Thursday, December 01, 2011

Senior Players Let Harry Down

Last night's defeat to PAOK Salonika in the Europa League has almost certainly brought to an end Tottenham's European campaign for another year.  Harry Redknapp fielded his most experienced side so far in the group stages so what went wrong that they couldn't overcome a team reduced to ten men from late in the first half?

Throughout the Europa League Harry Redknapp has successfully rotated his squad to ensure that the first team players were well rested for the next weekend's Premier League fixture.  The teams comprised of a mixture of squad players and youngsters and for the most part they have acquitted themselves well.  The younger players have shown considerable ability and have worked hard throughout the campaign.  Most importantly from the manager's perspective, the first team has maintained their form in the League matches and Spurs have climbed to third place.

Having lost in Russia Spurs slipped from the top of the group to third and so needed a result against PAOK at White Hart Lane to maintain their interest in the competition.  A win or a draw would suffice but a defeat would make things very precarious for the final match in Dublin.  Harry Redknapp duly sent out an experienced team with numerous internationals and only three younger players - Jake Livermore, Harry Kane and Danny Rose.  He even added additional strength to the side with the inclusion of first team regulars, Luka Modric, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe.  As backup he named Gareth Bale and Kyle Walker among the substitutes - to be called upon in case of an emergency if the game wasn't going as planned.  The rest of the team consisted of another four internationals - Heureulho Gomes, Vedran Corluka, Sebastien Bassong and Steven Pienaar.

Observers were surprised at the strength of the side selected for the game as it was much stronger than any other sent out in the Europa League so far with the exception of the first match in Scotland against Hearts.  So what went wrong that the first sign of the need to call on the backup was as early as the fifteenth minute when Bale and Walker were sent out to do a 'warm up'?

Excuses can be made that some of the players were returning from injury and were not match sharp but as experienced players they should have been able to produce a better performance than was seen last night.  Spurs were two goals down within thirteen minutes and both goals were the result of theor own casual, sloppy play.  Whereas in the previous matches the younger players had worked hard and kept good possession of the ball through careful passing and movement, last night Tottenham's passing was going astray from the opening minutes which gifted PAOK the ball.  The visitors were well organised and were set up to be patient and wait their opportunity to step in and take the ball away from a Spurs player and they were presented with many opportunities to do that.

After five minutes William Gallas ventured into the PAOK half and was caught in possession, PAOK broke quickly before Spurs could recover and a simple cross was delicately headed past a flat-footed Gomes.  The PAOK forward was totally unmarked in the centre of the penalty between two defenders.  A bad start, self-inflicted, but there was plenty of time to recover.  Tottenham, however, continued in their ponderous ways and when PAOK put a ball behind Vedran Corluka after thirteen minutes, he was so slow that there was no way he was going to prevent a cross going into the area and so Spurs were two down.

Misplaced passes, even simple ones, over hit or misdirected, continued as the order of the day from Spurs while PAOK waited and took every opportunity to pick up a loose ball or catch someone in possession.  It was half an hour before Spurs gathered some momentum and that was inspired by the crowd's encouragement.  In this period they were helped back into the game by the referee who awarded them a harsh penalty and sent off the defender.  Modric scored and surely that would ignite the recovery especially against ten men.  PAOK got through to the interval comfortably and then in the second half set out their stall to defend.

For the whole of the second half Tottenham huffed and puffed but couldn't blow the PAOK defensive wall down.  Spurs had all the possession and it was wave after wave of attack but no end product in either chances or goals.  Bale and Walker eventually were brought on but it was too late - the momentum was with the visitors and while they defended heroically, they weren't really in very much danger of conceding a goal.  They stopped Spurs in front of the penalty area and if Tottenham did manage to break through that barrier there was usually so many men around them that it came to nothing.

Vedran Corluka expressed the view during the week that as he wasn't playing regular football he would have to consider leaving in January to protect his international place with the Euros coming up in the summer.  From last night's performance it was clear why Kyle Walker has replaced him in the team.  He has never been the quickest of foot but last night he was slow and ponderous in every aspect of his game and his passing was poor.  The purpose of including the squad players in these games is to enable them to show the manager that they deserve an opportunity in the Premier League team.  Last night Redknapp had it confirmed that he had made the right choice in selecting Walker.

William Gallas was at fault for the first goal and his partnership in central defence with Sebastien Bassong was non-existent.  They looked as if they'd never met before, never mind played together.  Bassong has been low on confidence for the past eighteen months and again last night his defending was lacking.  The weakness of last night's pairing in central defence once again proves the point that Tottenham's best central defensive partnership is Ledley King and one other, Dawson, Kaboul, Gallas or Bassong, such is the importance of King to Spurs.

Steven Pienaar who is also recovering from injury was also well short of the required standard - his passing was poor and he was regularly caught in possession with no idea of what he was going to do with the ball.  He has had a difficult time with injuries since joining Spurs last January and has played very few matches.  He worked so hard and effectively for Everton but it will be some time before he is pushing for inclusion in the first team going on last night's performance.

In some ways the sending off made it more difficult for Spurs as PAOK decided at half-time to defend and hold what they had.  They did this very successfully but Spurs had enough experience in the team and should have been able to turn the game around.  Spurs lost because of casual play and poor defending in the first half which gave the visitors the encouragement they needed to get a positive result and the mistakes, as in Russia, came from experienced players.  A team can only perform in  all competitions if the squad players do their part.  Harry Redknapp has never been overly enthusiastic about the Europa League or Cup competitions but on this occasion he was let down very badly by the more experienced squad players.


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