Noisy Neighbours

Sunday the 22nd of January was the biggest day of the season for the Sky Sports corporation. Mega-Ultra-Awesome-Super Sunday, or something like that. First, Man City hosted Tottenham, but, more importantly, the biggest fixture in the Premier League calendar: Arsenal against Manchester United.

For years, Richard Keys and Andy Gray (remember them?) thrived on days like these – and I’m not talking about Charlotte Jackson’s latest photoshoot for Zoo. They virtually built their careers on the meetings between the two biggest clubs that would effectively determine the destination of that season’s title. The English El Clásico, as it were. Indeed, the Premier League trophy had either Arsenal or Manchester United etched on it every season between 1996 and 2004, and their clashes have always been eagerly anticipated throughout the year. Sky maintained this tradition by broadcasting the match at the Emirates in the more glamorous 4pm slot.

Only it struck this engrossed viewer as little more than a sideshow for the main event. The two clubs’ local rivals met at the Etihad beforehand in a thrilling encounter, which was considerably more entertaining than the procession in North London. It was men against boys for long periods during Manchester United’s victory – quite literally, with the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nico Yennaris turning out for the Gunners.

The match between Man City and Tottenham, however, was played to a significantly higher standard than that of their more decorated local rivals. It certainly appears this season that the noisy neighbours are finally set to enjoy some long-awaited success, with nouveau riche City top and looking comfortably the best side in the league, while Harry Redknapp has built a formidable squad at White Hart Lane.

It was a fantastic game, which had just about everything, from controversial incidents to stunning goals. And it would have featured a spectacular comeback, had Jermain Defoe’s leg been just an inch longer. As it was, Mario Balotelli (I have no idea why it’s always you, Mario) provided Manchester City with a victory they barely deserved.

In spite of this, the way Tottenham played and so nearly grasped all three points from such a bleak situation was enough, finally, to convince me that their title challenge is genuine. For much of the second half, they outplayed their hosts, despite having fallen behind to two quick-fire goals. Yes, they were handed a way back into the game by the shockingly bad Stefan Savic, who presented Defoe with his goal just moments after City had gone 2-0 up, but take nothing away from Spurs’ performance.

The Citizens’ rise to dominance this season has been well documented, and is largely down to Sheikh Mansour’s enormous wealth. Spurs, in the meantime, have not seen the sort of investment that has been afforded to Roberto Mancini, yet have made the leap that several clubs before them have tried and failed to do. To name but three, Newcastle, Everton and Aston Villa have all been in and around the top four in the last decade, yet have failed to launch any kind of serious title challenge – or even remain there. Why have Tottenham succeeded where others before them have failed?

I had been adamant that Tottenham were little more than a side on great form, and, as the saying goes: form is temporary, class is permanent. The likes of Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Emmanuel Adebayor are players who blow hot and cold – but have done more of the former so far this season.

However, Bale in particular has persuaded me that the contrary is true. Granted, he is not always at his blistering best, when he can single-handedly tear teams apart (just ask Inter), but his pace and awareness are consistently good enough to make any defender tremble when they see him running at them. He’s proved that consistently this season, such as with those two fine strikes against Wigan.

The introduction of Scott Parker into the side has been a revelation. As well as being capable of single-handedly dominating football matches, as he showed with West Ham last season, he acts as the perfect foil for his more glamorous team-mates. Bale, van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon are given a free rein to terrorise opposition defences, and, perhaps more importantly, most of the strain is taken off Luka Modric, safe in the knowledge that his midfield partner will do the dirty work.

Modric, too, has been instrumental. It spoke volumes for Spurs’ ambition this summer that they fended off the attentions of Chelsea, which culminated in a last-ditch £40million bid. Modric now plays for the highest-placed club in the capital, which doesn’t look like changing any time soon. For the first time since its inception, Arsenal may have to forego this year’s St Totteringham’s Day celebrations.

Steven Pienaar actually turned down Chelsea last January in favour of a move to North London, which has proven justified in terms of status. However, having struggled with injury and failed to break into the line-up at the Lane, the South African midfielder has returned to Everton on loan. Nevertheless, the fact that Daniel Levy is now able to flex the club’s financial muscle to the point of beating off the Blues reflects just how far Spurs have come.

So often Tottenham’s Achilles heel, the defence has also been relatively mean, having leaked fewer goals than both of their London rivals. This is in no small part down to the emergence of Younes Kaboul as a world-class central defender, while Ledley King has already featured in twice as many games this season than he did last. Kyle Walker’s stock has risen considerably, as he goes from scoring the winner in the North London derby to picking up a man of the match award in an England shirt.

Crucially, the back line has also been shored up by the addition of Brad Friedel. The American keeper has consistently defied his age to put in a string of excellent performances, which inspires confidence throughout the defence. It must certainly be reassuring knowing that he, rather than the unpredictable Heurelho Gomes, is behind you.

There is great balance in the team: Bale and Lennon provide the width, while Parker and Modric complement one another perfectly in the middle. And, significantly, it is an established side – the starting eleven virtually picks itself. This is always a winning formula, as the players learn each other’s games inside out and can maintain a good run of form, once such a run begins.

But who is ultimately responsible for assembling this squad of title challengers?

Much praise has been bestowed upon Harry Redknapp for the job he has done at White Hart Lane, but it still doesn’t do him justice. When he arrived, an underperforming side was floundering under Juande Ramos, culminating in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of newly-promoted Stoke, which left Spurs propping up the table.

Just three years on, there is little separating them from the Premier League’s summit. Redknapp’s ability to get the best out of players cannot be questioned. The likes of Kaboul and Defoe had been considered surplus to requirements by Ramos and shipped off to Portsmouth (where Redknapp was manager), but have since been brought back to North London and flourished.

Redknapp’s transfer policy has always served him well: renowned as a wheeler-dealer, he persuaded such stars as Lassana Diarra, Sulley Muntari and Sol Campbell to join him at Fratton Park, bringing the FA Cup to the South Coast as a result.

His ideas have come under scrutiny this week, with the seemingly odd signings of Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen. However, I trust that he knows what he’s doing. Spurs fans were largely disappointed with his transfer activity this summer – but he’s been proven right. At worst, they will both prove to be capable squad players.

Another reason for Redknapp’s success is the simplicity of his tactics. Exhibit A: After scoring the opening goal in Tottenham’s 4-2 League Cup victory over Liverpool in Redknapp’s fifth game in charge, Roman Pavlyuchenko told the press that his manager’s advice had been to “run about a bit.” Pavlyuchenko had struggled for form under Ramos, but was reborn after Redknapp’s arrival, insisting that this was all the advice he needed. Many players would agree: they pay little attention to, and understand little of, the intricate details of the game. Redknapp is fully aware of this.

Witness the style of football that Spurs currently employ. Get the ball, keep it, give it to the playmakers, score. Parker, Modric, Bale, Adebayor. It’s just that simple.

Those who criticise Redknapp for his tactical naivety, citing it as the reason he should not be given the England job, need only look at how his side are thriving in their current setup. England have had tactically astute coaches – namely Sven Goran Eriksson and the recently resigned Fabio Capello – and that hasn’t worked. Perhaps what they need is someone who understands them better and who can motivate them to perform at their best.

There is no reason why the likes of Spain and Germany can’t be beaten by Redknapp’s game plan. Parker, Modric, Bale, Adebayor becomes Parker, Wilshere, Lennon, Rooney.

Though the exceptionally average Stuart Pearce has now been given the caretaker role, there is little in the way of Redknapp getting the England manager’s role, having been cleared of tax evasion. While Tottenham fans may feel any continuation of their recent resurgence may depend on Redknapp staying at the club, supporters of the national side should be praying the opposite. I put it to you; if anyone is capable of bringing football home, Harry Redknapp is that man.

Your witness.


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