Harry Redknapp is the quintessential English manager. Working class roots, played football since he was a kid, steeped in the game, worked his way up in management from the lower leagues. Close to his players, he preaches the virtues of hard work and character. He has prospered in the modern era but his teams would look familiar to fans from any era of English football – big men at the back, tough tackling midfielders and wingers with another big bloke up front.
He’s often scornful of tactics, preferring or so he claims, to assemble good players and let them express themselves on the pitch. John Giles, a shrewd man not easily fooled, concurs: “You don’t see him complicating it with big tactics or formations.” Yet our success this year has come about precisely because of a different approach to tactics. Like the players, he’s absorbed a few lessons from our European experience. A couple of changes have made all the difference.
Teams play from the back – get it right there and everything flows. That’s true for us, of which more later, but the crucial difference is up front. Redknapp has jettisoned his faith in a centre forward as target man in favour of mobility. Manu Adebayor is not performing to the best of his considerable ability but he doesn’t have to, because he brings out the strengths of those around him. Crouch was a target for Bale and Lennon’s crosses. Manu is that and more. In particular, his runs open up space for others to either move into themselves or to slide in a pass through the channels.
As a result, Van der Vaart has prospered. Harry has him in a free role, working across the pitch and in the gaps between the opponent’s back four and midfield. He can hang back or make a little run himself, feed Adebayor or a runner, all these and more are possible. Bale is encouraged to make diagonal runs into the box. When all three are firing, Lennon is stretching them wide and Modric is hanging around, any defence will struggle. Before we leave Rafa, note how hard he’s working this year. His ‘ground covered’ stats rival anyone on the pitch when he plays well. He’s no longer a luxury.
The other major development is our centre midfield. Whether they are called a half-back, defensive midfielder, midfield destroyer or ‘a Makelele-type’, English teams have revolved around the energetic, tough-tackling midfield player. Times have changed and Redknapp has moved on. Positional play, the ability to pick up the ball and distribute it, to keep possession until team-mates are in the right place and defence can become attack, these qualities are more valuable at the highest level of the game. Spurs fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Wilson Palacios but he doesn’t possess these abilities and so, like Crouch, has become part of our past. We know Modric can do this. Now we have Parker too. Both can tackle but that’s a bonus.
The modern game is so much about possession and movement off the ball. The great Italian coach and theoretician Arrigo Sacchi talked about formations but in the end the most important quality was the player’s ability to understand where he was in relation to his team-mates and to the ball. It was as if the game is about thousands of these micro calculations, re-calibrating constantly as the game flows. Put it all together and you have a team functioning as a unit, adapting to the ebb and flow of the match, to the conditions, to the opposition’s pressure or the need to score or defend, and above all to whether or not you have the ball.
Scott Parker is good at many things but this is finest quality. He knows where he should be at any given time. In defence he will shield the back four or slip back into a channel, leaving the defence to mark opponents. He’ll pick it up and wait. Not dither or procrastinate, but wait, a touch or two here, shielding the ball as others move around him. Then he’ll release, short or long, short mostly, keep it moving and allow more time to readjust into attack from defence. No space, well, knock it around, get others moving or move it himself. Sometimes he will inject some pace, either with a run upfield, jabbing strides and low centre of gravity, or with a sweetly timed through ball.
At his best, the game moves at his pace, hums to his tune. Add the traditional English virtues of toil, sweat and tackles and you have the perfect midfielder. He’s been outstanding, both in himself and in the way he gets the best from others. His intelligence means he knows what’s best for them, where they might be and how they want the ball, and again Redknapp’s coaching has been instrumental in getting the pieces to function as a whole.
Last season I said similar things about Luka Modric. Put the two of them in the same team and they complement each other perfectly. I would go a step further and include Sandro, a world-class prospect in my view, alongside Parker. They would lie deeper, although as I’ve implied that’s not a rigid demarkation, with Bale, Modric and Van der Vaart ahead. Lennon would miss out.
This isn’t about straight lines, remember. Rather, flexibility, intelligence, mobility and an ability to respond to conditions are key. All these five can run all day. They will have to, to cover, press and chase when we don’t have the ball. If we are short, one of the two DMs can slide across whilst others make a direct run straight back to cover. This allows Walker room to plunder on the right. If he’s forward, another stays back. Doesn’t matter who, they work it out according to where they are and the positions of their team-mates. Each player takes these same decisions, hundreds of times a game.
Frankly we got away with it: it could easily have been 8 on both sides of the north London divide. By the time Spurs found a little of the good stuff, City had made and missed three good chances. More opportunities came their way as the game progressed and they eagerly sliced through our toiling, bewildered defence.
Two games in and for many it’s doom and gloom. Reported scenes of Spurs fans leaving the Lane on their knees flagellating their naked backs may have been exaggerated. Others detect a whiff of conspiracy: Harry wanted us to lose this one to remind Levy that he needs to buy and buy big. Or to get Levy to sack him.
Back to reality. Yesterday we saw the same old Spurs, bright coming forward but no punch in the box and fatally neglectful of their defensive duties. What is particularly chastening is that whilst we are standing still, our rivals for the top four have moved on, and on this evidence have left us far behind, chewing their dust as they power off into the sunset.
Whilst his choices were limited due to injury, especially in centre midfield, Redknapp’s selection and tactics were naive in the extreme. City swamped our fragile midfield from the outset, something that was apparent from the teamsheets let alone what happened once the whistle blew. Modric wasn’t fit and Krancjar has proved on three occasions this season that he is unwilling and unable to come back and cover.
With Lennon and Bale staying forward, presumably following instructions, our back four were exposed from the outset to City’s attractive blend of pace and movement. Goals were inevitable; the only surprise was how long it took them to score. It’s a familiar and numbing refrain on this blog – I love the attacking play but you have to have a foundation upon which to build, and in the Premier League that means a midfield defensive platform. Lennon and Bale are not best suited to coming back – sorry but they have to. Niko doesn’t fancy it – I don’t fancy conceding 8 goals in two games, however good the opposition.
City played with two men up front (thought they were supposed to be boring) and two holding midfielders. It can be done. Gareth Barry is not the player he was a few season ago, yet with minimum effort he protected the back four and stayed constantly on the move, just being around when he was needed and allowing others to get forward. Early in the game City attacked with four against four in our box. We cleared and went up their end. We had four up but faced 6 or 7 in their area, with Toure and Barry slotting into the gaps between back four defenders, whereas we allowed their men free rein.
Dzeko’s ease of movement was equally both instructive and indicative of how far behind our strikers are. Again he took up all the right positions without apparently breaking sweat. Our centre halves have had better games but there’s little you can do against a combination of a sweet cross to a striker easing from behind the defender to just in front at the right moment. Contrast Crouch ambling to the far post or Defoe shooting repeatedly from outside the box. The way to deal with that is to stop those crosses coming in the first place, whereas we happily waved them through.
Midway through the first half I wondered if we had got away with it. City missed their chances and we attacked brightly, at pace. Despite his lack of fitness and, according to Harry, motivation, the team is comfortable around Modric and he made things tick. Benny’s passing from deep was incisive, Rafa busy and Crouch kept play moving with by being available and moving it on quickly.
Chances would be few and far between, and we missed them, Bale skying from close range then producing a gem of a cross that Crouch at full stretch couldn’t quite keep under control. No blame – it was a difficult header. Otherwise, Bale was asked to do a hell of a lot – attack wide and cut in diagonally, cover back and get forward with late runs into the box. Not unexpectedly, he didn’t quite manage to do any of them well. On the other side, Lennon was anonymous. When he did make a run, each time he hesitated fatally at the moment to cross and the chance was blocked.
City took their chances well but we allowed them to create far too easily. For a team with little width they made two against one on the flanks several times. We stood still for the second, played statues for the third, then Benny missed a tackle he should have won. In between, Daws did everything right one on one against Aguero, getting goalside and narrowing the angle, but the Spaniard is a master and made a tricky chance look easy. We should ever leave him one on one in the first place.
Well beaten by two of the best teams in the league, our season starts in a fortnight. I suspect we’ll be playing catch up until Christmas at least. Without reading too much into the season so far, it’s a harsh and unwelcome reminder of how far we are behind our rivals. We bid large for Richards, Aguero, Dzeko, Young at United. They spurned our advances: what we could be with them in our side. As it is, looks like we’re falling back on experience. Parker and Bellamy are good players but after yesterday, it feels like they are left-overs. It’s like we’re two weeks into pre-season, not the season itself.
Harry has a lot of work to do in the international break. He would do well to focus on building his team rather than complain about how much the media bang on about Luka, then proceed to bang on about Luka. Redknapp seems to be an irony-free zone: he just didn’t get it. It’s a sign of his desperation but in fact he’s in charge of the team and there’s plenty to do there without venting his feelings publicly.
Finally, a true story if you are in need of a little perspective. Yesterday, while I’m chuntering away on the North Circular about matters described above, my wife is trundling in her wheelchair past a neighbour’s house. She hears cries from the first floor. ‘It’s coming, that’s the head, it’s here.’ She calls up and the woman needs some help. The ambulance and midwife have been called but like our full backs are late to arrive. She manages to get in and assists the birth of a premature but healthy baby boy, on the bathroom floor. A happy ending to this sorry tale after all.
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…
Football hardly seems important in N17 today. Regards to the families and good people of Tottenham.
Here’s part 1 of the season preview – an overview. More on Tuesday, earlier if I pull my finger out – the best of the rest, tactics and off the field
Season 2011-12 represents a watershed in the modern history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Add two or three players to a squad bursting with talent and ambition, Spurs have a side that could compete with the League’s elite this season and found a modern dynasty as success breeds success. Get it wrong even by the smallest margin and the consequences will reverberate for years to come. We won’t notice anything to begin with – we’ll do all right as we are. Then, gradually, the momentum of a season in the Champions League will dissipate and some of of the brightest emerging talents in Europe will leave, disillusioned. Fade to grey.
I prefer evidence to rumour, reality to fantasy. Although there’s little transfer gossip in these pages, even I have reached the point where the next striker who arrives will receive a personal welcome upon a carpet of rose petals and garlanded with handpicked flowers. The season begins not against Everton on Saturday but when the transfer window closes. It’s not right.
Last summer’s failure to strengthen our ability to score goals was a significant moment. However, this time it’s now or never. Key players are a year older and four or five years wiser, battle hardened veterans of Europe where they earned as much in defeat as in victory. Not only that, they hunger for glory, having whetted their appetite. The difference is, now they know what to do and that they can do it. Also, all summer I have said that never mind who comes in, the absolute imperative is who stays. if we don’t make it this time, There’s no way we can resist the instable demands and unrestricted resources of top teams in this country and abroad. By the end of August, our plans could be in tatters. Now is the time.
Spurs can build the team around the sumptuous Luka Modric, a supremely skilled footballer and precious playmaker. At his feet, football becomes a thing of wonder and beauty, yet his real value to the team is as the fulcrum around which everything flows and revolves. Criticism of his lack of stature by the unseeing and unknowing is laughable. He’s fearless in the tackle, his work rate not in question.
He’s brave in another sense too. He rarely takes the easy option, making himself readily available to colleagues in all areas of the pitch and when in possession seeking the ball that means something rather than handing over responsibility to someone else to make things happen. If that should be in two or three passes time, he anticipates and moves to be in the right place at the right time. Would that his team-mates were so acute.
Alongside him we have two of the best young prospects in Europe, Gareth Bale and Sandro. The threat posed by Bale’s power and direct running first took our breath away at the Lane then was reflected in the glazed empty eyes of a succession of terrorised Premier League right-backs. Europe sat bolt upright when he destroyed the European Champions over two games. In 40 years I’ve never seen so much skill on the ball coupled with such rampant athleticism.
Yet even he could be eclipsed by Sandro. After a hesitant start under the unaccustomed pressure of English football, he not merely found his feet, he made an exponential leap. Again Europe was his platform with performances of remarkable maturity. He’s a real defensive midfielder, mobile, physically very strong and comfortable on the ball and utterly fearless in his challenges in his own box. The possibilities are limitless.
Step forward big Tom Huddlestone. Say that every year. His progress has been held back by injury but perhaps it’s given him time to reflect on how he can add anticipation and positional sense to his superb passing and control.
Further forward we have Rafa Van der Vaart. His late arrival surprised Redknapp to the point where he wasn’t quite sure where to play him. A central free role in front of midfield makes the best use of his eye for an opening, speed of thought and execution plus his accurate shooting. The opposition simply cannot contain him for the whole 90 minutes.
Recently I was asked to name my best ever Spurs team from players I’ve actually seen, which in my case is 1967 onwards. Without hesitation Ledley King took precedence even over over greats like Mike England. His strength, pace and anticipation coupled with precise timing in the challenge make him the perfect centre back. His injury is tragic for a man loyal to the club and who deserves worldwide recognition. We can’t rely on him being available regularly, if at all, but I refuse to right him off until I see him trundling down the High Road in a wheelchair, and even then I’d be inclined to give him a go. He may have 15 or 20 games a season in him, but think what he could give us if Redknapp chooses the right 15 or 20.
Michael Dawson has overcome his lack of pace to become a giant of the penalty box, a true leader. he wants to win so much, his passion is infectious. He’s also a fine example to younger players hoping to break into the team. When many said he was not good enough, he was determined to prove otherwise. Out of the picture for a time, he took his opportunity a couple of years ago as if it were his last, and has never looked back even after a serious knee injury on international duty. Like he’s never been away, back he came, unflinching in the tackle and a steely glint in his eye. Our captain, our inspiration.
Alongside him he has the canny Gallas, another man who could have allowed his career to slip away in comfortable well-paid security but who took on the challenge of not only the Premier League but also of playing for the bitter rivals of his previous teams. His commitment and experience won over even the greatest cynic, culminating in a defensive masterclass at the Emirates.
He may look at times like a labrador puppy, long-limbed and unco-ordinated, but Younis Kaboul is proving to be one of Harry’s shrewdest signings. Another man anxious to take his chance, he has the pace, power and touch to become a top quality centre half. i expect much from him in the months and years to come.
So that’s what we’ve got, and it’s a lot. The main problem is, there’s no mention of a striker so far. Pointless if we don’t have anyone to make and score goals on a regular basis. Last season we were embarrassingly lacking in this respect and all this prodigious talent will be criminally wasted if we don’t right that wrong.
Best of the bunch was Pavlyuchenko. Scorned by a manager supposedly famous for his man-management skills, Pav was toddling along, not doing much and apparently not too bothered, oblivious of what was going around him and of haircuts post 1971. Through clenched teeth Redknapp was forced to name him because the others were so bad. Pav blew hot and cold. I’m sure his YouTube showreel makes him look like a world-beater as the shots thumped in from range towards the close of least season, yet on other occasions his amateurish control and poor link-up play made one despair. Give him a yard to move onto the ball – look at those goals again, see what I mean – he’s a world beater but that’s the yard you don’t get that often in the Premier League.
Defoe’s work rate improved in inverse proportion to his ability to create danger in the box. A couple of piledrivers show his talent but we need him in the box. Too often he hung back in the comfort zone rather than hammer to the edge of the 6 yard box. In so doing he often bumped into Crouch, ambling towards the back post. It’s a refrain familiar to readers of this blog over the last 12 months. Play Crouch and sure, you will always get something. The point is, we could get something more from the players at our disposal. His presence encourages the long ball, as did sadly the coaches’ tactical talks towards the end of last season. At a stroke the advantages of our passing game are largely nullified. Opponents know where the ball is going to go and anticipation is two thirds of the battle. A nudge in the back and he’s out of the game.
Redknapp’s quintessentially British big man/little man up front is outmoded in the modern game. We need two pacy, mobile strikers able to bring others into the game. If they do so, we can improve on the goals from midfield total, an area where we’ve been lacking of late. If the man can poach 20 goals a season, so much the better, but he doesn’t have to be a high scorer provided he makes the team play. VDV and Luka are desperate to slide balls into the space or to pick up a late runner from midfield.
At the other end, Gomes proved the doubters wrong once before, now he has to do so all over again. The occasional ricket from this likeable, agile keeper was outweighed tenfold by fabulous full-stretch saves but just as his confidence off his line increased, the mistakes became a habit. Friedel is a sound signing, both as back-up and to give the Brazilian a nudge without undermining him. His opening month will be crucial for him and the team.
Without raising ridiculous expectations, there’s potential busting out of N17 0AP. I’m convinced Levy has money available for transfers and does not have to rely on sales to fund incoming players. The men we want are much in demand and his legendary bargaining qualities will be fully stretched over the next two weeks.
Keep what we have. Adding a couple of strikers plus a centre half will work wonders to a quality squad all set to achieve. Players are maturing. They’ve learned to be resilient in Europe, a quality they must take to every single league game. Redknapp has to stir it all together, it’s a tasty future. Fail this time around and it will all fall apart.
More next week – the squad, the tactics, off the field