Poor Tottenham Hotspur. For a long stretch of the 2011/12 season, they were London's top team. For a while, you could talk about them as though they were serious contenders for the Premier League title without too many people snickering at you. And now they're playing in the Europa League.
Some of that is thanks to luck -- a team that finishes fourth in the Premier League does not normally expected to get booted out of the next season's Champions League by a side below them winning the whole thing -- but Spurs shot themselves in the foot with a rather epic collapse over the tail end of the season. They shouldn't have needed Chelsea to lose against Bayern Munich last May. They should have had the situation thoroughly under control.
How much of Tottenham's late-season collapse was down to the speculation linking then-manager Harry Redknapp with the vacant England position? It's hard to say, but Spurs have sorted out any potential problem there by dismissing Redknapp and bringing in former Porto coach Andre Villas-Boas, who had been let go after a calamitous spell at Chelsea, who then rallied to screw Tottenham over in the final game of the season.
The managerial situation is sorted out, then, but there are still plenty of question marks about Villas-Boas' ability to lead a team at this level. He was accused by many of being too 'corporate' with the Blues, and his style seemed to alienate the big stars at Stamford Bridge. His heavy handling of the Luka Modric situation aside, it sounds as though he's learned from his mistakes, but the season could easily hinge on how well Tottenham's players take to their new manager's methods.
Oh, and speaking of Luka Modric, the league's best player almost certainly will not be with the team come September. The Real Madrid rumours are intensifying, and it's clear that the Croatian has no intention of sticking around at White Hart Lane any longer. Losing Modric, who controls the midfield in a way very few are able, will be a major blow to Spurs' ambitions of making the Champions League. But you'd have to imagine that Tottenham will have anticipated their loss -- there's some suggestion that Modric will be replaced with Porto's Joao Moutinho as soon as he's shipped off to the Santiago Bernabeu, which would certainly mitigate some of the damage done by his loss.
Elsewhere, Jan Vertonghen has come in, a move which will turn the centre of Tottenham's back line from a fairly slow, lumbering affair to a different beast entirely. The relatively speedy Vertonghen is much better suited to Villas-Boas' preferred high line than his predecessors in the Tottenham defence, and he's a fine defender on top of that. Gylfi Sigurdsson is another major addition, and he'll battle it out with (and ultimately beat) Rafael van der Vaart for the honour of playing in the hole between Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
You'll note that I didn't say 'the hole behind the striker'. That's because, as best as I can tell, there is no striker. Emmanuel Adebayor costs too much for Tottenham to keep around. Louis Saha was released. Jermain Defoe appears to be the only reasonable option at centre forward. For a team which thinks it can seriously compete for trophies, that's just sad.
Without Luka Modric and a real centre forward, Spurs simply aren't as good as last year. It's difficult to say just where they'll finish, given the inherent volatility around Villas-Boas, who's had a brilliant season as well as a catastrophic one, but it probably won't be in the top four again.
Last year: 4th; 20W 9D 9L.
This year: 6th. Without Emmanuel Adebayor and Luka Modric, this team is lacking both the subtlety and the bite of last year's edition of Tottenham Hotspur, even if the managerial situation is a little more stable these days.
Key player(s): Gareth Bale. It's easy to forget just how young Bale is. The 23-year-old has been with Spurs for six seasons now, and he's established himself as one of the best pure left wingers in the world. As long as he doesn't keep getting moved around into positions where he's far less effective, he'll be a forced to be reckoned with down that left flank. With Modric on the way out, he's Tottenham's only remaining world-class player.
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