After witnessing Tottenham’s 3-1 loss to Manchester United last month, where a Tottenham side devoid of their defensive stalwarts succumbed to three short instances of United pressure, I came to the conclusion that this Spurs side that had been performing at a stellar level this season would crumble.
It is a sad thought, as the introduction of Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor during the summer plugged in the necessary gaps that led to a run akin to title winning teams. Spurs was playing attractive football and scoring goals. They got rid of the defensive fragility that has plagued them in the past, and turned talented young players such as Younes Kaboul and Kyle Walker into full internationals. Luka Modric had arguably his best string of form in a Tottenham shirt, while Parker’s energy and tackling made for a perfect foil for the Croatian. On the wings, Kranjcar and then Lennon had equally fruitful spells on either side, while Gareth Bale rediscovered the early-season form of the past term that had him hailed as the world’s best left sided player. Rafael van der Vaart continued to offer a devastating option in attack, as his ability to float between midfield and defence allowed Spurs an extra dimension up front. Adebayor’s physicality and knack for quality finishing offered a great foil to a nimble yet effective Jermain Defoe. The addition of Louis Saha looked to be an inspired piece of business from Redknapp, and Ryan Nelsen had seemed solid if anything. Overall, the only instance of suspicion was how simply cool Assou-Ekotto was. At their highest point, Tottenham looked like world-beaters.
And then it all came back.
The Spurs of old had the second best mentality commonly associated with underachieving teams. The amount of hype surrounding them, and the quality of their players did not add up to be equal, even with Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane even now possessing the ability to walk into most Premier League sides. There was always disappointment when Tottenham continually finished fifth, especially after a rotten lasagna was the difference between fourth and fifth one season. Good results against the league’s bottom dwellers were met with sheer disappointment against the sides in the top four. There was pressure, and not enough quality to handle it.
Which is why I find it almost impossible to believe that Redknapp has not come to grips with the phenomenon that made Tottenham so great during the high points of their season. Spurs was a surprising side. They lacked expectation. They were the innocent Lilywhites playing so aesthetically… almost as if they had nothing to lose. After the addition of Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor — two players with mountains of experience — the holes were plugged.
And there was a pattern: the goal early in the game, the domination of possession throughout the first half, the killer second goal in the beginning of the second half, and whatever they pleased to do in the last parts of the match. It happened again and again, against Liverpool, Bolton, QPR, Everton, and to some extent Fulham.
But as the season has worn on, it became apparent how to beat Tottenham. Have a player like Scott Parker to break up play. Use your talented and sprightly playmaker in a deep position. Play a moderately high line. Let your wingers come inside and encourage stability in your full backs. Play like Tottenham, and you’ll beat Tottenham. Redknapp started a trend, and it became a tactical problem for him.
Teams started to follow suit. It was a philosophy of play rather than a specific formation that was utilized. Teams started to sit up and admire the workhorse that Scott Parker was. They started to notice how Modric would pop up to take possession from his teammates whenever they were outnumbered. They began to perceive Adebayor’s role as a striker who drops deep as a brilliant novelty.
But when Jerome Thomas enjoys a better game than Gareth Bale, something has to be wrong. Right?
Although Tottenham beat West Brom on both occasions, and Jerome Thomas ultimately and continually produced a disappointing end product, Redknapp’s tactics were dire to say the least. They were devoid of any sort of fluidity, relied on the hold-up play of Adebayor and sheer speed of Aaron Lennon. Sandro and Parker produced a mediocre defensive performance but offered very little going forward. Even after the win that Redknapp said “was one of the most difficult three points of the season,” I was biting my nails with full knowledge that the wheels would come off pretty soon.
I couldn’t think of a better way to put it, other than to plainly say that Redknapp’s ideology is to put the best players in their favorite positions and to build around that. At first, I thought there was nothing wrong with that, with full knowledge that my idol Brian Clough would be pleased that such a side were near the top of English football. Then, after I remembered that the difference between an admittedly average side at the beginning of the season, and title-challenging outfit were Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor, I began to understand that Redknapp was not so tactically astute. Last season, Modric played on the left wing of a 4-3-3 away at Manchester City. It was one of the most important games of the season. Against Real Madrid, Jermaine Jenas played on the right. In short, there was too much crap last season and at the beginning of this one, and Redknapp clearly was tactically unable to deal with it.
To be a side challenging for top honors, which in Spurs’ case is a top four finish, a coach needs to have a grasp of tactical necessity. In short, Redknapp doesn’t.
Where to start? Let’s begin with Redknapp’s 4-3-3 that has been far from convincing.
Walker Kaboul King Assou-Ekotto
Van der Vaart Bale
Personally, I’ve always thought a 4-3-3 in the Premier League has been a great idea. However, long gone are the days when a similar tactical setup could be used with two wingers hugging the touchline, a packed midfield, and two full backs who cross like center backs. That is the approach that has given Wigan an excuse to play average players and expect something out of it. The truth is, the formation is bland when you don’t have players who like to come inside and full backs who overlap. You also need a midfielder to run into the box and act as a poacher when the ball is crossed in. In other words, as much as Modric is a playmaker, he is a deep lying playmaker. You only have to look at Bastian Schweinsteiger, a midfielder who shares similar strengths with the Croatian international, to see the full extent of putting players of that caliber in a role where they see more of the ball. For clarification purposes, ever since the 26 year-old German was moved to the middle from his usual wide position, he has been superb.
Let’s talk a little more about Bayern Munich, how Schweni has the midfield all to himself. He enjoyed his best spell of form with Mark van Bommel, and then Anatoli Tymoschuk as a partner to do the dirty work, and it was even more devastating when Toni Kroos was thrown in a position in the hole behind the striker. This formation, a 4-2-3-1, allows Schweinsteiger influence in his deep-lying role, while also taking the creative burden off of him. As a partnership, the Kroos-Schweinsteiger-Tymoschuk triangle has worked. When it is broken up, Bayern look disoriented.
There you have it: a perfectly successful blueprint that Redknapp can look at and decide to utilize with assurance that it will work against… err Everton. Bayern Munich’s poor form has been largely due to their defensive deficiencies, and the inconsistency of Robben and Ribery as wide players, and Muller as a central striker. When Muller has been available to play on the right, and Ribery’s inner Frankenstein does not limit him to the composure of a 9 foot tall beast, Bayern Munich have been quality.
The reason I took the time figuring out how to best explain the Bayern midfield system is to further intensify the search for a quality 4-2-3-1 system that Tottenham can easily transpose to. It looks like this:
Walker Kaboul King Bale
van der Vaart
Giovanni dos Santos Lennon
Yes, the reason Giovanni dos Santos is chosen is because in a 4-2-3-1, the wide players tend to be wide forwards who like to rearrange themselves centrally, or are just natural strikers. At Real Madrid, di Maria and Ronaldo rarely play on the side of their favored foot, as putting them there may give them the tendency to hug the touchline. At Bayern, Ribery is put on the left for the same reason. Strikers-come wingers Muller and Podolski show for Germany that they are perfect in this system, as their natural nose for goal brings them inside, yet are complemented by their knowledge of when to drift out wide. The reason the center is so important is because of the two holding players who are otherwise isolated when in possession. If the wingers come inside, the full backs overlap, the striker gets service from all areas of the pitch, and the playmaker playing behind him flourishes with play going through the middle of the pitch.
So let’s bring it back to Tottenham.
Modric and Parker make up a central midfield pairing that has been used to devastating effect this year. The only difference is that they don’t have to move out wide to support the wingers, a luxury given that they have been much more useful in the center. In his favorite position, the talented Mexican attacker Giovanni dos Santos is given the freedom to roam and come inside onto his stronger left foot, while still being supplemented by a slightly withdrawn van der Vaart. Aaron Lennon, who has looked more dangerous continually swapping wings rather than fixed in a position on the right, is given the freedom to move into the center and even swap flanks with Gio, with an overlapping Bale looking to do his usual thing.
And yes, I do know what you’re thinking. As liberal as we footy fans are, I’m sure many of you are quick to question how defensively stable this system is. To that I have an even more liberal answer, being that Giovanni was originally an Alonso-type player, and can fill in there when needed. In the event of the Parker-Modric partnership being overworked, van der Vaart can come off for Kranjcar (who is unfortunately injured for the remainder of the season), and the former Portsmouth man can play in a withdrawn position. In the event of Tottenham needing more grit, Sandro should come on for Modric, giving Tottenham a proper “Vieira-dimension” to their play, with Kranjcar screening play in front of them. Arsenal has been using this to great effect in recent times.
Walker Kaboul King Bale
dos Santos Lennon
With Walker and Bale attacking the flanks, Kranjcar’s introduction allows Giovanni more room on the right to conjure attacks, and gives Lennon the space he likes to run at defenders on the counter. It’s a Wigan approach, what could possibly go wrong? With Bale and Walker seemingly possessing boundless energy, most of the play would go down the flanks, which is where Tottenham’s best players flourish.
After losing to Chelsea in an embarrassing FA Cup semi-final for Spurs fans and hard-core traditionalists for our beautiful game, Tottenham is actually in a perfect position: a position where not much is expected of them. Full backs will start laying off Bale and Lennon on the counter, and Modric will have slightly more space to work with in the middle of midfield. Of course, Redknapp will continue to turn out a 4-4-2 of some variation week in and week out, or a 4-5-1 with van der Vaart as a withdrawn forward. And it’s still very, very possible for them to finish outside of the top four.
Walker will continue to impress on the right flank, where Tottenham will rely on his ability to overlap. Gallas and the Tottenham defence devoid of Younes Kaboul will continue not playing the high line that was effective before the switch to a sweeper system, while the left back Assou-Ekotto will remain the calm presence with Bale double-marked ahead of him. Lennon will hug the touchline, while Parker and Modric will play a box-to-box game that has led to two figures a shadow of their early-season selves. Adebayor will hold the ball up well, van der Vaart will drift in behind and back as a support striker, and Defoe may come off the bench to score. Or he may not.
With bewildered pessimism in the side and with the fans, it’s not the players’ fault. They were not managed properly, not played in the proper system to manage a season-long top three side. Having said that, a fourth-place finish looks likely and a few summer signings, compounded with the long-term futures of Bale and Modric at the club, is on the cards.