4-4-2 is the winning combination as Spurs overcome Blackburn
Blackburn Rovers 0, Tottenham 1
THE return of the Jermain Defoe-Peter Crouch partnership instantly paid off last night as an injury-ravaged Spurs side came roaring back into the race for the top four.
This may only have been three points, in a midweek programme which had already seen Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea emerge victorious.
But, having dropped away from the pack since the turn of the year, Tottenham showed all of the qualities at Ewood Park that they will need in the remainder of the campaign.
The Lilywhites travelled to Blackburn without Ledley King (groin), Younes Kaboul (knee), Michael Dawson (suspended), Tom Huddlestone (ankle), Gareth Bale (back), Luka Modric (appendicitis) and Steven Pienaar, who had suffered a concussion in training.
These were massive blows for a Tottenham outfit who had picked up two points from a possible nine in the league, and lost 4-0 at Fulham in the FA Cup in their last outing.
The Lilywhites had also failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their 16 away games this season, while Blackburn had won their last three matches at home.
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It was hard to see Spurs emerging victorious at the notoriously difficult Ewood Park, as Redknapp named two goalkeepers on the bench, along with Jonathan Woodgate – who has not played for 14 months – and new signing Bongani Khumalo.
However, Redknapp responded to the crisis with an ambitious line-up, and a return to the 4-4-2 system which served him so well throughout the last campaign.
Having persistently played 4-4-1-1 this season, with Rafael Van der Vaart playing off a lone striker, the Dutchman was moved to the right flank, and Crouch and Defoe started together for the first time since December 4, the 1-1 draw with Birmingham.
The effect was immediate, and with less than four minutes gone, Van der Vaart delivered a left-footed ball into the box, and Crouch rose above Chris Samba to direct an accurate header across Paul Robinson and inside the far post.
“It was a great goal from Crouchy, a fantastic ball,” said Harry Redknapp. “He pulled away and got above Samba, which is not an easy thing to do. He deserves that. He’s made a lot of goals for us this year without scoring that many, but he always puts a shift in and he deserved the goal.”
It was only the England striker’s second league goal of the season, with the first coming in the reverse fixture, the 4-2 win over Blackburn at White Hart Lane, in November.
On that occasion, Crouch had been partnered with Roman Pavlyuchenko, and the 6ft 7ins frontman admitted after that game that he is far more dangerous alongside another forward.
Here was further proof – and the same is certainly true of Defoe, who was given a clear sight of goal in the second half but shot straight at Robinson from 10 yards after a penetrating run from Aaron Lennon.
This was extra ammunition for those who are clamouring for a permanent return to 4-4-2 and the fact that Van der Vaart set up Crouch’s goal from the right flank was also telling, undermining the theory that the Dutchman needs a central role to be effective.
In actual fact, the former Real Madrid star had plenty of freedom anyway, often popping up on the left flank as he roamed around the field.
In many ways, this was a similar role to the one that Modric played for most of last season, when the Croatian started on the left of midfield but with the freedom to go in search of the ball.
Redknapp once suggested that Spurs were too open if Van der Vaart played in midfield, hence the move to 4-4-1-1, or 4-5-1 as some would call it.
And yet, with Crouch and Defoe up front and Van der Vaart in midfield last night, Spurs nevertheless kept their first clean sheet of the campaign away from White Hart Lane.
“We played an open team again. I played Rafa on the right, two strikers and Azza [Lennon] on the left, “said Redknapp. “You come to Blackburn and it’s a very open-looking team, but I felt that we had enough ability to take the game to them, and we got off to a great start.”
In fairness, Spurs’ clean sheet had very little to do with tactics. Instead, it was mostly due to repeated heroics from Heurelho Gomes and William Gallas, who somehow limped on to full-time, despite clearly struggling with his hip injury.
“If William’s struggling and he still played like that… I thought he was outstanding, yet again. He has been all year for us,” said Redknapp, who would have had to introduce Woodgate or Khumalo for their first appearance of the season if Gallas had left the fray.
“It was an important win for us. We’ve got to keep hanging on in there, keep trying to make the Champions League if we can, and it was important that we picked up three points here.”
It remains to be seen whether Redknapp will stick with this 4-4-2 system when Bale returns, but there is nevertheless plenty of reason for optimism going forward - a win on the road, a clean sheet away from home and strong performances from players who would probably not be in the first team if the entire squad was fit.
It was a great night for Tottenham, an encouraging night to confound those who were writing Spurs out of the race for the top four.
Meanwhile, Manchester City were held at Birmingham, leaving the Lilywhites five points behind Roberto Mancini’s outfit – and with a game in hand. This race is far from over.