Thursday, November 6, 2008

Harry Redknapp and Tottenham Hotspur: Right Man at the Right Time

A little over one week ago Juande Ramos was sacked after presiding over Spurs' worst ever start to a season.

The sacking came as a surprise as it was announced on the eve of a league game against Bolton at White Hart Lane. What came as a bigger shock was news of who his replacement would be, and after Daniel Levy had a bid accepted by Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp became Spurs' 28th manager.

That Ramos was sacked in itself came as no surprise.

At the time, Spurs had only taken two points from a possible 24 and were firmly rooted to the bottom of the EPL. Europe was Ramos' lifeline but Spurs had scraped past Polish side Wisla Krakow (thanks to an own-goal) to qualify for the UEFA Cup group stages. But once there, they produced their worst performance of the season in losing away to Udinese.

The manner of Spurs defeat to the high-flying Italians was alarming to say the least. Tottenham fielded a side consisting of 11 internationals but were bereft of ideas, lacked leadership, weren't organised, and had very little discipline—as Udinese cut them apart.

This performance seemed to be the final straw for Chairman Daniel Levy, and Ramos, Director of Football Damien Comolli and Gus Poyet were all sacked two days later.

As media organisations scrambled to cover the story, news began to emanate from White Hart Lane that Portsmouth had accepted a bid of £5m for their manager's services and Harry Redknapp became Tottenham's new manager just hours before they took on Bolton in a relegation six-pointer.

Spurs went on to beat Bolton convincingly to gain their first win of the season. But they were about to begin their toughest run of fixtures of the season. Their next four fixtures were Arsenal (a), Liverpool (h), Dinamo Zagreb (h, UEFA) and Man City (a).

Levy had obviously installed Redknapp before Bolton with a view of getting some points on the board before they began this run. Many pundits predicted a maximum of one draw from the four games as Spurs were a team without confidence.

Spurs went into the Arsenal match at the Emirates rated at 7/1 by most bookmakers. No-one gave them a chance, yet Spurs produced one of the great EPL comebacks when they came from 4-2 down with a minute left to draw 4-4.

Then four days later they took on the only unbeaten side left in the Premiership, as Spurs faced league leaders Liverpool.

Going into this match the difference between the two sides was stark. Liverpool had begun with their best ever start to a Premiership season as they announced themselves as title contenders while Spurs were bottom of the table. Again bookmakers made Spurs a long shot at 4/1, a long price for a team playing at home.

But again Spurs defied the odds, coming from one down to win the match 2-1 after Roman Pavyluchenko scored the winner in the last minute.

In the UEFA Cup Spurs destroyed Dinamo Zagreb 4-0. Darren Bent scored a hat-trick and the team dominated so much that 16-year-old prodigy John Bostock made his debut in central midfield.

But what had changed?

Redknapp. Plain and simple, Harry Redknapp.

Although Redknapp had only been in charge for a week, the contrast between Spurs under Ramos and the current team was amazing. The personnel were the same but there were subtle changes to tactics and formation. Modric was pushed further forward to support the lone striker, Bentley and Huddlestone were welcomed back with open arms as little changes made a massive impact.

Spurs began to look organised, players who had been hiding under Ramos started to come out of their shell and the discipline that had seen three players sent off in three games returned as Spurs gave away less free-kicks.

Players who had found themselves out in the cold under the old regime were removed from transfer lists, some were brought back into the team and all of a sudden, two weeks after one of the darkest periods in the club's recent history, the optimism had returned.

Redknapp has supplied a breath of fresh air as confidence and happiness flood back into White Hart Lane.

Redknapp is an old style manager. He believes in his players rather than tactics. He puts an arm around the player who is down, and tells them how good they are, how great they could be and that they could achieve great things together.

His tactics are reminiscent of the great Brian Clough's. Pass to a team-mate and move to get a return pass. Simple. But impossibly hard for some managers who strive to make a simple game complicated. That's another part of the reason that players love playing for Harry.

Against Liverpool, Spurs were outplayed in the first half, so Redknapp changed things around. Recognising that Liverpool were superior in every way in midfield, he chose to bring Pavyluchenko on as a second striker and bypass midfield by going forward more directly. Spurs outplayed Liverpool for the last half hour and ran out winning 2-1.

A simple change in tactics that produced a huge dividend.

When Roman Pavyluchenko took to the pitch at half time, he asked if there were any special instructions for him. Redknapp told him "to f***ing run about and put himself around!". Simple instructions.

Compare this to the five minutes leading to Ryan Babel coming on as a sub for Liverpool in the same match, Benitez produced an A4 chart and went through all the tactics that he wanted Babel to use during his time on the pitch.

A bit of an over-simplification I know, but it serves to show the trust that Redknapp has in his players.

Apart from the confidence he gives and their simple instructions, he also lets the players play the way they feel. He trusts his players as they trust him. A beautiful relationship that can be impossible for some to cultivate but comes as second nature for Redknapp and for all the teams he has managed over his 25-year management career.

Over the next couple of weeks Spurs take on Man City, Fulham, Blackburn, and Everton in the league, NEC Breda in the UEFA Cup, and Liverpool in the Carling Cup. All winnable games. And after going unbeaten in their last four games Spurs will look forward to the rest of November with glee.

But Harry knows that confidence is as fragile as a rose. He will make sure Spurs are focused on four games in the league that Spurs could take full points from. Spurs will face NEC as favourites but the match against Liverpool depends on how Rafael Benitez approaches the match, and how important he views the League Cup.

After boosting morale and getting the team playing with confidence, he will begin to place a little pressure on certain player's shoulders and see how they cope. Redknapp is well aware that one loss could extinguish all the good work Spurs have accomplished recently.

Their plight is such that Spurs need to win half of their remaining matches to avoid relegation and after a great start Spurs should have no problem accomplishing this.

So Tottenham's only chance of silverware will be in the cups. Facing Liverpool in the League Cup will be tough, but should they get past them they will have a great chance of going far.

Last season, Redknapp's Portsmouth became the first side outside the "Big Four" to win the FA Cup in many a year, so Spurs will be optimistic of having a good cup run there too.

The UEFA Cup is where Tottenham are focused at the moment and they should at least qualify for the quarterfinals. But with teams like AC Milan, Valencia, and Schalke 04 in the UEFA Cup, I don't expect Tottenham to win it.

And while Harry is boosting morale in the training ground and the terraces he has further boosted fans hopes by saying he is interested in signing the likes of Shay Given, Jermaine Defoe, and Lassana Diarra.

He has also been linked with Michael Owen as Newcastle try to trim their wage bill. He fits the profile of the type of player Redknapp has a fondness for signing as Spurs fans optimism returns.

Tottenham fans approach every season with the hope that "this could be the one where we make the "Big Four" a "Big Five".

And every season finishes the same way.

With Harry in charge the optimism that had drained away under Ramos has returned. The players look happy, the fans look happy—and the future looks bright.

twitter / WillieGannon