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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Tottenham fans wrong to pour scorn on Pleat feats

Daniel Finkelstein writes a great article in The Times.

IT’S a minor disaster. One of those little things that don’t derail your life, or anything like that, but make it ever so slightly worse than it would have been. Raoul’s Deli on the Uxbridge Road in Pinner, Middlesex, has closed.
I’m feeling it particularly badly at the moment, and not just because it is the Jewish high holidays and it is now hard to buy really good fishballs in Pinner. No, it’s because of Tottenham Hotspur.

On every visit to Raoul’s, there would be a conversation about Spurs because the owner, his son and the balance of the customers were fans. Sadly, I was never able to provide any data that would lift the gloom. From the day I started buying mini-bagels there in 2000 to the sad day a few months back when Raoul put up the “closing down” signs, all I could say was “still stuck in the middle”.

So it’s a little frustrating that now, after all these years, when I have some good news to report, they are fitting the place out to be a manicure parlour or something like that.

What is the good news for Spurs fans? The recent run of wins is not a flash in the pan. Spurs are no longer stuck in the middle. There is hope.

The statistical model developed by Dr Henry Stott and the Fink Tank team allows long-term improvements in class to be distinguished from short-term bursts of good results. The Fink Tank model produces a 92-team ranking that removes all divisional breaks (so, for instance, Reading are ranked fifteenth) and uses a weighted measure of goals scored and conceded over two years. Our ranking provides a better guide than the league table to the likely victors when two teams meet.

Spurs are fifth in these rankings. Their chance of finishing in a Champions League place is 23 per cent. At the same stage last season it was 5 per cent. In 2003-04 it was 0 per cent and in 2002-03 2 per cent. So there has been a real improvement.

The question is, why? Most Spurs fans think that it is the new, exciting, attacking football championed by the excellent head coach, Martin Jol. But it is not. The man responsible for starting the Spurs revival is . . . David Pleat.

It is a rough Fink Tank rule of thumb that attacks can be bought, but defences need to be organised. And it is the Spurs defence, not the attack, that is responsible for the mini-revival at White Hart Lane. The Spurs attack is ranked ninth and has scarcely altered since the dog days at the end of Glenn Hoddle’s rule in the early part of the 2003-04 campaign. Defence, however, remains on an upward trajectory, which began during Pleat’s short stint at the helm for the rest of that season.

For the first couple of months after Hoddle’s departure, there was little change, followed by a steady and strong upward move. The timing suggests that Pleat should take a large part of the credit. Contrary to the Spurs myth, the improvement gathered pace while Jacques Santini was in charge at the start of last season. Jol has not impaired this positive development, but he did not start it.

The big Spurs weakness is their inability to convert shots into goals. You can usually expect Tottenham to shower the target with attempts on goal, but while the normal Premiership conversion rate between shots on target and goals is 20-25 per cent, Spurs convert only 15 per cent.

One selection decision does seem a bit odd. Spurs play Robbie Keane most of the time as a late substitute. The management team must know something that we do not. At the end of last season, we looked at all the actions that players took on the field and, using computer simulations, we were able to attach a points value to them. The forward who added more points per game compared with the average forward was Keane. He did better than Thierry Henry.

The glory days have not yet returned. But if Spurs could get their attack right, things may soon be looking up.

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