Early-Season Player Grades for Tottenham Hotspur
While these clubs sit at the bottom of the Premier League, each yet to record a win, they should take comfort in how easily fortunes can change.
Tottenham Hotspur are evidence of that.
Winless after three games and with mutterings of discontent festering against manager Andre Villas-Boas, they have now won four in a row, including a memorable and victorious escape from Old Trafford.
With division leaders Chelsea about to visit White Hart Lane and take on their former manager, that run could be about to extend in quite triumphant fashion...or come to a crashing halt.
All this is to say, in a roundabout way, it is still very early in this 2012/13 season, and what is about to come for Tottenham and many others before we even reach Christmas remains to be seen.
For now though, they and we can reflect on a solid start to a campaign that has seen Spurs look a good deal different than the end of last season.
With changes having been made to the playing staff, and those who were already there adjusting to a new manager, new coaches and a new formation, now is as good a time as any to reflect on their respective seasons so far.
Who has stood out and who has work to do? Read on for early-season player grades for Tottenham Hotspur...
NOTE—Players will be marked out of 5, with each going something like this:
5 - Excellent
4 - Great
3 - Decent/Solid
2 - Needs improvement
1 - Poor
It was a stirring sight to see.
Brad Friedel's game-saving heroics at home to Norwich City, coming as they did a day after the signing of Hugo Lloris, proved there was still life in the old dog.
That is something of an understatement.
Friedel has been virtually imperious in his all his appearances thus far this season. Without his rearguard stand at Old Trafford, Spurs would not have held on for the victory.
But part of the thinking that led to Villas-Boas starting Lloris ahead of him, and thus ending the American's incredible run of 310 consecutive Premier League starts, is that he might not be able to maintain that form for the whole season.
Friedel at 80 percent of his peak-performance level is better than most at full strength, but with France's (much younger) No. 1 keeper waiting in the wings, there is a reasonable argument that it is better to get him playing now than to wait for a possible hiccup from his more senior rival.
Harsh though this may be, you can count on Friedel to stay focused and prepared should he be called upon again.
It should be noted that Villas-Boas has not specifically declared whether Hugo Lloris will be in goal for Tottenham's next game against Chelsea.
However, despite the Portuguese's admirable loyalty to Friedel early in the campaign, it is difficult to see him dropping his new signing now after giving having given him his Premier League debut (despite the toughness of the upcoming opposition).
In addition to that appearance against Aston Villa, Lloris has played twice in the Europa League, and it has generally been so far, so good.
There are clear signs of a goalkeeper freshly arrived from the Continent, in comparison to English goalkeepers or those such as Friedel who have long been ingrained with the stylistic attributes more specific to the country.
Lloris is more inclined to punch the ball out, and when it comes to crosses it is evident he will in for a shock or two when challenged by some of the Premier League's burlier aerial threats.
However, compared to when Heurelho Gomes arrived in England, Lloris seems less prone to coming out to try to meet every cross, using his judgement to pick out those situations which need his intervention (perhaps a benefit of having Tony Parks as his goalkeeping coach from the beginning, something of which Gomes did not have the benefit).
He was almost caught out with an errant throw against Villa, but in other situations so far, Lloris has fared ably.
If the grade above seems a little harsh, then it is not intended as such—more as a constructive appraisal of a player still in development.
Kyle Walker undoubtedly possesses enviable attributes for a full-back of tremendous pace, determination and considerable, burgeoning nous in the opposition half.
It is not wrong that he is considered one of England's best in his position, but for now that assessment is being undermined somewhat by a lack of concentration in his game.
This is a worrying blight on defenders of the modern game (or perhaps it has always been so), and it is the one major flaw from which Walker suffers.
Against Man United in particular, the right-back was caught unawares positionally and in regards to those around him, demonstrative of an advantage the best attackers still have over him.
In fairness, Walker has not been alone in this for Tottenham this season, and it might be something on which he finds himself improving over time as the club's new-look defence grows more accustomed to one another.
Hopefully this will be the case, because the good certainly outweighs the bad with Walker, a balance that will lean even further positively as this season goes on.
Tottenham Hotspur have seen the best and the worst of William Gallas this season, and indeed throughout his White Hart Lane career.
Gallas' commitment, organisation and all-round leadership abilities were in question during several key moments of the first few games of the season.
The Frenchman was caught wanting for concentration, and as the senior defender in the lineup, in his marshaling of his teammates around him, deficiencies that were exacerbated by the captain then having the temerity to visibly lambaste everyone around him when Tottenham conceded.
Yet, more recently, we have seen those aspects of Gallas that have made him a continued presence in the top flight for so many years now.
From Reading onwards, and especially so against Man United, the now 35-year-old has stood up and been counted, displaying the kind of effort that for someone succeeding Ledley King in the captaincy is a must.
As well as his all-round defensive play improving, Gallas has responded well to Steven Caulker coming in alongside him, knowing full well that his own success depends on the progress of the young centre-back alongside him.
It is fitting that in a year when Ledley King has retired, Tottenham have a player emerging who may well be the best centre-back to emerge from their youth team since their former captain did over a decade ago.
Whether Steven Caulker will reach the levels of King remains to be seen, but he has got off to a solid start.
Having already got some Premier League experience from his spell on loan at Swansea City last season (in addition to Football League loans previously), Caulker has not been thrown in the deep end without knowing how to swim.
He fared well in Wales and, going by his initial performances this season, is looking like he will repay Villas-Boas' faith in him.
His centre-back partner Gallas has spoken admirably of Caulker's willingness to listen and learn.
For risk of drawing one parallel too many, this was something King benefited from doing, especially when paired with Noureddine Naybet back in 2004/05 (though he was a few years ahead of Caulker in his development).
Caulker is already proving himself to be a solid tackler and good in the air, attributes that do not make his selection right now an unnecessary risk.
His ability to absorb and utilize these experiences will be the making of him in the long term, and so far the signs are good.
While the previous slide saw parallels drawn between Caulker and fellow Tottenham academy product Ledley King, in the form of Jan Vertonghen, Spurs fans may have found a defender who stylistically can ease the pain of losing their hero to retirement.
Vertonghen is equally versatile and comfortable in possession, having an elegance on the ball that is not entirely dissimilar and is thrilling to watch in runs forward.
The latter has been enhanced somewhat in the case of the Belgian, as he is currently playing left-back, but above all he looks like he's sharing elements of King's ability to read the game and respond as the situation demands (his last-ditch challenge on QPR's Junior Hoilett baring a decent, if less impressive resemblance to King's famous tackle on Arjen Robben).
Whether Vertonghen's future lies at full-back or centre-back, he is looking like a signing of genuine quality and a shrewd acquisition, considering Spurs did not have Champions League football to tempt him.
Upcoming fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal (among others) in the next month or so will be a serious test of his credentials, but there is little reason to believe Vertonghen will not respond to this test.
There has been a lot of talk about Mousa Dembele having replaced Luka Modric, with some suggesting Tottenham have got a better player.
It is a risky assessment to make so early in the Belgian Spur's career and one which may yet be proved or disproved.
What is not in doubt is Dembele has thus far had a very positive effect on Villas-Boas' midfield.
The Jake Livermore/Sandro pairing that was deployed prior to his arrival was industrious but lacking a little class that can go a long way in the Premier League, and Dembele has brought that without the team losing the defensive qualities brought by the aforementioned pair.
In many ways Dembele has it all as a midfielder—pace, skill, strength, intelligence, hunger and a good eye for a pass—and if that has not quite come together in full working order just yet, there has been enough on display that he has been a key figure in instigating much of what has been good about Spurs.
Perhaps Villas-Boas has already decided this, but for those of us not in the know, an extremely interesting situation is going to arise soon when Scott Parker is fit.
Parker was such a big player for Tottenham last season, winning over the club's supporters in no time at all with performances that demanded respect but also brought with them much affection for the level of effort put in.
Sandro played a fair amount last season too, gathering vital Premier League experience in what was only his second season in England.
Going by what we have seen so far this campaign, there is little reason to drop the Brazilian.
He and Dembele work well together, both of them hassling and jockeying opposition players before one or the other usually steals the ball away and sets Spurs on their way.
There is a fine balance too with each covering for the other if one ventures forward, and crucially getting into positions they can support the move without negating their defensive responsibilities.
Parker maybe hasn't got the legs Sandro has, but he isn't exactly a downgrade and does bring with him the sort of leadership Spurs will do well to utilize down the line.
Your call, Andre.
It barely seems conceivable that Aaron Lennon has been at White Hart Lane since 2005, making him the club's second-longest-serving player (excluding Jermain Defoe who spent a year away at Portsmouth) behind Michael Dawson.
Still only 25 years old, it is intriguing to ponder what Lennon's career will look like in two or three years' time, but for now he should be commended for the high level of performance he has maintained during his Tottenham career.
Premier League full-backs long ago sussed onto the fact the winger could beat them for pace and have generally adjusted accordingly to restrict his opportunities to do so in a one-on-one race.
Lennon, to his credit, has continually proved his game is about so much more than this, now just as much as ever.
Statistically, Lennon falls short of that top level inhabited by the very best, but he continues to provide Tottenham with a threat down the right that gives them extraordinary balance, considering Gareth Bale operates on the other flank.
If as hoped, he has overcome the injury issues of recent seasons, we may well be seeing the newly-recalled England international at his effective best.
Gareth Bale has already this season scored one of those goals he has a habit of scoring every now and then.
They're big-game goals that can take your breath away, and seeing as this one came in a win at Old Trafford, it ranks highly with the hat trick in Milan and others against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea.
It emphasized Bale's tremendous value to Tottenham as one of their players capable of hurting opposing teams to devastating effect, and his ability to make the most of the efforts by his teammates.
There is no doubt the Welshman has gone up a notch or two in status at Spurs since the summer departures of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart—despite his youth he is one of the senior figures in the squad now.
With so much of the season left to be played, it will be an extremely interesting watch to see if Bale can rise to the occasion and make this team a genuine force—hopefully going by his good start to the season there will be a few more magic moments to come.
The only shame is that he's sullied all this with some shameful acts of cheating, the reason why he lost half a point in his grade here.
Gylfi Sigurdsson hasn't quite found his feet at White Hart Lane just yet, but while it hasn't been a hugely impressive start for the summer signing, there has been enough on show for us to see he has the potential to be a valuable acquisition.
There have been flashes of real quality—his pass that led to Jermain Defoe's first goal against Reading was as good as any you're likely to see by anyone.
Sigurdsson has been hindered somewhat by being in and out of the team—more so the latter recently—but what certainly cannot be faulted is his determination to get involved and impose himself on games.
This has had the unintended consequence of a touch of sloppiness and some misplaced passes, as he has maybe tried a bit too hard, but this will go with time.
So Spurs haven't seen the best of Sigurdsson yet, but going by his time at Swansea, when it does arrive, they will be in for a treat.
That sort of goal was a big reason why he was bought from Fulham, and the hope for Tottenham will be that he fills the void of 10-15 goals a season left by the departing Rafael van der Vaart.
Outside of this, so far the American hasn't set the world alight, but he has been solid in his role in the hole behind the lone striker in Spurs' 4-2-3-1.
With each passing game, Dempsey is linking up better with his teammates, and if he hasn't won the hearts of his new supporters yet, his tireless running won't do him any harm.
Dempsey has begun well enough to have earned his starting spot so far, but where Villas-Boas goes in terms of personnel for the main attacking roles in his team is going to be one of the interesting storylines of the season for the north London club.
In all the talk of how Jermain Defoe has flourished under Villas-Boas, making the most of the regular starts and match time he has been given, many haven't appreciated that this form has hardly come out of the blue.
Despite not being a regular starter last season, Defoe played what was arguably his best football since returning to Tottenham from Portsmouth in 2009.
The striker's work ethic had upped considerably from his extremely poor previous season, and aspects of his game so vital to a forward, such as movement and spatial awareness, were enhanced to quite some degree.
How Harry Redknapp so frequently chose the comparatively one-dimensional Louis Saha ahead of Defoe last season was baffling, but positively for Spurs, they are seeing him in top form right now.
Four goals is a healthy tally to begin the season, while even in games he hasn't scored, there has been some great play elsewhere from the England forward.
With Emmanuel Adebayor fit again, it is likely Defoe will make way at some point, but Villas-Boas would be wise to keep him well-involved, as this is a player who will continue to achieve results for him.
Rest of the Squad
It is difficult to grade others who have not played more than two or three games at most, but an assessment can certainly be made on their respective seasons so far.
For Michael Dawson and Tom Huddlestone, two players who were hoping to be involved after long injury layoffs, it has been a season of disappointment so far, with neither seeing much game time.
Both are players Tottenham on whom can rely, especially for cup campaigns in which one or two others might be rested. With a long season ahead, Villas-Boas would be wise not to contemplate letting either go in January.
Emmanuel Adebayor has had a stop-start beginning to his career as a Spurs player proper, but he has looked pretty good again in his brief cameos.
With Defoe playing so well in a formation that only has one out-and-out striker, there is some serious competition for this place, though it shouldn't be too long before the Togo striker gets a start.
Younes Kaboul, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Scott Parker and Jake Livermore have suffered from injuries at an unfortunate time, with others coming into their places and performing well.
All are likely to be involved again when they return—just how frequently they will certainly be interesting.
One player who has benefited from this extra place on the substitutes bench has been Andros Townsend.
The younger winger has been a breath of fresh air in his cameos, and it is credit to Villas-Boas that he appreciates the alternative to Bale and Lennon he can provide.
If Townsend is not quite in their class (not yet anyway), he is certainly a worthy alternative if either is injured or loses form.