Premier League: A Quarter-Term Report on Tottenham Hotspur
Sitting seventh after 11 Premier League matches played, European progress confirmed and with a place in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals—with a quarter of the campaign played, Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed a solid start to 2013-14.
Starting with their attack, and moving back through the team before focusing on manager Andre Villas-Boas, the following article takes a more detailed look at the storylines of Spurs' season so far.
The best wins and the most disappointing defeats, the standout performers and the tactical issues, there is plenty to look back on already.
Plenty lies ahead for Tottenham, but here are how things stand right now.
Tottenham's return of nine goals in 11 Premier League games does not match what was expected by this point of the season from the expensively assembled group of attackers at the club.
Things have been better in the cups, only adding to the frustration over their struggles in the league.
It has not been for want of trying. In the 1-0 loss to Newcastle United this past weekend, Spurs had 31 attempts at goal, with Magpies' goalie Tim Krul finding a way to stop the 14 of those that were on target.
It was a similar game to that in which the North Londoners toiled to find a way past Cardiff City earlier this season. Except on that occasion Erik Lamela and Paulinho combined to find a way past the Bluebirds' initially unbeatable shot-stopper David Marshall at the death.
Those two games—along with the opening-day win over Crystal Palace—stand out for the frequency of chances created for Roberto Soldado (as tallied by Squawka.com, five against Newcastle, four each in the other two).
Yet other than against Palace, his other league goals have come in matches in which he has not been provided with nearly as much service.
The Spaniard's search for goals has been emblematic of Spurs' creativity issues this season. There is not just one solution to them getting the best out of their lone striker and scoring more in general.
Christian Eriksen started in attacking midfield against Cardiff and Newcastle. At his most involved, there is no better conduit for the flow of Spurs' attack. In both those games, he played a part in Spurs moving the ball reasonably well around the penalty area.
Great goalkeeping ultimately stopped them from making the most of this. But the impression from these games remained—be it in a lack of width from Gylfi Sigurdsson or a lack of ideas from a well-marked Andros Townsend—that Andre Villas-Boas' attack could be better.
With different problems occurring at different points during the season's opening months, it has been hard to get a handle on the direction Spurs would be best suited in following.
Villas-Boas rewarded Lewis Holtby's good cup form by giving him his chance instead of the summer arrival from Ajax. The German's overall work ethic gave Spurs a harder edge, but against generally stronger opposition, he was less useful in instigating forward flourishes.
Out wide, Sigurdsson and Townsend have shone at times this season. Frustratingly, their better moments have rarely aligned with each other's—or indeed enough of their other teammates—to make for a satisfactorily effective combination of players in attacking positions.
Arguments will be made for the inclusion of Lamela and Aaron Lennon on the wings, or perhaps providing Soldado (or maybe replacing him) with a more physically-inclined foil such as Emmanuel Adebayor or Harry Kane.
Experimentation has been the order of the day for Villas-Boas thus far, and that is likely to continue until something clicks.
Clarity over what works best in midfield is, thankfully for Villas-Boas, coming to the fore in a way it has not further forward.
The latest evidence of the way to go for Tottenham in the position was unfortunately provided in the process of them succumbing to defeat last time out.
The starting midfield pair of Mousa Dembele and Paulinho were excellent versus Norwich City and Cardiff City. Dominating the battle for possession, and in doing so pushing their opponents further back, they set the tone for their team expertly.
Even against the comparatively stronger Chelsea, Dembele clearly relished going up against a top level of competition.
Against Newcastle, the kind of spoils the duo had deservedly claimed in these previous games were this time taken early on by Yoan Gouffran, Yohan Cabaye and Co.
Dembele and Paulinho met their match here, with the latter losing the ball to Gouffran in a position that left his defence hopelessly exposed to the swift attack subsequently finished by Loic Remy's match-winning goal.
Spurs taking the game to Newcastle in the second half was notably helped by the half-time introduction of Sandro.
The visitors were always likely to find themselves under pressure as they defended their lead. The Brazilian's patrolling of the centre circle ensured this was intensified as he stifled several of their attempts to break forward.
But for taking a knock the previous weekend at Everton, Sandro might have started this one, too. In his absence, Spurs' need for a more defensively-inclined midfielder in certain types of games became even more apparent.
At home versus Hull City, Sandro performed his defensive duties dependably; however, the Tigers' reluctance to get forward from midfield left him largely as a passenger. Against such opponents, a Dembele/Paulinho combination works better in helping Spurs make the most of the greater amount of ground available to them.
Those more willing to hit in central positions justify Spurs deploying someone whose primary responsibilities are to defend and destroy, be that Sandro who did it so solidly versus Newcastle and Everton, or Etienne Capoue who squashed any inclinations here on the part of Crystal Palace and Swansea back in August.
There is scope, too, for a more recognisably shaped three-man midfield (as opposed to what can more often resemble a 4-2-3-1 when Eriksen plays and predominantly operates more advanced).
Whatever the formation, Villas-Boas will have seen that balance will more often than not be the key to success in midfield. That will definitely be the case in Spurs' next game at Manchester City, when their main men Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure will not solely be stopped by deciding offence is the best form of defence.
The biggest plus of Tottenham's season has undoubtedly been the form of their defence (goalkeeper Hugo Lloris included).
The team may have only scored nine in the Premier League; however, they have also only conceded six. Only Southampton have a better goals-against column.
Three of those were in the aberration of a performance that was the West Ham defeat (albeit a well-earned one by Sam Allardyce's side), since which Spurs have been better organised and less prone to lapses in concentration.
Key to this defensive solidity has been Villas-Boas sticking with the same back four where possible.
Injured left-back Danny Rose was initially replaced by Kyle Naughton. When the latter's discomfort playing on his unnatural side became especially problematic in the loss to the Hammers, he was replaced by Jan Vertonghen.
Rose's speed and the width he can provide down that left flank has been missed, but the readjusted back line has been even stronger defensively.
Vlad Chiriches has stepped into the centre-back role vacated by Vertonghen and barely missed a beat. The Romanian's comprehensive tackling is suited to English football, with his assured touch providing added class.
Coinciding with Michael Dawson finding his feet after a somewhat iffy start to the campaign (marked by a disappointing display in the North London derby defeat by Arsenal, though he was not alone there), the central defensive pairing have largely been solid and impressively resilient, too.
The pace of Newcastle's Remy was as tough a test as they faced in their four games starting together. Even then the goal they conceded to him was down to a loss of possession in midfield.
Vertonghen's positional awareness and aptitude for one-on-ones has again more than translated to left-back. On the opposite side Kyle Walker has been playing decently enough at right-back, too.
The broken nose suffered by Chiriches against Newcastle may force further change. Yet with Younes Kaboul available to step in, Spurs have genuine strength in the position.
The encouraging form of Villas-Boas' defence will be scrutinised by the North London club's next two opponents, Manchester City and Manchester United.
Talking about the Tottenham team is, of course, also a reflection on the manager's decisions. Focusing on Villas-Boas a little more specifically, his season so far should be regarded more positively than negatively.
Depending on your opinion, you might fault individual selections or maybe criticise a perceived reluctance to set the team up more offensively.
There is validity to all three of those. But certainly in the case of the former two, that Villas-Boas has his team within three points of second place heading into November is not a bad start to the season.
Even with a good core of the squad that pushed for fourth last season remaining, there was enough change in the summer that there was always going to be an element of trial and error to begin things this time around.
As already discussed, Spurs' misfiring attack has been the least successful part of this process.
Villas-Boas has tried different things with some good results. With last season's forward contributors either gone (Gareth Bale and Clint Dempsey) or playing a lesser role (Emmanuel Adebayor), he has had to start from scratch finding what works best now.
So far the combinations have not paid off consistently enough in terms of style or the end product. But enough has been on show from the likes of Lamela, Soldado and Townsend that it is only a matter of time as to when Spurs properly get in the goals.
Elsewhere things have gone more smoothly, a testament to lessons learned from last year (not rotating the defence as much) and some shrewd signings (Capoue, Chiriches and Paulinho).
Tottenham are still in a decent enough position that they are capable of contending for a top four place and possibly even trophies further down the line this year.
As 2013-14 moves into winter and the fixtures come thick and fast, we will begin to see what Spurs and Villas-Boas are really made of.
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