With Or Without Him, Spurs On The Right Track

While the media fixate on Gareth Bale’s transfer like a toddler staring at a lollypop in a sweetshop, Daniel Levy is getting on with business. As Spurs approach the new season, it’s remarkable that an £85m transfer is not the most significant development at the club.

Levy’s vision for Tottenham Hotspur has provoked bile-infused debate since he became chairman in 2001. His prudent approach to housekeeping has left us financially secure but perennially short of being true contenders. This summer, things have changed. Roberto Soldado is the scorer, the pivot, the leader, the talisman that we have craved for so long. Like the Holy Grail, the quest seemed never-ending but now the myth has become flesh and blood. It’s unheard of for Spurs to spend £26m on a 28-year-old: Levy has finally got the message.

Levy’s hard to work out. Goodness knows he gives nothing away. I can’t recall more than a single big interview with him in the last ten years. Certainly he’s far more complex than the two-dimensional miser he’s made out to be by his detractors. He’s a fan and like all us becomes conflicted when it comes to major decisions about the club we love. When decisions don’t come easy, he reverts to an instinctive response, and his instinct is business.

Like any businessman he seeks to manoeuvre a situation where he maximises opportunity and minimises risk. Win-win is the ideal, albeit seldom realistically achievable. If not, protect yourself with a fall-back position that ensures a reasonably soft landing. Last summer Harry Redknapp presented a demand for a new contract. Levy saw better value elsewhere and probably felt ‘arry’s ‘art wasn’t in it, still pining for that England job. All in all, not good for Spurs, so HR was sent packing with a flea in his ear.

Andre Villas-Boas was very different. Levy has a mixed record when it comes to picking managers. The last time he took a risk with a guy for whom Spurs was a step up, Juande Ramos, it was a total disaster. Again, he had sacked a manager who had been reasonably successful, at least compared with what had gone before. So this time, he hedged his bets. Cruelly he limited Villas-Boas’ funds in the market, in particular denying him Moutinho, AVB’s man, who would be his leader and lynchpin in midfield. That Villas-Boas took that plus the absence of a proper strikeforce in his stride is a measure of his committment to the club.

This wasn’t Levy being a skinflint. Rather, he wasn’t prepared to take the double risk of a new manager and large expenditure. A poor decision in my view – he should have backed his manager – but to Levy it’s the cold hard realities of business. Now however, Our Andre has proved himself. To DL the investment is worth it. Not only Soldado – Levy has made other funds available for players who provide value. In recent years, Spurs have spent good money on men for whom the club is a step up, who will mature on the field and contribute to the team while at the same time increasing their price in the market should they be sold on. Modric and Berbatov are the two best examples, Dembele and Lloris last season. Not cheap, not youngsters but with their best years ahead of them. Value on the pitch and off it. Win win.

This approach has brought in Paulinho and Chadli plus, it seems highly likely, Caboue. I can only comment from my own observations on the Brazilian, who judging from the Confederations Cup looks a fine prospect, with skill, drive and the physique to prosper in Premier League midfields. Chadli sounds like he will fit right in, a ball-player with pace and versatility, the latter being a significant attribute in any VIllas-Boas team where movement and mobility are key and tactics change not only from match to match but during the game too.

The outgoings and salaries (I strongly suspect the top end of our self-imposed restrictive salary structure has been moved too) will to some extent be offset by the sale of those surplus to requirements, Parker, Huddlestone and Dempsey, all good men and true in their way but note the lack of pace they have in common. Despite this, Levy’s spending is running at unprecedented levels. I admire his unwillingness to get caught up in the crazy upward spiral of Premier League transfer business that threatens the long-term security of clubs who get it wrong. However, his reluctance to fully commit long ago became indefensible. It’s a decisive change that is long overdue and will be heartily welcomed by supporters.

I’d like to think it’s the fan in him that has made him change tack. The passion, the romance, the danger that makes any fulfilling relationship so scary and exciting at the same time, but I doubt Levy has abandoned his principles. To him, there are real returns to be had. At other clubs it’s spending off the scale like a drunken lottery winner. Levy however maintains his dead-eyed stare on the prize. Maximise opportunity – trophies, the Champions League, TV cash – and minimise risk – there’s plenty of value and profit in the squad, plus judging by last season a fair to middling chance of being genuine contenders, if not for the league itself then the top four and silverware. Same equation. It may not be win-win but it’s close enough for Daniel to take the risk. He believes this team can really do something and so do I.

There remains the question of where the money’s coming from. Not bad, a Spurs blog 800 words in and only one mention of the B word so far. Now if you are looking for a prime example of win-win, let’s pop inside Levy’s head for a second. Record transfer fee or one of the best players in Europe stays with us for at least one more season and retains a high transfer value. He’s in clover and from such a position of security will screw Real Madrid for every last euro.

Levy’s handled this very well. As I said on the When Saturday Comes site the other day, amid the media frenzy (have you ever read so much about so little, bearing in mind Levy has said absolutely nothing and there have been no statements from the club?) he has been icy inscrutability, taking his time and resisting the pressure of jumping at riches beyond our wildest dreams. This is how he always is. 85k or 85m, all the same to him. He’s so bloody minded, he could just turn down flat that £85m and allow Gareth to play on.

I wonder if he’s actually decided. Time is key to any negotiation and he must think that’s on his side too. Maybe if they respond with something nearer £100m, he would be foolish to ignore it, especially as it’s unlikely that fee would still be on the table this time next year. Bale may play supremely well for the rest of his career but it’s unlikely that he will ever again match the impact he’s had on the world of football this past season. The shock of the new.

Given Spurs’ sound financial position and the money from the TV deal, I suspect this spending is budgeted separately from any Bale deal. Then again, it is substantial and anyway Real’s euros may be earmarked already, either for the new stadium or to prepare the club for a sale. The I in ENIC stands for investment and they have to get a return at some point.

Call me crazy, call me mad as long as you don’t call me Shirley but I would keep him, although I reckon he will be sold. But then again, for me it’s all about the passion, the romance, the pain and the pleasure that cannot be separated if the heart is to beat that little bit faster. With or without him, Levy and Spurs are headed in the right direction.

Part two of the season’s preview on Friday. Maybe Saturday. Friday probably. The Manager, The Players, the Fans.

The Europa League: A Help Not A Hinderance

Spurs’ qualification into the knock-out stages of the Europa League won’t settle the long-running argument about the importance of this tournament. However, there’s no doubt that this Europa League has been of huge benefit to this Spurs team. In future years, maybe not, but it’s moved the team-building process on more swiftly than if we had not participated.

The theme running through my last few posts is progress. Andre Villas-Boas is closer to understanding what suits his players and is getting the best from them. Many managers make little effort to hide their irritation with the Europa League but for Tottenham it has been a help not a hinderance.

I wonder if it is a generational thing. Games against teams like Maribor that take place in the early stages of each group barely keep the pulse beating, never mind set it racing, but those of us of a certain age still hear echoes of glory glory, however faint. I suspect that they are out of range of younger generations brought up on the Champions League for whom the EL has the equivilent importance of the Anglo-Scottish Cup. Commenters, let me know.

Villas-Boas has taken the bold step of playing strong teams throughout. Granted there’s the danger of burn-out later in the season but right now I can’t recall a Spurs team in recent years that has looked so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. AVB is building a new side rather than scrabbling together the remnants of the old, so what better way to move forward than get them to play together.

He’s seen the Europa League as an opportunity not a threat. Each game is another chance for him to put over his methods and ideas, to enable the players to become familiar with their roles and those of their team-mates. Not everything has worked – there have been some flat-spots along the way – but better to make them in a EL group game than in the glare of the Premier League.

Contrast his approach with what’s going on a couple of miles up the road. Wenger likes a moan at the best of times but their league form is solely down to fatigue, apparently. It won’t wash. Maybe Spurs have better fitness coaches because we haven’t seen any signs of that. On the contrary, the team to a man appear invigorated by the growing realisation that they could be part of something good.

It’s more an attitude of mind. The difference is that the years have wearied Wenger as he creates yet another side without the full backing of his board in terms of buying players of the highest quality. In contrast, Villas-Boas’ desire to succeed burns like an everlasting flame. Without a footballing career behind him, like Wenger the only way he can prove himself is through his team and he has communicated that enthusiasm and desire to his players. They want to play, to play for him, and he deserves credit for getting through to them. Few can now doubt that this is his side, that this young, mild-mannered man is in charge and has the respect of the players. The risk he took in playing virtually full teams in the Europa League has paid off.

Dempsey, a man who needs to fit in more than most, has been played throughout, giving him game time and his performances are slowly improving. More assists on Thursday night. Dawson’s role and the authority of captain meant he wasn’t excluded from the first team action and helped produce those fine Premier League performances when his chance came. Carroll, Huddlestone and Sigurdsson have all had useful time on the pitch, while AVB’s gradual introduction of Lloris to the English game, much derided in September and October, could in hindsight be a managerial masterstroke. Everyone has had some chance, none have been excluded. This is all shrewd man-management.

I wasn’t at the Lane on Thursday but watched on TV. We did more than enough to win without playing well throughout. Just as the jitters set in, class told. We think it’s always us, these periods where we seem to switch off. While we have to cut them out if we are to get close to the final, every other team does it. All the other British sides that I’ve seen have the same inexplicable lethargy at some period, making the games dull to watch. If it helps us learn lessons, then I wouldn’t worry about it. Two-legs ties increase the pressure, let’s make a judgement then.

Villas-Boas and Spurs – Sit Back, Deep Breath, How’s It Going?

Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!

Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon  Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.

To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.

Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.

In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.

If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.

However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency  the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.

So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.

The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders  that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.

That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.

The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around  This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.

But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning.  Against Wigan, we had no idea.

Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond  He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity  Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.

Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.

Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.

I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved  or in the box (although he has improved).

At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.

And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish  I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.

In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.

However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.

Hale and Hearty!! Tottenham. Hale. Hearts. Oh Never Mind…

The pleasure of seeing Spurs play football. White shirts, navy blue shorts, a proper game. That’s all I ask. Not so much the victory, not even its emphatic nature, but just to know that our season is under way and a sense of how we are and what’s to come.

Monday’s cloud of Great Depression, created by an unhealthy combination of high quality mystery drama and an increasing sense of personal anxiety, has blown away. Yesterday’s concern about the media antics of our manager and the conflict at boardroom level won’t disappear so easily but last night we saw that Redknapp has been working hard with his players and prepared them impeccably. A potential disaster became a triumph. An early goal settled the nerves – of the fans I mean, the players seemed utterly focussed – leaving us to relish some breathtaking passing interplay and cracking goals.

Hearts fans must have been disappointed with their team. I don’t watch nearly enough Scottish football to make any sort of judgement on the quality of their league but they must have played  better than this in the recent past. I suspect they understandably haven’t settled under yet another new manager, and their fans deserve credit for their warmth towards both teams at the end.

Opponents don’t have to be on top form to deny us the room to play; we’ve seen that often enough in the last few years. Hearts packed the area 30 or 40 yards out and pressed hard, yet we passed our way around them as if they weren’t there. No big centre forward meant we had to keep it on the ground. Considering this was our first competitive match of the season, the movement and surefooted interchange was outstanding. Van der Vaart moved freely between midfield and their box yet we never looked short up front because there was plenty of support for Defoe. Bale and Lennon provided width without becoming detached and although Hearts lacked any penetration both worked hard defensively when required.

Kranjcar kept things moving in midfield, Benny did the same from the left while Walker’s pace and strength (he’s filled out a bit in the last two years!) kept the Scots busy. All the talk is about his attacking prowess but on two occasions he showed how valuable his speed will be in defensive situations, dashing back to rob attackers plus the timing of the challenge under pressure when he got there. Livermore impressed in the first half especially with a thoughtful, disciplined performance. He’d been well coached in his role; he stayed back when he needed to, always made himself available for a pass and timed his few runs forward perfectly, notably for his sumptuous goal. What a first touch and then quick feet for the shot.

Defoe consistently took up decent positions and let’s hope he’s learned something in the close season. For his goal he found space between the two centre halves and didn’t stray offside. It’s asking a lot to overcome the biggest problem of his entire career.  When they came on, Hudd and Townsend were on the pace and passing well. Lennon’s superb breakaway goal came when Hearts were down but they still had three men back when that move began. Townsend’s pass and Lennon’s run took them out of the equation.

We can enjoy last night without getting carried away. The serious business begins on Monday night, when defensive uncertainty similar to that shown at the start of the second half will be ruthlessly exposed. However, we can only play who we play, and last night they could not have done any more. Above all, the team were purposeful and focussed, organised and highly motivated. Whatever is going on behind the scenes has not affected the team in the slightest. That desire, teamwork and camaraderie, the genuine delight in the moves that led to the goals, that’s why the clouds have gone and sunlight streams.