November 26, 2013
Jake Livermore has started ten games for Hull City (and made one substitute appearance) and has become a firm favourite. He’s impressed so much that the majority of Hull’s fan-base want Livermore to sign permanently. When questioned on whether he’d consider signing for Hull permanently, Livermore said
“I’m prepared for anything in football. I’m enjoying my time here, I love the lads, the manager and the fans. Everyone here is brilliant and I’m getting a run of games so it’s so far, so good.”
He gave The Telegraph a very interesting interview on young, English footballers in which he spoke a lot of sense:
“I don’t think the biggest problem facing English football is producing players, I think the biggest problem is giving young players enough experience in the Premier League.”
Steve Bruce has admitted that he’s worried about Livermore returning to Spurs in January, saying: “There is a possibility that Jake and Danny [Graham] will be going back to their parent clubs, and that is something we just have to live with. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened, and we have to be ready for it. It’s a concern.”
Most Spurs fans were surprised to see Benoit Assou-Ekotto sent on loan to QPR at the end of the transfer window. There were rumours of an off-pitch incident with Andre Villas-Boas, and you’d have to think that this was the case, given that Assou-Ekotto is so far beyond Kyle Naughton in terms of left-back competition; it can surely only have been a breach of discipline or a falling out that triggered the move. Assou-Ekotto insists that playing for Redknapp was the reason that he was tempted to QPR:
“I’m enjoying being here. I love working with Harry. He was the main reason I came. The fans have been great to me too.”
He’s made nine starts and one substitute appearance so far, and the fans seem to have taken to him judging by this thread.
Tom Carroll played four matches for QPR before being struck down by an ankle injury. The fan verdicts were mixed, but the players seem keen, Karl Henry saying:
“We’ve missed Tom Carroll since his injury, because he’s done fantastically well for us.”
The good news is that Carroll is due to return to QPR early next week after recovering from injury.
Whilst the fans don’t love him (yet), his statistics look mighty impressive. Across his four appearances, he’s averaging 13 more passes (82.3) than the next player in the Championship (Joey Barton, 68.9), which is remarkable (NB: I’m ignoring George Thorn, who has played one game for Watford, but made 84 passes). Impressively Carroll’s also averaging the most tackles per game (4.5) in the division.
Adam Smith has started nine matches and been brought on as a substitute in one as he attempts to establish himself as Derby’s first-choice right-back. He has been in and out of the side, and has been an unused substitute in their last four.
Smith is now competing with another loan signing, Andre Wisdom, and new boss Steve McClaren commented on the pair after the recent game against Birmingham:
“Adam Smith has done very well for us and I have no qualms with Adam, but Andre Wisdom came in and adapted very well. He showed his quality, his strength and he was good on the ball. All the qualities you expect from a player from Liverpool.”
For me, it would make sense to recall Smith at the earliest opportunity and move him somewhere where he’ll be guaranteed starts.
Simon Dawkins recently joined Smith at Derby County, where he’s made five appearance so far on the right of a front three; four as a starter, and one off the bench. He’s managed one goal so far (at 20 seconds here).
This fans seems impressed by Dawkins so far:
Derby though dominates, Simon Dawkins, always an option, gets better with each match, he excites the crowd and promises so much.
Bongani Khumalo has turned out 18 times for Doncaster Rovers so far (16 in the Championship). I asked local journalist Paul Goodwin (of the Doncaster Free Press & Doncaster Star) how he’d done so far – Paul’s impressed:
Excellent Chris, slotted in seamlessly – very calm, good in air. Big test for him now fellow CB Rob Jones is injured though.
It’s also worth pointing out that Khumalo played for South Africa as they stunned Spain to win 1-0 in the international break.
Centre-back Grant Hall has played 23 matches for Swindon Town (17 in League One) thus far. He’s played mostly in a back four, but more recently in a three.
Alex Pritchard has played 21 times (20 starts) for Swindon, and in his 15 league appearances, he has two goals and five assists – the most assists of all of Swindon’s players.
Ryan Mason has had yet another injury-hit season, playing 12 matches in total for Swindon Town, eight of which were starts. He has scored four goals and got one assist in those matches, playing mostly as number 10, but dropping deeper more recently.
Swindon fan Nigel has been pretty pleased with the Spurs players so far – his latest update for me at the start of November reported the following:
Ryan Mason returned from injury two weeks ago and has started twice since then. Played superbly in a deeper role of CM rather than CAM.
Alex Pritchard played as perhaps a second striker (No.10 sort) and played very well. Had great work rate and moved the ball on the floor quickly. Did get booked, in the end, for diving though.
Grant Hall doesn’t look like he suits a 3-5-2 formation (been playing it last 4/5 games) makes a few mistakes but has the ability to make up for them going forwards.
EDIT: Today I’ve received a further update from Nigel:
Alex Pritchard: Played in a number of formations, playing most effectively as a no.10 just behind a target man. Has shown great technical ability & can beat a player.
Ryan Mason: Although slightly injury prone he has arguably been our best player this season when fully fit. Passing & skill on the ball is on another level to most players in L1. Has a goal or two in him.
Grant Hall: Very good on the ball for a league one CB, however lacks strength, composure & pace. He may look better next to a quicker/better defender, but he does not get that playing alongside Darren Ward. Has slightly improved as a centre back as the season has gone on, but his rather frequent mistakes, which unfortunately are usually punished, has overshadowed this.
Lawrence Vigouroux joined Hyde of the The Skrill Premier (Conference Premier) for a month at the end of October, and has so far made five appearances. Unfortunately four of those have been defeats – 2-1, 4-0, 3-2 and 2-1 – but they managed to draw one 2-2. After his debut the Manchester Evening News reported that he made “a string of excellent saves”. Fans on their forum seem very pleased with his performances so far.
Tomislav Gomelt has only played 39 minutes across two appearances so far for Royal Antwerp in the Belgian Second Division (for comparison, John Bostock – at the club permanently – has made 16 appearances). He has had a number of injuries that have disrupted his season, and he was also away representing Croatia U-19s in October. It’s worth noting that Antwerp are now managed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
Yago Falque has played 492 minutes across eight starts for Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, including a start against Real Madrid at the beginning of November where he actually had the ball in the net (although it was ruled out). Despite being involved from the start a lot, he has been substituted in seven of his eight appearances.
Cristian Ceballos has managed 336 minutes across five appearances for Arouca in the Portuguese Premier League. He’s made four starts, one substitute appearances, and has also been an unused sub three times.
The loan window for Football League clubs closes at 17:00 on Thursday, 28 November. I would not be expecting a mass exodus of Spurs youngters going out on loan, because they’ve simply not had the opportunities to showcase their talents.
The Under-21 fixtures – where scouts get an opportunity to watch our young talent – have been few and far between. This means not only that there are fewer opportunities to impress, but that when they do have opportunities, they are not match sharp.
I gather that there was a behind closed doors friendly last week in which Ken McEvoy impressed – if any players are to go out on loan, perhaps he will be one.
November 16, 2013
In Part 1 I discussed:
- The high line leading to an overly compressed pitch.
- Inverted wingers failing.
- The number ten struggling to create.
In this section I’ll focus on:
- Soldado not doing enough.
- A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′.
- No Plan B / ability to change our approach.
Soldado not doing enough
There are two main schools of thought on Roberto Soldado:
1. We’ve bought a dud; he’s not good enough.
2. We’re not playing to his strengths.
I think the truth is somewhere in between. He hasn’t played especially well – and I’ve voiced concerns before about him not doing a great deal other than finishing off chances – but we’ve not found him in the box enough. The question, then, is: is that due to his lack of movement, or is it due to the lack of incisive passes finding him?
I think at times we delay our passes too long. For example, as you can see from this still of the Everton game, Lennon has an opportunity to cross for Soldado – he could cross with his left foot, or the outside of his right, such is the space that he has.
Instead Lennon checks back onto his right, and curls in a cross which leaves Soldado having to create power on his header from a standing start. Effectively, the opportunity is lost.
Here, against Newcastle, Soldado links well with Paulinho and then makes a tremendous run in behind Williamson as Townsend strides forward to get on the end of a fabulous Paulinho pass. Townsend takes on a shot when any kind of accurate cross would surely find Soldado in space.
Soldado gets onto the rebound, but is unable to direct it into the corner.
In this example, though, Soldado should surely do more – Eriksen creates a yard of space on the right and whips in a well-shaped cross. Soldado lurks around the penalty spot, but then fails to make a decisive run, and is caught on his heels somewhat.
Generally speaking, Soldado’s movement in the box is good, and he thrives on finding pockets of space which allow him to take on shots early.
This video gives a good indication of the types of goals he typically scores – he’s a real poacher in the six-yard box, but also scores lots of volleys from a little further out. For me, we need to feed the ball into the box earlier and more frequently, and allow Soldado to develop some faith in the ball coming to him more quickly.
A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′
Sandro is probably our best outfield player, and should start nearly every league game for which he is fit. Bold statement, perhaps, but I am such a huge fan of the Brazilian, and I think he adds so much – at both ends of the pitch.
Not only is he a tremendous defensive shield, but his incredible energy means that his proactive pressing wins us the ball high up the pitch. Alongside this, he also frees up his midfield partner to do the same, safe in the knowledge that he is there to mop up if necessary.
It’s not a good idea to use a single game as evidence, but I think a comparison of the first half of the Newcastle game (without Sandro) and the second half (with Sandro) speaks volumes.
Whilst none of those tackles were Sandro’s, five of the interceptions were – including two of the four in Newcastle’s half. Although viewed as a defensive player, he is critical to getting us playing further forward and on the front foot.
There have been times this season where I’d have liked us to select a passer alongside Sandro. André Villas-Boas used to frequently use the phrase ‘vertical’, referring to the ability to move the ball, directly, towards the opposition goal. Dembélé’ is terrific at dribbling with the ball (he averages 2.4 dribbles per game) and protecting it, and Paulinho is an all-action player who gets up and down the pitch a phenomenal amount, but neither excels at distribution. Both Dembélé’ (91.4%) and Paulinho’s (86.3%) boast decent pass completion stats, but it’s fair to say that both of these players favour moving the ball laterally.
Étienne Capoue is a good passer of the ball, and his return could signal a return to slightly more direct football, but personally I think that using Holtby in a deeper midfield role would offer greater ability to move the ball vertically. Holtby himself has said in the past that he sees himself as an ’8′, and it would seem logical to me to give him an opportunity alongside Sandro against teams that want to sit back and play on the counter.
No Plan B / ability to change of approach
There’s little doubt that AVB’s pragmatic tactical approach is not for everyone. However, even for those like myself for whom that pragmatism is Not A Bad Thing per se, his absolute rigidity can frustrate.
There have been times when we have played 4-1-4-1 (particularly before Capoue’s injury). There have even been times that we have played 4-3-3. But essentially these formations are slight variations on the 4-2-3-1 that we mostly play.
The only other substantial tactical switch this season has been the switch to 4-4-2 after bringing Jermain Defoe off the bench. AVB tried this against Arsenal, Hull, and Newcastle, and indeed both Soldado and Defoe were on the pitch when Vertonghen’s cross was handled by Elmohamady, leading to Soldado scoring a penalty against Hull. But, frankly, the switch to 4-4-2 has been bizarrely illogical, and the two forwards look ill-suited to playing together. In the Newcastle game we lost momentum almost as soon as Defoe came on (I’m not blaming the player for this, but the change in shape).
AVB could argue that he’s been deprived of the services of Emmanuel Adebayor. Adebayor is still to be re-integrated following the death of his brother; initially he was not in the right mental state, and now he’s presumably not match fit. He has been included on the bench just once. Adebayor is a player who, in theory, should be able to strike up a partnership in a 4-4-2 – he is an unselfish player who looks to link with others as much as he looks to find the net himself, and works hard to drop deep to show for the ball, as well as moving wide to receive the ball in the channels.
But AVB has had the option of using Harry Kane – a player who, like Adebayor, likes to drop deep and link play, and who has impressed when given the chance this season. However, Kane has been used very sparingly, and mostly from the left.
I think there are quite a few things that AVB could try that would not be overly damaging to his and our defensive shape: more direct (long) passing; switching the wingers every now and again; asking one of the centre backs to carry the ball further; dropping Holtby or Sigurdsson deeper to play as one of the midfield ’2′ when we’re chasing a goal. Simple things that could have a positive effect.
Firstly, there’s no need to panic. It’s early days for this Spurs team, who are accommodating seven new first team players. There is a need for the new players to settle into English football, for the rest of the squad to get to know their games, for the coaches to fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses.
We’re pretty dominant when it comes to possession and shots, and it’s hopefully a matter of time before the goals follow. Some tweaks are surely needed though – the fact that Townsend is averaging more shots per game (4.5) than any other Premier League player and that Paulinho (3.3) is not far behind him (he’s 6th in the list) tells me that our midfielders are taking on too many long-range efforts.
It might not please fans, but *more* patience is required from our players in certain circumstances – i.e. there will be times when we need to pass sideways more, and when we even need to pass backwards more. We can’t let the frustration of not creating lead to Townsend and Paulinho giving up possession up to eight times a game through taking on wild shots. We need to cycle the ball, keep it moving, provoke the opposition into coming out of their defensive shape, and look to unpick them with accurate crosses and clever through balls.
But on the whole, I’d much rather we attempt to play the ball forward more quickly, rather than the tepid build-up play leading to teams getting bodies behind the ball, and our midfield taking on a long-range shot as a result. Townsend is so good at tempting players towards him with his driving runs, but he can’t let his youthful enthusiasm lead to frustration. As he tempts players in, he needs to get his head up more quickly and lay-off to his teammates.
On the whole, the season has got off to a solid if unspectacular start. We are five points off the top of the league, having made progression in the League Cup and Europa League. I am hoping to see some positive changes, but am also keeping the faith that AVB has the intelligence and foresight to make them.
November 14, 2013
I started writing this blog post almost immediately after the Newcastle game and, between then and now, I’ve read some fantastic articles on Spurs. So a quick shout-out first to the following, which are all worth your time (but not before you’ve read the rest of this post, eh?!):
Before I begin getting my teeth into where I think it’s going wrong for us, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not all doom and gloom for Spurs – certainly not results-wise. For example, if you replace the relegated clubs in alphabetical order (i.e. QPR are replaced by Cardiff, Reading by Crystal Palace, and Wigan by Hull City), Spurs are three points better off than they were in the corresponding fixtures in 2012/13 – the season in which we famously achieved our highest Premier League points tally (with thanks to @EdwardPrz for the stats).
However, it would be foolish to pretend that everything is rosy, and the style of football and – more importantly to most – the lack of goals, have led to many Spurs fans starting to grumble about Andre Villas-Boas.
I wrote back in October that AVB needed to find a Plan B, citing the following reasons as to why I had some concerns over the direction we’re going:
- Tactical inflexibility
- No ‘passer’ in midfield
- Set pieces
- Lack of involvement of youth players
- Potential short-termism
Nothing I’ve seen since then has changed my mind on any of the above, although we’ve actually managed to score from a set piece; Vertonghen scored against Sheriff and had a very good chance with a back post header against Newcastle too.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where things are breaking down, except of course for the obvious; we’re not scoring. Is one or a number of the following to blame?
- The high line leading to an overly compressed pitch.
- Inverted wingers failing.
- The number ten struggling to create.
- Soldado not doing enough.
- A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′.
- No Plan B / ability to change our approach.
I think it’s simplest to take each in order.
The high line compressing the pitch too much
Our high line – Villas-Boas’ most famous tactic – has been a defensive success overall, although when it goes wrong, it looks very, very bad (see the West Ham game for an obvious example). However, looking at how it impacts on our attacking abilities, many have begun arguing that opposition teams have sussed out the tactic and are using it against us.
If our opponents get bodies behind the ball it means that, given that almost half of the pitch is already ‘out of bounds’ due to our central defender’s positions, the likes of Soldado and Eriksen are incredibly restricted in terms of space to move into, and space to work in.
It’s all well and good controlling possession, but if there’s no space to make a late dart into or to find a killer pass from, the conversion of that possession into genuine chances is highly restricted.
Personally, I think the benefits outweigh the negatives. Aside from West Ham – which we have to see as a blip (the poor marking for the opener, the lack of pressure on the ball for goal two, and Vertonghen, Dembele and Dawson committing themselves for goal three were individual errors, for example) – we’ve looked compact, solid, organised, and 13 clean sheets in 19 games suggests to me that the high line is working from a defensive viewpoint.
At the other end, I think AVB puts a lot of faith in our players (rightly or wrongly) to play in tight spaces, and we mostly have players technically good enough to do that – Paulinho’s perfect first-time assist for Soldado against Villa is a good example of when it can work. Lamela’s lovely cross for Paulinho’s cheeky goal against Cardiff is another.
Also, when you look at how Bale (and Townsend to an extent) played, there’s still space to be had – it just depends on other players helping to create it, and how we use the ball once we have it in the final third.
I don’t think our deep midfield players help us by carrying the ball forward. In doing so, they just encourage the central region to become even more congested as they are pressed in the opponents’ half, and also put pressure on themselves to find an eye of a needle pass – and let’s be honest, neither Dembele or Paulinho have that in their locker. And they certainly don’t have the ability to do it more often than not.
The key is to pass the ball quickly and early – to get it to the front four ideally as soon as we win it back. I think Sandro will be vital in this – he doesn’t dally. He wins the ball high up the pitch with his incredible pressing, and looks to offload it quickly – the others need to learn a thing or two from that. Of course, Capoue’s return will also help; he’s a talented passer, and an excellent reader of the game.
Inverted wingers failing
Many see the inverted wingers that we utilise as our main problem, as they come inside and congest the central region which we want to exploit. I wrote in October that inverted wingers can work well – and indeed are used by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – but that overlapping full-backs providing the width, and quick, direct passing from midfield are vital.
A wide player coming inside creates an overload in a vital area, and a technically-gifted team should be able to use this to their advantage. However, we’ve not made the most of this numerical superiority for a number of reasons – one of which is, probably, the personnel selected.
Rather than spend time analysing Andros Townsend specifically, I’ll instead signpost you to Brett Rainbow’s excellent article, which summarises the good and bad aspects of Townsend’s play.
One thing I’d add is that, for me, Townsend needs to play higher up the pitch. Too often he is found dropping deep to collect the ball, and I’ve no doubt that this mostly comes about because our central midfield two are not good enough at taking the ball from the centre-backs, and moving it forward quickly. Townsend’s great at driving forward from deep areas, but it means that by the time he’s required to make an incisive pass or beat the last man, he’s lost the impetus he initially had.
Given that Walker is so good at carrying the ball forward, I would ask Townsend to start 10 or 15 yards higher than he currently does, and to look to link-up in the final third rather than in front of the defence, where he often frustrates by taking on ambitious shots due to lack of other options. I would also suggest that if there is no pass on, then he should turn and play back out – he needs to retain possession nine times out of ten, whereas currently he is more likely to strike at goal from range.
On the other side of the pitch, Sigurdsson is not the most popular player in our squad, but he has managed three Premier League goals this season (33% of our total league goals). He has scored these at a rate of a goal every 191 minutes, whereas Townsend, Lennon, Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli and Holtby have managed a single goal between them in 2161 combined minutes – and that was a cross that flew over everybody and in.
Looking back to last season, Sigurdsson’s current competition for the left-sided berth, Lennon, was our top assister with seven, and also managed four goals. Sigurdsson ended the season with three goals and four assists. However, forgetting appearances and instead focussing on minutes on the pitch, Lennon ended with an assist every 403 minutes played in the league, with Sigurdsson managing one every 309 minutes – a far better rate.
Lennon ended the season averaging a goal or assist every 257 minutes, whilst Sigurdsson had a goal or assist every 176 minutes (Bale 117 for comparison). Sigurdsson may not have the pace and ability to carry the ball a long distance up the pitch, but is, simply put, a much more “productive” player than Lennon.
Many fans seem to want to play Lennon on the right, where they think he’ll beat his man on the outside and produce crosses for Soldado. Personally, I can’t remember Lennon terrorising defenders too much since the 9-1 win over Wigan Athletic four years ago.
Lennon most certainly has his uses, and I like him as a squad player/impact sub, but in my opinion, the fact that he’s renowned mostly for his steady defensive performances – tracking back and providing cover – speak volumes, and I see Sigurdsson as far better suited to our current style; selecting him is a no-brainer whilst others aren’t scoring.
Sigurdsson needs to up his game, and will benefit from Rose being back. However, he’s our most viable option on the left. Townsend has had good and bad games this year, and I think a few subtle changes could lead to him causing far more damage than he currently is. If, however, he doesn’t start to add more goals and assists to his game, Lamela will surely get a chance to play from the right soon.
The number ten struggling to create
Holtby is often referred to as a functional player, and he was rightly praised for his role in stopping Everton playing in our recent 0-0 draw. However, given his creative abilities displayed for both his former club, Schalke 04, as well as the German Under-21 side, it is unfair to tag him as purely a grafter, although it’s fair to say that he puts in a shift. He came back into the starting eleven after strong performances in the Europa League, but has struggled to nail down the starting spot, with Eriksen starting against Newcastle.
On the other hand, there’s little doubt that Eriksen has the ability to spot a pass, although questions remain over whether he is doing it enough. Ted Knutson puts forward a convincing argument for Eriksen’s performance against Newcastle being a productive one in his article Statsbomb Mythbusting: Christian Eriksen vs Newcastle, where he highlights Eriksen’s 9 key passes – a rare feat. The fact that one of these was a nudged tee-up for a free kick, and three were square passes in deep areas leading to long-range efforts mean that, for me, the truth is not quite so clear.
I still feel that Erlksen is struggling a little physically, and drifts in and out of games. It is still very early for him as he attempts to adapt from life in the Eredivisie. Whilst some players have settled tremendously well having made that same move – the likes of Luis Suarez and Jan Vertonghen, for example – there are others that did not impress so much – Mateja Kezman and Afonso Alves spring to mind. Eriksen seems to have many of the required attributes though and, at just 21, time is on his side.
Whilst Eriksen is flitting in and out of form, I think there’s an opportunity to experiment with Erik Lamela as our ten in certain matches. It was a role he played on a number of occasions for Roma and, having excelled against Sheriff, I felt that he deserved to keep his place in the Newcastle game – probably in the centre.
He is a talented dribbler and also has a bit of presence, so might help us to retain the ball better around the edge of the box. However, there is certainly no rush to bring him into the team; he is going to take time to settle to a very different way of life both on and off the pitch.
That’s your lot for today. In part 2, I’ll be covering the following:
Soldado not doing enough.
A lack of passing ability in the midfield ’2′.
No Plan B / ability to change of approach.
October 20, 2013
I was a huge advocate of appointing Andre Villas-Boas as Head Coach. I liked his Porto side, I like the fact that he made a career from analysing opposition tactics, and I like the fact that he’s also a genuine coach – someone who wants to improve individual players and his team on the training pitch through very specific measures.
He was dealt a bad hand in his first season with King, Modric and Van der Vaart leaving, but he was lucky enough to have Bale (and he certainly got the best out of him). He achieved fifth place, which was at least one place better than I expected having lost such vital players. The fact that he achieved our highest Premier League points tally is often overlooked due to the failure to secure Champions League football having been well placed to do so.
There have been many positives under AVB, one of the biggest being a win at Old Trafford since 1989. Another being the defensive solidarity he has achieved, helped by his dignified handling of the Friedel/Lloris situation. And of course the considered way he stopped us consistently conceding late goals – through turning up the intensity late in training sessions to encourage concentration at the end of matches. That showcased his analytical side wonderfully.
There is also a lot to be said about the way he handles himself off the pitch. He speaks well, he is mostly deferential, and he is incredibly respectful of our fan base. His management of the Bale situation was perfect.
I am supportive of the way that Andre Villas-Boas is taking the club forward, but that does not mean that everything is rosy, and I do have concerns.
Lack of Plan B
Such is his belief in his philosophy, I sometimes feel that AVB can be inflexible. Generally he wants to play with a very high line which helps his team to win the ball high up the pitch. The intention is to control possession, which is a defensive tactic as well as it is an attacking one; it’s more difficult for the opposition to score when they don’t have the ball.
When teams arrive with the idea to soak up pressure and hit us on the counter, we often look unable to break them down – last season we often relied on a piece of Bale magic to do so, and this season we’ve struggled for goals from open play.
When things are not going our way, there is a lack of bravery in AVB’s substitutions. He will generally wait until the 65-70 mark before making a change, often going like-for-like or, worse, bringing on Defoe for a midfielder; I always feel that it’s strange to bring on a finisher when the team is struggling to create openings *to* finish. That’s not to say he hasn’t got substitutions right – his late changes against Cardiff worked wonders, the introduction of Huddlestone against Everton last season was a masterstroke, and his tactical flexibility in the 5-2 defeat at Arsenal earned him credit too. But these selections have not led to him being bolder, and I personally feel he must be.
Sometimes he needs to accept that his pre-match plans are not working, and to make a change. The way that Mourinho changed the game in Chelsea’s favour at half-time – with Mata coming on for Mikel – showed us what a difference a bold move like that can make. Were it not for Torres being sent off, I think Chelsea would have gone on to win that game, and Mourinho would have been rightly lauded for admitting that he was wrong in not starting Mata, and introducing him when it came to the crunch.
The lack of a ‘passer’ as one of the ’2′ in our 4-2-3-1 is a fundamental flaw in our system. To me it seems so obvious that one of the reasons we struggle to break teams down and maintain a quick tempo is that we let the opposition regain shape too quickly as we don’t move the ball quickly enough to our attacking ’3′. Dembele and Paulinho between them just do not have the direct passing ability that we need from at least one of the players in that role, much like Parker and Dembele didn’t last season.
Sending Carroll out on loan is a move that will hopefully benefit him and us in the long-term but, having sold Huddlestone, we have so few passing midfield players, that it might have been useful to have kept him around. Holtby playing as one of the deeper two is an option but, of course, you do give up a little of the solid defensive screen in making such a selection.
Whilst there is a misconception that AVB is a big user of statistics (“The mind and how the player feels is much more important for us, rather than statistical data.”), he can’t fail to have noticed that we struggle with set pieces at both ends of the pitch. There might have been a push on Vertonghen for West Ham’s first goal a fortnight ago but, even ignoring that, Nolan wandered across the six-yard box untracked; that can’t be happening in top-flight football. Chelsea also profited from our poor set piece defending and we’ve yet to score from a set piece ourselves this season despite having won 51 corners in the league and having had many free kicks in positions which appear to be dangerous. After Manchester City (8.00), we average the most corners per game (7.29), and concede the fewest (3.43) after City (2.43) and Chelsea (3.29) this season (stats from FootytStats).
Much like the focus on late goals being conceded last season, I’d love to see AVB try something in training to put this right. Hopefully they’ll have worked on this during the international break, and we can see some results in today’s game at Aston Villa.
When AVB was appointed, there was a statement of intent with regards to bringing young players through, Daniel Levy saying:
“Andre shares our long-term ambitions and ethos of developing players and nurturing young talent, and he will be able to do so now at a new world-class training centre.”
Beyond the occasional game for Carroll/Kane/Fryers in the cup competitions, and the inclusion of 22-year old Townsend in the first team this season, there has not been a particular focus on young players being involved, despite there being a lot of talent bubbling under the surface. With Levy having been one of the fiercest advocates of increasing the substitute options from five to seven players, I’d expect to at least have a few young players on the bench for the Europa League games – if not just for the experience of being involved, but to potentially bring on when we’re winning games easily.
The likes of Veljkovic and Bentaleb could have been given a taste of first team football to keep them interested and hungry; including them in squads and giving them 10 or 15 minutes exposure here or there could work wonders and offer an incentive to other young players. Not using and then selling the talented Massimo Luongo baffled me too – I can’t help but think we’ll live to regret that to some extent, and I just hope we have a sell-on percentage agreed.
He doesn’t stick around long
When linked with Paris St-Germain in the summer, Villas-Boas said:
“With Nasser [Al-Khelaifi, the PSG president], we have respect for each other. That PSG approached me was released [to the media] but I wanted to stay a second year in Tottenham, building on the work of last season, making two consecutive seasons in the same club for the first time in my career. I wanted to continue the project here.”
He doesn’t stay at clubs long (or at least hasn’t so far), so as much as we might see AVB’s Spurs as a long-term project, it might not be the most ludicrous assumption that he almost certainly doesn’t see us as the same. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Reasons to be cheerful
AVB has mostly been a good appointment and he is a respected and affable person to have at the helm. The team he surrounds himself with seem well liked and respected internally, and most of the noises coming from Hotspur Way appear to be positive ones.
This season he needs to achieve something, though. The squad is now very much *his* squad (or at least his and Baldini’s), and to be argued to be a success, he needs to deliver a trophy and/or a top 4 finish.
October 18, 2013
Andres Villas-Boas has a number of selection headaches ahead of Sunday’s match against Aston Villa. With Aaron Lennon fit-again, many are talking about the proposition of him taking up his position on the right, with the in-form Andros Townsend switching to the left in a more ‘traditional’ set up, as was often utilised under Harry Redknapp.
The more ‘old school’ fan seems to enjoy this type of attacking set-up, with two old-fashioned wingers asked to beat their man and get crosses in from which a centre forward (or two) expected to profit. It worked under Harry, they’ll tell you. And we all remember “he plays on the leeeeeeft…”.
However, not only did we have wide players on their “right” sides under Harry – i.e. looking to go on the outside of the full-back – but we had Luka Modrić in the middle, who moved the ball more quickly than any player we’d had since Michael Carrick. For me, this was the key to our attacking success under Redknapp.
Inverted wingers – the benefits
Is it a coincidence that the best teams in the world currently play with inverted wingers? Barcelona play with Neymar or Cristian Tello and Pedro Rodríguez or Alexis Sánchez, Bayern Munich with Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel di María or Gareth Bale. The set-up allows teams to overload the opposition in central areas in the final third. Yes, it can be congested, but technical players who are adept at passing and moving use this to their advantage, and use quick passing triangles to create openings in tight spaces.
The reliance on the centre forward(s) to get all of the goals is gone, as wingers are expected to chip in with their fair share – coming into central areas and getting shots away on their stronger sides.
There is still width, but it expected that this is provided by the full-backs, who play almost as auxiliary wingers. Whilst at least one of the defensive midfield players drops into defence to make up the numbers in case of the counter.
The defensive benefits are also obvious – with more players in central areas the pitch is squeezed, leaving less room for escape for the opposition. Vulnerability down the flanks is possible, but the defensive midfield two have one eye on wide areas when the full-backs push on. And, of course, the opposition require bodies behind the ball to stop the central overload, so leaving men up-field requires a lot of bravery.
At Porto, AVB mostly played with Hulk as an inverted winger – cutting in and firing shots away – whilst Silvestre Varela was more of a touch-line hugger. At Spurs, AVB used Bale firstly on the right, and then as a second striker, but he rarely used him on the left. However, Lennon – very much the old-fashioned winger – has remained a favourite when fit, and has been singled out for praise on more than one occasion for his work ethic and team play.
But will Lennon automatically come back into the side when fit? I doubt it. Gylfi Sigurðsson has shown the ability to come in off the left and score goals (he already has three this season). And, in Townsend, we’re lucky to have a player who is left footed, but who worked so hard during his apprenticeship on developing his “wrong” foot. As a result, he is a problem for defenders, who don’t know which way he is going to take them. He is willing to go on the outside once in a while – willing to use his right foot. He scored a debut goal with his right foot against Charlton, and of course he scored an excellent goal with his right on his England debut last week too.
Inverted wingers can work well but attacking, overlapping full-backs are essential. Kyle Naughton has not shown a willingness to overlap on the left and, with Rose injured, AVB will have a difficult decision on this side of the pitch. The options, as I see them, are (in order of my preference):
1. Shift Jan Vertonghen out to the left, and utilise Younes Kaboul or Vlad Chiricheș in the centre of defence.
2. Pick Zeki Fryers at left back.
3. Persist with Naughton, but use a natural left-sided player (Townsend?) ahead of him.
4. Persist with Naughton and Sigurdsson on the left.
The worry about moving Vertonghen to left-back is that he will struggle against the quick, direct wing-foward, Andreas Weimann. On the plus side, though, it would mean we have another physical presence in the side to help deal with Benteke.
Quick passing – not all about retention
Earlier, I mentioned Modrić’s quick movement of the ball, and it’s this decisive, fluid play that I personally feel we’ve been lacking in midfield this season. Many coaches (and certainly Allardyce, who benefitted so well from this a fortnight ago) think in terms of transitions; being able to get the ball to your creative players more quickly than the opposition can regain team shape is vital. Our midfield at times need to learn that the ball moves faster than a man.
Paulinho has shown glimpses of quick passing ability, but this has always been my biggest criticism of Mousa Dembélé. Whilst he is a wonderful dribbler and protector of the ball, at times his want to dribble across the pitch or to glide forward beyond a man or two and then to turn and pass backwards truly hinders us. We won’t see the best of Eriksen, for example, until he plays in a team that finds him early and finds him often.
We have options in the centre – Lewis Holtby has intimated in the past that he sees himself as an 8 – the ‘transitional’ player in midfield, who links between the defensive midfielder and the 10, and his ‘pass and move’ style would suit the hole from an attacking viewpoint. Clearly, though, having Holtby there rather than, say, Dembélé would affect us defensively – we’d lose a lot of physicality.
For me, Sandro as one of the midfield two would be a no-brainer for Sunday’s match – against a physical threat like Benteke, it’ll be vital that we get our most physical players around him to attempt to combat his brute force. Sandro staying close and making every aerial challenge doubly difficult for him is essential.
Alongside him, though, the choice is more tricky. The benefit of Dembélé is that he allows us to keep the ball, although potentially at a more tepid tempo. Paulinho is a much more obvious goal-threat and allows us to retain a physical presence, but does lack imagination with his passing. Holtby offers better vision and variation, and has a bit of bite to his game, but he is largely untested in the role. It’s not an easy call.
I wrote an article for FourFourTwo this week about the importance of playing Roberto Soldado rather than Jermain Defoe. Soldado has been far from perfect so far, but it was clear last week that we were lacking his intelligent movement and willingness to show for the ball.
When you’re playing a possession game against a team that has bodies behind the ball, it’s essential that you pass quickly and “cycle” your attacking players in an attempt to move defenders around. By that I mean that one forward comes deeper to show for the ball, and another darts in behind – it’s almost a cyclical movement when you look at it on paper.
Against West Ham we didn’t do this enough, and we were too slow to pass the ball. Defoe barely ever made himself available to receive the ball with his back to goal, and we didn’t shift it quickly enough to Eriksen, which meant that – because he was receiving the ball in congested areas with limited options – Eriksen had by far his worst game for us.
Soldado is clearly more comfortable than Defoe in this more selfless role. As we saw with the goal that Sigurðsson scored against Chelsea, he is happy to drag defenders away and leave space for others to step into.
My line-up for Villa
I’d go with Holtby over Eriksen for a little more bite, and an extra body to drop in against Villa’s hard-working midfield three of Delph, Westwood and El Ahmadi. I’d also stick with Sigurðsson, as he has proven able to score goals from this position.
Vertonghen gets the nod over Fryers and Naughton at full back – he will allow us to maintain a natural width and will be another physical player to help deal with the threat of Benteke.
Paulinho edges out Dembélé because of his more natural inclination to break forward – we might need another goal like his winner in Cardiff.