This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to list a bunch of stuff, paragraphs, sentences that sort of thing. No attempt to colour commentate and tie it all together with fluidity and analogies. No editing. Just raw notes - with no set agenda. Just the facts the way I see them. Free-styled. It's going to be messy. Probably won't make much sense, but pushed for time so this is a one time 'chuck it all at the blog' session.
If anything, to prove I'm not blind or working for THFC's PR department.
We are 12 (league) games into the new season. Our initial good form at the back aided by clean sheets masked the fact that nothing much was going on up front - even though relying on penalties was a big enough clue.
Had we started to click in forward positions then I'll probably not be writing this.
It's not because of one particular player not performing. It's not even a question of a lack of quality in several key positions. Anyone looking at the squad we've assembled (last summer, this summer) knows there is undoubted quality there. Fickle is football. If you take aside the laughing rival fans most of them were the same melts bricking it in the summer when they watched us spree with decisiveness. Which forms part of the ironic conundrum we now face.
If we streamline a squad, remove players that are not up to scratch and bring in better players to bolster the midfield and attack, then it shouldn't take too long to gel before we see something akin to an identifiable style. Even if it's not perfect we should have a team that is functioning at say 70% rather than a side that hasn't deviated since the opening game of the season.
I'm not going to go back to last season in any great detail but yes, sure, Gareth Bale fixed a problem we had at the time. So was this problem (lack of goals from a forward/striker) one that Andre Villas-Boas wasn't capable of correcting or was Bale's immensity such, that there was no way of holding his talent back - meaning we had to allow Bale to play the way he played (centrally, free-roaming) making him our talismanic 'striker' - rendering a traditional forward redundant. If so, it almost feels like we turned into stepping stone to create a £85M player.
Then again, Bale could not have possibly done what he done had he not been playing with capable team mates. Always felt the whole 'one man team' jibe was petty but when our own supporters are now bringing this up as valid proof of current 'failure', it feels disrespectful to the rest of our squad.
No doubting the fact that there has been good solid improvement with team spirit under AVB post-Redknapp. This was encapsulated by record breaking away form. A winning mentality was instilled, be it one with a less pretty face than the more erratic style we have been accustomed to down the years. Still, more successful on our travels than on our own patch - a problem that still exists.
AVB did well to counter the loss of Modric and van der Vaart (Bale taking responsibility for both by bypassing the necessity to link to the attack by becoming the attack).
Since then, we've improved (perhaps simply continued) our ability to retain possession. The problem is, without a conductor of tempo in the middle there is no release of the ball in the same manner in which Luka gave us week in, week out. There is no creative force deep in the middle, just holding/defensive players or players instructed to play so.
Now, it's probably worth mentioning that we are not set up to play like we did when the little Croatian made us tick. We win the ball, hold onto it, release it to the flanks or play it forward to the 'number 10'. Is this what was meant to be? Is this a very basic outline of what we are seeking to finish up with? 'Aggressive football' is something AVB cited in his very first press conference. We don't have that from game to game, we've had cameos but no starring role.
I ask this because I'm left scratching my head over João Moutinho. An all encompassing central midfielder, be it deep or further up the field - but a player that would have fitted comfortably into a role not too dissimilar to Luka (if not an exact replica).
What we have in the midfield is Sandro - whose role is unquestionably to marshal and dominate. Press and bully. Alongside him it's been Dembele or Paulinho. Here's the first ghost in the Villas-Boas machine. I won't point out the rest - you'll work them out. You've already worked them out.
Dembele and for the most part Paulinho are suffering from the confusion of the dualism that AVB is instructing in preparation for games and then tactically when we set up, home or away.
Before I explain, worth citing the fact that early season (even last season if I remember correctly) we created an abundance of chances - except the stats can lie because taking shots from all angles is hardly a composed, intricate attempt at carving out opposing defences. It's untidy because where the concept to create comes from isn't fashioned with the slick aggression it's meant to. There is also a lack of the more simple 'hit and hope' style of play i.e. get to the byline, cross it, attack the box (although Paulinho testament that this has worked again in cameos).
So back to the middle where all this action is meant to start it's journey to conquer the turf ahead.
Dembele has never truly taken hold of the type of player he is and wants to be. When he runs forward, into attacking areas, he glides effortlessly. Seems like a waste to persist in playing him, anchored in the middle. Okay, sure, I've watched and re-watched games. I'm no tactical expert (go to Zonal Marking for that), I don't attempt to perform post-mortems with a steady hand, I'm more Jack the Ripper than a brain surgeon but I can see when a player might have performed with an under-stated role.
Dembele has had success, involved in the middle, but it's still a waste of his talent if that talent is better served more forward. Paulinho, at the moment, looks shattered. He's more of a traditional box to box footballer but again, he's getting lost having to do too much work deeper in field.
If you have two central midfielders, they're going to need to get dirty, battling the opposing shirts. However, think back to Parker/Modric - Parker won the ball, played it to Luka, Luka either played 1-2's to shift himself and the team forwards or stroked a ball that released players in attack. No need for two Scott Parkers.
Do we have options to mix this up?
Of course. Sandro does what he does, Dembele/Paulinho/even Holtby can offer attacking intent once the ball has been won. Capoue can offer cover for Sandro - if we need two DM's to protect a lead (it'll happen one day I promise you) then the depth is there.
The wings don't work either.
Andros Townsend is a young man, learning his craft, enthusiastic but still raw. Lennon has only just returned. Lamela has only started one league game. Chadli is out of form/injured/I forget. Everything post-Bale is going to look limp - remembering that Bale took seasons to get to the type of form that led to a move to Real Madrid.
The left-wing (with no Danny Rose to gallop down it or for that matter any type of pacey fullback) is not going to flow as well if you've got a grumpy Jan Vertonghen covering it. Both wings are set up to invert, for the most part. This is hardly news to anyone that has watched Spurs and it's been covered plenty of times (here and on countless websites).
- Winger(s) cut in too early
- There is no logic to what happens after they cut in
- Congestion is rife centrally
- There is no movement from other players that allows for something cohesive to play out
- Soldado as a consequence is left stranded and redundant because the only option is for the winger to shoot
- When we do get to the byline, there are hardly any quick, drilled crosses or cut backs
This is basic 101 football - ignored.
We have players playing in positions/roles they are either - not comfortable with or not capable of.
I'm all for patience and for waiting for the side to gel - but there is no set template to gel too, which is why there has been stagnation and why the City 6-0 was a spanking waiting to happen. We can see what AVB wants but what we get isn't what he's asking for.
Yes, we keep the ball really well. Yes, we (up until Sunday) didn't concede goals - but we've turned the art of goal scoring into a task more difficult than finding rocking horse s**t.
Soldado's record (prior to his move to N17) is superb. Check out his goal scoring in La Liga - not just the stats but the style and manner he stuck the ball away. Technically, he has everything we need - except that the way we set up currently, the way we attempt to be playing isn't supporting the type of striker Soldado is. Yes he can hold the ball up, he's had to come deep a few times but this is a waste of someone that can score goals - goals that can be scored if the delivery and service is of good quality. His comfort zone is in the box, attacking the ball. He's a stranger to this simplicity because we endeavour to make if difficult.
The way we are playing, if you strip it all back to the bare bones, it would work if...*if* the players we had we're able to fulfil their given duty. It doesn't work because the players are not quite suitable to the role they've been given, playing in the manner that's been set out.
I'll explain. Or at least try to.
As an example (to get me to where I want to go with this thought process) would be to set ourselves up with a similar system to the way we player with Bale - not saying we need Bale (we do) but for the sake of sanity, we need a catalyst, a game changer. Someone that is the pivotal point of creating something out of nothing. Now this isn't to say this is the perfect formula or even what AVB wants to do or needs to do, because as we all know - if Bale didn't score, we'd be in trouble.
Also - as mentioned - Bale did what he did because of a lack of more grounded creativity (with no Modric and no van der Vaart linking midfield with attack).
So, actually forget Bale for a second. That game changer could end up being Erik Lamela in the long term. Not in the same uber-aggressive manner in which that Welsh kid performed, but still, someone that *is* capable of that bit of magic, that something out of nothing.
Lamela has been held back to cameo appearances, struggling to acclimatise. So what do we do until then? We'll, we can't wait so he has to play and start games consistently so he can truly find his groove in the Prem and strike up footballing relationships with his team-mates. Now to counter the fact we only ever relied on that Welsh kid for goals - Spurs also signed a 'number 10' in Eriksen.
This would mean shared responsibility meaning that the system would be less desperate and reliant on the single player. Creativity would come from two separate areas - a link in midfield to connect with the striker/wingers and that game-changing player to provide that special moment. The number 10 isn't quite a deep-lying playmaker but if Dembele or whomever is able to get forward, there is balance through the spine of the side to provide even more support.
So, to reiterate - this would mean there would be no pressure to look at the single game changer to create everything all of the time.
Returning momentarily to Lamela - if Spurs set themselves up to play EXACTLY how we played with Bale, then the actual forward would have to be a player similar to Adebayor - someone willing to work the channels, play deep and allow midfielders to push forward whilst he pulled defenders aside. The fact we've shifted away from that pattern of play means that it's pivotal to connect with the most forward player.
Any attempt to recreate last season doesn't work from the off because there is no Welsh kid, there is no direct (or indirect) replacement. What we have is a far more rigid structure of two men in the middle two men wide that cut in and one player upfront that stays upfront but never in the right positions.
So if Lamela was on form, he'd attack and cut in from the wing - but that wouldn't fix the issue of our lone striker up top and waiting for the ball.
Sure, Soldado should work harder, try to find those avenues of opportunity, but I've got to be honest, I'm not sure he's meant to. In some deranged way I think he thinks (or he's been told to think) the ball will at some point find it's way into his path. It never does. How can it when the system is so dysfunctional?
We've got the right striker but the wrong formation, or more so the wrong style to allow him to spearhead our attack.
So back to the shared responsibility, Eriksen (not Holtby - I still believe he's better suited deeper or on the flank as a more defensive style of wide midfielder - coming in to hassle and win the ball and with the ability to play clever/disguised pass) was meant to be the answer to our central creative conundrum.
With so many shots on goal and no composed, slowed down vision, Eriksen arrived to fix this. I don't care about the 'he goes missing' concern that came out of Ajax. Check his age. Another kid. He's at a new club so I'm not going to burden myself or the player with comparisons to the past when all that matters is his development at Tottenham.
The failure here is that he wasn't thrown in and played from the off. Again, stubbornness and over complicated preparation from the gaffer. Then Eriksen's injury a massive blow to everyone - player, team, coach and supporters.
With Eriksen we'd have that other dimension of intelligent passing in forward positions. Sadly he has struggled, again, might be a natural bedding in period (hence the protection from AVB) but regardless we don't have him as an option. Even if we did we would still have to work out how to free some space for him to work in. Too often Eriksen was suffocated by opposing midfielders - and our own players running centrally to attack the box. He was however the only likely source to provide us with an edge in the final third. If a player is having a positive impact - do not tinker and drop him to the bench. Would love to have seen Eriksen and Lamela line up together. We'll have to wait for that one.
So even if we pretend that we could set ourselves up to play like we did last season, the forward we have isn't the type of forward that would allow for it. Go back to last season, with Bale so central there was no whipped in crosses for a striker to get onto - so this season with no Bale/game-changer the striker has to be the key. We have to use the flanks otherwise we're playing with nine outfield players.
How does it get fixed?
- Sandro holds, partnered central midfielder supports but also supports attack
- Sandro holds and we play Capoue - purposely having two holding/defensive players to break up play and dominate as we set up for the counter
- Quick release to wings, use pace
- Number 10 shadows the lone forward
- The wingers play wide, to give more traditional service to forward and attacking midfielders but to also stretch space for the number 10 to have more time on ball
- Inverted play can work, if fullbacks over lap - who can also provide crosses from wide
- Inverted play can only ever work if the player knows what he's meant to do and who he's meant to find with the ball
- If fit and available, play our strongest players in the positions they were signed to play in. If we have to gel over the rest of the season we'll have better luck with form if we have our stars in the roles they we're signed for
- Be brave
That's really high level basic stuff.
Obviously, the movement, the cover, where players should run to and attack is why AVB is a head coach and I'm a supporter. The reason it remains a headache is the inverted play won't work the way it's set up at the moment and if it's down to the limitations of the players then - go wide. They can play wide, right?
At the moment, and don't laugh at the irony of this suggestion, we should go back to basics - not only to reclaim some confidence and momentum but to get a taste of scoring goals from open play. We've had moments this season, in cup games, so we're capable of it. Play to strengths even if it means giving up a few % in the possession stats.
What we've seen instead is a persistent reliance in something that can't work because either players are not available, settled or capable.
Did we sign the wrong players in the summer?
No. Take a look around. The players we would have preferred to sign end up at clubs like Chelsea and City. Let's be realistic. We did well, we bolstered in most departments. We screwed up with the left-back position. We have (not privy to any info) mishandled the Adebayor 'situation'. We could have done with a young goalkeeper to understudy Lloris.
Not much wrong defensively, although Vertonghen should be playing central along side Vlad/Kaboul.
If Villas-Boas had two dynamic inverted wingers it might start to look like working. Equally so if we played with two DM's in the middle to destroy the opposing midfielders or one DM and one progressive box to box midfielder, then releasing to the wing or the number 10, who would work with a forward that drops in, almost shadowing each other's movements for the collective good of creating and scoring.
At home, we would not need to play the two DM's against teams we are capable (on paper) of beating by taking the game to them - even if they park the bus, we need crafters rather than grafters.
There has to be expression, if not with individuals free roaming, with the system itself. It has to be flexible and at home - there has to be emphasis on urgent high tempo football to score as early as possible, release the pressure and settle into a more controlled tempo later on.
The system will by nature of its tempo, allow for more expansive play. So if you have specific roles for players - they can still perform them with freedom within the constraints set out. Confused? Say Dembele in the middle, his role is to partner up with Sandro, but when we push forward he is used as an outlet. He can attack the box, look to play a pass - get FORWARD - once he does so, he's free to express. The reality is, he's shackled.
So, we have no number 10. We have Holtby deputising and not looking comfortable. We are still working out the flanks and we have no answer to Soldado and our lack of goals up front.
How exactly does this side 'hit the ground running' from the next game?
Confidence breeds confidence.
If I was AVB I'd release all those constraints and let them play. Maybe not to the point of complete naivety. Just enough for the players to rediscover football with a smile and a swagger. We all know how it works, we've all seen it. We saw it with the Ramos transition to Redknapp. Players, doing what they know best, and doing it better than before. Until the players signed are fit for purpose for the exact role AVB wants them to play then there's no point persisting with it to the point of self destruction.
The rot was deep with Ramos. Redknapp couldn't figure out a plan B. AVB has never truly had a defined plan A. But he's working on it.
If I can see all this in my casual approach as a commoner, then I refuse to believe Villas-Boas can't. If he's that stubborn then we all know how this will finish. I could have listed all of his traits that influence his thinking but then every single football manager could be deconstructed in the same way. Doesn't matter what we think about him, it's the results he produces over his contract that will matter more. He doesn't taking losing very well? How can any of us possibly know how he reacts to it where it matters most - in the dressing room and on the training pitch.
He has to make a sacrifice, a drastic one - because he can not expect his players to play the style and formation he wants with the gaping holes of self belief some of them are experiencing currently.
Still wouldn't let him go. He's our coach, he's the most suitable person to work this out. That's just me. If you see all of the above as evidence of a point of no return then it's not our perception of the game that differs, it's how we seek to handle it that does.
A more condensed freestyle (without my attempts to confuse and complicate matters further) would have been:
We're not scoring
We're not playing well
We don't play easy on the eye football
Supporters are not being entertained
If those are reasons to sack a coach not even two seasons into his tenure, then I refer you back to what I said about perception.
It's not quite right but with a record points tally, best win percentage and that away form it's not exactly wrong either.
Villas-Boas was appointed with longevity in mind. This isn't a pro-AVB agenda making an appearance at the end of this blog. It's common sense. If he was made our coach for the long term are we meant to give up at the first sign of short-term trouble?
All this talk of change is almost exactly what happened last season.