Can Martin Jol save Spurs’ season?

Apologies non-football fans – it’s a football blog!

False dawns at Tottenham are as common as the half time pastie. After occupying fourth-place for half of last season and eventually finishing fifth due to a last-day defeat at West Ham, Spurs were expected to build on that and challenge the top four this year.

But after three games and just one win, their plans look to be in tatters.

A sadly predictably tepid defeat at Bolton was followed by a commanding win over Sheffield United – a team who look set to become the new Sunderland, complete with “relegate-faster” stripes. But it all went wrong again as Spurs fell apart against ten-men Everton, losing a home game to the Merseysiders for the first time in 21 years.

The new signings have had an underwhelming start. Didier Zokora looked shell-shocked when he came off the bench on Saturday, unable to cope with a combative Everton midfield just like he was in the Bolton game. Zokora has already been dropped after a negligible impact in the opening game of the season.

Striker Dimitar Berbatov, a player with 10 Champions league goals, has also struggled although did occasionally show his class in each of the three games. His only goal was a simple tap in against Sheffield United and he assisted for Jermaine Jenas’ goal in the same game. In essence he has been involved in Tottenham’s only strikes this season.

At full back, Benoît Assou-Ekotto has looked fairly assured after struggling in the opening game of the season against that horrible chav, El-Hadji Diouf. His slight build (5’8″ and less than 11 stone) is a concern against muscular opponents but we’ll wait and see how he copes.

But Tottenham’s problems on the pitch are of little surprise to me as Tottenham are simply carrying on where they left off last season.

There is a lot of guff written about Martin Jol and his ability as a manager. As I have repeatedly written, Jol is a decent man who pushed Spurs to their highest league placing since in the Premiership – but is he a good-enough manager? Let’s once again analyse last season.

Spurs might have finished fifth – and should have been fourth – but many of their performances last year left a lot to be desired. Only for the goals and performances of Robbie Keane, Spurs would have been mid-table. His explosive substitute appearance in a 1-1 draw at Aston Villa – a game Spurs were out-played in – signalled the start of what has been career-best form for the Irishman.
Leaving aside the two embarrassing cup exits at the hands of Leicester and Grimsby, Spurs roll of shame includes:
– outplayed by a poor Aston Villa team (1-1, A)
– losing two points at the death to West Ham (1-1, A)
– struggling to overcome the worst Premiership team ever (3-2, H)
– a late, fortunate penalty award helping us overcome (at the time) crap Portsmouth (3-1, H)
– another poor performance saw us lucky to get a draw at Middlesbrough (3-3, A)
– insipid win over dire Birmingham (2-0, H)
– piss-poor defeat to struggling West Brom (0-2, A)
– disappointing home draw against a struggling Villa (0-0, H)
– another late surrender, this time to an average Fulham, saw a point lost (0-1, A)
– shambolic loss of points again in the last minute to Sunderland (1-1, A)
– dreadful performance against an off-form Wigan (2-2, H)
– played off the park by Blackburn and extremely fortunate to get a win (3-2, H)
– maybe it’s karma but we win against almost-relegated West Brom in the last minute (2-1, H)
– capitulation against ordinary Newcastle practically killing our Champions League hopes (1-3, A)
– a half-paced Manchester United performance overcame us quite comfortably (1-2, H)
– how we won this game is beyond me – outplayed for most of it by Bolton (1-0, H)
– beaten by a far better West Ham side in the final, crucial game of the season (1-2, A)

So there we go? Look harsh? There were some very good performances in there too (wins over Charlton, Man City, Wigan, Everton and the draw with Arsenal at Highbury) but overall the feeling from the season was that Spurs were a mediocre team punching above their weight. Failure to put away seemingly inferior teams and constantly being outplayed and outfought was disappointing. The difference Jol seemed to make was that he got results – unconvincing wins and fortunate draws. That’s why Spurs were still in the hunt on the last day of the season.

But chickens come home to roost and Spurs fans have been left with egg all over their faces so far this season (God, that’s an awful pun).

At the back Spurs have suffered without Ledley King, a defender who has come on in leaps and bounds over the last three seasons. His positional sense and battling qualities have won over the Spurs fans after some initial doubts about him being a good-enough replacement for Sol Campbell. King’s injury proneness must be of concern to Martin Jol. The likes of Anthony Gardner and Calum Davenport have struggled to convince alongside the excellent Michael Dawson (who looks half the player when not playing with King) and it could be that Spurs need a top class centre-back.

Our full-backs are just not up to scratch and Jol’s repeated flops in this area is a worrying trend. Lee Young-Pyo, despite a good first-half against Everton in his preferred right-back position, has repeatedly been shown wanting. Canadian, Paul Stalteri, currently injured, has been to blame for several goals scored against Tottenham and again fans do not have faith in him. While Stephen Kelly thankfully moved on – a player who never reached his potential – it remains to be seen how Assou-Ekotto fairs. We should not forget Philip Ifil a young right-back who is unfortunate to have been overlooked again. He made his debut at 17 against Liverpool and now, at almost 20 years of age, should expect to breakthrough or move on.

Michael Carrick will be missed by Spurs but I was never a fan of him, finding his lack of urgency, lack of goals and erratic passing to be a bugbear last season. That’s not to say he wasn’t the best of what we had because the likes of Danny Murphy, Jermaine Jenas and Teemu Tainio have had little impact. Tainio reminds me of Alan Nielsen, all work rate, professionalism and temperament, but little really top class talent. To be fair Murphy has not had many chances but is obviously not fancied by Jol while Jenas repeatedly disappoints in the centre of midfield – possibly another great English white elephant (see Emile Heskey). Also in the mix for the centre of midfield is hulking teenager Tom Huddlestone and 24 year-old Egyptian Hossam Ghaly.

The future of Edgar Davids is also one of great debate. Due to Michael Carrick’s departure the club and Davids agreed to him remaining for the final year of his contract despite interest from Ajax. Davids – excellent in the first half against Everton on Saturday but subdued after that – has been mainly disappointing, his advancing years clearly nullifying his terrier-like performances from early-on in his career. The question is being asked as to why Davids is in the side ahead of the likes of Ghaly, Huddlestone or Zokora. Is Jol afraid to drop him? Well it might not be long before we see the bespectacled-one sitting on the bench. As to whether it will improve Tottenham’s fortunes is another matter altogether. I doubt it will because I think he has come in for exaggerated criticism and his performances have been no worse than the majority of players around him.

As Wayne Routledge wonders where it all went wrong, Aaron Lennon has become the golden boy of English football, his market value possibly into 8 figures at this point. His performances on the right-wing have been largely impressive but there is the fear of burn-out for the 19 year-old with him noticeably failing to make an impact in either of Tottenham’s two defeats this season. Jol should look at starting him from the bench in some upcoming games.

On the left-wing Рwell this is where Spurs are still struggling. After a number of failed experiments (Reto Ziegler, Timoth̩e Atouba Рone of the most comical talents ever at Spurs, Andy Reid; out-of-position turns from Davids, Murphy, Tainio and Robbie Keane), Spurs have still not found someone who can play that position effectively. The net result is that Рmuch like the England side of recent seasons Рthe team is unbalanced. Opponents know that the threat down the left is limited and subsequently can concentrate their powers on stopping the runs of Lennon on the far side.

Spurs have been linked with Martin Petrov of Atletico Madrid following the wingers failure to impress at the Vicente Calderón and repeated links to over-rated Middlesbrough winger Stewart Downing for £10m have led a lot of Spurs supporters in to fearing another big-money flop along the lines of Jenas, Dean Richards and Sergei Rebrov. Another player linked recently is the sometimes-reasonable Fulham winger-cum-striker, Luis Boa Morte. However, like Downing, his asking price is about twice his real market value. In reality none of these players are going to hugely improve the Spurs squad relative to what else they could purchase for that sort of money. Missing out on Damien Duff was a huge blow for Spurs and while the Irish winger has had an inauspicious start at Newcastle, I think he would have found more success linking up with Berbatov and Keane rather than Shola Ameobi.

There’s a lot of talent up front for Spurs but they are probably one striker short at the moment. Any injury to Berbatov is going to leave Jol stuck again with the Keane-Defoe partnership – one that has never worked. Defoe’s form is something of great concern to Jol and Spurs fan. It started to dip last season and despite some crucial goals Jol had no choice but to play the more in form Robbie Keane ahead of him.

The Berbatov-Keane link-up is one that has the most potential but they are starved of decent service from an un-creative midfield. The only person putting the ball in the box is Aaron Lennon and the youngster’s crosses are generally erratic. They suffer to from a lack of midfield support, rarely being joined effectively in the opponents box by Jenas or Davids.

So Martin Jol’s big problem right now is: “how do I make this work?”

He must balance the team but do it without splashing ridiculous money on limited talents like Downing or Boa Morte.

He must sort out the centre of midfield, making Jenas and Davids work together or replacing them with a combination that he can get the best out of. When your midfield is outplayed by players like Lee Carsley and Leon Osman you start to wonder if perhaps Spurs would fail with Claude Makélélé and Kaka in there.
But most importantly of all he must motivate and organise the team better. There is a distinct lack of passion and fight about the team, little urgency and desire apparent. That is something that Jol has failed to do in all his time there. I can recall few examples where he has managed to radically alter Spurs direction in a game through tactical changes or substitutions. It seems that plan B is a Paul Robinson punt up field.

Is Martin Jol the right man? Well right now he might be the best man but are Spurs destined to remain frustrating and second-rate under him?

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