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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Tottenham’s Richarlison has gone from misfit to goal machine – what has changed?

Richarlison has never been afraid to speak his mind. It’s one of the reasons he’s so popular in Brazil, and is part of what makes him such a unique character.

On Monday November 6, Spurs had just lost 4-1 to Chelsea in catastrophic circumstances. Richarlison had been an unused substitute, and generally if you don’t play, you don’t speak to the media afterwards. Certainly, there’s zero expectation.

But Richarlison had a lot to get off his chest, and told ESPN Brazil first of all that he agreed with the national team manager’s decision not to pick him for their forthcoming internationals. He then declared, with tears in his eyes, that he would have an operation to clear up a longstanding pelvis issue.

“I’ve been suffering, fighting for my national team and my club for eight months and haven’t been taking care of myself,” he added. “I think it’s time to rest, to stop for a second.”

Operations are usually announced via the club in carefully stage-managed fashion on social media. And yet here was Richarlison deciding and announcing it himself. He is always unfailingly honest, and is appreciated for it — Emerson Royal teases Richarlison for not being able to help himself when speaking to the media.

In any case, the operation was a decision that looks like being a key moment in his and Tottenham’s season. Prior to the operation, Richarlison had struggled, scoring one league goal in 10 matches, having scored once in 27 appearances the previous season (three from 35 in all competitions).

Since returning from the operation in December and initially making a couple of substitute appearances, he has scored nine goals in eight Premier League games. The most by any player in the division in this period.

He has gone from looking like someone that Ange Postecoglou was saddled with, to almost the perfect striker for the head coach’s system — but how?

First of all, we need to go back to early September and another occasion Richarlison spoke with brutal honesty.

It was a few days after Richarlison had been shown crying on the Brazil bench, having been substituted in their 5-1 win over Bolivia. Richarlison had missed a huge chance in the game, making it four games without a goal for the national team.

A few days earlier, he explained what was going on. “In my opinion, I didn’t play a bad game, it was more of an outburst about the things that were happening off the field, which got out of control not on my part, but on the part of people who were close to me.”

Richarlison was visibly emotional after a frustrating performance against Bolivia in September (Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

He spoke of a “turbulent time” in the previous five months that “ended up getting in my way” and that things are now good at home and he is looking to the future. “People who only had an eye on my money walked away from me.”

The Athletic reported at the time that the issue related to a personal situation involving his (now former) agent, someone Richarlison had been close to for the duration of his career, almost a father figure to him.

Richarlison said that he would seek psychological help”, and upon returning to Spurs was given all the support he needed by the club. Crucially he felt the love from everyone at Tottenham, including his team-mates. In his first game back, Richarlison came on as a substitute and scored and set up a goal in stoppage time to turn a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 win against Sheffield United. It was the dream scenario, and he was showered with adulation by the fans after the game.

Had this been a TV show or film, everything would have slotted into place for Richarlison straight away after this. The goals would have flowed, his troubles off the pitch would have suddenly been forgotten. In years to come, our selective memories will probably tell us this is what happened, forgetting the period in between.

In reality, the next few months were tough for Richarlison. There were some good moments on the pitch, an assist against Liverpool for instance, but something still didn’t look quite right. He was benched for the north London derby and the Chelsea game, having lost his starting place at the beginning of September.

Off it, he was only just getting to grips with what had been a very challenging period mentally.

Physically, he also hadn’t been right, and by the time of that Chelsea game on November 6, the pain had become too much. He needed a break.

It can be hard to know where the physical travails end and the mental ones begin because they are often so interlinked, but before we get on to how much of a difference the operation has made, it’s important to understand just how dark things had become for Richarlison psychologically.

“The club helped me to get help,” he told ESPN Brazil on January 12. “That was really important to me because there were days when I didn’t want to leave my house, my room. I went to training and then straight back home and locked myself in my bedroom.”

Richarlison felt trapped. He knew he needed help, but he also knew that his family, from a rural, more traditional part of Brazil would be hugely opposed to the idea.

“I’m from a small town, and it can be a bit like, ‘I’m not gonna do this therapy thing ’cause I’m not crazy’. Because some people from the countryside have this pre-conception, my family has it.

“But it got to a point when I understood that I needed help. And a lot of people were telling me this. So I got help and the therapist has been helping me a lot.

“I think after you take your first session you will understand what it means. I was very happy. I’m still doing it and I’ll carry on (with therapy) because it’s been helping me a lot.

“I think the main thing is my happiness. I was able to find my happiness again. I came from periods of my life when I was very down and sad… I wasn’t the Richarlison everyone knew. Even training was different.

“So I think I was able to find this again, this hope I had. That was the most important thing I got back.”

Richarlison feels refreshed, getting a huge amount from the sessions with the therapist, who Spurs set him up with.

He also has a new girlfriend, and currently has friends and family over from Brazil staying with him — keeping him company and helping around the house. This has often been the case with Richarlison since moving to England, and tends to be when he’s happiest. He has also managed to extricate himself from the situation with his former agent and mentor.

Postecoglou has kept reminding Richarlison his role isn’t all about goals (Visionhaus/Getty Images)

And physically, for pretty much the first time since he joined Spurs, he feels good. “Feeling a lot better off the pitch and the physical side are the main things, but it’s one where everything’s coming together,” says Joao Castelo-Branco, Premier League correspondent for ESPN Brazil and the man who spoke to Richarlison after the Chelsea game and in the interview above last month. Castelo-Branco has known Richarlison throughout his career and, like most Brazilians, feels he is a little misunderstood. Viewed as an irritant by many opposition fans, at home Richarlison is loved for how open he is and how willing he is to speak up about social causes he believes in.

But again, this hasn’t simply been a case of everything becoming good again overnight after speaking to a therapist.

Richarlison has also been helped by the excellent man-management of Postecoglou, who while not being one for long one-on-one chats, is someone with a huge amount of emotional intelligence.

Postecoglou’s message to his No 9 has been: don’t define yourself just by goals. After Richarlison scored his first of the season, in the Carabao Cup at Fulham, Postecoglou made a point of saying that “he played better for us in other games”.

Pretty much whenever Postecoglou has been teed up to praise Richarlison in recent weeks, he has at some point said words to the effect of “yeah, but it’s not just the goals”.

It’s partly about taking the pressure off Richarlison, but it’s also about hammering home the message that Postecoglou needs more than that from his No 9. It’s why his pressing and much-improved hold-up play have gone down so well with the head coach in recent weeks.

Because as well as the headline goal numbers, those elements have stood out as well. The hold-up play is still not something that comes entirely naturally to Richarlison, but a moment in the second half against Brentford last week, when he held off a couple of big defenders around the halfway line and moved Spurs up the pitch, spoke to his improvement in this area. “His link-up and hold-up play is improving all the time,” Postecoglou said two days later. “See, I love that. I love when players still want to improve and do improve rather than say he’s played for his national team and been here quite a while.”

In general, the contrast with last season is stark. Richarlison knows now that his place in the team is secure, and he isn’t having to snatch at the odd opportunities that come his way. Antonio Conte never really gave the impression of fully trusting Richarlison, starting him in just 12 games, often out of position on the right. Postecoglou has been a lot more positive, saying last month that: “Having him available at the start or coming on into a game is going to be invaluable.”

Richarlison heads Spurs level at Old Trafford in January (Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Physically as well as mentally, Richarlison feels a lot better now. Even at the start of the season, Richarlison was snatching at chances — away at Brentford and Luton Town in particular.

“He was really struggling (physically), even in training,” Postecoglou said in early December after Richarlison had returned from injury. A week later, after Richarlison had scored twice against Newcastle in his first start since coming back, Postecoglou said: “He looks a lot freer in training from when I first arrived. Everything was a bit of a struggle for him.”

The Newcastle game on December 10 was significant for Richarlison for several reasons, not just the fact it was his first start in seven weeks. After struggling in the first few games of the season as a striker, Richarlison had been moved out wide, with Son playing through the middle. But against Newcastle it was Richarlison as the No 9, and he scored two excellent striker’s goals. Incredibly, they were the first non-headed goals Richarlison had scored for Tottenham, in his 49th appearance.

“Richy’s healthy now and I think that’s his best position, through the middle,” Postecoglou said afterwards. He added, interestingly: “Since he’s come back, it’s fair to say he feels a lot better physically and I think that’s helped him mentally as well”

Knowing he could trust his body again has been huge, and Richarlison was up and running. Those two goals against Newcastle kicked off the run of nine in eight that continued with two more against former club Everton on Saturday.

After he’d scored against Everton in December to make it four goals in three games, Son, who was also enjoying a much-improved season after an overdue operation in the summer, said: “Richarlison went through similar to what I had last season. He is always hungry for goals and for work. He is playing pain-free and looks totally different as a player. If he carries on like this he can be one of the greatest strikers in the Premier League.”

From misfit to possibly one of the best strikers in the league, it’s been quite the turnaround. And with Son at the Asian Cup for the last month, Richarlison has stepped up and relished being the main man.

What then is Richarlison doing differently now compared to the rest of his Spurs career?

Firstly, and very simply, he is being far more clinical in front of goal, in what is far and away the best run of his career. As the below graphic shows, during his career, his goalscoring has largely tracked his expected goals (xG). He’s never been hugely clinical over and above the quality of chances he has, and there have been periods of underperformance.

But this season, Richarlison has scored 10 goals from an xG of 7.7, an overperformance of 2.3. Breaking that down into his last eight appearances, Richarlison’s nine goals have come from an xG of just 4.64, an overperformance of 4.36 — underlining his exceptional recent finishing. Against Everton, the xG for his second goal was 0.04, suggesting a four per cent chance of the average Premier League player scoring it.

By contrast, in his first 12 games of the league season, Richarlison’s one goal from an xG of 3.03 represented an underperformance of 2.03.

The current rate at which Richarlison is scoring is likely to be unsustainable, but in some ways that’s not the point here. This is more about Richarlison becoming the striker Postecoglou wants — someone who can be involved in the build-up but also get on the end of attacks with quick finishes from low crosses and cut-backs. Think of his goals a week apart in December from almost identical Brennan Johnson crosses, against Everton and then Bournemouth.

The next graphic shows that Richarlison this season is shooting far more quickly than during the rest of his career.

He is also shooting more often and from more valuable positions.

And breaking that down further, we can see a few changes in his game in the last eight matches compared to the previous 12 this season. He is taking far fewer touches in the opposition box (6.3 per 90 compared to 8.4), having far fewer touches in general (40.6 compared to 50.0), attempting far fewer take-ons (1.7 compared to 3.5), and having fewer shots (3.6 compared to 3.8). But he is crucially taking shots from more likely goalscoring positions (0.2 xG per shot compared to 0.1 xG). In other words, he’s being a lot more economical.

Richarlison’s ability to get shots off quickly was looked at in depth recently by The Athletic’s Jon Mackenzie.

He explained that, across the past three seasons, 80 per cent of Premier League goals have been scored with one- or two-touch finishes. So if you can get a high volume of shots off in good locations with your first or second touch, you’ll likely increase your chances of the ball finding the net.

It’s not a case of the quicker you get the shot off the better, as there are times when a more considered approach is needed, but in Postecoglou’s attacking playbook, with lots of low crosses from wide positions, having someone who can finish moves off efficiently is ideal.

And Mackenzie’s research shows that of all Premier League strikers this season, Richarlison has on average the fewest touches with his non-headed shots (1.4) and has the quickest average time between his first touch and the shot (0.4 seconds). Thirty-four of his 35 shots this season have been one- or two-touch efforts (97.1 per cent). The closest anyone else comes to that is Fulham’s Raul Jimenez, with 85.1 per cent.

All of Richarlison’s seven non-headed goals this season have been one- or two-touch finishes.

It’s the kind of efficiency that made many people familiar with Postecoglou’s work predict last summer that Richarlison would be extremely effective in his system.

In January, Richarlison reflected that, for much of last year, “I wasn’t the Richarlison everyone knew.”

More recently, the Richarlison that is so loved in Brazil has returned. After he had finished that interview last month, he and the journalist Castelo-Branco were chatting. Castelo-Branco mentioned that he would soon be heading home to Brazil to see his dad who was having a heart operation.

A couple of weeks later, Richarlison, clutching his man of the match award after scoring against Brentford last week, was speaking to Castelo-Branco again. He asked how his dad was doing and wondered if Castelo-Branco would like a signed shirt to give to him. Off Richarlison went, returning with a shirt and a pen.

Castelo-Branco had the signed shirt with him when he flew to Brazil on Tuesday night. His dad isn’t even a Spurs fan but loves Richarlison for who he is and how outspoken he has been on social issues.

It’s a story typical of Richarlison, and one that happened away from the cameras, not for any public relations benefit.

Off the pitch, he feels again like “the Richarlison everyone knew”. On it, he appears better than ever — in the best goalscoring form of his career, with Brighton & Hove Albion in his sights next.

Additional reporting: Mark Carey and Jon Mackenzie

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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