How will Spurs resolve their big tactical dilemma?
Harry Redknapp’s failure to land a new striker means he must once again weigh his desire to play two strikers against the contribution of Rafael van der Vaart.
When Tottenham finished their campaign against Birmingham on May 22, few could have imagined that, almost three months on, Harry Redknapp would be facing the same tactical dilemma which dogged Spurs throughout last season.
With no sign of a messianic new number nine, the Lilywhites boss has an all-too familiar decision to make, both in the short-term against Everton – if the game goes ahead – and in the longer term for the upcoming campaign as a whole.
The question is simple but vital: What is Tottenham’s best formation? What is the best system for this Spurs side, the crucial combination which will take the north Londoners back into the Champions League? 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1?
Redknapp has generally opted for 4-4-2 during his career, and that system paid off in his first full season at White Hart Lane, as Tottenham finally finished in the top four.
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Having reunited Peter Crouch with Jermain Defoe, the manager was quickly rewarded as the pair struck up their familiar big man-small man partnership, netting 26 league goals between them in 2009/10.
It was a profitable pairing, but the dynamic suddenly changed last summer with Rafael van der Vaart’s deadline day arrival.
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The Dutchman went on to score 15 goals in all competitions, leading the club’s goalscoring charts in his first season from his favourite position as a ‘second striker’ – but the impact on Crouch and Defoe was plain for all to see.
The new 4-4-1-1 formation meant there was only room for one out-and-out striker, destroying their partnership and forcing them to adapt their games to suit the new signing.
The result was that they mustered just four league goals apiece, a shadow of their input in the previous campaign.
While target man Crouch was involved in a high proportion of Van der Vaart’s goals, he often became isolated as the lone front man, attempting to fight for long, high balls against both of the opposing centre-backs.
Meanwhile, Defoe’s diminutive frame meant he was ill-suited to his new role of holding the ball up alone.
Roman Pavlyuchenko offered a better blend of pace and strength, and the Russian mustered 14 goals in all competitions, but his frustrating inconsistency limited his number of starts.
Despite the added goals of Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale, the Lilywhites scored 12 league goals less than they had managed in 2009/10, netting 10 less in their home fixtures compared to the previous campaign.
Spurs consequently drew just as many Premier League games as they won at White Hart Lane (nine) – the difference between fourth place and fifth.
As striker coach Les Ferdinand said recently: “Yes we had a bad season in that respect, but for most of the season we have only played with one striker up front and Van der Vaart.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of continuity and we’ve not really had that within the strike force. Jermain was injured for a long time and never really found his form when he came back.
“Then Harry had a problem with Peter and Pav in deciding which one would be better to play alongside Rafa. It was a bit different to the season before and we will address that.”
Crouch also had his say last season, admitting his preference for a 4-4-2 formation after belatedly scoring his first league goal of the season against Blackburn Rovers in November – when he was paired with Pavlyuchenko.
“Obviously I’ve been playing with Rafa quite a bit. I think a lot of the time when you’re playing one up and Rafa just off me it’s quite hard,” he said.
“You’re up against two centre-halves and invariably a lot of the space is opening up for other people, because you’re taking defenders away and trying to hold up play and bring others in. I think with another striker up there it certainly makes my job a lot easier.”
Fast forward to Saturday’s final friendly against Athletic Bilbao and the debate over Tottenham’s formation was as relevant as ever.
With Van der Vaart out of action through injury, Redknapp opted for a 4-5-1 formation in the first half, with Steven Pienaar bolstering the central midfield, and Pavlyuchenko operating up front alone.
The result was an uninspiring 45 minutes, and a 1-0 deficit at the break. Redknapp rang the changes, switching to 4-4-2 and bringing Defoe, Crouch and Bale on together at the break.
Within 10 minutes both forwards had scored, finishing from close range after low crosses from Bale and Aaron Lennon – and Spurs went on to win 2-1.
It was an enticing glimpse of a possible Tottenham line-up, with the pacemen consistently rattling the ball into the danger area to feed two out-and-out strikers – but it was hard to forget the man who wasn’t there, last season’s top scorer.
So how to proceed when competitive action resumes, and Van der Vaart returns to the squad?
Would Redknapp drop the ex-Real Madrid star to restore the Crouch-Defoe axis? Can Van der Vaart fit into a 4-4-2 system? Or will the Spurs boss opt for the 4-4-1-1 formation which was preferred last season? These are old questions for a new season.
We will have to wait for the manager’s decision, but the answer is likely to reveal his plans for the season – and it may just define Tottenham’s campaign.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs