Spurs’ qualification into the knock-out stages of the Europa League won’t settle the long-running argument about the importance of this tournament. However, there’s no doubt that this Europa League has been of huge benefit to this Spurs team. In future years, maybe not, but it’s moved the team-building process on more swiftly than if we had not participated.
The theme running through my last few posts is progress. Andre Villas-Boas is closer to understanding what suits his players and is getting the best from them. Many managers make little effort to hide their irritation with the Europa League but for Tottenham it has been a help not a hinderance.
I wonder if it is a generational thing. Games against teams like Maribor that take place in the early stages of each group barely keep the pulse beating, never mind set it racing, but those of us of a certain age still hear echoes of glory glory, however faint. I suspect that they are out of range of younger generations brought up on the Champions League for whom the EL has the equivilent importance of the Anglo-Scottish Cup. Commenters, let me know.
Villas-Boas has taken the bold step of playing strong teams throughout. Granted there’s the danger of burn-out later in the season but right now I can’t recall a Spurs team in recent years that has looked so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. AVB is building a new side rather than scrabbling together the remnants of the old, so what better way to move forward than get them to play together.
He’s seen the Europa League as an opportunity not a threat. Each game is another chance for him to put over his methods and ideas, to enable the players to become familiar with their roles and those of their team-mates. Not everything has worked – there have been some flat-spots along the way – but better to make them in a EL group game than in the glare of the Premier League.
Contrast his approach with what’s going on a couple of miles up the road. Wenger likes a moan at the best of times but their league form is solely down to fatigue, apparently. It won’t wash. Maybe Spurs have better fitness coaches because we haven’t seen any signs of that. On the contrary, the team to a man appear invigorated by the growing realisation that they could be part of something good.
It’s more an attitude of mind. The difference is that the years have wearied Wenger as he creates yet another side without the full backing of his board in terms of buying players of the highest quality. In contrast, Villas-Boas’ desire to succeed burns like an everlasting flame. Without a footballing career behind him, like Wenger the only way he can prove himself is through his team and he has communicated that enthusiasm and desire to his players. They want to play, to play for him, and he deserves credit for getting through to them. Few can now doubt that this is his side, that this young, mild-mannered man is in charge and has the respect of the players. The risk he took in playing virtually full teams in the Europa League has paid off.
Dempsey, a man who needs to fit in more than most, has been played throughout, giving him game time and his performances are slowly improving. More assists on Thursday night. Dawson’s role and the authority of captain meant he wasn’t excluded from the first team action and helped produce those fine Premier League performances when his chance came. Carroll, Huddlestone and Sigurdsson have all had useful time on the pitch, while AVB’s gradual introduction of Lloris to the English game, much derided in September and October, could in hindsight be a managerial masterstroke. Everyone has had some chance, none have been excluded. This is all shrewd man-management.
I wasn’t at the Lane on Thursday but watched on TV. We did more than enough to win without playing well throughout. Just as the jitters set in, class told. We think it’s always us, these periods where we seem to switch off. While we have to cut them out if we are to get close to the final, every other team does it. All the other British sides that I’ve seen have the same inexplicable lethargy at some period, making the games dull to watch. If it helps us learn lessons, then I wouldn’t worry about it. Two-legs ties increase the pressure, let’s make a judgement then.
Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!
Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.
To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.
Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.
In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.
If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.
However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.
So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.
The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.
That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.
The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.
But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning. Against Wigan, we had no idea.
Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.
Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.
Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.
I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved or in the box (although he has improved).
At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.
And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.
In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.
However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.
The pleasure of seeing Spurs play football. White shirts, navy blue shorts, a proper game. That’s all I ask. Not so much the victory, not even its emphatic nature, but just to know that our season is under way and a sense of how we are and what’s to come.
Monday’s cloud of Great Depression, created by an unhealthy combination of high quality mystery drama and an increasing sense of personal anxiety, has blown away. Yesterday’s concern about the media antics of our manager and the conflict at boardroom level won’t disappear so easily but last night we saw that Redknapp has been working hard with his players and prepared them impeccably. A potential disaster became a triumph. An early goal settled the nerves – of the fans I mean, the players seemed utterly focussed – leaving us to relish some breathtaking passing interplay and cracking goals.
Hearts fans must have been disappointed with their team. I don’t watch nearly enough Scottish football to make any sort of judgement on the quality of their league but they must have played better than this in the recent past. I suspect they understandably haven’t settled under yet another new manager, and their fans deserve credit for their warmth towards both teams at the end.
Opponents don’t have to be on top form to deny us the room to play; we’ve seen that often enough in the last few years. Hearts packed the area 30 or 40 yards out and pressed hard, yet we passed our way around them as if they weren’t there. No big centre forward meant we had to keep it on the ground. Considering this was our first competitive match of the season, the movement and surefooted interchange was outstanding. Van der Vaart moved freely between midfield and their box yet we never looked short up front because there was plenty of support for Defoe. Bale and Lennon provided width without becoming detached and although Hearts lacked any penetration both worked hard defensively when required.
Kranjcar kept things moving in midfield, Benny did the same from the left while Walker’s pace and strength (he’s filled out a bit in the last two years!) kept the Scots busy. All the talk is about his attacking prowess but on two occasions he showed how valuable his speed will be in defensive situations, dashing back to rob attackers plus the timing of the challenge under pressure when he got there. Livermore impressed in the first half especially with a thoughtful, disciplined performance. He’d been well coached in his role; he stayed back when he needed to, always made himself available for a pass and timed his few runs forward perfectly, notably for his sumptuous goal. What a first touch and then quick feet for the shot.
Defoe consistently took up decent positions and let’s hope he’s learned something in the close season. For his goal he found space between the two centre halves and didn’t stray offside. It’s asking a lot to overcome the biggest problem of his entire career. When they came on, Hudd and Townsend were on the pace and passing well. Lennon’s superb breakaway goal came when Hearts were down but they still had three men back when that move began. Townsend’s pass and Lennon’s run took them out of the equation.
We can enjoy last night without getting carried away. The serious business begins on Monday night, when defensive uncertainty similar to that shown at the start of the second half will be ruthlessly exposed. However, we can only play who we play, and last night they could not have done any more. Above all, the team were purposeful and focussed, organised and highly motivated. Whatever is going on behind the scenes has not affected the team in the slightest. That desire, teamwork and camaraderie, the genuine delight in the moves that led to the goals, that’s why the clouds have gone and sunlight streams.
It’s started. Prematurely ecstatic over Diarra’s arrival, a couple of days ago a messageboard poster was positively drooling over his midfield selection. ‘Diarra and Sandro as DMs, Modric and Hud further forward with Lennon and Bale on the wings. Can’t wait to see that!’ It took a while before a few people gently pointed out that add a back four and keeper, that makes eleven – a team without strikers. Actually, come to think of it, bit like most of last season
With or without Diarra, it’s the tactics and formation that will be crucial in the weeks and months to come. Redknapp doesn’t do tactics, of course. Just extends Uncle Harry’s Long Arm of Comfort round the shoulders of our lads, and that’s inspiration enough. Go out and enjoy yourselves, boys.
Harry’s done a decent job for us, so why does he have to insult us with rubbish like this? Another example of how important it is for him to cultivate his image as football’s good ol’ boy. And while I’m about it, of all the absurd cliches that infect our game, ‘just go out and enjoy it’ is surely one of the most ridiculous. I don’t want you to go out and enjoy yourselves, gents. I want you to play like you have never played before, run yourself into the ground so your legs are mere stumps at the end of the 90 minutes and lay bare your heart and soul for the badge. If you want enjoyment, join me in the park for a kickabout.
Harry will have hard choices to make, whoever we add to the squad in the next two weeks. Having too many fine players is a good problem to have but Redknapp and his coaches could struggle to keep a large squad content, never mind the fans.
This season poses fresh problems. Although our experience as battle-hardened European veterans will stand us in good stead, any degree of success means a long hard road ahead with the prospect of over 60 matches. Not only that, the grind of Thursday/Saturday will be further disrupted by kick-offs moved to suit TV – Spurs do not have a home game with a 3pm Saturday kick-off until December 3rd – plus long trips into Europe. Winning with a weaker team is an art, one we haven’t yet learned.
I don’t buy Redknapp’s statement about ‘playing the kids in Europe’. We have to go all out to win trophies and can’t take too much of a risk. The Europa League has a tiresome format designed to make money for teams whilst simultaneously sucking all pleasure from playing the game. However, it’s still a big tournament, undoubtedly worthy of winning, and we have a decent chance. I wouldn’t fear any team in that competition over two legs and should go all out to win it without sacrificing anything in our efforts to challenge the top four.
It is asking a lot but such is the pressure success brings and I wouldn’t be without it. This is the key message that should reverberate around and through the whole squad. To be fair to HR, he never said we would play all kids. Naming only Livermore and Townsend, both of whom have League experience and are hardly kids, he knows that his squad has enough depth to operate a midweek team capable of muddling through the group stage. After Christmas, we’ll see where we are. The main danger is complacency. It’s partly the fringe men entering those games with purpose and motivation, partly also about the more experienced amongst them imposing themselves to make the most of their talents. Hud in the centre maybe, Kaboul at the back, Krancjar and Pienaar as attacking midfielders and whoever plays upfront.
However, there are more fundamental issues to be faced. Last season we gave away too many goals because at the back we were too open too often. Some of our covering was naive in the extreme. If I’ve faced facts then so must Redknapp – we cannot play so much attacking football. In the Premier League our priority is to attack only when we have a solid base and if that means sacrificing one of two players to each attack, then so be it. There’s no alternative.
When the team was set up to press in midfield and lie deeper, as against Milan or Chelsea away for example, we performed those roles well. Problems came when we were stretched out of shape when we took the game to other teams, who could then hit us on the break, Blackpool away being the classic instance. If Bale and Lennon both play, they have to not only work back but shift their starting positions to somewhere deeper. Or, only go forward if others are back covering. The fullbacks have to tuck in tighter to their back four when we don’t have the ball. All of which provides a shield for the back four and the centre halves who were so frequently left exposed and vulnerable.
Defending better doesn’t mean being defensive. We have the men to turn defence into attack with the speed that’s required in the modern game. This is what Manchester United do so well. Sitting low on the Shelf, it is phenomenal to watch them and we need to match their pace and purpose – we have the men to emulate them. They don’t run with the ball like Bale and Lennon do so much as run to get onto the ball, moved swiftly into space.
We have to buy a striker who can give us the option of playing on their own up front. It’s essential. Banging the ball up to Crouch must stop. The other requisite for Spurs is width. It plays to the strengths of the team both in terms of men like Lennon and Bale but also the passing ability and vision of Huddlestone and Modric.
The other vital element is possession. We can’t be like Barca but we can follow their example in one sense: keep the ball, because if we’ve got it, the other lot can’t score. It’s not only about skill on the ball, it’s also about movement, ensuring one or two men can always be available to receive a pass. We have the players who are perfect for this. So why didn’t we do that more last year? We could do, for spells only, now let’s be geared to keeping hold of the ball.
So here are a couple of options, assuming that Modric isn’t sold. One is the classic 4-4-2, with Hud or Sandro alongside Modric in the middle, Lennon and Bale wide and VDV off the main striker. Whilst this appeals to me, it’s basically the same line-up that failed to defend well last year, so everyone has to play slightly differently and be more circumspect.
The other option is to get the width from the full-backs. Much as I love Lennon, Walker could offer both the attacking options (coming from deep again) and allow an extra central midfielder who tucks in to allow the full back to come past. Put Bale at full back on the other side and you have more height at the back plus another midfield option, say 2 DMs and still there’s width, and I say this in the full knowledge that if I love Lennon then I adore Benny.
These two aren’t mutually exclusive and we have plenty of options to vary tactics according to our opponents. In some games it may be better to play a defensive-minded fullback, Corluka, behind Lennon, for example.
Three final thoughts. One, in whatever formation Van der Vaart will be crucial. Shrewd and dangerous at the edge of the box, He also offers even more options (stay with me on this one). Whilst he shouldn’t come too deep as he sometimes did last season, that actually is a problem only if there’s no one forward. However, if he chooses to drop back and Bale, Walker or Lennon are hammering forward, that’s fine. We can attack and have men covering.
Which leads on to a second point. Football isn’t played in straight lines. It’s about movement and flow. If our men are clever enough to work on a principle based on knowing where team-mates are, they can vary the options. Men must get forward, men must stay back, but they don’t have to be the same men doing the same thing every time. Flexible intelligence to get the job done, the job (covering, attacking, width etc) being identified with different players doing it at different times, whoever is best placed on the the field at that point.
Finally, and crashing down to earth, set pieces .All this flow and movement doesn’t mean diddly if we can’t do anything from free-kicks and comers. I don’t recall a single goal direct for a free kick last year and we had some pathetic routines that went out with steel toecaps and Brylcreem – tapping the ball cunningly two feet sideways, who would have picked that one up…