Tottenham’s Tony Soprano’s 2nd Season: Success or Failure?

After the disappointment of the UEFA Cup exit to Sevilla, I was baffled at some fans’ calls for our very own “Tony Soprano’s” head, and whilst Martin Jol is the last person I would like to see leave Spurs, failure to qualify for Europe this year would be more than just — according to Aaron Lennon — “a slight step back”; it would be a disaster.

This year Jol has apparently been shown up for a lack of tactical nous, a defence who leaks goals and a weak push to break into the top 4, but are these criticisms justified? In my opinion no, and I will explain why…

Tactical Inability

Never more evident than in the return leg at home to Sevilla, where after being 2-0 down in ten minutes, Jol failed to make a substitution, let alone bring on another striker until the hour mark, or so some people think.

What could our Tony have done? Made sweeping changes to a side who conceded 1) a freak own goal – not down to poor tactics but a lack of concentration 2) a second due to a defensive lapse in the aftermath of the first goal?

No. Jol instead had the confidence to trust his players who had had a perfect record (barring the 1st leg Sevilla loss) of eight wins out of eight in this year’s UEFA Cup, and to produce some of the positive, flowing football he knew they were capable of.

Unfortunately it was not to be, as Dimitar Berbatov’s shot may have hit the post and gone in on another night, and somebody (anybody!) but Dawson could have been on the end of that volley.

At least Jol did not throw on Mido for us to launch long balls to, as that really would have shown tactical incapacity.

I feel that rather than being incapable, Jol chose to test his players’ mental strength and fighting power. Rather than considering our UEFA Cup episode a failure, the team should accept it as an experience they can build on and learn from next season.

Defensive Weakness

This year in the Premiership Spurs have been deemed the most ‘watchable’ team due to our high scoring games, but while 104 goals have gone in during our 35 league fixtures, we have conceded 52 of them, having a worse goals against record than Sheffield United!

One must take into account what Jol himself described as a “defensive crisis”, where at worst, five first choice defenders were unavailable in the second leg of the Sevilla game; probably the most important game of our year.

It is no wonder that a team who has had 20 different combinations of back four during the year, and have been without our captain and rock Ledley King for a large part of it have conceded so many goals.

With him back and fully fit next year, as well as investment in a top-quality left-back, and a Hail Mary for fewer injuries, we will have to tighten up defensively if we are to be on a par with the top teams.

‘Failure’ to break Top 4

Jol ‘falling short’ in this department has been flagged by some fans, but I would tell them to get a reality check. What chance did we have of breaking into the Top 4? Realistically?

Firstly, and what many fail to take into account, is the increase in games from last year, and the effect it has on the squad.

By February 10th this year, with just over 3 months of the season left to go and two cups to play for as well as a solid league position to chase, we had already played 40 games, the same number of games we played during the whole of last season.

This huge games hike has led to forced rotation as well as a number of injuries as we have played three games a week virtually all season, as opposed to last year’s one, due to third round exits from the Carling Cup and FA Cup.

Some may argue that if Spurs are a top side and wish to break into the top 4, they should be able to handle all of these problems, as say, Arsenal have in the last two seasons.

However were Spurs a top-6 side, let alone a top-4 side before Jol arrived? The aspiration to emulate former glory days was there, but the players were always found wanting. Jol has instilled a professionalism that has allowed them to apply themselves over the last two years.

Though there is the occasional lapse, this is to be expected of a young side who is learning every game. For those who are unsatisfied, they need only be reminded of the days of David Pleat (cringe) and Timothee Atouba (double cringe) to see how much Jol’s positive attacking style and calm, rational approach has transformed a team who until last year, were the only Premiership side never to finish in the top or bottom 6, always settling for mid-table mediocrity.

If Spurs qualify for Europe this season, be it even in 7th place due to Manchester United and Chelsea’s FA Cup date, some may say they are lucky, but after coming to terms with the difficulties faced this season, I would say we are due a rub of the green.

Though the threat of finishing outside the top 7 is looming and will perhaps define Jol’s season a failure, it is in our own hands to finish 7th, 6th or even 5th, and now we are concentrating solely on the league, I would not put it past Jol to pull this one out of the hat.

Football Headlines - 04 May 2007
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