Poor preparation at fault for Spurs' start

September 25, 2008
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

It is one of the great unwritten rules of English football that at least one of Tottenham, Newcastle, Manchester City and West Ham must be in crisis at any given point. After one month, this season has already bucked the trend as all have found themselves in a critical state already.

GettyImagesModric: The Croatian has struggled to adapt.

City now believe they have extricated themselves in spectacular style, courtesy of their new investment. West Ham, buoyed by the appointment of Gianfranco Zola, thought they had until Sheffield United's legal team proved otherwise. Tottenham and Newcastle's status, however, is consistent. They remain crisis clubs.

But both have only themselves to blame. The Premier League may command the highest profile of any division in the world, yet its start seems to catch Tottenham unawares. Last year, they spent the opening weeks deliberating whether to dismiss Martin Jol, undermining him and hampering results in the process.

This year, the suggestions, albeit denied, that Juande Ramos hankers after a return to Spain indicate an unfortunate action replay. In 2007, Gareth Bale apart, they recruited poorly. In 2008, a higher calibre of players have been brought in, but seemingly without a plan of how to deploy them. In the embryonic stages of the 2007/08 campaign, Tottenham propped up the Premier League table. Now, once again, they are bottom.

The club have displayed a remarkable inability to learn the lessons of their recent past, and that is not merely a reference to Damien Comolli's continued employment as director of football. When the summer business drags on into the autumn and ultimately impacts upon the entire season, the club is in permanent transition.

By delaying the departure of Dimitar Berbatov, Tottenham may have increased their profit. Yet a reluctance to sign his successor while the Bulgarian remained at White Hart Lane showed a lack of forward planning. Roman Pavlyuchenko eventually arrived, only for the Russian, understandably, to take time to acclimatise to his new surroundings. This is why many clubs prefer to use pre-season to integrate their additions.

Tottenham, in contrast, began the campaign unsure of both their personnel and their structure. Darren Bent started as the sole striker because, the reluctant Berbatov apart, he was the only available specialist forward. Now it is thought the preference is for a partnership. That, in turn, brings their pursuit of a surfeit of attacking midfielders into question.

Luka Modric seemed to be signed to dictate play. Now it is unsure if he will even get a game. How, for instance, can twin strikers, two wingers and a playmaker be accommodated? And where? The presumption is that the team will be built around the flagship signing. But that would require coherent thought, and there has been precious little evidence of that at Tottenham.

Four players - David Bentley, Bale, Modric, shunted from a central role to the wing, and Giovani dos Santos - have started on the left of midfield already. It is worth remembering that Bentley, a certain prolific Portuguese excepted, was as effective as any right winger in the Premier League last season, but he has been utilised largely on the opposite flank.

Jermaine Jenas, newly promoted to the vice-captaincy and one of the more effective performers thus far, was demoted from the team for the pivotal game against Aston Villa. Aaron Lennon has not been on form, barring a decent showing at Wigan. Bale seems to alternate between midfield and defence, while the odd-job men Tom Huddlestone and Didier Zokora do so between midfield, defence and the bench. Comolli, given his habit of encumbering his managers with unbalanced squads, bears the brunt of the blame, but Ramos is culpable too.

The Spaniard remains imaginative and often excellent when choosing his substitutes, but his initial selections can perplex. Other managers alternate players, but within a system and a style of play. There is a difference between squad rotation and random selections; it is Azinger versus Faldo.

GettyImagesRamos: Praised former player at Spurs.

The same 11 cannot be fielded for every game, but it would be instructive to know what Ramos considered - regardless of the opposition and assuming all were similarly fit - was his strongest side, whether the focal point is a playmaker or a target man and if it should include one or two deeper-lying midfielders.

On and off the pitch, an understanding looks elusive. Tottenham still resemble a group of players hurriedly assembled on a football management simulation game, rather than a team. Comolli is believed to have spent the evening of September 1 desperately ringing around in a bid to find another forward. Ramos seems to select a different side each time. His impatience, it seems, mirrors that of the club.

There is no doubt that the aim remains to gatecrash the four-team party at the top. But when Tottenham are bottom of the Premier League, the gulf between ambition and reality looks ever larger. For a side with aspirations of finishing fourth, they could kick off at Portsmouth on Sunday 11 points adrift of Aston Villa, occupants of that prized position.

After their annual overhaul, Spurs may have the most talented squad outside the established elite, Manchester City's sudden wealth and Villa's continued progress notwithstanding.

Confronted with City's billions, everyone else has a handicap. But after a summer of upheaval, Tottenham's is greater and the fault lies within. Unready for the start of the season, their quest for a winning formula looks no nearer resolution. Having failed to prepare, Tottenham are already preparing to fail in their latest bid to go fourth.