The Magnificent Seven - Deconstructing the Tottenham midfield conundrum - Part I
Palacios. Modric. Jenas. Zokora. Huddlestone. Taarabt. O'Hara. Seven players. One massive conundrum, as puzzling to us in the same way a Rubik's Cube would be for a blind monkey. Why do we persistently struggle with the central midfield pairing and how do we go about resolving it? Signing Wilson Palacios might allow for some sustained consistency but who is best paired up with him? Where should Modric play - central or left-wing? Can Jenas ever offer us whatever it is he's meant to offer? Is Huddlestone too slow to command first team selection and have a team built (orbit) around him? Has Zokora found his true calling elsewhere in the starting line-up? And what of Jamie O'Hara and his big Lilywhite heart but limited abilities?
Where do we even begin to unearth the answers? Most of the questions might be redundant come the summer anyway as Harry chops and changes the team to his liking. But the fact remains we find ourselves in this current predicament and a working partnership still needs to be formulated in the centre of the park.
So let's go back in time a little bit to where it all began (to go wrong).
Why is it such a monumental task of impossibility for our little club in N17 to plug the gaping holes? There's no doubting our efforts to plug said holes. We throw money into them. In all the years we've been crying out for a true left-winger, we've done the same with our fabled dreams of a defensive midfielder. A 'most wanted' player to marshal the centre-park with authority and menace. We've never really managed to pick up either. Capable players have worn the Lilywhite shirt (Mendes) and others have struggled with injuries (Sean Davis). Whereas some have been below average (KPB) or far too erratic (Ghaly).
Carrick of course was never an out-and-out 'DM' himself when at the Lane. He does have some wonderful defensive capabilities. His knack of nicking the ball away before the need to tackle is something many of the overly passionate missed in his early Spurs days when it was simply easier (and incorrect) to bemoan his apparent lack of getting stuck in. Carrick would sweep up and orchestrate proceedings as he assisted the team to push forward with intent. His passing was (is) top drawer. He positively glowed with quality. Hence his departure to Manchester United and guaranteed winners medals.
Our sun had gone supernova and replaced by a black hole.
So who did we turn too in our hour of need? Carrick was spellbinding for us in his final season, which saw us famously lose 4th spot at the death. We got around £18M - £20M for him. He wanted to leave, he made no secret of the fact, and never lied about it or his ambitions. With Davids having added bite and experience to our midfield that season, we had what you might consider to be a backbone. A pretty decent one. It was no surprise to see us perform so well.
Throughout my life as a Spurs fan, the club (on the pitch) has been defined simply by the following:
- Flair players, with shirts tucked out
- Free flowing, beautiful football
- Loads of Cup silverware
- Bit of a soft touch (i.e. no backbone)
The spirit of a David Mackay or Graham Roberts has been missing from our starting line-ups far too many times over the past decade and a bit. We've much preferred to splash money out on what people (fans and the media) expect from us. Luxury players, who are only luxury because the rest of the team structure lacks the right amount of balance to accommodate them. Superfluous signings are quintessentially Tottenham when something far more basic and unsexy is the sometimes the answer.
Obviously, I'm exaggerating a little with that assessment. The likes of Ginola and Gascoigne are definitive Spurs players and I'm glad we saw them in a Spurs shirt. But there has been times when we've had players worthy of winning silverware but no backbone to support them. Which is why as a soft touch we never appear to do much in the sustained challenge that league football offers.
Considering we have an outstanding tradition in playing football (in the purest sense of how football should be played) and a ridiculous list of uber-talented players dating all the way back to the 1950's - you can probably ask yourself what if someone had built a Spurs side that combined the best of both worlds rather than always siding with the romantic notion of beautiful football?
It's easy for anyone to say 'what if' and then lay claim for the missing pieces of the jigsaw. We got away with the gaping holes until mediocrity reigned supreme and injections of a Ginola or Gazza were not enough to see us progress (other than Cup Final wins) so we stuttered through the mid-90's and into the new century badly lagging behind the Top 4.
The renaissance under Martin Jol was an indication that plugging in the right players means things can tick along splendidly. One player out of synch could result with the whole team being lopsided. And once that happens, it can so easily come apart.
So with Carrick gone, the replacement had to be one of two things. And this is just an opinion, as I'm sure some of you will have your own:
1) A direct replacement
Obviously, finding a Carrick clone was never going to happen. But drafting in a similar style of footballer (a good passer of the ball, good vision, good defensive qualities, steady, reliable and consistent) was an option. If one could be found. There wasn't it seems any available in the UK that fitted the bill, but that's going on the assumption that Comolli and Jol were looking for a player of the exact same ilk.
2) An out-and-out defensive midfielder
DM is arguably interpreted in many ways depending on personal opinion. Is a DM the same thing as a holding midfielder? Well yes, except you'll still hear people say that Carrick is a combination of both or more so the latter with one or two offensive weapons in his locker (ooh) too. Even though, fundamentally both have a duty to protect the defence and to help out the midfield and forwards. So a DM is the same as a holding midfielder. Right? It's just a different descriptive label for the same thing. Right? The reason I'm banging on about this is because of the amount of discussions/arguments I've heard debating the differences between certain players who play in the central midfield position that is not the attacking position (catchy). If you get a player who does more in said position than the next bloke, it's probably because he is simply a better footballer.
Much like House music is broken down into countless genres and sub-genres, the same could be applied for this much maligned midfield role. Carrick would fall into the Progressive House category. Plenty of peaks and layers, bringing them together to drive forward some good solid movement.
For the sake of this discussion and article, by out-and-out I'm simply referring to the Roy Keane stable of midfielders. Loads of bite, someone you can count on in a battle and (to retain an element of the Tottenham way without going off in the complete opposite direction - i.e. Robbie Savage) a player who can pass the ball. Offence is the best form of defence, right?
Now this basis of the exact type of player required to fill the void will be the responsibility of manager and director of football. How do Spurs push on from here with minimum impact to the teams performance? Carrick is gone so do we want to continue playing the same type of system or do we have to adapt accordingly? It's the latter. Simply because every player is unique. Not trying to teach you to suck eggs with that particular understatement. No matter who or what you bring in as a replacement, the team balance will alter from 'ever so slightly' all the way down to 'Oh my God the humanity!' depending on the choice.
We don't have the obvious quality that Utd and Liverpool and Chelsea have in this 'DM' position. So when we lose a player like Carrick, its a serious issue. Arsenal have struggled this season with their obvious lack of depth in centre midfield. And going back to when Carrick departed, we had to make sure it was not detrimental to the teams progress.
Hmm. Yeah. I know.
So basically - the replacement would either be a 'conductor' who could still get forward and create something either with a pass or a dinking run as well as completing his holding role or a more traditional DM who would get stuck in, bite the ankles of opposing players and generally do all the dirty work and graft allowing the more skilful creative players the time, freedom and space to do their thing.
What Jol and Comolli did was sign Didier Zokora.
Zoko had performed with much acclaim during the African Nations cup. He looked good and at £8M, a steal. Here's someone who appeared to have an abundance of energy and authority. Could tackle and thus although not as subtle and clever as Carrick - still a player with some midfield clout. The one evident (and worrying aspect) was his passing. Or lack of. Add to it his lack of goals also. But many still saw this as a major coup.
So there was no direct replacement for Carrick in the strictest sense of the word. Didier and Michael might be grouped under the DM stable, but both are very different which meant the team would need to adapt and evolve into something a little bit different. But such was the importance and productivity of Carrick, Zokora was always doomed to fail.
If Didier Zokora was House music he'd be Minimal. Repetitive glitches and bleeps and some sporadic melodic moments now and again.
What we have at the present moment in time is a nifty little dancer who is infinitely better at right-back than in central midfield. I'm not blaming Zokora for the teams frailties. He was apparently (if you believe the press) courted by several 'big clubs' before accepting our offer. I spent the first season making excuses claiming 'he needs time to bed in'. He was no Carrick (who also took a little time to settle the nerves of the Spurs boo-boys) but he was also not the player many had watched and admired at international level. He was at times clumsy in his manner.
Zokora doesn't appear to excel at anything in particular when tasked with bossing the midfield area. Yes - he has put in some outstanding shifts in his time at WHL including a purple patch or two. And even recently he appeared to improve (possibly the arrival of Wilson played a part in that). But he can't pass the ball to save his life and his positional sense is poor and, well, he isn't the best tackler of the ball either. He simply doesn't dominate the midfield in any way that would help support the players around him. Now that might have a lot to do with the fact that Spurs always have a mish-mash of players that don't quite compliment each other. Bit like building something you see on Blue Peter with random items you'd usually just bin. Ends up looking snazzy, but at the end of the day it's just made up of rubbish.
And as Carrick famously stated, players at Spurs (during his time) didn't do their utmost to improve themselves by competing with team mates. So Zokora has never actually improved in any way since signing. Whether that's because he can't or because the Tottenham Disease is still evident, I don't know.
As mentioned earlier, it's not the fault of Zokora. And his effort can't be faulted when he is on the pitch. Great athlete. In a more disciplined position like right-back where his responsibilities are more defined, he has been a revelation. He can defend, work well with his team mates, and push forward with intent.
So why can't he do the same in midfield? Simply put? Didier has no footballing brain. The engine room of the team doesn't just need a grafter, it needs someone who can finely tune the nuts and bolts and unclog any parts that stop working. Zokora spends far too much time on a tea break. Sure, we love it when he just runs forward like an unstoppable locomotive. There are aspects of his play you almost admire and smile at. But its endearing and not exactly the foundation to build your midfield on.
Making things doubly difficult during this period of change was that as lauded as Carrick was for his holding play, he was far more than a guardian of our defence holding back the freedom for opposing players to run amok. He was also a deep-laying playmaker. By virtue of defending, he'd set our players off in the opposite direction. His Hoddlesque passing and quick thinking made us tick. When he left for Utd, we didn't just lose one player. We lost the man with two brains and gained a man with half of one.
What happened next? Not a lot.
Part II will follow in the next couple of days with a look at JJ's role in the Spurs midfield.