Tottenham – Back To The Future?

Tottenham left winger Gareth BaleCourtesy of Zarif Rasul at ‘This is Futbol’

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Spurs’ emphatic 3-1 victory over reigning European champions Inter Milan stunned the continent two weeks ago. Amongst its consequences has been the hyperbolic rise to world-superstar status of Welsh winger Gareth Bale, who provided Brazilian right-back Maicon with a night he will never forget.

Whilst Bale’s phenomenal display dominated the back pages, little was mentioned of the vindication of manager Harry Redknapp’s bold stylings and principles.

Much of the press in the build-up to Tuesday’s encounter had patronisingly pitched the contest as a battle between the archetypal continental uber-tactician (Rafael Benitez) and the traditional English man-manager (Harry Redknapp).

Spurs’ win was an enjoyable triumph for the game’s traditionalists, including Redknapp himself.

Speaking in the Daily Mail, Redknapp said: “People get reputations as being so clever tactically and I think it’s a load of c**p. It isn’t me telling Gareth Bale to push it round one side and run the other, run 60 yards and cross for Peter Crouch or Roman Pavlyuchenko to score.

“I don’t care if people think you’re clever tactically or not. Were Inter Milan clever tactically, leaving Bale one on one with their right-back when he keeps ripping him up? I was surprised.”

In an age where 4-4-2 is almost an anachronism at the highest level, it is so refreshing to see tactical rigidity so ruthlessly discarded by Redknapp and his side.

4-5-1 and its multitude of modified incarnations are unquestionably in vogue at the moment. Be it Chelsea’s rampaging 4-3-3, the Spanish national side’s seamless 4-2-3-1 or Arsenal’s fluid 4-5-1, dominance in the middle of the park has never been more essential.
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Most sides, accordingly, deploy at least one dedicated ball-winning defensive midfielder. Chelsea use John Obi Mikel and/or Michael Essien, Arsenal use Alex Song and Manchester City use Yaya Toure and Nigel de Jong.

Against Inter Milan, Harry Redknapp deployed a central-midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone. Neither Modric or Huddlestone can be described as your conventional ‘ballwinner’. Huddlestone, with his superb range of passing, operates in a ‘quarterback’ role, in a style akin to that of Real Madrid and Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso.

Luka Modric, a man Redknapp sought to “build [his] team around”, has emphatically dismissed fears that the arrival of Rafael van der Vaart would limit his role and impact within Spurs’ starting XI.

With van der Vaart enjoying a free role, Modric has been deployed in a more disciplined, central midfield position. Although shorn of creative duties further up the pitch, Modric has excelled in the heart of the pitch, and has thrived with added defensive responsibility. Modric’s positional discipline has contributed to van der Vaart’s blistering start at White Hart Lane, and placing him in the middle allows him to spot the runs of both Bale and Lennon.

The conventional roles of forwards and wingers are blurring more and more too – the personal positional evolutions of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi highlight this perfectly. Within the Premier League, the likes of Andrei Arshavin and David Silva exemplify one variation of the modern ‘winger’, with both players adept at playing in a range of positions in the final third of the pitch. Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt and Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung both highlight an even more quirky incarnation of the ‘winger’ – the ‘defensive forward’.

Tottenham on the hand, utilise the abilities of two orthodox touchline-hugging wingers. Unlike many inward-bound modern wingers, both Bale and right-sided counterpart Aaron Lennon are tasked with running at full-backs and putting crosses into the box.

As I mentioned in a previous article (see here), much has been said about the ‘proper way’ of playing football. Many are under the assumption that a short and patient approach is THE most entertaining and legitimate style of football; the persistent veneration of Arsenal and Barcelona saliently highlights this. Whilst this is impressive to watch, I struggle to find it as exhilarating as the Lilywhites’ direct approach. For white-knuckle thrills, I defy anyone to suggest an alternative to Harry’s Hotspurs.

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