Matt Doherty Might Have Finally Arrived for Spurs - But He Needs to Show Up More Often

Declan Houten
Nov 8, 2020, 6:15 PM GMT
Doherty set up the winning goal for Harry Kane against West Brom
Doherty set up the winning goal for Harry Kane against West Brom | Pool/Getty Images

If you were a Spurs fan who'd switched off their game against West Brom at half-time (presumably in disgust at the one shot they mustered in the entire half), you'd have a hard time guessing who got the assist for Harry Kane's last-gasp winner.

The most logical assumption would of course be his partner-in-crime Mr Son Heung-min, or perhaps the South Korean winger's counterpart on the right Gareth Bale. If you'd watched maybe half an hour more, you may well have opted for Sergio Reguilon, who was thriving against a tired Darnell Furlong.

With the form he's in, and the passes he's attempting, and the levels of dynamism he's currently displaying, all things considered the likelihood of Matt Doherty setting up the winner would've fallen somewhere between Eric Dier teeing up Kane with a beautifully weighted through ball and Hugo Lloris playing him in with some smart distribution.

Doherty has had an extremely middling start to his Spurs career
Doherty has had an extremely middling start to his Spurs career | LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/Getty Images

Doherty was having another average game in the middle of an average season - where heat maps from the game can attest to Reguilon charging to the byline with abandon, the Irishman spent most of the game plodding along in his own half.

For Reguilon's three touches, Doherty had none, and for the former Real Madrid man's 4 attempted dribbles, Doherty also had... none (according to Sofascore). But the tally of (game-winning) assists at full time? It reads Reguilon: 0, Doherty: 1.

This isn't to vindicate the Doherty diehards against the Reguilon radicals - the Spaniard looked far more likely to add some kind of goal contribution throughout the match, giving Giovani Lo Celso a rebound from his shot which became a gilt-edged chance, before squaring to Carlos Vinicius, who forced an excellent save from Sam Johnstone.

Doherty and Reguilon have had contrasting fortunes this season
Doherty and Reguilon have had contrasting fortunes this season | Pool/Getty Images

But Doherty's cross, a looping, deep effort which was matched with an emphatic header by Kane (his 150th Premier League goal, if you haven't heard) represented the first real sign that he could emulate his fellow full-back in helping Spurs out with some much needed production this season, after a transitional period that has gone on for far too long.

The most concise way of explaining how difficult this transitional period has been would be to say that it is very unclear why Spurs signed Doherty in the first place, other than his relatively cheap price and their desperate need for a right-back.

There's no need to be rude to the guy - he's a class Premier League right-back (or more accurately, right wing-back) and his seven goal contributions for Wolves last season constitute a very healthy return. The one problem? Those goal contributions came in a system that Spurs just do not play.

Doherty won much acclaim for his performances with Wolves
Doherty won much acclaim for his performances with Wolves | Pool/Getty Images

Wolves absolutely love five at the back, and it suits Doherty down to the ground - he's a player who likes taking touches in advanced areas - his 95 touches in the penalty box last season were the joint-highest for any defender in the league, level with none other than Andrew Robertson (as collated byFbRef).

So when Doherty was busy messing around in the other team's box, Wolves could chill - Willy Boly was going to fill in the gap without much fuss, and his colleague could focus on the dynamic short, clever passing game which his rather unique approach as a fullback is characterised by.

This is not the case at Spurs. They play four at the back, on account of lacking solid enough central midfielders for a 3-4-3 and not wanting to cram their wide players into a 5-3-2. And for Doherty, this is about as far from being what he wants as you can get.

Doherty's debut was a game of starkly contrasting pros and cons
Doherty's debut was a game of starkly contrasting pros and cons | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

We can get a better understanding of this by flashing back to Doherty's debut against Everton, a game where he was relaxing, being himself, and playing like he did at Wolves - a process which ended extremely badly.

The benefits of having him play as a freewheeling wing-back were immediately obvious - one glorious give-and-go with Kane in the first half saw him first a volley narrowly over the bar, and his movement almost resembled that of a modern winger in how alert he was to goings-on in and around the box.

But as he tired, he gave Richarlison more and more space down the flanks, to the extent that the Brazilian barely even had to try to drive to the byline - all because there was no centre-back to step out and protect him.

Will Doherty permanently displace Aurier?
Will Doherty permanently displace Aurier? | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Since then, whether by design or out of his own lack of confidence, Doherty has remained pinned within his own half for the most part, with the result that his productivity has fallen drastically. While there's no question that his conservatism is a contrast from Serge Aurier's occasional lapses, the Irishman's recent run in the team has only really come about after Aurier picked up a small injury.

Aurier's excellent performance against Man Utd did enough to throw Doherty's form into relief - it's been rare so far to see him surge forward with and without the ball and put in quality ground crosses as the Ivorian did.

But its a comparison to Reguilon which really demonstrates what Spurs are missing on their right - per game Doherty is flagging behind on crosses, key passes, long balls (useful for a full back in terms of progressing play in the channels) and dribbles. In other words, the aggression and speed of the left side is not matched on the other side whatsoever.

This is true in more than one sense - while Spurs on their left wing can boast the electrifying talents of Son Heung-min, on their right they have a Steven Bergwijn who is struggling to reach match sharpness, a Gareth Bale who is a non-entity off the ball, and the eternal turnovers of Lucas Moura.

Doherty needs to inject some urgency into Spurs' right flank
Doherty needs to inject some urgency into Spurs' right flank | Clive Rose/Getty Images

The fully-fit Doherty has to help these players, or at least help compensate for their lack of zip, and yet it feels like unless he learns to adapt to a four man defence, Spurs will look sluggish and timid until one of their wingers regains fitness.

However, while the ideal fullback ideally excels on both ends of the pitch and has no limitations, it would be difficult to expect Doherty to immediately adapt to a new tactical role, and in away any hope he can offer, like his floaty, accurate cross today, is welcome.

But in order to get there in a season where Spurs need immediate results, he's going to have to learn how to plough his own furrow defensively, in a league where the quality of wide players can make any defender feel the loneliest man in the world.