Jim White

Struggling Spurs on shaky ground

Jim White

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Here are a couple of statistics that shed fresh light on Tottenham's season. Arsenal — a club pitched deep into apparently terminal crisis but two months ago - have scored five more Premier League goals than they have. In the last 13 league games, Spurs have taken 19 points. Blackburn, seemingly adrift with a manager no one wants and owners everyone hates, have taken 18.

Oh, and Spurs haven't won at Stamford Bridge since 1990. A win for Chelsea — the club that fired its manager for his failure to deliver an acceptable challenge - in this weekend's cross-town derby would move them to within two points of their rivals for fourth place. Suddenly even Champions League qualification, which had seemed a formality but a month ago, is beginning to look worryingly in doubt for Tottenham.

It is one of football's trickiest managerial juggling acts to time form appropriately to match the season's rhythms. It might be thought that it is simply a matter of happenstance, the cheerful coincidence of players peaking at the same time, were Sir Alex Ferguson not able to do it season after season, moving his team into overdrive at precisely the point it matters. At Spurs, the opposite seems to be taking place.

The middle distance runner Hannah England recently explained that the trick of winning a 1500-metre race was to decelerate less quickly than your rivals. At the end of a four-minute charge in which everyone has given their all physically, inevitably you are tying up, it is impossible not to slow down. But the winner of the race is the one who has spread their effort with sufficient husbandry to go backwards the least quickly.

And that is exactly the same as in the Premier League. The habit of continuing to pick up points when others are forgetting to is the one that wins the title. Spurs, after being the most eye-catching contender in the leading pack for most of the race, have started to go backwards as the field hits the final bend.

The game against Stoke this week was typical of their current malaise. They seemed to be in total control of the match, out-passing and out-thinking their opponents, then allowed them to score with their only shot on target. Nine games to go, and you begin to wonder where the next win is going to come from.

There are myriad reasons being proposed by Spurs followers for the decline: injuries still continue to afflict the club; the squad is too shallow in critical positions to sustain a full campaign; players previously in compelling form are entering an inevitable dip; the speculation crowding around their manager's future has helped no one. And there is something in all of that. Particularly the latter.

The FA's bizarre decision to sit on its hands in the selection of the new England manager has done the leading contender no favours at all. The question of his future hangs over every press conference, it must be on the minds of players who have largely responded in a personal way to their boss. If nothing else, if the FA actually wants him, its three months of inactivity has merely allowed Daniel Levy to outflank them and prepare an anything-you-want offer to keep his man.

But the main disappointment for neutrals is that the possibility Spurs might make a left-field challenge on the title itself is now clearly a busted flush. Only King Kenny's super soaraway Liverpool (who have picked up a massive 13 of the last 39 available points) have gone more alarmingly into reverse. Well, them and the great renaissance twit Joey Barton, who has, according to Opta, played more inaccurate passes than any other outfield Premier League player this season, with 357 skanked and shinned fluff-ups. No wonder they are booing him at Loftus Road.

Of course the FA Cup remains open at White Hart Lane, even if to win it they would be obliged to dismiss the country's new sentimental favourites Bolton on the way. But given the refreshing manner they embarked on their league campaign, the promise of those scintillating performances in October and November, the vision of pace and power they presented in their autumn pomp, the cup will be the most empty of consolations.

What will Redknapp have learned from this season? Most singularly that the title race is a marathon, not a sprint. A cliché maybe, and one challenged by Jose Mourinho when he had his Chelsea team tear from the starting blocks eight seasons ago and then never look back. But one that still obtains nevertheless.

He will have learned that to sustain his team through the effort, pre-season has to be calm, untroubled and dedicated to building stamina and fitness. Not dominated by poisonous speculation over his best player. He will have learned he needs a couple more class recruits to buff up his reserves. But most alarmingly for Spurs fans, he might have learned that the England dug out looks rather enticing after all.

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