Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Magnificent Seven - Deconstructing the Tottenham midfield conundrum - Part I

Palacios. Modric. Jenas. Zokora. Huddlestone. Taarabt. O'Hara
. Seven players. One massive conundrum, as puzzling to us in the same way a Rubik's Cube would be for a blind monkey. Why do we persistently struggle with the central midfield pairing and how do we go about resolving it? Signing Wilson Palacios might allow for some sustained consistency but who is best paired up with him? Where should Modric play - central or left-wing? Can Jenas ever offer us whatever it is he's meant to offer? Is Huddlestone too slow to command first team selection and have a team built (orbit) around him? Has Zokora found his true calling elsewhere in the starting line-up? And what of Jamie O'Hara and his big Lilywhite heart but limited abilities?

Where do we even begin to unearth the answers? Most of the questions might be redundant come the summer anyway as Harry chops and changes the team to his liking. But the fact remains we find ourselves in this current predicament and a working partnership still needs to be formulated in the centre of the park.

So let's go back in time a little bit to where it all began (to go wrong).

Part I - How do you solve a problem like Carrick ?

Ever since Michael Carrick moved onto pastures new and claimed a new founded personal annoyance of having to polish loads of silver around the house, we've gone back to the drawing board more times than Rolf Harris. And all we ever manage is a badly illustrated scribble of Mickey Mouse which looks more like a duck. Slightly roasted.

Why is it such a monumental task of impossibility for our little club in N17 to plug the gaping holes? There's no doubting our efforts to plug said holes. We throw money into them. In all the years we've been crying out for a true left-winger, we've done the same with our fabled dreams of a defensive midfielder. A 'most wanted' player to marshal the centre-park with authority and menace. We've never really managed to pick up either. Capable players have worn the Lilywhite shirt (Mendes) and others have struggled with injuries (Sean Davis). Whereas some have been below average (KPB) or far too erratic (Ghaly).

Carrick of course was never an out-and-out 'DM' himself when at the Lane. He does have some wonderful defensive capabilities. His knack of nicking the ball away before the need to tackle is something many of the overly passionate missed in his early Spurs days when it was simply easier (and incorrect) to bemoan his apparent lack of getting stuck in. Carrick would sweep up and orchestrate proceedings as he assisted the team to push forward with intent. His passing was (is) top drawer. He positively glowed with quality. Hence his departure to Manchester United and guaranteed winners medals.

Our sun had gone supernova and replaced by a black hole.

So who did we turn too in our hour of need? Carrick was spellbinding for us in his final season, which saw us famously lose 4th spot at the death. We got around £18M - £20M for him. He wanted to leave, he made no secret of the fact, and never lied about it or his ambitions. With Davids having added bite and experience to our midfield that season, we had what you might consider to be a backbone. A pretty decent one. It was no surprise to see us perform so well.

Throughout my life as a Spurs fan, the club (on the pitch) has been defined simply by the following:

- Flair players, with shirts tucked out
- Free flowing, beautiful football
- Loads of Cup silverware
- Bit of a soft touch (i.e. no backbone)

The spirit of a David Mackay or Graham Roberts has been missing from our starting line-ups far too many times over the past decade and a bit. We've much preferred to splash money out on what people (fans and the media) expect from us. Luxury players, who are only luxury because the rest of the team structure lacks the right amount of balance to accommodate them. Superfluous signings are quintessentially Tottenham when something far more basic and unsexy is the sometimes the answer.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating a little with that assessment. The likes of Ginola and Gascoigne are definitive Spurs players and I'm glad we saw them in a Spurs shirt. But there has been times when we've had players worthy of winning silverware but no backbone to support them. Which is why as a soft touch we never appear to do much in the sustained challenge that league football offers.

Considering we have an outstanding tradition in playing football (in the purest sense of how football should be played) and a ridiculous list of uber-talented players dating all the way back to the 1950's - you can probably ask yourself what if someone had built a Spurs side that combined the best of both worlds rather than always siding with the romantic notion of beautiful football?

It's easy for anyone to say 'what if' and then lay claim for the missing pieces of the jigsaw. We got away with the gaping holes until mediocrity reigned supreme and injections of a Ginola or Gazza were not enough to see us progress (other than Cup Final wins) so we stuttered through the mid-90's and into the new century badly lagging behind the Top 4.

The renaissance under Martin Jol was an indication that plugging in the right players means things can tick along splendidly. One player out of synch could result with the whole team being lopsided. And once that happens, it can so easily come apart.

So with Carrick gone, the replacement had to be one of two things. And this is just an opinion, as I'm sure some of you will have your own:

1) A direct replacement

Obviously, finding a Carrick clone was never going to happen. But drafting in a similar style of footballer (a good passer of the ball, good vision, good defensive qualities, steady, reliable and consistent) was an option. If one could be found. There wasn't it seems any available in the UK that fitted the bill, but that's going on the assumption that Comolli and Jol were looking for a player of the exact same ilk.

2) An out-and-out defensive midfielder

DM is arguably interpreted in many ways depending on personal opinion. Is a DM the same thing as a holding midfielder? Well yes, except you'll still hear people say that Carrick is a combination of both or more so the latter with one or two offensive weapons in his locker (ooh) too. Even though, fundamentally both have a duty to protect the defence and to help out the midfield and forwards. So a DM is the same as a holding midfielder. Right? It's just a different descriptive label for the same thing. Right? The reason I'm banging on about this is because of the amount of discussions/arguments I've heard debating the differences between certain players who play in the central midfield position that is not the attacking position (catchy). If you get a player who does more in said position than the next bloke, it's probably because he is simply a better footballer.

Much like House music is broken down into countless genres and sub-genres, the same could be applied for this much maligned midfield role. Carrick would fall into the Progressive House category. Plenty of peaks and layers, bringing them together to drive forward some good solid movement.

For the sake of this discussion and article, by out-and-out I'm simply referring to the Roy Keane stable of midfielders. Loads of bite, someone you can count on in a battle and (to retain an element of the Tottenham way without going off in the complete opposite direction - i.e. Robbie Savage) a player who can pass the ball. Offence is the best form of defence, right?

Zokora's movement is unsurpassed

Now this basis of the exact type of player required to fill the void will be the responsibility of manager and director of football. How do Spurs push on from here with minimum impact to the teams performance? Carrick is gone so do we want to continue playing the same type of system or do we have to adapt accordingly? It's the latter. Simply because every player is unique. Not trying to teach you to suck eggs with that particular understatement. No matter who or what you bring in as a replacement, the team balance will alter from 'ever so slightly' all the way down to 'Oh my God the humanity!' depending on the choice.

We don't have the obvious quality that Utd and Liverpool and Chelsea have in this 'DM' position. So when we lose a player like Carrick, its a serious issue. Arsenal have struggled this season with their obvious lack of depth in centre midfield. And going back to when Carrick departed, we had to make sure it was not detrimental to the teams progress.

Hmm. Yeah. I know.

So basically - the replacement would either be a 'conductor' who could still get forward and create something either with a pass or a dinking run as well as completing his holding role or a more traditional DM who would get stuck in, bite the ankles of opposing players and generally do all the dirty work and graft allowing the more skilful creative players the time, freedom and space to do their thing.

What Jol and Comolli did was sign Didier Zokora.

Zoko had performed with much acclaim during the African Nations cup. He looked good and at £8M, a steal. Here's someone who appeared to have an abundance of energy and authority. Could tackle and thus although not as subtle and clever as Carrick - still a player with some midfield clout. The one evident (and worrying aspect) was his passing. Or lack of. Add to it his lack of goals also. But many still saw this as a major coup.

So there was no direct replacement for Carrick in the strictest sense of the word. Didier and Michael might be grouped under the DM stable, but both are very different which meant the team would need to adapt and evolve into something a little bit different. But such was the importance and productivity of Carrick, Zokora was always doomed to fail.

If Didier Zokora was House music he'd be Minimal. Repetitive glitches and bleeps and some sporadic melodic moments now and again.

What we have at the present moment in time is a nifty little dancer who is infinitely better at right-back than in central midfield. I'm not blaming Zokora for the teams frailties. He was apparently (if you believe the press) courted by several 'big clubs' before accepting our offer. I spent the first season making excuses claiming 'he needs time to bed in'. He was no Carrick (who also took a little time to settle the nerves of the Spurs boo-boys) but he was also not the player many had watched and admired at international level. He was at times clumsy in his manner.

Zokora doesn't appear to excel at anything in particular when tasked with bossing the midfield area. Yes - he has put in some outstanding shifts in his time at WHL including a purple patch or two. And even recently he appeared to improve (possibly the arrival of Wilson played a part in that). But he can't pass the ball to save his life and his positional sense is poor and, well, he isn't the best tackler of the ball either. He simply doesn't dominate the midfield in any way that would help support the players around him. Now that might have a lot to do with the fact that Spurs always have a mish-mash of players that don't quite compliment each other. Bit like building something you see on Blue Peter with random items you'd usually just bin. Ends up looking snazzy, but at the end of the day it's just made up of rubbish.

And as Carrick famously stated, players at Spurs (during his time) didn't do their utmost to improve themselves by competing with team mates. So Zokora has never actually improved in any way since signing. Whether that's because he can't or because the Tottenham Disease is still evident, I don't know.

As mentioned earlier, it's not the fault of Zokora. And his effort can't be faulted when he is on the pitch. Great athlete. In a more disciplined position like right-back where his responsibilities are more defined, he has been a revelation. He can defend, work well with his team mates, and push forward with intent.

So why can't he do the same in midfield? Simply put? Didier has no footballing brain. The engine room of the team doesn't just need a grafter, it needs someone who can finely tune the nuts and bolts and unclog any parts that stop working. Zokora spends far too much time on a tea break. Sure, we love it when he just runs forward like an unstoppable locomotive. There are aspects of his play you almost admire and smile at. But its endearing and not exactly the foundation to build your midfield on.

Making things doubly difficult during this period of change was that as lauded as Carrick was for his holding play, he was far more than a guardian of our defence holding back the freedom for opposing players to run amok. He was also a deep-laying playmaker. By virtue of defending, he'd set our players off in the opposite direction. His Hoddlesque passing and quick thinking made us tick. When he left for Utd, we didn't just lose one player. We lost the man with two brains and gained a man with half of one.

What happened next? Not a lot.

Part II will follow in the next couple of days with a look at JJ's role in the Spurs midfield.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding read.

Anonymous said...

Monster stuff. I think most would agree that Zokora was no Carrick replacement. Took a few steps back that signing but I can't help but admire him in the right back position. Appears so accomplished back there.

Lookin forward to the Jenas analysis.

filthy said...

Spooky is back on the medication.I'm liking it.

Carrick was immense for Spurs. I'd honestly say losing him has had the most negative impact of any player who has moved on in the past several seasons. Think Palacios will bring that DM quality to the squad that Zokora has failed to provide and would settle for Modric in the middle. In fact - just build the team around Luka. It's the only way forward with the players we have currently.

Anonymous said...

There is no difference between a def mid and a holding mid.

Anonymous said...

Absolutley brilliant article, spot on.

Anonymous said...

im curious as to how many of you really felt this way when we sold carrick? for me... when he was here... he didnt seem to to it week in week out. good player, but never put him down as the 1 man we couldnt afford to lose!
also... quick question.... did we finish 5th without Carrick?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the guy above...

all this carrick love seems to have come way after he left. he didnt get the 'cum in your pants' acclaim you are spouting when he was here.

Otherwise Levy would have paid him what he wanted and he wouldnt have left. He wasnt desperate. He just wanted a better contract.

We lost our direction when Davids left. A born winner and a drive of others, someone who has won something. Getting rid of him was a mistake. Fat cunt Jol should have been man enough to take Davids criticism of his coaching on his double chin.

Fat Jol gave us success and then couldnt man manage his way to continuing it....

Anonymous said...

Carrick was one of those guys who you only appreciate when he is not around. Jol raved about him many many times. Anyway Palacios is a must in our midfield. We already seem a lot better since he has come in. I think the midfield we are currently playing - Modric, Palacios, Jenas and Lennon is our best one. Still not very balanced but I would play these 4 every game if they are all fit.

Anonymous said...

Don't agree with the guy who says Carrick just wanted more money. utd came calling and he wanted to go.

JimmyG2 said...

JJ is like Carrick in that we wont miss till he's gone (obviously). Nobody likes him,except me, and I dont like him all the time.
Gritty stuff Spooks and an analysis of House Music thrown in for free.
Like most Spurs fans I hope that Huddleston is the man to step up but he's fluffed his lines on several occasions this sesason. I still believe he can do it but now would be a good time.
Bit worried about Palacios as we are pinning too much on his relatively experienced shoulders and his performances apart from Arsenal have been average.

Oracle said...

Ok, firstly, enough of this supposed 'Carrick would have stayed had Spurs offered him the right amount of money'. He didn't sign a new contract because he wanted out. He used us as a stepping stone. Also as much as Davids was a major influence on the training ground he wasn't as great on it as he was off it. Carrick was instrumental and under-rated for a long time before people appreciated what he did. So what if he wasn't fireworks and explosions like some players are. he was steady, reliable and effective.

West Stand Bagel said...

Palacios has not been too impressive in recent weeks. Sure it's just a lull. He needs to be storming come Sunday away to Villa otherwise we will get out-worked and out-run in midfield.

As for the article, great read Spooky. Do agree that going from Carrick to Zokora was a mighty fall. But surprised you ommitted the influence Davids had on the team.

Anonymous said...

Carrick was outstanding and any Spurs fan who failed to see that is well...blind.

Anonymous said...

To the person who asked whether we finished 5th without Carrick - do you really need reminding of the difference between that season and the one beforehand? We nicked 5th in the latter, we practically owned 4th the season before. Until you know what happened.


Yiddogray said...

Great read - but JJ has a spot in our midfield?

Anonymous said...

Why wasn't Bentley mentioned? Absolutely agree that we miss Carrick- it appears to be taking two to three players to replace him which is more than the Millions we made from him.

Jep said...

Bentley in central midfield?


The Machine said...

Another great article Spooky. Although I doubt it wont be too long before the insanity crawls back into your writing.

Shelf Side Warrior said...

Davids impact was important but he was stop-gap, a motivator of sorts based on his reputation. Carrick should have been the future.

Sick of listening to people say he would have stayed and it was Levys fault. That's a myth. He was always going to move on. Maybe had we qualified for the champs league things would have turned out different. Typical that some Spurs don't rate him for the work he did.

Anonymous said...

The reason were in the desperate situation we find ourselves is for one reason and one reason only.....OUR much as alot of you will claim they spend money, back managers blah blah blah......the sad fact of the matter is this, they have the brain of a monkey turning an organ grinder, only wanting to see money coming in to the club and not having the savvy to see that stability ultimately brings success, which in turn brings in even more money.....if they never got rid of Martin Jol, had backed him to the hilt instead of siding with Berbatov (he's the reason they sacked Jol btw), let him carry on doing his job (I think we all agree he was our best manager since Berkinshaw now), I truly believe we would be the ones sitting in a Champions league position....

The Machine said...

Aye, agree with the above. Jol would have got over his choking of big games eventually. Considering how long we had to wait to see a Spurs team compete again, we could have held out a little longer, but internal politics and no grasp on reality (and paitence) meant that player power won the day with the Berba soap opera.

Anonymous said...

Amen to the machine's funny but everyone seems to forget that the year we were 4th for most of it til we choked at the end, we had NO BERBATOV..........u really think the extra few million we ended up getting for him by keeping him and then playing silly bugbers with Man U helped us in any way....we can all see not!!!

I pray pray we get bought out and the new owners bring back Martin Jol, he loved our club with a passion and made sure every player who wore the shirt, wore it with a sense of pride and a understanding of just what it means to be a Spurs different it would have been if they had just listened to the man when he asked for Petrov (which I believe if we did get Berba might have stayed) and Elano, instead we got Bent and whoever else Comolli the idiot decided to bring in over his head.......look were Martin is now, sold his 3 best players at Hamburg, yet he sits top of the German league and is comfortably in the Qtr finals of the UEFA.....oh and he never ever came out and publicly critised any player even when they deserved it and never devalued any cup competition always playing a team to WIN every game we played in.....did you ever hear him moan about the fixture list, when we always played Thurs - Sun during the UEFA cup!


spooky said...

It's the modern Spurs way to self-destruct. Started with Scholar and continues to the present day.

Our house was not in order behind the scenes. Ironically, Jol's speech at the end of the season (when we finished 5th again) had him giving credit to Levy for the support he got.

Berbatov played a part, but its a simple case of us having no patience. We wanted to move on a little too quickly.

Obviously the other side of the argument is that Jol did not have the ability to progress the side any further - an opinion I was comfortable for a while before I woke up.

breadbin said...

Funny you should write this article - very good btw - on the day Zidane hails Gerard as the best midfielder in the world. More importantly and in the context of this article, Zidane highlighted the importance of Claude Makelele in his great Madrid team ..
"When we were winning league titles and European Cups at Real, I always said Claude Makelele was our most important player.
"There is no way myself, (Luis) Figo or Raul would have been able to do what we did without Claude and the same goes for Liverpool and Gerrard."

Its also not surprising to see Paris SG having a turnaround season since the arrival of Makelele

Anyway the point is - who are we to argue with Zidane, lets find this "chosen one" for our midfield in the summer and finally enjoy a league season again

P.S. I think this blog may have just replaced HarryHotspurs as my new favourite read (sorry harry)


Anonymous said...

Good article, but id love to know who you think the club should have bought to replace all of Carricks attributes? I cant think of one who would realisticaly come to Spurs

Anonymous said...

Great article, and true on all points. Its all about getting a balance and something that we lacked since Carrick left, I personally thought that Hudd could step in as his passing ability is on par with MC, sadly his mobility and knowing when to play the simple or the killer ball is not on par with MC.
In Zokora we have a player with a great engine and teriffic speed but not a lot else, his positional play isn't great and, more often than not his speed gets him out of trouble