Harry Redknapp is the quintessential English manager. Working class roots, played football since he was a kid, steeped in the game, worked his way up in management from the lower leagues. Close to his players, he preaches the virtues of hard work and character. He has prospered in the modern era but his teams would look familiar to fans from any era of English football – big men at the back, tough tackling midfielders and wingers with another big bloke up front.
He’s often scornful of tactics, preferring or so he claims, to assemble good players and let them express themselves on the pitch. John Giles, a shrewd man not easily fooled, concurs: “You don’t see him complicating it with big tactics or formations.” Yet our success this year has come about precisely because of a different approach to tactics. Like the players, he’s absorbed a few lessons from our European experience. A couple of changes have made all the difference.
Teams play from the back – get it right there and everything flows. That’s true for us, of which more later, but the crucial difference is up front. Redknapp has jettisoned his faith in a centre forward as target man in favour of mobility. Manu Adebayor is not performing to the best of his considerable ability but he doesn’t have to, because he brings out the strengths of those around him. Crouch was a target for Bale and Lennon’s crosses. Manu is that and more. In particular, his runs open up space for others to either move into themselves or to slide in a pass through the channels.
As a result, Van der Vaart has prospered. Harry has him in a free role, working across the pitch and in the gaps between the opponent’s back four and midfield. He can hang back or make a little run himself, feed Adebayor or a runner, all these and more are possible. Bale is encouraged to make diagonal runs into the box. When all three are firing, Lennon is stretching them wide and Modric is hanging around, any defence will struggle. Before we leave Rafa, note how hard he’s working this year. His ‘ground covered’ stats rival anyone on the pitch when he plays well. He’s no longer a luxury.
The other major development is our centre midfield. Whether they are called a half-back, defensive midfielder, midfield destroyer or ‘a Makelele-type’, English teams have revolved around the energetic, tough-tackling midfield player. Times have changed and Redknapp has moved on. Positional play, the ability to pick up the ball and distribute it, to keep possession until team-mates are in the right place and defence can become attack, these qualities are more valuable at the highest level of the game. Spurs fans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Wilson Palacios but he doesn’t possess these abilities and so, like Crouch, has become part of our past. We know Modric can do this. Now we have Parker too. Both can tackle but that’s a bonus.
The modern game is so much about possession and movement off the ball. The great Italian coach and theoretician Arrigo Sacchi talked about formations but in the end the most important quality was the player’s ability to understand where he was in relation to his team-mates and to the ball. It was as if the game is about thousands of these micro calculations, re-calibrating constantly as the game flows. Put it all together and you have a team functioning as a unit, adapting to the ebb and flow of the match, to the conditions, to the opposition’s pressure or the need to score or defend, and above all to whether or not you have the ball.
Scott Parker is good at many things but this is finest quality. He knows where he should be at any given time. In defence he will shield the back four or slip back into a channel, leaving the defence to mark opponents. He’ll pick it up and wait. Not dither or procrastinate, but wait, a touch or two here, shielding the ball as others move around him. Then he’ll release, short or long, short mostly, keep it moving and allow more time to readjust into attack from defence. No space, well, knock it around, get others moving or move it himself. Sometimes he will inject some pace, either with a run upfield, jabbing strides and low centre of gravity, or with a sweetly timed through ball.
At his best, the game moves at his pace, hums to his tune. Add the traditional English virtues of toil, sweat and tackles and you have the perfect midfielder. He’s been outstanding, both in himself and in the way he gets the best from others. His intelligence means he knows what’s best for them, where they might be and how they want the ball, and again Redknapp’s coaching has been instrumental in getting the pieces to function as a whole.
Last season I said similar things about Luka Modric. Put the two of them in the same team and they complement each other perfectly. I would go a step further and include Sandro, a world-class prospect in my view, alongside Parker. They would lie deeper, although as I’ve implied that’s not a rigid demarkation, with Bale, Modric and Van der Vaart ahead. Lennon would miss out.
This isn’t about straight lines, remember. Rather, flexibility, intelligence, mobility and an ability to respond to conditions are key. All these five can run all day. They will have to, to cover, press and chase when we don’t have the ball. If we are short, one of the two DMs can slide across whilst others make a direct run straight back to cover. This allows Walker room to plunder on the right. If he’s forward, another stays back. Doesn’t matter who, they work it out according to where they are and the positions of their team-mates. Each player takes these same decisions, hundreds of times a game.