The frustration of the downturn in our form in the New Year should not obscure the progress Spurs have made this year and indeed since Harry Redknapp became our manager. However, we have entered another phase of his regime, one where his leadership skills will be tested severely.
Redknapp deserves full and unreserved praise for extracting us from the apparently bottomless trough of steaming putrid filth that was the Tottenham team in October 2008. As he never stops reminding us, ‘Two points from 8 games’. The team set to and upped both their work ethic and ability to score. Then we entered 2009 and phase two, where just as the new manager bounce lost its elasticity, his heavy investment in new players gave the crazily unbalanced squad he inherited some much-needed equilibrium. In particular, the purchase of Wilson Palacios provided a midfield foundation upon which a team geared to the demands of Premier League football could be built, whilst the return of Keane and Defoe offered striking power and experience.
The dawn of phase three could be the beginning of this season but I would put it a little later. After a month or so, we were right up there, which I suspect surprised both the fans and Redknapp. We played good-looking attacking football and the rise of Aaron Lennon as a major force, much of which is down to coaching, ran parallel with our rise up the table. However, as the pressure of raised expectations increases, Harry needs to act to maintain this momentum and halt our gradual slide down the table. Phase four begins, and Harry’s acumen will be tested to the full.
A graphic of Spurs’ development under Redknapp would take the form of a steady upward curve but Harry has had to build three teams in his comparatively short time with us, not one. The first got us out of the relegation zone, the second targeted the top eight and the third is or will be to challenge for the top four. Those are three connected but separate tasks. Obviously there’s an overlap of players and some qualities in common but we had to build up from the bottom. Phase three demonstrated a potent attack, creative midfield and a mean defence. Unfortunately they’ve seldom been on display at the same time. We rejoiced as the goals flew in and the passes pinged around with pace and certainty, then were quietly satisfied in the midst of one of the longest periods of not conceding in the club’s entire history. But now we have a few problems. We’re stuttering rather than coming to a grinding halt so that in itself holds some grounds for continued optimism, implying that some running repairs are required rather than scrapping the whole model and starting afresh. It also gives Redknapp an asset more precious than a bulging transfer budget or supportive chairman – time. Not a massive amount but some. We’re doing OK but the remedial work needs to begin now.
The biggest issue is that basically we have been sussed. Work hard, close us down and we don’t know quite what to do. That can be worked on, but the most concerning aspect of the last two games, both away admittedly, is the players’ response, or more accurately the lack of it. Against Wolves and Bolton they weren’t ready for the struggle. Here are a few words from Jermaine Defoe after Sunday’s game, taken from the official club site:
Jermain Defoe revealed the lads were on the end of a rollicking at half-time at Bolton and admitted: “We deserved it.”
Players and management alike conceded that we were second best in the first half of Sunday’s FA Cup fifth round encounter at the Reebok Stadium….”We had a bit of a rollicking at half-time and we deserved it because we didn’t compete in the first half.”
Post-match comments from players and managers seldom carry much perspective or weight, so it’s a little unfair to attribute undue significance to these. However, it’s what has gone unsaid that it important. Why after failing so ignominiously against Wolves did we kick off with such a poor attitude at the Reebok? We failed totally in terms of application and motivation. Also, the rollicking was undoubtedly well-earned but there was no response whatsoever at the beginning of the second half. We carried on exactly where we left off and were lifted not by the manager’s words but by a Crouch header. In other words, here is some evidence that Redknapp’s motivational skills, legendary in the minds of a sycophantic media corps, are on the wane.
Another snippet from Sunday’s press coverage was Bale’s comment that we don’t practice penalties, to which could be heard the sound of Spurs fans up and down the land shouting as one, ‘Why not??!!’ Only Harry knows. There’s an old saying in sport that the great coaches pay attention to the details, to the little things, and here’s an example of us failing in that respect.
Now when things aren’t working on the pitch, all teams need a plan B, which brings me to another problem. There was a frightening stat that I saw last week about the team that plays the most long balls in the premier league. Know who it is? Tottenham Hotspur FC. Again it’s unfair to read too much into this. I assume the figures do not differentiate between a wild hoof from the back or an aimless whack from midfield, a precision 40 yard through ball or a cross from out wide. I expect those masterpieces that Glenn Hoddle came out with most matches would be consigned into this category. Other stats show we pass the ball more than any other team apart from the top four. But anyone who has seen us lately knows that we play the long ball to Crouch far too often and as the pressure builds up it is fast becoming our main offensive ploy. Some of us are finding it extremely offensive. Apart from the aesthetics, it does not work. Crouch is too easy to defend against even when he plays well.
Time then for plan C, time unfortunately for the last problem that can justifiably be laid at Redknapp’s door. We don’t have a plan C. Keane is gone, at least for the time being, so it should be time for Pavlyuchenko to step up. He’s mobile, wants the ball to feet, does not want to play with his back to the goal all the time and, when he’s on form, can take his chances. However, Redknapp has always neglected him. He’s not fit, has had little game time and has been on the receiving end of his manager’s scathing ‘wit’. In short, he’s not a ready-made alternative, largely because Redknapp has never handled him well. Whilst he’s not the saviour that some portray him as, I’ll like to see him play because we need a striker with precisely the above qualities, but it requires a big change in our current tactics. We should have been more prepared for this, or not presumptuously have disposed of Keane.
I was not a huge admirer of Redknapp before he come to Spurs so I’m not an instinctive supporter of his. I judge him on his record and he has done well for us. Despite the problems I deserves more time because in terms of building a top four team, 18 months is not that long a stretch and the good he has brought to the club easily outweighs the bad . He’s taken us on from an awful place and has created a good squad of players. It’s hard not to link the tax and court case with our recent tribulations, and he needs precisely the mental fortitude we are seeking desperately in our players to get us through this bad patch. He’s made some mistakes and phase four plus the High Court is a dual challenge he may not have been prepared for.