It must feel like Groundhog Day at White Hart Lane – an eternal, almost supernatural repetition of events that seems to go full circle every season, with Tottenham once again missing out on Champions League qualification at the hands of local rivals Arsenal.
The Lilywhites have now finished up in fifth place four times out of their last eight Premier League campaigns, in addition to rather unluckily having their continental qualification stripped away from them despite claiming fourth spot due to Chelsea’s crowning as European champions, while the Gunners have continually maintained their Champions League status.
Harry Redknapp’s inability to break into the Champions League cost him his job last summer; despite the misfortune of the rare circumstance in which fourth place was not enough to qualify during the 2011/2012 season, Daniel Levy relieved the current QPR boss of his duties. Rather than sticking with Redknapp’s experience and clout in the transfer market, the Spurs owner opted for a young, fresh and enthusiastic counter-part in Andre Villas-Boas.
Yet with the improvements at White Hart Lane clearly little more than superficial, as Spurs once again fail to breach the gap between themselves and the Premier League’s top four, it begs the question as to whether the former Chelsea boss’s appointment was worthwhile. Would Tottenham be better off with Redknapp still at the helm?
The campaign started strongly enough for the incoming AVB. One of Redknapp’s failings during his tenure in North London was undoubtedly his inability to secure points against the bigger teams, seen by Levy as one of the key barriers to continental qualification that needed to be confronted by the new manager. In September, the Lilywhites recorded a historic victory, trumping Manchester United 3-2, the first time Spurs have secured a win at Old Trafford since 1989.
Claiming all three points against the Red Devils is a feat Redknapp failed to accomplish during his four years at White Hart Lane, and further underdog performances followed with victories against Arsenal and Manchester City, while claiming draws away to Chelsea and at home to United.
Yet, if Villas-Boas had finally overcome Tottenham’s weakness in top of the table clashes, he had also undoubtedly let the season slip against similar and lesser opposition. Allowing Wigan and Norwich to both claim four points off the Lilywhites hurt them, but far more detrimental to their campaign were losses against Everton and Liverpool, with the two Merseyside clubs making up the final teams along with Spurs and Arsenal involved in the mini-league that battled it out for fourth spot.
Had Tottenham took anything away in terms of points from their defeat at Anfield a week after their victory in the North London derby, they would have not only ended the Reds’ outside chances of doing the unthinkable and making it into Europe, relieving pressure on themselves, but they would have also left Arsenal dead and buried, rather than giving them an opportunity to get back into the running for Champions League qualification.
It’s difficult to place exactly where the blame lies for the defeat to Liverpool, in addition to another the week after at home to Fulham. While Andre Villas-Boas’ tactics have come under scrutiny, with the game-plan more often than not seemingly to get the ball to Gareth Bale at every opportunity, there is no doubt the fortnightly blip in form was due to a lack of depth in the Spurs squad.
Two of the stars of the first half of the season – Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe – had both picked up injuries, with the former absent for the best part of March, while the latter was able to play but clearly a long way shy of performing to the fullest of his abilities. Suddenly, the Spurs squad, once praised for its strength in depth, was beginning to resemble a house of cards, with a few key figures being removed to show its underlying flaws and weaknesses.
Lennon had been the ying to Bale’s yang, and the Welshman found it difficult to significantly impact games in the Englishman’s absence, whilst a lack of options up front meant that the Lilywhites’ fate lay in the hands of the lacklustre, lazy and uninterested Emmanuel Adebayor.
At the end of the season, the finger was very much pointed at Daniel Levy, who has been the driving force behind Tottenham’s recruitment over the past few years, for a lack of January signings and his inability to spot the potential for disaster should both of the squad’s only speedy wide men pick up injuries. Yet, considering Spurs invested a significant amount in the summer to bring in new recruits, such as Hugo Lloris, Moussa Dembele, Jan Vertonghen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Emmanuel Adebayor on a permanent contract, how much more can we expect in terms of improvement of personnel in a single season, without disrupting the harmony at White Hart Lane?
Similarly, it’s not as if Andre Villas-Boas came up with a particularly imaginative solution. As previously mentioned, the game-plan for the season quickly transformed from the use of speed and pace throughout, playing a high line to even make full use out of Lloris’ unusual fastness for a Goalkeeper, to simply getting the ball to Tottenham’s talisman – Gareth Bale. By the latter stages of the season, the Lilywhites’ football had lost its energy and flair, and the focus had become solely on the Welshman.
You can hardly blame the Spurs boss; Bale was the hottest individual force in the Premier League, and the squad’s biggest contributor to the goal tally. But the Welsh wonder’s rise to greatness was hardly AVB’s doing. He had been waiting in the shadows for some time, with two strong seasons under Harry Redknapp, and the current footballing year has simply been the coming of age campaign that had been anticipated from the 23 year old since being purchased from Southampton back in 2007.
So what has AVB actually done during his first year as Tottenham boss? Well, he changed the club’s emphasis on the Europa League, a tournament the former manager despised, only to confirm already widely held beliefs in England that the second-tier competition is only worthwhile should you make it to the final, as Spurs went crashing out to the hands of Basel, costing them in terms of fatigue and injuries in the process.
He’s also modified the way the Lilywhites play, with an emphasis on speed following the arrival of new, pacey recruits, only to realise that the model was not sustainable for a whole season due to the make-up of Tottenham’s roster, and like Redknapp had done for the three seasons previous, soon became unstuck by March time, after going strong for the first seven months of their campaign.
And yet, we are still to witness any particular tactical master-stroke from a manager once hailed as being a modern day philosopher of the beautiful game. A former understudy to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Porto, the only change in tact from Redknapp’s era to his own appears to be the deployment of Gareth Bale as a supporting striker, and moving Tottenham’s defence a few yards higher up the pitch. Both can hardly be considered revolutionary ideas, and a long way shy of constituting theoretical change at White Hart Lane, with Spurs’ ability to play attractive and dominant football greater praised last season under Redknapp.
In many ways, the superficial feat of Spurs’ season, in claiming their highest points total to date in the Premier League era sums up AVB’s first year at the helm in North London. Whilst on the surface, their 72 point haul seems impressive, it has little bearing if your divisional rivals improve at the same rate.
It symbolises how although the Lilywhites now have a young, good looking, eager and hungry manager at the helm, the improvements, in terms of taking points against the Premier League’s top four, refreshing of the roster, and the overall ambitious nature of AVB’s appointment, have done little to take the club closer to their ultimate goal of Champions League qualification.
With Gareth Bale finally reaching the optimum of his powers this season, the likelihood is that Harry Redknapp would have been able to get a similar level of performance out of him, in addition to outweighing Villas-Boas in terms of Premier League experience, who unlike the Portuguese has broken into the top four twice before.
It begs the question as to what could have been this season had Levy kept on his former head coach for another year, with the current QPR boss privy to Bale’s hot form, and with Arsenal, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs set to strengthen heavily in the transfer market this summer, in addition to the Welshman’s potential departure to La Liga, the Tottenham owner may have inadvertently thrown away the club’s best chance of continental qualification for a generation in refusing to renew Redknapp’s contract.
Would Tottenham have been better off keeping Harry Redknapp?
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