Injuries happen, and even when they come as an indirect result of an already overused established international being forced to play in an under-23 tournament, you grin and bear it in the understanding that all clubs suffer them. As long as you don’t get them all in one position (as we did in the centre of defence in Autumn 2010 for example), a serious Premier League squad should be able to cope with an absentee or two.
As great and important as Sandro is, it looked on paper like we’d be able to cope without him. After Gareth Bale he’s probably the most valuable player in the squad, but with Scott Parker having recently come back from five months out we appeared to have a more than adequate replacement to take over and lead the charge from January to May. He’s not the stallion who will mount the world, but he is tenacious and undeniable.
But upon his return Parker has looked much more like the tired workhorse always chasing play at Euro 2012 than the writers’ footballer of the year. He’s not been the colossal disaster Wilson Palacios was in his final months at the club, but his failure to keep hold of the ball is reminiscent of the Honduran and is spanner in a machine that Andre Villas-Boas is trying to keep well-oiled.
The lack of fluency in midfield is so problematic that it’s lead people to question whether this is an even bigger issue for Tottenham than the striking situation.
(It isn’t. It’s getting harder and harder to make a case for Adebayor returning to last season’s form and Jermain Defoe’s seems unlikely to break the habit of a lifetime and score regularly for a full season. Clint Dempsey continues to be our worst performer and all the young forwards on our books, none of them particularly promising anyway, have gone out on loan.)
What is Andre Villas-Boas to do? Parker is 32 and is hopefully just making a slow return to full fitness rather than showing signs of an irreversible decline. Either way, Tottenham need someone in play the holding midfield role effectively now and Parker is emphatically not that man.
There is a player in the squad who once would have been a credible alternative, but is also currently playing the worst football of his life. Tom Huddlestone’s abominable form is perfectly symbolised by a hairstyle that reminds us how long it’s been since he was making a positive impact on top-flight matches. He bravely decided not to cut his hair until he’d scored a goal, with all money raised in the interim being donated to Cancer Research. He got injured immediately and he’s only come marginally closer to breaking that duck with his return to action.
In 16 months, a period in which he’s earned in excess of a million pounds, he has raised a paltry £10,924 for charity, a kitty that matches his pitiful showings on the pitch. His less athletic than ever and no amount of long range passes makes up for the lack of completing the short ones.
Villas-Boas reportedly turned down an offer from Fulham, but this season is surely his last at Spurs. The red card he received in the opening game of the seasons was rescinded, but the image of Huddlestone hurtling uncontrollably along the turf like a derailed train remains. The scrapyard beckons.
Against lesser opposition we might be able to get away with having Jake Livermore as the deepest midfielder (as we occasionally did with Jermaine Jenas), even though it’s not his natural game. This won’t work regularly though, as keeping possession is not something Livermore excels at and no amount of enthusiasm and energy can hide the fact that he is not good enough for a team in the top third of the table.
Villas-Boas needs to reshuffle the pack.
While Gylfi Sigurdsson is undoubtedly a talented footballer, in hindsight signing him doesn’t seem like the best use of limited funds, given we bought Mousaa Dembele a month later and Lewis Holtby in January. Despite that, Sigurdsson could be the man to bring life to a team on the verge of going stale. He has a role to play this spring.
Either Holtby or Dembele will have to be shackled to a more disciplined defensive role, while Sigurdsson and the other play further forward. With Bale regularly drifting toward the centre too, it’s a formidable midfield even if not everyone is in their favoured position.
If the goals dry up there’s not a great deal that can be done to stop it, but the dysfunctional midfield can be fixed.