Road to nowhere: Tottenham must improve stuttering away form to realise Champions League dream

Spurs' quest for a top-four spot is being undermined by their struggles on the road and Sunderland stalemate showed there is plenty of room for improvement beyond White Hart Lane
By Rob Stewart at the Stadium of Light

Having looked like they were all but nailed on certainties for a Champions League spot prior to 2012, Tottenham's away form since the turn of the year has jeopardised their top-four ambitions to the point that they now risk missing out on Europe's pinnacle competition altogether.

A team that plays with a swagger at White Hart Lane stutters beyond their north London home and the stultifying stalemate against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light raised serious questions about their ability to get over the finishing line in the race for a top-four spot in the Premier League.

Redknapp’s charges have been imperious at home but they have not won a league match on opposition turf since they went to Carrow Road and beat Norwich City 2-0 on December 27.



To put things into perspective, Spurs have won six times on enemy territory but that is exactly half the amount of times Manchester United have won away from Old Trafford.

And Manchester City, Arsenal and – most ominously - Newcastle United have all been more successful on the road with seven wins apiece while Chelsea also have six away wins to their credit.

There has been one away win this year and that came in unconvincing style against Championship side Watford in the FA Cup fourth round in January, and they even needed a replay to overcome League One Stevenage as they negotiated the next hurdle in the knockout competition.

It is a good job for Redknapp that Spurs have excelled at White Hart Lane where they have been beaten only twice this term - by both Manchester clubs.

There has been no discernible change in their attacking philosophy that makes Tottenham such an attractive draw for casual supporters and armchair fans, as the 3-2 defeat at City and the 5-2 humiliation by Arsenal proved.

That they lost those games was down to defensive lapses, but now more significantly, Sunderland’s negative tactics suggested that Redknapp’s peers have worked out how to cramp their style.

The ‘scouting report’ in the Sunderland matchday programme enthused about an "expansive game that makes Spurs one of the most attractive fixtures of the season” and waxed lyrical about their "free-flowing one and two-touch football that can leave opponents chasing shadows when the Londoners pop the ball around at speed".

Therein lies the crux of the matter because if the programme contributors can work out what makes Tottenham dangerous then it is fair to assume that Martin O’Neill and his coaching staff will be able to devise a strategy to make sure their opponents are not allowed to "pop the ball around at speed".

O’Neill ordered his team to defend so deeply that they could have ended up in the River Wear if they had carried on retreating but that should have come as no surprise to Redknapp because that is how Sunderland play when they face big-hitters.

Redknapp and his coaching staff were unable to counteract O’Neill's game-plan as the Black Cats' full-backs sat back so much that they nullified the Tottenham wingers who are key to their team’s prosperity.

They needed a bit of inspiration from their manager but it failed to arrive, and what surprisingly unfolded was the dreariest contest the Stadium of Light has seen this season.

Overcrowding the midfield trenches and populating it with combative figures such as Lee Cattermole was enough to knock Spurs out of their stride and deny fans that chance to witness the cavalier approach that made Redknapp’s team look like title challengers before Christmas.

Spurs certainly have six eminently winnable games before the season finishes and what could help Redknapp is that all their remaining away fixtures look like they will be against sides who will need to win to safeguard their own top-flight status.

That they are fighting for survival makes Queens Park Rangers, Bolton Wanderers and even Aston Villa dangerous animals but their plight should also give Tottenham the time and space to make the most of their own array of attacking talent.

"It is on the Premier League away-days that Redknapp must go for it and play with two strikers rather than letting Adebayor go it alone."

But if they do not play ball and instead follow O’Neill’s negative tactics then Redknapp will have to show why he is being tipped to be the next England manager.

His team threatened the Sunderland goal just once when Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s long-range shot skimmed Simon Mignolet’s post, and the point their lacklustre efforts yielded means that they must hope for an Arsenal defeat when the Gunners host Manchester City on Easter Sunday.

It was never going to be easy to prise open a stubborn Sunderland side, and who knows, the point gained could prove vital.

However, going forward there are lessons to be learned by Redknapp and his coaching staff for when they do need three points outside White Hart Lane and Luka Modric keeps running into players like Shaun Derry and Nigel Reo-Coker.

For starters, it would have helped their cause if Emmanuel Adebayor had put himself about on Wearside rather than looking half-hearted, and that is something that must be addressed.

Adebayor will no doubt raise his game when Spurs host Norwich on Monday – unless either Jermain Defoe or Louis Saha gets the nod ahead of him – and what should be a comfortable victory should put their team back on track before the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Sunday on the neutral territory of Wembley.

It is on the Premier League away-days that Redknapp must go for it and play with two strikers rather than letting Adebayor go it alone, because he is no Didier Drogba and needs support.

That should have come against Sunderland when Defoe and Saha were kicking their heels on the bench while Sandro toiled ineffectively in midfield, his centre-backs found themselves underemployed and Rafael van der Vaart looked below-par.

Sunderland were there for the taking but Spurs failed to take advantage. They must not allow that to happen again. Otherwise they will be in for another season of Europa League football.

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