This afternoon my son and I will conduct our regular pre-season ritual. We could have the season tickets posted to us, but instead we opt to travel for 90 minutes to queue up in a portakabin then wander round the outside of an empty football ground. No doubt we will be tempted by some ludicrously over-priced items of tacky clothing. And we will relish every moment, because there’s nowhere else we would rather be. I’m ready now.
Last season’s predictions pondered on the clichéd but oh-so-true summary of the pain and joy of being a fan: it’s not the despair that gets you, it’s the hope. If true, then this term promises to be excruciating, because the hope has never in recent times been greater.
I’m trying not to write or talk about Spurs being in the Champions League. We’re just in the qualifiers, but if thinking about something that has not yet happened is a jinx, then too late. A top European team, at the Lane, under lights, the hairs on the back of my neck are bristling as I type.
This isn’t the pandemic of blind optimism that spreads like the plague throughout football in these two weeks in August. For Spurs, this is reality. We finished 4th on merit. That when the media blather on and on about the top four, they’re talking about us (not Sky, obviously. They awarded Liverpool 4th on an honorary basis). That we will be a target for every single team that plays us. That in every match we must confront the pressure to deliver. I hope the players have come to terms with this because I’m not sure I have. I’m a Spurs fan, I’m not used to this. My emotional territory is wasted promise, dashed expectations and a lack of fulfilment gnawing away at my very soul.
We have a strong squad with several emerging players who can only get better, a good team ethos and above all a growing sense of confidence and resilience. There’s talent and cover in every position and excellence in a few. Harry’s lack of transfer activity has no doubt left him twitching like expiring roadkill but players of the quality we require are in short supply and whilst it is frustrating, Levy is totally right to not panic buy and pay inflated prices for inferior goods.
Anyway, we have been richly successful in the market this year: we’ve kept our best and most coveted players. Modric was Ancellotti’s first choice in midfield but instead he’s signed a long-term contract. Huddlestone, Lennon and Dawson have all signed up over the last 6 months or so. Levy has moved purposefully to do the deals before the window opened. Brilliant business, and a sign of the optimism amongst the squad as a whole. We’re also looking to the future with deals for promising young players like Townsend, Caulker and, today, Dean Parrett.
Nor do we need to sell in order to buy. I’m sure Harry has said we do, and I’m equally certain that he said on another occasion that we didn’t, but we’re used to the bout of temporary Alzheimer’s that hits twice a year, in January and the summer. Our financial position is strong and I would not get rid of any of our current players until we were certain an upgrade was in place. There is simply no need: the demands on the squad’s depth will be unprecedented this coming season.
More of the personnel in a moment, what comes first is the tactics. Harry’s keen on 4-4-2 and has bought the players to put that into practice. That’s his distinctive ability as a manager: he buys men to do a job then enables them to get on with it. So we have the big man/little man up front, a flying winger and strength and skill in midfield.
The rest of the league may not let us get away with this. A few weeks ago I was musing about the effect of the World Cup on the Premier League. The Prem has often been accused of inhabiting its own little environment, oblivious to the changing climate around it, and there’s no doubt that the physical pace of our game marks it as different from, say, La Liga or the Scudetto. However, 4-4-2 was soundly discredited in the World Cup, where most teams operated with five in midfield. Their actual set-ups differed – some had two DMs and 3 further forward, others turned 4-5-1 into an attacking 4-3-3 as soon as they won possession – but they all had 5 in midfield when they did not have the ball and the team with a four, England, were easily outnumbered. The skill factor is nullified if you are overwhelmed, and I predict that many Premier League teams will continue the safety-first trend of last year by using this formation against us.
Two other lessons emerged from the best teams in South Africa. One, midfield players were flexible, masters of every facet of their art rather than just excelling in a single area. For example, defensive midfielders weren’t crunching enforcers, they were mobile, alert and able to distribute the ball once they got hold of it. Their team-mates chased back and bombed forward time and again.
Secondly, possession is the new religion. It’s one thing playing a high tempo and moving the ball forward but in both attack and defence, keeping the ball is an absolute priority. If the opposition haven’t go the ball, they can’t score.
So where does all this leave Spurs? Whilst we proved that we could defend, especially at home (and I have to say our low goals against was a big surprise to me), we’re at our best when we take the game to the opposition and we must play to our strengths. Mindful of our opponents, we can’t allow them to dictate to us. That’s what the best teams do – they dictate the game. This attitude must infuse every stride, every pass, every touch. We are a top four team now.
Build the team around Modric. He has all the qualities of the modern midfielder, a world beater if he scored more but to me he’s a gem. I’d play him in the middle where he can exert the greatest influence on the match but he’s more likely to cut in from the left to enable Palacios and Huddlestone to control the centre. Goodness knows how Wilson coped with the pressure of his brother’s death but this season he must pass the ball much better and stay on his feet in the tackle, otherwise he should make way. Lennon on the right, of course, with a reminder to keep working back. Just being there is often more than enough, it’s not about hard tackling these days.
Kranjcar can slot in anywhere across the middle, again he must track back. Sandro must be seen as an unknown quality to be protected from over- exposure early on, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing him. He comes highly rated.
Last time, the only time in fact, I made a sustained comparison between Jenas and Huddlestone, one of my most regular and insightful correspondents vowed to be physically sick next time he read anything on the topic. Which happened to be when he visited AANP– sorry Michael. So none of that here. I’m happy for JJ to stay, even though I suspect most readers are not, but as back-up, because Hud has progressed, he hasn’t. I expect he’ll be off, though, as will Bentley, for whom I won’t shed many tears. Whoever plays, we must keep the ball better, especially when we have gone a goal up. Too often we let teams back into the game without them having to try too hard.
Bale at left back for me, Benny’s good but not that good. Coming from deep, Bale can combat even the most packed of midfields. At right back, Corluka of all our players disappointed me most last season. I rate him and he’s clever enough to not let his lack of pace be an undue problem. His steadiness allows Lennon freedom to get forward. I expect Hutton is off, Walker looks talented.
In the centre, it all hinges on Ledley’s fitness. Daws will be mighty again and should be captain but he needs pace alongside him. Kaboul may be ready as back up but I can see another player coming in. Gomes is simply magnificent and with Cudicini fit plus the expected arrival of Pietlkosa, we were well served between the posts. When I said I was happy to keep all the current squad, I forgot about Alnwick. Byeeee!
Which leaves the strikers, my main area of concern because I doubt that they have the ability to score consistently against the best defences. None are good enough to play up front on their own, which is a problem for me. Pav is used to that role in Russia but his flashes of brilliance don’t banish the feeling that his consistency in front of goal is not good enough. Crouch is limited, lacking in pace and movement, and if we are trying to keep the ball the temptation to wang it forward is too great when he’s in the team. Defoe’s movement and team play improved for England but he can’t be trusted to do the work on his own, and the same can be said for Keane (not the England bit, obviously).
The addition of a top class striker able to play on his own up front could transform this already excellent squad. I’d go 4-5-1 with Luka behind the front man, Niko could play more often, Wilson and Hudd together… but the whole world is after that front man.
Harry’s solution could be pace. Several of our supposed targets, like Bellamy and Young, are fast and mobile. Add Bale and Lennon….
One dark horse is Gio. He likes to party and was on his way out but had a good World Cup and by all accounts has buzzed behind the strikers in the friendlies. Could this be his moment? He needs some freedom – he’s wasted stuck on the right or left – and he could suit that link up role between striker and midfield, dropping back to help out.
One final point – free kicks. Sort them out. Over 35% of Premier League goals were scored from set pieces last season, but not by us.
And so the madness begins. We’ll do well again this year – you want a prediction don’t you, head says 5th, heart says 4th so 4th it is. Handling the pressure of every single game at the top is a new experience, one that we must learn to love and cherish, rather than shrink away with intimidation.
The exciting thing is, the players who did well last year, Lennon, Bale, Modric, Huddlestone, Gomes, are going to be even better this year, never mind any new signings. They have more to give, I’m convinced of it. And with the addition of a quality lone striker, the possibilities are truly mind-boggling. The only thing that worries me is my unnatural optimism.