By Ewan Roberts
There was an air of resignation around a quiet White Hart Lane, save for a chorus of boos from some sections of support, as Tottenham conceded a late equaliser for the second successive week, leaving them winless after three games.
Andre Villas-Boas, the Football Manager apprentice, the Not So Special One, has already faced much scorn and ridicule on the Twittersphere. While one half of the support base are criticising an abject performance and hashtagging ‘#AVBout’ the other half are writing “fans” in inverted commas and calling for patience.
This was always likely to be a summer of transition for Tottenham, with Harry Redknapp replaced by Villas-Boas, Ledley King announcing his retirement and Luka Modric pushing for a long-awaited exit from White Hart Lane.
In a period of three months Spurs lost their manager, their captain and their midfield heartbeat, as well as, through the Spurs hierarchy’s own choosing, crowd favourite Rafael van der Vaart.
A Spurs side who picked up just 15 points from a possible 39 after imploding at the Emirates last season has been gutted, the spine ripped out (both voluntarily and involuntarily). Villas-Boas’ task is gargantuan.
Like a before shot in a shampoo advert, Tottenham were limp and lifeless in the first half against Norwich. The often gung-ho, ultra-attacking, slick passing style that Villas-Boas implemented at Porto was nowhere to be seen.
That is, of course, entirely understandable, given that Spurs have just lost their two best passers in the shape of Modric and Van der Vaart, while Villas-Boas has had very little time to work with an, until now, incomplete squad. Or is it still incomplete?
Tottenham missed out on signing Porto’s Joao Moutinho at the end of a frustrating transfer deadline day. While Jim White was being loaded back into his cryogenic chamber, ready to be wheeled out again on January 31, Villas-Boas was no doubt rueing Spurs’ inability to recruit the gatekeeper to his Tottenham vision.
What Spurs have lacked in all three of their Premier League games so far, and which was especially absent against Norwich, is a creator, a passer, someone who can dictate and control games, someone to provide metronomic, progressive passing in midfield.
Instead, Tottenham had Jake Livermore and Sandro. Two defensive midfielders, two destroyers. At home. Against Norwich. There was no creativity, no bravery on the ball. The pair passed horizontally, rarely, if ever, forwards and provided no precision or penetration in the final third.
For Villas-Boas, preparation and “the system” are King. The 4-3-3 he deployed at Chelsea may have been replaced by 4-2-3-1, but a strict adherence to a set style and structure remains. The team identity and system comes first.
Villas-Boas is moving away from the reliance Tottenham had on individual brilliance under Redknapp’s reign and moving towards turning Spurs into a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
But a well-drilled system cannot compensate for an absence of creativity, and it needed the introduction of new signing Mousa Dembele to spark Tottenham into life and bring direction to a rudderless midfield.
The Belgian made an immediate impact on his debut. Now, at last, Tottenham had creativity from deep, a player who could drive forwards, supply team-mates, commit opposition players and gain yardage. There was, in short, a real threat.
It was Dembele who pounced on a dawdling Jonny Howson, offloaded quickly to Jermain Defoe and received the return pass before twisting and turning past a crowd of Norwich defenders to rifle a fizzing drive beyond John Ruddy. It was a truly uplifting moment.
But Dembele does not solve Spurs’ problems, not by a long shot. He’s more of an all-action box-to-box midfielder than a playmaker, more Yaya Toure than David Silva. And Tottenham need a string puller, a puppet master, a conductor.
Furthermore, Villas-Boas relied on Falcao at Porto – a player who married all-round approach play with clinical finishing. At Spurs, Defoe occasionally provides the latter but not the former, while the opposite is true of Emmanuel Adebayor.
There are positives for Spurs though. Against Newcastle they deserved to at least draw the match, and the high intensity pressing of the first half worked extremely well. Additionally, they remain unbeaten at home and have not failed to find the back of the net yet this season.
With more time on the training pitch, and more opportunity to acclimatise to new team-mates and a new system, Tottenham can begin to translate their methodical but so far largely non-threatening possession into something more fearsome, with Dembele the fulcrum, the catalyst, the spur.
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