Weak spine leaves Spurs looking painfully predictable
It is rarely a good sign when absent or departed players are being discussed just as much as those who are on the field, but the holes in the Tottenham side are there for all to see.
A star’s reputation can often be enhanced when they are missing, and that is certainly the case with Mousa Dembele, who has been out of action since the last international break.
Spurs have won every Premier League game when the talented Belgian has started. Having come off the bench to score the equaliser in the 1-1 draw against Norwich at White Hart Lane on his debut, the 25-year-old was a key figure in the back-to-back top-flight victories over Reading, QPR, Manchester United and Aston Villa.
However, he aggravated a long-term hip injury with Belgium - and it is probably not a coincidence that Tottenham’s form has dipped sharply since then.
The Lilywhites have lost four of their last seven games in all competitions, with their victories coming against lowly Southampton and Maribor.
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That is largely due to a lack of creativity which has been painfully apparent in the last two league outings against Wigan and Manchester City – Spurs’ only goal in those 180 minutes came from a set piece as Steven Caulker came up from the back to head past Joe Hart on Sunday.
The 3-1 European victory over Maribor offered a brief glimpse of Spurs at their exhilarating best, with Gareth Bale showing off his pace and the accuracy of his crossing.
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But the game plan against the Slovenian champions was clear: look wide at every opportunity and beat the visitors down the flanks.
Spurs showed little interest in playing through the middle - mostly because they did not need to, but also because they are struggling to do so.
Bale was the star man against Maribor, and it was the same story against a second-string Norwich side in the Capital One Cup, and to a large extent away at Southampton – Tottenham looked most threatening down the flanks.
The problem is that such an approach is very one-dimensional and predictable and the top teams – or even average Premier League teams with their first-choice XI – are perfectly capable of stopping it.
As Wigan and Man City have proved, if you can shackle Spurs’ wingers – mainly Bale – then Tottenham look worryingly toothless.
Put simply, Andre Villas-Boas’ side do not seem to have the talent, the guile or the combinations to cut through the middle of an opponent. Their only option is to go around the outside, and everybody knows it.
This brings us back to Dembele, a valuable offensive force who is capable of beating a man in the centre of the field to make an initial incision or score a goal out of nowhere – as he proved with his strike against Norwich.
He is being sorely missed, and he is not the only one. Suddenly, the names of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart are being whispered again.
Suddenly, Spurs fans are returning to the botched deadline day bid for Joao Moutinho, and chairman Daniel Levy’s summer transfer business is back under the microscope.
The loss of Van der Vaart is certainly being felt at the moment, given the concerning chasm between Spurs’ holding midfielders and the frontman.
Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey have taken turns in the No10 role, but neither has been able to replace the Dutchman – a talented linkman who had scored seven goals in all competitions by this stage last season.
By contrast, Sigurdsson has scored two – against Carlisle and Maribor – and he has offered little to the general play. Indeed, his best performance at White Hart Lane has been in Swansea colours, when he scored against the Lilywhites in April.
Dempsey has also struggled in his withdrawn role behind the striker, and was guilty of losing possession time and again at the Etihad on Sunday – a major reason why Spurs struggled to build a platform in City’s half throughout the game.
When combined with Dembele’s absence, that issue has left Spurs with a brittle spine to their team – plenty of sweat but no spark – and that is unlikely to change against Arsenal this weekend.
Villas-Boas could play Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe together again, as he did so successfully against Maribor at the Lane.
But, as he said about City, Arsenal are “four steps up in the level of competition” compared to the Slovenians, and the Portuguese will understandably be loath to open up his side and expose his midfield further at the Emirates.
A fresh approach may be needed at some stage though because, whether it is due to transfers, injuries, tactics, fatigue or individual failings, Tottenham have been on a downward curve since the last international break.
There is no shame in losing away at the Etihad against the champions of England. But, when the uninspiring, lacklustre performance is combined with other recent displays and results, there is some cause for concern.
Saturday’s north London derby provides the perfect opportunity for redemption – as Arsenal proved last season when their 5-2 victory transformed their season.
However, if Spurs lose their third league game in a row, the boo boys at White Hart Lane will have plenty of ammunition ahead of the home game against West Ham.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs