Tottenham Hotspur haven't been able to control either of their first two matches and it comes down to the absence of one man -- Luka Modric
Two matches. One point.
Already, Tottenham Hotspur are off to a better start than they got off to last season. Admittedly, last year's first two matches came against the two Manchester clubs, which were a tad better than Newcastle and West Brom, but at last check one point was still more than zero and points are non-discriminatory.
This season's start is not last season's start, though. The point aside, the first two matches have been 180 minutes of a warning for what could continue all season, and that does not bode well for Spurs.
At times, Tottenham have been marvelous. They have kept the ball, been inventive and created chances. They have snuffed out chances at the back and on many occasions, Sandro has cut out an opponent's foray forward smartly before it could even constitute as a chance.
Spurs have played much like they wanted to struggled to play with any consistency for parts of last season and they have done it without a striker capable of playing in their system for 153 of their 180 minutes. There is no questioning that they have been the better side for at least 100 of those minutes too.
So what is the problem for Tottenham? They have never been in control.
Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea team last year weren't necessarily bad. They got some top performances from some of their better players, they had some scintillating moves and at times, they looked as good as any team around. Juan Mata was the darling of the league for a while and Daniel Sturridge had all of England aflutter.
Chelsea also always looked like they were scrambling. They never really found a groove and while it would be unfair to say that they were chasing the game in the traditional sense, they pretty much were. It was just a different kind of chase.
Some of the time they were fast enough that they could outrun the game, put their opponents in their rearview mirrors and take off, but don't confuse that for being in control. And at some point, when you are chasing the game, constantly trying to outrun it, the game catches up.
Eventually, the game caught up to Chelsea more often than not. Their inability to control tempo, grab a hold of a match and play with calm overrode their stretches of frenetic attacking play, no matter how entertaining the latter could be. The game always wins out when you can't hold it.
That is very much what Tottenham's team looks like now. That was especially true against West Brom, where Spurs were the better team for very long stretches and never trailing, but it always felt like the match was about to get away from them.
This isn't just a Villas-Boas problem. He did not bring with him some hex that makes the game some bar of soap that the team cannot quite get a handle of. It's the team and its dependence on one player that made Spurs the way they are because that player is missing.
No player is as instrumental to Tottenham as Luka Modric and if you think otherwise, watch the team's last two matches. Watch Spurs at the beginning of last season without him. Watch as time and time again, the match begins to slip away for Tottenham and they look around for some sense of calm, only to be without the diminutive, galloping Modric to do it for them.
Modric almost single-handedly controls matches for Spurs. In between 40 yard long balls that he drops on a dime or the flick with the outside of the boot that leaves defenses in a tizzy, he dictates the tempo for Tottenham.
What Modric does isn't always the most flashy. Sometimes it can be as simple as bailing a teammate out with a splendid first touch of a wayward pass that allows him to turn into space, survey the field and turn a match of frantic disorganization to one of calm, with Tottenham on the ball and staring down a backtracking defense. Other times it is making a simple pass to an isolated Rafael van der Vaart that the Dutchman gives right back to Modric, but gets van der Vaart the touch he is desperate for and keeps him from dropping so deep for the ball that Spurs look nothing like a team ready to attack. Upon occasion, it is as minor of passing into an empty space that gives Benoit Assou-Ekotto no choice but to push forward, draw a defender and open up the center for the team to exploit five, six or even seven passes later.
As composed, Tottenham are a team that revolves around Modric. Without him, they fly forward, much to the entertainment of the spectators, but with little class. It becomes a constant race, to stay ahead of their opponents and just as much, ahead of the game.
Modric is the player who controls the match for Tottenham, giving them the calm and purpose that a team with thoroughbreds like Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon need. That a team with an undisciplined van der Vaart and a roaming Emmanuel Adebayor need. That a team that is like many others, without a wizard in defense and needing a midfielder to bridge the gap between them and the attackers need.
Very few teams have a player like Modric because there are so few players like Modric and there are plenty of other teams that excel without a maestro in the midfield that Spurs' Croatian. But those teams do not play with the players that Spurs do and with the abandon that Spurs do.
There is a reason that Chelsea tried so desperately to buy Modric last year. It wasn't just the desire to add another world class player, but a recognition that the Blues needed someone in the middle who could reign in a match. They didn't get Modric and spent much of the year watching matches eventually catch up to them and run them by until they changed their way of play to compensate for the absence of a true virtuoso in the center.
Now Tottenham have begun another year without Modric, only this time they will have to play the rest of the year that way. Twice now the match has gotten away from them and they have one point to show for it.
None of this means that without Modric Spurs are doomed to watch matches slip away from them in their post-Modric world. It means that Tottenham have a glaring problem and that they have to fix it, but that problem isn't in Modric's brilliant long balls are dances through the defense that most rightfully fawn over Modric for. That problem is in his ability to single-handedly pull the strings on a match and make it one under his control and Spurs' control.
Now Villas-Boas, with the help of Daniel Levy has to figure out how to fix that problem. Odds are, it won't be in a single player because there aren't many Luka Modric's floating around out there. It will be a systematic change like the one Chelsea eventually made last year because if they cannot find a way to get the match under control, the season will get away from them just as quickly as their first two matches have.