fourth time's a charm


‘You guys will never beat us, it wont happen!’

‘It’s just another game for us now.’

‘Come on, are you serious, our kids beat your first team!’

‘I think these matches at your ground will usually end in draws, because you guys try your best and we just need to do enough in the match.’

‘Our new stadium means you are always in our shadow.’

I’m sure that in the past few days, you like me, have heard a variant on the above quotes, and when you suggest the merest possibility that Tottenham might win the match, you are given a look only ever reserved for lunatics.  Yes, that’s right, its derby time again.  For the fourth time this season we line up against Arsenal, seeking a win against them for the first time since 1999.  Be lets for one brief moment forget that this game is the big one.  Let’s forget that we want to beat them because of who they are (because they are the only side on our radar; forget West Ham or Chelsea, I do want to beat them, and more than against Wigan in any normal season, but nothing will replace the desire I have to see Arsenal beaten by Spurs), or because we have gone so long without a win, The reason we need to win this one, and the way our season is shaping up, we need to beat them to return to Europe.

Our season has been one of learning.  There is no doubt we have come on as a team, learnt lessons about the squad; such as how to win when not having your best team or following tough matches in Europe, and even winning to a degree without playing at your best.  Yet there is one hurdle we are yet to jump, and that is winning the big, must win, games. 

Our team has blown great opportunities this season; we failed to beat a weakened Arsenal side (I refuse to acknowledge they played their kids, because for a large part of those matches they had first team players on the pitch, and the team that won the game in extra time in the second leg was a full strength side against our first team that had just played a full 90 minutes without King, Lennon or Berbatov-our three most influential players).  We were 3-1 up against Chelsea, and regardless of luck or injury we should have won, and could not finish it off in the replay.  And then there was the worst penalty decision I have ever seen in Seville and the own goal in the return.

Now we face a match in a similar vein once more; the Arsenal league game.  Seventh now gives us a UEFA Cup berth, and although at the beginning of this season it would be below my expectations, I can’t help but feel uncertain in our reaching of it.  Our development requires us to make Europe once more, we need to be seen as a regular qualifier in order the eventually challenge the big four and help with attracting foreign players, not to mention that it could hopefully help the existing squad to develop into a trophy winning side.

On paper we should make at least seventh, because when you look at the fixtures for the other sides it looks ominous for all of them: 

Everton         -     West Ham (A), Man Utd (H), Portsmouth (H), Chelsea (A)

Bolton            -     Reading (H), Chelsea (A), West Ham (A), Villa (H)

Portsmouth   -     Villa (A), Liverpool (H), Everton (A), Arsenal (H)

Reading        -      Bolton (A), Newcastle (H), Watford (H), Blackburn (A)

Blackburn      -     Fulham (A), Charlton (H), Newcastle (A), Spurs (A), Reading (H)

Now take at look at ours:

Arsenal (H), Boro (A), Charlton (A), Blackburn (H), Man City (H)

What is so quickly apparent is some of the tough matches that the other sides have left.  I wouldn’t want to face Portsmouth or Everton’s final run ins when you need to win, and that boosts our chances, added to the fact that in a number of matches they play each other.

That is why the early Saturday kick off is so key to our season.  A win would be a big confidence boost, would keep the pressure on the sides above us, it would give us some breathing space from Reading and matches away to mid-table Middlesbrough and relegation haunted Charlton could be looked at with confidence as a result.  If that is the case, we it leaves us two home games to finish off with, and what needs be two wins.

If we draw, I don’t see us getting more than four points from the remaining away matches, and perhaps even two.  And that poor return could make all the difference at this late stage.  The home games we play are winnable; the last two certain must wins, and we will probably need to beat at least one of the away sides too. 

Whilst a draw in the derby wouldn’t be the end of the world, and should edge us along the road to Europe (and when you look at those fixtures, it should), lets not forget that if we beat them that would be a massive step forward for the club.  Spurs have found the going tough in recent seasons against the big four clubs, and our victory over Chelsea aside, the last time we beat one of them in the league was when Liverpool were managed by Houllier.  That’s why the club must look to overcome these sides as quickly as possible, there is too much pressure on Spurs to win and overcome their ‘hoodoo’ than the onus placed on the opposition to come and show what they can do against us.  One last point in our favour is that this may well be the first match against Arsenal under Wenger that has more meaning in the league for us than them.

So how do we do it?  Well, if you look at the way Arsenal play these days, they tend to favour a 4-5-1 formation (and the personnel they have available it certainly would indicate that this is how they will line up) and will start with Lehmann behind a back four of Eboue, Clichy, Gallas and Toure.  Silva will play defensive midfield with Rosicky in the side for goals and Fabregas for assists.  Either side, Hleb and Ljungberg will start.  Alone up front will be Adebayor.

They will aim to get and keep the ball, pass it around and pen us in.  That’s how they always play, and I would counter that by two physical central midfielders.  Rosicky and Fabregas do a lot of damage through the middle, and Arsenal two ‘widemen’ really play just inside and not on the touchline ala Lennon.  That puts pressure on the midfield and the centre backs, as that space is the one they operate in most effectively, and forces full backs inwards going space on the wings for overlaps from their full backs.  Win that space, and they won’t be half as creative.

At the same time you have to force their defence and midfield to be defensive and remain on the back foot.  Pace and power would provide this (I’ll admit I’m at a loss as to who could fulfil this role for us on the opposite wing to Lennon), and in considering their fullbacks Eboue looks the weaker of the pair, so Lennon should line up against him (There is a good argument to put him through the middle to pull Silva out of his holding role, and this is certainly worth some pitch time if we haven’t opened them up). 

The frontline need to have their wits about them too.  Taking your chances is key, and in Berbatov we have one of the top strikers in the league, yet now Keane is out contention and Defoe plays, it has become a big game for him too, and not just because we are playing Arsenal, but to get his chance back in the team.  I hope this doesn’t lead to him being selfish.  Finally Robinson needs to be sound at the back, strong as well as commanding because too often in these matches our keepers fail in this respect and gift them a soft goal.  If we keep our wits about us, we could nick it 2-1, if not we might have to settle for a share of the point and two really big away games to follow.



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