Lost in Stoke’s controversial win on Sunday, in which referee Chris Foy failed to award Spurs two clear penalties and a legitimate goal, was Harry Redknapp’s magnificent tactical switch to a 3-5-2 at halftime.
Redknapp is frequently described in the UK as an old school football manager that doesn’t really do tactics. He is credited with being popular among the players and of having restored solidity to Spurs (an expected trait of English managers), but overall he is widely considered a rather simplistic thinker when it comes to tactics and strategies. During Spurs Champions’ League run last year, UK journalists often expressed doubt that Redknapp had the tactical nous to cut it against the Europe’s best tacticians. With victories over Inter Milan and AC Milan that should have been put to rest. But the notion that Redknapp is more of a working class meat and potatoes football coach that is good for some great quotes in the press but lacks the intellectual sophistication to ever be elite – continues to hang around Redknapp. Some of this is that he has a Joe Bidenesque ability to provide the blue collar sound bite – exhibit A was Redknapp’s fantastic zinger this weekend at Mr. Foy, “But he’ll look at it tonight on TV when his wife’s making him a bacon sandwich and he’ll think ‘**** me, what have I done there’.” Interestingly, many of Spurs fans buy into this line of thinking and are only just now realizing that Redknapp is an internationally elite manager and can cut it tactically with the best of them.
What is different about Redknapp is that he is a pragmatist. He is not dogmatic about how his team plays. He doesn’t care if he plays route one or plays tiki-tak or plays narrow or with width. He is about finding what works with the players that he has. But just because he doesn’t have a style like Arsene Wenger or Barcelona, or is tactically obsessive like a Rafa Benitez does not mean he isn’t a master tactician.
The case in point was the game against Stoke on Sunday. Most have focused on Spurs inability to deal with Stoke’s set pieces and long throw-ins, which resulted in Stoke’s goals and troubled Spurs throughout the first half. While Spurs did not deal well Stoke’s size, it could hardly be suggested that a team in such flying form would deviate from the lineup or the 4-2-3-1 formation which had led to a record unbeaten run. The size of Stoke was always going to pose a challenge for Spurs, but a contributing problem for Spurs, was the unrelenting pressure put on by Stoke. It was a tempo that Stoke could only maintain for about the first 30 minutes, but that was enough to give them a two goal lead. But in those 30 minutes Spurs overpowered Scott Parker and Luke Modric, as well as Rafa Van Der Vaart when he dropped back. Stoke also out muscled Spurs wingers Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. Needless to say Chris Foy’s leniency in allowing such physical play greatly aided Stoke. At the half Spurs had gotten a little bit of rhythm to their play, but they still looked rather tame.
Down 2-0 at the half Redknapp made two unconventional half time substitutions, bringing on Jermaine Defoe for Aaron Lennon and even more surprisingly centerback Sebastian Bassong for Benoit Assou Ekkoto, who was having a strong game at LB. Turning to a 3-5-2 with Gallas at right center back, Yunes Kaboul at CB and Bassong at left center back, Spurs still had width with Bale and Kyle Walker on the left and right, and because Stoke possessed little speed up top Bassong and Gallas could move forward to support the attack. The addition of Defoe for Lennon allowed Redknapp to have a second target in the box, as well as to move Van Der Vaart deeper into the midfield to out number Stoke. After withstanding a Stoke flurry just after half time, Spurs took control of the game. At around the 60th minute, Spurs scored after Modric won a penalty, while there was not immense contact, it was correctly given. Spurs pressure only increased resulting in the bizarre stretch where a legit goal was disallowed and Ryan Shawcross should have been called for two different penalties and have been sent off. More bizarre was the sending off of Yunes Kaboul with a second yellow for what barely looked like a foul. If Foy hadn’t intervened the good money would have been on Spurs equalizing and perhaps even taking three points. One can’t but think that a more established top side gets those decisions – but that’s a different story.
Spurs ability to come back and Redknapp’s willingness to make pragmatic and effective tactical changes has been a key factors in Spurs resurgence. It was apparent last season when Spurs consistently came from behind – most notably against Arsenal at the Emirates where Redknapp recognized that Spurs width meant that a narrow Arsenal had Spurs center midfield out manned 4 players to 2. He took off Lennon moved Van Der Vaart into a midfield role. The game turned at halftime, resulting in a classic 3-2 Spurs win.
It is true that at times Redknapp has a scatter shot approach toward the transfer market, sometimes looking for good deals more than getting players that could fit a particular system. However, Redknapp has found ways to incorporate the quality players he signs – adapting his tactics to his players, rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, for Spurs, these traits apply perfectly to the characteristics of a national team manager. And when England start looking for their next manager next summer, Redknapp should be the obvious and deserving choice to move England beyond the Gerrard/Lampard/Terry/Ferdinand era.