By Ewan Roberts
Tottenham’s clash with Chelsea was filled with sub-plots and storylines, not least Andre Villas-Boas’ grudge match with his former employers and mutinous players. Far from the gratifying reunion he would have imagined, Villas-Boas’ side were trounced by the very brand of football he had been tasked by Roman Abramovich to bring to Stamford Bridge, and which was so evidently lacking in Spurs’ performance.
The Lilywhites are in a period of patient transition, but now find themselves at a crossroads. The Jekyll and Hyde of the Premier League, Spurs are an exhilarating, fluid, counter-punching side on the road, but have been laborious and rudderless, clueless even, when attempting to be more methodical at home. As such, it may be time for Villas-Boas to suspend his delusion of creating a passing powerhouse and adapt to make the most of Spurs' fast transition strengths.
The Portuguese manager has seen his side counter-attack with a swagger and verve on their travels, but they appear less explosive and electric on their own turf. And that was true once more against Chelsea, barring a brilliant start to the second half.
Villas-Boas’ Spurs are unpredictable and inconsistent, fluctuating wildly between styles at opposite ends of the spectrum, wrestling with a split personality disorder where Spurs’ dual philosophies are increasingly becoming a duel of philosophies.
White Hart Lane, once a fortress (Spurs lost just once at home in 2010-11), has become a less reliable hunting ground this season with the Lilywhites averaging more points on their travels (2 points per game) than at home (1.8).
Without a passing metronome of Luka Modric’s class and ilk, Spurs have struggled to break down deep defences or control matches. With his players ill-suited to a passing game and unable to replicate the Barcelona-lite model he employed at Porto, Villas-Boas needs to rethink his ideology at home to bridge the gap in results and performances that have come on Spurs’ travels playing a more reactive style.
The different faces of Jermain Defoe have come to embody Spurs’ clash of identities. Like the side as a whole, Defoe has had a season of blacks and whites, good and bad (and ugly), shifting from brilliant to inept and back again on a game-by-game basis.
The forward had a brilliant second half against Chelsea, working hard, tapping-in the 200th goal of his club career and looking a dynamic threat. But in the first half he was frustrated and frustrating, receiving little service, operating in isolation and ignoring better placed team-mates in favour of speculative long shots.
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But he’s been prolific this season; an unexpected star under Villas-Boas, despite reports suggesting the Portuguese was happy to offload the England striker, and remoulding the perception of the modern No.9. Defoe has scored five goals in eight league games for Spurs, and is just one goal behind the league’s leading scorers (Robin van Persie, Michu and Demba Ba).
An area of his game that has improved immeasurably under the Portuguese manager is his movement off the ball in the final third. Once static, he now manipulates space for his team-mates, most notably for all three of Spurs’ goals at Old Trafford. Without the ball he’s become more active, harder to mark, elusive.
But Defoe’s reawakening under AVB has been most apparent when Spurs have played away from home and set up to counter. The diminutive forward has often craved the shelter and familiarity of White Hart Lane in the past; last season, in all competitions, he scored 66.6% more goals at home than away.
This year, however, Defoe has scored more goals away from home than at White Hart Lane. On the road he faces higher lines, feeding off a more spring-loaded attack. Defoe needs two things to prosper: space and supply. But without such a climate he can become a burden.
Defoe’s first half against Chelsea was systematic of those shortcomings and Tottenham’s problems at home. Without a Modric-type passer (or Villas-Boas’ priority target Joao Moutinho), Spurs are bereft of a player able to dictate rhythm and tempo, they are less creative and measured in attack, huffing and puffing to little avail against often conservative and deep defences.
Spurs’ inability to unlock compact, organised defences was compounded by the absence of Gareth Bale and Mousa Dembele against Chelsea. Without a creator, without controlled possession, a pure poacher such as Defoe, who offers little ingenuity, vision or link-play, becomes a passenger, a luxury.
How Tottenham could have used Emmanuel Adebayor in the first half, a much busier player than Defoe. While the latter made just 14 successful passes against Chelsea (a figure in line with his 11.6 average last year), Adebayor averaged 34.3 passer per match last season, attempting 1131 passes compared to Defoe’s 291.
Defoe has fewer league assists (10) since he re-joined Tottenham from Portsmouth than Adebayor made last season alone (11). A more complete forward, the selfless Togolese striker provides a constant out-ball, can unlock defences and brings greater ball retention (particularly in the final third).
It could be argued that summer signings Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson were most responsible for Defoe’s lack of supply. The pair, who admittedly thrive off more creative forwards than Defoe (like Adebayor, for example), have disappointed in the early stages of their Spurs’ careers. The Togolese is both a better foil for Defoe, and solves Spurs' most glaring deficiencies.
So perhaps then it is time for Villas-Boas to consider the once unthinkable and revert to the old-fashioned, supposedly out-dated 4-4-2 at home – a beastly, repressed Hyde-like formation compared to his Jekyll-of-a-passing game he stores atop a plinth – and replace Dempsey and Sigurdsson with Adebayor in a more withdrawn role, doing the things Defoe can’t, retaining possession and supplying his in-form pocket-sized strike partner.
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