Villas-Boas discovers the value of Tom Huddlestone after second-half siege

It wasn’t the precise cross for Gareth Bale’s opening goal, nor his abnormally inaccurate passing in the opening stages of the 2-1 win at Southampton that Andre Villas-Boas will take from this week. It won’t even be the abysmal missed tackle on Dejan Mezga in the 1-1 draw with Maribor on Thursday. No, the value of Tom Huddlestone was evident just minutes after he was withdrawn from Sunday’s game and Tottenham descended into panic-stricken hoof-ball in a desperate attempt to cling onto the three points.

His replacement, Jake Livermore, had a nightmarish 25 minutes in which he was booked for a terrifically late challenge after conceding possession high up the pitch, a product of his dallying on the ball, unsure of what to do with it. Livermore played 38 times under Harry Redknapp last season and to give him his dues, he stuck at his role as anchor man – took the ball off the opposition and handed it to the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.

Yet, at St Mary’s, his introduction was the catalyst for frenetic, frantic clearances, aimless long balls and some poor choices. In one particular incident the ball bounced off a Southampton head and broke for Livermore, who, without a moments thought, punted the ball 60 yards up field leaving Bale to his left and in acres of space pleading for the ball next time. The game needed composure and cool heads, what it got was a player devoid of the awareness needed to ease Spurs over the finishing line.

Livermore has been a reliable member of the Tottenham squad for the past year-and-a-half and perhaps with a run of games and a rhythm you can only acquire from consistent minutes, he would make better decisions. It is possible that entering the game as Southampton had their tails up spooked him a little. He was also not the only culprit in a poor second half.

Huddlestone in contrast has always provided an air of calm to Spurs’ play. He has his drawbacks and will forever be limited by his athleticism, or lack thereof, and even in a first half in which Nigel Adkins’ side allowed the Tottenham midfield the freedom of St Mary’s, Huddlestone was patchy.

He began with two attempted forward passes that immediately put Spurs on the back foot, as he handed possession to Southampton. But after an uncertain first ten minutes and a firm talking to from Villas-Boas, who gestured for the 26-year-old to settle and calm down, he improved.

Moments later he delivered an inch perfect cross for Bale to guide a header past Artur Boruc and initial concerns over Huddlestone abated. There has never been much doubt that he has a passing range to rival most of his contemporaries, however there are two schools of thought on his use of such skills.

The cynical view is that Huddlestone can only really pass backwards and sideways and the occasional aesthetic 50-yard ball should not mask his otherwise unadventurous approach. Those looking to defend the Nottingham-born midfielder point to the lack of options and static nature of them as the limiting factor.

Against Maribor, much of the game was played at walking pace. This doesn’t help impressions of Huddlestone, who often appears to only operate at walking pace anyway. Yet he did put together a series of progressive balls to Aaron Lennon – his go-to option in years gone by. It must also not be forgotten that before injury curtailed his middle-20s, Huddlestone was a near ever-present the season Spurs made it into the hallowed top four, playing 43 games in midfield.

The criticism that he can never be part of a modern midfield looks flawed when stacked against the 2009-10 example; he has previous – and in a 4-4-2 no less. Of course, the ankle injury that has sidelined him for so long (and is now understood to be a permanent hindrance) slowed his development and in many eyes his movement. Not those of Villas-Boas though, who had this to say in the post-match press conference at Southampton.

“Tom offers so much – this is a player who missed 15 months out through injury, he had extremely harsh setbacks and he has recovered. For him to play three games in a week is very important. Towards 65 to 70 minutes, physically he was feeling the strain so we made the change for Jake.”

And so we return to the options Villas-Boas has at his disposal. With Mousa Dembele out with a hip problem, pace and physical drive is missing in Tottenham’s midfield. Sandro can get forward when instructed to and did a passable impression of a box-to-box midfielder against Maribor, but many will be itching for Dembele’s return. However, with Clint Dempsey operating just off Defoe, buzzing around and claiming second balls, providing the midfield with the energy Gylfi Sigurdsson cannot, the duo of Sandro and Huddlestone has its merits.

It is vital that when these two feature together, Villas-Boas ensures there is pace around them. On Sunday, there was just that as Tottenham rampaged through the Saints in the first half. With Bale, Lennon, Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen on the flanks, the club have fast outlets, but often the midfield have struggled to distribute swiftly enough to utilise them. The first 45 minutes saw Huddlestone constantly arc passes to his full-backs and wingers. He may be slow of body, but not of mind or technique, as he stroked the ball first time with precision to his wide men.

If you leave any preconceptions of Huddlestone to one side for a moment, this ability is something so rarely seen in the top-flight. There are not many central midfielders technically adept enough to spread play as accurately as he is able to do and with such insouciant ease.

Villas-Boas was asked whether he believed the lack of height up front affected Tottenham’s ability to keep hold of the ball in a difficult second half. Rather than acknowledge the debate, the Portuguese coach instead took a more abstract view, highlighting the quality of pass the striker receives as the defining factor.

He explained: “It’s a question of technical and tactical ability. We have players of the dimension of Rooney for example and Defoe and people who hold onto the ball very, very well. The ball wasn’t arriving in the proper conditions for any striker to hold onto it. If it arrives under cleaner conditions, Defoe, Crouch, Rooney, all of them are able to hold onto the ball. It’s more a question of talent.

“When you are on the back foot you are trying to come out of situations of pressure. Certainly you need somebody to be there as a reference to hold onto the ball. I wouldn’t measure it on a question of height, I would measure it on a question of tactical and technical ability.”

Reading between the lines, Villas-Boas called for an improvement in service, or at least accuracy, in the delivery of forward balls to Defoe – especially towards the end of the match. In fact, after watching the many aimless clearances, Villas-Boas replaced Defoe with Sigurdsson, a form of grim acceptance that Defoe would be useless without some semblance of service.

And so we come full circle to Huddlestone. His withdrawal was unavoidable but directly correlated with a loss of structure and control on a game Spurs should have won by the halfway point, as composure in midfield was lost and Southampton were handed the initiative.

But it remains to be seen whether Huddlestone will play a key role for Spurs over the remainder of the season. Talk of a need for pace throughout the Villas-Boas model essentially puts an end to any Huddlestone debate. Why continue with the immobile option when others offer a dynamism vital to the modern midfield? Ultimately it comes down to balance: do Huddlestone’s technical attributes outweigh his physical deficiencies? Is there a way to accommodate him when first-choice players are unavailable?

These questions will be going through Villas-Boas’ mind as he assesses the run of fixtures facing Spurs. Norwich in the Capital One Cup, Wigan and Maribor at home followed by a trip to the Premier League champions offer enough of a mix for him to truly understand what Huddlestone can provide.

Villas-Boas didn’t entirely give the impression that he saw a long-term future for Huddlestone at Tottenham, yet Sunday will serve as a reminder that if he is to sell the midfielder – he was a failed medical away from doing so in the summer – there are few players who ooze serenity as much as Huddlestone.

Walker has Bale and Lennon for reference as he looks to rediscover form of last season

On one flank, Tottenham had two established internationals neatly interchanging, working in patterns and flying up and down the pitch. On the other, two international hopefuls, trying to further their cause, building their form for Andre Villas-Boas’ team in a 2-1 win at Southampton.

Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen have the makings of a fine full-back and winger combination. The benchmark in the Premier League these days is the marauding duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar at Everton and there is every chance that Tottenham’s left side could be as productive but for the Belgian’s preference for a central role.

Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon are a slightly different case. The latter is nearing his greatest spell of form for Spurs – somewhat running against the presumption that he would struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ preference for inverted wingers (or at least wingers capable of threatening in the middle of the pitch).

His career thus far has been built on the jet-propelled heels that have sent opponents in a spin as he scurries outside them. On Sunday, Lennon created the game’s second goal doing exactly what the management would have wanted; cutting inside his marker and attacking the centre-backs. It was yet further encouragement that Lennon is a far more intelligent wide man than some give him credit.

Walker on the other hand has endured something of a rough ride this campaign. Since bursting into the starting XI at the beginning of last season, ousting Vedran Corluka, a reliable right-back and someone who regularly linked well with Lennon, Walker pushed his way into the England reckoning. There is a myth that his form endured the span of Harry Redknapp’s final season, though.

Whether through fatigue, a collection of niggling injuries or simply a change in the way opposition teams set out against him, he tailed off and was no longer the explosive force he was on his introduction. Despite missing the summer’s European Championship, Walker’s pre-season was patchy before his first-team performances underwhelmed in the opening few games of the Villas-Boas reign.

His mistake for Juan Mata’s second goal and the soft concession of the ball in the build-up to Chelsea’s winner one week ago highlighted the plight of the 22-year-old. He has cut a frustrated figure, bewildered at his loss of form and even made the ill-advised error of responding to a smattering of abuse he received on Twitter following the game.

He later spoke of the incident, telling The Times: “I have seen with Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand what has happened and I don’t want to be in that category. I thought I needed to concentrate on my own performance for a few weeks.”

The initially puerile reaction belies his fierce determination to rediscover the form that saw him named the 2012 PFA Young Player of the Year. The self-restraint he demonstrated in deleting his account is admirable, as is the work he is putting in on the training ground.

“They [those on Twitter] did not know how much work I was putting in, not just on match days but throughout the week. I am probably the first one in and the last one out every day. If that means doing gym or some extra swimming, I am prepared to do that to make me a better player.”

The faith shown by Villas-Boas should also contribute to an upturn in fortunes. Some expected to see Kyle Naughton at right-back, or even Adam Smith for the Thursday night game against Maribor, but Walker was afforded 90 minutes to make amends for the display against Chelsea.

Unfortunately, the overall display from Tottenham in their insipid 1-1 draw with the Slovenian champions made it difficult for Walker, or indeed anyone, to make a noteworthy contribution. Still, his performance appeared more fundamental, less eye-catching, perhaps a conscious return to getting the basics right.

At Southampton, Walker gave a diligent, if patchy display. There were encouraging signs – most notably in the quick, incisive one-two with Lennon that left Danny Fox in a daze and Walker in space to attack the byline and find Jermain Defoe. It really should have been an assist for the right-back had Defoe not uncharacteristically smashed his chance from 12 yards the wrong side of the post.

He wasn’t overly troubled by Adam Lallana, Saints’ captain, who only really found joy when he drifted into central positions, though Walker was caught in possession on a couple of dawdling moments in the second period. There was also the wasted chance to get his name on the scoresheet as he sliced his shot from just inside the box wide of the near post.

The signs are there that he is coming through a difficult period, however, and indeed Walker appears aware enough to understand what he must do.

He explains: “When people know what you are about, it is difficult. They know your game whereas last season I came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. I will keep working and training – doing the extra bit I need to. Hopefully, my form will come back.”

The element of unknown helped Walker build his reputation, now it will take further education to sustain it.

Fortunately he has a couple of players alongside him who have had to go through the very same self-analysis. Lennon and Bale have both had spells where opponents would send two or more men out to mark them and have had to reinvent aspects of their play.

The road may be longer than he likes but Walker is slowly coming out of his slump and adding the strings to the bow that would see him justifiably return alongside Lennon, his partner in crime, to the England team.

Freund aims to add to cult hero status by taking Tottenham to a new level

A shorter version of the below originally appeared on Goal.com on 19/10/2012

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Steffen Freund return to Tottenham this summer after he accepted Andre Villas-Boas’ offer to join him on the bench at White Hart Lane as his assistant manager, but that was more down to ignorance than merit.

For Freund arrived with a stellar coaching CV, with spells as an assistant manager for the German U20 team and to Berti Vogts for Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations campaign in 2008, before grasping the role of manager for the U16 and U17 German youth teams.

The 42-year-old spent five years in north London and was a part of the 1999 League Cup victory that is remembered as a rare highlight of an otherwise uninspiring and mediocre decade for the club. Between 1998 and 2003, Freund became something of a cult figure amongst the Spurs faithful mainly thanks to a tireless work ethic and determination and an amiable nature off the pitch.

Fans take to players that commit fully to their club and few others worked as hard for the Lilywhite shirt as Freund. Indeed, David Ginola’s famous anecdote about the German’s incessant instructions to ‘arbeit’, or ‘work’, added to the cult of Freund, a phenomenon that led to a t-shirt designed in honour of the midfielder in the style of the popular US TV sitcom ‘Friends’.

In an era that has increasingly moved away from the days of former players taking management positions, many supporters could be forgiven for thinking the picture of Freund hanging in the Tottenham Hall of Fame would be the closest the German came to a return. But the man who unexpectedly joined the Spurs faithful in the stands wearing his very own autographed shirt from the 1999 final has returned in an official capacity at an exciting time for the club.

“The new academy can’t be compared. It’s a world-class facility,” he explained. “I have my office here and look over the pitches. The conditions are unbelievably good. The previous training ground Spurs Lodge at Chigwell wasn’t bad, but there’s no comparison with what we have here. It’s a dream. It’s an absolutely world-class facility that not many teams have.

“We have a wonderful stadium at White Hart Lane. Now everything is free to build a bigger and even more beautiful stadium. The club is changing and changing.”

After years of mid-table mediocrity with the occasional relegation battle thrown in, ENIC, the current majority shareholder of the club embarked on a long-term mission to bring the club more in line with local rivals Arsenal as well as establish a team capable of challenging for trophies. Though one League Cup triumph in 2007 is the sum of their achievements, regular top-half finishes have shown that progress has been steady and a far cry from the darker days of Freund’s stay at the club.

He says: “On the pitch, in the last few years the team has come fourth or fifth, it’s always up there. When I was a player, we were on average in 9th to 12th place. We were relatively strong in cup games with two FA Cup semi-finals and a League Cup final. Individually, we were well stocked with players, but now it’s an established top-six team, and that makes me happy.”

The squad is barely recognisable to Freund though, as he explains: “I knew most of the players’ names. Ledley King and Robbie Keane were the last ones I played together with. Both are gone, King stopped for health reasons and Keane has moved on.”

For the man who claimed on his arrival that it had been: “my dream, one day to come back to Spurs,” Freund always kept a close eye on his adopted club, adding: “As Sky often show English football in Germany, they’ve often shown Tottenham in the last few years. For example, I saw a Tottenham v Chelsea 1-1 draw played at White Hart Lane (last season) at an unbelievable tempo. You could see what the players were bringing to the team.

“Now the whole central midfield has changed. Modric and Van der Vaart have gone, while Parker is injured. So there have been a few changes, and a new head coach.”

Villas-Boas’ arrival heralded a new era at Tottenham following the successful period under Harry Redknapp and the three-hour meeting with Freund was enough to convince the German to relinquish his duties as U17 manager.

“We didn’t know each other. But he said directly to me at the first meeting that he wanted a former player. I know at Chelsea he worked with a former player in Di Matteo. He saw a past player as having a positive input,” he says.

“It’s a dream for me to experience all this on the bench. There’s an unbelievable atmosphere. It’s a tight stadium with the fans three to five metres from the pitch. The message for the future of Tottenham is it’s all a big step forward.”

So what of Villas-Boas? The Portuguese had an unhappy spell at London rivals Chelsea, badly damaging his reputation as one of the game’s up-and-coming coaches and painting him in a difficult light. Freund sees it differently though, lavishing praise on the man in charge of the side now fifth in the Premier League following a slow start.

“He has absolute professionalism and organisation,” Freund explains. “He expects that we coaches should all ready, that we arrive earlier at training and leave later, a bit like the situation in Germany. We must work for him, help him where we can, organise everything, the training sessions, note everything down.

“We have meetings, discuss line-ups. We have an open relationship. He asks us in certain situations. I have to say we’ve worked together very well in the last few months. We regularly exchange ideas and discuss situations.

“I personally think every coach is different. He has a clear, open relationship with the players. They go to him. He makes many decisions. My role is to be in constant contact with the players. All the players are important for the team and there’s a situation of respect.

“He has a lot of humour. He has a relationship on a professional basis, but jokes are sometimes made. I think it’s a very pleasant working atmosphere.”

A notable difference to the Redknapp era has been the integration of a number of the younger players in the Spurs ranks, a situation Freund attributes to the work of Tim Sherwood, a protege of the last regime.

“Tim Sherwood is the coach of the Development squad team and is a key link to the professional teams. I think his role is very important in any club. You have to have someone to judge young players and to bring young players through, as has been the case,” he says.

“It was very important in the situation where we had five or six players injured. It was important to have players like Falque, Mason, Carroll and Townsend ready to come straight in, and Kane who is now injured.

“They need time, that’s clear. But we must keep developing them.”

As for the first-team, Spurs have found their stride, finding themselves unbeaten in nine with four consecutive league victories, including the memorable 3-2 triumph at Old Trafford. However, Freund is quick to temper title aspirations, pointing to the unpredictable nature of the Premier League.

He suggests: “It’s too early to say. I think it’s very important not to focus on the end of the season, nor on the outcome of one game. When we dropped points at the beginning of the season, it was said to be all negative, but not for me. I wasn’t down.

“We deserved to get a point when we lost at Newcastle and more points in the next games. Now we’ve won four league games in a row.

“We want to be in the top four. If we win a trophy, that’s great. But there’s no pressure on our ambition at the start.”

The former midfield general has won coveted trophies throughout his time in football: two Bundesliga titles preceded a Champions League win with Borussia Dortmund and sandwiched international success with Germany at the European Championships in 1996. He led the German stars of tomorrow to the final of the 2011 U17 equivalent before claiming third place at the U17 World Cup that same year. In short, he is accustomed to success.

Despite that, Freund is acutely aware of the need to convince not just his employers, but the fans of his and Villas-Boas’ methods. The team received a frosty reception after draws with West Brom and Norwich but there has been a noticeable improvement since then.

He says: “The atmosphere was more positive against Aston Villa. That wasn’t always so when I was a player when the atmosphere would very, very quickly turn negative. Against Aston Villa it was more positive. That pleases me. The team deserves that.

“The team lost a top defender in Ledley King, they were missing the midfield who were injured or sold. I enjoyed the last 20 minutes against Villa. It plays a role that we won at Man Utd. But we were neither in a state of euphoria or pessimism.

“It would be wrong to talk about the championship. It will be great against Chelsea at home. Then there are games against Southampton, Wigan, Man City and Arsenal to come. We should make the most of the experience. At some point, there are defeats to come. It’s a good message for observers that it’s difficult to beat Tottenham. But we mustn’t be euphoric and must keep our feet on the ground.

“We’ve got seven games in twenty days, including two Europa League games against Maribor and the Capital One Cup at Norwich. That’s an extremely hard programme.”

It is tough, but for a man synonymous with hardwork and with a record littered with success, Tottenham should be grateful to have the cult of Freund once again back among the ranks.

Interview conducted by Victor Vago

Reinvented Defoe defies doubters to show he can adapt and flourish in Villas-Boas’ system

There was a time when Tottenham fans would glance at the line-up, spot Jermain Defoe as the lone frontman and grimace, yet after a goal at Newcastle and a match-winning double against Reading on Sunday, maybe it is time to reassess such a long-held fear.

Many expected Defoe to be cut loose by Andre Villas-Boas after he replaced Harry Redknapp in the summer, and indeed, the 29-year-old was widely touted for a move across London to QPR.

Looking from the outside and knowing enough to assert that Villas-Boas would bring his famed 4-3-3 formation to White Hart Lane, it was presumed Defoe would be surplus to requirements and moved on from the club where he has spent the last eight years.

Defoe’s role at Tottenham has never truly been defined. He has played for numerous managers, in varying systems, all the while existing while those around him were bought and sold in an attempt to find a workable frontline. The impression lingered that he was never viewed as a dependable No.9 for Spurs.

However, to write off a striker who had scored 195 career goals prior to his three in this campaign and 17 for England would be nonsensical.

One of his greatest strengths has been his ability to reinvent himself and, as the idea grows that the traditional goal-poaching striker no longer fits the majority of modern systems, Defoe has shown that he is able to move with the times.

Far from his younger days as a striker looking to work off the shoulder of the last defender, Defoe actively worked on his hold-up play and although he is not the giant target man usually associated with the lone striker role, he has shown himself capable of receiving the ball with his back to goal and bringing others into play.

Combine that with a dedicated attitude – he does not drink or smoke and has set aside entire summers to arriving in pre-season as fit as he could be – and in many ways, he is the model professional. Put it all together and you have a footballer constantly seeking to eke the maximum from his talents.

So why have his fortunes changed? Almost predictably, it is down to ‘the system’. Redknapp almost universally deployed Emmanuel Adebayor as his frontman last season, guided by the belief that Defoe was only useful in a ‘two’.

But where Redknapp’s system strictly utilised the pace and width Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon provided as traditional wingers, Villas-Boas’ is more complex. The Portuguese boss still deploys the same personnel but the key is getting as many of his attackers in and around the box, rather than having them canter to the byeline and whip crosses in.

Bale, for example, only set off on a trademark run down the left once all game. Most of his good work came from inverted runs to the centre – as seen by the diversion he created in the build-up to the third goal against Reading.

Meanwhile, as Sandro and Mousa Dembele kept possession ticking over in deeper areas, Gylfi Sigurdsson regularly provided support to the front three and particularly the central striker. This caused Brian McDermott’s side plenty of problems but importantly meant Defoe was rarely isolated in the build-up.

Where it was common last season to see Adebayor hold onto the ball and move it to the flanks, it is more likely that he and Defoe will be far more involved in the intricate build-up around the box. But with Defoe currently in something of a purple patch, do not expect to see Adebayor start the next few games.

It is normal to refer back to Villas-Boas’ Porto team when assessing his methods and although he had Radamel Falcao – now recognised as one of the best strikers in the game – front-lining the all-conquering 2010-11 side, Defoe’s traits are not dissimilar. He does not have the strength of Falcao but he is a clinical finisher, can travel with the ball and has lively movement.

Yet, is he intelligent with that movement? A common criticism pegs Defoe as a hit-and-hope, brainless striker – regularly emphasised by the number of offside decisions given against him (zero against Reading, if you were wondering). But could it be that he just did not have a plan to stick to? A framework, or a set of instructions?

Villas-Boas, the ‘Powerpoint’ manager Redknapp so obviously, and disingenuously, took a swipe at in an interview with The Times, is renowned for his complicated and highly detailed ideas. The Burnley chairman testified to this theory last week, suggesting Villas-Boas talked himself out of a job in 2009 due to the complexity of his presentation.

But he is working with top-class footballers now – just as he was at Porto and just as he was at Chelsea. The difference here is the Tottenham squad know they have the ability in the dressing room to win trophies – there is a thirst for success. And that is not restricted to just the younger members of the squad.

Defoe said in the aftermath of the win at Reading: “I’ve always said that when you’re playing with quality players it’s not a problem [playing alone] because they get close to me.

“Today we had a lot of the ball, so it’s just a case of being clever and making sure your movement is good, and I did that today.”

The key is ‘closeness’. With Bale, Lennon, Sigurdsson and Dembele providing constant support, Defoe has options – he can not be smothered by defenders because they will be too preoccupied by runners from deep and from wide.

The challenge for Defoe will be to hit 20 league goals for the first time in his career and although the early signs are promising, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time he has started a season so prolifically. That said, as he embraces the peak years of his career, Defoe looks set to defy the doubters, and, indeed, logic, as the spearhead to Villas-Boas’ Tottenham revolution.

Premier League Preview 2012/13 – Part 4 of 4 (Swansea – Wigan)

SWANSEA
Prediction: 18th
Odds: 2000/1

The Swans are the smallest club in the Premier League, yet showed no fear last year, playing beautifully home and away to secure a deserved 11th place. A summer of change has left an air of uncertainty at the Liberty Stadium as manager Brendan Rodgers and star midfielder Joe Allen both left for Anfield.

Michael Laudrup replaced Rodgers and seems a logical fit. He has expressed his belief in the style of play Swansea are now famous for and appears ready to continue the good work down by his predecessor. Jonathan de Guzman has been loaned in from Villarreal, where he and the club endured a very poor season – resulting in relegation. But De Guzman carries a weighty reputation, largely due to his one year at Mallorca, coincidentally under Laudrup.

Laudrup’s knowledge of Spanish football has permeated into the squad as seen by the signings of Michu and Chico – both set to start regularly for the Swans.

The brief looks simple – avoid relegation. And although in Michu and De Guzman Swansea have two classy goalscoring midfielders (Michu was the top-scoring midfielder in Spain last year), there is precious little depth. They have also lost Steven Caulker who enjoyed a fine loan spell at the club last year, adding further pressure on Chico or fellow new-boy Kyle Bartley.

It’s a big ask, but I see Swansea just slipping out of the division and Laudrup leaving midway through it.

Key Man: Ashley Williams

I’m not his biggest fan – he can be cumbersome and impetuous with his defending, but he is a leader and will be relied upon even more so this year to help his side stay resolute at the back. Swansea kept 14 clean sheets last campaign and will need to get near that again if they’re going to survive.

TOTTENHAM
Prediction: 5th
Odds: 28/1

I’ve written an awful lot about Spurs this summer and despite the initial wave of enthusiasm on Andre Villas-Boas’ arrival, it’s evident that the fans are getting a little twitchy ahead of the big kick-off. To keep it short, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen are good signings, but to not follow that up with at least one striker is criminal.

Levy’s dallying will cost Spurs points in August but if he does get it right come 1st September, the Villas-Boas should have a better chance of righting a few wrongs from his time at Chelsea.

That said, I think it will be a slow start for Tottenham and patience will most definitely be required. The high defensive line (which will be the most overused phrase this season) may cause a few of the more traditional defenders (Dawson I’m looking at you) some time to adjust to and I won’t be surprised to see a mistake or two in the opening months.

However, if Villas-Boas gets it right, I can see a strong second-half to the season and Spurs maintaining their familiar top six position. I do think a slow start will prevent the club from finishing fourth again.

Key Man: Gareth Bale

He’s looked fantastic in pre-season from the left, a little lost from the right and not involved enough through the middle. Regardless, the Welshman looks fit and raring to go and it will be intriguing to see how much freedom Villas-Boas gives him alongside Aaron Lennon and [a striker]. It was a real coup to tie Bale down to a new deal even if it effectively just generates a bigger transfer fee next summer, but Spurs will be relying on the winger to help propel them back into the Champions League – possibly the only way of keeping him at the club.

WEST BROM
Prediction: 17th
Odds: 2500/1

Under Roy Hodgson the Baggies finished in a highly commendable 10th place – their highest league finish since 1980-81 and proved a lot of doubters wrong in doing so. Just as they appear to be shaking off the tag of yo-yo team, Hodgson was poached by the FA and career assistant manager Steve Clarke is at the helm.

Fortunately for Clarke, he has been left a capable squad. It isn’t blessed with stars but in forward positions he can call on a number of attackers with Premier League pedigree. In Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie, West Brom have strikers capable of troubling most defences but by signing Romelu Lukaku and Markus Rosenberg, they now also bring the threat of the unknown. For all Lukaku’s hype, we’ve simply not seen the Belgian enough to even judge if he was worth the reported £18 million Chelsea spent on him.

Wrapping up a deal for Ben Foster should not go unnoticed either as securing the former United goalkeeper seems a wise investment given his impressive form last season. Though Paul Scharner and Nicky Shorey have left the club, Jonas Olsson has been retained, ensuring the Baggies have a trustworthy defensive line.

Clarke’s biggest challenge will be ensuring the defence remember what they learnt under Hodgson. By the end of his tenure, the Baggies had found a solidity not often associated with the club and that will be key in keeping them afloat.

Key Man: Chris Brunt

You can think of a few inspirational players possibly better suited to captaincy but Brunt is going into his sixth year as a Baggie and is well aware of what is expected of him. In a midfield trio alongside James Morrison and Youssef Mulumbu, Brunt provides the spark and a goal threat from range. If he can find top fitness following a spate of injuries, he will once again prove pivotal to any success West Brom have.

WEST HAM
Prediction: 14th
Odds: 2500/1

It must be rare to predict the play-off winners to be the best of the promoted teams, but in West Ham I think (a) they should have won the Championship in the first place and (b) they have the best manager suited to dealing with the pressure of being a newly promoted side.

Sam Allardyce would probably admit his side should have finished in the top two last year but showed in the play-off final that when a team is forced to come at them, they are capable of picking them off. The problem last year, was too many mid to lower-half Championship teams were happy to head to Upton Park and park the bus.

That won’t be the case this year for the majority of their home games and that could well play into West Ham’s hands. They won’t be a huge threat on the counter attack as the first team lack pace but they will ensure that any team leaving east London will know they’ve been in a battle. Allardyce’s style isn’t for everyone but you can guarantee his team will be competitive in every fixture they play this year.

There are a couple of worries though: Rob Green’s departure has left uncertainty between the posts. Will Stephen Henderson play or will Allardyce trust his old mate Jaaskelainen? At the back, are they asking too much for James Tomkins to be the primary centre-back? There is also a worrying lack of quality in the full-back positions as well as a real unknown quantity up front in Modibo Maiga.

Despite those worries, Allardyce has bought well in midfield. Mohammed Diame and Alou Diarra perfectly fit the Allardyce mould and offer strength and intensity in the middle of the park. With Mark Noble, possibly the club’s best footballer alongside them, it may be just the right mix. I expect West Ham to be a tough away day and always stay competitive on the road, finishing comfortably above the relegation zone.

Key Man: Mark Noble

Since making his debut for the Hammers eight years ago, Noble has tied down a regular starting spot as well as being promoted to vice-captain of the club. In the middle of the park he will be assisted by Diame and Diarra as well as Kevin Nolan and Jack Collison on occasion and Noble will be expected, as the ball-player, to move possession to the flanks and into Maiga or Carlton Cole. Expect him to pick up his fair share of goals and assists and truly make his mark on the Premier League after a season away.

WIGAN
Prediction: 19th
Odds: 2500/1

To be honest, I still don’t know how Wigan escaped last season but a run of seven wins and two defeats will help. Roberto Martinez isn’t for everyone – the Spaniard seemingly covers up six months of dross with a final relegation sparing flurry but no-one can begrudge the style his team try and play.

The 3-4-1-2 formation he introduced last year took a while to get going but once it did, it helped defeat Arsenal, Liverpool, Man Utd and Newcastle leaving them in 15th. With little cash to spare at the DW Stadium, I feel Martinez has done well by loaning Ryo Miyaichi and signing Arouna Kone. The latter, certainly could be a revelation and looks to be a more than adequate replacement for Hugo Rodallega.

The future of Victor Moses is still up in the air and although it is expected that he will leave (and that will be a big blow), the arrival of Miyaichi could be fantastic. This will be expected to be the Japan international’s breakthrough year after a mixed time on loan at Bolton. He has pace and trickery and if he finds more space in Wigan’s system than Bolton’s (as I suspect he will) we could see his true colours.

That said, I’m predicting Wigan to finally leave the Premier League. Their squad is smaller this year and I still have big doubts over whether Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz have the necessary ability to keep clean sheets. However, I’ve predicted Wigan to go down just about every season since they arrived in the league in 2005-06 and they always surprise, so I could be very wrong. We’ll see.

Key Man: Shaun Maloney

He took a while to feature regularly in the Wigan team last year after joining in the summer but it was no coincidence that his inclusion in the first team led to such a vast improvement in form. His three goals in 13 games last year were welcome – particularly as the club’s top scorer was Franco Di Santo with seven. He’s a precise set-piece taker as well as adept from the spot and I expect he’ll improve on his first year at Wigan this campaign.

That concludes my preview and to sum up I’ve put my full Premier League positional predictions below. Football is BACK!

1. Man City
2. Man Utd
3. Arsenal
4. Chelsea
5. Tottenham
6. Liverpool
7. Newcastle
8. Everton
9. Sunderland
10. Fulham
11. Aston Villa
12. QPR
13. Stoke
14. West Ham
15. Norwich
16. Southampton
17. WBA
18. Swansea
19. Wigan
20. Reading

Spurs reserves miss their last chance to impress Villas-Boas

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.

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