By Ewan Roberts
"It's magnificent to be in Europe, and this club - a club like Tottenham - if we're not in Europe....we're nothing. We’re nothing." So said legendary Spurs manager Bill Nicholson, under whom the north London club became the first English team to win a European trophy.
But Thursday nights on Channel 5 facing the likes of NK Olimpija Ljubljana and Neftchi Baku PFC have become a rather less appealing continental adventure than that which Nicholson would have experienced.
Spurs’ axed boss Harry Redknapp, like many managers, fans, pundits and players in England, saw the Europa League as an unwanted distraction, the unnecessary and unglamorous little brother to the Champions League, and essentially ended Tottenham’s involvement by fielding a mishmash of fringe players and youngsters, opting to rest his first teamers instead.
But his successor, Andre “three Christmas parties” Villas-Boas, sees the Europa League in a rather different light to Ebenezer Redknapp and has fielded (close to) full strength teams in the tournament so far. But has the Portuguese’s refreshing outlook been a help or hindrance for Spurs?
Villas-Boas’ enthusiasm for the competition and his desire to repeat his 2011 success with Porto has seen Tottenham go unbeaten in their five outings so far. On Thursday night, anything but defeat against Panathinaikos will guarantee progression to the knockout stages.
Unlike Redknapp, Villas-Boas has treated the tournament with respect rather than contempt, peppering his sides with youth without allowing his team selections to become overloaded with inexperience. The younger players, introduced sparingly, have been able to link with established stars and slot into a pre-existing construct.
Under the new QPR boss, Spurs’ Europa League squads last season were filled only with inexperienced youngsters, cast-offs, and players in need of game time. Youth partnered disillusioned, alienated, unfit squad members in matches that had been disincentivised publically by the manager, and, unsurprisingly, Tottenham were knocked out in the group stages by PAOK and Rubin Kazan (neither of whom made it past the next round).
Youngster Tom Carroll has benefited the most from Villas-Boas’ approach to the competition; unburdened by responsibility and surrounded by recognised stars and Premier League veterans, he performed brilliantly against both Maribor and Lazio and has posted the best passing stats of any Spurs player (averaging a precocious 69.5 passes per game).
Perhaps if there is one criticism of the Portuguese boss it is that he has not used Carroll and his peers enough. Iago Falque, Andros Townsend and Ryan Mason have played just 118 minutes combined (from seven appearances).
Though Villas-Boas may not have given his youngsters sufficient playing time in the Europa League, he has certainly dabbled with various tactical game plans (including 4-4-2 for the first time, with Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe up front, against Maribor) and the tournament has allowed him to assess his squad and install his philosophy in a competitive setting.
Hugo Lloris has been carefully integrated into the team, while Kyle Naughton and Steven Caulker have impressed enough to earn Premier League starts. Against Panathinaikos, Villas-Boas can use the tie to prepare for life without the injured Gareth Bale, using the Greek side as a guinea pig to test Gylfi Sigurdsson or Clint Dempsey on the left of midfield.
The major reservation with prioritising the Europa League is the so-called “European hangover”, with the crowded Thursday-Sunday schedule and often long round-trips causing fatigue. But in his defence, Villas-Boas will point to Spurs’ league results directly proceeding Europa match-ups in which they have won four of five, with the sole loss coming against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City.
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Nevertheless, Tottenham have shown major signs of weariness this season, especially in the closing moments of matches. The north London club are one of only two teams yet to score in the final 10 minutes of a league game (the other is Liverpool, also a Europa League participant).
Spurs have also conceded more goals (eight) than any other side in the final 10 minutes of a match. In fact, if matches lasted only 80 minutes, Tottenham would be at the top of the table on 32 points (six more than they currently have).
Despite being unbeaten in Europe this season, Spurs have won just one of their five games, forfeiting leads and producing lethargic, unenthusiastic performances on the road - perhaps a legacy from the Redknapp era and his nonchalant disregard for the tournament.
Results in the Europa League have yet to fully justify Villas-Boas’ strong, aggressive line-ups, but victory over Panathinaikos would begin to hint at the reward which awaits such ambition. If Tottenham can adapt to the rigours of competing on multiple fronts then they could sustain both European and domestic challenges, and you would suspect that the potential for glory in Europe would have outweighed the monetary benefits of fourth place for Bill Nicholson.
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