Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Madrid: This Is Real / The Sound of Noise

A humiliating FA Cup exit in January reconstituted Tottenham's fixture list, it was thought, for the better. Approaching Spring, the prospect of a double hiatus delighted even the most addicted fans; who wears Lilywhite and wants this season to end in a hurry? The first weekend off came in February after a defeat at Blackpool (1-3), with Spurs failing to win against Wolves (3-3) ten days later; the second fell this month between AC Milan at Home (0-0) and Sunday's derby against West Ham United - also at White Hart Lane, and another fast-paced, goalless draw. Spurs are not scoring, and have only played three games in a month. Vedran Corluka's reintroduction to the first team, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto's form (having played in every game this season, improving so much in recent months as to mute Eto'o, Pato and Nani in individual battles) are two small, serious positives for Harry Redknapp.

Throwing on a striker because you need a goal is, of course, not a logical reaction if one considers each match as discrete, because of formation, tempo, opposition and the (cap)ability of the strikers in question. Certainly, lumping on a Defoe or a Pavlyuchenko cannot be an automatic response now, since for most teams this involves a dramatic alteration of a three or four edged instrument of attack. These men - often used in an interchanging 3 (Barcelona: Messi-Villa-Pedro), a narrow 1-2-1 (Real Madrid: Ozil, Ronaldo-Di Maria, Benzema) or a wide 2-1-1 - are usually attackers (which is not the same as 'strikers'). However, in the case of Spurs (a 2-1-1), Aaron Lennon, statistically no more serious a threat in front of goal than Alan Hutton, may not be considered an attacker. Gareth Bale, although prolific this season, cannot be expected to continue increasing his tally with daring frequency, having only recently established himself further up the pitch. Deprived of goalscorers, the onus falls on Rafael Van der Vaart, then, who plays as a false nine and must begin to do so again, darting into available spaces. Against West Ham, VdV seared into the midfield and distributed effortlessly without giving Defoe the vital option of himself. His performance was, for this reason alone, out of character. It is match fitness, not match sharpness, VdV is trying to regain. For 180 minutes against Real Madrid, Peter Crouch will have to breastfeed the Dutchman. This requires absolute proximity and a rest that has already been generously afforded to Redknapp's squad. Crouch might even score himself. Defenders such as Ricardo Carvalho (now of Real Madrid) loathe to mark him, particularly if officials decide not to discourage tall people from playing football and actually allow Crouch to play.

Blunderings and spurnings aside, there are problems Real Madrid will create and repeat that Tottenham will never have come across before. In the clip below (Real Madrid v Osasuna), notice the inconsistency of positions taken up by the galacticos or - for what they really are - the counter attackers. It is worth paying attention to how much of the pitch, especially in wide positions, Ozil wrestles for. (If Liverpool purchase an effective winger this summer, a comparable pattern might emerge at Anfield - phases beginning at Raul Moreiles's feet and ending with Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez's power.) Jose Mourinho's star performers may not be as gregarious as Pep Guardiola's but their appetites will mean that the playing time of Tottenham's defensive midfielder is as under threat as that of the sprinting winger. Sandro looked tired against West Ham. On the macrocosmic pitch at the Bernebau, the Brazilian, Jenas and Palacios could each play some part. As for the threat of Gareth Bale, it is not worth thinking about unless Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa are going to be recognised as two defensively world class full backs. (I am presuming Mourinho will not risk Marcelo at full back against an English team, particularly with Aaron Lennon running in the opposite direction.)  Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo is a doubt for the home leg, although as Sid Lowe - so much better in print than on pod - told Guardian Football Weekly on Monday, this has probably been exaggerated so that he gets some rest during the international break.

In truth, Spurs have little more chance of winning any silverware this season even now that the club are sailing in the up-river reaches of the Champions League - the staff are now paid to study video footage of Real Madrid - than before it had really begun in August, when in a qualifier against Young Boys, Tom Huddlestone came off the bench and hijacked the tie, steering the seemingly shambolic newcomers into a group with Internazionale, Werder Bremen and FC Twente. Indeed silverware is less probable now, with no possibility of a domestic cup. (One of the more apocryphal axioms in football fandom is that spoken by the Arsenal supporter, sneering at the Carling Cup - their best shot at having their name etched onto something [anything?] every season.) Before his (ongoing) ankle injury, Huddlestone would continue to impress in the group stage, arresting millions who savour the geneses of goals - the pass that slips through even the most tactically disciplined midfield (of, say, the European champions) after much patience, yet probably doesn't make it into a highlights package. The pressure of his absence on the halfway line has been relieved, not only by Luka Modric's first touch and his relationship with gravity, but also by Sandro: an intelligent and skilled safeguard, more comfortable in the Champions League than in the Premiership. It is a preference shared this season by William Gallas. Dawson and Gallas will hope to leave the horrorshows of Blackpool and Wolves behind them, and to continue building a partnership as sound as any in Europe's elite and gilded competition. The French international spent four years at his last club with no gold to show for it. The 2011 Champions League Final is not far away, either temporally or geographically. For now though, it must remain a fantasy, something screened in black and white since all this white and blue supermodernism is not a language Spurs are fluent in. And yet neither is it something they appear strange in.

Football writing is doomed to the fatuous, the predictive and the forgettable. Consider Chelsea's demise - from title probables in November to relying on a new central defender for goals and galvanization as outsiders. Or Porto and Monaco playing in the Champions League Final in 2004. Then, a Liverpool team that included Djimi Traore, Harry Kewell and Djibril Cisse, winning the following year in Istanbul. The ironies and surprises that chasten the game's intellectual legislators, and force constant re-evaluations and closer readings of players and coaches (this is something the sports writer I must quote more than any other, Jonathan Wilson, is careful to point out about Harry Redknapp), will, I hope, favour those working for Tottenham in the forthcoming months. Football depends on solidarity, and on an evolving aesthetic; most of all, football is always drunk on the memory of winning. To me, this season is a dream-place it will not do to leave.

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