After the highs of Champions League victories over both Milan clubs, Werder Bremen and FC Twente, Tottenham Hotspur’s 2010/11 Premier League campaign will end in the disappointment of missing out on next season’s competition and potentially European action altogether. Following their defeat in what amounted to a Champions League qualification play-off in midweek against Manchester City, Spurs lie in sixth, two points behind their opponents on Sunday, Liverpool, and an unassailable nine points adrift of City.
It is a stark contrast to this point last season, when, with two games still to play, Tottenham sat fourth, poised to confirm their place in next year’s Champions League third qualifying round, having just beaten Bolton Wanderers 1-0, the same scoreline by which they would defeat City to end the contest a few days later. In 2010, after 36 league games Spurs had won 20, drawn seven and lost nine for a total of 67 points. Today, Spurs have won 14, drawn 14 and lost eight for a total 56 points, an 11 point drop brought about by six fewer victories. The goals column tells a similar story – in 2009/2010, Spurs scored 64 goals and conceded 37 in 36 games. In 2009/10, that number drops to 51 for and rises to 45 against, equating to respective goal differences of +21 and +6.
If the bare facts tell the in-depth story, a more vivid contrast can be seen in some of Spurs’ selected results from last year and this. Against their primary fourth-place challengers Liverpool and Manchester City, last season Tottenham picked up six points from the Manchester side, winning 3-0 at White Hart Lane and 1-0 at Eastlands. This season Spurs managed only a point, a 0-0 home draw and the 1-0 defeat last week. Results against Liverpool may yet prove the same – last season was a 2-1 home victory, as was this season, and a 2-0 defeat at Anfield with this year’s return leg still to come.
A broader sense of the disparity between 2009/10 and 2010/11 can perhaps be seen in the results against Wigan Athletic. Last season included the infamous 9-1 drubbing at White Hart Lane – a result which partly accounts for the higher goal difference – and a 3-0 victory at the DW Stadium. This season saw Spurs fail to score against the relegation strugglers, drawing 0-0 on the road and losing 1-0 at home. While there are surely mitigating circumstances around both sets results – especially the Latics desire to make up for last year’s mauling this season – the change in fortune sums up Spurs’ season as a whole.
Fewer points gained and goals scored are merely symptoms, however, of whatever has ailed Tottenham this season, and not the cause. A common suggestion for Spurs’ perceived poorer performance this season is the number of games played. Tottenham played 50 games in 2009/10, and while they did indeed play more games in 2010/11, it was not a substantial number – just three.
The figures breakdown as so: Tottenham played 38 league games, eight FA Cup games and four League Cup games in 2009/10, compared to 2010/11’s 38 league games (two yet to be played), two FA Cup games, one League Cup game and 12 Champions League games. The run to the FA Cup semi-final in 2009/10, which encompassed three replays, meant Spurs played a similar number of games last season as they will this. The totals suggest that the difference was not the number of games played but rather the intensity of the games they did play, but such a thing is impossible to quantify and remains conjecture.
What is for certain is that of Spurs’ five outfield players who played the most minutes during 2009/10, each has spent less time on the field this season. Indeed, of each year’s top six, only goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was a present in both – and even he has played 174 minutes fewer in 2010/11. From a top five outfield players of Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson, Wilson Palacios, Sebastian Bassong and Jermain Defoe, Spurs this season have a top five of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, William Gallas and Aaron Lennon. Any drop off or improvement in quality is subjective but it does illustrate the changes in the side that reached the Champions League last season to the side that failed to do so this season.
Defoe’s lack of playing time would partly explain his, and therefore, Tottenham’s, scoring problems, going from 24 in all competitions last season to nine this season. However, Spurs’ other strikers have each netted a similar amount, while Rafael van der Vaart has more to his name than the departed Robbie Keane and Gareth Bale scored only three times last season compared to 11 this. Bale, however, has not scored since January 1, and in fact has only completed 90 minutes on seven occasions since that1-0 win over Fulham, from a possible 22. The difference in goal scoring comes not only from Defoe’s lower tally but from the team as a whole – the extra goals scored by van der Vaart and Bale should have accounted for Defoe’s missing goals, but Niko Kranjcar went from scoring eight times last season to only twice this season, having played much fewer games, and the four goals of David Bentley were not replicated by Steven Pienaar. In total, Spurs have managed 80 goals so far, from 16 different scorers and three own goals, to 96 goals last year, from 20 different scorers and two own goals.
Last year’s top five most used players played a cumulative 16,710 minutes of football – this season’s have, so far, played 16,823 – to be expected, given the additional games, perhaps, but Harry Redknapp last year used 40 players in his 50 games. This season the manager has used 34, a figure that could rise in the final two games but may not match or overtake last year’s number, and already includes Kyle Walker’s three minutes and Jonathan Woodgate’s 31.
Tactical reasons, loss of form or new signings could play a major part in the change in personnel. However, Dawson, Huddlestone and Defoe all spent extended periods injured, and, while Palacios has struggled for fitness lately he was not a regular even before then. Both the Honduran and Sebastien Bassong have been left out for reasons of tactics, form or competition, and both had new faces to compete with – Palacios was joined in midfield by Sandro and van der Vaart while Bassong was displaced by William Gallas at centre-back. Even when Dawson was injured, Bassong was not guaranteed a place as Younes Kaboul featured regularly in the England international’s absence.
In 2009/10, Dawson and Bassong partnered each other 22 times, with a Dawson-King axis in second-place with 12 outings – no other pairing had more than 10 appearances together. This season has seen a much more confused defence, with Dawson and Gallas starting 17 times, Kaboul and Gallas nine times, Dawson and Bassong six times and Gallas and Bassong five times. The 2009/10 Dawson-King alliance proved formidable, conceding just 0.77 goals a game, while Dawson and Gallas have conceded 1.29 goals a game in 2010/11 and Ledley King has gone from playing 1,637 minutes last season to just 584 this season.
King’s example is perhaps the most striking of what appears a greater problem for Tottenham this year, and could give an insight as to why last season ended in Champions League qualification and this season might not even yield a Europa League place. The players that clinched fourth place last year are, by and large, not the same ones who missed out this year – struck down by injuries, crowded out by competition or benched due to poor performances. Redknapp has called on fewer players, while playing more games against better opposition requiring greater mental and physical in