Originally published for Goal UK on 12th November 2012
The reluctant super-sub Edin Dzeko spoke pointedly in the aftermath of Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham of delivering a message to Roberto Mancini following his match-winning cameo, but perhaps the most enlightening message that came from the contest was sent to Andre Villas-Boas courtesy of William Gallas and Brad Friedel.
To say it was a surprise to watch Spurs head to the dressing rooms at half-time leading 1-0 would be an understatement. Steven Caulker’s goal came in a difficult first 45 minutes and Villas-Boas’ men were fortunate to hold onto their lead over the remainder of the half. In truth, it was more the bungling finishing of City’s attackers and some generous refereeing than defensive mettle that kept the north London side ahead.
Friedel’s opening gambit dictated much of the remainder of his game as he ambled off his line to collect a loose ball in the box. Caulker shielded the ball under pressure before engaging in a shouting match with the American shot-stopper – not for the last time in the first half.
Elsewhere, Gallas was strapped into the Sergio Aguero roller-coaster before swiftly realising he did not like it, getting off and standing as far away from the Argentine as possible. This is the striker who netted 30 goals last season and already has four to his name this year.
What the 35-year-old defender did midway through the first period in retreating to his six-yard box as the ball was fed into Aguero was nothing short of scandalous. That Michael Oliver decided not to give a penalty for a blatant handball seconds later was a reprieve Gallas barely deserved.
The problem with veteran players is you tend to get attached to them. And depend on them. By the time you realise they have expired it is often too late. What Villas-Boas is doing in keeping faith with the duo is now damaging more than just results. The uncertainty in Friedel’s decision making and the erratic and idle marking of Gallas manifested fear in the rest of the team on Sunday.
Despite scoring, Caulker had arguably his poorest game in Spurs colours as he was dragged all over the pitch, chasing quick, nimble and evasive shadows. But it was the aforementioned communication breakdown with Friedel that instilled such trepidation. For all his talk as a future England centre-back, Caulker showed he had plenty to learn, though he will not be the first defender to be turned in the box by Aguero.
There is a reason that Gallas and Friedel have been near ever-presents for Villas-Boas and that can be traced back to his implosion at Chelsea. In his hasty attempt to impress his style and invoke the remit of revolution Roman Abramovich asked of the 35-year-old, Villas-Boas attempted to marginalise the old guard at Stamford Bridge. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and the like held more power than the Portuguese perhaps realised and ultimately he was moved on.
Fast forward to August 2012 and Villas-Boas has command of a talented but lighter squad than his popular predecessor oversaw. It made sense to empower the experienced members of the squad and in doing so he ensured he only upset fans still pining for Harry Redknapp, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric – three cult figures cut loose in the summer cull. Even a number of new signings have yet to receive extended minutes in the first team, such is Villas-Boas’ determination to keep the apple cart steady.
The disgust that has emanated from France over Hugo Lloris’ position on the Tottenham bench initially looked like an overreaction, but now more than ever it is starting to make sense. At 41 years of age Friedel has been a magnificent Premier League servant, indeed the American has become the safe pair of hands Heurelho Gomes never was. But it is ever more apparent that his time has passed.
The idea of continuity is at odds with Villas-Boas’ style. He likes to rotate his squad and drills his players to the point that any one of them can step in and follow his meticulous game-plans. He has, to this point, used more players than any other club in the league. However, continuity is also dangerous, particularly if the regulars are weak links.
Gallas has added commendable spirit and leadership since joining Spurs that many doubted he could provide. Tantrums and episodes at both Arsenal and Chelsea hinted at a fragile character with a short fuse, but for the most part he has been dependable in his time at the club.
But time waits for no man and as the legs tire quicker and the brain thinks slower, the negatives begin to outweigh the positives. Lloris is a superb talent; fast off his line, proficient with his feet and a commanding presence – everything Friedel lacks.
Jan Vertonghen has been one of the highlights of Spurs’ season and however capable he is when carrying the ball, he can look lost when defending from left-back – as highlighted in the build-up to Dzeko’s winner. With Kyle Naughton proving an able deputy and Benoit Assou-Ekotto close to a return to full fitness, the obvious move is to bring the Belgian back to his preferred centre-half role.
Perhaps the biggest test of Villas-Boas’ character will be in observing how long he perseveres with the pair. Gallas has played every minute of this campaign, while Friedel has missed just one league game.
The pair have been part of a defence that has conceded eight goals in their last four games. It is not solely their fault – as previously mentioned, Caulker was badly off-colour on Sunday and Kyle Walker has not been able to shake a funk that taints his England call-up with bewilderment.
Villas-Boas has one week to assess his options before he takes his Tottenham team to the Emirates for his first north London derby and the time is right to send the clearest message yet that this is his Spurs side, not the elderly hangover from Redknapp’s reign.