The first in a series of pieces covering the 2010-11 season. To follow – the players, the manager, the future.
All Spurs fans are united in the pursuit of success but scratch the surface and the definitions of what that actually means are less certain. It used to be easy – you won something bright and shiny. Failing that, make do with a higher league position than the previous year. That’s all been distorted by the inexorable grip of the Premier League and the Champions League. The prizes still glitter but it’s the income and untold riches of these competitions that put the sparkle into the eyes of chairmen across Europe. In this hall of mirrors, finishing fourth, out of the medals and forgotten in any other sporting competition, becomes the Holy Grail and for many supporters coming 6th or 7th is better than 5th because the goal is to not qualify for a major European tournament.
Definitions may be poles apart but they have in common the same fault – a narrow short-term perspective. Football reflects society: we think it doesn’t because we treasure our own environment of morals and behaviour, fashion and rules but we can’t escape the world in which we live. It’s all about the here and now. We lose sight of our history and how we got here, we just do. Politicians sacrifice the future in pursuit of votes. Why save up when you can use your credit-card? It’s all about instant gratification: we want it all and we want it now. If ever the Premier League needs a tagline, that’s it right there.
Football has become the epitome of short-termism. Managers come and go at the slightest whiff of trouble, despite the evidence to the contrary that two of the most successful teams in the last ten years have kept the same manager for well over a decade. Phone-ins are deluged with fans ready to write off the team after a few poor results. As I write, Chelsea sack a manager whose double last season means nothing because they have only come second in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
To find out where Spurs stand, I’d rather take the long view. I have mixed views about this season. The highs of 5th place, some scintillating football played by world-class players and a run in the Champions League that produced one of the performances of a generation and memories to last a lifetime have been laced with periods of profound frustration. We’ve thrown away winning positions and lost games and points to teams we should have beaten. Given that we have won nothing, the benchmark for this season is the longer-term process of building a team capable of consistently challenging for the league and winning trophies, year after year. Before I’m accused of opting out of the disappointments of finishing 5th or 6th or sinking without a trace in the domestic cups, it’s the establishment and maintenance of a dynasty that I’m after. Nothing much there, then.
Taking this as the mark of progress, the source of the frustration becomes clear. We’ve had a decent season but have failed to make substantial progress. Last season gave us a platform upon which to build and the ecstatic pressures of the Champions League gave us new experiences to take us onwards and upwards. yet that growth has not materialised into consistently better results.
The season has collapsed since we were badly beaten by Real Madrid, despite the reviving victory at Anfield last weekend. On the surface there’s been little discernible difference – we’ve played some cracking football as we have throughout, players like Modric, Gallas, Dawson and especially Sandro have grown in stature. Arguably Spurs overachieved massively by reaching the quarter finals. Dig deeper and that comprehensive defeat was a body blow that left us still standing but dizzy during a mandatory count to 8. Worse, it exposed problems that have been there for the whole season but which that same heady intoxicating run in the Champions League had partially obscured, an inability to score enough goals to kill off inferior opponents.
Compared with last year we are close but not close enough. One places lower in the league, some breathtakingly exciting matches that will live long in the memory and some captivatingly beautiful football. In Modric and Bale we have two footballers to match, Bale still best seen as a work in progress and as such possibly the best prospect in the country but Modric is coming to his peak as a genuinely great playmaker. We’ve also seen one of the great Spurs performances of modern times. away to Milan closely followed by the routing of the European champions. But the table doesn’t lie. Fewer points, fewer goals, too many draws means a failure to mount a serious challenge for any trophies.
Redknapp and his legion of coaches have enabled individuals to develop but have failed to extract the maximum potential from the team. Bale, Sandro, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone before he was injured, have all prospered under HR’s fatherly eye and Gallas has been a revelation in terms of his ability and motivation. However, this improvement has not always been matched by the team. Harry will have a column all to himself later in the week. For now, here’s where the team has not moved forward.
We hold possession much better now, especially when Modric is allowed to play in the middle and run the show. However, a high proportion of goals conceded have stemmed from us giving the ball away under no serious pressure. This should come from experience yet at times we seem as naive in this respect as we were when Ramos was in charge.
Also, we have conceded far too goals by being way over-stretched at the back. Wolves and and Blackpool come to mind. Both were in the bottom three when we played them, both dismantled our defence on a regular basis. The fact is, however unpalatable it may be to Redknapp or me as a fan who glories in attacking football, we are too open too often because of the way we play. The basic tactical set up of two wingers and only one holding midfielder leaves us vulnerable. No one enthuses more about seeing Bale and Lennon in full flight. The brutal truth behind league success is that they have to not just work back every time the opposition have the ball but to be in position between their opposite number and goal. Our centre midfield have to dominate the area in front of our back four. Every time. That requires a fluidity and positional nouse that we did not display on a consistent basis.
Last but certainly not least, our strikers have misfired all season. Crouch, Pav and Defoe are three men whose differing individual styles could on paper have been the perfect blend, a combination for any occasion. In fact, what they had in common was an inability to take the chances that came their way, to master the basic skill of ball-control and to form any sort of meaningful partnership. Every striker goes through a bad goalscoring run but their failure and apparent stubborn refusal to perform the fundamental aspects of a striker’s role has been shocking. At times when two of them have been on the field together, one has seemingly disregarded the existence of the other. No interplay. No one anywhere near Crouch for the knock down. Defoe and Pav watching from the edge of the box as cross after cross whizzes across the 6 yard box. Defoe’s dereliction of duty has been the most consistent element of his season. The marksman in the box prefers to loiter and wait for the ball to come to him.
Three styles but none that suits the rest of the team. Modric and Van der Vaart are world class and put the fear of the Rapture into the hearts and minds of defenders. yet repeatedly they look up and find nothing going on in front of them. No runs to slid the ball into channels, no one bombing in on crosses. It’s not just the fault of the strikers: seldom did our midfielders consistently get past the strikers and run on into the box. Crouch’s mere presence encourages the long far post cross. It’s not a question of what he does with it, although I’d say I’ve never seen someone so tall who has such problems heading the ball except for the existence of Anthony Gardner: it doesn’t make the best of what we’ve got.
We needed a man with the right game to play up front, mobile, good movement and aware with a good touch who could score a few goals, not necessarily masses but enough, and bring other players into the game. The failure was not in January when Levy suddenly put up huge wads of euros in a belated, desperate and ill-fated attempt to sign any La Liga striker but back in the summer, when more players are available. No one wants to part with their resources in January. Redknapp was blind to the self-imposed restrictions of his strikeforce. Although I reckon he’s been disappointed with the form of JD and Crouch, his favourites ( he’s never liked Pav), he severely underestimated their ability to score consistently at the highest level. I suspect also that his scouting network is not as well developed for top class players as it was when Comolli was here.
The factors holding us back are not all of our own making. Although Liverpool have declined, Manchester City were always favourite for 4th once they moulded their highly paid and under-motivated squad into anything like a team. We can’t compete with their resources and the players it brings.The fact that a lack of cutting edge in the recent away game prevented us from defeating them shows how well we can play, despite their advantages.
Also, other teams now have a better idea of how to play against us. I don’t set much store by Redknapp’s public spouting but I was hurt on Bale’s behalf by his manager’s recent offhand dismissal, saying that one of the reasons why we didn’t not do so well in second half of the season was that he was not at his best, neglecting the fact that he has two or three men on him every time he gets the ball. Inter showed what happened if you left him alone, Europe didn’t make the same mistake again. Under the circumstances he did remarkably well. Teams exploited the weakness I’ve mentioned above, crowding us out and pressing high up the field so we couldn’t play out of defence.
One final area for development is squad rotation. We need to learn how to handle the modern imperative of players coming in and out of the team without a noticeable reduction in performance quality. This is vital if we are to have a tilt at all the competitions next season, especially the Europa league where muddling through the group without knackering the best players by December is an art-form.. At Fulham in the Cup the changes were disastrous.
Despite these issues, I refuse to be bogged down in negativity. I’ve enjoyed this season. The focus on the frustration comes from a recognition of what we are and what we could be. That sublime football allied to a committed team loyal to the club (few men can be accused of a lack of effort this year) and a sound team spirit has produced a good final league position and lasting memories. We beat Inter and Milan, beat Arsenal, the pulsating home derby . An ‘I was there’ moment is surely the ultimate accolade and there were many this season. I will forever remember Bale and Modric in their pomp, or Sandro when he was just a fledging prospect as opposed to to world-class centre midfielder that he will surely become.
Yet it is precisely the fact that this squad is the best of the last twenty or thirty years that highlights the limitations in our progress, because what could have been and could still be, is frightening. Redknapp needs more time to build on what we have. The addition of one or two players could take us higher, three or four and it’s almost too much to bear. We have an understanding of the resilience and mental application that is required to be a success at this level and it would be criminal to waste that insight next season. Build on what we have. Consistency and evolution are the key, not wholesale changes and certainly not at the top.
The best teams can hold it together without playing at their peak. Preparation and training are all fine and good but are wasted words: the only way to learn how to withstand the pressure of winning every week at the top of the league and in Europe is to be there.
Yesterday Harry told told us this was as good as it gets. Well actually old son, actually no. When I applauded the team on their lap of honour yesterday, I meant it. They’ve done us proud and I’ll be forever grateful. Equally, i know it can get a whole lot better.