At the start of the season, there was a wave of optimism at White Hart Lane, following a campaign in which Tottenham reached their highest points total of the Premier League era, and a subsequent summer that saw the Lilywhites break their inward transfer record three times, eventually spending £110million on new recruits.
The future looked so bright many had tipped the North Londoners to be an integral figure in the English title race this season.
But eleven games in, and things haven’t quite gone to plan for Andre Villas-Boas. He finds his side 7th place in the Premier League table and struggling for form. The most immediate concern is the fact the Lilywhites are currently averaging just 0.82 goals per game, with a third of their nine goals this season coming from the penalty spot.
The Portuguese was quick to turn on Tottenham supporters after a rather stale home win to Hull last month, blaming his side limping over the line to claim three points after a very dubious last minute penalty decision on the lack of atmosphere at White Hart Lane.
But when you’ve failed to score more than a single goal in all but one of five home fixtures, it suggests a far more intrinsic flaw than simply a mildly apathetic fan base.
With a worryingly conservative 4-5-1 formation and the Tottenham gaffer’s ‘don’t lose before you win’ strategy struggling to have the desired effect, is it time for AVB to return to the tactical drawing board?
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Let’s not overreact. Tottenham may be in seventh place but it’s hardly as bad as it sounds. They’re just five points off table-toppers Arsenal, and currently hold the second best defensive record in the division.
Away from home too, and the formation has been an undoubted success. Without the influence of a disillusioned crowd, and opponents taking the game to Tottenham rather than soaking up pressure and reserving themselves for attacking on the break, the North Londoners have claimed 10 points from a possible 15 on the road, with their only defeat coming against their local rivals.
But the miserly goal total of just nine in eleven games and disturbing home defeats to a strikerless West Ham and an inconsistent Newcastle side are clear warnings that the 4-5-1 blueprint isn’t working at White Hart Lane. It’s not necessarily a case of re-inventing the wheel, but rather adding another formational weapon to the Tottenham armoury for the home fixtures against lesser sides.
Similarly, there seems no point in opening up now, to the detriment of the North London outfit’s impressive defensive record, as they travel to the Etihad to take on Manchester City who have scored more goals than any Premier League club this season.
But the home form simply can’t continue in its current vein, or Champions League qualification will be in serious jeopardy, let alone notions of an apparent title challenge.
The philosophical flaws are aplenty; Roberto Soldado has remained an eternally isolated figure in attack for Spurs this season – he’s averaged just 2.4 shots and 20 passes per game, so it’s no surprise that he’s found just one goal from open play since joining Tottenham for £27million in the summer.
Similarly, Villas-Boas’ adoration for defensively assured, industrious central midfielders has come at a consequence. With Moussa Dembele, Sandro, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue all of a similar powerhouse ilk, the Spurs backline have hardly had to wipe sweat from their brow this year but getting the ball through the middle of the park at a fast enough pace has been a pivotal issue. The Lilywhites have spent much of the season looking very tidy on the ball in their own half, but have rarely put their wealth of possession to good use going forward.
On the flanks too, the gameplan is simply not having the desired effect. With Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli both seemingly out in the cold, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andros Townsend have been near permanent fixtures out wide this season. But both favour cutting inside and joining central play rather than providing natural width, and as a result, Tottenham’s attack has lacked shape and encouraged congestion.
So what are the viable alternatives? Dan Ripley from the Daily Mail thinks it’s time for the Spurs boss to change his tactics to the more forward-thinking 4-4-2.
With box-to-box midfielders aplenty, losing dominance in the middle of the park shouldn’t be a too much of an issue. Similarly, an added dimension to the strike-force would allow Tottenham to take the more direct approach, rather than a style of football that seems to require perfect passing and several moments of individual quality cumulating together to score a goal. Paulinho and Soldado’s combination play against Aston Villa is a classic example.
But with the Spaniard and Jermain Defoe unsuitable strike partners for obvious reasons, playing 4-4-2 would mean reinstating Emmanuel Adebayor, something the Spurs boss is quite obviously not prepared to do.
The other conventional option, before we start entering the Barcelona realms of ‘false nines’, is 4-3-3. But as previously mentioned, that would probably require the services of Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela, and Villas-Boas clearly feels they aren’t yet ready for first team football.
Another issue would be the sparcity of the formation – swapping a No.10 for a holding midfielder, and stretching Tottenham’s widemen to more isolated positions hardly suggests a greater emphasis on attack – in addition to fact the Lilywhites don’t have a target man capable of holding onto the ball and leading the line single-handedly…except Adebayor of course.
But something has to change. Repeating the same process time and again and expecting different results is disturbingly naive.
Perhaps the answer will come in January – Spurs have been heavily linked with Aston Villa star Christian Benteke, and there’s no doubt the powerful Belgian would be a better fit for AVB’s current philosophy. He’s certainly shown more hustle and bustle in the final third than Soldado has this term.
But when the whole first team is struggling for output, to such an extent that only four Tottenham players have found the scoresheet this season, it seems unlikely a single change in personnel can bring a drastic revival of fortunes that would start making the Lilywhites look more like a top four side.
As much as it’s about players, formations and tactics, it’s about the mentality of AVB. Perhaps it’s his Portuguese education, considering Jose Mourinho has often been accused of the same ‘negative football’ crimes in the past, but until the Spurs manager adopts an ethos that isn’t mostly concerned with who concedes first rather than who scores the most goals, finding the net and entertaining home crowds will remain a persistent struggle for the Lilywhites.
Do Spurs need a change in tactics?
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