Quick, make a short mental list of things that cost Tottenham third place and a guaranteed Champions League spot this season past. What would go on it? Lack of depth in every area of the pitch, most sharply in defence? A manager who didn't know how to change tactics when things were going badly? Cosmic intervention, based on the historically pre-ordinated fate of Spurs to let you down?
All valid answers, but ultimately, I don't feel any of these points quite touch fully on the reason why Spurs didn't secure the finish we wanted for them in the May of this year. Conversely, I feel that at the heart of the problem was goals- not in the raw sense of getting a good haul of them, because we came a lot closer to breaking the 100 mark last time out than we have in recent seasons. Instead, I'm going stick my neck out and say the lack of late goals, at crucial times and in specific contexts, was the single cause of our failure to qualify for the Champions League last season. As we have seen in recent weeks with a series of disappointing results, this problem wasn't confined only to the management period of Harry Redknapp- it is a problem endemic with the squad we have at the moment that we cannot come up with match-winning, or even just draw-securing goals when we so desperately need one.
It is with this solitary issue in mind that I am prepared to say that Daniel Levy may just have pulled off the coup of the transfer window. With the signing of Clint Dempsey, he has (perhaps inadvertently) patched a hole in the side that has haunted Tottenham for some time now, and in doing so may have heavily impacted on the team's capacity to achieve this season.
Time for another mental listing session. If pressed, what would you identify as the turning points of last season for Tottenham that adversely affected our chances of a top three finish? There are no right or wrong answers here, but if you didn't have the 3-2 defeat to Manchester City at Eastlands and the 1-1 away draw at Aston Villa, I'd be somewhat surprised. In the first case, Spurs fans witnessed what could have been a historic moment for Tottenham where a side that still looked like it could compete for the title went down late to the presumed favourites after coming literally within inches of securing the opposite result. In the latter, Spurs passed up the chance to move back into the third place gifted to them by Arsenal by failing to overcome a below-par and demoralized Alex McLeish side. The common element in both of these cases was that Spurs went down to early goals, rallied to tie the game, yet failed to come up with a winner and ultimately came up short on the results we badly needed.
These are only the two most important examples, in my mind, of an issue that pervaded last season. Others include the 1-1 and 0-0 draws with Chelsea, where a dominant Spurs side on both occasions failed to net a vital matchwinner; a 1-0 defeat at QPR, where a jaded Spurs side just couldn't find the necessary penetration to avoid going down to a far weaker side; a 1-2 defeat away at Stoke. All of these matches were there for Spurs to take, if they just had the right guy to put the ball in the onion sack at the right moment. It wasn't about domination of possession, beating our opponents in key battles, failing to blaze up their penalty area with a flurry of goal-bound strikes. Tottenham were doing everything right in most of these games- what we lacked is someone who could pop up at that crucial moment and just cap things off.
The solution to this issue, in my mind, can only take one shape- finding a player with the mentality to go out and ensure that the result is closer to what our expectations were at the start of the match. Someone who won't go about their business the seeming que sera, sera attitude that pervaded the Redknapp era.
Enter Clint Dempsey.
When the signing of Dempsey was announced in the dying hours of deadline day on Friday, the reaction on this site from what I could gather was one of confused, tentative approval. Having scored 17 times last season alone, as well as providing a number of assists, it is difficult to deny that Dempsey is well-regarded in the Premiership as player of proven ability. Many admire his tenacity and passion for football in general. But why take the risk on him now, at the age of 29, when he plays primarily in positions we have locked down? Surely he's too good to serve as a squad player- so why bring him in to seemingly do just that?
The true beauty of the signing of Dempsey cannot be observed simply by looking at his raw goal tally, however. To distill it into simple terms, it comes down to this- Dempsey is a game changer. Time and time again last season, when Fulham needed inspiration from somewhere, anywhere, he provided it. Two 1-1 draws with Chelsea, a 1-0 win against Liverpool, another 1-1 draw with West Brom- all down to individual brilliance and a never-say-die attitude from Dempsey. Look at when those goals came- the 53rd and 82nd minutes in the first two of the aforementioned games, the 85th in the third, and the 69th minute in the fourth. Interesting reading considering that Tottenham only scored 7 goals, or 11% of our total, in the last 15 minutes of the game last season.
It's tempting to mark all of Dempsey's impact in these matches down to his dogged commitment alone. As every media outlet tends to parrot when discussing Dempsey's merits, he's a player that's had to fight for every opportunity he's had in life, having hauled himself up from playing for local teams all the way to becoming a key player for a decent Premiership side. But the truth is that while his matchwinning efforts can be attributed partly to his passion, they stem also from his steady technical improvement as a footballer. Last season, we saw Dempsey's preferred approach to scoring goals, that of cutting in from the right and scoring, reap serious dividends. Even when not playing as a centre forward, Dempsey knows exactly what the right routine is for putting the ball in the net, and as this chart from EPL Index shows, he's more reliable than any other wide forward for creating and finishing chances.
Put this into the context of our Tottenham side for a minute. When the going's got tough in recent seasons for Spurs, we've started to see familiar trends- Gareth Bale begins to roam from his most effective position and take long pot-shots at goal which usually serve only to make the day of some lucky guy in the Shelf Stand that gets to take home a match ball. Emmanuel Adebayor can be similarly profligate when goals are needed. Jermain Defoe gets outmuscled by defenders keen to lock down a game and secure important points against a better side. Aaron Lennon can't provide much from the byline after running himself into a corner. I think it's not unfair to say that what we've missed is a figure we can rely upon during these late passages of tight games- a level-head and focused player that can be trusted to deliver time and time again.
Bring Dempsey into the side as a striker or a right forward, and you get a player who is both determined to win the game and has the right mix of competency cutting in, accuracy with his shots, and positional awareness to get himself in the right place to create a finish that Tottenham needs to start turning around tight games. Jermain Defoe may be the side's professional finisher, but he's not the conjurer of vital goals that we might believe him to be. Instead, it is Dempsey that is now the individual on our squad the right mental and technical attributes, as well as the best knack for timing, to come up trumps when we really need him to. It's no surprise that his former Fulham/current Spurs teammate Moussa Dembélé has already chipped in to describe him as "the key to Tottenham's success" this year.
The fact that he can provide goals by moving inside is even more important considering the fact Tottenham have since Niko Kranjcar stopped popping up with an occasional goal failed to provide little penetration from wide positions, relying mainly on Gareth Bale to try his luck shooting across himself from the left and our centre forwards to provide goals from the middle. This approach has made us more predictable and left us short of second options when we're in need of a goal. Dempsey thus not only provides a solution in his own personal qualities, but also in the fact that his favoured position adds another more dynamic wrinkle to Tottenham's attacking approach.
For Tottenham, this might mean less matches thrown away; for our opposition this season, this might signal the end of taking free points off of us. And for those ennerved by Daniel Levy's failure to secure another creative centre mid like Moutinho and an additional out-and-out striker by Friday night, Dempsey's signing must surely be a sign that he and Villas-Boas can still provide tailor-made solutions for the side's flaws when required.
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