An interesting statistic emerged after Tottenham Hotspur blew a lead and conceded two late goals at Everton last weekend: Had all their games this season ended after 80 minutes, Spurs would be sitting second in the table.
Spurs, meanwhile, have conceded 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of nine league games. Six of them have been game-changers, costing them a total of nine points.
Conversely, André Villas-Boas’s side have scored 19 out of a total of 29 goals in the second half of games, resulting in seven points gained from a position of being level or behind. None of those 19, however, have been scored in the last 10 minutes.
While it’s a good sign of a manager that he can make changes to positively affect a game after the half-time break, the late failings indicate deeper problems.
There have been difficulties, for example, in transition this season which, ironically, is something Villas-Boas knows all about.
When he was the opposition scout for José Mourinho at Chelsea, a key observation from his spying report on Newcastle United was the Magpies’ tendency to struggle to regain their shape quickly after losing the ball. Against West Ham and Everton recently, two goals resulted immediately after Steven Caulker hacked at a clearance and needlessly gave away possession.
An inability to keep the ball late in games has badly hindered Spurs.
Because of a lack of a coherent transfer policy, and because Daniel Levy failed in a bid to sign Joao Moutinho, Villas-Boas has not been able to shape the squad the way he wants.
There are two areas where Spurs are in glaring need of strengthening: in defensive midfield and in the position behind the striker. Moutinho was earmarked for the first role, Willian for the second. The attempt to bring in the FC Porto player was a frank acknowledgement that midfield lacks players who can control a game.
But therein lies another dilemma because while Sandro’s first touch can often be crude, he has a monstrous work ethic and is a crucial shield in front of the back four. Scott Parker’s presence has been missed and his return to training will be welcomed by his manager. Assuming, then, that Moussa Dembélé is certain to start as one of the two deep-lying midfielders, Villas-Boas has a problem to solve and won’t relish dropping a fan favourite.
In fairness to the Portuguese manager, he has had to deal with a defence in flux since the start of the season. Against Newcastle in August, Younes Kaboul and William Gallas started as the centre-back pairing with Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back. New signing Jan Vertonghen was on the bench, presumably with the intent to eventually ease him into the side to replace the aging Frenchman.
However, Kaboul has been absent since then and Assou-Ekotto joined him on the treatment table two games later.
With Vertonghen having to fill in at left-back, a player approaching the end of his career has partnered a player still in his formative years in four of those games in which late goals have been conceded. Gallas and Caulker have made crucial errors this season and both were responsible for Everton’s late smash and grab.
Caulker is a supremely built athlete but, of course, he lacks experience. Everyone in the stadium heard Hugo Lloris scream for the ball at Everton, yet the 20-year-old panicked and made a rash decision. The England defender is a former 400m hurdler but in cauldrons such as Goodison Park, rarely does athleticism or talent overcome the benefit that experience learned over years operating in similar environments gives.
Gallas, too, has been caught out a number of times this season. Against Everton, he allowed Nikica Jelavic to steal in behind him to nick the winner. Spurs’ high-octane, pressing game means players tire late on and thus concede ground and increase pressure on the back four.
Villas-Boas was also hasty in making clear his early intentions to jettison Michael Dawson. The former Nottingham Forest defender is a leader and an organiser even if his lack of natural pace makes him unsuitable for the high line that the manager insists on playing.
His availability is important but even more significant will be the returns of Parker, Assou-Ekotto and Kaboul.
Spurs’ fans will then have a clearer picture of what Villas-Boas’s intentions are and, specifically, what he sees as his first-choice centre-back pairing, an area in which he has not had his full complement available all season.
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