Simple pleasures as talent trumps science for Spurs
Harry Redknapp's focus on quality, not tactics, is the real reason for Tottenham's renaissance, says Paul Hayward
Top football management is assumed to be an intricate weave of science, economics and psychology. Harry Redknapp thinks it is all much simpler than that.
With a shrug the Tottenham Hotspur manager shared his ideology last week during an exchange about Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart: "I just love watching them play. For me sitting there, watching them pass the ball, watching them train -- you want to be around good players."
What, is that it? No War and Peace of Prozone stats? No GPS tracking to measure footfall? No Vince Lombardi mind tricks? The modern audience demands mystique. It wants the boffins to be hard at work on pattern-of-play routines.
Redknapp is no back-of-a-fag-packet improviser, no mere putter of arms round players. Research told him Werder Bremen's right-back on Wednesday night was tasty. So after an exhaustive series of analytical seminars he responded to that challenge the way you would expect Harry Redknapp to. He sent Gareth Bale out to rip him apart.
Fleet Street has dispatched many an earnest reporting squad to expose the secret of Redknapp's success. Most come back muttering about "a good eye for a player" and a gift for reviving stalled careers. These are unsatisfying answers because they leave the mind still groping for a hidden ingredient and fail to explain the paradox of a man rooted in another era summoning the knowhow to beat Inter 3-1 and guide Spurs into the knock-out stage of the Champions League at the first attempt with one game to spare.
The "other" era is the pre-Premier League age of greater free-spiritedness and spontaneity. His reference points tend to come in sepia. Describing how William Gallas steered Werder's Marko Marin up dead ends in the 3-0 win at White Hart Lane, Redknapp said: "I remember Bobby [Moore] doing that to Jairzinho in the World Cup."
These are not the touchstones of managers who think games should be won by deduction, by set-pieces and tactical cunning. You would wait an age for Rafa Benitez, for example, to illustrate a point about the present with a misty reference to an heroic past. Redknapp will apply the more mundane ingredients when necessary but his primary instinct is to overwhelm the opposition with match-turning talent.
"We've got players here who could play in any team," Redknapp boasted as European success was filed away ahead of today's visit by Liverpool. "Gareth Bale could play anywhere. Luka Modric could get into almost any team."
He is, above all, a curator of men who stand out from the mass of competent, job-doing pros who might get you half-way up the Premier League table but no higher.
In the past, Redknapp seemed not to mind being cast as a cartoon cut-out of a cockney geezer who treated the transfer system like a Sunday morning market in Albert Square. But when a Sky reporter recently referred to him as a "wheeler-dealer" in a post-match interview, 'Arry stomped out, complaining: "I'm not a wheeler-dealer, I'm a football manager."
The revolving-door approach at Portsmouth and West Ham has evolved into high-end talent acquisition at a stable club who find themselves fielding a side of confident entertainers. "It's an open team. When we're open and play open we're most at risk, so you can't have it both ways," Redknapp says. This is his artistic manifesto and his gamble. ""Two wide men stuck out wide leave you very open in midfield but it's a strength as well. Going forward it makes you pretty dangerous to anyone."
Football is swarming with scouts with "good eyes". The line between good and great managers is the ability some have to liberate and exploit potential. A list of those who have improved under Redknapp (Bale, Younes Kaboul, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, Jermain Defoe and so on) would run to till-roll length. Those who have regressed (Wilson Palacios) or stagnated (Aaron Lennon, David Bentley) may just be incapable of transcending their own flaws.
Just how good is Harry Redknapp is a question that will be answered when his religion of positivity is tested by the great powers in the last 16 of the Champions League and by more seasoned rivals in the last 10 games of the Premier League campaign. Alerted by Tottenham's triumph over Inter, Europe's heavyweights will examine Redknapp's system in search of exploitable gaps. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal will back themselves to be better at protecting leads and winning tight late-season matches.
But the sense radiating from White Hart Lane is of rebirth, of something special finding shape, under the gaze of a manager who can be grumpy and indignant, as well as cabaret cheery, and who thinks it his first duty to help talent work its charm on the game. Observer
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