Premiership Preview–6. Tottenham
The 2007-2008 season was a roller coaster for Tottenham Hotspur. Martin Jol was removed from the manager’s post in late October, but only found out through a text message sent to his nephew, who then forwarded the news to the Dutchman’s phone. A team that was a trendy pick to break into the top four at Arsenal’s expense was sitting around 15th place at the time, and for all the plaudits received by Juande Ramos for the job he did after he took over from Jol, Spurs still only wound up in 11th. They beat Chelsea to win the Carling Cup, but Ramos isn’t being paid a whopping $9 million per season for mid-table finishes.
Spurs have undergone considerable change under Ramos, both on the field and off. The Spaniard implemented new dietary and fitness standards to keep his team in the best possible shape. He uses a more rigid, disciplined 4-4-2 than Jol, relying less on individual creativity and making it a team game.
He’s turned over the roster from back to front, bringing in eight new players this summer in addition to the four acquired in the January transfer window, while getting rid of eight others this summer, four in January, and loaning several more out. All these moves haven’t come cheaply; the net cost to build this new first team is well over $100 million. To be fair, the money spent has brought back some great young talent and potential high-impact returns.
Heurelho Gomes was signed from PSV for around $14 million to be the starting keeper. David Bentley’s initial $30 million price tag needs to justified with his play on the right wing. Luka Modric is a joint club-record signing at $33 million from Dinamo Zagreb, and the Croatian midfielder should play as an attacking midfielder behind the two strikers. Giovani Dos Santos, who has been labeled as “the next Lionel Messi, cost roughly $9.5 million up front, though that figure could rise to $17.2 million based on performance-related criteria, and the deal includes a sell-on clause as well. Dos Santos made the move from Barcelona, who seemed happy to ship the supremely skilled Mexican youngster off because of some well-documented attitude issues, likely relating to the immaturity that comes part-and-parcel with his age. He’ll be looking to prove those doubters wrong with his play opposite Bentley.
Only one major piece from a year ago has left White Hart Lane — Robbie Keane was sold to Liverpool for a total that could end up at just over $40.5 million. The Irish striker scored 23 goals in all competitions last season and 45 combined in the past two campaigns. He formed a lethal partnership with Dimitar Berbatov up front, who will now pair with Darren Bent.
Spurs are undoubtedly strongest in midfield, where they now have eight players who would be legitimate starters for most every other team in the Premiership. Only four, and occasionally five, can play at the same time, however, and three of those spots already seem to be filled up by Bentley, Dos Santos, and Modric. Of those three, Dos Santos is the one who may not start all the time because Modric can play on the left as well, which would allow another central player to get a chance. Four central midfielders — Tom Huddlestone, Didier Zokora, Jermaine Jenas, and Jamie O’Hara — are essentially competing for one or two spots, with the middle two the clear favorites at this point, especially Zokora. Kevin-Prince Boateng may also figure into that mix, though he’s probably going to be resigned to appearances in cup games. Aaron Lennon (remember him?) provides much more pace than Bentley on the right, but Bentley is a superior crosser and is very good on the set piece. Because of this plethora of midfielders, don’t be surprised to see Ramos employ a 4-2-3-1 at times throughout the year.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
*RB: Alan Hutton
CB: Jonathan Woodgate
**CB: Ledley King (captain)
LB: Gareth Bale
LMF: Dos Santos
*Hutton is out for an indefinite period with a sprained ankle, so expect to see Zokora inserted there to start the season. Jenas would then be shifted to Zokora’s role in the midfield.
**It’s been reported that because of King’s chronic knee problem, he can realistically only play one game out of every three for the rest of his career. When ready, King will start, but you’ll be seeing plenty of Michael Dawson as well.
Games against Chelsea (away), Aston Villa (home), and Portsmouth (away) highlight the six-match opening to Spurs’ schedule, which also includes must-win home games with Sunderland and Wigan.
October begins in easy fashion for Ramos’ side, with visits from Hull City and Bolton sandwiched around a trip to Stoke City. After those three matches, though, comes the first “scum” vs. “scum”, North London derby of the season against Arsenal, with this one coming at the Emirates to finish up the month.
The much-anticipated clash with Arsenal is followed in short order by an appearance from Liverpool, a must-watch game as it’s Robbie Keane’s return to White Hart Lane.
Tottenham hasn’t beaten Arsenal in the Premiership seemingly in ages, and hadn’t defeated the Gunners in any competition since November 1999 before they thumped Arsene Wenger’s kids 5-1 in the second leg of the Carling Cup semifinal last year. Spurs will get their second chance to beat Arsenal in the league on February 7 and get home-field advantage in that game.
Spurs end the year with four tough games in their last five; road games at Manchester United, Everton, and Liverpool are broken up by a winnable home game against West Brom and a tricky home date with Manchester City.
Bottom Line: It’s simple — if all of the new signings brought in by Ramos can adjust to the Premiership quickly, Spurs has the talent to challenge for a place in next year’s Champions League; if not, all the optimism in this part of North London will have gone out the window and it’ll be yet another disappointment from the club’s end. Tottenham has spent the money to contend, now they have to put up or shut up.