The repercussions of Tottenham’s humiliating 5-2 defeat to local rivals Arsenal will not have a damning effect on the remainder of the team’s top flight campaign this season, but what it should at least prompt is a shake-up in personnel, with William Gallas still unfathomably being selected ahead of Michael Dawson each and every week.
Tottenham are the only team in the top half of the table with a minus goal difference, having scored 20 but conceded 21 goals this season, more than Reading and only two fewer than QPR, currently found propping up the table. They’ve kept just one clean sheet in the league, which is fewer than both Wigan and Norwich and a lot of their problems clearly stem from the back, namely the central defensive partnership.
Injuries have become an issue this season, with both Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Younes Kaboul being sidelined with respective knee problems, while the loss of Moussa Dembele with a hip injury since the international break in October has been absolutely pivotal in the team’s recent downturn in form, which has seen them lose four of their last five league games, beating only Southampton during that run.
Scott Parker’s absence must also be taken into account, given that he is still recovering from an achilles injury and while he may not be set for quite the same pivotal role he enjoyed under Harry Redknapp last season, when he does eventually return, he’s surely a better option than Tom Huddlestone and he helps provide strength in depth, while PFA Young Player of the Year Kyle Walker (pft!) has been in some truly rotten form so far this season.
The goalkeeping rotation policy between Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris has been made into an issue by the press seeking for a stick to beat a manager they clearly don’t like all that much with, but the constant chopping and changing may have had something of a destabilising effect on the back four given that both stoppers have different styles and will command the back four in different ways.
However, the biggest problem of all has been the continued reliance on Gallas, a 35-year-old centre-back in decline. He’s a player with a history of fractious relationships with team-mates and yet he is tasked with being the authoritative voice and figure in a young and inexperienced back four. His performance in the 5-1 mauling at Wembley last season to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, where at one point he quite literally stopped running after his man in the build-up to a goal should have been the end of his time at the club, and it beggars belief that he’s still there altogether, let alone enjoying such a pivotal role.
According to Opta, Gallas has made a total of four defensive errors which have directly led to goals this season and he’s won just 69% of his aerial duels on top of that. He’s never been the tallest centre-back around, instead preferring to rely on his pace to get him out of sticky situations, but even that has slowed right down to a crawl now. The back four is an absolute shambles, and with him as the senior figure leading it, he has to take responsibility for the team’s terrible defensive record.
It seems Dawson has never quite been Villas-Boas’ cup of tea, whether it’s that he’s considered too slow for the high line that he likes his teams to operate with, or too clumsy is anyone’s guess, and he’s been reduced to just four substitute appearances in the league so far and two Europa League starts after being linked with a move away to QPR all summer, a deal which I’m sure Mark Hughes had wished he’d have made a top priority now.
I reasoned in the summer that despite the acquisition of Jan Vertonghen, a versatile performer who has for the most part been pretty decent since his arrival, that the club could have done with buying at least one other centre-back in the summer, simply due to the fragile nature of all the ones at the club – Dawson (just coming back from a year out), King (chronic knee problem, since forced to retire), Vertonghen (adapting to a new league and culture), Caulker (inexperienced) and Gallas (woeful) – and that has since transpired to be the case. Only Younes Kaboul is without such an obvious weakness to his game at the moment and he’s out injured for the foreseeable future.
Villas-Boas has been mocked by many for a stubborn refusal to integrate new ideas when things aren’t going according to plan, but Dawson’s arrival in the second half against Arsenal as the Portuguese coach switched to a defensive trio almost paid dividends and was a brave and bold move.
Nevertheless, on the issue of Gallas’ continued presence in the starting eleven, stubbornness is the only logical explanation as to why he’s still in the side when his performances have been so poor and there’s a viable and most importantly, better alternative waiting in the wings.
Managers always have blind spots, and that Villas-Boas earmarked Dawson for the exit door would seem to be the only thing keeping him on the bench at the moment and preventing him from starting ahead of Gallas, but when that stubbornness starts to cost you points, then it’s time to re-evaluate your position. Pride has no place in football and if he wants to help shore up a porous backline, he needs to admit that he was wrong in the first place and make the change sooner rather than later, or run the risk of seeing their top four hopes continue to fall just out of reach.
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