Andre Villas-Boas’ grand Europa League designs for Tottenham Hotspur look more than logical on paper. Since his arrival in White Hart Lane, the Portuguese has been on the charm offensive for Uefa’s secondary cup competition and in the process, he’s looked to have won many fans over.
The vision of making a march through the competition, sending an army of Spurs fans to the final in Amsterdam and looking to emulate the heroes of 1984, seems to have resonated well with supporters. A fresh approach to the Europa League has been welcomed and for the most part, it’s been warmly embraced.
Putting that into practice, however, has been a little more difficult.
Spurs have stuttered through three draws in their opening three games in Group J, despite fielding what has usually been the bulk of available first team players. For all Villas-Boas’ good intentions, Tottenham simply haven’t clicked in Europe so far. The positive intentions have certainly appeared a lot more transient with the players, than with the fans.
A series of lackadaisical performances from Tottenham in the Europa League doesn’t necessarily transcend into apathy, but you can’t shake the impression sometimes that Villas-Boas’ players might not be entirely convinced about plying their efforts into a European tour this year.
Even in last night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Norwich City in the Capital One Cup, several Spurs players seemed to mince around the pitch at times in a similar manner to what we have seen in Europe, with all the enthusiasm of a testimonial. Of course, Villas-Boas himself can hardly be blame-free in Spurs’ fate in the cup competitions so far. The perpetual pressure-inviting substitution that he’s wheeled out several times since his arrival in N17 has found a happy home in the cup games, too.
But perhaps the difference is that come Saturday, it’s hard to imagine the side exuding such lethargy in their Premier League game at home to Wigan. Of course, Spurs’ slightly fractured style of play – especially at home – in which they continue to look to find a real flow to proceedings, hasn’t exactly produced a barrage of stand out performers.
Yet the side have worked harder, ran longer and battled stronger for Villas-Boas in the league than in any of their European outings so far. Yes, they were unlucky to not win against Lazio at home, but they didn’t play with anywhere near as much verve as they did the four days previous away to Reading. Again, bar the additions of Lloris, Caulker and Dempsey for the game at home to the Italians – which arguably made them stronger – they simply couldn’t seem to find that extra gear.
Some could well accuse an element of over analysis in this instance, but given the manager’s intentions and the ability of this squad, it seems bizarre to see them look so sluggish. Is the motivation to take the Europa League seriously, after Harry Redknapp’s cultivated an air of insignificance around the competition, a potential issue here? Would the players simply rather focus their bodies and minds into the weekend’s league games? Or have they just been unlucky?
You can take your pick from the above, but for whatever reason it may be, the Europa League now has the capacity to prove a toxic entity for Andre Villas-Boas. Fielding an exceedingly strong XI in the competition is all very well if the side are picking up the results they should be. But they’re not. And considering the somewhat urban myth that is the depth of this Tottenham Hotspur squad side, the credentials of fielding a first choice team that simply don’t look to have clicked with the competition, begin to look dubious.
Tottenham are of course, missing not just several players to injury, but several first teamers, as well. Scott Parker, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Younes Kaboul, Mousa Dembele and Emmanuel Adebayor have all succumbed to the treatment table. But past the side that Villas-Boas has been fielding in recent weeks, the cupboard is a lot more threadbare than what it may seem.
As we saw last night in the League Cup tie against Norwich, with Adebayor out on the sidelines, Spurs only have one recognised striker in Jermain Defoe. Forget missed penalties and however many league goals he got last year, Clint Dempsey is not an out-and-out frontman. Certainly not one who can on his own up front in this system.
At right-back, Kyle Walker has played in all of Spurs’ 14 games so far this season, despite experiencing a difficult run of form. He could have done with a night off last night, but his deputy, Kyle Naughton, had to play at left-back. Why? Because beyond first choice Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the stock room is empty. Villas-Boas has consequently had to field his first-choice centre-half in Jan Vertonghen, in his place so far this season.
Every team goes through injury crises and Spurs are no different. But despite boasting a gloriously talented first XI, there is something of a myth depicting this perceived reserve of depth and talent.
Many fans, including myself, have been well behind Andre Villas-Boas’ clamour for Europa League glory. The sentiments of Danny Blanchflower hold far more gravitas than Arsene Wenger’s. The game is about glory and silverware. Not just fourth place and bank balances.
But it may just be that Spurs need to think very carefully about their European forays this year. The squad isn’t as strong as what many may have initially thought and although they’re suffering from injuries, it’s by no means the worse list we’ve ever seen. Yet they’re only one or two more away from some real trouble indeed. Putting everything into a competition that just doesn’t seem to be clicking, feels not necessarily reckless, but an educated gamble.
And it’s one that Spurs maybe need not take for the moment. Rome wasn’t built in a day. If three points aren’t forthcoming against Maribor next Thursday, then there’s nothing wrong with putting Villas-Boas’ grand designs on ice.
What do you think about both Spurs’ Europa League fate and the strength of AVB’s squad? Let me know on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus to talk Tottenham.