With a quarter of the season gone, we take a look at our squad to figure out how best to legislate for injuries and poor form.
So Chelsea happened. We lost. But move along, people, there's nothing to see here. We went into the game with arguably only three of our first choice players in their proper positions. Even so, we acquitted ourselves respectably and I wouldn't read too much into the result.
But now that it's over, it's time to look forward. Almost a quarter of the season is gone and I think by now we've gotten a pretty good handle on our squad and what's working and what needs a little tinkering.
Brad Friedel was restored between the sticks despite Lloris's excellent performance against Aston Villa and an even better one against the World Champions while on international duty last week. But even though he shipped four goals against Chelsea, Big Brad really wasn't too bad. Sure there's the possibility that Lloris would have had the reflexes to save Cahill's deflected shot or the athleticism to get down for Mata's low strike. But maybe not.
It doesn't really matter.
You don't give up four goals and get to keep playing when there's a world class international waiting on the bench. Brad Friedel has been a wonderful servant to the club, and for him to play even half as well as he has at his age is a miracle of modern science. But it's time to pass the baton. Hugo Lloris is a decade and a half younger, has better reflexes, better distribution, and the all-important "sweeping" abilities to come off his line that AVB's system so desperately needs.
And now AVB finally has the media-proof excuse he's need to finally install him in goal.
Defence - Center Backs
Gallas had a shocker this weekend. And a man of the match performance against Manchester United just a few short weeks ago. The truth of his abilities probably lies somewhere in the middle. He's a more than capable defender with truckloads of experience and excellent leadership qualities. But he's not the future of Tottenham Hotspur.
In Younes Kaboul, Jan Vertonghen, and Steven Caulker, Spurs have three young, excellent center backs. At this point, Jan Vertonghen should be our first choice center back. He exudes class in every dimension of his play in both halves of the pitch. But if there's anything he lacks, it's the physicality to hack it against some of the more rough-and-tumble strikers in the EPL. We saw against Norwich and West Brom how badly he and Gallas fared against hulking bulldozers like Grant Holt and Romelu Lukaku.
Think of great center back pairings in recent memory: Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Puyol and Pique, and even Carvalho and (ugh) John Terry. They all have one thing in common. They're a marriage of elegant ball-winner and rugged bruiser. Vertonghen is the former and he needs the latter.
Luckily we have two giant defensemonsters to deploy him with.
Younes Kaboul was one of the players of the season last year and it's tragic that he hasn't been healthy this year. Steven Caulker is still a diamond in the rough, but he's already shown huge ability in his limited time with the first team. He gives us a strong physical presence and for the first time in recent memory, an offensive weapon on set pieces.
Until Kaboul comes back to fitness, Caulker and Vertonghen should be our center back pairing. Yes, even while Benny is still out.
Defence - Full Backs
Right now Disco Benny LOL and Kyle Walker are our first choice fullbacks, but both have presented us with problems in recent weeks. BAE's absence through injury has seen us try both Kyle Naughton and Jan Vertonghen in his left back role.
Vertonghen's marauding runs down the left wing have been dangerous and thrilling, but he's not a left back. And he's too valuable at center back to keep wasting him out wide. He's done a commendable job so far, but his positional awareness and defensive instincts in the position are suspect. Mata gave him a brutal afternoon on Saturday and Vertonghen's failure to track back directly cost us the third goal.
Kyle Naughton is a natural fullback, and even though he prefers the right, he played on the left numerous times for Norwich last year and has shown he's capable of doing the job. He did well for us there until he got hurt, and now that he's healthy again he should get the nod until Benny comes back.
Some of you may by hollering right now that if Naughton's going to come into the team anywhere, he should replace Kyle Walker. Well you're wrong.
Kyle Walker has had a rough start to the season so far. I've been one of his biggest detractors on the site, but it's not because he's a bad player. He's an amazing athlete with tons of potential and when he goes forward, defenders weep in fear. But his defensive positioning has gotten him into trouble time and time again this season. And he's becoming a bit of a liability.
But despite what the twitterati calling for his head would have you believe, he actually had a pretty good game this weekend. He kept Eden Hazard, one of the early standout players of the season, completely in his pocket on Saturday. Yes, he gave the ball away cheaply to Mata that led to the fourth goal. He made one bad mistake (which you could argue should have been blown for a foul) and we were punished for it. That seems to happen a lot to him this season. Kyle Walker plays well, makes a mistake, and his man scores or sets up a goal.
But this time felt different. It wasn't a case of Walker switching off and losing his man. This wasn't him getting caught too far upfield. This was Kyle Walker trying too hard to create something out of nothing in the dying moments of the game to try and salvage a point. It didn't work. Let's not crucify him for it.
Ultimately, he's a young player who needs time to sort out the kinks in his game. And until Benny comes back, I think we should give it to him.
If we drop Walker for Naughton, we're forced to stick with Vertonghen on the left. Either way, we're potentially vulnerable down one of our flanks. But with Vertonghen at left back, we're also missing our best healthy center back in his natural position. That doesn't make any sense. Give Walker the chance to prove everyone wrong. When Benny comes back and if Naughton has been playing well, then we can talk about which Kyle should be our right back. Not until then.
If Dembele's outstanding performances this season haven't demonstrated how crucial he is, then his absence against Chelsea certainly did. He's quickly become the most important player on our team. Our entire offense runs through him and his boundless energy and precision tackling also helps protect our shaky back four. Given the backup choices in our squad, he is absolutely irreplaceable. This is not ok. Finding backup for him in January is absolutely crucial at this point.
But for now, if he's going to be out, what do we do? Tom Huddlestone is a wonderful passer of the ball, but he does not even remotely play the same game as Dembele. It's very difficult to have your team structured around a midfielder who plays like Dembele and then replace him with someone who very much doesn't. Unfortunately, we have nobody else like Dembele, so we have to find some way to make it work.
Hudd is still coming back from injury, and he can still do a job for us, but Chelsea exposed his weaknesses. Every time he got the ball he was hounded out of possession and all the wonderful cross-field passes in the world don't matter if he can't hold onto the ball. Thankfully, most other teams won't apply the same pressure that high up the pitch, and against more timid opposition, a midfield pairing of Sandro and Huddlestone could work. But we can't count on that.
We've already seen that Livermore and Sandro don't work together as a twosome. Tom Carroll is an option, but for all we've seen of him this season it's starting to look like AVB is keeping him locked in a cage in the basement of Hotspur Way.
Until Moose comes back, I think it's worth trying a midfield three of Sandro, Livermore, and Huddlestone. Right now Livermore is a man without a position. He's not a defensive midfielder, he's not a passer, he's not Dembele. He's just a body in midfield trying to do too much at once without a whole lot of success.
But with Huddlestone and Sandro alongside him, he doesn't have to worry about all that responsibility. He can help Sandro do the defensive work, and he can provide a passing outlet to Huddlestone when Hudd's under pressure. He has the pace and speed to drive the ball forward, which he can do with confidence knowing Hudd and Sandro can mop up behind him. And with two other players that close to him, he can keep his passing short and simple without worrying about carrying the burden of midfield creativity. This still means he has a vague and undefined role, but with two players alongside him instead of one, he has the potential to turn this weakness into a strength.
The obvious problem here is that this will leave a big gap between our midfield and our attack, and it would mean Dempsey/Sigurdsson stay on the bench. But given their form, is that necessarily a bad thing? Neither of them have set the world alight, and without Dembele behind them, they both have failed to link effectively with whichever midfield pair occupies the double pivot.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are our first choice wingers and they've both been pretty effective so far. Bale hasn't yet hit the heights he once did, but he's shown enough glimpses of his ability to prove he's still got it.
Aaron Lennon looks like a man reborn and against Chelsea he was far and away our most deadly attacking threat. He's started coming inside more with the ball and the added dimensions of his game have given opposition fullbacks nightmares. The clever pass for Defoe's goal shows that Lennon is no longer the classic English touchline hugging winger with poor delivery. The Willian rumors from this summer have started rearing up again, and a few months ago most people would have jumped at the chance. But now Lennon's form suggests it might be money better spent elsewhere.
In the absence of Bale this weekend, we saw three players try their hand in his position. Dempsey had an absolutely shocking performance. He gave up the ball whenever Chelsea asked for it and his lack of foot speed made him a poor like for like replacement for the Welsh Jesus. But Dempsey played left wing most of last season at Fulham and it worked. So why didn't it work here?
Deuce needs players close to him who can hold the ball and pass the ball where he wants it. He is not a guy who will create for the team. He likes to keep it simple, pass and move, and wait for the clever pass in behind the defense that he can sneak onto. He is not a guy who can burn down the wing and put in crosses, or beat a mean with jinking dribbles. With Defoe up top and a midfield unable to give him what he needed, he looked completely lost out wide. With Adebayor and Dembele in the team, it might have gone differently for Clint, but for now, it's not the answer.
Sigurdsson switched to the left flank in the second half and it showed a marked improvement in the way we played. Whether that was down to his own ability or just a product of removing the poor Dempsey from the wing, I can't really say. But he looked more involved, and but for some better finishing, he could have made the difference.
Jermain Defoe also took a turn out wide when Adebayor came on and he probably looked the best of the three. He's got pace and the natural inclination to head straight towards goal and create shooting opportunities for himself. He didn't provide a whole lot for the team, but he put Ivanovic on his heels for the first time all game and was a goal threat we badly needed in Bale's absence. (It also helped that he had Adebayor to play off of rather than himself, but Defoe can't really do a whole lot about that).
Lastly, there's Andros Townsend. The obvious like for like replacement for Gareth Bale was unfortunate to find himself a spectator for the entire match this weekend. He's shown hints of real talent, but his cameos have been all too brief so far. Hopefully he can get a run out in the cups to prove he's ready to handle a bigger role in the EPL, because wing cover is badly needed. Even untested as he is, if Defoe continues up top, I'd rather see him starting out wide in Bale's absence than our other options.
Dempsey and Siggy Stardust are duking it out for the most advanced midfield player, and so far they're both losing the fight. We keep saying that they'll be better once Adebayor's around, but Adebayor continues to not be around. Sigurdsson looked miles better this weekend, so if AVB persists in pairing one of them with Defoe, I've gotta give the nod to our resident viking. His all-around play hasn't been wonderful, but he seems to be getting the hang of what's expected of him in AVB's system better than Deuce right now.
Up top, Defoe's been in red hot form and it's hard to justify dropping a guy who keeps scoring goals. But Adebayor's skillset is so much better designed for playing with this team that I can't justify leaving him out either. He hasn't been fit and he hasn't shown a whole lot in his brief appearances so far, but we saw last year what he can do. With Southampton ahead of us this weekend, it's the perfect opportunity to give him an easy game to see what he brings to the table and how the team looks around him. Ultimately we need to find out if Dempsey/Siggy actually do play better with him up top, because if they don't, we need to figure out what the hell we're going to do.
What do y'all think? Who do you want to see this weekend? How should we solve the gaps in our squad when key players are missing? Sound off in the comments!