A Premier League Half-Term Report on Tottenham Hotspur
With half of the 2013-14 season completed, Tottenham Hotspur can reflect on a campaign that has been eventful to say the least.
In the climate of what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive seasons in the Premier League era, Tottenham's direction heading into 2014 has been shaped by their desire to compete.
The departure of now former manager Andre Villas-Boas was primarily driven by a belief in the Spurs hierarchy that the team could not reach its targets under the Portuguese. That was given substantial credence by a failure to pick up points against teams regarded as rivals for Champions League qualification.
Tim Sherwood is now in charge of getting the expensively assembled squad at least into the top four, while the prospect of progression in the Europa League remains alive and well.
But before we move on, we will first look back at what has led us to this point with the following half-term report on Spurs' season.
Starting with a further look at Villas-Boas' sacking, a position-by-position look at the first-team squad and its players follows.
The Decision to Sack Andre Villas-Boas
You come off dizzy. You can't discuss both sides of the issue with Daniel. It's about him and Tottenham, nothing more, which is no bad thing from his club's perspective.
Sir Alex Ferguson was referring to transfer dealings with Daniel Levy in the above quote from the former's 2013 autobiography. However, in the ex-Manchester United manager's assessment of the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, Ferguson also correctly identified the driving force behind Levy's efforts.
He wants the very best for his club, and when his mind is made up, there appears to be little that will change it.
With little known of Tottenham owner Joe Lewis' intentions for—and his opinions about—the club, Levy has long been the public face of its running. So it was for the decision to remove Andre Villas-Boas as manager.
As noted in the introduction, Spurs' poor form against the Premier League's stronger sides was the deciding factor in a season that was otherwise far from woeful. Even after the Liverpool defeat they were still seventh in the table, just five points off fourth.
The crushing nature of the losses to the Reds (5-0) and Manchester City (6-0) exacerbated the mid-to-minor issues surrounding the team—a lack of goals, the struggles of expensive signings to settle in what some viewed as a boring playing style. They could be dealt with if wins were consistently accumulated, but without them they stuck out even more.
With time, Spurs could well have found their feet under Villas-Boas this season. Then again, perhaps further demoralising defeats and the maintaining of the 36-year-old's frayed temperament late on amid intense media scrutiny would have persisted to detrimental effect. The club's hierarchy decided it did not want to wait to find out either way.
"We were extremely reluctant to make a change mid-season, but felt we had to do so in the Club's best interests," Levy told Tottenham's official website after confirming the appointment of Tim Sherwood as new manager. What he said next was rather damning in its judgement of Villas-Boas' limitations, albeit indirectly.
"We have a great squad and we owe them a Head Coach who will bring out the best in them and allow them to flourish and enjoy a strong, exciting finish to the season."
The bright start to Sherwood's reign has further tarnished the reputation of AVB, with many wondering why the latter's teams were not as positive in their approach as his replacement's have been so far.
The merits of both's methods will be better judged in comparison down the line. Sherwood's appointment has revitalised Spurs for now, but it was not that long ago Villas-Boas was being feted for his work in North London.
Goalkeeper and Defence
The heavy defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool, along with the 3-0 reverse to West Ham United, will have been most galling to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and the Tottenham defence.
Prior to the Hammers' humbling (hoped to be a blip) and then again until being demolished by City, Spurs were proving a hard team to beat. As of mid-November with 11 games played, they had only conceded six goals in Premier League play and just three in eight cup outings.
Now standing at 25 conceded in the league (and a further three in cups), the Man City and Liverpool embarrassments have ruined the appearance of Spurs defence in the numbers. Performance-wise, though, there has been enough elsewhere to make the aforementioned capitulations all the more inexplicable (though Liverpool was a little more understandable given the makeshift defence).
The Vlad Chiriches-Michael Dawson centre-back partnership has so far worked well.
Though not perfect—individuals errors from Dawson against Fulham and Chiriches versus West Bromwich Albion have cost goals—Newcastle United's 1-0 win in November remains the only time the two have not earned points when starting together. Even then, Loic Remy's winner was more to do with possession being lost in midfield.
The duo have established a decent understanding almost straight away. Chiriches has benefited from Dawson's experienced command, while the Spurs skipper has found a more nimble, but equally committed partner he can rely on. In recent weeks with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose either side of them at full-back, the back four has arguably been the most balanced it has been in a year.
Jan Vertonghen's return from injury will pose a selection dilemma for Tim Sherwood, should Chiriches and Dawson remain in decent form.
The Belgian deputised at left-back for much of the latter part of Andre Villas-Boas' management reign. He has been unlucky to have been played out of his favoured position and subsequently unfit at a point in the campaign when he would have liked to have been establishing some momentum.
Vertonghen likely stands a better chance of winning back a starting place than Younes Kaboul. The 27-year-old's rotten luck with injuries has continued this season, with his one league start coming in the City massacre.
Thrust back in the team for that one, it was always going to be a challenge. Kaboul's misfortune has come in being denied the opportunity his teammates were in rectifying his poor display there. He may need bad luck to befall others for him to get a serious chance again this season.
Sherwood is certainly benefiting from the return of Rose at left-back. After the player's decent start on his reintroduction to the first team, Villas-Boas had to do without his natural aptitude for the position as well as the width and penetration he could have provided going forward. It left his side a little more lopsided than he would have liked.
Zeki Fryers' encouraging displays there have suggested Spurs may have a capable deputy at left-back that does not require Vertonghen to move out wide. Kyle Naughton certainly was not that man, but he has been reliable enough on the opposite flank.
The chance of him becoming Spurs' first-choice right-back are small as long as Walker is around. While the England man was a part of his club's worst thrashings this season, he has also been at the heart of much that has been good.
Walker's maturation as a defender has continued, proving so far to be less prone to lapses in concentration than he was previously. Bar an unlucky deflection that helped Manchester United back to a 2-2 draw last month, he has barely put a foot wrong on his team's better days.
The renewal of his right-flank partnership with Aaron Lennon has also again become one of Spurs' most significant attacking outlets over the last month.
In goal, Lloris has started in all but seven of the club's 31 games this season. Since suffering a head injury in the 0-0 draw with Everton, the keeper has had as dramatic a couple of months as anyone in the Spurs squad.
His daring nature coming off his line has not diminished, though his judgement in situations versus Southampton and Man United were not as smart as in instances earlier this season in games with Arsenal and Cardiff City.
It would be churlish to use this as a stick to beat Lloris to harshly when his overall performances have largely been strong. According to Squawka.com, his average claim success stands at 97 percent—favourable in comparison with his Premier League peers. Only Wojciech Szczesny and Tim Howard have kept more clean sheets than his eight.
Bar almost giving a penalty away, he was in heroic form in the most recent win over United and remains firmly Spurs' first choice.
Deciphering the shape of the Tottenham midfield (and its overall formation) has been something akin to taking a Rorschach test this year. It has very much been subject to interpretation.
The basic makeup of two to three central midfielders and a pair of wide men has been clear. Beyond that, under Andre Villas-Boas you could argue for it forming the centre of a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or even 4-5-1. Tim Sherwood's team has essentially been 4-4-2, though in the deployment of certain midfielders you could argue for a variation of 4-3-3.
It matters comparatively little if players do their respective jobs and roles, with formations not necessarily defining them.
From a Spurs perspective, the room for interpretation this season is testament to the frequent alterations both Villas-Boas and Sherwood have made in midfield. Decisions have been dictated by injury and form, as well as tactical considerations.
You only have to look at the fact that Paulinho and Mousa Dembele are the only two Tottenham midfielders to have started more than 10 Premier League matches and 20 in all competitions to see there have been issues here.
Paulinho has settled in England fairly well, with his ability to get forward into goalscoring positions proving particularly eye-catching. An improvement in his finishing will almost certainly see him add to his tally of four goals so far.
Work still needs to be done in shaping him up for a little more dirty work, though he has generally been willing here. His pressing alongside Mousa Dembele played a large part in early wins over Norwich City and Cardiff City.
The Belgian has again taken on some of the more physical responsibilities in the centre of the pitch. Winning 71 percent of his average duels this year (as recorded by Squawka.com), he has not shied away from it.
Dembele's best performances, including the home draws versus Chelsea and Manchester United, saw plenty of his team's possession go through the dynamic midfielder. There are others in the division with better passing than him, but few are better at instigating moves bringing the ball forward at feet.
Sandro's return from injury has generally been a welcome one, with the Brazilian as decisive in front of his back four as ever. He was outclassed against Man City, though he was very good a week later versus Man United. Just what his role will be under Sherwood with one less midfielder remains to be seen.
Injury and the good form of the above players has denied Etienne Capoue a chance to establish a run of games this season. He looked to be ahead of Sandro in the pecking order earlier in the season, but after getting fit had to bide his time for more appearances in midfield. The 25-year-old's solid showing in the recent win over Man United might serve as the start of him building some momentum.
Fellow new signing Christian Eriksen delighted in his debut with a role in both goals versus Norwich City. Adjusting to the pace and physicality of English football has proved tougher than that first impression suggested he might. His recent return has been encouraging, though, with a more involved role deeper in midfield appearing to suit him better than playing in the hole.
Lewis Holtby starred for Spurs in their early cup games and, after good displays against Fulham and Sunderland last month, looked like he might finally earn a starting place in the Premier League. The change in managers and fitness issues have set him back again, ensuring a hard road ahead displacing any of the above.
With the introduction of Nabil Bentaleb from the youth team, competition for places in midfield is going to remain intense at Spurs. Sherwood has options to change it up depending on the opposition, but he will surely hope that two or three will continue to stand out.
Tottenham's wide men could have been included on the previous page with their fellow midfielders, but really they are a subject unto themselves.
The departure of Gareth Bale and the arrivals of Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela meant some change was inevitable on the Tottenham flanks. What was not expected—not as early as it happened at least—was Andros Townsend playing his way into a regular starting role.
After a confidence-boosting loan spell at Queens Park Rangers last season, Townsend took advantage of an injury to Aaron Lennon to impress against Dinamo Tbilisi and earn his chance back home.
The thrilling runs and exciting forays cutting inside saw him keep his place and earn a name-making England call-up. For a time he was as entertaining a player as was to be found in the country.
Townsend soon became a marked man, though, the effectiveness of his performance dipping as full-backs sussed him out. A combination of direction from Andre Villas-Boas and his own inexperience had the 22-year-old becoming one-note in an attack that needed more of a range.
Prior to his recent injury, Townsend's deployment on his more natural left side was showing signs of suiting his game and providing more balance to the team. Also helpful was Lennon back doing what he does best on the right.
Lennon's direct running and ability to serious work a full-back has increasingly restored a sense of presence down the flanks. Teams are more stretched facing Spurs with him in the team, and his own strikers are benefiting from the little extra space and his own service.
Statistically it is not yet counting as a banner year for Lennon. However the tried and trusted winger has played a big role in setting a more attacking tone for his team—more so than the meandering approach from some of his teammates.
The £30 million man Lamela has been the focus of much attention since moving from Roma. His progression at first appeared to be denied by Townsend's early-season form. Later it became apparent he was going to take more time than had been hoped to settle in his new country and new league.
That process is ongoing, with Premier League appearances hard to come by with Lennon occupying the right-wing spot when fit. Yet while Lamela is still adjusting to a quicker, more physical environment, there have been enough flourishes of his skill and intelligent passing to more than warrant Spurs persevering.
Chadli's start at Spurs was hindered by injuries, exacerbating his own challenge settling in.
Like Lamela, there have undoubtedly been glimpses of a talent that could prove quite useful. Notably against Sunderland and Southampton, he demonstrated instincts in the penalty box and bursts of acceleration that make him hard to handle. Sherwood will hope they come to the fore even more as the season progresses.
One of the standouts of the campaign's opening few months, Gylfi Sigurdsson's contributions have quietened slightly. Predominantly used in left midfield, he certainly missed the outlet of Danny Rose making overlapping runs. Allowed to drift inside, his value is clear to see in long-range shots and an eye for a pass.
Rose's return will help him when he plays. The Sigurdsson that is allowed to veer inward and score the kind of skillfully teed-up, beautifully struck blaster that he did in the Capital One Cup versus Hull City will be most welcome.
If Rik Sharma of the Daily Mail is to be believed, Andre Villas-Boas' decision to freeze Emmanuel Adebayor out of the first-team picture came from a row the two had over the latter's refusal to take off a beanie hat in a team meeting.
Regardless of the ex-manager's reasoning, it is interesting to wonder how Tottenham's attack might have looked had Adebayor been involved. Would a front two of the kind Tim Sherwood is currently deploying have been used? Or would the Togo international have been contesting a sole, lone striker spot?
The thinking behind the latter approach from Villas-Boas was not unreasonable. With the number of midfielders at his disposal, his instincts may always have been to dominate central and wide areas. Roberto Soldado was coming from Valencia with the pedigree of a penalty-box poacher who would finish just about anything that came his way.
Aligning frequent, good-quality service with good finishing has proved trickier in the Premier League. It was not just a Soldado thing, either. Jermain Defoe is yet to score in league play this season—albeit having started fewer games.
It always seemed to be one thing or the other during Villas-Boas' final few months too. Spurs were largely uninspired in matches like the 1-0 win over Hull City and 0-0 draw with Everton. Against Man City and Liverpool, they struggled to get forward much at all.
On other occasions, they could not score for love nor money. A stoppage-time winner from Paulinho was needed against Cardiff City; that was one of 29 shots in that game. In the defeat to Newcastle United, Spurs got off 31 attempts altogether. They had not been helped by extraordinary goalkeeping performances from David Marshall and Tim Krul, respectively, on those two occasions.
Things have improved under Sherwood. Adebayor's restoration has paid off, both in goals (four since coming back) and lively, influential displays up top.
Soldado is still looking to find a rich vein of form goalscoring wise (though 10 goals this season is hardly awful). His work outside of the box has improved, though the Spaniard is clearly relieved to be able to link up deeper knowing there is likely to be someone getting in the area.
Defoe's future is uncertain. The England forward's nine goals in the Capital One Cup and Europa League demonstrate he remains a highly valuable player within the squad. It only takes an injury to Adebayor or Soldado for him to be needed again.
Harry Kane's increasing progression does give Sherwood an extra option moving forward. He appears to be happy to use following the young striker's Old Trafford cameo, as well as the chances given to Nabil Bentaleb and Zeki Fryers recently.
Kane's hold-up play has come on enormously over the last year, with him finding extra confidence in his work in positions outside of the penalty area. His terrific strike to take Hull City to extra time in the Capital One Cup not only suggests a fine finisher in the making, but a player with the bravery to make it count too.