Tottenham have been widely criticised this season for their impotency in front of goal, with the blame falling recently towards one man.
Roberto Soldado has come under increasing pressure after a string of below-par performances.
It's fair to say that life in London has so far proved a struggle for the former Getafe hitman. Soldado finds himself at the ten-game point of the season, with just one goal scored from open play. Whilst his overall total provides a statistic of four goals in ten Premier League games, three of these have come from the penalty spot.
Soldado has regularly provided Tottenham with a solitary goal to clinch a 1-0 victory this season, as manager Andre Villas-Boas has increasingly come under criticism for perceived negative tactics. As such, Soldado has been placed under the spotlight, especially following the lack of impact from club record signing Erik Lamela, who arrived in the Premier League this summer after lighting up Serie A last season in his appearances for AS Roma.
As a collective, Tottenham Hotspur have amassed just a measly nine goals in their ten opening games. Whilst their defensive has been stingy, so has their chance conversion, with Soldado managing just 2.1 shots per game throughout the Premier League fixtures to-date.
So why is Soldado not regularly testing the goalkeeper?
Whilst it is perhaps easy to point the finger of blame straight at the striker in a 4-5-1 formation, it is not as simple as it seems. Anyone who watched Soldado regularly for Valencia will appreciate that he needs to operate in an environment that provides sharp movement and intelligent build-up. Whilst his strong frame makes him perfectly adept to hold up the ball and link up play, at times this season Villas-Boas' tactics have isolated the Spaniard.
As the lone forward, Soldado has been expected not only to create chances for others, but also to carve open and finish his own chances. Not an unrealistic expectation for a striker costing almost £30m you might argue, but the chances just haven't been as free-flowing as they ought to be.
Renowned as a clinical poacher, capable of finishing with icy-composure in the penalty area, all too often he has been absent when the ball has passed into what you would perhaps regard as 'his zone'.
Former Porto chief Villas-Boas has at times operated in a manner that may not be most beneficial for Soldado's style of play. When Villas-Boas has opted to employ Lewis Holtby in the #10 role, Soldado's game has suffered from a lack of support. A grafter, Holtby gets drawn into the midfield play regularly to assist his two central colleagues in the battle for possession, leaving a vast expanse of space unexploited. This only makes the defenders' task easier. As the full-backs handle the running of the likes of Townsend and Sigurdsson, the two centre-halves are regularly left to pick up the pieces and handle Soldado. Without the support of a creative influence, capable of splitting the defence and laying on the opportunities, Soldado has struggled to find the back of the net.
The availability of Christian Eriksen may prove to be a suitable long-term antidote to Soldado's impotency, with the Dane famed for his ability to spot a pass and play that 'killer ball' to lay on the opportunity. As a more attack-minded player, he ensures the defence cannot rest on their laurels.
In Valencia, Soldado regularly benefited from incisive play from the wide areas. At Tottenham, things are very much different.
The utilisation of Andros Townsend and Gylfi Sigurdsson as wide-men has seen Spurs struggle to create the type of chances Soldado enjoyed during his career on the Iberian peninsula. Often the wide players have looked to cut inside and create their own opportunities, rather than lay on the defence-splitting pass as the former Valencia man patrols the back-line. Again, their tendency to hit the byline and cross has left Soldado away from the play, meaning an easy gather for the opposition goalkeeper. In fact, Soldado has won just six of thirty-three aerial duels, a disappointingly poor 18%.
Whilst it is unfair to entirely shift the blame away from Soldado, it is fair to say that there are several contributing factors to his so far disappointing performances for the Lilywhites.
Soldado thrives on the support of team-mates, allowing him to make his customary deep drifting runs, before playing a fast and sharp one-two before attempting to convert the returned ball. Far too often at White Hart Lane, this has not been a possibility due to the gap between midfield and attack, as well as the lethargic and patient build-up play adopted by Andre Villas-Boas.
Confidence is a massive part of any strikers game, but recent signs point to a lack of confidence for the Spanish sharp-shooter. He has a shot on target percentage of 53%, but this is supplemented by a 23% conversion rate, a dramatic slump on his famed La Liga form. Most notably, in Sunday's goalless draw with Everton at Goodison Park, Soldado touched the ball just twice in the eighteen-yard box, repeatedly being noticeable by his absence when balls were played across the face of goal.
Far too often Soldado has appeared to offer a lackadaisical approach to his game, drifting wide to seek the ball, and simply failing to make the penetrative runs that the likes of Rooney, Van Persie and even to an extent Jermain Defoe are known for.
Roberto Soldado is the archetypal penalty-area predator, he has never and will never be a player to charge around for the duration, or to monster centre-halves in aerial duels, or to burn past them with pace, but what he is famed for is for clinical finishing in the penalty box. This was perfectly demonstrated last season, when every single one of his La Liga goals last term came inside the penalty area. Surely this is something Villas-Boas knew when he sanction the signing of the player?
Naturally, this has brought calls for Defoe's return to the first-team side. Whilst it may not prove to be the ultimate solution to bring the best from Tottenham's Spanish star, it may just turn out to be the best course of action, as goal-shy Spurs continue to endure a damaging drought.
With two midfield berths regularly occupied by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Paulinho, Villas-Boas is physically incapable of shoe-horning the creative and flamboyant attacking abilities of Towsend, Lennon, Lamela, Eriksen and Sigurdsson all into the remaining three attacking midfield positions. When Holtby is employed in the #10 role, the Spurs formation arguably transforms in a 4-3-3, providing Soldado with even less creative intent from the centre of the park.
Have Spurs bought the wrong type of forward for their system, or is Villas-Boas too stubborn with his tactics?
Tottenham may be resolute defensively, but the anchoring of two holding midfielders means he is limited with his attacking and creative options, depriving the likes of Soldado of the service which they had become accustomed to.
Write him off at your peril, because if Spurs can get the tactics right, the striker may just begin to blossom.
Is Soldado under-performing, or is he simply being blighted by the system currently adopted by Andre Villas-Boas?
image: © Victor Gutierrez Navarro