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Why Tottenham Hotspur Have Struggled to Recover Since The Luka Modric Sale

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Tottenham Hotspur heads into 2015 falling just short of expectations once again. There have been moments of quality, even brilliance, and all it would take is a sustained good run to change things, but overall one cannot escape the feeling that Spurs are not living up to their potential. Wins have been tight, several coming only after some late game heroics. Spurs will not be taking the edge in goal differential come the end of the season, thanks mostly to some increasingly predictable implosions against the big sides. At times the team feels like a leaky ship, never sinking but with water always threatening to rise.

Tottenham’s problems these past few seasons have had little to do with the defense though. Yes, individual defensive mistakes have cost Spurs dearly in big games. There’s no avoiding that fact. Allow me to suggest, however, that the true problem lies further up the pitch. Much has been made of the difficult overhaul that was forced upon the club by the departure of Gareth Bale. There’s little doubt that his singular abilities and penchant for breaking deadlocks is very much missed at White Hart Lane. His last season with Spurs stands out as perhaps the best modern example of a team hitching their star to one man. Any team losing such a player would face similar difficulties – case in point, Liverpool this season.

I’ll propose an alternate theory however, the true source of the rot was not the sale of Bale ahead of last season, but rather the sale of Luka Modrić one year earlier. Modrić was, in many ways, the central gear in what made Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham such an impressive side. It might be an opinion that has fallen out of favor these days, but for all his bluster and wheeling and dealing, Redknapp accomplished something significant at Spurs. He understood that as vital as a solid defense and a star center forward were, they meant nothing if you could not transition quickly and effectively between them. In Luka Modrić, he had the lever through which his team could go on to earn their first (and thus far, only) Champions League opportunity.

When Modrić first moved from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham in 2008, he was accustomed to playing the advanced attacking role he continues to play for the Croatian national side. At Tottenham, however, he was quickly moved to a role in deeper midfield. He lacked the physicality to man the midfield on his own, but paired with more robust players like Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone, he blossomed. His passing ability combined with his vision to offer a weapon that paired nicely with the speed of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon ahead of him. Retrieving the ball from the defense, he would quickly and accurately launch it forward into the path of the dive bombing Bale or Lennon for them to tee up target man Peter Crouch. It was a system as remarkable for its simplicity as its effectiveness. It stole from opposing defenders the chance to get back to properly track the wings, and bypassed the midfield entirely. Spurs defenders could sit back and absorb pressure, confident that they had the tools ahead of them to exploit the spaces left behind the opposition’s press.

Since Redknapp’s departure at the end of the 2011-12 season, the methodology has changed. André Villas-Boas ignored much of what made Spurs such an effective side and opted for a more fashionable possession-based approach, complete with a high line. Modrić left that season as well, but his absence was little noted due to Villas-Boas’ success that first season. While Spurs missed out on a Champions League spot, they recorded their highest point total of the Premier League era. Unfortunately, that initial success masked the problems inherent in that style of play. While the players adapted admirably to the new system, it began to show cracks by the beginning of the 2013-14 season. Lesser opposition were content to sit back and deny space to Tottenham’s relentless attack and wait for their opportunity to break on the counter or rely on set pieces to win or secure a draw. Even with a half dozen new and capable signings purchased with the Bale money, the side struggled. The declining fortunes of the team cost both Andre Villas-Boas and his replacement, Tim Sherwood, their jobs.

The summer of 2014 felt like it would be the watershed moment. The new signings of the previous year would click and the team would go on to be the force many had been predicting them to be for several years. Again, though, we see the same issues. Even fresh blood in the form of Mauricio Pochettino has thus far failed to break the trends of prior campaigns. The easy explanation is that Spurs were a team that lost a legitimately world-class talent and replaced him with decidedly less talented players. It’s not a wholly incorrect analysis, but it misses what Spurs are actually lacking. Spurs don’t need another tricky winger; Aaron Lennon is still with the team and Erik Lamela is a raw but significant talent. What the team needs is another Modrić. Another player who can orchestrate the initial phases of attack from deep in the midfield, well ahead of lesser teams’ ten man walls. Whether it was Modrić’s departure or Villas-Boas’ tactics, the most significant change of the past few years is undoubtedly the absence of players willing and capable of consistently exploiting the counterattack. Talented as they undoubtedly are, Spurs’ current set of midfielders are not passers. They’re muscular defenders – Étienne Capoue and Benjamin Stambouli – or box-to-box runners – Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. They’re not players especially capable of unlocking defenses.

Fortunately enough, Spurs do have such a player already on their payroll. It’s academy product Tom Carroll, currently on loan at Swansea. Like Modrić, he’s diminutive size masks a talent for distributing the ball, especially over long distances. Such a player as Carroll, perhaps flanked in midfield alongside Bentaleb and Mason, could provide the spark in transition Spurs so desperately need.

It could be that Pochettino finds some success this season with the high-press, possession-based approach he favors. After all, his Southampton side also lacked a player similar to Modrić and played well above expectations. Based on the evidence so far, though, that doesn’t appear to be what the future holds. Spurs have all the firepower they need going forward, now they just need the match to light it.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Chris

    December 25, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Obviously Modric was a loss for Spurs (even more than losing Ted Lasso!). I *loved* watching Spurs play when Modric patrolled midfield for them. However, I just don’t see him as the key to the underperformance since then because I don’t believe they have underperformed. As the article mentioned, they increased their point total the next season. Since 09/10 they have point totals of 70,62,69,72,69. There is no real evidence of any major change (even with Bale leaving). Even this season their current projected point total is 60. I think the loss of Modric was more visual than results based, unless you believe that keeping Modric would have catapulted them into the 75 to 80 point range. There is an argument to made for that but I’m a bit dubious.

  2. GaryC

    December 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    One of the few Excellent and accurate analysis on the web, it is refreshing to read an article from someone who knows what they are talking about, Thank you Ryan.

  3. Ryan Wrenn

    December 24, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Had Villas-Boas gotten the signings he wanted…Moutinho chief among them…I think he might still be with the club. He didn’t have the variety of midfield options he needed and I think that made his tactics a bit static. Unfortunate.

  4. Paul

    December 24, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Absolutely spot on analysis in my opinion, what a shame we didn’t purchase Moutinho when given the chance, can’t help feeling that one signing would have sustained our champions league status

  5. daniel

    December 23, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    agree, modric is pure class

  6. Hickorywind

    December 23, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Tom Carroll is the answer? If only that were true.

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