What have we learnt from pre-season fixtures and transfer dealings?
Although no one should ever read too much into pre-season friendlies, they do provide a chance for coaches to develop a team’s tactics, shape and style before the real action begins in mid-August. For Andre Villas-Boas, it was a mixed bag as Spurs’ last warm-up game offered up a number of potential difficulties, as well as some promising signs that the side is beginning to take shape in the mould the Portuguese coach hopes.
The performance of Roberto Soldado, who has had barely a week to get to know his new teammates, was certainly encouraging. Andre Villas-Boas’ dynamic Porto side were brilliant at pushing opposition sides back with relentless attacking, much of which was based upon a fluid front 3 of Hulk, Falcao and Varela and their aggressive, vertical movement. In Falcao, they had a forward who was focused on getting in behind defenders, permanently sitting on shoulders. Soldado showed a similar instinct on Saturday, making runs which forced the Espanyol defence back to the edge of their own area. Moreover, his aggression, both tactical and physical, provided a platform for attacks to be built upon. Of course, his rustiness was evident in an often less than perfect first touch, however, he did provide some intelligent link up play at times. That aggression teamed with a natural desire to get into the box and beyond defenders should make him an ideal leading man for Andre Villas-Boas.
If Soldado filled the central role in promising fashion the wide areas would certainly have been cause for concern. Aaron Lennon is not a natural fit in a system that focuses on vertical, rather than horizontal penetration. He is an out and out wide man, receiving the ball deep and wide, looking to run his full-back to the by-line before delivering crosses. On Saturday, he did this with his usual vigour in the first half, supplying one or two tantalising crosses. However, when dropping deep he effectively became an orthodox wide player. As a consequence, the midfield became too flat, there was little movement between the lines, and where Hulk was excellent at moving across the forward line at Porto, Lennon offered little presence up against the opposition back line, engaging the defenders in positions that were too deep to offer genuine threat. Nacer Chadli certainly showed greater versatility in his movement, popping up just off the Espanyol defensive line, forcing defenders to, at least contemplate, earlier and higher engagement. Furthermore, playing as an inside-out winger he naturally ran at the defence pushing them back, rather than, like Lennon, running down the side of the defence. Unfortunately, despite some encouraging bursts of pace and moments of skill, the Belgian’s touch was often unsure and, as such, he was unable to take advantage of some dangerous positions. Villas-Boas must find a way to ensure his side offer a more consistent threat in the wide-forward areas if he is to build this side in his image.
In the central midfielder areas, Paulinho and Dembele showed the power and dynamism expected of them, continually regaining lose possession and distributing it, to varying effects, quickly and efficiently. Their natural power and presence allowed them to pen Espanyol in and, especially for a period in the first half, allowed Spurs to maintain a Porto-like wave-style attack. Although most expect a 4-3-3 formation to be Spurs’ most dominant formation this year, this was more 4-2-3-1, with Sigurdsson unquestionably occupying the space in front of Paulinho and Dembele. Those two showed promising signs as a double-pivot, yet both lack the passing range to launch quick-transition attack. Too often after regaining possession the pair passed sideways, struggling to find the quick forward pass. Despite this weakness they both showed their propensity to attack directly through the middle of the pitch. Dembele was his typical mixture of robustness and flair on the ball, regularly ghosting past players to bypass the Espanyol central midfield. On the other hand, Paulinho added a new element to the Spurs team, his off the ball movement was extremely promising and, on a couple of occasions, he showed his ability to cause danger in behind both the midfield and defence. If Spurs are going to successfully launch quick-transition attacks they may have to find a player capable of playing early, incisive passes after winning the ball back. However, the problem may also be solved by addressing either the lack of a wide-forward presence discussed above or by finding a number 10 who offers perennial movement and a Pythagorean appreciation of space. The latter problem was exemplified by the performance of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who showed some promise in the position on Saturday, yet also struggled, like last season, to truly impact upon the game. The Icelander has enviable technical quality but does not possess either the requisite mobility and awareness to occupy the number 10 role, or the all-round game to play as the chief creative force in a 3 man midfield a la Joao Moutinho at Porto.
In signing Soldado, Chadli and Paulinho, Villas-Boas seems to be moulding a squad capable of the quick-transition, vertical-based attacking and high-press defending that typified his all-conquering Porto team. With Etienne Capoue soon to join from Toulouse, the Tottenham coach will have a veritable feast of central midfield options. The talented Frenchman joins Sandro, Paulinho, Dembele, Lewis Holtby and young Thomas Carroll as viable central midfield options. As such, one would assume that as the season progresses the team will line up in a 4-3-3, demanding a solution to the lack of both a playmaker capable of quickly turning defence into attack through early, forward passing, and of a genuine wide-forward presence that threatens both in behind, and just off, the opposition defensive line. If, on the other hand, Villas-Boas determines that the extra emphasis on wide attacking play in the Premier League demands that the Spurs wide players occupy deeper positions, it may be that 4-2-3-1 is capable of facilitating his preference for dynamic football, which values the space over possession. In that case, his priority must be to find a genuine number 10 to replace the much-missed brilliance of Luka Modric and Rafael Van Der Vaart, while also finding a more versatile wide threat in the mould of Bayern’s peerless duo of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
So much for not reading too much into pre-season friendlies!
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