FOX Soccer Exclusive
Tottenham toiling without Bale
When a team has spent the summer losing its very best player – a player so valuable his departure for Real Madrid required a new world record transfer fee – you might think a bit of sympathy is in order.
Not in the case of Tottenham Hotspur. Not after what coach Andre Villas-Boas and technical director Franco Baldini did with the $175 million or so received for Gareth Bale, plus new Swansea City central defender Steven Caulker and others. They invested the lot in a group of well-known or up-and-coming players from Europe, giving Spurs a squad rated as deep and competitive as any in the Premier League except oil-rich Manchester City.
For a while all went remarkably well. Villas-Boas appeared to get the team to knit, Roberto Soldado looked capable of carrying on with the goal-every-other-game habit he had acquired in Spain, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson chipped in with a couple and young Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen enjoyed a memorable debut in which the White Hart Lane crowd took him to its heart. Spurs were in the top four and even considered outside candidates for the title in this refreshingly open season.
And then came the slump. At first it was noticed that the goals were drying up and the odd point being lost. Then there were rumbles of discontent about the quality of entertainment – always a consideration at the Lane, where the mantra was set by Danny Blanchflower, captain of the club’s most successful team, winners of the League and FA Cup double in 1960/1. "Winning," he said, "is about glory…not waiting for the other team to die of boredom."
That the glory game might not be set for an immediate revival under Villas-Boas became apparent last weekend when Spurs lost 6-0 – and as abjectly as that score suggests – at Manchester City. True, City had beaten Norwich 7-0 on their previous outing and among the other victims of the devastating home form of Manuel Pellegrini’s team this season had been Manchester United. But for Spurs fans and some inside the club it was the adding of insult to injury.
Accordingly, leaks began to appear in the press, one anonymous boardroom source telling The Guardian of a list of complaints about Villas-Boas, including the observation that he seemed to blame everybody but himself for setbacks and was in danger of wasting the huge summer investment supervised by Baldini.
There were also the inevitable moans from sidelined players, again anonymous of course. This is the trouble with building a big squad. Only 11 can start games and the others tend to get unhappy with the coach. There was always a danger that Villas-Boas would become unpopular as Roberto Mancini did at Manchester City before his replacement by Pellegrini for this season; part of the reason the Chilean was chosen was his reputation for tact and earning the respect of players.
Anyway, the sting in the Villas-Boas tale came with the conclusion that, although everyone on the board believed he should be allowed more time to sort things out, some felt that just more game might be enough.
And who is that game against? None other than mighty Manchester United. A United team which encountered its own mini-crisis in the summer when Sir Alex Ferguson was replaced by David Moyes but which has come through in such style as to suggest it might even retain its title. A United side in such form that on Wednesday it scored five goals without reply in Germany, against Bayer Leverkusen, despite resting star striker Robin van Persie.
On Sunday, Van Persie will be available to face the troubled men of Spurs, who, though they enjoyed their own win abroad this week – by 2-0 against Tromso of Norway in the Europa League – will have a day less to prepare for the big confrontation at high noon. At least it’s amid what should be the home comfort of the Lane, where recent troubles will be temporarily forgotten as the fans seek to contradict Villas-Boas’s observation, a few weeks ago, that Spurs’ tight and compact stadium had come to lack atmosphere.
Speaking of which…
Although these mini-crises tend to center around the performance of the coach, the folks who appointed him have responsibilities of their own. One is the stadium and the Lane, wonderful stage though it can be for soccer, is too small for a club with Champions League ambitions. Owner Joe Lewis, a billionaire based in the Bahamas, and chairman Daniel Levy know that well enough to have made plans for a 55,000-seat arena (20,000 bigger that the current one and to be built nearby) and to have made a bid for the site of the Olympic Stadium (rejected in favor of one by West Ham United).
But that’s all Lewis and Levy have done. There is still no date for any move. Spurs still have the infrastructure of a Europa League club and, while some of the players they got with the Bale money could develop into names worthy of putting on a Champions League marquee, would the club be able to keep them, any more than it was able to keep Bale, or before him Luka Modric, out of the clutches of, say, Real Madrid? You can change coach as often as you like – and Spurs have had five in less than a decade – but if you keep losing your best player it’s a struggle for them all.
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