August 24, 2009
Before I dive into this, I ought to comment on the start to our season: three wins out of three – our best start since 1960-61, the year in which we won the double. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a fantastic start but probably just as well, as we have a tricky run of games coming up – in September we play Man Utd at White Hart Lane, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and Burnley at White Hart Lane, and we have a tricky Christmas period, and a horrible run-in too. I’d still anticipate us battling for 6th/7th come the end of the year – Everton should not be written off, Man City look to have gelled more quickly than I (and others) anticipated, and the top 4 from last year will be strong again this year.
Despite the good start, there’s still plenty of work to do, and there are two key areas where I’d like to see improvement throughout the season:
1. Set pieces (attacking)
Ignoring Stephen Hunt’s rather fortunate goal against us last week, I think we’ve generally improved at defending set pieces under Redknapp (and especially since Gomes regained confidence and became more decisive). However, we have long been poor at attacking set pieces, and I’ve seen little or no improvement under HR.
I think we struggle with:
- Timing of runs
- Attacking the ball
Bentley and Bale are probably our most natural set piece “specialists” but, with both out of the team for different reasons, Modric takes the majority, and his deliveries from corners are often floated, rather than fired in. I’d hope that two or three players are working on their set piece delivery for an extra half-hour in training, particularly Huddlestone, who strikes the ball so well when it’s moving, but seems less able when it’s not.
Delivery aside, we don’t have many players that attack the ball well. Crouch is an obvious target when he plays, and he attracts defenders, which should free up Bassong, who seems our best bet – he’s probably the best attacker of the ball that we’ve had since Kaboul. Bassong’s header against Liverpool was excellent, and he also went close against Hull.
I’d hope that Bassong’s aggressive attacking of the ball will rub off on other players, and we can aim to do what Villa did last season – a huge proportion of their goals coming from set pieces. It would be such a useful string to add to our bow, especially when we’re otherwise not creating chances.
2. Closing out games
We conceded too many late goals last season (I’m thinking Blackburn, West Brom, etc etc), and I had concerns against West Ham yesterday. We were let off the hook – partially thanks to the Faubert/Defoe incident – but here is an example to illustrate my point:
In the 87th minute, Defoe busts a gut to chase a lost cause and makes sure that West Ham have a throw-in near to the corner flag, rather than a goal kick. He then turns his back on the man taking the throw and allows them to come out easily. We press them back into the corner, and Defoe makes a needless challenge and gives away a free-kick. You just know that had that been Chelsea or United, their players would be intent on keeping the ball in that corner for as long as possible.
Harry does like to waste time/break things up with late substitutions, which I think work well, but this approach needs to be used in tandem with a general team effort to keep the ball in the opposite half, and to use the ball sensibly when we do have it. Ideally I’d like a Didi Hamann style experienced, passing midfield player to come on for the last 10 minutes of games when we’re leading to frustrate the opposition, but since we haven’t got that, the team as a whole need to focus on staying switched on.
I feel these are two areas where the top teams tend to outdo us and, if we do have real ambitions of cracking the top four over the next few years, we’ll need to improve.