While last night’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool saw Tottenham Hotspur look to finally begin rebuilding something resembling a bit of momentum at White Hart Lane, it wasn’t just the collective first XI who looked to banish a troublesome spell of form behind them.
Following the toughest run of form he’s endured in his short but successful Spurs career, Kyle Walker looked to put in what was arguably his best performance of the season so far. The Sheffield-born right back had his moments against Brendan Rodgers’ side, but overall, he put in as assured a performance defensively, that we’ve seen for quite some time.
Whether this signals a real turnaround in form for the current PFA Young Player of the Year, it’s perhaps too early to tell. But while the signs are encouraging, the problems Walker has experienced only serve to highlight a far more burgeoning issue for Andre Villas-Boas’ squad.
Because although Tottenham have been forced to weather a series of unfortunate injury issues all over the pitch, there’s been an begrudging sense of inevitability about the situation they currently find themselves in at both full-back slots. The writing’s been on the wall for a while now in N17 and chairman Daniel Levy would do well not to ignore it come the January transfer window.
Of course, things seemed so rosy for Tottenham at fullback last season. Such was the consistency in both form and fitness of Walker and Assou-Ekotto, it seemed difficult to even imagine a Spurs side without the pair. Walker missed just the one Premier League game, with Assou-Ekotto missing five.
But although it would be somewhat harsh to suggest both club and support took the pair for granted, judging by the neglect any form of back up plan received, that might not be such a false statement after all.
In terms of support for their right-sided defensive berth, Spurs finished the season with, well, nothing. The departure of Vedran Corluka out on loan in January left the then-Harry Redknapp led Spurs side without a recognized right back. The now QPR manager was happy to let one of his centre halves fill in should the need arise, a feat that would appear waying well on the side of recklessness, if it wasn’t for the luck they received.
Kyle Walker managed to last an entire season, before breaking down with a toe injury in their final game against Fulham. His replacement that day? Untested academy product Adam Smith, who was coincidentally making his debut, too. The warning signs were there for Tottenham.
Likewise at left back, Spurs have been staring down the barrel depth wise. Remarkably, for a side chasing Champions League football, they also failed to have another recognized left back past Assou-Ekotto for much of the season. While Danny Rose may currently be plying his trade up at Sunderland in the role, let’s not forget why he was initially deployed there in the first place; in an emergency role by Harry Redknapp.
It was a role that seemed to stick more out of convenience than it did via some form of astute tactical transformation. Following Assou-Ekotto’s season ending shoulder injury, Spurs finished the season in turmoil on the left side. Would a recognized left-back have dived into the challenge Danny Rose did to get sent off at Aston Villa last term? It’s hard to say, but it ensured their most valuable attacking outlet in Gareth Bale, finished the term in the berth.
To some, this may all seem slightly irrelevant, but given what we’ve seen so far this term, it couldn’t be more so. The end of the 2011-12 term demonstrated not just how lucky the Lilywhites had been last term, but the ramifications of what might happen if they don’t get in reinforcements at both fullback slots.
The return of Kyle Naughton to the club was a move in the right direction, but even then, it’s not without faults. Spurs have essentially got one traditional fullback to cover two full-back slots and the results have been palpable.
Seemingly oblivious to the concept that both Assou-Ekotto and Walker could be injured/out of form at the same time, Villas-Boas’ side now have arguably their best centre half shifted out at left-back. Jan Vertonghen’s adeptness to play there is all very well and it is an unfortunate necessity, but in doing so, it’s hugely weakened their standing at centre half.
Kyle Naughton has been a popular fans suggestion to move Vertonghen back to centre-half. But if Villas-Boas has deemed him not good enough to replace Kyle Walker this term, given his at times desperately poor form, you can read into that what you will. Having had a difficult time against Maribor at left back and after a roasting against Theo Walcott in the 5-2 defeat to Arsenal, it’s understandable as to why Villas-Boas has persevered with the Belgian.
Does Naughton need time? Maybe so, but the notion that Villas-Boas may not be a huge believer in the youngster is one that is perhaps to difficult to bear for some supporters. Either way, Spurs have to address their fullback issues in January.
A new left back is a matter of priority. Jan Vertonghen is too integral at the heart of defense to be carted wide left – he was brought as a centre half and he must stay that way. Tottenham cannot continue with one recognized left back and even when fit, Benoit Assou-Ekotto needs a competitor to stave off complacency.
And while it might not produce universal agreement, Spurs do need another right back, too. All supporters will be over the moon for Kyle Walker if he has finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel form-wise. But the brutal truth is his start to the season should have seen him loose his place. If Kyle Naughton couldn’t displace him then, maybe he never will.
The likelihood will be that Spurs will settle simply on another left back. With January only just over a month away, they look to have got away with their shortcomings at fullback. They must learn from their mistakes.