Not Tonight Sandra, I've Got A Headache

guestblog by chrisman


Sandra Redknapp is going to have a lot of time to catch up on her knitting over the next few
nights, because her husband Harry has a case of what's commonly known as 'selection headache'. Usually he's a sexual tyrant, but recent events have given him a bit of a 'narky miff' and left him unable to 'smash it' with any real conviction.

Now that we've all calmed down and had a chance to think about Tuesday's Triple Epic-Burger, a few things are becoming clear. One fact, lost in the ethereal San Siro mist, was that it was our first away win in this season's Champions League. Actually, it was only our second away win in the competition, ever (the other being over Feyenoord in 1962-63).

More importantly, the win was based on the defensive stability that served us so well in reaching the Promised Land in the first place. These may not seem like things that would normally give you a headache, but when Harry starts thinking about why we were suddenly so solid, he might come to some troubling conclusions.

So what was different from the away days of Bremen, Enschede and Milan last year? The obvious answer is that the Gallas-Dawson axis is now in full effect. But that doesn't explain the often-frantic defending and lack of shape and discipline against Sunderland, Blackburn and Everton (to name a few). Nor does it explain it's absence in Milan on Tuesday.

Sure, the players raised their performance levels for the big one, but if there is one thing you can't really accuse Spurs of these days, it's lack of effort in the 'smaller' games. The commitment is there. But the stability of last year is not. King has been a big miss, but we have a good replacement in Gallas. Huddlestone's absence has been more keenly felt, simply because no one has been able to adequately fill his shoes. Until now.

Sandro, please step forward. You are the man to pick up the gauntlet laid down by Big T's vastly-underestimated defensive displays. People tend to throw around, in a willy-nilly manner, all kinds of comments about Tom's defensive abilities, or lack of them. 'He's slow, lumbering, lazy, a big girl's blouse'. Well willy this nilly - he's a bloody good defender.

We sometimes forget that he started life as a centre half. He has an ingrained defensive nous that other midfielders will never have. He instinctively knows where the centre-half wants him to be. He knows how and where an attack is going to develop. He knows when to tackle and when to jockey. And as well as Wilson and JJ have played at times this season, neither of them will ever have any of these abilities. Physically, they have it all. Technically, they are excellent. Mentally, they lack that extra couple of percent of discipline, concentration and decisiveness that separates very good players from great ones.

JJ and Wilson are both at their best when they are running, and using their fantastic pace and athleticism. But when your main role should be as a shield to the back 4, it's often best to restrict your movement to a few square yards. To really work effectively as a unit with your 2 centre-backs, you have to be close to them and move with them. JJ and Wilson are too erratic and spasmodic with their positioning and movement. Both could potentially work well in a 2 or 3 man midfield, but with someone to sweep up behind them and allow them to maraud around the pitch.

Sandro on the other hand is at his happiest about 5 yards in front of the centre-backs, ready to make a challenge outside or clearance inside the box. When people talk about the Makelele role, they usually associate it with passing and starting attacks. What they often underestimate is the selfless and disciplined nature of the role. Rarely should you pass the halfway line (an attitude people criticize Big T for having). Even the full backs can get forward more. Sandro loves doing that grimy, filthy defensive work.

Against AC Milan, with Sandro match-fit, bedded-in and playing well, we comfortably repelled their attacks. Ok, there were a couple of headers, but we followed the tried and tested template of last season - sit back, let the defenders defend, and hit them on the break. Apart from the 2 headers, Gomes was untroubled. We kept them at arms length on the edge of the box. Calm, controlled, clinical. The compact triangle of CBs and DM could not be penetrated by the trio of Ibra, Robinho and Pato.

So where from here? The easy answer is 'straight ahead', with a simple tweak of swapping Palacios for Modric. But will Harry be willing to effectively have Sandro do a double-leapfrog over Wilson and JJ? Or will he be a bit sly, and with a nod to pragmatism 'rest' van der Vaart and go with JJ or Wilson in the middle with Modric, and Sandro behind?

In reality, if we're only playing 1 up top, van der Vaart needs to be in the team - if fit. That leaves 1 space in the midfield alongside Modric and van der Vaart, and considering  you want the magical pair to have as much freedom as possible, it makes sense to play a disciplined, selfless player with them. That player is Sandro. There are, however, other options....

One idea I'm sure Harry has toyed with is playing van der Vaart in a wider role. Van der Vaart excels most when he has space and time, and he doesn't always find that when playing in the congested central area with big bruising PL players. So moving him to a wider starting position may give him more room to pick up the ball and use that murderous left foot. He played wide right in some games earlier in the season and it worked. It could easily work again.

Another positive for this formation is that Lennon is apparently pretty comfortable switching flanks and cutting inside with his dribbling. So you get 2 great creators out wide, and 3 solid men in the middle (Sandro, Modric, JJ/Wilson). Essentially all you are doing is swapping Pienaar for JJ or Wilson, and in doing so are giving yourselves more speed and power in the middle to give your match-winners more freedom to win matches.

Despite all of this, I'm sure it's also going to be hard for Harry to resist the temptation to re-unite Crouch and Defoe up front. Blackpool will obviously come forward and leave us lots of space. Defoe could bag a couple and get his confidence back in time for the run-in. But will loading the strikers and leaving the midfield relatively bare (Lennon-Sandro-Modric-VDV) play right into Blackpool's hands?

The pragmatist in Harry surely will not allow him to be so gung-ho, and that means dropping one of the seemingly undroppable trio of Modric, Lennon and van der Vaart. All logic therefore points towards a 5-man midfield, but then again Harry's feelings for the Defoe-Crouch partnership have always been about more than mere logic. It's just something he feels comfortable with. But on recent performances, both from the team and Defoe individually, it seems the days of the 4-4-2 may be numbered, especially away from home. And since the next 2 games are indeed away from home, Harry is going to have to make some tough, emotional choices.

Sandro, Palacios, Jenas, Modric, Pienaar, Kranjcar, Lennon, VDV (edit: not so fit). That's 8 fit and on-form midfielders. Good luck Harry, and me.