Will the 2011-2012 campaign bring more reasons to celebrate for Tottenham Hotspur?
It seems only five minutes ago that Roman Pavlyuchenko was guiding in Tottenham Hotspur's winner and his superb second in the 2-1 final day victory over Birmingham City. Tottenham's season had been at various points thrilling, brilliant, frustrating and perplexing—occasionally all in one game! The display against Birmingham and Pavlychenko's late goal signed things off on something of a positive, hopeful note, the least the club and its supporters deserved for what, if nothing else, was an historic campaign.
With now under a month to go before the start of 2011-2012, it is hard to ignore that positivity has soured a little. The dispute between the club and the want-away Luka Modric's future has been the main headline surrounding White Hart Lane this summer, while the news that last season's breakthrough star Sandro will be out for at least three months has cast a further shadow over preparations.
So what lies ahead for Spurs? With more players likely to follow Jame O'Hara out the door, and new personnel to come in, the shape of the squad will certainly be different by the time of the first game against Everton. Still with that in mind, from what we learned last season and already in preseason, here are 10 predictions for the campaign ahead.
Are Tottenham Champions League contenders once more or destined for a mid-table culture shock? Who will star for Spurs this season? Will Harry Redknapp even be the man in charge come the season's end?
Tottenham Hotspur need a new striker. Probably two if we're being honest. Who the incoming firepower might be has yet to be confirmed, though Harry Redknapp recently told Britain's Sky Sports News network of his continued interest in Villareal's Gisueppe Rossi.
Naturally one or two of the current strike-force will make way. Robbie Keane looks odds on favourite to be gone, and with this writer being a passionate advocate of the merits of a regular starting role for Roman Pavlyuchenko, it leaves one of Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe to possibly join the Irishman on the way out of White Hart Lane.
Despite growing murmurings of discontent over his disappointing performances last season, Defoe remains a popular figure at the Lane. Crouch on the other hand, while far from a hate-figure, is certainly a more frequent target of criticism. With that said, out of those two players there is reason to suggest that Crouch will not only remain at Spurs, but thrive for the club this season.
Tottenham figured out early on that Crouch's height and aerial prowess would cause their Champions League opponents significant problems. What they failed to cotton onto was that it was nowhere near as dangerous a regular threat to Premier League defences more comfortable and experienced with such a direct game-plan.
It is something you would surely hope the coaching staff have realised now after a summer to reflect. If Tottenham move away from relying on such methods when using Crouch, there are ways of getting a lot more out of the 6'7" striker.
Crouch's height can be utilised by passing it to him in deeper areas. Opposition defenders are often afraid to go too far out of position for fear of being exposed, and few midfielders will beat Crouch in the air around the centre-circle area. Tottenham can capitalise on this indecision and advantage by playing it into Crouch knowing that he can either flick it on or hold it up, and with the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, they have the speed to capitalise on it.
Whoever the striker(s) Spurs sign, you can bet his primary focus will be on taking chances. Hopefully a Peter Crouch high on confidence from more valuable usage of his talent would join him in the goals too.
Besides West Ham United's Scott Parker, there was hardly a more overrated Premier League performer last season than William Gallas.
The Frenchman was admittedly superb at times, in particular in three of the four ties with the Milan clubs in the Champions League, while he gave a surprisingly mature performance in the 3-2 win against Arsenal that showed up the pettiness of his old teammate Samir Nasri.
More often than not, though, Gallas looked off the pace physically and mentally. If you can excuse the former at times, the latter was not so redeemable when it allowed an unnecessary amount of space that cost Spurs ultimately crucial goals, like when it took far too long for him to begin to close down Louis Saha's long-range effort in the 2-1 away defeat at Everton. A similar lapse in concentration allowed West Brom's Simon Cox the time to place his spectacular equaliser in the 2-2 draw in April.
Spurs conceded 46 goals in the Premier League, only three more than fourth-place Arsenal; not a terrible record. But a defence that had looked so organised and confident the season before too often looked nervous and unsure. It was noticeable how more assured they looked when Ledley King returned to take Gallas' place for the final two games of the season.
Now considering Gallas was (incomprehensibly) awarded a new two-year extension to his contract a few months ago, it perhaps seems unlikely to suggest he will be out of the first team picture by Christmas. But if Gallas was inconsistent last season, he is not going to improve, a problem that will only be exacerbated by an ageing body suffering more frequent knocks and niggles.
With Jonathan Woodgate gone and Steven Caulker already sent out on loan, bar the likely continued presence of Dawson, the shape of the Tottenham defence is uncertain. But whether it is a fitter Ledley King, more match time for Younes Kaboul or Sebastien Bassong or an entirely new face, watch out for Gallas' time at Spurs being over sooner rather than later.
Despite the commendable hardline stance of club chairman Daniel Levy and manager Harry Redknapp that Luka Modric will be going nowhere, few people are naive enough to believe that the matter is closed. Maybe Tottenham will be able to resist Chelsea, but at some point, an offer may come they can't refuse.
Unlike in 2008 when the proloogned departure of Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United restricted the amount of the time there was to bring in a replacement, Spurs have players capable of, if not quite replacing Modric, then certainly compensating for his absence.
Niko Kranjcar (if he is still at the club) is possessive of Modric's biggest flair moments while the added responsibility might at last bring out the pass-master in waiting that could be Tom Huddlestone. Steven Pienaar is a reliable Premier League performer who might thrive in such a role.
The man most who could play a significant role in making sure Spurs do not miss Modric is Rafael Van Der Vaart.
In his impressive debut season, the Dutchman was mostly deployed as a second striker/attacking midfielder, linking up well with Crouch and Pavlyuchenko as well as providing a lively goal threat. Without Modric, Van Der Vaart would have to be playing a little deeper, but he showed when he captained Hamburg that the added responsibility of greater involvement is far from a burden. And he is a far more mature player now.
He is skillful on the ball and is a solid passer, and while not quite as influential with it as the diminutive Croatian, he has a presence and aggression about him that could balance quite well with a more measured counterweight like Huddlestone or Sandro.
The last time Tottenham lost to north London rivals Arsenal was a 3-0 Halloween horror show in 2009. Since then, Spurs ended a run of matches without a league win against the Gunners with an important 2-1 victory the following April, a result that proved crucial in their qualifying for the Champions League.
Spurs followed it up with another landmark result, a 3-2 win last November that ended an even longer drought on Arsenal territory before coming back in April of this year too earn a 3-3 draw.
This is as long and good a run as Spurs have enjoyed against Arsenal for a long time, certainly in the Arsene Wenger era.
With the two sides meeting again in October at White Hart Lane and Arsenal in something of a relative down period, it is as good an opportunity as Spurs will have to prolong this unbeaten run.
It has been a little while now since a member of Tottenham's youth team has made the breakthrough to the first team. Jamie O'Hara performed well when given the opportunity but has had to look elsewhere for first team football, while others like Stephen Kelly and Lee Barnard have also moved on despite encouraging starts at the club. Ledley King was really the last youth product to really make it at Spurs.
One of the current crop of youth hopefuls that might well make an impact this season is 20-year-old winger Andros Townsend.
Townsend played his first game for the club against Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup Third Round last January. In a very positive display, he wasn't shy looking to run at the League One club's full-backs, and most optimistically, showed a willingness to link up with his team-mates and move inside too. This positivity resulted in a goal for Townsend in the 3-0 win.
While he has had a mixed time of it in loan spells at, among others, Leyton Orient, Ipswich Town and most recently Millwall, Townsend has by most accounts generally impressed while contributing a few goals and assists too.
With good pace, control and attacking instincts, after his FA Cup performance and the loan period at Millwall last season, Townsend might find himself involved a lot more for Spurs this season. If Niko Kranjcar moves on, he will likely become the next alternative on the wing for Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. He certainly has the attributes to make an impact.
With England being England, qualification for Euro 2012 is far from assured. If the worst should happen and they miss out on a second consecutive European Championship, Fabio Capello will be gone, and the poisoned chalice that is the national team job will be there once more for some poor unwitting soul...
...step in Harry Redknapp?
The Tottenham manager has sent out mixed signals regarding the generally held view that the England job is his should he want it post-Capello. Redknapp has admitted the lustre the job still holds for him as a proud Englishman, but has also hinted he is not sure it is worth the trouble.
If it becomes available before the summer of 2012, it will provide something of a dilemma for Redknapp. The Tottenham job is good one, one in which he has put in a lot of time and effort and he still holds ambitions of winning the Premier League.
But should his country come calling, it would be hard to bet against him taking it. While he could feasibly continue as Spurs manager until the end of the season, the club themselves might be keen to get in a new boss as soon as possible.
Spurs return to the UEFA Europa League for the first time since 2009, a consolation prize after their more glamorous excursions in the Champions League last season.
Rather than a distraction, Spurs would be wise to view it as a genuine opportunity to win some silverware.
Finishing in the top four again will certainly be the priority, but with the talent in the Tottenham squad, winning another trophy is certainly a realistic target. Domestically, the FA Cup and Carling Cup might be even more difficult to win this year, with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool desperate for their own slices of glory and others like Sunderland and Everton looking to use it as a springboard to further their own ambitions.
The Europa League could suit Tottenham this season. Their experience from playing in the Champions League could benefit them, helping to make them one of the stronger outfits in Europe's second cup. The fact remains, it is still a very strong squad, one that will be keen to be successful and fulfil its ambitions.
The long-term benefit for Spurs could be in instilling a winning mentality, something that will be crucial if they are to make the next step as a genuine Premier League contender. If nothing else, it would be nice to return to some of those "Glory, Glory" nights, as pictured above with Tony Parks and Graham Roberts holding the trophy after beating Anderlecht in the 1984 final.
Sandro was undoubtedly one of the stars of Tottenham's season in 2010-11. After taking a few months to settle following his move from 2010 Copa Libertadores winners Internacional, Sandro found his feet with some tremendous battling performances in Europe and the Premier League.
Defensively he was near impeccable. If not reading the opposition well to break up their moves, he was displaying impressive stamina in barely giving opposition midfielders and attackers a second to breathe, closing them down and often winning it back.
What makes Sandro an especially exciting prospect for Spurs fans is that besides being a talented defensive performer, he showed himself to have some considerable attacking chops too. Comfortable on the ball, he was able to go on runs that either bought his team-mates time while they regrouped, or actually led to him creating chances for himself or others. Just look at his fantastic goal against Chelsea or the late surges that almost grabbed a winner against Arsenal.
Despite the injury setback that could keep him out to October, Sandro does not look the type of player to suffer a sophomore slump. With a surely increasingly prominent role in the Spurs side, more powerful and impressive displays of the likes he delivered last season will quite likely put him in contention when it comes to winning the individual end of season awards.
And let's face it: If Scott Parker can win the Football Writers' Player of the Year for being the best of a bad bunch at West Ham, surely a much, much, much, much better midfielder like Sandro can?
So what is a realistic, but positive, target for Tottenham this season?
Spurs would do well to embrace the notion that they a dark horse for the top four this season. While Harry Redknapp's title ambitions are admirable, the strength of Manchester United, coupled with the rise of Manchester City, should be too strong for them.
But a return to the top four is not out of the question. Few are expecting quite as much of Tottenham as last season, or even in 2007-2008 when they were tipped for a Champions League place after consecutive fifth place finishes. This is something Spurs should embrace.
The "no-one likes us, we don't care" mentality can be a powerful one if utilised well, and Spurs certainly have enough quality to make something of it. Their strong performances, and importantly, results against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in recent years have shown they are no longer afraid to battle it out with the big boys.
Delivering the consistency that failed them in the closing months of the last campaign will be crucial. But without the more pressurised distraction of the Champions League, and with a couple of additions before the season begins, Tottenham could be built to upset some people again.
But what if it goes all wrong for Spurs? You would hope they do not capitulate to the extent they find themselves in a relegation battle, but there are concerning areas that need addressing should they not want to lose ground on the best of the Premier League and find themselves mired in mid-table once more.
Goals are needed. As already discussed in this article, it does not mean completely getting rid of the old. But some genuine talent in the final third, someone who can guarantee goals, is needed to take the chances that cost Spurs so many points last season. There were so many games—Blackpool twice, West Ham at home, Wolves away—that could have been different had they taken their chances. In what will be an increasingly competitive Premier League, that fine margin could be crucial.
Should Luka Modric leave, it will be a substantial gap for such a small fellow. There are ways of compensating for it, even if that does not mean buying an actual replacement. But does Harry Redknapp have the tactical smarts to see that?
For all of Redknapp's ability to bring the best out of a squad, he has displayed a frustrating strategical inconsistency when it comes to setting up his teams. Spurs have quality players, but when you're facing teams of similar or greater talent, you sometimes need a little more.