SoccerOutside the Box

Ken Early: Postecoglou’s gung-ho principles come at a cost for Spurs

Tottenham have conceded 14 goals from set pieces this season but the manager refuses to hire a specialist coach to address the issue

It must be tempting for Spurs fans to see their defeat in the North London derby as just another typical Premier League refereeing travesty.

It’s true that there was a decisive non-intervention from referee Michael Oliver, who waved away two Tottenham penalty appeals, only for Arsenal to launch a lethal counterattack amid the confusion. Kai Havertz, given generous space by the desperately retreating Spurs defence, played in Bukayo Saka, who beat Ben Davies and finished nervelessly.

Replays showed that Leandro Trossard had tripped Dejan Kulusevski in Arsenal’s box, but Oliver has the reputation of being one of those referees who dislikes being sent to the screen at any time, let alone to make an unpleasant decision like cancelling a goal for one team to give a penalty to the other.

At 3-0 down at half-time, Spurs looked out of it until David Raya gave them hope by gifting a goal to Cristian Romero. Oliver had already waved away a third Spurs penalty appeal, after Gabriel Martinelli body-checked Pedro Porro, by the time Declan Rice booted Davies in the undercarriage.


Oliver, standing five yards away, waved that one away too – but this time the VAR official Jared Gillett must have decided that if he let this one slide, Spurs might follow Nottingham Forest in issuing a furiously conspiratorial anti-PGMOL Club Statement, and forced Oliver to go over and take another look.

Blaming the referees, though, would prevent Spurs from facing the truth. On the day, the difference between the teams was that Arsenal are very good at set pieces, and Tottenham are quite bad.

Ben White’s abuse of goalkeepers at attacking set pieces has been one of the most-discussed features of Arsenal’s play this season. Is it too much to expect that, in the two weeks they had to prepare for this game, Tottenham might have devised some countermeasures?

Instead White repeatedly pinned Guglielmo Vicario before stepping away at the last moment, preventing the Spurs keeper from doing anything to help his team. No Spurs player lifted a finger to stop him. Vicario twice ended up sitting in his goal, screaming about the unfairness of what had happened to him – but the football gods help those who help themselves.

Asked afterwards about his team’s problems at set pieces – these were the 13th and 14th goals Spurs had conceded from dead balls this season, only the bottom four teams have conceded more – Ange Postecoglou responded with a tinge of irritation.

“If I thought fixing defensive set pieces was the answer to us bridging the gap then I’d put all of my time and effort into that.”

You wonder what Spurs spent those two weeks working on instead. It’s hardly the first time set pieces have been mentioned. Many Premier League teams, including Arsenal, have appointed specialist set-piece coaches. Tottenham are one of the holdouts.

Postecoglou has explained that employing a specialist doesn’t fit with his holistic coaching philosophy.

“I’ve never had a specific set-piece coach . . . I always think it’s better if that’s somebody who’s a part of the coaching staff because then that’s an extension of how we play our football.”

Instead, set-piece coaching responsibilities are divided between Ryan Mason and Mile Jedinak.

“I don’t separate set pieces from everything else we do,” Postecoglou says, “it’s just not how I work. I always try to create a collective environment for everything we do, so that nothing is separated. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing in specialists for one particular area, just for the way I work more than anything else.”

The question is: can a guy whose team defends set pieces this badly afford to be so in love with a particular way of working?

The reality is, for good or ill, set-piece coaches have become a must-have accessory. The ones at Arsenal and Manchester City, who happen – coincidentally? – to be the two best teams at set pieces, have become stars. When you hear Sky commentators giving credit to Arsenal’s set-piece impresario Nicolas Jover for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg scoring an own goal, you realise that Postecoglou’s refusal to appoint one has its costs.

In this climate the clubs and coaches that don’t employ specialists risk being seen as backward – and that is something Postecoglou in particular cannot afford.

Nobody questions his emotional intelligence, his expressive fluency, his essential good-guyness, but as a coaching outsider who arrived at his current success via an unusual route, he’ll always face the question: compared to the very best of the Premier League, does he really know the game?

There had already been two episodes this season which raised that awkward question. The first was when Spurs were at home to a Liverpool side that had been reduced to nine men. Spurs seemed to have no idea how to press home the two-man advantage, though they did eventually win through a 96th-minute own-goal.

The second was when Spurs had two players sent off at home to Chelsea. With the score at 1-1, Spurs decided to defend on the halfway line, even though they didn’t have enough players to put any pressure on whichever Chelsea player had the ball. They were lucky to lose only 4-1.

Afterwards, Postecoglou delivered his famous line – “It’s just who we are mate”. But it was worrying that a supposedly top coach thought this was the best way to play for 35+ minutes with only nine men.

To these we can now add the set-piece shambles that allowed Arsenal to keep dreaming of the title while crushing Spurs’ own ambitions of reaching the Champions League.

They are likely to lose out to Aston Villa, a team they beat 4-0 only last month, and who have played 51 matches this season to Spurs’ 36. Spurs consider themselves better than Villa and had expected to finish ahead of them, especially after Postecoglou’s blistering start of eight wins in the first 10 matches, a record for a new Premier League coach. They won just 10 of the next 23.

A season that began so well is ending in anticlimax. If fans suspect that Spurs are falling short because they aren’t preparing with the rigour of teams like Arsenal and Manchester City, they’ll fall out of love with big Ange as quickly as they fell in love with him last year.