A few years ago it was Tottenham who were accused by then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho of going to Stamford Bridge and parking the bus in front of goal. Now, as one of the Premier League’s leading lights, teams are going to White Hart Lane and employing the negative, defensive tactics that Spurs once put to good effect.
On Saturday it was the turn of visitors Wolves to nick a goal and defend for their lives, but they were just repeating the trick demonstrated by Stoke six weeks prior. Goals have rarely been a problem for Harry Redknapp’s side this season, the odd game against the top teams aside. An impressive 35 strikes have been registered in 16 league games, with 21 coming at home. The recent thumping of Wigan admittedly distorts the figures but on the whole Tottenham have not found it hard to hit the back of the net. One exception has been against teams that are capable of and determined to play an ultra-defensive game. What has been lacking from the Spurs set-up is the ability to unlock the sternest of defences.
Matters have not been helped by the injury lay-off to Tottenham’s creative trump card, Luka Modric. The Croatian made his comeback with a half-hour substitute appearance against Wolves but will need game time to get back up to speed. Giovani dos Santos, who has also been out injured, made a late return to fray as well, although his absence has arguably not been felt in the same way. Giovani has yet to really demonstrate why he was once mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Lionel Messi and Bojan Krkic at Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy. The writing was on the wall even before he joined Spurs as Barcelona would surely have been loathe to let go of such a talent so cheaply if he was not carrying either a lot of baggage or a bad attitude. A reborn Giovani could be the kind of maverick talent that could make the difference in tight but one-sided games. That does not look like being an option just yet.
A lot of Tottenham’s best attacking football comes from getting in behind the full-back or springing the offside trap with the pace of Jermain Defoe. Against teams such as Wigan who are much more comfortable trying to play an open game than they are at shutting up shop, there are opportunities aplenty for Spurs to cash in. It is not every team that is able to show the discipline required to defend for 90 minutes, but after receiving hammerings from Arsenal and Chelsea, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy must have felt he had no choice but to try. Kevin Doyle’s early goal had given them the chance to attempt this to win three points, rather than just come away with a draw, and they were able to frustrate the home side for the remaining 87 minutes.
The key to nullifying Tottenham is to cut off their main attacking routes. Playing a deeper defensive line makes it harder for Defoe and, if playing, Robbie Keane from getting in behind the back four. Suddenly, through balls have to be that bit more precise so as not to roll through to the goalkeeper who is closer to his backline. Packing the box with defenders makes it harder for Aaron Lennon to pick out his man with a cross, and even having the added height of Peter Crouch does not help if he is crowded out by two or more markers when the ball is delivered. Obviously a certain amount of luck is required, but like Stoke before them, Wolves made sure they threw their bodies at everything and got to the rebounding ball first with a clearance or block.
To counter these tactics, Spurs now need to work out their own game plan for breaking down ‘parked bus’ defences. The return to fitness of Modric will be the foundation for Redknapp to build on, with the Croat’s subtle manipulation of the ball in close quarters crucial when stubborn defensive locks need picking. Crouch is not a typical target man, but his size allied to his excellent touch can help him act as a link player with his back to goal, backed in against the centre-backs. If Modric and Crouch can work the ball intricately round corners into the small space left between a deep defence and goalkeeper, then the sharpness of finish supplied by Defoe and Keane in front of goal will do the rest. It is easier said than done, but this is the route Spurs need to go down if increasing numbers of teams opt for the Stoke and Wolves methodology at the Lane.