Does Alex Pritchard have a future at Spurs?

by Joshua Olsson

Joshua Olsson drops his unique analysis eye on Alex Pritchard. Does the youngster have a future at Spurs?

It was no surprise to see Alex Pritchard, Tottenham’s young attacking midfield sensation who has spent the season on loan at Brentford, make the PFA Championship Team of the Year. After all, in 45 appearances Pritchard has scored 12 goals, provided 7 assists, and is currently third in the Championship’s ranking for key passes, with 102.

To put that in perspective, Christian Eriksen, Tottenham’s best performing midfielder in the Premier League this season, has 10 goals, 2 assists and 70 key passes in 34 appearances. Pritchard then, is clearly in excellent form and it is perhaps no surprise that many people have been suggesting that he should be given a chanceunder Mauricio Pochettino next season.

The hype has been building around Pritchard for some time now. Barney Ronay, writing about the NextGen Tournament inThe Guardian back in 2012, described Pritchard as the standout player in a game against Wolfsburg. He noted:

Pritchard is very easy to like: small, aristocratically upright, and with wonderful skills in both feet. These are evident almost immediately as he beats three players and is then violently scythed down 25 yards from goal. Pritchard himself places the dead ball and dinks a superb free-kick into the bottom right-hand corner.”

In May of last year Pritchard also caught the eye of Eriksen himself. Eriksen said:

He’s a really good player and he made a real impression on me in the first few days he was back at the club. He’s very skilful, good on the ball. He didn’t get much of a chance on his debut, a short time, but he’s really talented. He’s one for the future, for sure.”

Perhaps the most interesting assessment, however, has come from Mark Warburton, Pritchard’s current manager at Brentford:

He can dominate a football. Alex is at his best with the ball at his feet. He sees a pass. He’s the best player I’ve seen in this division, certainly, to receive the ball on the half-turn at pace. Left or right side, he has the ability to take it on the half-turn and for us, how we play, that hurts the opposition.’

‘Technically he’s outstanding. For me, Pritch is nailed on Premier League. I’d never be disrespectful enough to speak about what Spurs should do or could do with him. But in my opinion – and I’m a Spurs fan, by the way – I think he is more than good enough to go and positively impact their playing squad.”

The question of whether Pritchard is ready for the Premier League is one I wish to avoid, considering the impossibility of determining whether his excellent Championship form – and statistics – will instantly translate to the Premier League.

For the record, I am of the personal opinion that Pritchard should be given serious game time next season providing that he can convince Pochettino in training that he can adapt to the pressing game. However, for now I wish to turn the attention away from whether Pritchard should start, to question insteadwhere he should play if given a first-team opportunity.

It has been suggested elsewhere that Pritchard would serve as an excellent understudy and occasional rotation option for Christian Eriksen as the central attacking midfielder in Tottenham’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Given that Pritchard has performed so well for Brentford in a similar role, it is hard to disagree with this assessment.

Brentford have played a 4-2-3-1 on 21 occasions in the Championship this season, with Pritchard making 15 appearances in the “Eriksen” role. Moreover, he has also accumulated an additional 23 appearances as a central midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation. From this central position Pritchard has collected 9 of his 12 goals and all of his assists. It is clear then, that Mark Warburton believes that Pritchard’s best position is in the centre of the pitch.

This sort of impression is also provided by Pritchard’s assist map. With the exception of a corner, all of Pritchard’s assists have come from relatively short passes in central positions. There are no pinpoint crosses from the flanks or long balls over the top to suggest that Pritchard might be more effective from a wider or deeper position.

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Given Pritchard’s strength in the “Eriksen” position, one possible option might be to shift Eriksen himself on to the wings in order to accommodate Pritchard in the first XI. Eriksen has started 10 times in the Premier League on the left this season, and has accumulated 4 goals and 1 assist in those appearances (he has also played 4 times on the right and scored 1 goal).

By contrast, in his 22 appearances in a central role, he has scored 5 goals and made 1 assist. These numbers alone would suggest that Eriksen is more of an attacking threat from the left, where he is able to find space, get time on the ball, and come inside and shoot on his right foot. This then, would appear to be the best strategy for including the twin creative forces of Eriksen and Pritchard in the starting XI.

At the same time, however, just because Pritchard has proven accomplished in his assigned role should not suggest that he can only play centrally. During matches Pritchard tends to roam into wide areas in order to find space and link play. Indeed, an ability to move at will into the channels is a distinctive feature of his game.

Below I attach two heat maps chosen at random from Brentford’s fixtures this season. In the first map, which comes from Brentford’s 2-1 win away at Blackpool, Pritchard occupied the right central midfield position in a 4-1-4-1. In the second map, which is from Brentford’s recent 2-0 win at Reading, Pritchard was played as the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1.

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As can be seen – albeit from an admittedly small sample – not only does Pritchard have a tendency to contribute all over the pitch (indeed, part of the reason I only include two maps is because his range of movement makes them very time-consuming to produce), he also likes to drift from the centre of the pitch into wide positions. In the Blackpool game he roamed toward the right flank while in the Reading game he focussed his play on the left wing. This is a strong indication that Pritchard feels comfortable playing in wide positions, and would seem to suggest that he might, in actual fact, be able to play in any of the three attacking midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1.

A look at the stats confirms the impression that Pritchard makes significant contributions in both attack and defence on the flanks. Using Squawka’s action maps for all of Brentford’s Championship games so far this season, I was able to see where Pritchard performed actions such as key passes, take ons, tackles and interceptions.

I then divided the pitch into three sections (with the central area of the pitch comprising the width of the penalty box, and the two wings running from edge of the penalty box to the boundary of the pitch), and plotted Pritchard’s key actions in each of these zones. This provides an indication of the distribution of Pritchard’s key actions.

I must confess to there being a significant degree of imprecision in this method. First, the cumulative total of various actions from the match maps does not always match the overall total that Squawka assigns to each player. Second, it is not always clear which zone a borderline action (i.e. one on the line between two zones) should be assigned to.

For the purposes of this analysis, I have erred on the side of caution and only assigned an action to the flanks when there is no doubt that it was performed there, but I accept that there is a probably a degree of inconsistency in my approach. Despite these methodological problems, however, I think the results obtained provide a rough indication of where Pritchard is performing key actions on a football pitch. I have outlined the results of this analysis in the graphics below. (Note: due to rounding the totals do not always add up to 100%)

Pritchard’s Distribution of Key Passes
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Pritchard’s Distribution of Take Ons
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Pritchard’s Distribution of Tackles
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Pritchard’s Distribution of Interceptions
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What is remarkable about these figures is how involved Pritchard is in play outside of the central part of the pitch. 45% of his attempted take-ons are on the wings, as are about half of his tackles and interceptions, and almost 30% of his created chances. This would suggest that Pritchard’s overall contribution to Brentford’s play this season belies his nominally central position. Indeed one might conclude from this data, that Pritchard would be effective in one of the wide attacking births in a 4-2-3-1.

It might be questioned whether Pritchard’s involvement on the wings is unusual for a central attacking midfielder. After all, the centre of the pitch is always the most congested part, and many creative players who want to get on the ball have a tendency to drop deep or drift wide in search of space. For the sake of comparison then, it might be worth looking at Eriksen’s statistics for the same attacking actions:

Eriksen’s Distribution of Key Passes
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Eriksen’s Distribution of Take Ons
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As can be seen, Eriksen clearly attempts a greater percentage of his attacking actions in the central part of the pitch. Of course, it might be argued that the difference is not pronounced enough to draw any significant conclusions. However, it isabsolutely crucial to bear in mind that while Pritchard has made 84.4% of his appearances in a central position, Eriksen has started only 57.9% of his games in the central attacking birth. In this light, the fact that Pritchard has made such a strong contribution out wide (while, conversely, Eriksen has drifted into the centre so much) suggests that Pritchard might be the better bet for a wide attacking position.

The stats are ambiguous as to whether Pritchard would be better in the right or left midfield role in a 4-2-3-1, and, while he creates more chances and has an incredibly high tackle success rate on the right flank (67.9%), he attempts more take ons with a better success rate on the left, as well as achieving far more interceptions. Perhaps a more compelling statistic is that in the 3 appearances Pritchard has started on the left for Brentford this season he has scored 3 goals. This would suggest that at the very least there is a decent case for seeing what happens with Pritchard played to the left of Eriksen in a 4-2-3-1.

Despite there being good evidence to suggest that Pritchard has the potential to flourish in a wide role, I wish to conclude this analysis by suggesting that his roaming style actually makes him the perfect candidate to play in the central attacking midfield position. Too often this season Spurs have found their play bogged down in central areas, and there has been a conspicuous lack of width with the tendency of both Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela to drift inside. Alex Pritchard could serve as an antidote to this problem. In particular, Pritchard is far more inclined to create chances and take players on in wide positions than Eriksen, and this is particularly true on the right where Eriksen rarely offers much in the way of an attacking threat. As such, Pritchard might offer more width in attack from a central position than Eriksen, and this could only help the team’s offensive play. (The fact that Eriksen appears to be more of a goal threat from the left also supports the case for playing Pritchard in the centre).

For the time being, however, all of this is speculative, and it is impossible to know how Pritchard might fit into the team until we have seen him playing in a number of positions at a higher level than the Championship. Yet there is nothing wrong with being excited by the possibility of Pritchard, and he is clearly a player with the potential to be a key cog in the Tottenham attack next season.

Author

Joshua Olsson

I am interested in all things Tottenham, with a focus on the team's tactics, systems and players. I am also interested in medieval Arabic medicine, but that's a whole other story...

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