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Spurs In Danger Of Falling Away

Wednesday 14th March 2012
With one swish of Thomas Vermalen's right foot in the dying minutes at the Emirates, the Champions League race turnaround was complete. The gap between the North London rivals evaporated to a single point, putting Arsenal in the ascendancy with Tottenham looking nervously over their shoulder.

Their current form of three straight defeats has seen Spurs look a shade of the team they have been for much of the season. Their usual verve, pace and meticulous passing game has been undone by some bewildering tactics and disjointed performances, that has upset the consistency of the team.

Back in January the table showed Tottenham 10 points in front of Arsenal, having lost only two games since the opening fixtures of the season, when they were outclassed by Manchester's top dogs. Since then Tottenham's form has slipped, while Arsenal have gone from strength to strength after their San Siro humiliation, winning five games on the spin including a 5-2 victory over their fiercest enemies.

Harry Redknapp, full of confidence going into the North London derby after the demolition of Newcastle, took the gamble to play an attack-minded team wat the Emirates. He utilised both Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha in attack, with Gareth Bale and Niko Kranjcar out wide, in attempt to push Arsenal back towards their own goal and try to nullify their own attacking intent.

For 20 minutes or so it worked; Saha got a goal, Luka Modric and Bale saw plenty of the ball, and Adebayor made a nuisance of himself. But with such attacking intent, the midfield got horribly overrun, with Scott Parker struggling to keep the ship from sinking. Despite a half-time change which saw the introduction of Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart, who both should have started, the game continued in the same vain and Spurs failed to cope with Arsenal's fluency and energy.

More worrying than the result was that for the first time this season the old Spurs habits began to creep back into the team. Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Younes Kaboul showed the panicky clearances and thoughtless passing in front of their own goal that made the Spurs faithful so nervous back when they first signed for the club. Kyle Walker, so impressive in the first half of the season, continued to try to play his way out of trouble from right-back and skipper Ledley King's lack of pace and general fitness levels again became a genuine concern. The result: a marauding, relentless attacking display from Arsenal, which managed to not only embarrass a Spurs team who had been talked up in the “North London Power Shift”, but play the kind of football that had Spurs talked about as title contenders.

Then against Man United, Spurs continued in the same vain tactics, playing 4-4-2 but without Bale and Parker. Modric was out of position and unable to stamp any authority on the game and the side was always going to struggle against a United team almost back to full strength. Spurs performed admirably enough, with the impressive midfield pairing of Sandro and Jake Livermore brilliant in nullifying Carrick and Scholes in midfield, but we lacked United's class and were undone by defensive mistakes.

4-4-2 was the name of the game again against a dogged, determined Everton team at Goodison Park. Here, Redknapp chose somewhat bewilderingly to start with Bale on the right and Modric on the left, with Parker and Sandro centrally, and the cruelly underused Defoe given a rare start. But despite a valiant comeback attempt in the second half after falling behind, the tactics played straight into Everton's hands. Bale and Modric were easily nullified out wide, and with the midfield two rarely venturing forward supply to Adebayor and Defoe was almost non-existent. Even a too-late-to-save-us cameo from van der Vaart wasn't enough, the game was lost. Too many “oohs and ahhs”, not enough “cut and thrust.”

What has steered Spurs so well over the season as a whole is the ability to mix up the style of play and personnel to great effect. Arguably our most effective and most balanced performance this season was away at Carrow Road in December. There, we played similar to how Arsenal and Manchester City play to great effect, with Sandro and Parker anchoring the midfield with Modric, and Adebayor up front on his own to allow Bale, Van der Vaart (or Lennon) to roam freely behind him. This system enables the side to distribute the ball around the pitch, keep possession for long periods and punish teams when needed.

To revert to 4-4-2 seems to be a huge step backwards, particularly away from home. We did so well in the Champions League last year, acclimatising to the change of pace and changing our style to ultimately defeat Milan's Inter and AC, and reach the quarter finals. Since then, with the additions of Parker and Adebayor and the emergence of Walker and of course Bale and Sandro, we have set ourselves up for another go at the big time.

What puzzles me the most about the recent slump is the inclusion of Louis Saha. Viewed as another shrewd signing by Redknapp, I envisioned Saha as a decent “secret weapon”, able to perhaps come off the bench when we needed him, and utilise his aerial ability and strength to help keep the form going. But as first choice centre forward with Adebayor? What Jermain Defoe, Spurs' top scorer this year despite his lack of starts, and even Roman Pavlyuchenko, always talked up as a “talent” by Redknapp but sold in January, must be thinking is anyone's guess. Would the Russian have been used in the same way as Saha if he had stayed? I doubt it.

Newcastle played into our hands last month, which allowed Adebayor and Saha to play to their strengths. But not every team will make that mistake against Spurs, preferring the usual 11-men-behind-the-ball tactic. But as the Arsenal and Everton games have shown, it is almost suicidal these days to play with two up top, with so many teams utilising holding midfielders to complement their attacking ones. As shown against Norwich, and even without winning at Man City and Liverpool, we will give ourselves more of a chance to stay in a match if the midfield-attack balance is right. Heck, even Rooney will play in midfield for United if the needs must.

With a trip to Stamford Bridge, where we haven't won since 1990, just around the corner, and this weekend's FA Cup quarter-final with Bolton now taking on even more importance, it's time Redknapp reverted back to how we play best. Injuries pending, surely Van der Vaart's inclusion is a must alongside Modric and Bale, as well as utilising Kranjcar on the right (he's right-footed Harry, he can play there) in the absence of Lennon.

By reverting back to the system that had worked so well in the early stages of the season, Spurs may be able to jump-start the season back in their favour, before it's too late.

Scott Davis

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