This week in: English Football – One Final Post on Tottenham’s Season
This will be my final vent of the season about the club I love but who never fail to disappoint – it would not be healthy for me to write about Tottenham any more after this. A campaign that was looking very promising in January, has come crashing back down to earth. The continuing speculation about Harry Redknapp becoming the next England manager could be part of the reason for Spurs’ decline – but to be honest I think there is plenty of fault to go around. Here is where my blame is being apportioned:
One of the most frustrating aspects of the fact that Spurs will now finish outside of the top four, is that the transfer speculation in the summer will involve our highest profile players being linked with other clubs because they “want to play in the Champions League”. I would like to support a team that is in the competition also, but, unlike the players, I do not have the luxury of taking my fan services to another club because mine it not cutting it. Luka Modric wanted to go to Chelsea before the season started, he was even left out of the opening game against Manchester United because his mind was distracted by the prospect of such a move, but his performances in the last few months leave me doubtful that the Blues would still want him. As a creative midfielder, Modric is tasked with unlocking stubborn defences, but his passes routinely find the legs of opposition defenders and his shots are dragged harmlessly wide of the goal. Gareth Bale has been linked with Barcelona, something that nobody could begrudge him having an interest in, as having the chance to play for one of the greatest club sides of all time would be a dream move for any professional footballer. However, if Bale really wants to improve his game, then a move to Catalonia is not the only option. Since Wales are not at the European Championships, he should be spending his summer working on kicking the ball with his right foot, something he seems unwilling, or unable, to do at present. Bale has said in interviews that, rather than remaining on the left-wing all game, he wants to cut inside and switch wings to keep the defenders unsure of what he will do next, but right now he is ineffectual on the right flank as he is forced to come back onto his left foot every single time. One skill he has already perfected and will not need to learn at Barcelona, is diving to the ground and feigning injury – Bale will be giving Sergio Busquets a run for the best acting award in La Liga should he make the switch.
There are plenty of other players who have underperformed – Scott Parker works tirelessly to win the ball back in the midfield, yet in recent weeks his passing has been so poor, he has given away possession to the opposition on numerous occasions. The defensive unit, which was cohesive and strong in the middle of the season, has been giving opportunities and goals ever since Younes Kaboul was ruled out with an injury. That fragility at the back should not be a surprise, since the goalkeeper and central defenders (Friedel, King, Gallas) have a combined age of 105 and only three good knees between them. Jermain Defoe appears to be more interested in complaining about being left out of the side, or that every pass does not come his way, than helping the team by scoring or setting up chances, and Rafael Van der Vaart has fallen into similar bad habits. Emmanuel Adebayor has been a real plus since his loan signing last August, but he too is wasteful in front of goal and does not convert enough chances. Sandro looked like a competent player before his injury, yet since he has returned he has proven to be a real liability – a fact that was particularly prevalent in the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates.
Only a couple of Tottenham’s squad have continued their good form through this bad patch – the best of whom has been the right-back, Kyle Walker. He is a solid defender and is rarely beaten for pace, a fact that helps Walker push forward to overlap on the wing and provide crosses into the box. Benoit Assou-Ekotto has been a solid performer again this year and – even though I may have criticised him two paragraphs ago – when Bale has been played on the left-wing, he has continued his fantastic form from the last two seasons. The biggest problem has not been the individual performances though – Spurs have enjoyed a large share of the possession, even in games they have lost or drawn. What has been frustrating Tottenham – and me – has been the inability to break down teams who have defended deeply and blocked the middle of the pitch. The biggest culprit for this failure is…
Prior to his acquittal, many pundits thought that Harry Redknapp’s court case for tax evasion charges may distract his team and cost them a chance of trying to win the Premiership crown (seriously, Spurs were being talked about as title contender as recently as January). When Redknapp was found “Not Guilty” on February 7th, many Tottenham fans breathed a sigh of relief that the danger of losing their manager was gone. Nevertheless, the very next day, Fabio Capello resigned and there appeared to be a new destination for Redknapp – the England national team boss, rather than a resident of Her Majesty’s Prison. The following Saturday, Tottenham beat Newcastle 5-0 at White Hart Lane, but since that game, they have won just once in the league and now sit below Alan Pardew’s side, who recovered well following that thrashing.
Rather than court cases or potential new roles distracting Harry Redknapp, the real problem has been his tactics and team selection over the last few months. While he has done well overall with Spurs – when he took over in 2008, the team was bottom of the league with just two points in 8 games, Redknapp has since taken them on their first European Cup adventure since the 1961/2 season – his limitations have been evident in the last few months. Rafael Van der Vaart has been quoted as saying that it was refreshing to have a manager who just lets the squad play in training and there is little focus on the opposition, but this lack of tactical nous has cost Tottenham dearly in the business end of this Premier League campaign. Too many players are fielded out of position: Bale is moved inside or to the right-wing; Lennon, when selected, is often switched to the left-flank; Van der Vaart does a lot of damage playing behind the main striker in the middle of the park, yet is often asked to fulfill the role of right-winger. Redknapp believes in sending his team out to play their own game and not just counter what the opposition is doing, but this results in sides being selected that are unable to break down opponents or take advantage of their weaknesses. When Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich flood the middle of the park to prevent Modric or Van der Vaart from picking them apart, Lennon and Bale are needed on their respective wings to spread the game. When Spurs played Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson picked the centre-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans – two defenders who are good at repelling balls played into their own box, but who tend to back off when attackers are approaching their area. For this reason, Jermain Defoe – who is lethal if given any space from 20-25 yards – would have caused United difficulties, yet he started on the bench, with Redknapp choosing to start Adebayor and Louis Saha – both of whom are poachers rather than long-range sharp-shooters.
I have never been Harry Redknapp’s biggest fan – the love-fest he gets from journalists, who adore his soundbites and affability, is annoying, and his long tenure at West Ham, combined with his admission he was an Arsenal fan as a boy, meant I was not in favour of his appointment. Redknapp is a great man-manager, whatever he says to players appears to motivate them and believe in him as their coach, and he has taken Tottenham a long way from where they were when he joined. Perhaps his departure will spark a mass exodus of half of the squad who were there just to play for him, but it does appear that Redknapp has now taken Spurs as far as he can. That happy relationship he has enjoyed with the British press will be severely tested should he become England manager and his tactical shortcomings will be exposed very quickly should he be sending out a side against Spain or Germany in the near future.
My Own Optimism
This is what I wrote about Tottenham’s Premiership chances before the season began:
6. Tottenham – Spurs still have the same strikers who couldn’t score last season – staying still when everyone else improves, means a lower finishing position.
Granted, they signed Adebayor on loan after I wrote this, and added Scott Parker also, but I should have re-read my own words when, in January, I started to believe we might finish as London’s top club. How many times can I write about Spurs being frustrating and always dashing hopes of supporters, before I stop hoping the next time will be different? One? Two? Three?! I guess I will never learn…To be fair, the run of ten wins and one draw in 11 Premiership matches had even the most ardent pessimist (which, when it comes to Tottenham, might actually be me anyway) believing that this time they were not going to let their supporters down. It was inevitable that the good run of form would end and, at some point, Spurs’ entire season would collapse like a house of cards. Dropping down to 5th in the league and being thrashed 5-1 by Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final definitely qualifies as such a flop, I just wish I had not allowed myself the audacity of hoping this year would be any different from the previous twenty.
For the rest of the Premiership season, I will focus on the title race, battle against relegation and Champions League qualification for next season – none of which will involve Tottenham. Spurs will regain my attention next August, when I will somehow have convinced myself that the coming campaign brings cause for optimism once again.
John Lally online at Political Footballs
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