As we enter the final few days of 2012, it gives supporters at all clubs the chance to reflect at both the change and the fortunes that their clubs have underwent within the past twelve months. And if you’re a Tottenham Hotspur fan, you’ve got plenty to get your teeth into.
But it appears that even within a season full of variables, supporters can always rely on one home comfort to remain a constant. Indeed, despite a change of manager, a whole pallet of new players at the club and even a shiny new £40million training ground, Spurs still appear to be scintillatingly average at making anything of set-pieces.
The remit that awaited Andre Villas-Boas following his summer appointment was a somewhat extensive one. While not all were necessarily wholly behind Daniel Levy’s decision to put his faith in the Portuguese, there was a base expectation that we’d see a more tactically refined and sparklingly efficient Tottenham side.
And while Villas-Boas has certainly delivered on the refining front, Spurs still seem dreadfully wasteful when it comes to the art of the set-piece.
Given how atrocious the side was when it came to maximising any form of potential out of set-pieces last term, it’s hardly like fans were asking for much from their new manager when it came to something resembling improvement.
Supporters only saw their team put the ball in the back of the net once through either a direct or an indirect free kick during 38 league games last term, courtesy of a Kyle Walker free kick against Blackburn. Throw in corners into the mix and it doesn’t get much better; only four teams scored less from set-pieces in the Premier League last term.
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Now whether you want to point your finger at the coaching staff or the wasteful indulgence of several supposed esteemed set piece wizards (step forward Mr. Rafael van der Vaart), the return from set pieces over the course of a Premier League season represents a pitiful return. But with the appointment of Villas-Boas, all that was now in the past. It was hoped that we’d at least see a slightly better drilled side when it came to attacking a free kick.
Is this pointless moaning or a gripe that holds a little more seriousness in its weight? Improvement is relative and considering the terrible output that Tottenham produced when it came to set-pieces, they’re certainly doing a little better this time round.
Steven Caulker’s header from Tom Huddlestone’s free-kick against Manchester City, was the first in a mini renaissance in terms of set piece success last month. Gareth Bale followed up Caulker’s effort later on in November with a dipping effort from a direct free-kick against Liverpool and Jan Vertonghen recently slotted away a neat finish from a Kyle Walker delivery.
But is the relative improvement in output from set-pieces enough?
For a team that possesses perceived set-piece specialists in the guise of Gareth Bale, Tom Huddlestone, Gylfi Sigurdsson and even Clint Dempsey, supporters haven’t half been served up some questionable deliveries. All too often we’ve seen deliveries from the aforementioned quartet, Huddlestone being one of the worst offenders, either overhit or fail to beat the first man.
Again, even during Spurs’ swashbuckling 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa last Sunday, we were treated to another masterclass of wasteful set piece action. It’s become something of a much feted statistic in recent days, but to end the half 15-1 ahead on the corner count, yet offer such an impotent threat from the dead-balls must have concerned Villas-Boas.
When you gallivant to victory in the style Spurs eventually did at Villa Park, it’s easy to sweep it under the carpet, although given the fine margins that currently exist during a season which is one of the tightest in recent memory, every opportunity must be maximized.
Although is it necessarily the end of the world if Tottenham continue to stumble along so unproductively at set-pieces? Because for as poor as Spurs were last term at dead balls, the team that finished above them in the Premier League weren’t much better. In fact, it’s worth noting that North London rivals Arsenal were in fact worse than the Lilywhites when it came to set-piece productivity, knocking away only eight goals from them in 38 games.
Of course, you only need to look at the two Manchester sides who put away 19 (City) and 18 (United) away from set-pieces to understand quite how important they are in terms of moving forward, but to attain Champions League qualification, it might not perhaps be the end of the world if Villas-Boas fails to make great strides from where Harry Redknapp left off.
It’s something of a tired cliché but fixing an issue like this doesn’t happen overnight and although we’ve not quite seen a sparking transformation in results, we are seeing an improvement.
Their opener against Sunderland may have come courtesy of a Carlos Cuellar own goal, but it was assisted by a wicked Kyle Walker delivery. The right back has endured a frustrating season thus far but since Villas-Boas has turned to the England man to set-pieces, we’ve begun to see a gradual improvement. It’s slow progress, but following his assist for Vertonghen’s goal against Swansea, it’s improvement none the less.
Set-pieces have felt like a thorn in the side of Tottenham for longer than the mind can remember. Andre Villas-Boas has sought to improve this and while we’ve seen small signs of encouragement in recent games, the hard work can’t stop there.