War and Peace
The story so far.
Newcastle, away, lost 2-1 - 80th minute pen conceded
WBA, home, draw 1-1 - 90th minute equaliser conceded (2 pts lost)
Norwich, home, draw 1-1 - 85th minute equaliser conceded (2 pts lost)
Reading, away, won 3-1 - outclassed opposition
QPR, home, won 2-1 - had to fightback, not convincing
Man Utd, away, won 3-2 - great first half, survival in the second
Villa, home, won 2-0 - late goals win it
Chelsea, home, lost 4-2 - Accountable individual errors in defence costly
Southampton, away, won 2-1 - survived hosts comeback to win
Wigan, home, lost 1-0 - Forgettable performance from all involved
City, away, lost 2-1 - 88th minute winner conceded (1 pt lost)
Lazio, home, 0-0 draw - highly tactical display, could have won (disallowed goals)
Carlisle, away, won 3-0 - comfortable
Panathinakos, away, draw 1-1 - dropped two points, too casual
NK Maribor, away, draw 1-1 - struggled to impose ourselves
Norwich, away, lost 2-1 - late goals lose it in a game we never looked like losing
W - 7
D - 5
L - 5
LDDWWWWLWLL (17 pts, 7th place)
Form could have read as: DWWWWWWLWLD (23 pts, 4th place) if it wasn't for those late late goals. Yes, I know, it's completely irrelevant theorising but it's only done to illustrate both the prominent lapses in our game and the fine line between winning and not winning.
Those late goals wouldn't matter too much if we drove forward in the latter stages of games and bossed it at home. It's proving costly because opposition teams push for a goal because their confidence increases and ours deflates. We invite pressure.
What are we doing wrong?
The argument is, we're sitting back and soaking it up. Defending, not attacking effectively and allowing for further pressure by pushing forward (playing the high line) and suffering for the lack of solid cohesion at the back. If you're going to push up there has to be a point to it rather.
Another way at looking at it is that we're attempting to compensate for our lack of spine with reliance on other areas when the simple fact is - we're too weak to do that. If you have a midfield that is not capable of containment and possession football (regardless of fatigue) then you are inviting that pressure on. We are too reactive and not proactive with our football.
What impact does it have?
We can complain about several things. Not making enough of the period of time in matches when we do have the ball. The WBA and Norwich games are examples of this. Not asserting ourselves across both halves convincingly. This allows the opposing side to dictate far more effectively. Under Harry Redknapp, one of the common traits of the side when failing to win was the inability to break teams down that sat back and defended deep. In later stages we got punished as they grew in confidence (Wigan, Wolves etc).
Our current predicament concerns the openness of our home matches, allowing for a shared competitiveness in the game rather than one team (us) controlling it. We're not battering the opposition and failing to score. It's a different issue because of the manner in which we fold. Although, the end result might not differ aside from the fact the football was more entertaining before.
Missing chess pieces and misplaced new ones
The problem(s) are pretty much obvious to all. We do not have several key players from last season available today because that's just how things have panned out. I for one was happy with our transfer deals in the summer, aside from being bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Moutinho deal. I got over it because I believed Dempsey would produce the same type of form he display at Fulham. Premier-ready-to-go-signing...and yet we've had poor form lacking edge and his usual all-round tenacity. It's a massive blow. It's like signing a new player you know can do the job and he gets injured and doesn't play. He's ghosting through games, might as well be sidelined. But then what's the alternative?
Sigurdsson is a player that appears to be overwhelmed with the expectancy. He's young, he can handle himself, we know that based on last seasons Swansea performances. But he's gone up a level in terms of team-mates and much like Dempsey, it's unclear how much influence AVB had with the signing if any at all. If our coach does fancy him, that might not be enough for the player if the player is having trouble settling in. Which makes him redundant when we need someone to grab the game by the scruff. What ever the both of them are being instructed to do, it's not working. Although clearly, Sig has attempted to create in games but has failed. If the players around you (the same players that are meant to be 'up a level) are also misfiring, you're going to struggle.
The replacements are not like for like replacements either. We haven't bought a deep-lying playmaker (Dembele offers more direct progression from midfield).
Dempsey and Sigurdsson have failed to settle into the team, both struggling to impose an identity. We lost van der Vaart probably because of his wife and her work in Germany. And the fact the club could make some money out of the transfer. Whether it's that clear cut or not, we don't know. Could we have kept him? Maybe he wasn't required because we had other targets. That didn't work out too well. You hoped two players would help us recover from the disappointment of him leaving. Not so far (although Dempsey was more of a back-up for the failure to sign Moutinho).
Vertonghen is however a key signing, a long term replacement for Ledley King - although he's stuck out at left-back currently and the sooner he's in the centre to form a partnership with Caulker the better.
In theory, we've bought well. In practice, it's not working.
Forward thinking leaves us scratching our head
We've had one fit striker until recently, and as illustrated away to City, Adebayor can offer more refined movement and link-up play than Defoe. JD is a great finisher but he rarely creates and crafts opportunities for himself. AVB has remained loyal to him and his game has improved in some ways, displaying better work ethic but he's still at his best when he's instinctive, working the box. Our coach has been reluctant (in the short space of time he's had Adebayor available) to start both. He did against weak opposition and it worked.
Andre Villas-Boas does not currently have any players (signed) that are of his own as two of our main summer targets failed to materialise. By this I mean genuine 'blue print' players that will define the way we can play the football he's trying to instil. Perhaps AVB needs to revisit something he mentioned in a very early interview where he said there wasn't too much wrong with Spurs in terms of the way we play and it would be disrespectful to change things. Okay, so he was being polite. Things had to change because of aforementioned departures. It's hard to play with pace and aggression when the aggression sees Sandro without a suitable partner.
Lloris is altogether another conundrum in that he's the long term future between the sticks but we all thought he'd take the number one shirt a lot earlier in his first season with us rather than making cameos. He's a sweeper keeper, he fits the bill. You'd think. But for now, the shot-stopper remains.
Even with the out right signing of Adebayor, we are still waiting for this fabled 'forward' we've been waiting to bring to the Lane for several seasons now. If either one of the two we do have get injured, we're going to struggle further.
Problem upon problem
Villas-Boas template for the 'new' Tottenham has stuttered due to the injury of Dembele meaning our midfield presence has been halved, with Sandro left alone to carry the weight but with no one to share it with. Dembele; a signing that looked the part from the moment he played and one that took to the role given to him. He's quality is such, that he simply slotted in effortlessly. Then we lost him.
We do not have a midfield creative outlet.
We do not have cohesion in the middle because players selected are there because there is no direct alternative.
We are not working the flanks effectively.
Our form, was always likely to dip, considering our form was never outstanding to start of with. Was it avoidable? Could Villas-Boas have handled it differently?
We were a side in decline at the end of last season, something very alike to the season before that. By decline, I'm talking only in terms of form in the context of a league campaign. We run out of ideas and focus, proving costly on both times. We've hit the brick wall for two seasons running. There's something not right there and it's something Redknapp did not have a handle on.
We then lost Modric and van der Vaart. We lose other key players to injury. We have players out of form. We don't have depth in the squad to compensate.
So, with all this considered, add a new manager, coaching staff, training and methodology into the mix. Then add the extra pressure on the manager for coming back to England after what happened at his previous club. And take into consideration the balls he must have to take the job in considering his recent history and the risk taken by the chairman to appoint him.
What we have are dozens of variables and people cherry picking the ones they believe are relevant.
How does this get fixed?
Regardless of the missing players (although this can not be ignored) our football at home has been negative compared to some of our more ambitious away performances. We've only truly shown aggressive swagger on two occasions (away to Reading and Manchester United) and in the cup against Maribor when Adebayor returned to the side. Sure, there's been pockets in other games where we've impressed. The erratic displays might simply be the result of AVB trying to retain a balance in his methods and the players at his disposal. Only way to disprove this is how we perform when he has everyone available and then how we perform post-January 2013.
Until we have those players available again, AVB has to concede that sometimes to ignite a missing spark, you have to return to the basics. This is not to say he ignores his methods. Over a period of time, with the right players, his football style, his blue print will come to fruition. That's his belief and it's our hope.
Right now, it's about confidence and restoring belief. The players have to regain that belief in their football because part of the problem, away from selections and formations, is the level of performance - it's not good enough.
Width is our weapon. We have to use Lennon (if fit) and Bale. We have to start Adebayor as the player in the hole between midfield and attack. AVB had to find a way for the team to retain not just shape, but that early urgency we know we're capable of. A very difficult task when we don't have:
a) A midfielder who can recycle possession, keep possession, pass the ball and influence the tempo we play at
b) A midfielder that can lead by example, from deep, into offensive positions
Which is why Adebayor is key.
Some of you will want this:
Drop Dempsey. Start Defoe to give us an instinctive edge up front so there are two potential outlets for goals.
I still don't believe this would have worked against City. And if Defoe is isolated, he becomes redundant. It's whether we believe Dempsey can do enough because he can offer so much more as an attack minded midfielder than a lone striker. Currently, he's grafting rather than crafting.
Then there's that other position I just can't stay away from, the crux of the problem. The reason why it's not working. We've had no Dembele, who can help with both a) and b).
We have to accept we are not perfect and the football can therefore not be of the highest technical quality.
Everything we try to do is only at around 60% at best, dropping to 40% in the latter stages of games. Okay, just making up those % figures, but that's how it feels when I'm watching us. We know what we're capable of when on song (that first half against Utd was outstanding). But those types of performances are isolated.
Against Arsenal, who are equally fragile (mental strength, defending), we have to be expressive. I'm not talking about roaming around undisciplined, gung-ho. Within each player, they must seek to elevate their desire and willingness to press and pressure. We also have to use the outlets we do have, that width, for Lennon and Bale. We can't play with fear, we can't play to contain. We all know they will. We all know they can because they did just that last season. This weekend is a catalyst.
I'm ignoring the current 'injury/players that might not be available' until we're closer to the game. We all know AVB works on preparations for games in detail, focuses on opposition players and tactics. A little less worrying about them Andre and a little more on what we can do to make them feel nervous.
It's only a problem if you keep looking the other way
I still don't have an answer to the Dembele problem unless Dembele is back in contention at the weekend. Huddlestone does not offer the power and consistency to drive the midfield forward.
Worth citing Adebayor once more. It really is as simple as other players looking to match his intensity. We lacked it against Chelsea at home. It didn't quite feel like a derby game to me.
In fact, that's the answer right there. Even with our deficient mannerisms, it's Arsenal. That should be all that's required for the players to play above and beyond tactical restraints and if we go down in glory, so be it.
The harsh reality is that AVB is not just fighting off injuries and loss of form and poor results but he's dealing with his friends in the media and the noise of the disgruntled. And if another defeat follows, their agenda bolsters and his will deflate. This game, this derby match, should only truly be about beating Arsenal and not potentially 'saving' our coach. But that's just how ridiculous football has become, with it's constant obsession for narrative and story arcs.
As for all this 451 / 442 debating. It doesn't matter what the formation looks like on paper if the formation simply tells us if we're playing two 'forwards' or not because on the pitch we're not actually pushing two forwards up front in that long forgotten tradition. What does matter is the roles the players have in the positions they occupy during the game and how they impact the game.
Play the best players we have in their best positions. That's one thing from last season that might just work for the short term to get us back on track for the long term.
It's average. It's not disastrous. And if anyone truly believes that 'any other manager' can walk in and get the team to play is surrendering to the very ethos we should be moving away from. The last appointment we had, we placed our trust in some one many of us didn't think was capable of achieving tangible success. He came in, fixed the problem and moved us up a level in ambition and in the manner in which we played football. We finally achieved that base to challenge from. We sustained consistency.
Let's not detach ourselves from the reality of the situation. We've taken some punches, we have a new man in charge, and a problem of a different kind. A problem that exists on that higher level. Which is why the pressure is felt so much more. There isn't a clear enough vision yet and for some this seems to translate to there not being one at all.
January is a month and a bit away and is best left there until it's upon us - because there will be plenty to revisit and hope for. Between now and then, it's about restoring confidence and team unity. It's fragmented and cracked and it's held in our hands. One or two bad results and I can see it thrown to the ground and destroyed.
Daniel Levy knows more than anyone and he's going to be key in the next two months. He appointed the coach. He has to remain true to his decision and back Villas-Boas, regardless of what happens over the next few games. Otherwise, what's the point of it? Why plan for the long term when the short term dominates in the minds of all. Are we suddenly too important for time itself preferring instead to wind the clock back and then forwards whenever darkness falls?
If it's thrown to the ground, Levy has to be there to catch it.