Harry Redknapp’s Brilliant Tactical Pragmatism

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.
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Dalglish should try Dirk Kuyt as Lucas replacement for Liverpool

Dirk Kuyt should be Lucas' replacement; photo by Danny Molyneux

The news that Lucas Leiva has been lost for the season with a torn ACL (something with which I can empathize as I am five weeks out from surgery to repair my own torn ACL, it sucks – best wishes to Lucas) will really test Liverpool’s squad as there is not a natural replacement for the Brazilian. The importance of the defense midfielder is one of the tactical evolutions of the last fifteen years. Charlie Adam is too slow, Jordan Henderson and the also injured Steven Gerrard are too attack minded, and Jay Spearing (who will probably get the job) has yet to prove himself. But Liverpool have a player with all the qualities you want in a defensive midfielder – quickness, energy, endeavor, discipline, and  the willingness to put in tackle after tackle – he just isn’t thought of for this position because he’s nominally a striker: Dirk Kuyt. 

It’s hard for me to say this, as I have long been down on Lucas – even last season when he was named the team’s player of the year, but Lucas has really come into his own and is one of the main reasons that Liverpool enter this weekend as the joint best-defense in the Premier League. He learned from a master when Javier Mascherano was at the club, and Lucas can now be seen breaking up play from sideline to sideline. He still struggles with his distribution, especially going forward, and he at times can get caught ahead of the ball. But there is no question that Lucas has emerged as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league and his presence in the Liverpool XI will be missed. Continue reading

The Dilemma of Jermaine Defoe: Why Redknapp Should Keep Benching Him

When Jermaine Defoe is on he scores goals and right now he is on. He has five premier league goals this season, despite getting limited minutes off the bench. Against West Brom on Saturday, Defoe scored a fantastic goal that gave Spurs a late lead. This seems to create a real managerial problem for Harry Redknapp over who to start. Past attempts to start Rafael Van Der Vaart out wide have exposed his defensive weaknesses and Adebayor isn’t going to be benched. So tactically there just isn’t room for both Defoe and Rafael Van Der Vaart. So who to start?

While the English press have made this seem a real dilemma, it isn’t. The fact is that it is hard to imagine Defoe starting for any of the other top 6 sides (City, United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool). This is because, besides scoring an occasional goal, Defoe does little else when on the pitch. One only has to look at the Guardian chalkboards. Against West Brom Defoe attempted just 22 passes, lowest of all the Spurs starters. Adebayor attempted 52. In just 70 minutes against Aston Villa and 66 minutes against Fulham Van Der Vaart attempted 62 and 42 passes respectively. As a substitute Defoe completed just 1 pass in 20+ minutes against Villa and just 4 passes in 25+ minutes against Fulham. The plain fact is that when Spurs play Defoe they are playing with a specialist – a goal poacher – who adds little to the team except when in the goal mouth area.
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Can Spurs keep it going to capitalize on City wobble?

Redknapp's Spurs keep pressure on City; photo by James Boyes

Manchester City have looked like Champions-elect since their strong start to the season was capped with the 6-1 destruction of the holders Manchester United at Old Trafford. But with Liverpool giving City their first real domestic contest after another disapointing outing in the Champions League, a Spurs team which has quietly taken 28 from its last 30 available points must keep their amazing run going as City deal with adversity for the first time. The Premier League title may not just be a Manchester preserve this season.

City had dropped only two points all year, an improbable give-away at Craven Cottage after dominating the game and even going two ahead against Fulham. But their form in Europe has been indifferent–two wins, two losses, and a draw–and they look likely to drop out of the Champions League at the group stage. But earlier European disappointments, even when coupled with controversy in the shape of Carlos Tevez, had not spilled over into their league form. Yet Liverpool really took it to City at Anfield on Sunday, capitalizing on a tiring City squad that hardly threatened in attack and can thank Joe Hart for several world class saves to keep it level. Continue reading

Is Arsenal the best place for Brek Shea?

Arsenal not the best Euro destination for Brek Shea; photo by Albumen

News that Brek Shea will join Arsenal on a two-week trial following the USMNT’s games in Europe against France and Slovenia is big news and clearly an indication that the FC Dallas left-winger is likely the next American to make the leap to Europe. But are the Gunners really the best landing spot for Shea? I don’t think so, and that’s not because of this blog’s general antipathy to Arsenal (Max is a Spurs fan after all). Shea needs to play in an environment that is conducive to his development, and Arsenal just doesn’t fit the bill right now.

The lure of playing for one of the Premier League’s and Europe’s top clubs is obviously strong. And the Gunners are still in the Champions League and are climbing the table with four straight league wins after a rough start to the season. But you can’t shake the feeling that Arsenal’s restive supporters–having endured six straight seasons without a major trophy–are just a couple of bad games from returning to the mood of the early season when Wenger’s position seemed very much in doubt. Continue reading

Spurs vs. Stoke – The Premier League’s Detroit Pistons

This was a high quality win for Tottenham and gets their Premier League campaign started off well. Winning away at Stoke is a tough task, especially with Spurs playing with only one fit striker and employing a new formation and new central defensive and midfield parings.

While the first goal was fortuitously scored off Gareth Bale’s face, that shouldn’t detract from the move that got Bale in that position. In the first half Tottenham bossed the game and controlled possession and with Aaron Lennon and Bale on the wings they gave Stoke all they could handle. Bale’s second goal will be in the highlight reel EPL mashup at the end of the season. But Lennon’s threatening run from deep in the midfield and his well waited cross is one that should not be over looked. In the second half, Spurs were put under more pressure from Stoke. Spurs failed to spray the ball wide to Lennon and Bale and as a result looked less threatening.

It is no doubt that Spurs have quality and some depth, but they still lack a proper #9. Tottenham for the first time in recent memory deployed a 4-5-1 with Crouch as the lone striker. The thing with Crouch is that he is not a true #9. While he can hold up the ball, he is not a goal poacher. He lacks the pace and closeness of control on the ball to threaten defenders. But more importantly he is a player that can win aerial duels and knock down the ball to his fellow strike partner. Without a striker partner Crouch had no one to knock the ball down to and many aerial balls sent up to him resulted in turnovers.

Stoke’s dirty play.

This isn’t sour grapes, this is just stating the obvious – Stoke play dirty.

Lets start with the dirty goal mouth tactics. Any Premier League manager about to face Stoke should vigorously talk about the fact that Stoke intentionally seek to interfere with the goal keeper on set pieces. While Gomez was just marginally interfered with on Stoke’s lone goal – yes a call could have been made, but the referee wasn’t wrong for letting it go – but on almost every set piece Gomez was deliberately interfered with – and not in some “sporting” way of setting a pick. On one corner Gomez was tripped by a Stoke player who with his back to Gomez extended his leg straight back, merely to obstruct. On another Gomez went to punch and a Stoke player straight up pushed him. And on the controversial “goal” in which the ball was ruled not to have crossed the line, Robert Huth with two hands deliberately pushed Gomez preventing him from punching the ball over the bar. This was such an obvious foul that it was shocking it wasn’t called.
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How Chelsea Can Win the League, and Why They Probably Won’t. (Part 2)

Ye Old Chelsea

Although this pains me to say, I have to admire what Sir Alex is doing in Manchester this year. The youth movement, for better or worse, is a shift that must be made by a big club every 5-7 years.  Or, if you are Arsenal, every 2 years. Over the last few seasons Chelsea has tried to fight this philosophy with a Botox strategy – buying a few younger players to make the club look young on the surface but deep down the wrinkles are there, trust me.  Not only has Sir Alex committed to moving towards a younger squad, he is actually playing them, and I am not just talking about the Carling Cup fixtures.  Sure his hand was forced a few times due to injuries, but more often then not we have seen a young upstart in the starting 11 for United in a key fixture with a healthy Giggs or a Nani on the bench.  Such strategy is the proper way to groom your younger talent.  Conversely, I cannot remember a big game in the last three years where Chelsea gave a start to a younger player.  Don’t get me wrong, in their older age, the likes of Drogba, Anelka, and Terry are still pacey and powerful, but father time will win, and when he does I am not convinced that Chelsea will be ready for it.

Injury Bug

The number one contributing factor in a team’s success in the premier league is the health of their stars.  In this department Chelsea has been more than lucky.  Sure Essien has had his issues – so has Peter Cech, Ricky C (of Madrid fame) among others, but in last year’s campaign Chelsea remained relatively healthy in key positions.  Lampard’s Ripken-like run has been remarkable. John Terry and Didier Drogba’s have also maintained their healthy form throughout the grueling league and cup campaigns, whereas their northern competitors have had no such luck.  Last year United was forced put an ailing team on Rooney’s saddle, that is anyone that was left to play. Liverpool also played long stretches without Number 9 and several key defensive players, Skirtel and Agger among them. This left Jaime Carragher to unsuccessfully defend the kop, poor Pepe. Then there is the Arsenal, who consistently prove that they are just too fragile for this league, nothing more to it than that.  Call me a pessimist, but I am afraid to say that Chelsea’s luck in the injury department is surely to run out this year.  As a result, this will force Chelsea to play unproven quantities, which brings me to my next point.
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How Chelsea Can Win the League, and Why They Probably Won’t. (Part 1)

Very excited to be asked by the lads to submit a guest post, let’s hope they will let me hang around a bit. As you can guess, I am true blue all the way through, however, this year’s campaign will be a tricky one for the west London boys. The following is a preview of the Blues upcoming season. I will start with the good.

The Reasons Why We Will See JT and Tubbylotti on the Winner’s Stand Come May:

The Essien factor

The Bison is back! There is no doubt that Michael Essien is a world class player, but the Ghanaian has only played in roughly 50 games for the Blues since 2007 due to ailing knees. When on the pitch he has produced several magical efforts including key FA Cup and Champions League performances, but can Chelsea really count on Essien for an entire season? The smart money says, no. Two major knee surgeries will do that to you. But when fit, Essien is just damn intimidating, see any Essien performance against Cesc Fabregas in the last 4 years. If Essien puts in a full season at Stamford Bridge Chelsea fans have every reason to think that his pace and incredible tackling will dominate any midfield-set that Chelsea will face.
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Why Bob Bradley At Villa Makes Sense

Bob Bradley has no Premiership or European managerial experience. He has never operated in the European transfer window. And his club coaching experience in MLS is hard to compare to the Premier League. Despite all of that, he makes a ton of sense for Villa.

There are a few atmospheric things working in his favor that have little to do with him.

First, he is easily gettable and comes cheap. He would jump at the job.

Second, the chairman would not have a manager that would pressure him into bankruptcy and would be able to control the finances by selling players they need to sell.

Third, he and US soccer is hot post World Cup. While Bradley has little experience in the European transfer market, there are very few people in soccer that have a better knowledge of the American talent pool. After the World Cup, this is now seen as a plus.

Fourth, the fan reaction has been more positive than I would have expected. Some say no way, the more delusional want Hiddink, but most sensible fans seem somewhat open to the idea. In Vital Villa poll on the next manager, Bradley is currently third with 12%, behind Hiddink 36% and Martin Jol 19%. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but since the other two aren’t really plausible that’s not too shabby.

Fifth, Villa are not in real danger of implosion. With O’Neill gone, Villa’s ambitions to challenge the top four are likely gone as well. Yet Villa also have the talent to avoid the drop should Bradley prove a disaster. This is what made Bradley a bit more of a risk at Fulham. The Cottagers are not as deep as Villa and a string of defeats and muddled performances under a new inexperienced manager and it is quite plausible that Fulham wouldn’t have the talent to lift itself out of the relegation battle. Yet Villa like Spurs a few years ago, have the talent to recover from a disasterous start. So in the event that Bob Bradley is a total failure – ie Villa get 2 points from their first 8 games as Spurs did under Juande Ramos – a change can be made to bring in a more veteran Premier League manager.

Yet, none of these make up for the fact that he still has no Premier League or European experience and that makes hiring him a real leap of faith. But a closer look at what Bradley’s attributes I think mitigates his lack of experience and makes him a safer bet than people realize and mitigates this a fair amount.

He is a motivator who controls the locker room. The come from behind spirit of the US, not just in the World Cup but throughout qualification, is a very good reflection on Bradley. When punched in the gut, Bradley’s teams responded. Additionally, there was little locker room drama or conflict throughout the entire World Cup cycle. A Premier League dressing room is a hell of a lot different than a more humble US locker room. At the very least he will get Villa motivated to play.
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O’Neill’s Late Departure – Makes Bradley A Very Plausible Option

Martin O’Neill’s shock resignation a week before the season has left Villa in the lurch. Finding a replacement that meets the new found expectations of Villa fans is not going to be easy.

Puff pieces are already being written portraying Martin O’Neill as the protagonist and Randy Lerner as the evil American owner that wouldn’t show the proper commitment by investing in the club. This is crap. Lerner has dumped a ton of money into what was a struggling Premier League club and given O’Neill, who is a great manager, the resources to compete. But there are limits. Rumors abound about O’Neill complaining about lack of transfer funds and conflict with the ownership over selling Gareth Barry and a willingness to sell James Milner to Manchester City for 20+ million and Ashley Young for there abouts. Frankly, if that is the reason why O’Neil resigned he was living on another planet and any Villa fan upset at American owner Randy Lerner should be slapped.

NOT every owner is as rich as a Middle Eastern oil barren or a Russian oligarch. Books sometimes have to be balanced. We are also not talking about a Manchester United here that expects to be not just on top in England but in world football. The idea that O’Neil should be patted on the head for not wanting to sell James Milner for 20 plus million is ridiculous. Think about it. For 25 million Villa could bank 10 million and probably sign Mezut Ozil for 15 mil.

Villa fans with visions of grandeur are dreaming of a high profile manager like Guus Hiddink (who has a job) fail to recognize that a degree of austerity is about to fall upon them. The economy is down, presumably so is Lerner’s willingness to excessively splash the cash. If O’Neill was willing to walk out because a lack of cash a high profile figure is not going to be recruited. But furthermore, even if it were possible to attract a glitz manager, the season starts in a week. All those high profile managers are gone or have been locked up. Martin Jol the former Spurs manager, has been locked up by Ajax after Fulham made a go at him. While Villa is a step up to a degree, I doubt this is persuasive enough so late in the day.
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