Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich at White Hart Lane was alarming, not necessarily for the nature of the result, but for the nature of the performance. As Andre Villas-Boas looks to implement a new system and a reformed style of play, the easing in process was never likely to go without teething problems.
The worry for some supporters is quite how painful those problems are going to be and the short-term damage they may cause. But like all trips to the dentist, we often carry apocalyptic expectations when the realities aren’t quite so sinister at all.
Firstly, it is important to try and dispel some of the urban myths that have currently been floating around Villas-Boas and the already maligned 4-2-3-1 formation that he’s adopted at the club. The fickle tides of change and seemingly unrelenting media agenda against Villas-Boas has seen the events against Chris Houghton’s Canaries on Saturday, represented as an overwhelming motif for the season so far.
That is as unfair as it is unrepresentative.
Tottenham ultimately put in a performance on Saturday that could be described as poor at best. No one is denying that. But those that are already pining for the ‘swashbuckling’ days of the 4-4-1-1 to return, can’t ignore what we’ve already seen. For 45 minutes against both Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, Spurs employed a generally impressive, composed style of football that dictated those respective halves for long periods.
Norwich was again, not a particularly fantastic barometer, but the cause for genuine concern would be if the team weren’t creating chances as opposed to looking somewhat disjointed. Tottenham have created chances too; maybe not in abundance, but they have been able to harvest opportunities. After hitting both the bar and post at St. James Park, losing to a soft penalty was hard to stomach for supporters. The team, in particular Gareth Bale, fashioned a whole array of early chances against the Baggies at home, but were incapable of finishing anything off – inviting the sort of pressure that seems to have led us to where we are today.
But as the transfer window has slammed shut, Villas-Boas finally has a completed squad to work with and seemingly a set of players that can fit the system. The argument over Daniel Levy’s brinkmanship will rumble on for many months in N17, but however you frame it, Villas-Boas was missing the players to make his new set-up stick for the first three games of the season. It’s not been easy for him and consequently he’s been forced to use several cogs that haven’t fit the machine.
One such example can be found in the holding ‘pair’ that sit in front of the defence but behind the front three. For the first three games this season, Villas-Boas has teamed Sandro with Jake Livermore to relatively mixed reviews. A concept that can be misunderstood with the holding two in this formation is their responsibilities within the team. They’re defensive by name but not necessarily by practice and the formation doesn’t require a couple of archetypal Claude Makelele figures in there to just break up play.
At least one half of the pair has to be cultivating play and proactive in the instigation of moves; like something of a deep-lying playmaker of sorts. Villas-Boas has had to start Livermore there more through a complete lack of fit/other viable options, but Spurs have suffered in the centre of the park as a result. Neither Livermore or Sandro have looked entirely sure as to who should sit and who should go when the team have the ball and their overwhelmingly defensive instincts have shown. It’s a clichéd observation to make, but Spurs really have missed a Modric figure to keep play ticking over and distribute the ball quickly and effectively.
This is why the acquisition of Mousa Dembele is so vitally important for Villas-Boas’ side. Some have naturally clamored for the Belgian to play closer to goal, but his abilities and influence on the ball can be the game changer if he’s played in the pair. He may have been a striker once upon a time, but his goals record isn’t a million miles away from that of Modric’s. During Fulham’s 5-0 massacre of Norwich the other week, he didn’t get one goal or assist- but that didn’t mean he wasn’t pulling the strings. The whole dynamic of this Tottenham team can change for the better with Dembele in this side.
And this isn’t where it stops for Tottenham. If the immersion of a creative playmaker into this team is important, than the deployment of Emmanuel Adebayor is vital. Jermain Defoe has worked his socks off for the side and his new contract suggests he has a part to play in this Spurs team. But the side need a striker who can lead the line on his own and that man simply isn’t the Englishman and it’s been clear to see, despite his goal against Newcastle, for the past three games. The Togolese striker has a real work on to get match fit for Spurs’ next fixture away to Reading but the international break offers him good time to do it.
This isn’t to say that Villas-Boas can be bulletproof from all criticism himself. The insistence on playing a wearying William Gallas had logic as he looked to immerse Jan Vertonghen into English football, but he must now look to either Steven Caulker or Michael Dawson to complete the back four. Furthermore, bringing on both Jermaine Jenas and Tom Huddlestone in the West Brom and Norwich games respectively, invited pressure on the team. He must hold his nerve.
But now the acquisitions have been made to fit the system and Villas-Boas can now attempt to get the machine working with the adequate parts. And for Spurs fans, that can only be a good thing.
Do you feel that Villas-Boas’ set-up now has the players that it needs to progress? Or do you still harbour serious reservations about the way things are looking? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus.