Does anyone have any idea what to expect in this match? What formation does Meulensteen run out? What players does he pick? Does he bunker against a superior side? Does he try to attack? I have no idea, which at least makes the match interesting and gives me something to look forward to. Which is quite different than the dread I've had at most Fulham matches lately.
To help preview this match I sat down (well, I assume he was sitting down, though maybe he responds to email standing up) with Uncle Menno from Cartilage Free Captain to go over this week's fixture. Before I go on, I must admit, if I have a second club it is Tottenham. My wife roots for them, and I always cheer for them when they aren't playing Fulham. That being said, there's no club I want to beat more than them (except for maybe Chelsea, and definitely QPR).
CC: Spurs had one of the worst performances of the year against City. They followed that up with a win (though hardly convincing, and I actually watched the entire match) against Tromso. Then they played United and performed much better, but still were not able to secure the victory despite leading twice. How desperate are the club and the supporters for a win against Fulham?
Cartilage Free Captain: Well, not nearly as desperate now as they were about six hours ago. It's easy to get a bit alarmist about the last stretch for Spurs, and it's true that they have not played well. At all. But the past stretch has contained some very tricky matches: a hard-earned draw at Everton, a fluke loss vs. Newcastle where Spurs dominated but Krul made 14 saves, and incredibly tough games at City and home to United. We've come through with 5 points in 5 matches, which ain't great, but it could've been worse, and despite a couple of derps Spurs played very well today against Moyes' boys. There are signs of optimism here.
I don't mean to disrespect Fulham in any way, but yes, this is a team that Tottenham SHOULD beat and really NEEDS to beat on Wednesday to get its Champions League ambitions back on track. However, it's at Craven Cottage, which is not the easiest place to play, and you'll never ever catch me saying that this is a game that's "nailed on," especially now that Fulham have sacked Martin Jol and will be playing their first game with Rene Mulensteen. That's a buzz-saw waiting to happen.
As far as the Tromsø match, it was a Europa league match with a rotated squad on a freezing plastic pitch in the middle of northern Norway. It's always difficult to know what to take away from matches like that. I'm just happy to come back with a win and no injured players.
CC: AVB seems to be under immense pressure. I've started to see calls for him to be sacked (Martin Jol is now available if you want him). Do you think there is anything to this? Is there any chance is job is actually in jeopardy?
CFC: Awwwwww. We love Martin Jol, that big ol' Dutch teddy bear. A lot of Spurs fans think he was unfairly sacked for Juande Ramos, and considering Ramos' tenure, it's hard to argue that point. I started seriously following Spurs during Jol's time and I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the guy. I'm sorry to see him go. But I digress.
I find it very difficult to believe that AVB is truly under that much pressure from the Spurs board, to be honest. Look, we've all read the David Hytner article in The Guardian by now, and while I'm sure there's a germ of truth in there -- it's not difficult to understand how the board would be less than thrilled with big losses to Manchester City and West Ham -- sacking him now for "results" would be one of the most myopic decisions made by the board of any football club in recent memory. Spurs made a risky hire when they appointed AVB as manager, but they did it with the long view in mind, knowing that he's an incredibly talented and incredibly young manager that will need time to learn on the job and to build a team that will succeed in his system. If Spurs wanted instant title-contending results after the Bale sale, then they should've sacked Villas-Boas this summer and appointed someone with greater championship pedigree like, say, Guus Hiddink. You can't expect a club to sell its best player for £100m, bring in seven new players, and expect the pieces to immediately click. Could Spurs be playing better? Of course. Should they be playing better? I think so. Has AVB made mistakes? Undoubtably. But there's nothing new here that is a fireable offense that Spurs didn't already know back in June. The only conceivable way I can see Spurs making a coaching change now is if it's revealed that AVB is physically or verbally abusive to his players and has lost the dressing room, and there's no indication, despite what the papers say, that that's happening.
Now, if we lay eggs vs. Fulham and Sunderland, well. To be continued.
CC: I need to ask about Moussa Dembele. He was one of the most talented players I've ever seen at Fulham and it broke my heart a little to see him go. When he was moved from forward/winger to the box to box half of a double pivot, his game became a revelation. Unfortunately, I don't see his game fitting in that well at Tottenham. AVB seems to prefer two real holding players in the pivot and Dembele isn't really good enough attacking or finishing to play as the 10 behind the striker. He also doesn't have the pace for the wings. What do you see his role as with the club? He's made noise of wanting to leave, would you convince someone to let Fulham have him back?
CFC: A couple of points on Dembele. First, you're absolutely right -- I think he's a fantastic player, and it's a minor miracle that we were able to scoop him up before someone like United, Chelsea, or Arsenal. Honestly, I'm not sure AVB really knows what to do with a player like Dembele, and part of that comes down to how he likes to structure his sides.
Where Dembele has excelled this season and last has been when he's been paired with Sandro in the double-pivot. With Sandro playing as essentially an anchor man and lurking in front of the back four breaking up play, Dembele is then more free to operate as a deep-lying playmaker with more autonomy to either get forward or distribute the ball to the inside forwards or the #10 in attacking positions. When Dembele struggled last year it was after Sandro went down with his season-ending injury and AVB decided to pair him with Scott Parker. Confoundingly, Moussa was nearly always placed as the holding midfielder with Parker as the box-to-box instead of the other way around, and it just did NOT work. Far, far, FAR too often this season we've seen Moussa paired with Paulinho, and almost always it's been Moussa who's been in the more defensive role, which does not suit him. It hasn't suited Paulinho either, who often isn't sure whether he should be attacking or defending and consequently doesn't do either.
We saw Moussa in his element today vs. United when, again paired with Sandro, he was given the freedom to roam the midfield and set up play. Paulinho, meanwhile, was operating more or less as a withdrawn second striker, finding the gaps between the United midfield and their CBs. The result was more like a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1 than a double-pivot 4-2-3-1. I thought it worked pretty darned well. It was as good as I've seen the Tottenham midfield play this season.
Moussa's gotten a bit of a bad rep from many Spurs fans who aren't happy with the way he's been playing, but I mostly think that it's less his ability and more the way he's been used. He's not going to pick out a pass like Luka Modric, and he's not going to pepper the net like Steven Gerrard, but he has bags of ability and a great motor. He definitely has a role to play with Spurs, and he can be one of the best players on the pitch. If I'm Spurs manager, at this point he and Sandro are the first two players on the team sheet.
Projected lineup, and score prediction
CFC: Hope springs eternal. This was a positive result today, and I desperately want to say that we're out of the doldrums. That said, this match has "trap game" written all over it, and I'm going to go with a nervy 2-1 Spurs win.