risk and reward

Looking at the latest Premier League Form Guide, I should feel really good about Tottenham’s season thus far.

Tottenham Celebrating
though everything seems just peachy at the lane right now, i can't help but feel a little nervous about the rest of the season.

Monday’s 2-0 victory over Villa was Spurs’ eighth in their last nine — the only blip being the 2-2 draw against high-flying Newcastle back in October — with only Manchester City performing better during the same spell. They’re currently sitting third in the table, three points ahead of Chelsea, Liverpool and the hated scum of Arsenal with a game in hand.

Unlike last season, Premier League goals haven’t been hard to find and they’re coming from all corners of the pitch. Eight players have contributed to their 23 league goals thus far, hopefully indicating that their over reliance on Rafa van der Vaart to bag all of them is waning.

That said, the Dutchman has also been on form and — perhaps more importantly — happy so far this campaign, and is still leading the pack with six tallies to his name. Luka Modrić has seemingly put his summer transfer saga behind him and is again playing with the excellence that first attracted Chelsea’s envious eyes. Gareth Bale looks to have finally found the sparkling form that made him one of the most dangerous attackers on the planet at the beginning of last season. Aaron Lennon’s return from injury has seen him playing well too, with a brilliant and confident strike against Fulham to show for it. Defoe is looking content (so far) to be the super sub the club needs to provide a spark off the bench.

Not only that, but all of the major summer signings have turned out to be well worth the money spent. Adebayor is settled and provides the class tha’s been missing up front since Berbatov departed for greener pastures. Back from a few loan spells, young Kyle Walker has impressed at right back and even earned “Man of the Match” honors on his full England debut. Brad Friedel must know the location of the mythical fountain of youth, as the “wiser” presence in goal has been a massive upgrade from the gaffe-prone Gomes. And then there’s the work-horse defensive midfielder we’ve long been looking for,  Scott Parker combines intelligent distribution with crunching tackling to shore up Tottenham’s midfield.

In short, as a Spurs fan, I have a lot to be happy about.

So why is it that, a third of the way into the 2011-2012 Premier League season, I’m still feeling so uneasy about the rest of the campaign?

If you haven’t watched them play much yet, you’re probably thinking I’m crazy right now. But after looking at their impressive string of results a little more closely, there are a few things that are concerning.

Aside from the wins over Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa, most of Tottenham’s victories have hardly looked dominating. Though it’s great to see them show impressively against the big guns, their susceptibility to look disinterested against the so-called “lesser sides” has me worried. This trend of struggling where they should succeed was a large part of the reason they missed out on 4th last season, and I’m concerned that this trend is bleeding into this season as well.

In most games, Spurs have spells where they do look like the world-beaters every Yiddo knows they can be: controlling possession, executing lightning quick counterattacks, and showing impressive flashes of skill and swagger. But those bright spells are always balanced out by periods of apathetic, unconvincing or downright chaotic play. Even in Monday’s dominating win, Aston Villa had several missed opportunities (two involving ex-Spur Darren Bent) that were the result of absolutely horrid defending.

At times, I think caving to Rafa’s demands of playing in a central, support-striker role is at fault for the periods of erratic defending. If Redknapp is planning on playing van der Vaart and Adebayor at the same time, it means they have to play a 4-4-2 that leaves the backline a bit more exposed. This is especially risky in a counterattack-oriented offense like Tottenham’s: just look at how much room Scott Parker has to cover all on his own when everyone bounds forward.

Sure, leaving Rafa to play where he likes has yielded a number of… benefits. The least of which is a happy Rafa (which probably equals a happier locker room too), and the most obvious of which is the team’s impressive string of results. But it’s also van der Vaart’s demand that has been the root of the sides defensive fragility.

So let’s imagine for a second that Harry hadn’t caved and continued to play Rafa wide right. Though it would be at the expense of Lennon, playing Adebayor as a single striker opens up space in the line-up for a second holding midfielder who could stay at home on the breaks that tend to leave us susceptible to a counter-attack ourselves. Sandro hanging back to cover a streaking Walker or provide cover in front of the back four would allow Parker to move forward and create… or Parker for Sandro.

I’m not saying this is something we should be doing permanently. But it is an option that allows Harry to fit most of his offensive big guns on the field without leaving the defense shorthanded — something that will be key when we eventually face one of the more talented clubs again. And a little unpredictability never hurt anyone either.

Luckily, those moments of lost focus and mistakes do seem to be on a bit of a decline in the last few matches. Without a doubt, the side starting to gel together has a lot to do with that.

In fact, Redknapp has trotted out the exact same starting line-up in each of the last three matches. Consistency being the theme of this stretch, Harry also only looked to Defoe and Sandro as subs in those matches too. Looking back to the Liverpool match when their run of good form began, the manager’s only deviated from that line-up by one player in all of those other matches… and that leads to my other big concern.

the crowded tottenham hotspur bench
these guys can't be all that happy with spending so much time on the bench this season. what happens if spurs need to lean on them?

While it’s great to see an established First XI that are comfortable playing with each other, you can’t help but wonder how the rest of the squad players are taking it. We know Pav and dos Santos are aiming to leave in January, and it’s safe to assume that Kranjčar still would prefer to move on, especially considering his early season form. Sandro was a revelation last season, yet he hasn’t been offered much more than 15 minute cameos at the end of most match. And that’s ignoring the host of other first-teammers and up-and-commers that are probably itching for some face time.

Miraculously, we haven’t had much of a need for squad player so far. A majority of Tottenham’s stars have managed to avoid the training room for most of the season to this point. Conventional wisdom tells us that won’t continue.

So with the rest of the squad short on match sharpness, would Spurs be able to cope with the loss of a Bale, Parker, Modrić or Adebayor? I’m all for building team cohesion and allowing players to develop on-field understandings, but I just can’t shake the feeling that Harry’s lack of squad rotation might negatively affect the side when the injury bug does eventually bite.

I’m holding out hope that Redknapp’s just been biding his time to rotate the squad, and next weekend’s fixture against an inconsistent West Brom side does seem the perfect opportunity.

Tottenham's Kranjcar and Danny Rose
growing mustaches for cancer "awareness" will only keep niko and rose distracted from their lack of playing time for so long.

Why not give Assou-Ekotto or Walker a break to make way for Ćorluka or Rose respectively? Walker in particular, since the kid has literally been running his legs off for both Spurs and England lately. Scott Parker could also use the rest, considering the well-equipped Sandro more than ready to stand in. I’m even down to let Gio or Pav have a run out: if either shines, it could potentially net some additional transfer dollars in January… double bonus!

Honestly though, my knack for pessimism is probably the only thing that’s really shining through here. I should really quit my bitching, right?

The blowout losses to the Manchester sides seems like ages ago, and Spurs really have been pretty impressive this season. The boys look more than capable of competing for the Champions League places this season, not to mention their main competition (Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal) for those spots look prime for the picking.

Yes, the system Redknapp’s currently employing is paying dividends, but this also isn’t exactly the hardest portion of this season’s schedule. And I know that many of those squad players glued to the Premier League sidelines are getting minutes in the Europa League, but you and I both know that the quality of opposition in those matches pales in comparison to the Premier League.

I’m really happy with Tottenham, this year. I am. It would just put me at ease, moving forward, if Harry could show me these risky decisions are backed up by some a solid “Plan B”.

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