As ever-so-slightly transfer rumours go, the suggestion that Spurs were looking to offer their former playmaker Christian Eriksen a route back into English football after a tough few months at Inter went down like a lead balloon.
Some grumbled that Eriksen had left Spurs on bad terms in the first place (for such an apparently unmotivated player it sure is impressive he played 20 league games in his last season at the club), and a lot of people, much more reasonably, argued that it was probably time for Tottenham to move on from the Dane.
More audaciously still, some questioned whether Eriksen realistically had anything to offer Spurs’ starting eleven now. After all, if Harry Kane keeps his current rate up he’ll (quite literally) end the season with 51 assists, while Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso have had a full season to adapt to Premier League football.
There’s one small problem with the assumption that the Lilywhites have completely outgrown their former creator-in-chief, and one that might have been apparent to those watching a hard-fought but slightly too-close-for-comfort victory over Burnley on Monday evening – and that’s the balance of creativity within Spurs’ side has become severely skewed.
Harry Kane and Tanguy Ndombele aren’t exactly to blame for this – alongside Son Heung-min they’ve been Spurs’ best players this season – but the issue hinges on the fact that, at present, there will be a lot of situations where Spurs’ chances of scoring a goal relies on them, and them alone, providing some directness to Tottenham’s play.
At Turf Moor, for example, Mourinho opted to shield his back four from the brutality of the Chris Wood/Ashley Barnes tag-team duo by swapping Serge Aurier and Sergio Reguilon for a more lopsided full-back pairing of Matt Doherty and Ben Davies.
When this happens (and you’ve mysteriously banished your mercurial second striker from the squad), you either have to rely on Ndombele, who is much better employed in deeper midfield positions, to seize the initiative in the final third, or wait for Kane to do something amazing again. Needless to say, you’d be surprised if the latter happened every single game.
If Kane and Ndombele are struggling to provide a spark for whatever reason, the lack of ball movement means that opponents find it easier to regroup and start moving the ball around themselves, which means that an enormous amount of pressure is put on whatever patchwork centre-back partnership Spurs have trotted out this week, which means… well it means shipping three goals to West Ham in the last ten minutes of a home game.
Luckily, there might be a third option for Spurs, one that theoretically allows them to balance their team and lengthen those all-important periods of pressure on the opposition goal, and that option’s name is Giovani Lo Celso.
Lo Celso’s introduction to the Spurs team under Mourinho (a second introduction of sorts, after he was briefly exiled to wherever the Special One sticks all streaky attackers) gave Tottenham fans the crumb of ball movement that they’d been craving for a worrying amount of time.
A little before and after comparison gives a small indicator of what Lo Celso provided to the team.
In turgid encounters against Wolves and Chelsea directly preceding Lo Celso’s introduction, Spurs collectively managed eight and nine passes into the penalty area (PPA) and 21 and 20 passes into the final third.
His big break came with Spurs locked into a miserable stalemate with Brighton (they scored the winner 16 minutes after he came on), and PPA moved up to 10 while final third passes inched up to 23. By the time of Lo Celso’s introduction proper against Norwich, PPA had moved to 23, and final third passes to an incredible 58 (this may have had something to do with Norwich). (All above stats from Fbref)
Simply put, Lo Celso is very good at crisp, clean passing into good areas – his PPA per 90 minutes have stayed largely stable when his last season at Real Betis is compared to his first season at Spurs (moving down from 1.77 to 1.63 in an injury-interrupted debut season), while his xA per 90 (expected assists) have done the same, decreasing by a minuscule 0.02. (Fbref).
Throughout the season, he excelled at finding Son, Aurier, Dele Alli and Steven Bergwijn with tidy reverse passes into the channels, and his ability to connect Spurs with their wide outlets and win the ball back in dangerous areas was a huge asset to his side during a weird transitional season.
But one aspect of Lo Celso’s game was seemingly left at Seville Airport, and it may be the attribute that Spurs most need at the moment – the ability to drive at defences and, often, pull the trigger.
From 13 goal contributions in his final league season in Spain (nine goals, four assists) to just two assists in the top flight for Spurs in 2019/20, Lo Celso’s production has undoubtedly fallen off a cliff.
The underlying numbers also tell a concerning tale – Lo Celso’s xG (Expected Goals) per 90 minutes was in freefall, plummeting from 0.33 to 0.08, showing that he struggled to get in good goalscoring positions.
But more curiously still, for a player who excelled in Seville at driving at defences, there is evidence that Lo Celso has become more conservative in when and how he chooses to dribble. The above video, showing the Argentine taking on five different players in a move which ultimately culminated in Son scoring, was a relative rarity last season.
One of the most telling statistics is that Lo Celso was dispossessed much less last season, 1.51 times every 90 minutes compared to 2.29 times per game in 2018/19 (FbRef). Wondering why that might be a bad thing? Well, it implies that he’s being much more risk-averse in when he chooses to burst forward, using most of his dribbling in relatively safe areas of the pitch.
His 1.09 shots per 90 minutes in his debut season barely come close to Eriksen’s 2.13 in a final campaign where he’d supposedly downed tools (FbRef), and though Lo Celso may be adept at picking out overlaps and getting the ball zipping along, he has not yet shown the ability to really unsettle defences with direct play that Spurs need in an advanced area.
What is ultimately a crucial question which will determine Lo Celso’s long-term impact, and possibly Spurs’ capacity to cobble together an unlikely title charge, is whether the former PSG man is a victim of his own struggles, or of a makeshift Mourinho system as he tried to get Spurs playing again.
Where, according to Wyscout, Lo Celso spent over 1000 minutes playing as a number 10 for Betis in his final season, he spent just under 300 minutes in the same position for Spurs in 2019/20, with Mourinho using him far more often in a midfield role where his aggression would have been curtailed by the responsibility to pick up runners and shore up any gaps.
It’s not the worst idea to use Lo Celso like this – he’s a Swiss army-knife of a midfielder who is useful at almost every facet of the game – but it does suggest that the loss of this directness may not so much be a product of a lack of confidence as managerial instruction.
Time will tell this season if that truly is the case, as, when Son and Kane inevitably cool off a bit, Mourinho will have to search for new creative outlets. With everyone wondering if the most proven of winners has the capacity to deliver that fabled second season which used to be the Mourinho guarantee, can he and Lo Celso afford to play it safe?