The photographs of Robbie Keane on the Tottenham Hotspur training ground are a present reminder of what has been lacking in André Villas-Boas’s team in certain games this season: the art of improvisation in the attacking third.
The Irish striker is training with his former club for the next two weeks before he returns to LA Galaxy for their preseason preparations.
For all the understated improvement Villas-Boas has effected since a poor spell in October and November when Spurs won just 3-of-11 games, the team and style of play sometimes resembles an efficient production line: there is a clear plan but you know what you’re going to get. There have been games this season where Spurs have tried the same thing over and over again only to repeatedly meet the same roadblock. QPR last weekend was a case in point.
That’s not a criticism of Villas-Boas; he is quietly impressing as the season goes on and Spurs are favourites to clinch a top-four spot. He has his team pressing high up the pitch and penning opponents in their own half—particularly those teams such as Swansea, Aston Villa and QPR (that Spurs are expected to beat). Ironically, though, it’s a strategy that blunts one of his team’s biggest strengths—a counterattacking arsenal that is up there with the best in the league.
It was alarming how easily the league’s basement club contained Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Jamie Mackie and Shaun Wright-Phillips performed with crucial diligence in front of their full-backs to deny Spurs’ wide men the necessary space to hurt the home side. Only rarely—and only using one, two players at the most—did QPR venture out of their defensive formation.
It wasn’t the first time Harry Redknapp had seen such tactics work: After Bale’s extraordinary performance against Inter Milan at the San Siro in 2010, David Moyes employed the same defensive strategy when Everton visited White Hart Lane a few days later. The result was that Phil Neville and Seamus Coleman formed a double shield in front of Bale to restrict his—and ultimately his team’s—effectiveness.
The following season, Redknapp attempted to expand Bale’s repertoire by playing him in central areas for certain games. While it wasn’t a failure—he scored two goals against Norwich City from the centre of the pitch that were more a product of his speed and skill on the break—it also didn’t represent a long-term solution to getting the best out of him. Certainly, Bale is not a player who flourishes when his back is to the goal.
And having a player who can is exactly what Spurs lack at the moment and why they are being linked to Willian of Shaktar Donetsk and Internacional’s Leandro Damiao. Keane never formed a reliable partnership with Jermain Defoe (and outside of Niall Quinn and Dimitar Berbatov for that mater, with anyone else), but it’s as if the England striker and Emmanuel Adebayor are operating in two different time zones—such is the absence of any discernible partnership.
When he spoke about the tragedy of the attack on Togo’s team bus at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations when the driver was killed and several players injured, he said coming that close to death had changed him (from africasoccernet):
When you realise that I was one minute from passing away, it’s all nothing. I tell myself: ‘Adebayor, just live your life.’ People got shot two seats in front of me. When you have been through those things, you’re another person. When you’re younger and you haven’t been through things, you don’t understand. If I’m told to sit on the bench I’ll be happy to.
If it’s a wholly understandable sentiment, it’s one that is hardly compatible with the competitive instincts of a top-level sportsman. And, in truth, the opposite seems to be the case: Adebayor looks anything but happy on the pitch.
We arguably haven’t seen the best of him since 2009 when he left Arsenal. It’s certainly hard to square the player we see now with the player who could score one of the great Premier League goals when he impudently flicked the ball up in front of Michael Dawson and lashed a volley past Paul Robinson.
It leaves Villas-Boas with a double headache: Adebayor has not provided any evidence that he is the man to drive Spurs towards a Champions League spot. Yet, it’s not going to be easy to drop a player only a few months into a lucrative contract.
If the Spurs do sign another forward to provide the finesse and unpredictability needed in the attacking third, it seems likely Adebayor will be the fall-guy.
It was at this stage last season that Spurs began to falter. And, with Arsenal vastly improved with a sharper Jack Wilshere in the side, Villas-Boas needs to find a way to turn territorial dominance into goals.
Follow John Kelly on Twitter @JKelly1882