It’s started. Prematurely ecstatic over Diarra’s arrival, a couple of days ago a messageboard poster was positively drooling over his midfield selection. ‘Diarra and Sandro as DMs, Modric and Hud further forward with Lennon and Bale on the wings. Can’t wait to see that!’ It took a while before a few people gently pointed out that add a back four and keeper, that makes eleven – a team without strikers. Actually, come to think of it, bit like most of last season
With or without Diarra, it’s the tactics and formation that will be crucial in the weeks and months to come. Redknapp doesn’t do tactics, of course. Just extends Uncle Harry’s Long Arm of Comfort round the shoulders of our lads, and that’s inspiration enough. Go out and enjoy yourselves, boys.
Harry’s done a decent job for us, so why does he have to insult us with rubbish like this? Another example of how important it is for him to cultivate his image as football’s good ol’ boy. And while I’m about it, of all the absurd cliches that infect our game, ‘just go out and enjoy it’ is surely one of the most ridiculous. I don’t want you to go out and enjoy yourselves, gents. I want you to play like you have never played before, run yourself into the ground so your legs are mere stumps at the end of the 90 minutes and lay bare your heart and soul for the badge. If you want enjoyment, join me in the park for a kickabout.
Harry will have hard choices to make, whoever we add to the squad in the next two weeks. Having too many fine players is a good problem to have but Redknapp and his coaches could struggle to keep a large squad content, never mind the fans.
This season poses fresh problems. Although our experience as battle-hardened European veterans will stand us in good stead, any degree of success means a long hard road ahead with the prospect of over 60 matches. Not only that, the grind of Thursday/Saturday will be further disrupted by kick-offs moved to suit TV – Spurs do not have a home game with a 3pm Saturday kick-off until December 3rd – plus long trips into Europe. Winning with a weaker team is an art, one we haven’t yet learned.
I don’t buy Redknapp’s statement about ‘playing the kids in Europe’. We have to go all out to win trophies and can’t take too much of a risk. The Europa League has a tiresome format designed to make money for teams whilst simultaneously sucking all pleasure from playing the game. However, it’s still a big tournament, undoubtedly worthy of winning, and we have a decent chance. I wouldn’t fear any team in that competition over two legs and should go all out to win it without sacrificing anything in our efforts to challenge the top four.
It is asking a lot but such is the pressure success brings and I wouldn’t be without it. This is the key message that should reverberate around and through the whole squad. To be fair to HR, he never said we would play all kids. Naming only Livermore and Townsend, both of whom have League experience and are hardly kids, he knows that his squad has enough depth to operate a midweek team capable of muddling through the group stage. After Christmas, we’ll see where we are. The main danger is complacency. It’s partly the fringe men entering those games with purpose and motivation, partly also about the more experienced amongst them imposing themselves to make the most of their talents. Hud in the centre maybe, Kaboul at the back, Krancjar and Pienaar as attacking midfielders and whoever plays upfront.
However, there are more fundamental issues to be faced. Last season we gave away too many goals because at the back we were too open too often. Some of our covering was naive in the extreme. If I’ve faced facts then so must Redknapp – we cannot play so much attacking football. In the Premier League our priority is to attack only when we have a solid base and if that means sacrificing one of two players to each attack, then so be it. There’s no alternative.
When the team was set up to press in midfield and lie deeper, as against Milan or Chelsea away for example, we performed those roles well. Problems came when we were stretched out of shape when we took the game to other teams, who could then hit us on the break, Blackpool away being the classic instance. If Bale and Lennon both play, they have to not only work back but shift their starting positions to somewhere deeper. Or, only go forward if others are back covering. The fullbacks have to tuck in tighter to their back four when we don’t have the ball. All of which provides a shield for the back four and the centre halves who were so frequently left exposed and vulnerable.
Defending better doesn’t mean being defensive. We have the men to turn defence into attack with the speed that’s required in the modern game. This is what Manchester United do so well. Sitting low on the Shelf, it is phenomenal to watch them and we need to match their pace and purpose – we have the men to emulate them. They don’t run with the ball like Bale and Lennon do so much as run to get onto the ball, moved swiftly into space.
We have to buy a striker who can give us the option of playing on their own up front. It’s essential. Banging the ball up to Crouch must stop. The other requisite for Spurs is width. It plays to the strengths of the team both in terms of men like Lennon and Bale but also the passing ability and vision of Huddlestone and Modric.
The other vital element is possession. We can’t be like Barca but we can follow their example in one sense: keep the ball, because if we’ve got it, the other lot can’t score. It’s not only about skill on the ball, it’s also about movement, ensuring one or two men can always be available to receive a pass. We have the players who are perfect for this. So why didn’t we do that more last year? We could do, for spells only, now let’s be geared to keeping hold of the ball.
So here are a couple of options, assuming that Modric isn’t sold. One is the classic 4-4-2, with Hud or Sandro alongside Modric in the middle, Lennon and Bale wide and VDV off the main striker. Whilst this appeals to me, it’s basically the same line-up that failed to defend well last year, so everyone has to play slightly differently and be more circumspect.
The other option is to get the width from the full-backs. Much as I love Lennon, Walker could offer both the attacking options (coming from deep again) and allow an extra central midfielder who tucks in to allow the full back to come past. Put Bale at full back on the other side and you have more height at the back plus another midfield option, say 2 DMs and still there’s width, and I say this in the full knowledge that if I love Lennon then I adore Benny.
These two aren’t mutually exclusive and we have plenty of options to vary tactics according to our opponents. In some games it may be better to play a defensive-minded fullback, Corluka, behind Lennon, for example.
Three final thoughts. One, in whatever formation Van der Vaart will be crucial. Shrewd and dangerous at the edge of the box, He also offers even more options (stay with me on this one). Whilst he shouldn’t come too deep as he sometimes did last season, that actually is a problem only if there’s no one forward. However, if he chooses to drop back and Bale, Walker or Lennon are hammering forward, that’s fine. We can attack and have men covering.
Which leads on to a second point. Football isn’t played in straight lines. It’s about movement and flow. If our men are clever enough to work on a principle based on knowing where team-mates are, they can vary the options. Men must get forward, men must stay back, but they don’t have to be the same men doing the same thing every time. Flexible intelligence to get the job done, the job (covering, attacking, width etc) being identified with different players doing it at different times, whoever is best placed on the the field at that point.
Finally, and crashing down to earth, set pieces .All this flow and movement doesn’t mean diddly if we can’t do anything from free-kicks and comers. I don’t recall a single goal direct for a free kick last year and we had some pathetic routines that went out with steel toecaps and Brylcreem – tapping the ball cunningly two feet sideways, who would have picked that one up…