By Ewan Roberts
Tottenham took a gigantic step towards Champions League qualification last Sunday, beating last year's Premier League champions, Manchester City, courtesy of a delirious and frenzied seven minutes. A week on and they have, in typical Spurs fashion, taken two steps back again.
Despite taking an early lead against 18th-placed Wigan on Saturday afternoon, the north London club only scraped a point in yet another worryingly frequent last hurrah.
The Latics, battling against relegation, immediately cancelled out Gareth Bale's early goal before Callum McManaman rifled a shot past Hugo Lloris with the kind of venom and swerve that is usually seen from one of the Welshman's dastardly free kicks.
Despite controlling possession (61 per cent), Spurs, lacking in intensity, could muster only half-chances and blocked shots, while their goals were borne out of errors by Wigan, not brilliance from themselves.
At the very centre of Tottenham's problems is Scott Parker. The veteran midfielder, voted the club's Player of the Year last season, has become a laborious bubble of inactivity and indecision. When Spurs needed craft and vision to break Wigan down, he offered neither.
Of course, normally, in his role as an out-and-out defensive midfielder, Parker would not be expected to unlock the opposition defence. But, bafflingly, Andre Villas-Boas has been using the 32-year-old as a box-to-box player, inviting him to get forward while other players sit back and hold to accommodate his advances.
Such a position requires energy and athleticism, which Parker no longer possesses. Instead he ambles around the pitch, huffing and puffing after barely five minutes, with his decaying blood-and-thunder routine now more akin to a broken nail and a light shower.
The Jack-of-all-trades role requires Parker to affect the game at both ends but he has offered only passivity. He slows the game down, is incredibly reluctant to attempt penetrative passes and watching him try to manoeuvre the ball, taking touch after touch after touch, is like watching someone trying to eat rice with a single chopstick.
In attack, he has just one assist this year and no goals, while he frequently evidences his lack of predatory instinct. He conspired to miss an open goal against Basel, while against Wigan, when the ball fell perfectly into his path and with Robles stranded on the floor, he tried to take a touch when a first time shot was required.
His pass-completion rate in the final third is just 67% (for comparison, Mousa Dembele's is 86%), his accurate passes in the final third account for just 16% of his total passes, he has created a clear-cut chance only once every 1,141 minutes and boasts a staggeringly poor 11% shooting accuracy.
Defensively, he offers little protection. Spurs concede more often when he is the team (1.33 goals per game, compared to 0.96 with Dembele and 1.09 with Sandro), they keep fewer clean sheets (just one in his 16 league outings) and he is dispossessed more often than any other Tottenham midfielder (every 12 minutes).
If the stats are not evidence enough, then Spurs' constant improvement after he has been substituted should be. It took barely a minute for Villas-Boas's side to equalise against Everton after Parker had been withdrawn, all three goals against Manchester City were scored following his substitution, while Spurs did not find an equaliser against Wigan until he had gone off.
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Yet, curiously, he is still picked. Villas-Boas learned an incredible amount from failing at Chelsea but, perhaps, a hangover of his time in north London is an unwillingness to drop key characters in the dressing room.
Parker is a veteran, a leader, an experienced campaigner and one of the powerbrokers in the Spurs camp. Axing players of his ilk and standing is partly what lost the Portuguese his job at Stamford Bridge and there is a clear reluctance to drop a player who is underperforming. But pandering to Parker is hurting Spurs and undermining the meritocracy which Villas-Boas has sought to install at the club.
It may be ruthless to cut Parker, a bastion of valour and old school heartiness, but that is exactly what Spurs and their Portuguese boss need to be at this stage of the season.
Yet ruthless is exactly what Tottenham are not. They should have killed off Wigan as soon as they had the lead, choked them into submission as most other top sides would do - instead they switched off immediately and conceded within two minutes.
As a result, the north London side have now lost 23 points from winning positions – the second-worst record in the league behind Southampton (29). Should they miss out on the top four, the inability to hold a lead, or build on it, will be a major contributor – especially as Arsenal have dropped just four points when leading.
So Tottenham have four games to show their nasty side, to find the cold-blooded killer inside, and Villas-Boas can trigger that ruthlessness by an act of his own, by leading by example, by dropping the ponderous and passive Scott Parker.
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