OK, so Tottenham did not start the season on fire. Or, at least, they have not caught fire yet.
If anyone needed a reminder that an ugly start does not mean a painful ending, chart Everton’s record for the last umpteen years. Or, sadly, check last year’s line across the North London divide.
So, how do Tottenham change their fortunes in the next five matches?
One thing that should help is if Spurs begin to adapt to something within Andre Villas-Boas’ tactical scheme that has not been apparent in his time in England yet—flexibility.
Tottenham have started the season in the same base formation that, for lack of a better idea, is very similar to what they had been using all of last season, with a minor adjustment to the midfield.
That, however, has been meshed with a style of play that conflicts with a rigid formation that has not, so far, seen the players in the attacking end of the pitch make any attempt to move out of their starting positions.
Apart from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon swapping flanks, there has been mucgh predictability as to where the players are expected to be.
This must change if Villas-Boas’ scheme is to come to fruition.
Why is flexibility key to the Portuguese boss’ plans?
The pieces needed are now (for the most part) in place for Villas-Boas to begin to mold the attacking structure he would like to implement.
What kind of attacking structure? It’s not too different from Redknapp’s ideas, but as Michael Cox put it for ESPNFC:
The arrival of Andre Villas-Boas made Porto more dynamic, more attacking and more intelligent on the ball. It often looked as if Porto simply battered teams through sheer force, but the more you saw them, the more it became obvious that the cohesion of their movement was sublime. When one player dropped deep, another would charge forward. When a winger came inside, the full back overlapped.
It’s a simple concept but it requires players to be willing to move into different positions to compensate for other movements.
A rigid system does not ask players to move around: Villas-Boas needs that movement.
How can Tottenham, then, make this happen?
For starters, if we discount the movement of the deepest midfielder—likely to be Sandro or Jake Livermore—then the other five players in the attack need to be able to swap positions without any noticeable difference.
As it currently stands, Gylfi Sigurdsson is playing right off the back of the main striker in a withdrawn forward role.
Drifting out to the right and linking with either Lennon or Dempsey, with Kyle Walker overlapping, would give Tottenham a very similar attack pattern to the one Porto employed that confounded much of Europe two years ago.
This, of course, is but one example of how Spurs can be adaptable.
The most important issue, however, is getting the right team cobbled together.
Once Dempsey is up to full fitness, which may take a match or two to do judging by his U.S. performances, it would be very likely that he moves into the right wing role at Lennon’s expense.
This is due to the fact that Dempsey scores at a better clip than Lennon does, as well as the fact that Dempsey can drift across the entire attacking front.
Dembele, Sigurdsson and Dempsey can practically interchange on a whim, even if all three might be strongest in the withdrawn forward position.
If allowed to move around freely, man-marking squads will have a tough time keeping formation while tracking the three around the pitch, which in turn should open up holes for other players to exploit.
Bale, meanwhile, neatly fits in the same left-sided role that Villas-Boas employed at Porto, with the twist that other teams cannot abandon his side of the pitch for fear of what he is able to do if left in one-on-one situations.
Even if he decides to move infield, swapping positions briefly with Adebayor would only be a hindrance if Bale does not convert chances.
Leaving Bale as the lone forward might have been part of Villas-Boas scheme in the preseason, namely to see if he could make hay from the front.
It would also behoove Spurs to allow constant flank-swapping to keep opponents from settling into a predictable defensive push.
Against a squad like Reading on Sunday, shifting the attacking midfield around will be crucial to unlocking a defense that is likely to be a bit more open at the Madjeski Stadium.
Staying rigid and trying to press hard down the flanks will more than likely see them run into a continuous wall of Royals looking to usher the wingers to the byline and shut down crosses.
Having a player cut inside, a full-back cut outside and a third man waiting to exploit a hole, however, will be a much more perplexing task for the newly promoted side.
This will be the case for future matches as well. The next five matches could be a chance for Tottenham to add 10 points or more to their current tally.
Clubs are conditioned to Tottenham’s breakneck pace and penchant for attacking largely down the flanks.
If Spurs marry their new-found wont of possession with an attacking pattern that does not solely involve racing to the byline and working in from there, clubs will not be able to set up their defenses to solely stop that movement.
And if Tottenham can force the defense out of their tactical comfort zone, goals should surely follow.
A flexible and fluid Spurs outfit should be able to achieve a solid point haul over the next five weeks as they begin to fine tune the squad ahead of the first major stretch of the season in the late fall months.
As long as they are given some time, Tottenham will eventually right the ship and get moving back towards the top half of the table, where most people will enjoy seeing them.
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