As the whistle sounded on Sunday afternoon at White Hart Lane calling time on another satisfying display of football from a quietly achieving Spurs side, it dawned quickly that the unthinkable had finally been realized- Tottenham had kept a clean sheet during the 2012/13 season. At the fulcrum was a confident performance in goal from Hugo Lloris, the French national side captain who appeared to have well taken his chance to cement the number one role in this current Tottenham side. It was thus naturally with unease that the news that Lloris would re-enter rotation with Brad Friedel after the international break was greeted by the Tottenham faithful as it was broke by manager André Villas-Boas in the press conference which followed.
Yet I argue that there is not yet cause to throw our hands up in despair and scream at the skies to God telling him we'll do anything to make the confusing things stop happening. Friedel might not have the abilities to remain as a logical number one these days, yet I believe that rotation is a strategy that could yet yield further benefits for the Spurs keepers, and the key to understanding how lies in examining the life and career of Brad Friedel himself.
At 41, Friedel has amassed 83 caps for the USMNT, and has just seen a run of 310 consecutive games in the Premier League come to an end; incredible accomplishments which place Friedel squarely in the history books of all-time goalkeeping greats. At his age, he now has no burning desire to prove anything these days, yet would never pass up the opportunity to keep playing well for his team. Friedel thus puts Lloris under gentle pressure not through a vindictive, all-consuming appetite to cement a place as number one whatever the cost, but through his experience and the admiration his achievements command. In turn, it seems only logical that Lloris should view Friedel with respect- someone who has set a high bar for him to live up to rather than a figure who presents a threat to his reputation and livelihood. The keeper competition at Tottenham thus plays on positive themes -- achievements, experience, potential and contribution, all aided by the inter-generational context with frames it.
Let us now contrast this state of affairs with the difficulties which emerged within the Chelsea camp in early 2011 as key figures such as Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole were benched in favour of players who offered something different tactically or appeared more dynamic additions to the squad. The difference lies in the fact that, for whatever reason, the players in question at Chelsea felt that they were being made to participate in a localized contest which only had bearings on their own careers. These players saw the emphasis of their being dropped not being on team performance, but on their own personal abilities- I'm being told I'm not good enough, I am getting forced out. That the divide-and-rule strategy was internalized by Lampard and others is clear from the readiness with which these players made public their horror at being dropped by AVB. The story of squad rotation at Chelsea thus played on negative themes -- antagonism, struggle, and personal insecurity, a ‘contest of denigration'.
Contrastingly, at Tottenham in 2012 under AVB, it might be possible to label Villas-Boas' current approach a ‘contest of contribution'. In the early days of Hugo Lloris' time at Tottenham, I and I'm sure a few others like me will admit to having been unnerved by the manager's seeming ambivalence towards the role of the young French star in the side, stoked by certain choice quotes pertaining to how players have no automatic ‘right' to play upon signing for a new club. The fear that Villas-Boas might be lapsing into old habits of making squad choices appear personal rather than for the benefit of the team -- of giving players reasons to internalize the competition within the squad- crept back into my mind.
With time, however, I feel differences have revealed themselves in AVB's approaches to competition and rotation at Chelsea and Tottenham. Rather than stress any issues with Lloris, AVB has been careful to emphasize the positives in Friedel's performances alone. These comments have not merely been focused on individual matches but have been framed by references to the American's character and how important he has been in general to the club in recent seasons- "good professional", "paying respect to a player who is performing very well". As previously mentioned, this approach is strengthened by the fact that Friedel isn't from the same generation as Lloris and has more Premier League and national team experience to his name than the Frenchman may ever garner. He is in every sense a player whose work inside and outside of the walls of Hotspur Way must be respected, and thus when AVB proceeds to do so on and off the pitch he implicitly sets the benchmark for Lloris and creates a positive ‘contest of contribution'. The message is not "act now to save your careers", but "you'll get a go, see if you can top".
Can we argue with the results? Friedel and Lloris have both played exceptionally well in the early stages of Tottenham's campaign so far. The same strategy of tinkering that the press has seized upon to sound the early death knells for AVB's Tottenham project has seemingly not dented the confidence of either man. The simple truth appears to be that Lloris acknowledges what Friedel can and has done for Spurs, and Friedel respects with Lloris has done and will do for Spurs. The approach thrives off of mutual respect and both men push each other on to be the overachiever and to meet each other's exploits within the side. The effect has been confidence between the sticks so far for Tottenham- the pinnacle, perhaps, was Lloris' clean sheet against Villa on Sunday.
The great thing about Brad Friedel is thus that he has played well enough to keep Tottenham's goal safe in recent weeks while also showing Lloris what a true model professional does. The great thing about Hugo Lloris is that he has taken it on board, and met the challenge with an even more solid performance. Quietly, in the background, Spurs have benefited throughout. Obviously, going forward, it will be beneficial to have Lloris ultimately settle into the role and make the Spurs goalmouth his home. Yet by keeping Friedel in the frame, we make sure that he knows getting the role is a privilege, not a forgone right. When he's done besting Brad Friedel in the gentle contest of contribution, he'll find that there will be almost no-one left to best in the League, and through positive rotation Spurs will have found a keeper who fought and won to make the role his own.
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