Time to take stock. Two defeats in 5 days against London rivals concentrates the mind wonderfully but the state of play is best judged over a longer period. As time passes, the fixture list metamorphoses from a series of randomly generated matches into little sequences that within the context and meaning of an unfolding season form intertwining patterns, our DNA of 2010-11.
Disregard our rivals from north London (I’m avoiding the A word as I’m not up to the massive interest from their fans that my last post created via newsnow). Our weakened team was worse than their weakened team – meaningless.
Our first little run was all the ‘W’s and it’s not worked out quite how we hoped. It’s not so much the dropped points – WH (doing it again, see) may have been down the bottom of the table at kick-off but they played really well – but the manner in which we lost them. This was supposed to be the time when, fuelled by the glory and passion of the CL, we kick on. Finished top four so play like a top four side. Instead, we’ve responded to the attention and pressure that success brings by allowing familiar faults to reassert themselves.
On Saturday we knocked the ball around well enough at times. VDV and Luka were creative, finding space and moving the ball on. However, this was undermined by a lack of graft and drive in midfield, a number of below par performances and above all the distinct lack of a cutting edge up front, a sentence that unfortunately also sums up the West Brom and Wigan game. We were pushed back in midfield too often.
I won’t dwell too much on the defence on Saturday. They did not do well, obviously, but we only conceded once, and no team in the country could perform well in the absence of their entire first team defence. Corluka is effectively our 7th choice centre back and Hutton had not started a league game for us for over a year.
What concerns me is the way we come forward with the ball. Crouch’s presence means two things. One, we hoist the ball forward too high and too early too often. As I wrote last week, when the ball is in the air, it’s the great equaliser. At a stroke the skill advantage is nullified. It’s pointless having this talent if all they do is watch the pretty spinning logos on the ball. If it’s neat patterns you want, get a Spirograph.
Two, our strikers are too far forward. Crouch loiters on the edge of the box and this dictates the pattern for the rest of the team. He waits, hangs around, occasionally jogging across the line. It’s easier to defend. Sure, he’ll always win a few but by and large our opponents know roughly where the ball is going to be played.
This isn’t about Crouch himself – I’ve whinged often enough about how easily he can be eased off balance or about his poor close control – it’s tactics. Pav does the same when he comes on, or at least he has done this season.
I’m no coach or master tactician. I simply watch other teams. When they gain possession, the top teams in this country do not push one or two men forward straight away. Rather, they begin their runs from a deeper position. The best aim for the gaps that appear in front of them. They don’t wait to be picked up by the defenders, they make it difficult for their markers to predict where they will go. Coming from deeper, attackers can come short, move across the pitch, run into channels, have the ball played to feet or into the space ahead of them. That’s five options right there, without the inclusion of passes from a wide man going to the byline. Normally we have one at our disposal.
Also, our style means it’s hard for midfielders to push on past the strikers. This is a powerful weapon against packed defences but if they have so little space with which to work – if the strikers are hanging around the edge of the box then they have only the narrow strip between the back four and an onrushing keeper – there’s no margin for error with the final ball.
Against Wigan, Wolves and WH, we made it too easy for our opponents. We’ve played like this all season and, more tellingly, last season as well. Versus Wolves we brought on attacking players who just joined the line dancing 18 yards out, rather than trying to move around, take defenders out of their comfort zone, to make space.
In VDV we have a top class midfielder. He’s so shrewd with his movement and his ability to move the ball on quickly is remarkable. Good control, looks up, one touch and it’s gone. On Saturday and against Wolves, so often that quick ball went in Crouch’s direction. I think he’s been told to do that and it’s wrong. That’s not the best use of his massive talent.
Moreover, even if that is the tactic, leaving Crouch or Pav isolated renders it worthless. There aren’t enough players in the box to pick up on a header or knock-down. We have too many hanging around, instead we need strikers and midfielders to bomb on, hell for leather, get in there because that’s where the chances are.
Defoe looked sharp this year and his injury is a great loss. He’s been looking to shoot early, the old striker’s dictum of getting it on target, and it will be effective over the course of a season. Whatever my tactical rant, the fact is that we have missed a hell of a lot of good chances so far. Huddlestone on Saturday did just what I have been asking for, pushed on past the striker, made space, and missed.
Enough. Nothing about Corluka having all the spring of a tangled Slinky. Or Bale and Hud looking lost. Or Lennon and Keane struggling to find form. Maybe a word of gratitude to Cudicini for his saves. Spurs fans are often accused of having unrealistically high expectations, but the fact is, we have not progressed this season. I’m prepared to swallow the pain of a defence decimated by injury but not a fundamental flaw in the way Redknapp sets up the team and wastes the talent at his disposal.
To be fair, we have not had the full squad available and he’s not had the chance to work out how to play both VDV and Modric. However, pre-season fears that our strikers will not be able to score consistently against the best defences have proved to be accurate. Make that, average defences as well.