Unlike other games where the implications take time to sink in, losing at Wembley has its particular horrors. As the infernal shuffle towards Wembley Park tube grinds on, there’s nowhere to go. Nothing to do except look at the back of the head of the person who will be in front of you for the next half an hour (if you’re lucky) and absorb the burden of defeat. The manner and margin of Sunday’s beating only made things worse.
The wait was enlivened by cries of defiant loyalty from a few brave souls. I joined in, once. I really am in that number but it didn’t make me feel any better. The group then struck up a chorus of ‘Thursday night, Channel 5’. I think it was directed towards a small group of Ch****a fans, so delighted with their team’s triumph that they couldn’t be bothered to hang around in the stadium to celebrate so they had become mixed up with us, those Spurs who had not fled the scene before the final whistle. Equally, it could have been a bitterly self-deprecating comment about our own season where hopes that so recently had been bright and buoyant were sinking before our very eyes. The way things are going, come mid-May we might be grateful for a place in the Europa League.
Things aren’t that bad – the 5 games remaining are an opportunity for redemption and we have the ability to get enough points to hold on to 4th at least. However, it’s not just the lingering Wembley blues that cast a gloomy shadow over our prospects. Make no mistake, despite the brave media statements this week about squad unity and determination, beatings like this affect players at the best of times, on top of which key men are off form and recent tactics have left us vulnerable. The side look knackered, overplayed, physically and mentally weary. It’s hardly the best way to approach the season’s climax but you can at least understand why the legs are aching. Our biggest problem is why this description also applies to our manager.
Just when we need firm, decisive leadership, Harry Redknapp is left to rue the consequences of poor decision-taking in the recent past that you might expect from a rookie not a veteran. He revels in the role of wily old fox, seen it all, takes it in is stride. In reality, he’s never been in this position before. The years of experience have prepared him for most things in the game but not this. Being near the top of the league and in a cup semi-final is virgin territory for him and much of what he’s learned in the past is no preparation for the long season’s crescendo.
Like Harry, I’m not a big fan of squad rotation. However, it’s essential in today’s athletic, physically unforgiving game. I’ve been converted partly by the example of other teams – look at how Fergie makes changes for no apparent reason, until that is United come with a flourish this time every year – and partly by watching Walker and Bale at close quarters from my seat on the Shelf. Both are highly motivated and superbly fit. I can assure readers that it isn’t a question of not trying as both have played on through injuries on several occasions this year. Both would run themselves into the ground for the team, I’m convinced of that, and frequently do. Those punishing runs up and down the line are a regime that would deter the hardest 400m runner in training. Both are exhausted.
The same goes for Scott Parker. If determination alone were sufficient, he’d run all day but he’s weak through over-work and has never been the same since his seemingly innocuous leg injury earlier this year. Redknapp has put his faith in these key men, turning to them repeatedly as every game becomes vital, but faith isn’t enough. Other teams use sophisticated technology to measure fitness levels and I assume Spurs can too, but Redknapp’s response is as about as modern as the magic sponge.
Granted he’s been unlucky with injuries. Huddlestone has become the forgotten man while Sandro, a man to offer defensive cover and midfield momentum, has never regained match fitness. His loss has been a huge blow because then Parker and Modric could have rested. After it happened, I wrote that Dawson’s injury could be a season’s turning point. Instead of a tough leader, an international, as centreback cover, we were forced to give Gallas and Nelsen too much responsibility. With Ledley’s legs finally giving up, we looked so vulnerable. I’m afraid I was right.
What concerns me more are the problems that we created. Corluka’s move left us with no alternative for Walker. Walker is now knackered. Pienaar’s versatility and experience made him a far better option than Krancjar whose play when we don’t have the ball is shoddy. I reluctantly accepted than no one of the required standard was available to buy in January but these unnecessary departures have made the combination of squad rotation and winning impossible.
When it comes to analysing a season, it’s tempting to seek turning points. For me the best of our play, though not the best game, was encapsulated in the second half away to Manchester City where we pulled back a two goal deficit then denied them any sort of an opportunity for 15 minutes before Defoe’s boot was a millimetre away from a famous day. However, if you want a defining moment, try the announcement of the sheet for the cup-tie at Stevenage.
Three at the back to combat a Division One side. That not only sent a negative message to our players, it was also a case of over-thinking the game. Although we never repeated that formation, it was the first in a series of tinkering alterations to our set-up designed to outwit our opponents but in fact succeeded only in unsettling our own players. Comfortable with one up front, a man (usually Rafa) linking midfield with the striker and another 4 in midfield itself, it didn’t matter so much if we went for the 4-2-3-1 that I think suits us best or two wide players. The players knew what to expect and it brought the best from them. That’s Harry’s great skill. The fullbacks offered width, the front players had room to move, the tempo was bright and we passed the ball brilliantly. The man on the ball always had support, always had an option.
Yet Redknapp changed it. Two up front and taking the game to the Ars***l was a disaster for us and transformed the season of our biggest rival for third place. Modric spent time on the left when he had done so well in the centre. By Norwich at home, HR still hadn’t learned his lesson and publicly focused on his weakness in saying he knew the set-up wasn’t right but he went ahead because others said it was best for us. A slight change on Sunday with Rafa dropping deeper but we were still too open.
If it were any other manager I’d talk about naivety but this is Redknapp. Ironically our best performance lately was probably away at Ch****a, where we kept it boring but tight, and could have won on the break. That’s what you do, make sure you don’t lose ground to your close rivals. Same at Liverpool away – boring but a point. But at Wembley that was ignored in favour of another shape.
This guff about Redknapp not being tactically astute is all part of the Uncle ‘arry myth that I have never had time for, way before he was even a gleam in Levy’s eye. His Tottenham team has evolved, perhaps not as quickly as I would have liked but he’s stabilised us then dumped the big man up front approach in favour of the pass and move sensations that we enjoyed for so many months. His team, his tactics. I’m not up for this Redknapp is rubbish business that’s going around. This blog has unfailingly but constructively pointed out his failings but he got us to where we are and we should not forget that. Redknapp made all that happen and he deserves full credit, the best side since the Double it was said, but recent changes have undermined all that. Forgive me if I remain bewildered as to why he made them.
Twelve points from 15 may be a realistic target. Of the remaining games, Saturday’s is the most tricky. Rangers have some decent players, a reason to play and a manager who will tell his men to knock us about just like his Blackburn used to. There may be no way back, however, because the players have picked up their manager’s lack of resolution and confidence is draining.
I doubt that the England business has affected Redknapp as much as the aftermath of the court case. Although he won, we can barely imagine the strain. After the case, I wrote about how people under great stress use it to keep to themselves going but when it goes, they find it much harder to stay focussed. Relief is a less powerful motivating force than the determination to prevail.
I hope Harry rediscovers his mojo. The signs are not good. Today he’s said something about hoping Chels get through because it means another game for them. Doesn’t he know that if they win the Champions League, 4th place does not qualify us. These 5 games are amongst the biggest challenges of his career.
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Who is this former Spur? His job before he joined Spurs gave a big clue to his playing style – what was it?