BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Fan Fuel’s Premier League previews enter the home stretch in North London, as Tottenham look to go one step further in the quest to reach the Champions League by bolstering their squad with some quality additions.
You wouldn’t blame some Tottenham fans for believing that sometimes it’s just not meant to be. At the end of the 2012 season they finished fourth, only to be denied entry into the Champions League because of Chelsea’s miraculous victory in Munich. A year later they ended the season with 72 points, their highest ever points tally in the Premier League but still ended short as it was also the highest points tally for a team that finished fifth. It’s on the back of so much heartbreak for Spurs, that André Villas-Boas will try to inspire his troops for another crack at qualifying for the holy grail that is the Champions League.
The Portuguese manager will be confident about attaining the clubs targets, as for the first time in quite a while the Spurs have conducted some really good summer business. Gareth Bale’s transfer saga with Real Madrid also seems to have quietened down considerably in the last week or so, and all indications are that the Welsh winger is going to be at White Hart Lane for at least one more season. With a promising midfield and significant additions in every area of the squad, Spurs head into the season with renewed hope and optimism.
On defence: French national team captain Hugo Lloris was signed before the transfer deadline last summer, and many in the press questioned why AVB signed a goalkeeper when he already had the reliable Brad Friedel on the books. During a small period of adjustment many critics in England were having a field day mocking AVB for unnecessarily rotating. As the season borne out however, it was clear that the manager had an idea of the right kind of goalkeeper needed to fit into his approach. Lloris’ shot stopping ability is unquestionable, but it became increasingly evident that he became first choice because of his ability to sweep effectively, since Villas-Boas’ defenders usually play a high line. Friedel maturely took the responsibility of being back up to Lloris, and Spurs know that in the case of an injury or suspension to their first choice keeper, the American is an excellent replacement on the team.
Spurs have done some clearing out of the defence during the summer. While William Gallas was understandably released, the sale of young centre-back Steven Caulker to Cardiff came as a surprise to many in the footballing world. It’s conceivable that AVB thought the youngster was too similar to captain Michael Dawson, and considering he likes to have at least one ball playing centre-back, Caulker’s opportunities were bound to be limited. Dawson’s aerial ability and physical strength are complimented by the classy football stylings of Jan Vertonghen. The Belgian is elegant in possession with a superb passing ability, and his positional sense ensures that he is in the right place most times at the back, as well as contributing with goals in the attacking third. Unfortunately for Spurs, Vertonghen got injured in nasty playing conditions during a pre-season friendly in Hong Kong and it would be a huge surprise if he were to be ready for the opening weekend of the season.
Younès Kaboul is only just returning from a long-term injury, so Villas-Boas could play new signing Étienne Capoue as a makeshift centre-back on his debut, or more likely he will shift right-back Kyle Naughton to the centre to start the season. Ultimately a good sign for Spurs is with Villas-Boas likely to take the Europa League seriously again, the variety in centre-back options available to the manager will stand the squad in good stead to compete on all fronts.
Kyle Walker will start as first choice right-back again. Walker’s speed with the ball makes him an asset in attack, and last season he performed dual roles of winger and fullback when Aaron Lennon was injured. Walker still needs to work on the defensive aspect of his game, and if Villas-Boas can further develop his tactical awareness, he can be one of the best right-backs in the league. Danny Rose returns to White Hart Lane on the back of an excellent loan season at Sunderland, and will be counted upon to replicate his form for the Spurs this season. If Rose continues to improve on his attacking verve, Tottenham could benefit from having one of the most dynamic left flanks with the Englishman operating in tandem with Gareth Bale.
However, Rose and Walker can’t take their places for granted. If Villas-Boas finds their defensive liabilities counterproductive to the team, Naughton can provide greater solidity on either flank, while Vertonghen is equally capable of supporting Spurs attacks from left-back without compromising the defence. Fan favourite Benoît Assou-Ekotto is still at the club, and when a situation demands Villas-Boas can always resort to the Cameroonian although he has become too inconsistent recently to have a permanent role in the starting line-up.
The midfield: Sandro’s injury at the halfway point of last season was a big loss to the Spurs midfield. That the team still managed to stay in the hunt for fourth despite the absence of the Brazilian midfielder could be considered a huge testament to Villas-Boas’ tactical pedigree. Sandro is extremely good at dispossessing opponents, and while his passing isn’t necessarily inventive, he is good at moving the play forward. His physicality adds a better defensive presence in midfield as well, ensuring that the Spurs weren’t hustled off the ball regularly.
Alongside the creative addition of Mousa Dembélé, the pair formed one of the best midfield double acts in the league, providing ideal balance between defence and attack. In fact, the creative Belgian’s attacking talents were curbed without his partner. He often retreated deep trying to ensure Spurs had possession rather than creating chances for the forwards in the team with his incisive passes and underrated dribbling ability. That’s why the signing of Sandro’s Brazilian compatriot Paulinho was a masterstroke. Paulinho was easily Brazil’s best midfielder at the Confederations Cup, combining lung-busting runs and relentless energy with a bona fide goal scoring threat. When midfielders like Paulinho get a foothold in the game, they are extremely hard to mark, and automatically provide a lift to the rest of the team. A dynamic trio of Sandro, Paulinho and Dembélé provides AVB with a midfield that closely resembles the successful axis he had during his year at Porto.
The signing of French international Étienne Capoue is also something of a coup. Capoue was on the radar of many teams including rivals Arsenal, and the versatile midfielder can come in handy whenever Villas-Boas wants to switch to a more structured 4-2-3-1 instead of his preferred 4-3-3. Lewis Holtby also provides another midfield option for Tottenham. The German’s signing was brought forward in January amid much hype, but Holtby is still defining his role in the Spurs playing eleven. He certainly can pass the ball well, and if Villas-Boas can sort out some positioning issues seen at the start of his Premier League career, Holtby will certainly have a role to play in Spurs congested season. Scott Parker is now on the fringes, the veteran clearly proving he wasn’t a good enough replacement for Sandro last season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Parker leave before the transfer deadline, following Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore out of the squad.
On the attack: Jermain Defoe wasn’t up to scratch for most of last season, and while he retains a natural finishing ability, the forward isn’t the most tactically astute at bringing others into play, a prerequisite in the manager’s fluid attacking style. Theoretically at least, Emmanuel Adebayor should have been the ideal forward. However, the Togolese resorted to type last season, not showing the right intensity, and often making the wrong decisions that so infuriated fans at Arsenal and Manchester City. Hence, the signing of Spanish international forward Roberto Soldado is significant. Soldado is a lethal finisher, at ease when finishing crosses in the box, in addition to possessing a superb volleying technique that has led to many good goals from outside the box as well. With Soldado in the side, AVB can be assured that Spurs finishing ratio will certainly be an improvement over last season’s poor numbers.
While Soldado certainly adds quality to the attack, the single most important player up front is undoubtedly Gareth Bale. The Welsh winger had a breakout season last time around, scoring 21 goals in the Premier League. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, as Bale single-handedly won games with decisive strikes, often at late stages in games. Bale didn’t operate solely on the wing, often doing an excellent job hanging on to the shoulder of the last defender before accelerating to finish through balls. His long-range strikes led to many spectacular goals, proving that Bale was given a free remit by Villas-Boas to wreak havoc all over the park.
Bale can certainly change a game single-handedly, but as a team the Spurs always performed better when Aaron Lennon was also on the right wing. This ensured that opposition defenders were occupied on both flanks, unable to focus their marking efforts exclusively on Bale. However, Lennon can be inconsistent at times, so Spurs have strengthened the flanks with the signing of Belgian winger Nacer Chadli. Chadli offers a more subtle approach on the wing, able to turn easily out of tight corners, while he is also more incisive with his final ball compared to Lennon. Andros Townsend will provide the back up to Bale, after a successful loan spell at QPR ensuring that the manager has another good option to rotate the attack. Gylfi Sigurdsson will also have a role to play off the bench, the Icelandic international capable of supplying crucial goals when playing behind the forwards.
Conclusion: Daniel Levy was justifiably criticized for being too stingy in January, when Tottenham clearly required a new forward and an extra option on the wing. The lack of signings ultimately had an effect on a tiring squad, and that Spurs finished so close to Arsenal was primarily down to Gareth Bale’s solo efforts.
The mistakes of January have been rectified in the summer. With players such as Kaboul and Sandro returning from injuries allied with some quality additions to the squad, Andre Villas-Boas and the Spurs players should come racing out of the blocks in the new season. Irrespective of the heartbreak suffered in the past, the White Hart Lane faithful are excited by the dawn of a new season yet again. Spurs certainly do have the personnel to at least finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League. Whether they do, will once again come down to a test of mental fortitude, as another race with Arsenal comes down to the wire at the end of the season.