Tottenham Hotspur: Harry Redknapp's Midfield ConundrumMarch 10, 2011
Tottenham Hotspur: Harry Redknapp's Midfield Conundrum
Tottenham Hotspur moved into the last eight of the Champions League at the expense of AC Milan on Wednesday night after a disciplined and battling performance saw them draw 0-0 and retain their 1-0 lead from the San Siro. At the heart of everything good by Spurs was their central midfielder Sandro in a display manager Harry Redknapp described to the club's official website as "immense".
The Brazilian was a dominant presence throughout, making several key interceptions, blocks and tackles as Milan searched fruitlessly for that vital goal. In the game's latter stages, the 21-year-old still found the energy to surge forward and lend an extra body to a tiring Tottenham attack before working back to help keep their Italian opponents out.
Sandro is not yet the finished article, but after naturally taking some time to settle with a new club and country, he has forced his name into contention in a squad crowded with talented central midfielders. With Tottenham generally fielding a 4-4-2 formation, there is usually only space for two of these to play at once.
So just what are the strengths and weaknesses of Sandro & Co.?
Arriving at Spurs having just played an important role in helping his former club Internacional to their second Copa Libertadores, you would not hold it against Sandro for feeling a tad frustrated at the absence of more than a game or two in a row to prove himself at his new club.
All credit to the Brazilian, he bided his time and besides one erratic display in a 4-2 loss at Bolton, performed reasonably well in his infrequent appearances. Tottenham's first-leg Champions League last-16 tie with AC Milan was then something of a test of his progress so far.
Sandro answered excellently. Alongside Wilson Palacios, he worked hard in denying the Rossoneri midfield space and helped offer a sturdy second line of defence for his back four. If these are attributes not usually associated with the typical stereotype of a Brazilian footballer, then his movement and neat passing was more in keeping with that tradition. He later made a vital contribution in starting the move that led to Peter Crouch's goal in Spurs' 1-0 win.
It was a performance Sandro bettered in the return leg in, and I do not think this is hyperbole, one of the finest midfield displays seen at White Hart Lane.
Thus far he looks like he is adjusting well to the different pace of the Premier League, as well as a new lifestyle in England. Considering he did not have the luxury of a proper pre-season with his new club last summer, Sandro has started admirably and will hope to replicate the success of his compatriot Gilberto Silva at Arsenal rather than the less fondly remembered Kleberson at Manchester United.
Luka Modric is arguably Tottenham's best piece of business over the past five years. Already highly-touted, the Croatian was signed from Dinamo Zagreb for £16.5 million prior to a set of impressive performances at Euro 2008 that may have made purchasing the versatile midfielder more difficult post-tournament.
Initially he did not have much joy at White Hart Lane, more a result of his new club severely under-performing in the early part of the 2008/09 season than of his own struggles. The common assumption is Harry Redknapp replaced Juande Ramos, and suddenly revitalised a man floundering in his environment. Redknapp's "trick" was in fact to shake up things around him quick enough so as to not make Modric regret moving to North London and give him the teammates he had been promised.
Excelling in left midfield for the majority of his first 18-months in England, Gareth Bale's eye-catching performances down that side in early 2010 forced Modric inside on a more permanent basis. It was hardly a problem, more an opportunity to showcase his versatility. The Croatian was by this point well versed in the more physical side of Premier League football and straight away proved he was equipped to be an effective performer centrally.
Modric was already influential from the left, moving inside allowed him to have a greater say in proceedings. Like any creative player, it is unfair to assume he is going to run every game from there, but more often than not he is the instigator of Tottenham's better attacking moments.
Equally impressive about Modric as a centre midfielder is his contribution defensively. Able to hold his own in the physical battles common in that part of the pitch, he is also effective in breaking up opposition play. His stamina and quickness make him a nuisance in tight areas, where his reading of the game allows him to make the vital interceptions that allow him to break forward and impact further up the pitch.
The ankle injury that sidelined Tom Huddlestone for three months in November came at an especially inopportune time for the 24-year-old.
Huddlestone was a key component of the Tottenham side that outfought Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City as they qualified for the Champions League in the face of a difficult late season run of games. It had led to him being seriously considered for a spot in England's World Cup squad, and though he missed out on South Africa, saw him come into the 2010/11 campaign on a high.
While Huddlestone was involved early on this season, including a good performance in the memorable 3-1 victory over Inter Milan, his ankle surgery has sidelined him for the majority of a year that may have seen him truly step up and graduate from potential and into the top class of Premier League midfielders.
For while he has more than proved himself a talented member of Spurs' squad, there is still the feeling we have more to see from Huddlestone. This is not a big criticism. He has already proved himself to be one of the best passers in England, and the aforementioned displays from the second half of last season demonstrated there is more to his game than just his superb range of passing. On occasions when he has scored, he has shown enviable finishing technique from long-range.
For a player with such attributes, he has not yet convinced as a consistent difference-maker in the final third of the pitch. However, should he stay healthy, Huddlestone has time on his side. To compare him to a potential England rival in Frank Lampard, the Chelsea veteran became more of a complete midfielder in his mid-twenties. With another difficult Premier League finish ahead, as well as more European action, Huddlestone could yet be of importance for Spurs before the season concludes.
The arrival of Wilson Palacios at White Hart Lane in January 2009 was significant in Tottenham's push away from a potential relegation battle that year. The Honduran international deserved all the plaudits directed his way as he implemented a bite and tenaciousness that had been missing from the midfield.
This quality has also proved a burden at times, with some referees less generous than others in allowing his more biting tackles to go unpunished in first halves. Unfortunately for Palacios this has meant him being sacrificed as a substitute ahead of others for fear of him being sent off for a second bookable offense. This has been frustrating for a player struggling for a sense of consistency as injuries and a lack of form have seen him in and out of the starting eleven over the past twelve months.
More than others in the Spurs midfield, Palacios seems to be a confidence player. When it is high, he is energetic and snapping away at opponents' heels. His passing can also come into its own and he is more than capable of finding a teammate in a good position. When his confidence is low, it is the opposite, his passes go astray and you can see the seeds of doubt creeping into his mind.
There have been times this issue has threatened to derail Spurs career, but in 2011 he has shown an extra layer of toughness when called upon. The highlight was his disciplined display out in Milan in February.
Palacios might not be a guaranteed starter right now, but he has shown his importance as part of the squad.
If Jermaine Jenas' career thus far is viewed as not quite living up to the early hype, it is only a result of him as of yet not quite living up to the sum of his attributes.
His turn of pace and ability to take on a man have never been utilised to push him beyond more than a respectable goal tally per season, while his athleticism and movement have not combined to make him a dominating influence in midfield.
But at some point you have to consider that the early hype around the 2003 English PFA Young Player of the Year was unreasonably high, because he has and continues to be a more than respectable performer for Tottenham.
The arrival of Modric and emergence of Huddlestone especially have lessened his starts, but when called upon Jenas can be relied on to do a job. He is a tidy passer of the ball and can operate as the anchor of the midfield, used to pick the ball up and play in the likes of Modric, Aaron Lennon or Gareth Bale.
Jenas is similarly talented enough to join in further forward and while the patterns of play have changed in his seven years at the club, is more than versed in the capabilities of the players around him. His determination to still compete for his place after such a lengthy spell at Tottenham should not be underestimated.