No, it’s not a typo and I know the cliché is supposed to be the other way around. But I think that, if there’s one thing that we can learn tactically from this season, it’s that the key to our attacking football has been our ability to defend.
There has been all manner of fuss made about Redknapp’s great daring in setting us out to play 4-4-2 with two wingers and no holding midfielder at Man City. He encourages it by repeating in his column that we “only know one way to play”, which is to attack.
It’s misdirection. Our season has been an unprecedented success because we have learned to defend. We haven’t scored more goals than in most of our previous decent seasons, but we have conceded fewer. In no game have we conceded 4 or more goals. We have won numerous games by a single goal – games in which any previous Spurs team would have found it very difficult, especially mentally, to defend a one goal lead and successfully close out the match.
The keystone to our attacking strategy has been that the whole team defends. True, we have a bevy of very high quality defensive players, but there are simply no “luxury players” in our side. We have been defending from the front and through midfield all season and it has not made the slightest difference which players have started each match. It’s been coached into them.
Crouch gets a great deal of criticism when starts, for his attacking play and his perceived effect on our tactics. Quite a few people consider him to be an ideal substitute when we need a goal, but often when he comes on late in a match, he is there as much for his excellent work at defensive set pieces as for his value as an outlet and the chance that he might score a goal. Away against Stoke, as against other direct, physical opposition, he started and he was invaluable, heading away nearly all of Delap’s long throws.
Defoe holds the ball up remarkably well for a small man. Gudjohnsen and Keane can drop back into midfield. When we beat Chelsea, Pavlyuchenko would get into Mikel’s or Ballack’s face and slow them down whenever they tried to launch a break from our loss of possession.
All of our wingers are remarkably responsible when we don’t have the ball: Lennon and Bale use their pace to track back, whereas Modric and Bentley tackle and show good positioning. The stereotype winger is off hanging around on the touchline waiting for someone to serve him the ball. Our wide players don’t do that.
In Palacios, Huddlestone (at last) and Modric we have central midfielders who have learned that no one can play football without knowing how to tackle and close down space. They all do it and, when Hudd and Wilson play, it’s often unclear which is the defensive midfielder, so often do they swap places. Even Kranjcar has been known to tackle occasionally and is reasonably good at closing down space.
The underlying point is that these players scarcely have to be taught to attack. It’s what they want to do and, when they get a chance to turn themselves loose, we pass and move and score goals. The canny management has been about getting the whole team working together when we don’t have the ball: tackling, tracking back, slowing down the opposition. It’s specifically why we have coped so well on multiple occasions against teams who play an extra man in midfield.
The whole-team defending is what enables us to adopt a 4-4-2 attacking formation without haemorrhaging goals and that is what I mean when I say that [having an effective] defence is the best form of attack. In more general terms, it’s a major reason why we finished fourth.