Tottenham players face uncertainty as Villas-Boas aims to show his true colours

It is fair to say July has been far more agreeable for Tottenham supporters than the last couple of months. They can boast a new manager in the form of Andre Villas-Boas as well as their first signing in Gylfi Sigurdsson.

But while forums and pub conversations may revolve around the merits and limitations of incoming players, Villas-Boas’s arrival heralds a much more uncertain time for the Spurs squad.

Under Harry Redknapp Spurs predominantly played 4-5-1 last season in a relatively fluid, positional free-for-all. Though Villas-Boas is primarily referred to as a coach who prefers 4-3-3 there are small tactical nuances that, if he communicates well enough, will render Tottenham a more polished outfit.

At this early stage, the questions are: Where do Spurs need to strengthen? Who is likely to be deemed surplus to requirements? How will Villas-Boas mould this team into his own?

With the club’s summer transfer window finally kicking into gear, I analyse the five key issues Villas-Boas will need to consider and identify how the current crop of Tottenham players will fit in.

The effect of the high defensive line

The high defensive line; a cocktail of the courageous and the downright suicidal. As seen at Stamford Bridge last season, Villas-Boas’s insistence on a back-four pressing the opposition to the point of lunacy, was Chelsea’s (and his) undoing. It seems more sensible to avoid the debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of that particular ploy and focus on why it relies so heavily on the personnel.

If, as expected, Jan Vertonghen completes his move to White Hart Lane, replacing Michael Dawson at centre-back (though conceivably Steven Caulker could be trialled too), Villas-Boas would preside over one of the quickest back-fours in the league. In Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, he would have the athletic full-backs so key to his system, while Vertonghen, Caulker and Younes Kaboul both offer reasonable pace for centre-backs.

The high line does require a ferocious pressing game further upfield as well, and the midfield and forwards will be asked to push on and deliver the high-intensity defensive work needed to ensure the opposition do not have time to play balls behind the backline.

Of the first-choice rearguard under Harry Redknapp, Assou-Ekotto seems the only potential casualty of the new regime. Though a genuine cult figure at White Hart Lane, he has been singled out as the weak defensive link for Spurs. With his laissez-faire attitude to the game and a dubious attention span, the high line could pose him questions.

The wide forwards

It is highly likely Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon will need to adapt their game next season. The role of out-and-out wingers they were assigned under Redknapp looks set to be a thing of the past with Villas-Boas. His time at Porto saw the left-footed Hulk operating on the right flank and the right-footed Silvestre Varela from the left. Rather than attempting to hit the byline and cross for the awaiting Radamel Falcao, the two forwards were deployed as genuine goal threats.

It could work in Bale’s favour but it is unclear if Lennon will fit the system. Chants of “he plays on the left” may finally be rendered futile for the Welshman and his penchant for drifting to the other wing could become more than mere cameos next season.

The Lennon question is harder to solve. He has been known to occasionally move to the left and has shown he is capable of nipping inside and scoring with his right foot. Yet much of his career has been spent attacking his opposite full-back and making inroads in the space outside them. Villas-Boas’s biggest challenge could be moulding Lennon into the wide forward he needs.

Alternatively, the rumours surrounding the interest in Oscar, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder with six full caps for Brazil suggest Villas-Boas may already be sourcing a fresh approach.

The striker situation

There is a dearth of striking options at Tottenham following Louis Saha’s release and the expiry of Emmanuel Adebayor’s loan, leaving just Jermain Defoe at the club. Unfortunately for Defoe, it appears he is unlikely to fit Villas-Boas’s system – a set-up that requires a striker capable of occupying two centre-backs – something he has shown he is incapable of doing.

Adebayor is believed to be Tottenham’s main target and although his worth is a topic of much debate between fans – his all-round game outweighs his penalty box profligacy – realistically for a team without Champions League football, he is probably the best available, proven striker the club could sign.

The advantage Adebayor brings to the team is an ability to move into channels and vacate space for the other midfielders around him. This was often an under-valued part to Adebayor’s game and indirectly led to a number of goals over the course of the season. Though critics would often wonder just why the only striker on the pitch was fleeing his natural territory – the penalty box.

Even putting that aside, he is a fine footballer and one who has caused Premier League defences a torrid time over the years. His link-up play is good and he seemed to be a well liked individual, despite having embarked on a difficult career move.

The midfield trio

The central midfield three will be key to Tottenham’s style next year. As alluded to earlier, much of the defensive side to Villas-Boas’s system relies upon a midfield taking a proactive approach to putting the opposition under pressure. Therefore, a hard-working, technically proficient and quick midfield trio is essential.

At present, Luka Modric’s future is uncertain and although losing the Croatian would be a bitter blow, it is not to say the Spurs midfield would be lost without him.

In the past Villas-Boas has employed an anchorman sitting deeper than his two partners in crime. Sandro has shown in his two years in north London that he is an excellent destroyer and the same can be said of Scott Parker. However, the latter offers less craft on the ball and could well be a victim of the managerial change. He is also dealing with a troublesome Achilles injury that may curtail part of his pre-season.

Sigurdsson has been signed to add a much-needed goal threat from the midfield and alongside either Rafael van der Vaart – whose future is also uncertain – and the return of Tom Huddlestone, Spurs look to have strength in the middle of the park. Huddlestone’s ability to pick a pass was missed at times last season and welcoming him back to the first-team will feel like a new signing.

The lack of pace, however, could hamper Villas-Boas’s pressing style and it would not be a surprise to see another central midfielder added – particularly if one of, or both, Modric and Van der Vaart depart.

Shedding the trouble-makers

Perhaps the biggest change for Villas-Boas will be casting off some of the more outspoken players. His downfall at Chelsea largely came about because of the disharmony perpetuated by the influential characters in the dressing room, and if he has learnt a lesson from his Stamford Bridge nightmare it may spell the end for players such as Van der Vaart.

William Gallas, another player with a history of trouble-making looks set to depart Spurs but it will be the loss of the talismanic Dutchman that may be Villas-Boas’s most controversial move.

Of course, it is entirely understandable that he would want to enter a new season with a group of players receptive to his methods and with the patience to adopt what is asked of him. There is little doubt a player of Van der Vaart’s quality could evolve and be part of a new system. But it is his candid nature, prevalent during Euro 2012 that may convince Villas-Boas to cut loose.

It would be a far from popular move, but is something that comes within the remit of managerial change. If Tottenham are to afford Villas-Boas the time he was not given at Chelsea, decisions such as this will need to be tolerated.

This article originally appeared on Goal.com

Advocating the sacking of Harry Redknapp

It is said the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. As Harry Redknapp sent Jermain Defoe onto the pitch, softening the midfield, many of the club’s more cerebral followers knew what was coming next. Fast-forward to full-time and Tottenham had shipped three more goals to Chelsea and left Wembley humiliated as their season imploded further.

If we ignore the inept officiating that handed Chelsea a second goal, the performance was mixed. A spell of dominance just before Didier Drogba’s opener had followed an uncertain and nervy opening half hour but it teased before the characteristic Tottenham collapse arrived in the second period. Some appalling defending contributed to the humiliating loss and ended dreams of a first FA Cup win since 1991.

On the face of it, this particular loss doesn’t point to major flaws in Redknapp’s management, but dig a little deeper and you can find the hallmarks of a number of criticisms often levelled at the Spurs boss and for me, at least, highlight why I believe Redknapp is worthy of the sack.

I am choosing to begin with Tottenham’s league form rather than the FA Cup defeat as to me this has been the root of the desperate situation the club are in.

Miguel Delaney put together a fantastic statistical look at the performance of Premier League clubs over the first-half of this campaign and compared it to the second-half. The idea was to dispel the myth that early season form creates ‘truths’ about the entire year’s work.

One of the focal points of his piece revolved around Tottenham and the catastrophic plummet in form Redknapp has overseen. Four wins in the last 14 league games is wretched enough but to compare the points per game (PPG) statistic as Delaney does in his article, gives an even better impression of just how badly it has gone wrong.

From the first 19 games of the season, where Spurs had the third best PPG in the league (2.21) they have slipped a full point lower in the following 14 league games (1.21). Across all 20 teams, it is the largest fall in form and only Liverpool come close with their PPG slipping by 0.93. As Delaney states – “that is one of the worst drop-offs in league history.”

In Redknapp’s time at Spurs, the current situation is easily the most concerning. Last year saw his side drop from fourth to fifth amidst mitigating circumstances. Focus certainly switched to the glamour-tie against Real Madrid but once the European adventure ended, Spurs again dropped away, recording a PPG of 1.53 in the back 19 games compared to an opening 1.74.

The 2009/10 season is the only year in which Spurs have actually improved on their PPG in the latter half of a season, going from 1.79 to 1.89 as the north Londoners clinched their maiden Champions League place. Even in his first year, the PPG remained at 1.63 over the games he managed after his appointment in October.

So just why does league form take such a nose-dive? There are a couple of key reasons but I suggest starting with the terrible squad management – a string notoriously missing from Redknapp’s bow. In comparison to the top six teams, Tottenham’s first eleven (Friedel; Walker, King, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Parker, Modric, Bale; Van der Vaart; Adebayor) have played more minutes than any other side. In fact, between them, they have played the equivalent of 42 games (3862 minutes) more than Manchester United’s first eleven (De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Rooney, Welbeck).

Gareth Bale and Luka Modric – unquestionably the two crown jewels of the current Spurs team – have played 2766 and 2764 Premier League minutes respectively this year. That puts both of them in the top ten midfielders in the league for number of minutes played. Mikel Arteta (2588 minutes) is the only player from any of the sides above Spurs to feature in the top 15 and from their immediate rivals, only Newcastle’s Jonas Gutierrez (2855 minutes) leads Bale or Modric.

The squad, quite simply, is knackered. They have been driven into the ground by Redknapp, who for the majority of his time at Tottenham, has needlessly overplayed his star players. Not only have the pair (and we can throw Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto into the mix) played over 30 Premier League games each, they’ve all featured heavily in the FA Cup. The games against Stevenage and Cheltenham were ripe to rest these four but in some form or another, all four featured.

The poor management of clearly fatigued players and the reluctance to rotate his squad can also thread a further flaw of Redknapp into the argument. As the January transfer window opened, Spurs were six points off the summit in third position. It was a prime opportunity for chairman Daniel Levy (who can’t remain totally blameless) and Redknapp to combine and reinforce the squad for the business-end of the campaign.

Instead, by February, veteran free transfers Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha were signed whilst useful, if underused, squad players Vedran Corluka, Sebastian Bassong and Steven Pienaar all left on loan and Roman Pavlyuchenko returned to Russia permanently. In the space of a month, the Spurs squad had been trimmed and considerably weakened through their dealings. Whether Redknapp’s impending court case had a bearing on Levy’s willingness to sanction cash deals, is open to conjecture. However, you’d hope it did factor into the chairman’s thinking, otherwise the January failure becomes as damaging to his reputation as Redknapp’s.

One thing that serves as a defence for Levy was the nature of the signings. The Spurs chairman has always advocated the signing of youthful prospects who retain their value if and when the club decide to sell them. Saha and Nelsen have a combined age of 67. Their immediate benefit is in the dressing room as Redknapp told the gathered press after Spurs beat Bolton at White Hart Lane:

“At the end of the season you have got to keep him [Nelsen] here next year because he’s worth his weight in gold just to have around for other people to look at the way he works.”

Is that really what a club with top four (and beyond?) ambitions should be expecting in the summer? Retaining the services of a 34-year-old veteran who has featured in just seven games and is well down the pecking order of centre-backs is a prime example of the short-termism often exhibited by Redknapp. Where is the long-term planning at Spurs? Nelsen, the fans presumed, was merely a stop-gap.

Redknapp lives the moment as a manager. His free-wheeling ‘attack, attack, attack’ style is testament to that and you’ll find many a Tottenham fan in agreement that when it comes to foreseeing future problems, he simply doesn’t see a bigger picture. Aside from his transfer dealings, which I believe highlight that short-sighted thinking (see the return of Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Pascal Chimbonda, if you’re after further proof), this excellent piece written by Ewan Roberts at the beginning of the season, details many of the long-standing problems with Redknapp.

He wasn’t appointed by Levy as the long-term answer. His ability to put an arm round players and give them confidence was required to address the alarming Juande Ramos tenure and bring Spurs back to safety. He did that, and probably to the surprise of Levy, found an extra gear – pushing Spurs into Champions League contention for each full year he’s been at the club.

The easiest and sometimes laziest attack is to call Redknapp tactically clueless. But whilst suggesting that he is totally incompetent is a hyperbolic statement, there is no smoke without fire. Over the recent months his tactical decision-making (or lack thereof) has been called into question on numerous occasions. The gung-ho 4-4-2 that has served him well in the past has now become so hackneyed and predictable that he has had to revert to the 4-5-1 that every man and his dog could see suited Spurs best. And yet, his alarming post-match analysis of the systems he can choose between beggars belief. A sample of some recent quotes:

After defeating Bolton and Swansea in the same week, Redknapp spoke of how the 4-5-1 formation ‘suited the players‘ and how he ‘liked the system‘. Following the loss to Norwich just two games later he said:

“We played 4-4-2 today but it leaves us a little bit open. It’s an attacking system but I felt we’ve looked stronger recently with 4-3-3. It was disappointing the way we played.”

If he knew that, why did he play that way? Is it just to appease fringe players like Jermain Defoe? And finally, when talking about the relevance of tactics:

“It’s 10 per cent about the formation and 90 per cent about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to.”

You can draw an awful lot from these quotes and it is alarming listening to him de-construct the tactical options he believes he has. The idea that 4-4-2 is an attacking system and 4-5-1 is defensive is untrue and an archaic way of thinking, particularly in the modern game where it has been proved otherwise. See Paul Lambert’s Norwich in their 2-1 win at White Hart Lane. They lined up in a 4-4-2 but it was far from an attacking system. The midfield was narrow and designed to prevent the Spurs four from playing before launching counter-attacks full of movement as the wide-men interchanged with the Canaries front-men. It was a lesson in how a clever, forward-thinking manager could disguise a game-plan within a tactical label.

This brings us back to Sunday’s loss to Chelsea. With 75 minutes on the clock, there was still ample time for Spurs to find an equaliser and they were just about edging possession heading into the latter stages. Then came the hammer blow – Defoe was brought on for Van der Vaart and immediately any grip Tottenham had on the midfield was lost – two minutes later, Ramires had the ball in the back of the net and the game was over. The reason I’m so critical of this incident ties in with my above point. It’s far too simplistic to think ‘we need a goal so I’ll take off a midfielder for a striker’. There was no thought paid to the overall repercussions it would have and Chelsea clinically punished the move.

It can be argued that he had to press for the equaliser and that it was the right move, but to watch this trademark Redknapp late-game ploy was to watch him hand the Chelsea midfield the initiative. He may not be tactically clueless but he is tactically predictable and if it is this simple for a writer to pick up on his Plan B, you do wonder just how prepared the game’s deeper thinkers are – i.e. Arsene Wenger – see Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham.

Aside from that long-standing issue, the last two months have really highlighted a major problem but it is perhaps the most intangible of the lot. Redknapp became the bookies favourite to take the England job when Fabio Capello resigned back in February. The FA have still not acted and whilst their dalliance is a gripe for Spurs fans, the uncertainty it has created within the club is palpable. The atmosphere at White Hart Lane was reduced to nothing more than a whisper for the majority of the Norwich fixture. As different sets of standpoints clash on the future of Redknapp and indeed players like Bale and Modric, the home fans had to suffer the taunts of ‘is this a library?’ as they stood and watched the Canaries defeat Spurs for the first time in 19 years.

I’m not suggesting the grievances of the supporters should dictate Redknapp’s future – rather that it is a window into the current malaise plaguing Tottenham. In the same week that Redknapp was cleared on tax evasion charges – a week that should have been full of celebration – his mind was immediately filled with thoughts of filling the vacant England position. Though Newcastle were demolished 5-0 in the club’s next game, Spurs’ form drastically declined and it is surely no coincidence that it ran parallel with visions of taking England to the Euros.

He has painted a good picture of the work he is doing at Spurs and in fairness has batted away questions on the England job relatively diplomatically. However, every so often a sound-bite emerges that if dwelt upon serves as a reminder of his loyalties. Just over a month ago Redknapp reminded the nation’s press that he felt the England job wasn’t one for a younger manager and reiterated how great it would be to manage your country.

It’s fair to say that his mind has not been solely focused on taking Spurs back into the Champions League. The FA Cup became a priority for Redknapp as it would have capped a good three-and-a-half years at the club, especially knowing he won’t be staying at the club beyond this campaign. As it has worked out, he won’t be claiming a second FA Cup and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Spurs will qualify for Europe’s premier competition.

Put bluntly, this Tottenham team – a first eleven that on paper, at least, is a top three side – should have sewn up a top four position. To watch their form completely fall off a cliff in the second-half of the season would not be acceptable at a top club. That is half the problem. In my 26 years, Tottenham have been below average. They’ve won the odd cup but could never be trusted to achieve something meaningful. Redknapp gave the club a glimpse of what it felt like to be part of the elite in the 2009/10 season in coming fourth, but that should not be the pinnacle of this Tottenham team. Instead of using the dark days as the measuring stick, Levy should be using the last couple of years as his gauge in deciding if Redknapp is fit for the task.

I accept that an FA Cup semi-final and a fifth or sixth place Premier League finish in years gone by would have been more than welcome but times change and so should expectations.

If Redknapp is off at the end of the season, I see no reason why a change of management now should be deemed such a risk or conversely a drastic decision. It would be a PR disaster, sure, and the media would have a field day, condemning Spurs as the laughing stock they were once so familiar as. But aside from Parker, Aaron Lennon and surprisingly Emmanuel Adebayor, it seems to me that a number of Spurs players are lacking the spark they had earlier in the season. Whether it is through mental fatigue or a distracted mind – as is the case with Modric – Tottenham have been inadvertently jettisoned by Redknapp.

Will he get sacked between now and the end of the season? I doubt it. The only scenario would be if the FA made an official approach, as is rumoured to be the case this week, and an agreement was made between both parties. The compensation package he would be due from the club probably prevents this suggestion materialising but that’s not to say it doesn’t deserve a place in the debate.

I will close by reiterating the point: if Spurs fail to claim a top four place, it will go down in history as one of the all-time biggest Premier League collapses – and that is through mismanagement of a very capable squad.