higher towards the end of matches.
The Spurs boss should be helped with all this by having more players available and returning to full fitness over the next few weeks, giving him greater options off the bench. A paucity of alternatives because of unavailabilities has contributed at times this season to Spurs finishing games weaker than they’ve started them. Though that shouldn’t have necessarily been the case on Saturday.
On a micro level, you could say that had Spurs taken their second-half chances at Goodison Park, then they would have got away with conceding late again but you shouldn’t have to score three times to win every game, and the numbers suggest that it was Everton who, over the course of the game, had much the better opportunities, with an expected goals (xG) tally of 2.5 to Tottenham’s 0.9.
Spurs’ expected goals against (xGA) tally now stands at 40.5, the fifth-worst in the division, and if you keep giving up so many chances, they will eventually catch up with you, especially if they’re in the closing minutes of a game when you have a narrow lead.
Tottenham are still in a great position in the league and exceeding expectations, but their targets have changed now — and they need to find a way to more effectively see games out.
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)