Forget about the biggest games of the year, those against the likes of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. If Tottenham Hotspur are serious about mounting a challenge for a top four finish this season, they must focus on getting wins against teams people expect them to sail past.
The greatest hindrance in Spurs’ action-packed 2010/11 season was their repeated failure to kill off the games in which they were heavy favourites. Against the bottom five teams last season – West Ham, Birmingham, Blackpool, Wigan and Wolves – Spurs took a miserable 11 points from 30. Contrast this against their form in matches with the other five highest finishers, from which Harry Redknapp’s men secured 13 points, and you’ll begin to see the problem.
Part of the issue can only be down to the playing personnel Spurs had to call on last season. Many fans would argue that the 2010/11 squad lacked the requisite mental strength to compete in games against more physical teams scrapping and fighting to retain Premier League status. We could try to delve deeper into this argument, but there is little point – the signing of Scott Parker in the summer can essentially be read as an admission by Redknapp that he needed more grit in the spine of his team. The veteran manager’s persistence in trying to restore Ledley King to full fitness is another indicator.
If they wish to succeed in their aim to return to the Champions’ League this term, Spurs must fashion a more robust attitude for matches against the trickier small teams this season. The three promoted teams bear certain similarities with those they replaced – Swansea share Blackpool’s unreservedly attacking approach, and QPR have fashioned an experienced squad with several similarities to the 2010/11 version of West Ham.
Without the distraction of the Champions’ League group stage clogging up their fixture list this season, Redknapp has trimmed some of the fat from his squad, and brought in quality players in Parker, Brad Friedel and Emmanuel Adebayor to strengthen some of its weaknesses. The most important change Redknapp has made, though, has been to change his formation.
Last season, Spurs operated an unpopular 4-5-1; the formation allowed Rafael van der Vaart to shine (which he did, with a team-high 15 goals) but limited the productiveness of some of Tottenham’s other stars and reduced the number of shots at goal they were able to create. In three victories so far in 2011/12, Redknapp has used Parker and Adebayor as the key components of a 4-4-2, utilising the creativity of Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Nico Krancjar while relying on Parker for solidarity and partnering Adebayor with a revitalised Jermain Defoe up front. The obvious problem with this formation, of course, is that it marginalises last year’s player of the year – van der Vaart.
The formation is one element of matching up to the surprise packages of the newly-promoted clubs. Another important factor will be the added mental strength Redknapp is endeavouring to instil among his troops. It remains to be seen whether he has found a winning formula – but with three wins in their last three games, and two of those coming against Wolves and Wigan, Spurs fans might be starting to believe again.
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