Do Tottenham symbolise a new Premier League trend?
Tottenham Hotspur are amid one of their most successful seasons to date, currently sitting pretty at third in the Premier League table, and today Spurs fans will no doubt be in a rather jovial mood following their dominant 3-0 display over European giants Inter Milan in the Europa League yesterday evening.
Of course, nothing is yet set in stone. Tottenham looked set to finish in third place last season under Harry Redknapp, with Sir Alex Ferguson commenting just after Christmas 2011 that they were playing the best football in the English top-flight. But towards the end of the campaign the squad burnt out, and ended up missing their opportunity to play on the Champions League to local rivals Arsenal on the last day of the season.
But their recent progress under Andre Villas-Boas raises some interesting points about the nature of the Premier League. The style adopted by the Portuguese boss has been based around counter-attacking away, and defending with a pushed up back line at home, underpinned by the squad’s cumulative pace which is unrivalled in the top flight.
Not only do they have Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker at their disposal, who all possess blistering speed, but even the likes of Younes Kaboul, Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele are unusually speedy considering the positions they are deployed in. Even their goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris has been hailed as the fastest No.1 in the Premiership, and the French international operates as a sweeper behind a backline which can comfortably play high up the pitch.
So has speed become the name of the game? Will it be the underlying asset required of Premier League footballers in the years to come?
It certainly seems to be a must-have for the modern day defender. Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen’s biggest advantage to his game is his speed, which allows him to cover for Per Mertesacker, who quite frankly turns and moves slower than a battleship. Similarly, the last two centre-backs Chelsea have acquired – David Luiz and Gary Cahill – are both lacking in some defensive qualities, but their pace is exceptional for central defenders.
Furthermore, Vincent Kompany, who is regarded as the best centre-back in the Premier League following his fantastic displays last season, is incredibly athletic and quick off the mark, giving him an advantage when having to deal with some of the top-flight’s fastest and trickiest attackers.
I’ve always found Manchester United as a relatively good barometer of the direction the English game is moving in. Sir Alex Ferguson’s continual success has been based around his ability to spot moving trends and capitalise upon them whilst other teams go through a rather slower evolution process.
Although a number of the United old boys are rather slow, and in some cases verging on immobile, such as Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic and now Rio Ferdinand – who has lost an incredibly valuable yard of pace which once made him a top quality defender – the next generation coming through to the first-team at Old Trafford all have speed in their locker; Phil Jones, Rafael, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa for example.
United are also rumoured to be interested in signing Torino’s Angelo Ogbonna, an incredibly fast Italian centre-back, and in the summer were also hot on the trail of Moussa Dembele before being pipped to the post by Spurs.
Athleticism and physicality has always been an underpinning factor in the English game. The Premier League’s entertainment value is based around the end-to-end style of most matches, rather than the subdued and tactical pace of Serie A for example, which often resembles a chess match more than it does a game of football. Similarly, Newcastle’s Vurnon Anita recently described struggling to adapt to the Premiership after moving from Ajax because of its “up-down up-down” nature.
But never before has pace become such a valuable asset. Although in the past it has always been a considerable advantage, one was still capable of getting away with sheer footballing ability alone, and furthermore it was a prerequisite before athletic ability.
But nowadays, it appears speed has become a replacement for actual talent. Manchester City’s Gael Clichy for example, in my opinion is rather limited in terms of skill on the ball and lacking in defensive awareness, but his exceptional pace alone allows him to perform to a competent level for a title-winning club.
Lower down the League, Reading, Norwich and Sunderland have struggled at times this season for having a lack of pace, and West Ham, Stoke and Fulham have found themselves solidly stuck in mid table for the same reason, whilst Swansea City and West Brom have been the year’s surprise candidates for European places, relying on fast-paced counter-attacks to get results.
Perhaps my argument so far has been rather one-sided. Of course, there are some obvious examples of Premier League footballers who don’t fit the mould, such as Per Mertesacker, Dimitar Berbatov and Gareth Barry. But all of these players are into the latter parts of their career, and rely on having another exceptional characteristic in their locker to get by.
Football is a sport that constantly evolves, and therefore, a natural evolution as players have become more fitness based and sports science has become part of the game has been the overall necessity of pace, no matter what position on the pitch a footballer is used in
Furthermore, it provides a huge tactical advantage – Theo Walcott for example essentially has a half chance any time a decent ball is put over the top of the opposition defence. Similarly, a team that possesses great pace throughout will always have a physical advantage over a side that is lacking in the same department, and therefore will more often than not claim a result against them based on that one simple factor. Of course, it is always possible to defend against a faster opponent – John Terry has been doing it for his whole career.
But as a new generation of talent comes through, fastness is the characteristic forming consistent trend. It is no coincidence that Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott are this season’s stand-out players. Yet I am a firm believer that speed of thought and pace of mind can beat any legs on a football pitch. That is why the exceptional talents of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes still have a place in the English top flight, despite their aging bodies.