Make believe versus real life
You know how it is – third round league cup game and you’ve got one eye on Europe or getting promotion. You put a couple of squad players in, play your expensive reserve striker, give your backup keeper a game, put the highly rated 19 year old winger in the side. You probably include 3 or 4 key players on the bench in case you need them but you won’t want to use them. Win the game and no harm is done and your players have gotten some experience. If things go badly then the fans will be disappointed, the team’s momentum might be impacted, the player’s morale could be affected and the record books will forever show, say, a 1-4 defeat at home to your arch rivals.
When I play Football Manager it’s all pretend. For Harry Redknapp tonight, it’s real life.
In his post-match interview Redknapp was accepting of the hammering Arsenal gave his side, focusing on the experience his players got and suggesting – probably quite reasonably – that the likes of David Bentley, Sandro, Kyle Naughton and Steven Caulker were always going to struggle with match fitness once the game went in to extra time.
But it was ‘Arry’s initial team selection and tactics that put his players in that position in the first place. Looking at the side before the game – containing only one player from the 3-1 win over Wolves at the weekend – it was going to be a team that needed time to find its rhythm and style of play. It found neither.
Roman Pavlyuchenko cut a frustrated figure up front on his own. Bentley, deployed on the left wing, slowed down each attack by coming in on his favoured right foot. On the other side Gio Dos Santos was bullied off the ball continuously and routinely wandered out of position leaving inexperienced right-back Kyle Naughton struggling to contain Arsenal attacks.
In central midfield were two players – Sandro and Wilson Palacios – more content in their own half. Ahead of them was the confident but careless Jake Livermore: a player who over a year-on from his pre-season goal against Barcelona was making his first Tottenham start tonight. He lasted until half time.
The back-four contained the erratic Benoit Assou-Ekotto, wobbly Sebastien Bassong, debutant Caulker and Naughton, a player making his first start after over a year at the club. Behind them was new signing Stipe Pletikosa.
(Kind of) a game of two halves
After a chastening 45 minutes in which Tottenham somehow only found themselves a goal behind (Arsenal were robbed of a second by an errant offside flag), Redknapp made his first good decision of the night when he brought on Robbie Keane and Aaron Lennon for the struggling Livermore and awful Dos Santos. Within four minutes they were level, Keane finishing in a curiously nonchalant manner from an offside position.
And suddenly, for all Arsenal’s domination, crisp passing and movement, they now found themselves raggedly over-hitting passes and losing 50-50s they barely encountered during their first-half master-class.
But there was no cutting edge from Spurs and, while Sandro came more and more in to the game, Aaron Lennon cut a dejected figure on the right, Kieran Gibbs limiting his impact to a mere bystander. Arsenal ended the ninety minutes on the up and should have won it late on when Pletikosa completely missed a deep cross in to the six yard box.
Arsenal maintained the momentum in to extra time and within five minutes they netted two penalties. Pletikosa completed his undistinguished début by retrieving the ball from the net a fourth time following Arshavin’s neat finish.
White Hart Lane emptied and Arsenal had revenge for the 5-1 semi-final defeat in 2007.
Spurs fans can wash the memory away if their side get a result at Upton Park at the weekend and then go on to bag a Champions League victory over Dutch champions FC Twente next week. But that’s not really the point. This season has been underwhelming so far with the first team struggling to impress in league games against Stoke, Wolves and Wigan. The club needs momentum. Arsenal’s second string (and it was a weakened team – nine of the starting XI had a combined 7 appearances this season) were beatable.
We saw the difference that more experienced heads made in the second half; Robbie Keane was particular influential. Why not give the resurgent Alan Hutton a game at right back and use his experience to help 18 year old Caulker? That all the goals seemed to materialise down Tottenham’s right indicates that the Naughton/Caulker combination was identified as a weak link. Redknapp tinkered too much and he may regret it come January if Spurs are out of all three cup competitions.
Pletikosa (6), Naughton (5), Bassong (6), Caulker (6), Assou-Ekotto (6), Bentley (5), Livermore (5), Palacios (5), Sandro (7), Pavlyuchenko (6.5), Giovani (4). Subs: Lennon (5), Keane (6.5), Kranjcar (5)
Fabianski (6), Eboue (6), Koscielny (7), Djourou (6), Gibbs (7), Lansbury (6.5), Denilson (6), Wilshere (9), Nasri (8), Rosicky (6.5), Vela (5). Subs: Arshavin (7), Chamakh (7), Clichy (6)