Note: We're previewing each team in the Premier League in advance of the coming season. We started with the promoted teams, and now we are moving up the table (more or less), skippingand saving them for last.
Tottenham Hotspur finished 5th last year after a strong start to the season, then spent the summer reloading, unlike many of their compatriots at the top of the table. Can they take a step forward in 2013-14? I sat down with Bryan A. of Cartilage Free Captain, SBN's Spurs blog, to preview the upcoming season.
Coming Home: Last season, Spurs finished 5th, 1 spot out of the Champions League again. The missing piece has arguably been a true scoring threat from the forward position. Is Roberto Soldado the Chosen One that will bring Tottenham Hotspur back to the big stage? What is this club's ceiling?
Bryan A.: I think Soldado is probably the best striker that Tottenham could have hoped to get in this transfer window. In that regard, I would say he's almost certainly the chosen one. As you said, Spurs had basically no goal-scoring threat from the center forward position and just about any threat would have made defenses a little more honest last year. Soldado has scored 20+ goals in all competitions in each of the last four seasons so there's no reason to think he can't provide that threat. The question on ceiling is much harder to answer. Even without Gareth Bale, this is a team capable of finishing fourth or fifth; however, if Bale stays and plays effectively than I don't think third is out of the question. A title challenge might be a bit much though.
CHN: What does your gut tell you about where Gareth Bale will play football this year? If he stays, do you see his role changing to accommodate the new players?
BA: My gut has always told me that Bale will stay for this season. Without Champions League football we can't hope to hold on to him much longer than that, but I genuinely think he'll be a Tottenham player all season. As far as his role goes, I think the only change we will see is a permanent move to the right inside forward position. He'll become Tottenham's version of Hulk from Andre Villas-Boas' Porto days.
CHN: AVB's high line gets a lot of negative attention, and it strikes me as a lose-lose situation as far as supporters are concerned. When it works, nobody notices, and when it does, it's the first thing people point to. Are you tired of this conversation, or do you think the criticism has merit? Do you think the tactic is well-suited to the defensive personnel?
BA: I think that criticism really died off last year once Hugo Lloris took over goalkeeping duties for Spurs. Lloris is so quick of his line to scoop up balls in behind the defense. Having a player like Lloris, who is essentially a sweeper keeper, really makes the high-line work. As far as the players in defense, they're all well suited to the high-line. All the players are agile and if/when Younes Kaboul replaces Michael Dawson in the lineup they all possess pretty good pace.
CHN: The purchase of Soldado has grabbed all of the headlines, but in my non-Spurs-centric world I haven't heard much at all about Paulinho. What can you tell us about him? How will he fit the system?
BA: Here's the best way that I can describe Paulinho: he's a powerful, attack-minded shuttling midfielder who brings honed qualities including strength, dribbling, accurate long-range shooting to the side. He's a threat from indirect set-pieces and one he's settled should be one of the first names on the team sheet. He probably displaces Mousa Dembele, who was one of our best players last year, in the starting lineup. In terms of fit, Paulinho fits in great. He's more than strong enough for the English game and can play in a number of different tactics. In Paulinho, Sandro, Dembele, and, possibly, Etienne Capoue Spurs have one of the biggest, strongest midfield in all of football.
CHN: Given your current squad, what would your ideal Starting XI be?
BA: My ideal XI is to put the best eleven players on the pitch in AVB's preferred 4-3-3 formation. It looks like this: Lloris; Walker, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Assou-Ekotto; Sandro, Paulinho, Dembele; Bale, Soldado, Townsend.
CHN: What do you expect Andre Villas-Boas' Starting XI will be?
BA: What actually will happen is AVB will pick one of Paulinho and Dembele and then play Gylfi Sigurdsson or Lewis Holtby in midfield. Andros Townsend might not be the immediate starter at left forward, but I think he's a better option than new signing Nacer Chadli, for now. We'll probably look more like this: Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen, Rose; Sandro, Paulinho, Sigurdsson; Bale, Soldado, Chadli.
CHN: What would have to happen this season for you to consider it a success?
BA: Qualification for the Champions League. I'd like to win a trophy. The Europa League would be cool to win as would any of the domestic trophies, but we could go out right away in all those competitions and finish third or fourth and I'd be over the moon.
CHN: Where will Tottenham Hotspur finish in the table?
BA: This year is one of flux for the Premier League. There are new managers at United, City, and Chelsea. Arsenal have done next to nothing all summer. Spurs, meanwhile, have spent big and, so far, retained their best player. If one were overly optimistic they might see a title challenge on the cards. If I were a betting man though, I'd say we finish fourth.
Thanks to Bryan A. for taking the time to answer these questions. Visit Cartilage Free Captain for all things Tottenham Hotspur.