Spurs: a work in progress
Last season, during an alarming slump that saw their team blow a 13-point lead over Arsenal and ultimately give up third spot, Tottenham fans wasted no time venting their frustration over Gareth Bale being played out of position by Harry Redknapp.
“Bale plays on the left” was the chant that cascaded down from the stands whenever the club’s prized asset operated either down the middle on the right side of midfield.
In the build-up to today’s game against Queens Park Rangers, Andre Villas-Boas, the new man at the helm, insisted he had no intention of incurring similar wrath as he strives to impose his management style and get the best out of Bale who surprised many by signing a new four-year contract in June instead of moving to Spain.
And so it was, when the latest Tottenham team line-up was announced, that Bale was indeed playing on the left. The problem was, he still looked out of position – at fullback. A position, agreed, he used to fulfill with some prowess when he started his career and rose through the ranks but which, with his pace and power to take on opposing defenders, he has ceased to occupy in favour of a more dangerous and exciting wide midfield role.
With no recognised leftback available to him, AVB, as he is known, would doubtless argue he had no choice but to start Bale in a position with which he is at least familiar. But the knock-on effect left Tottenham's formation completely out of kilter. All around the ground, spectators screamed their disapproval. No Bale wide on the left meant Spurs were far less effective, far less cohesive, far less penetrative.
It wasn’t only that. Villas-Boas, despite his tender years, prides himself on tactics and doing his pre-match homework. After finally getting their league season up and running at Reading, this was the game we expected the new-look Tottenham to impress in front of the home fans; for the players to gel; for the excitement to build.
Far from it. Where was the element of surprise and guile? Spurs, for an hour, were thoroughly disjointed, their ball retention – an integral part of the Continental style AVB had supposedly brought to the club – embarrassingly non-existant. No flow, no understanding, precious little invention. But for goalkeeper Brad Friedel, Mark Hughes’ team could and should have led by more at halftime than Bobby Zamora’s close-range effort. Cue a chorus of halftime boos, not for the first time under AVB’s fledging tenure.
Spurs had to change and change they did. Off went a midfield player, on came a central defender, with the admirable and supremely versatile Jan Vertonghen switching from the centre of defence to leftback where, of course, he has played many times before and where he looked completely at ease.
To his credit, AVB had identified the problem and done something about it. Now Bale was playing in his favoured position even though, long before then, 36,000 fans had already spotted what needed adjusting. Spurs suddenly looked sharper and more determined as they turned the game on its head in the blink of an eye. While their equaliser had more than a touch of good fortune about it, the ball inexplicably turned into his own net by Alejandro Faurlin, the predator that is Jermain Defoe nicked the points as Rangers licked their wounds and Spurs clicked into gear.
Yet still they failed to close the game out and you have to ask why. Was it because of their growing number of injuries? Surely not given squad sizes these days. Was it, as AVB had made reference to in his pre-match press conference, a case of new players needing time to get to know each other in the cauldron of a match environment rather than simply in training? Negative again. QPR offloaded 17 players in the summer and brought in 12 yet they played from the kickoff as a cohesive unit, everyone knowing what his role was.
It’s still early days for Spurs under the post-Harry Redknapp era. They already look a far fitter unit and in Vertonghen – who heard his name chanted for the first time after a quite brilliant sliding tackle that prevented a certain leveller for the visitors – they already appear to have a successor to the now-retired Ledley King. In other words, calmness and anticipation personified.
But the natives will take some convincing about the new regime. Villas-Boas, desperate to succeed after being sacked by Chelsea in March, says not much should be read into early-season form and that all the top teams have dropped points. Maybe so. Give the man a minimum of 10 games before you judge him.
Yet the worry is that if the pressing game he so passionately favours is negated with such intelligence by teams such as Queens Park Rangers – who deserved a draw -- it doesn’t augur too well for when Spurs meet the big boys. Talking of whom, next up in the league are the small matter of Manchester United at Old Trafford where Spurs fans will tell you, with typical exaggeration, they haven’t won since the Titanic went down.