Returning players to reinforce
Spurs’ top-three ambitions
One of André Villas-Boas’ more endearing traits as a manager is that he doesn’t really do excuses. After Emmanuel Adebayor had turned the north London derby by getting himself sent off, other managers might have berated the Togolese striker, insisting it was all his fault (which it pretty much was). But Villas-Boas nodded earnestly and deflected attention by making some slightly bizarre claims about Spurs dominating the second half.
As Tottenham’s form stuttered in the autumn, other managers might have pointed to the club’s injury list; certainly it’s easy to imagine at least one of Villas-Boas’ predecessors complaining glumly about being down to the bare bones. Villas-Boas, though, has barely even acknowledged it. Give a footballer an excuse, as the theory goes, and he’ll take it.
Yet Spurs’ injury problems have been significant. Over the summer they sold Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart and the disruption of those departures has been compounded by the fact that they’ve been without their best centre-back, Younès Kaboul, and 2010-11 Player of the Year Scott Parker for most of the season, while their preferred left-back has played just three games and their most creative midfielder just eight. Gareth Bale has missed the last three games with a hamstring problem.
Scott Parker’s cameo as an injury-time substitute in Sunday’s victory over Swansea was part of a more general trend. Just as the busy Christmas programme approaches, Spurs have players coming back. Benoît Assou-Ekotto, who hasn’t played since 1 September, is training again after a knee problem and Bale could also return against Stoke City on Saturday. Kaboul is back in training too, having not played since the opening day of the season because of knee trouble, while Michael Dawson has returned to fitness after a hamstring problem.
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem that you view the situation we’ve gone through,” said Villas-Boas after the Swansea game. “This is a completely new team, plus the injuries we’ve had to these players. To have them back now is a major, major bonus. Benoît is not far off, Michael also next week, Bale next week, Scotty is back now, so competition obviously increases for places. It’s the first time we’re going to have the players at this level.”
Tottenham are fourth anyway and have won five of their last six games in all competitions – the odd game out being the defeat at Everton when they conceded twice in the final minute to lose. They have found a rhythm and, while the concession of late goals remains a problem – nine points have been lost to goals conceded in the final 10 minutes of games – there is a sense that a team is emerging.
Villas-Boas has been criticised for the way he has handled the goalkeeping situation, but with the ageing incumbent, Brad Friedel, playing well and a top-class new signing arriving, in the shape of Hugo Lloris, it’s not really clear what he should have done. In fact, if French national manager Didier Deschamps hadn’t stuck his oar in, there might not have been an issue at all.
The transition has been managed and Spurs now have an agile keeper at the peak of his form who is comfortable leaving his box to mop up behind the defence; this means the defensive line can press higher up the field, which in turn advances the midfield, making it easier for midfielders to break and join the attack. The way Jermain Defoe was left isolated had been a major problem earlier in the season, but this should help alleviate that.
And, of course, having Parker back doesn’t just mean competition for places; it also means that, with Sandro and Dembélé alongside Parker, Spurs can play an extremely flexible and dynamic triangle in midfield, enhancing their attacking options.
With their next five games against teams in the lower half of the table, Spurs should be able to establish themselves in the Champions League places. Improving on last season’s fourth place seemed an ambitious aim when Harry Redknapp was ousted, but with Chelsea self-destructing, third place suddenly looks distinctly possible.
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