Sometimes the most tedious of games can tell a manager more about his squad than the better days and in Tottenham’s below par showing against Watford on Sunday, Andre Villas-Boas will have gleaned further information about his squad.
With the Premier League season just under two weeks away, Spurs’ laboured first-half may not have concerned some observers, but perhaps it may have worried the Portuguese Head Coach as he continues to familiarise himself with the players at his disposal.
The starting XI gave a chance to Tom Carroll, the club’s 20-year-old midfielder and he equipped himself reasonably well without ever imposing himself – a running theme in his outings so far – and though it is not meant as a criticism, the academy product is still some way from claiming a regular first-team spot. Talk of him replacing Luka Modric as the hub of the midfield looks absurd at this stage of his development.
Alongside Carroll, one of the club’s forgotten men, Jermaine Jenas was given a start but should look back on his 67 minutes with a sense of frustration. Jenas has spent his career threatening to emerge as a top-class midfielder but those occasions in which he has driven Spurs to important performances – many of them against Arsenal – have been far too sporadic to take seriously.
A first-half littered with misplaced passes and flimsy tackles only served to show Villas-Boas the weaker side of his game, further lessening his argument for a starting, and indeed, squad place.
Progress in the transfer market has slowed since the completion of Gylfi Sigurdsson and later, Jan Vertonghen – both named on the bench on Sunday – and with just less than four weeks remaining, the strength of the squad Harry Redknapp left for Villas-Boas is becoming further scrutinised by the day.
Of course, the under-par performance could well be down to the after effects of a gruelling US tour that encompassed matches in Los Angeles, Baltimore and New York and undoubtedly fatigue from the journey home may have had an effect.
And granted, Villas-Boas was without a number of first-team players expected to take the field against Newcastle on the opening day. Rafael van der Vaart missed the game but is expected to be fit for the trip to the Sports Direct Arena while Kyle Walker was introduced at half-time for the underwhelming Kyle Naughton.
The full-back spent last season on loan at Norwich and by all accounts put together an impressive campaign at Carrow Road. However, he hasn’t appeared comfortable in his new surroundings and looks very much the back-up player to Walker and indeed Benoit Assou-Ekotto, should he be sidelined.
The lack of creativity and ideas when in possession was more troubling, especially to Gareth Bale who was left visibly exasperated at Jenas’ inability to find him out wide on more than one occasion, while Jermain Defoe cut a lonely figure leading the attack, a role he is simply not suited to.
Though he got on the end of Walker’s precise cross thanks to some sharp movement to score the only goal of the game, his overall game lacked distinction. An area that Defoe has notably improved upon in his time at White Hart Lane, has been his hold-up play. For such a small frame, he can retain the ball and win his fair share of duels better than most others of his stature. Yet, on Sunday he appeared isolated from the start and did what Defoe tends to do – vanish for large periods.
It appears he will be told to stay at the club, despite hinting at his frustration last season for a lack of minutes. But with Harry Kane, the prodigal 19-year-old who has yet to show the form that had him labelled as a future first-team player, as the back-up striker and Emmanuel Adebayor’s transfer seemingly drifting away, Spurs are alarmingly short in attack. For the 4-3-3 formation Villas-Boas prefers, it is hard to envisage Defoe providing the all-round qualities needed for the role.
There are positives though: Villas-Boas will welcome Steven Caulker and Danny Rose back to training following Team GB’s elimination from the Olympics while Sandro and Giovani Dos Santos will also add depth when their tournaments conclude.
And as bizarre as it may seem to consider Dos Santos a valuable member of the Tottenham squad, his favoured role on the right of an attacking three may prove to be the back-up wideman Spurs need to cover Bale and Aaron Lennon. Andros Townsend’s cameo appearances on tour and at Stevenage and Watford showed promise but he will likely remain a back-up option.
Where that leaves the perennial underachiever David Bentley is anyone’s guess. He has spoken of his relief at being given a chance by the new management but the former England international has yet to stamp his authority on any of his appearances, instead rather coasting his way through matches. It will be a surprise to see him feature for the first-team this year.
Ultimately on a day set-up for the fringe players to press their case to Villas-Boas, only Jake Livermore made an impression. The central midfielder featured heavily last season and although he now has to compete with fit-again Tom Huddlestone, Carroll and Jenas, he will walk away from Vicarage Road feeling in better shape than most of those around him.
Villas-Boas made the assertion in his post-match assessment that the game “was like another training session” and this was a fair comment about a game that lacked tempo and conviction. Unfortunately for many of Tottenham’s squad members, it may be their last chance to prove to the new manager that they are worthy of a place in next year’s squad of 25.