Three Underlying Problems with the Tottenham Project
Athleticism over Artistry
Arguably the greatest problem faced by Spurs under André Villas Boas this season was the lack of effective attacking football which, even given the loss of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, was a surprising issue when looking at the quality in the squad. Spurs had been impressive in their ability to win the ball and dominate the midfield but were often too slow moving the ball forwards, wasting any opportunity to quickly attack unorganized defences on the counter. Their more measured build up play was equally stagnant with poor movement and uninspiring vision resulting in predictable and containable attacks. The fans vocal frustration at the lack of incisiveness increased the pressure on the players, if anything worsening the already risk adverse team play.
Despite having exceptional creative talent at his disposal AVB appeared to favour more physical players, either in terms of size or pace, to give the side a powerful core. Creative, technical players such as Lewis Holtby, the highly rated Christian Eriksen and consecutive club record signings Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela rarely played with each other. In fact Eriksen, Lamela and Soldado never started a single Premiership match together. This philosophy not only impacted Spurs in attacking areas of the pitch but also in the deeper areas of midfield where they sorely lacked a competent distributor of the ball.
Other successful teams who have made use of AVB's religiously adhered to 4-2-3-1 formation generally utilize at least one very talented passing player in a deeper position. Good examples are ModriÄ and Alonso at Real Madrid, Carrick at Manchester United, Arteta and Ramsey at Arsenal and Gareth Barry at Everton. Maybe had Spurs been more successful with their pursuit of AVB's ex-Porto playmaker Moutinho this would not have been such an issue although, it must be questioned why AVB showed so little inclination to employ the creative players he did have at his disposal in deeper roles.
A good example of the flaws in this 'athletic prioritization' philosophy can be seen in the different approaches Spurs and Arsenal took to their matches against Liverpool. Arsenal looked to outplay their opponents with a midfield of five 'lightweight' but creative players in Ramsey, Arteta, Carzola, Rosicky and Ozil. Spurs looked to dominate the game, picking physically dominant players in Sandro, Dembele, Chadli and Paulinho as well as the lighting fast Aaron Lennon. Whilst Arsenal comfortably beat Liverpool 2-0, Spurs were lucky to walk away with a 5-0 humiliation in front of their own home fans.
To play a competent pressing game in midfield it is apparent that a team of Olympic sprinters are not required. To play quality attacking football on the other hand does require a core of players with excellent movement and passing skills. This does not mean there should be no room in the side for destructive players, far from it. There just has to be enough creativity and footballing intelligence embedded within the DNA of the team for the pass and move style to be thrive. Without enough players on the same creative wavelength a team can in effect suffer from herd immunity to fluidity.
Lonely Strikers Instead of Lone Strikers
Roberto Soldado has cut a lonely figure up front for Spurs under AVB this season with the Spaniard averaging just 29.7 touches a game, less than any other starting player on the pitch. Part of this can be attributed to the previously discussed lack of distribution in the side yet probably the chief factor has been his isolation. Last season Spurs used real front-men in Gareth Bale and Clint Dempsey to support the striker whereas this season spurs have relied on rotating the more diminutive midfielders Lewis Holtby and Christian Eriksen in the attacking midfield role. With his new attacking midfielders preferring to drop off from the striker and create chances rather than finish them, AVB should have encouraged his wide players to push up the pitch in to more forward thinking roles.
The likes of Lamela, Townsend and Chadli could have been used to really support Soldado, either drawing away defenders or looking for dangerous knock downs and passes into the space behind the opposition defence. AVB instead utilized his wide men in the midfield either as wingers or inverted wingers, unfortunately with the former having little to aim at in the box and the later finding themselves cramped in a congested midfield. In an attempt to try make something happen the wide men all too often were forced to come short for the ball, further isolating Soldado, before turning and running at set defences or shooting from distance out of desperation.
With new manager Tim Sherwood reverting to a two striker system and seeing early success, much has been made of the previous managers choice to field a lone frontman. The recent 3-1 win against Swansea where Sherwood opted to play only a single striker however showed that the number of strikers is not at the core of the issue. With the close support given by Eriksen, Lennon and Chadli Spurs were in effect at times playing with three up top against Swansea instead of one. In the end it's more about getting good service to the forward thinking players and genuinely supporting them in attacks.
Since Tim Sherwood has taken over Spurs do appear to have improved in this regard. Adebayor for example has averaged 58.8 touches per game under Sherwood whilst the team in general, despite creating on average 0.2 less chances per game, have taken their chance conversion rate from the lowest in the League to the highest. Gone are the days of relying on pot-shots from distance.
Misuse and Mismanagement of Players: No Smoke Without Fire
One of the criticisms of AVB at Chelsea was the manner in which he not only isolated key players at the club in a clinical and abrasive manner but also failed to get the best out of a number of clearly top class players. Many fans and commentators put this down to the egos of the Chelsea superstars and proclaimed that the young manager had simply not received neither the support nor respect he deserved. Yet similar concerns appear to have emerged at Spurs.
The resurgent Adebayor was left to train with the academy side on returning from compassionate leave following the death of his brother. Fan favourite Benoit Assou Ekotto also found himself out of favour with the manager, being sent out on loan to Championship side QPR. This left Danny Rose as the only established left back, a decision that quickly hurt Spurs with Rose picking up an injury early in the season. Jan Vertonghen, arguably the clubs best centerback, was asked to play out of position on left. The disruption unsettling not only the defence but also upsetting the player. Something Spurs should be keen to avoid with many teams on the lookout for a defender of Vertonghen's quality in the summer.
There have also been accusations of poor management of the clubs record signing Erik Lamela. The Argentinian international has been behind team-mates Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend in the pecking order for the right wide forward position this season. This is suprising given that last season at the age of twenty Lamela scored fifteen goals in the top Italian league. For some context Aaron Lennon has never scored more than five league goals in a season in eight seasons. With twenty-four games between them Lennon and Townsend this season have only contributed two goals, one accidental and one deflected. Fans would be forgiven for thinking it may have been worth giving Lamela an extended run in the team.
Admittedly his performances have so far not yet set the Premiership alight but the youngster was hardly given the chance to shine. He never once started a Premiership game in his favoured position playing on the right just off the striker and is yet to start two consecutive games. The argument has been made that he should have to fully earn his role and should be able to shine regardless of where on the park he starts or how often he plays. Whilst the argument is understandable it does beg the question, why make it hard for your greatest talent to reach their potential? Even with a match-winning breakthrough performance in the Europa Cup Lamela found his self summarily dropped for the following fixture against Newcastle. How can a young superstar ever settle in with his team mates if he never plays? The decision to hold him back from integrating was nothing short of madness.
The final and most highlighted weakness of AVB's management during his tenure in the Premiership was his insistence on playing a high-line defence regardless of the suitability of the players at his disposal. Whilst the concept of a high-line was proven effective early in the season by tight defensive stats, the reality was that Spurs were living on the edge. Too often the opposition forwards were finding themselves clean through on goal, forcing the extremely impressive Hugo Lloris to make life or death interceptions behind the back four. Eventually the misuse of slower players such as Michael Dawson and the stand-in keeper Brad Friedel led to teams targetting and effectively exposing targeting AVB's defensive inflexibility. Losses against West Ham, Manchester City and Liverpool 3-0, 6-0 and 5-0 respectively being testament to the size of the issue.