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Quiet Revolutions

In an era of Galácticos, oil ball, and 300,000-a-week wages, it’s easy to view football as a revolution. When something is wrong, blow it up and start over. Avram Grant not working out? Try Ancelotti. Ancelotti not the ticket? Go for AVB. If Ronaldo and Kaka aren’t enough to be beat Barcelona, maybe Ronaldo, Kaka and The Special One will be. If a group of mostly-academy grads isn’t enough to hold off Madrid, add Alexis Sanchez and academy washout Cesc Fabregas—even though you’re already millions in debt.

In the world of football, it’s easy to think that no one has small problems. No one has a light switch that doesn’t work or a leaky faucet. Everyone has a house that just burned to the ground (probably due to fireworks in the bathroom). But despite the obsession with full-scale revolution, football clubs can still have small problems. Sometimes subtle-but-significant changes can be the difference between Thursday night football in Larnaca and competing for the Premier League title. For proof, look no further than Tottenham Hotspur.

When Spurs supporters—and, I’ll admit it up front, I’m one of them—remember April 14, 2010 they remember it as the “Danny Rose Game,” the match in which emergency-starter and 18-year-old Spurs debutant Danny Rose hit a miracle volley to beat Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia in the 10th minute. Spurs went on to win the match 2-1 and rode the momentum of their first league victory over Arsenal in 11 years all the way to 4th place in the Premiership and a berth in the Champions League.

But it’s possible that the most significant goal of the day wasn’t Rose’s wonder strike, but the second that came at the beginning of the second half. Rose wasn’t the only new starter at wing for Spurs that day. The other was a young Welshman named Gareth Bale. Early in the second half, Jermain Defoe picked out an uncharacteristically well-placed pass to hit Bale in stride, cutting behind the Gunners defense. Bale slotted home coolly to give Spurs a 2-0 lead which Brazilian keeper Gomes made stand in his finest hour in a Spurs shirt.

Only a few months before this match, Bale had been an afterthought for Spurs. On opening day, he wasn’t even in the squad as Luka Modric started on the left wing while Tom Huddlestone and Wilson Palacios patrolled midfield. He was a 90th minute sub in a 3-0 home victory over Manchester City that December. He didn’t start until January in a disappointing 0-0 home draw with Hull. The conventional wisdom in England at the time was that Bale was too much of a defensive liability to play left back. In most cases, Bale’s story would end there. If he were a Chelsea or Manchester City player, he would’ve been branded a failure, loaned out and straggled along in footballing purgatory for several seasons and perhaps never recovered.

Thankfully for Bale, Harry Redknapp saw more than an over-ambitious left back with defensive weaknesses that made him a liability. He saw a wideman with searing pace and a fantastic left foot. Late in the season, he shifted Bale to left wing. Spurs rode the shift to the aforementioned 2-1 win over Arsenal followed by massive away victories against Chelsea and Manchester City. To the question, “how did Spurs go from perennial-underachievers to Champions League quarter-finalists and now a contender for the Premiership title?” one of the answers must surely be Bale’s move. Spurs had a problem: they lacked pace on the left to complement Aaron Lennon’s on the right. But where other clubs would splash out big money on an expensive transfer, Spurs shifted Gareth Bale forward.

A similar move can be credited for Luka Modrić’s equally meteoric rise. At the beginning of his Spurs career, Modrić was deployed on the left with Huddlestone playing the role of distributor in the middle and Palacios in the destroyer role. But when a drop in form caused Palacios to lose his spot, Redknapp shifted Modrić into the center, which was actually Modrić’s preferred position. He had made his name playing in the center at Dinamo Zagreb. When he moved to the Premier League, he’d been moved out wide in order to avoid the bruising tacklers that filled many Premiership midfields. But as with Bale, the shifting of Modrić proved more effective than the size of the change would suggest. Using his good sense of balance, fantastic body control and deceptive strength, Modric coped effectively with the best destroyers English football could throw at him. And with his ability to play the ball and natural touch, he quickly developed into the best deep-lying playmaker this side of Andrea Pirlo.

The combined price Spurs paid for these two players? 23 million pounds. A fee also known as “what Liverpool paid for Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson,” 12 million less than what they spent on Andy Carroll, and not even half of what Chelsea paid for an out-of-form Spanish striker.

Subtle but significant changes are the foundation of Spurs’ entire philosophy. Many have commented on the club’s form over the past few months. Yet for all their dominance, the side is extremely similar to the one that struggled for goals last year and dropped four points to West Brom, five to West Ham, five to Blackpool, and five to Wigan.

What changed? Part of it is simply luck and the natural maturation of footballers: Ledley King is healthy and Kyle Walker has taken hold at right back. But the biggest changes came via the transfer market. Anyone who watched Spurs last year knew that the team needed two things for sure and possibly a third: a steady keeper, a target man, and maybe a bit more steel in midfield. If Sheikh Mansour, Abramovich or anyone at Real Madrid or Barca faced those problems you’d know what’s coming: a 30 to 40 million pound striker, a 12 million pound destroyer and a six to eight million pound keeper. And that’s a baseline. Realistically, they’d probably spend more than that. And on top of the transfer fees, you’d have the striker on close to £200k a week and the other new arrivals on something between £80 and £120k a week. That’s the MARIO BALOTELLI!! approach to building a football team and it’s all the rage in today’s game.

But sometimes teams have minor problems. That point may be lost on Roman Abramovich, but Daniel Levy gets it. So his Spurs favor more modest moves: A loan deal for an out-of-favor striker at Man City (which includes City paying a fair part of his absurd wage), a free transfer for an aging but sturdy American keeper and, perhaps most importantly, a small, five million pound signing of a footballer whose talent and heart were never in doubt but whose age scared off other suitors. True, changing a quarter of your first XI probably pushes the definition of a “small but subtle changes,” but the point is that in both man-management and the transfer market, Tottenham prefer a more modest approach that complements existing parts. In the West Brom game recently, the transfer-fee costs of the entire Spurs first XI were around 50 million pounds—the same price as one Fernando Torres.

Clearly, revolution garners headlines. And sometimes it creates thrilling football, as we’ve seen with this year’s Man City and the current edition of the Galácticos. But more often than not, a team’s problems are smaller than their supporters or ownership might first expect. Oftentimes, it often turns out that a team is only one or two small moves away from glory. It’s a refreshing truth to keep in mind when so many believe that trophies can be bought and sold at the price of a barrel of oil.

Jake Meador is a writer and editor who lives in Lincoln NE where he often feels like the lone soccer fan drowning in a sea of football-obsessed red. He blogs on sports, culture, politics, economics and theology at Notes from a Small Place.

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Quiet Revolutions

by Jake Meador · December 15, 2011

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