Explaining why Wembley’s pitch size is such a serious issue for Spurs
The curtain came down on White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur‘s home of 118-years, on Sunday as Mauricio Pochettino’s men beat Manchester United 2-1 in the final fixture at the famous old stadium.
Of course, while this is the end of White Hart Lane as we know it, Spurs are scheduled to return to the same site for the start of the 2018-19 season once building work for a new 61,000 all-seater stadium has been completed.
After Spurs were officially given permission to use England’s home for a season, chairman Daniel Levy said: “Wembley will be our home for a season and then we shall return to what will be one of the best stadiums of its kind.”
While Levy referred to Wembley as ‘Spurs’ home’, the team has found it be anything but hospitable in recent years, winning just one of their previous nine matches at the stadium in both domestic and continental competitions.
In July 2016, it was announced that Spurs would be playing three Champions League group stage matches at Wembley, in part because a corner of White Hart Lane had to be taken out to assist the building of the new stadium adjacent to the old one.
Although at that stage Spurs’ move to Wembley on a permanent basis for the 2017-18 campaign had yet to be fully rubber-stamped, it was always likely that such an outcome would be reached – as it was at the end of April – and perhaps Pochettino and Levy wanted the squad to experience playing at Wembley this season to better prepare them for next.
Recent Wembley record suggests Spurs may suffer
What they might not have envisaged is just how difficult Spurs found adapting to playing their home games away from White Hart Lane.
During a season where the Lane provided plenty of home comfort in the Premier League, Wembley was the polar opposite.
Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea all beat Spurs at Wembley in 2016-17, while Belgian side KAA Gent also delivered a crushing blow to Spurs at the stadium, securing a 2-2 draw that eliminated them from the Europa League.
CSKA Moscow, who were truly abject, were the only side to lose to Spurs at Wembley and even they gave Pochettino’s side a scare by taking a first-half lead.
Spurs’ players have attempted to play down a ‘Wembley hoodoo’ with Eric Dier speaking on the team’s form at Wembley prior to the Chelsea defeat: “It could have been at White Hart Lane, it could have been at Wembley or it could have been on a park, but we didn’t perform well enough as a team.”
But the inescapable fact is that Spurs’ performances and results varied wildly at White Hart Lane and Wembley.
It seemed as though the players relished the chance to give White Hart Lane a proper send-off, turning the stadium into a fortress by winning 17 of their 19 Premier League matches while drawing the other two. After avoiding defeat against Manchester United, Spurs went unbeaten at home for the first time since 1964-65.
Spurs supporters were certainly treated to a spectacle too with the team scoring 47 goals (at an average rate of 2.47 per game) while conceding just nine (at 0.47 per game). Furthermore, they won by a scoreline of 4-0 or over on five separate occasions.
So dominant were Spurs that their former player Jermaine Jenas suggested that he would back them as title favourites this year if they were still playing at White Hart Lane.
“If Spurs were staying at White Hart Lane then I would be thinking they can go on and win the Premier League, but Wembley is a genuine issue for them,” he said.
Their emphatic results at White Hart Lane were in complete contrast to at Wembley where they have managed eight goals (1.6 per game) and conceded ten (2.00 per game) in their various cup competition appearances, winning once, drawing once and losing three times.
So what explanations can be given for the differing results at White Hart Lane and Wembley?
The pitch at White Hart Lane was one of the tightest in the Premier League, measuring 100 x 67 metres (or 6,700 square meters). For context, Stoke City’s pitch was the only one smaller in the top-flight in 2016-17, measuring 6,400 square metres.
Wembley’s pitch, on the other hand, is colossal in terms of its size, measuring 105 x 69 metres and 7,245 square metres in total, which would make it the second-largest pitch in the Premier League last season, behind Hull City’s pitch that caters for rugby league as well as football.
With the Tigers relegated, Spurs go from playing on the second-smallest pitch to the biggest next term. A fact that is bound to make a difference to the team’s style of play, at least in the early stages of next season as they get accustomed to their new environment.
Pochettino actually lamented the small size of Spurs’ pitch a couple of months into his tenure at the club.
Following a 2-1 home defeat to Newcastle United in October 2014, he said: “Our style means we need a bigger place to play because we play a positional game and it’s true that White Hart Lane is a little bit tight.
“It’s better for the opponent. For example, on Sunday Newcastle play deep, same with West Brom and Liverpool, and it was difficult for us. We need time to adapt in our new set up and understand better our position on the pitch.”
Clearly, Pochettino’s players did adapt to the size of the pitch (or more accurately Pochettino’s instructions in relation to its dimensions) by losing only three times in 2015-16 and none last time out, but the Argentine will be wary of his players taking a while to adjust to playing on a much larger surface at Wembley.
Theoretically, a team as youthful and fit as Spurs, who ranked fourth for average distance covered per game in the Premier League in 2016-17 with 114.1km, should be able to cope with playing on a larger pitch.
Furthermore, as many as four of Spurs’ regular starters do likewise for England – full-back Danny Rose, defender-cum-midfielder Eric Dier and forwards Dele Alli and Harry Kane, all have considerable experience of playing at Wembley.
However, a look at Spurs’ patterns of play at White Hart Lane and Wembley suggests that the players haven’t quite worked out how to replicate their style from one stadium to the other.
For instance, in the Premier League, Spurs averaged a pass length of 20 metres, which shows they played a high proportion of long balls with only Burnley (22m), West Brom, Crystal Palace and Sunderland (all 21m) playing a more direct style.
Strangely, though, in the Champions League group stages, Spurs had an average pass length of 18m, which was lower than 12 other clubs, despite the fact that they were playing on a larger pitch.
The zones where chances have been created also contrast quite heavily from White Hart Lane to Wembley. In home Premier League matches, Spurs’ chances created were spread out with 17.9% coming via the left flank, 19.4% on the right and 62.7% coming through the middle.
In the Champions League games at Wembley, though, Spurs’ chances created were far more likely to come from the right wing with a staggering 46.5% of their chances in the group stage coming from that flank, compared to just 9.3% on the left and 44.2% in central areas.
The above statistics suggest that Spurs found replicating their all-encompassing style of play at White Hart Lane difficult at Wembley, becoming less direct and more one-dimensional in their play.
Another factor is that it is tougher to re-enact Spurs’ high-pressing tactical philosophy across more greater distances. At White Hart Lane, it is a common sight to see Spurs’ players swarm on mass on their opponents, suffocating them to the point that mistakes become an inevitability.
In the Premier League, Spurs ranked third for tackles made in the final third (103) which highlighted how they pressed their opponents high up the pitch – a tactic that is far harder to perform on a big pitch over a prolonged period of time.
Pochettino took steps to mimic the size of the Wembley pitch at Spurs’ training ground in preparation for the Champions League campaign – an example of how elite coaches look to capitalise on fine margins. Interestingly, the Argentine wanted the dimensions of Wembley made smaller but the club’s request fell on deaf ears and was rejected out of hand in June.
The size of the pitch at Spurs’ long-term home, White Hart Lane 2.0, is something that the stadium’s developers, Populous, are taking extremely seriously.
Christopher Lee, Managing Director of Populous, told Squawka: “You find in a lot of old stadiums, the pitch sizes and proximity to the supporters were really driven by these 100-year-old stadiums, we have to have pitches that are regulation sized. It will be a Uefa compliant pitch.
“But what we want is a really tight seating bowl, we want everyone close to the pitch and ultimately, we want the players to feel comfortable on the pitch they are playing on.”
Can Spurs learn from the struggles made by other clubs who moved stadium?
Spurs are far from being the first Premier League club to struggle when adapting to a new ‘home’ stadium with London rivals Arsenal and West Ham both experiencing teething problems upon their relocations to the Emirates and London stadiums respectively.
While Spurs possess a far superior squad to West Ham, they will be wary that they could face similar issues at a new stadium following an outstanding final campaign at their long-term home.
The 2015-16 season was West Ham’s last at Upton Park and like Spurs they fully made the most of their final days at the stadium, going unbeaten in 15 of their last 16 league matches there and ironically, beating Manchester United in their final game.
They have found things far harder at the London Stadium where like Wembley, the pitch is larger than they were accustomed to playing on at Upton Park, losing more games (8) than they have won in their first year.
Spurs perhaps have an advantage over the Hammers due to the fact that they do have experience (albeit largely negative) of playing at Wembley while their move to the new stadium in 2018 should be easier given it is on the same site.
“The idea of being home and in familiar surroundings is clearly important. The routine and being relaxed in the environment that you’re comfortable in is really important to a team,” continued Lee.
“For Spurs, the great advantage that we have is that we’re building the stadium effectively around White Hart Lane, the players have seen it every week and the more exposure that they have to it the more comfortable they are going to be.
“That’s a really important process that the team will be working through so that when it opens in 2018, they will already feel like they are at home so I guess it will be a lot easier than some other moves.”
Under Pochettino’s management, Spurs have emerged as title challengers in each of the previous two campaigns but he will be well aware that mounting a third bid to end the club’s wait for a top-flight title will be tougher.
Finally adapting to the energy-sapping Wembley pitch as quickly as possible would be the best possible start.