Why AVB’s facing the same catch-22 situation as Redknapp at Spurs
PUBLISHED: 11:58 20 March 2013 | UPDATED: 20:42 20 March 2013
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For Tottenham fans, the desperate feelings of déjà vu are increasing by the day – the final stretch is in sight and the wheels seem to be falling off for the third season in a row.
Of course, Spurs are still fourth and their destiny is in their own hands. But, like the last campaign, the Lilywhites appear to be running out of steam, their lead over Arsenal is diminishing - and their manager is denying that fatigue is an issue.
Last April it was Harry Redknapp, who said: “If people keep telling players they’re tired, they’ll believe it. The pitches they train and play on now are unbelievable. It’s not like days gone by when teams were playing ankle deep in mud.
“Most of these players have had 30 games and I’ve rotated where I can in the Europa League and in the FA Cup. I don’t remember people like Bobby Moore or Dave Mackay complaining about how many games they’ve played.”
Redknapp was understandably criticised by a number of the Tottenham fans for those comments and, as his popularity declined, they contributed to the view that the 66-year-old was out of touch and that his methods were out-dated.
As the dust settled following the disastrous end to the campaign, Redknapp’s lack of rotation and his reliance on a small group of favourites was seen as one of his biggest and costliest failings.
Andre Villas-Boas was expected to bring a more modern approach, and a greater appreciation of the importance of the squad.
In his first press conference the Portuguese was asked to clarify whether he intended to play a stronger team in the Europa League.
He replied: “I’m going to choose regarding what I see in training – and what I see in training has always been my decisive factor in the team that I select.
“It doesn’t mean that for you guys that it’s the better squad, but for me it’s always the better squad at that moment based on what I see.”
The implication was that the ‘first team’ would be a much more fluid concept than it was under Redknapp, and such an approach was widely welcomed by the Tottenham faithful - but it has not really become a reality.
Villas-Boas has rotated his defence throughout the campaign but he has generally stuck with the same midfielders whenever they have been fit, with the only changes being enforced due to injury.
Sandro was in the starting XI for 13 games in a row in all competitions between November 11 and January 1 – shortly before he was ruled out for the rest of the season – and Aaron Lennon, Scott Parker, Mousa Dembele and Gareth Bale then started nine of the following 10 games together. The sequence was only ended when Lennon was injured against Inter Milan.
That consistency helped Spurs to claim third spot – just as it did last season. No-one was criticising Redknapp last February, when they were 10 points clear of Arsenal, and no-one was questioning Villas-Boas two weeks ago when Spurs beat Arsenal to establish a seven-point lead and then thumped Inter Milan 3-0 at the Lane.
Now, however, the issues surrounding rotation and fatigue are emerging again as the displays begin to dip and the injuries start to mount.
Tiredness naturally becomes more of a problem later in the game, and later in the season. So is it a coincidence that Spurs lost their concentration, made individual errors and threw away the lead at Anfield three days after their Europa League triumph over Inter Milan?
Is it a coincidence that Tottenham have just put in two of their worst performances of the season against Inter and Fulham, and suffered their worst run of results under Villas-Boas?
Is it plausible that the likes of Dembele, Parker and Gylfi Sigurdsson were fresh to face Fulham, having played 120 minutes at the San Siro just three days previously?
Villas-Boas seems to think so: “I don’t think it was a question of fatigue,” he said on Sunday evening.
Then again, the manager can hardly admit that his players are struggling when he has spent the entire season insisting that they can handle the double challenge of the Europa League and the Premier League.
Earlier this month he said: “I think what Tottenham have shown is contrary to a lot of science, or science fiction. There is enough time to rest between Thursday and a Sunday game.”
Two weeks on, it would be an embarrassing climb-down for Villas-Boas to concede that last week’s exertions at the San Siro caused the costly home defeat against Fulham, which has undermined their primary goal of Champions League qualification.
However, his refusal to acknowledge the effect of that 120-minute match in Italy makes it look like he is sticking his head in the sand, as Redknapp did last year.
While Sigurdsson attempted to follow his manager’s lead at the weekend, he virtually admitted that the Spurs players were tired against Fulham.
“I don’t want to be making any excuses but obviously the 120 minutes from last Thursday night probably played a bit of a part,” he said. “But apart from that we could have played better, even if we would have been tired. It could be a factor but we’ve got to make sure we’re fresh and ready for the next game.
Sigurdsson added: “It just never got going, it was almost as if everyone was just a bit down. There wasn’t enough energy or movement. There was just something missing from our game, normally we’re a lot better than this.”
A “lack of energy” sounds a lot like tiredness, and the concern is that performances will continue to drop and players will continue to succumb to injury as they maintain their challenge on two fronts in the Europa League and Premier League.
Yet, despite all of this, it is hard to see what Villas-Boas could have done differently this season.
Like Redknapp, the lack of strength in depth has left him in a catch-22 situation, understanding the need to rotate but also fearing that Spurs’ reserves will be unable to have the same impact as their senior colleagues.
There is some justification for that apprehension. Spurs’ last sticky spell in October and November coincided with Dembele’s absence and, when he was last omitted from the starting line-up, the Lilywhites crashed out of the FA Cup at Leeds.
By the same token, Lennon’s recent absence has underlined his importance to the side, and resting Bale has been unthinkable given his regular match-winning performances.
It is easy to criticise a lack of rotation at this stage, but how many people would have swapped Dembele for Tom Huddlestone or Jake Livermore during the 12-match unbeaten run in the Premier League, when things were going so well and the stability was paying dividends?
Had Villas-Boas done so, there is every chance that a weakened side would have dropped points, leaving the side fresher at this stage but less well-placed in the table.
At the same time, there are reasonable questions for Villas-Boas to answer. Given that Spurs paid £1.5million to hasten Lewis Holtby’s arrival in January, why did he not start against Liverpool, Inter or Fulham last week?
Was it wise to play 32-year-old Parker for the full 90 minutes against Fulham, given that he had also played all 120 minutes at the San Siro in midweek?
Ultimately, Villas-Boas may have arrived at Tottenham with the intention to play the squad game, but he has found himself adopting the same tactics as Redknapp, to the extent that he is now arguing that he can get away with fielding his strongest team in every game without the fear of fatigue.
Unfortunately, the evidence now suggests otherwise and, as Redknapp discovered last year, ignoring the problem does not make it go away.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs