Tottenham Hotspur: What Spurs Must Get Right to Secure a Top-4 Finish
Six games now remain for Tottenham Hotspur to achieve their season-long aim of a top-four finish and Champions League qualification. Things have tightened up considerably in the absence of a game for manager Andre Villas-Boas' side this past weekend.
Arsenal crept ahead of Tottenham and Chelsea into third place after a 3-1 win over Norwich City, and have a chance to extend the gap on Tuesday evening. Adding to the convoluted nature of placings up the top, the Gunners' opponents Everton sit only three points behind fifth place Spurs.
Coach Villas-Boas and his squad cannot be too concerned about what's going on elsewhere though. With a fixture against Chelsea among those still to come (and still to be rescheduled), they know it is largely down to them how well they finish the campaign.
So just what do Tottenham need to get right in securing a top-four finish? Over the following pages a few suggestions are made, with a look at the reasoning why they might work for the team.
Stick with a Consistent Back-Four
Since the home wins over Arsenal and Inter Milan in early March, Tottenham have conceded 15 goals in seven matches. With only six fixtures left, Spurs do not have enough time left to make up for the dropped points an errant goal might cost. Their manager could help them avoid such setbacks by consistently selecting the same back-four.
There is little manager Andre Villas-Boas could have done about individual mistakes (Kyle Walker's suicidal backpass against Liverpool) or the opposition combining effectively to score a well-earned goal (like Dimitar Berbatov's in Fulham's 1-0 win). The frequent rotation of his defenders though, has undermined their ability to establish cohesiveness as a back-four.
This was not so much an issue over the winter months. Michael Dawson's recall to the team toughened the defense up, and the increased efforts of the club's defenders to maintain concentration throughout games paid dividends as a whole. Even with semi-regular alterations, the defense generally performed well, culminating in an impressive collective showing in the North London derby.
Tiredness becomes a factor at this late stage. It exacerbates faults and foibles a team might previously have been getting away with. If a defender knows who is playing alongside him, it can minimize that risk through conscious and unconscious repetition of in-game interactions. When a teammate who might not have played for two games comes in, unsurprisingly, readjustments are forced.
The following is the make-up of the Tottenham defense in each of the last seven games:
|Basel (Away) 2-2 D ||Walker||Dawson||Vertonghen||Naughton|
|Everton (Home) 2-2 D ||Walker||Dawson||Caulker||Vertonghen|
|Basel (Home) 2-2 D ||Naughton||Gallas||Vertonghen||Assou-Ekotto|
|Swansea (Away) 1-2 W ||Walker||Dawson||Vertonghen||Naughton|
|Fulham (Home) 0-1 L ||Naughton||Dawson||Vertonghen||Assou-Ekotto|
|Inter Milan (Away) 4-1 L ||Walker||Gallas||Vertonghen||Naughton|
|Liverpool (Away) 3-2 L ||Walker||Dawson||Vertonghen||Assou-Ekotto|
As already noted, if you go back further, Coach Villas-Boas has been changing it up long before that point. But when you see that the same back-four has been fielded just twice in the period going back just over a month (and the results that have accompanied it), the inconsistency has evidently not helped matters.
Let Tom Carroll Share the Midfield Load with Mousa Dembele
Many Tottenham fans have for some time now been calling for Tom Carroll to be given starting opportunities in the first team. After the 20-year-old's impressive performance against Basel last Thursday, those calls have gotten louder.
Carroll's quality has been apparent for a while to those who have watched the nimble midfielder in action. Questions about his aptitude for top-level football are being increasingly answered by displays like that in Switzerland.
What was particularly telling about Carroll's showing was that he replaced a visibly tired and off-form Mousa Dembele and Spurs' control in midfield notably improved (even more so when Tom Huddlestone joined the fray later on). The England Under-21 international not only instigated a greater level of sense and momentum in the team's play going forward, but ably fulfilled his defensive responsibilities too.
More than any other player since Sandro got injured, Carroll looked like he might be someone who could relieve some of the demands placed on Dembele. So much of Spurs' play goes through the Belgian. Considering he has a job to do in winning the ball back in midfield, it is unsurprising his effectiveness has diminished somewhat as the season has progressed and grown more fatigued.
Carroll is an option Coach Villas-Boas has to seriously consider now in alleviating the burdens placed on Dembele, either alongside him or in the advanced midfield role. Either way, Carroll can share the load in bringing others into the game and getting Spurs passing. It brings with it the bonus of allowing Dembele to concentrate on solidifying the midfield—which at least in the games against Manchester City and Chelsea, might prove important.
Take the Initiative in Remaining Games
"Let's do it to them, before they do it to us." So went Sgt. Stan Jablonski's warning at the end of morning roll call to his fellow police officers in 1980's cop show Hill Street Blues. As maxims go, it is a suitable one to how Tottenham have to approach each game left this season.
This is not a call for an unnecessarily radical approach. That would be inadvisable against a team as good as Manchester City, the Spurs' opponent this weekend. Yet, even against the reigning Premier League champions, the North Londoners cannot wait for things to happen for them.
Spurs have to take the initiative in taking on their remaining opponents. The benefits of a positive early approach showed in the recent 2-1 over Swansea City, with Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale's goals coming in the opening half-hour. The Welsh club came back into the game, but Spurs had a decent safety net with their two-goal advantage.
Ideally, Coach Villas-Boas does not want to be heading into the last 10 minutes of games with his team behind or in desperate search of a winner. It is a stressful enough time of the season without makings things more difficult than they might need to be.
Spurs are good enough to make things easier for themselves with a sustained, positive approach. Those efforts will be aided considerably by the (hopeful) return to fitness of Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe.
Keep the Faith
It could be easy for the Tottenham players to lose heart seeing Arsenal back in front of them. Things have been difficult in the last month or so, but they must maintain belief in their ability to achieve their primary season objective.
All this might sound cliched, but it is true.
Spurs' last genuinely successful finish to a season was the 2009-10 campaign which saw them earn a top-four finish for the first time since finishing as low as fourth meant a chance to play in the Champions League.
After losing their FA Cup semifinal to Portsmouth, manager Harry Redknapp's side rebounded to record big wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. No single season is the same, but that campaign can certainly serve as a reminder of the merits of keeping the faith.
For those involved then who are still at the club—the likes of Bale, Dawson, Defoe and Lennon—they must remind themselves of their achievement in 2010 and take the lead in showing their teammates it can be done.
Arsenal and Chelsea have done it before consistently, while this current Everton team has an insatiability about it. Make no mistake, all three will be doing their utmost to cement a top-four finish.
Only the same from Tottenham will see them finish the season in a way they can be proud of.