There’s little doubt about what Mauricio Pochettino has wanted to correct over the last few weeks: his team's finishing.
Tottenham have wasted too many chances for his liking this season, which recently cost four points in draws at West Brom and Bournemouth. Saturday's meeting with a travel-sick Leicester presents an opportunity to get it right, but success may also depend on how Pochettino uses his most dangerous fit attacker, Son Heung-min.
Pochettino may say the efficiency should improve regardless of who plays where, and perhaps he'd have a point. Spurs have found the net 13 times in nine league games this season, which is well below fellow title aspirants Chelsea (19), Arsenal (19) Liverpool (20) and Manchester City (20). The figure looks particularly worrying when one discovers that Spurs have recorded the second-most attempts at goal (18.1 per game).
Another ominous stat is that the north Londoners have scored only once from open play in four fixtures and, though all four have been away from home, those at West Brom and Bournemouth were examples of games Pochettino felt they should have won. “It’s true that we show a lot of positive things,” he said last week. “But the area we need to improve is to be more clinical and try to score more.”
Got to be cute
One possible factor may be the international break in early October, which started just after the 2-0 win over City. Yet Pochettino’s complaints date back further than that. When Spurs won 2-1 at Middlesbrough to seal a third straight league triumph, he said: “We were fantastic in the first half and it’s a shame we only scored twice. We have to learn, we need to be more aggressive and clinical and improve our percentage in front of goal.”
As such, a more pertinent element is probably the quality of the chances Spurs create. They have never been shy of trying their luck and, if you count only attempts inside the box, they fall from 2nd to 5th in the rankings (8.8 per game). They notched up 36 attempts against West Brom and Bournemouth, but not all were from good positions, with many blocked and missing the target.
Particularly, Bournemouth managed to close down Spurs and keep a solid shape, and while Pochettino may have rued the finishing, cohesion in the final third is surely also key for creating better chances. “It’s a learning curve for us,” Kyle Walker said. “We’ll come up against this a lot this season; teams will be more defensive so we have to be cute and try to break them down.”
The question, then, is how?
Lurking on the left
Any answer is bound to centre on Son, who initially seemed to take on much of the goalscoring burden when Harry Kane got injured in September. The South Korean scored twice at Boro, hit the winner against CSKA Moscow and shone against City. But he hasn't been involved in a goal since, which may have something to do with his positioning.
It was as a left winger that Son flew out of the blocks this season. He hit the braces at Stoke and Boro by being easily available out wide, where he received 46 and 47 passes in the two games respectively.
From the flank, he would cut inside and dribble or shoot; he tried 16 take-ons against Boro and completed nine. If he didn't score, he still threatened: at home to Sunderland, he attempted 13 dribbles and seven shots – huge numbers on both counts.
But then Pochettino moved Son up front to replace Vincent Janssen. The Dutch striker has looked inauspiciously similar to Roberto Soldado since arriving from AZ Alkmaar in summer and, although he scored a penalty in the League Cup at Liverpool on Tuesday, he's played nearly seven hours in the league without finding the net. That made it understandable that Pochettino wanted a change, yet the tweak hasn't seemed to help Son.
Jan-Son in tandem
The only exception was the City game. Son set up Dele Alli for the opener and troubled defenders with runs out wide and behind the backline. His inclusion made sense primarily because Pochettino knew Pep Guardiola would play a high line; Son duly worked the channels and triggered the offside flag five times.
Yet few domestic opponents play like City do, particularly against opponents as strong as Spurs, and Son has struggled against others. While he played just 18 minutes against West Brom, his performance at Bournemouth (in which he came off after 62 minutes) may have encouraged Pochettino to put him back on the flank. Son was isolated, receiving 17 passes and just two from Alli, who played just behind him.
That was in contrast to earlier in the season, when Son’s average was near five attempts per game. He's now managed just two shots in two league games, and both have been blocked. Last weekend, he attempted no dribbles at all.
Such observations make it tempting to wonder whether Janssen’s presence would help him. A natural striker could bind up defenders and create space for Son, instead of the South Korean being marked by two centre-backs who have no other forwards to worry about. The dynamic could be similar to that of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, where the left winger is the one running into vacated spaces and going for goal.
In any case, Son will have a fine chance to strike back on Saturday. Leicester have leaked 13 goals during a brutal travel schedule that has already sent them to Hull (1-2), Liverpool (1-4), Manchester United (1-4) and Chelsea (0-3).
In a potential key duel, Son could get several one-on-ones down the left against Danny Simpson, who often appears the weakest link of the Leicester back four. That is, of course, if Pochettino decides to play him there at all.