How Tottenham Hotspur have turned into the early favourites for the fourth place spot...
In the Premier League, aside from winning the title, fourth place is surely the next most coveted position. With the first three places looking to be indefinitely occupied by the Manchester duo of City and United, as well as the Chelsea juggernaut, fourth place is the apparent limit for the three clubs behind them. These three clubs comprising Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs.
The appeal, prestige, and glory of playing a midweek game under the lights against Europe’s elite, whilst the Champions League chorus blares out of every avaliable tannoy, and the tens of millions of pounds on offer as reward for competing in the competition, is almost impossible to resist for players, managers, chairmen, and fans alike.
As the most recent round of games in the Premier League ended, a month into the season and five fixtures out of the way, the table is beginning to shape itself.
Before the start of the season many people, myself included, struggled to see how Spurs could possibly finish higher than sixth place. A lack of new signings, coupled with Luka Modric flirting with a move to Chelsea, drove Spurs boss Harry Redknapp to claim that this was his worst pre-season he had ever experienced.
A resurgent and rejuvinated Liverpool, packed with new expensive signings, coupled with the longevity of Arsenal’s stay in Europe’s elite club competition under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage meant they were alledgely the stronger clubs out of the three.
However, it seems we are seeing a change to this script, as is so often the case with football. Tottenham convincing beat challengers Liverpool 4-0 at the Lane at the weekend, whose early optimism has slightly faded with recent results, whilst Arsenal are experiencing their worst start to a season in living memory. The loss of Fabregas and Nasri has had a destablising effect beyond comprehension whilst their replacements, solid players that they are (Arteta, Benayoun et al), are of inferior quality to what has gone before them.
Liverpool, whilst building a new team in affect over the summer with the magnificent Luis Suarez as the star, still look at times to be a team that is still adapting to playing together. At the weekend against Tottenham, the Liverpool defence struggled to cope with the pace and strength of Spurs’ attack, particularly Gareth Bale, and this resulted in the poor disciplinary stat of ending the game with only nine men on the pitch. The Anfield club are unquestionably a good team full of good players, with the inspirational Steven Gerrard still to return, but they will not get fourth place based upon this performance.
That honour, at this moment in the time, must go to Spurs. After the two debacles against the Manchester clubs, in which they conceded eight goals and scored only once, coupled with the exhausting Luka Modric transfer saga, Spurs look to be finally getting their heads down and playing their football. In their previous game against Wolves, their defence had a solidity about it that had been lacking in their first two games. The return of Ledley King to the fold surely is responsible for this. The attack seems to have a new lease of life with Emmanual Adebayor upfront, holding the ball up for quicker players to exploit defences, and three goals in two games for himself pays testament to this.
Equally as encouraging has been the two goals in two league games for Jermain Defoe, as he is now halfway to eclipsing his league total from last season! A forward partnership of two strikers was something lacking from Spurs last season as Redknapp favoured Peter Crouch and Rafael Van Der Vaart, the result of this being the Dutchman scoring as many league goals as Crouch, Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko combined. The early signs from the past few games indicate a new strike partnership for Spurs could well be in the making.
Crucially as well, in the centre of the park, the duo of Scott Parker and Luka Modric look to be a good base for the starting attacks, with Parker sitting just in front of the back four and allowing Modric to get forward like he did for his maiden strike of the season.
The refusal to sell Modric to Chelsea was an extermely brave decision, particularly when £40 million was rumoured to be offered for his services, but it could well turn out to be the making of Tottenham’s season in the race for fourth place. I was personally critical of that decision, as I believe every player has a price and it is difficult to keep someone who does not want to play for the club anymore, but he could well turn out to be the difference between bringing either bringing Champions League or Europa League football to the Lane next season.
Of course, it is ridiculously early to be making definitive predictions and the end of the season I may well be proven horrendously wrong, but the Lilywhites certainly look to have a slender early advantage at the five game mark of the 2011-2012 campaign.