The injuries sustained by Bale and Lennon immediately raised questions about how Tottenham would cope without the attacking, creative play the two players bring to the team. That is the most obvious difficulty but there are also clear indications that the team is missing the defensive qualities they bring to the side during the course of a match.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon have combined over the past seasons to provide Tottenham with attacking options from wide on the wings. Their current absence through injury is hurting Tottenham not only as an attacking force but defensively causing additional problems for the team.
Andre Villas-Boas was optimistic immediately after Thursday’s Europa League draw with Basel that the other players would make up for the loss of Bale and Lennon and the players displayed a total commitment as they snatched a late equaliser after a difficult match with Everton at White Hart Lane. Gylfi Sigurdsson, the goal scorer, speaking to Stan Collymore on talkSPORT was confident that Spurs could cope without Lennon and Bale. He said in the interview,
“Obviously when you lose players like Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale it’s going to be a big loss for any team. But we’ve got players on the bench, and around the squad, that are hungry and want to do well for the team. They are ready to come in at the end of the season.”
Bale and Lennon have built a reputation for providing width and pace to the Tottenham attack and there is no greater sight than seeing Spurs counter-attacking quickly with either Bale or Lennon on the ball. The goal in the San Siro in 2011 in the Champions League is a perfect example of what Lennon brings to the team with pace and direct running at defenders when on that occasion he was able to set up Peter Couch for the only goal against AC Milan. Go back a few months and in the same stadium Bale demonstrated his ability to run at defenders from inside his own half as he punished Inter Milan with a hat-trick. Those were just two of many occasions the players have delivered for Spurs.
The loss of that attacking threat is obviously a great loss for Spurs and is not something they can instantly replace as they don’t have any other natural wingers in the squad. They are feeling the impact of Andros Townsend and Iago Falque being out on loan now that injury has struck late in the season.
Tottenham’s defence has looked uncertain in recent matches coinciding with the absence of Bale and Lennon from their usual positions on the wings. The defeat against Inter Milan exposed Spurs defensive weaknesses at full back.
The absence of Lennon, in particular, and Bale from the team causes Tottenham a number of problems defensively.
- Tracking back: Their absence requires a change of formation as Spurs no longer have players who can take on the opposition and run at them from a wide position at pace. Players are having to show a versatility and adapt to an unfamiliar role which requires them to track back to support the full-back when the opposition is attacking. This has left the two full back exposed and opposition teams have enjoyed considerable success. Even with Bale in the team, having been given a roving or more central role the left backs, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Naughton, have struggled at times this season. When Bale played mostly on the left wing, he developed a good understanding with Assou-Ekotto both in attack and defence. Without Bale there, Assou-Ekotto has been less effective this year. Against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium, their right back was causing Spurs the most problems as he was able to move forward to deliver dangerous crosses as Bale was playing more centrally that day. Aaron Lennon regularly does a great deal of unselfish defensive work for the team, covering for Kyle Walker when he goes marauding forward and also tackling back in support when necessary. This has been an aspect of Lennon’s game which has developed greatly in the past couple of seasons to the benefit of the team.
- Attacking Full Backs: In the absence of wingers, Tottenham expects the full backs to move forward to provide the width which normally comes from Lennon and Bale. All of the Tottenham full backs are quite capable of fulfilling that role but it creates a problem when Spurs lose possession in midfield. They are exposed to a swift attack with the ball played into the space behind the full backs. The full backs have been caught up-field during the season and all have been found wanting. Vertonghen struggles to get back into position when this happens with Assou-Ekotto uses his pace to recover the situation. Inter Milan used that space to great effect in last month’s Europa League defeat in Italy. They had numerous opportunities to punish Tottenham but fortunately squandered a great number of them or Spurs would have been returning to London following an even more embarrassing result.
- Encourages Opposing Full Backs: The presence of Bale and Lennon is always on the minds of opposing defenders which makes them wary to venture too far forward in case they are caught up-field and are punished when Spurs spring a sudden attack. Defenders frequently resort to the only response they have to the wingers’ pace by taking Bale and Lennon out as early as they can before they get in to their stride. Without the attacking threat, however, opposing full backs feel a certain freedom to attack down the flanks. The Basel right back made the most of the freedom of White Hart Lane which Spurs afforded him to deliver numerous crosses which caused panic in Tottenham’s penalty area. As did Swansea the previous weekend.
In the continuing absence of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon Tottenham are facing problems both creatively and defensively. It is to be hoped that the players selected to play in the wider midfield roles, Sigurdsson and Lewis Holtby, can develop the discipline to take on the defensive responsibilities that are part of a wide player’s role and are so important for developing a solid base from which a team can build success.