Tottenham have sacked manager Andre Villas-Boas after a year and a half in charge at White Hart Lane but where do Spurs go from here?
The Portuguese coach arrived at the North Londoners in July 2012 following the dismissal of Harry Redknapp who had taken them from the relegation zone in 2008 to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010/11 and, after missing out on a Champions League spot in 2011/12 somewhat cruelly despite finishing 4th in the Premier League Villas-Boas was appointed to take over.
Tottenham finished 5th one point behind archrivals Arsenal last season, again narrowly missing out on their main objective of Champions League qualification and after the sale of world record transfer Gareth Bale to Real Madrid this summer Franco Baldini and Villas-Boas brought in seven new addition to the squad with high hopes for meeting the club’s objectives this season.
That’s where we are now – the narrative so far this term for Spurs has been inconsistency and a lack of cohesion in the team. They currently sit 7th place on 27 points which, although not exactly in line with where they’d hope to be, the season is very much still salvageable for the club and the new manager.
At the time of writing the new manager has yet to be announced but, whomever the club chose will have an exciting opportunity to build on what Villas-Boas has laid as a foundation this term.
1) Organise Defensively
Whilst the headlines have pointed to Tottenham’s concession of five goals at White Hart Lane on Sunday in their disappointing defeat to Liverpool and their 6-0 defeat away at Manchester City last month, its actually unfair and inaccurate to assert that Spurs have a poor defensive record. Apart from those two big defeats (which, of course, cannot be discounted) the context of the season shows that Tottenham have a fairly strong defensive record.
Those 11 goals aside for a moment, Tottenham have conceded just 8 goals in 13 games, which is actually a very good record. This season, they’ve kept no less than 8 clean sheets (half of their games played so far) so it’s unfair to say they haven’t been organized. However, what we have seen against top-level opposition is that their defensive frailties are more pronounced. To the top teams they’ve played so far (Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool) they’ve conceded 15 goals. Against those same top teams they’ve claimed just 3 points of an available 18, which is why, I believe, they are where they are in the table as we head into the New Year.
We saw their back four (albeit with injuries hindering them) get dragged out of position all too often on Sunday as we did last month at the Etihad. They failed to communicate with each other effectively in both games and they failed to keep tabs on two of the Premier League’s top strikers – it doesn’t take a great mind of our time to suggest that Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero ought to be watched and marked more confidently than they were in those games and the backline failed to offer Hugo Lloris much in the way of protection over the 180 minutes of those games.
However, what I think those scorelines have reflected more is not that Spurs’ defence are disorganized (which they were) but more than there is not enough focus from the team on defending – their shape and their reaction to losing the ball is a mark of a team that is not focused on keeping clean sheets. The midfield as well as the wide and forward players need to be more invested in tracking and chasing back and dropping into deeper positions to mark the space as well as the opposition on a regular and consistent basis.
2) Play to Soldado’s strengths
Meanwhile, goal scoring, at the other end, has been an area of concern for Tottenham. Despite the abundance of talent and creativity in the squad and the team, they’ve managed to score just 15 goals in 16 games this term, which definitely needs improvement. Tottenham enjoy more possession than any other team in the Premier League (on a par with City overall) and yet that is rarely reflected in the score line.
They have not scored enough gaols from open play and I think that’s due to the former manager not setting the team up around his striker, to cater to Roberto Soldado’s strengths. The Spaniard scored 30 goals in all competitions for Valencia last season but he in not receiving the ideal service this term with Tottenham.
The wingers are all to often more inclined to come inside off the flank to try to get a shot away themselves than they are to push on to the buy line and cut back a cross or a pass to feed him. If they change even that one aspect, I would expect Soldado to score more often than not but at present he’s not receiving the ball in the right areas – he needs that pass to feet in the six-yard box if he’s going to function as a lone striker.
3) More direct play
Talking about the lack of service and concluding that Spurs have not given Soldado the ammunition he needs to pose a genuine threat up front is also just a symptom of another problem, which is that Tottenham have not done enough with their possession of the ball. They play fantastic football, pass the ball exceptionally well and spend more time in the opposition half than any other team in the league but I think there needs to be more direction in their play.
Obviously, as mentioned, that means the direction of the play needs to go through Soldado as their spearhead of their forward play but they also need to play more direct in the middle of the park and even out from the back.
What Villas-Boas did well was getting them playing possession-based total football but what they’ve been lacking since the departure of Harry Redknapp is that impetus to make cross-field diagonal balls and bypass the opposition’s midfield – they’re far too predictable and easy to defend against because they don’t move in the channels and they don’t play enough long passes, generally the tempo of the game remains on one level and they don’t switch the play fast enough across the pitch which means they are far too easy to contain and close down.
With the great array of attacking talent they have and the gifted passers and creative players they have in their squad, they need to picking out more ‘Hollywood’ passes, getting more accurate crosses in from wide areas and build up a much faster pace and intensity in their build play – it’s too slow and predictable at present.
4) Build consistency
Meanwhile, Villas-Boas had a very tough job integrating seven new players (as well as a couple of returns from loan spells) into a new team that is minus Gareth Bale. It’s been a tough job and Spurs have tended to look like a team of strangers with no collective understanding and chemistry. Whoever comes in to replace him must focus training sessions on positioning, shape and movement as a team.
We saw Jordan Henderson make passes for Liverpool on Sunday without even having to look where his teammates were – he knew instinctively that Suarez or whoever would be in a certain position to get on the end of a perfectly weighted 30 yard pass into space.
That’s understanding between players and that comes from the manager who needs to instruct his midfield and wide players to put the ball into specific areas and spaces on the pitch, especially in the channels, where he also needs to instruct Soldado to loiter and make runs into so that the pass connects with the man and vice versa.
That will build more understanding as the season progresses and give the players more of a blueprint whilst they’re getting to know each other’s game better. If they can find consistency with each other as individuals, they can find it on the pitch as a team unit and, furthermore, down the line find consistency in their performances overall and, crucially, their results – it’s a chain reaction and it starts with, for example, the midfielders and wingers being told exactly where to put the ball and Soldado being told exactly where he needs to be.
Finally, and this is really just an afterthought for the new boss considering all the other things he’ll need to prioritize but Tottenham must find a dangerous outlet for set pieces which, since Gareth Bale’s departure, they’ve lacked. Spurs have scored just 3 goals relating from set pieces (compared to Liverpool’s 11, for example) and they need to be training more set pieces that are inventive and effective whether that be a team strategy, a clever little move to outwit the opposition or an individual practicing delivery and improving his technique in dead-ball situations, but, preferably, all of the above.