Have Tottenham contributed to this season of regression?
It’s been a turbulent ten days for most at Tottenham Hotspur, but few have perhaps come out of their three consecutive losses at home and abroad worse than Kyle Walker.
The young England international’s troubles in recapturing the form that propelled him to the PFA Young Player of the Year award last season have been well documented, but up until now, his struggles haven’t seen him pay the ultimate penalty of a first-team axe.
After playing 120 minutes against Internazionale last Thursday, there is of course ever chance that Andre Villas-Boas was simply giving Walker – who’s started a staggering 41 games this season – a well-needed rest in his decision to relegate him to the bench for Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Fulham.
But with five of those who also clocked up the full, Herculean effort in Italy starting during he weekend, it’s difficult to determine quite the reasoning behind his place on the bench against Martin Jol’s side.
A sloppy performance against Inter at the San Siro came just four days after another poor showing in the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool in which his Kamikaze-backpass pre-empted Spurs’ collapse up on Merseyside. Certainly, there’s enough evidence there to suggest that after several months of unnerving backing, Villas-Boas may have simply been keen to try something different. Whether he ruthlessly cut him, gave it a rest or took him out of the firing line; for however you wish to frame it, Walker’s omission from this Spurs line-up felt telling.
Given the quality of his replacement, Kyle Naughton’s performance over the weekend, quite how long that omission lasts for remains to be seen. Although while Walker’s woes during this campaign seem to have reached something of a nadir in recent weeks, when peeling beneath the surface, how much of a role has the club played in the downturn of its right-back’s fortunes?
Because when analysing the depth of the amount of cover that Spurs can afford Kyle Walker should he fall victim to an injury, suspension or an aforementioned lack of form, then we perhaps gauge an idea as to quite why he’s started so many games for the Lilywhites.
In both full-back berths, the club has well and truly put their eggs in the respective baskets of both Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker, as their first-choice pairing. And as opposed to searching out another pair of specialist full-backs to offer astute cover, they seem to have plumped for a single utility man in Kyle Naughton as the easy option, not to mention the cheaper one, to cover both bases.
Now despite the questionable level of quality that Naughton offers on both the left and right hand side, it’s not just cover that the club are lacking at full-back. Most crucially, they’re also lacking competition, too and it’s within this lack of a rivalry for places that perhaps Walker can partially attribute to what is quickly becoming a season of regression for the 22-year-old.
When he first broke into this Spurs side, Walker hardly strolled into first-team proceedings with his starting place handed to him on a silver platter. For as much talent as the former-Sheffield United man bestowed, in both Vedran Corluka and Alan Hutton, Walker had a pair of established, international right-backs sitting in his way.
It may seem easy to ridicule the duo now, although for a player of such little Premier League experience to not only fight his way into a team like Spurs aged 21, but stay there, too, was quite some achievement. His form first saw off Hutton, as the club quickly acknowledged they wouldn’t be needing him, culminating in his sale on the deadline day of 2011. Next up was the scalp of Corluka, with Walker’s sustained form ensuring the Croatian had barely had a kick of a ball when he initially left on loan last January.
But this season, there hasn’t been a Hutton or a Corluka to dispose of. In fact for the duration of this season, there hasn’t even been much of a recognized presence to even offer a token element of competition for Walker.
With Assou-Ekotto’s early season injury ensuring most of Naughton’s outings have been spent on the other side of defence, Walker’s place in this Spurs line-up has appeared almost bulletproof. And as Naughton proved against Fulham, if competition really is Walker’s problem then his former Sheffield United teammate most certainly isn’t the answer.
Complacency is a difficult thing to gauge and from the outside, Walker certainly doesn’t wear the look of a man not giving his all for the club and even if the performances haven’t been there, his commitment to the cause has very rarely been in doubt.
But after showing such promise during his breakthrough season, the lack of concentration, carelessness and general haphazard approach to defending has been sustained enough for Walker to begin unravelling so much of the good work that he produced last term.
And with that difficult period of form now having stretched from a few sticky games to the vast majority of a whole league campaign, perhaps it’s time for a change in approach from the Spurs management. Kyle Walker’s had the arm around the shoulder. Maybe it’s time for a kick up a backside. Tottenham need to bring in competition at right-back for the sake of both their own progress and that of Walker’s, too.