Tottenham Hotspur: Examining Spurs' Narrow Champions League Qualification Miss

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2013

Tottenham Hotspur: Examining Spurs' Narrow Champions League Qualification Miss

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    Tottenham Hotspur have just recorded their highest points total of the Premier League era. Yet they still missed out on qualifying for the Champions League.

    Football is cruel like that.

    Ultimately, Tottenham narrowly missed out on a top-four finish (by one point) because both Chelsea and Arsenal's late-season form was marginally better than their own.

    Spurs finished the season on an eight-match unbeaten run. Unlike in 2011-12, it would be wrong to accuse this team of bottling it.

    The fact is though, Spurs did finish fifth.

    Their season should not be regarded as a failure. The disappointing note on which it ended does, however, give us scope to examine the factors that contributed to them falling just short of their primary target.

Transitioning to a New Managerial Regime

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    Andre Villas-Boas' reputation in English football has been rehabilitated this season. At Tottenham, he has gone about justifying the hype that led to Chelsea hiring him from Porto the previous year.

    Circumstances dictated his Stamford Bridge return (having previously worked there under Jose Mourinho) would be a short one. Given time and a more receptive playing staff, there have been encouraging signs about what Villas-Boas might achieve with Spurs.

    Still, it is natural that a team takes time to adapt to a new manager's ideas. During this process, Spurs took two points from their opening three matches of 2012-13.

    The opening day loss away at Newcastle United was somewhat understandable (though still a disappointing start). The following home draws to West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City proved harder to accept for a frustrated White Hart Lane crowd.

    In hindsight, Spurs' lack of imagination and cohesiveness as they toiled away in attack was not surprising. The team were adjusting to the 4-2-3-1 formation Villas-Boas was implementing, as well as accommodating new arrivals like Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembele.

    Adapting to new teammates' habits, as well as slightly differing roles for some, exacerbated early-season rustiness.

    The lax defending  was not so easy to excuse, even considering for different personnel. Spurs conceded late goals that could have been avoided with a greater focus.

    As we know, dropped points would prove costly by the campaign's end.

Adjusting to Life Without King, Modric and Van Der Vaart

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    It is easy to forget now, but Tottenham lost three of their best players either prior to, or at the beginning of this season.

    Ledley King's performances were beginning to decline at the back end of 2011-12, his injuries and their accompanying demands finally catching up with him. Even so, his retirement cost Spurs an important presence on the pitch.

    King's leadership was sorely missed to begin with. The comparatively selfish William Gallas was a poor replacement at the heart of Villas-Boas' defense. Only when Michael Dawson was restored to the team did Spurs begin to more consistently apply defensive fundamentals like concentration, organization and determination.

    Luka Modric's departure had been a long time coming. After refusing to sell him to Chelsea the year before, chairman Daniel Levy finally agreed to let him go in 2012, this time to Real Madrid.

    Dembele was not a like-for-like substitute, but for all intents and purposes he was Modric's replacement. To his credit, the Belgian fared well, giving the Spurs midfield similar qualities, but with a more physical, dynamic edge.

    It was left to question how a midfield featuring both, perhaps alongside the increasingly influential Sandro, might have performed.

    Also unknown is how Rafael van der Vaart would have done under Villas-Boas' management. The Dutch international featured in Spurs' two opening games before leaving for Hamburg.

    Theoretically, van der Vaart would have been ideal playing in the hole behind the lone striker in Villas-Boas' 4-2-3-1 formation. He had essentially played there in Harry Redknapp's 4-4-2, albeit in a less defined role.

    Most tangibly, it was the loss of a player who had contributed 28 goals and 17 assists in two seasons that was most keenly felt.

    Others like Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey stepped up well to fill this void. But it is hard to immediately replicate the contributions of a player of van der Vaart's proven quality.

Depth Issues

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    Replacing players as good as the previously mentioned trio was always going to be difficult. As noted, Tottenham managed to compensate for their departures. That the club finished with a higher points total than they ever did with those players says as much.

    Obviously, the situation is more complicated than that. Especially in relation to Spurs' eventual league finished.

    Numbers-wise, the depth of Villas-Boas' squad was good in some positions. Two quality goalkeepers (plus Heurelho Gomes still knocking about), plenty of options in central defense and midfield (though the injured Sandro was missed in some respects).

    What ultimately proved damaging was a personnel shortage in some areas, while in others there was an absence of quality in the depth.

    The latter is harder to deliver, with very few clubs having two good-to-great players in every position. Even those who arguably do are susceptible to other problems (Manchester United's defending was poor early on this season, Manchester City's performances did not live up to the standard set in their title-winning campaign).

    However, ensuring you have suitable cover in every position should be a requisite—especially for a team with Tottenham's ambitions. Whether it was down to Villas-Boas miscalculating his team's needs, or the club's (particularly Daniel Levy's) inability to sign needed players, Spurs were lacking.

    Having only one proper left-back certainly contributed to unsettling the defense, with Villas-Boas frequently rotating players to suit the position. Even when Benoit Assou-Ekotto returned to fitness after Christmas, his indifferent form meant others (namely Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Naughton) who were better suited elsewhere were being used in the position.

    Gareth Bale's move infield and Aaron Lennon's injury issues in the spring left Spurs light on the flanks. Sigurdsson, Dempsey and Lewis Holtby performed adequately when moved out there as cover, but none offered the pace the aforementioned pair had utilized so dangerously.

    All the more frustrating for Spurs fans was seeing Danny Rose and Andros Townsend playing so well on loan at Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers respectively, when they could have been doing a job for their team.

    Then there was the biggest bugbear of them all—only having two experienced, proper strikers.

    Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor delivered only intermittently. Although Bale stepped up to keep Spurs firing later in the year, it was not the same as having a reliable penalty box presence.

    The lack of that consistent goalscorer (besides Bale) seriously hurt Spurs. The three top scorers at each top-five club only highlights the discrepancies.

    ClubTop Scorer (Premier League goals only)Second Top ScorerThird Top Scorer
    1st. Manchester UnitedRobin van Persie (26)Wayne Rooney (12)Javier Hernandez (10)
    2nd. Manchester CityEdin Dzeko (14)Sergio Aguero (12)Carlos Tevez (11)
    3rd. ChelseaFrank Lampard (15)Juan Mata (12)Eden Hazard (9)
    4th. ArsenalTheo Walcott (14)Santi Cazorla (12)Lukas Podolski (11)/Olivier Giroud (11)
    5th. Tottenham HotspurGareth Bale (21)Jermain Defoe (11)Clint Dempsey (7)

    Timing of the goals is obviously important too. But when you consider Defoe—Spurs' second top scorer—only scored once since Boxing, you can see part of the issue.

Dropping Points in Winnable Matches

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    Tottenham was never going to go unbeaten. So looking back through their results, there is a delicate balancing act between pinpointing missed opportunities and those games when the opposition were genuinely the better team.

    Even with the latter, you are always going to find examples of mistakes that could have been avoided. Sometimes though, you have to accept another team deserved their result (for differing reasons, the 2-1 away loss to Manchester City, and the 0-0 home draw with Stoke City spring to this writer's mind).

    Others are less easy to understand, let alone accept. In Tottenham's case, there were a few.

    West Brom and Norwich were good money for their draws early in the season. Even considering their relatively decent seasons, they were games Spurs would have expected to win at White Hart Lane.

    Arsenal turned the screw on Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium in November. Even so, Spurs were willing participants in their 5-2 destruction. First Adebayor got himself sent off, and then the defense combined to play as woeful a 45 minutes as you will ever see.

    The frailties of Spurs' defense was to be a common theme of the club's more disappointing moments, especially in the first half of the season. Its apex came when they allowed Everton to score two stoppage times goals in December, when Spurs had been leading 1-0.

    In fairness, a concentrated effort to improve their concentration paid dividends in improved performances over the following months.

    There would, though, still be costly errors from all over the team. Coming as it did after a big win over Arsenal in March, the kamikaze lapses in judgement that cost Spurs at least a point away at Liverpool was a big blow to the team's momentum.

    The following week's defeat by Fulham at home would be Tottenham's last of the season. But the dropped points—against a team who had not beaten the home side in their previous eight visits to White Hart Lane—proved to be especially costly.

In the End...

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    You could go into a heck of a lot more detail as to why Tottenham did not finish in the top four—going over every match, team selection, substitution, refereeing decision etc.

    In the end, it becomes a perverse, overly negative way of clutching at straws. For Spurs, that would be an unfair reflection of what has to be regarded as a generally positive year's work.

    The previous four pages have attempted to fairly examine primary reasons (or the factors that set the tone for those reasons) why Spurs did not finish higher than they did.

    There are ramifications to embarking on a new era, as Tottenham did last summer. Given how good Villas-Boas' team would go on to be, that slow start unfortunately had consequences down the line.

    As did the loss of key personnel from 2011-12 and the process of replacing them (or at least compensating for their absence). That is a particular area the manager will be looking to improve on next time around. Hoping to augment his squad with sufficiently talented players rather than instigate more wide-ranging changes.

    The assembling of a team more to Villas-Boas' satisfaction might prove more capable of avoiding unnecessary, negative results. With a little good fortune, there is reason to be optimistic about Spurs' prospects under the Portuguese.

    Unfortunately, Champions League football is not part of the immediate outlook.