Spurs 0 West Ham 0: So what went wrong at the Lane?
Champions League proves a distraction again as familiar tactical problem haunts Harry Redknapp
IF EVER If ever there was a case of looking too far ahead, and taking your eye off the ball, this was it – and it was so painfully predictable. The warning signs had been everywhere.
Just 24 hours before kick-off, Spurs were drawn against Real Madrid in a mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final, which dominated all of the build-up.
At lunchtime today, Tottenham fans gathered to debate how their side would fare against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, while leaflets were distributed which offered package deals for the away leg at the Bernabeu.
Inside the ground, the giant screens at both ends of White Hart Lane showed highlights of both legs against AC Milan, and Tottenham’s triumph over the seven-times European champions in the last 16.
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Meanwhile, inside the dressing room, Jermain Defoe donned a t-shirt saying ‘100 goals’ to celebrate his imminent 100th Tottenham goal, and simultaneously his 100th Premier League goal.
There was so much to cheer at midday today. The only problem was that the Lilywhites were not about to play Real Madrid, they were facing West Ham – and nobody had kicked a ball yet.
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Cue the inevitable return to reality. Ninety minutes later, Spurs had failed to beat relegation-threatened opposition for the third league game in succession, while Defoe had drawn a blank, having missed a hatful of chances.
Superstitious fans would have seen today’s disappointment coming a mile off – but Tottenham’s tactics were also to blame for the stalemate.
Rafael van der Vaart’s return to fitness gave Harry Redknapp a very familiar problem – how to incorporate the Dutchman into his side, and the 4-4-2 system which had been employed for the last few league matches in his absence?
The answer was a return to 4-4-1-1, with the ex-Madrid star playing as a second striker - a policy which has been flawed for much of the season, and proved to be again today.
That 4-4-1-1 system has worked in Europe, when Van der Vaart has played behind Peter Crouch, but it has not produced enough goals in the Premier League – particularly with Defoe at the pinnacle of the attack.
The last time this pair had started in tandem, Spurs lost 4-0 at Fulham in the FA Cup, and Redknapp had seemed to abandon the partnership once and for all. It was therefore strange to see it re-emerge today.
In its simplest form, the issue is that Spurs do not get enough players into the box to profit from the width and crosses that Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon offer.
Van der Vaart supposedly offers a link between midfield and attack but, by Redknapp’s own admission, the Holland international ‘wanders’ in search of action.
That was obvious today and, at one stage, he was clearly operating in central midfield, in and around the centre circle in a deeper-lying role to Luka Modric.
Whether that was agreed by management or not, it was counter-productive, turning Spurs’ system into a 4-5-1 formation, with Defoe isolated – at home, against a team lying in the bottom three.
That issue was only corrected with 20 minutes left, as Van der Vaart was replaced by Roman Pavlyuchenko, who made an immediate impact and tested Robert Green with a few rasping drives, in addition to improving Spurs’ hold-up play. The Russian’s introduction came far too late.
In fairness, the statistics suggest that Tottenham did enough to win, having enjoyed 26 shots on goal – 14 of them on target.
Spurs were certainly unlucky, having struck the woodwork three times and drawn the very best from Green – particularly when the ex-England keeper tipped a Bale free kick onto the bar at full stretch.
However, the best teams do enough to eliminate fortune from the equation, and Spurs have had too many of these games recently.
Ultimately, they have not been clinical enough, which will only add fuel to the suggestion that the Lilywhites are missing a world-class striker - Defoe did little to prove that he is that man, particularly when he missed an open goal from six yards.
He and his team-mates may reflect that it just wasn’t their day – but at the moment, when it comes to the league at least, it never is.