Building from the back

One of a kind, Ledley King. The man was a giant. Not in the sense of his physical stature, but his presence, whether on the pitch, in the dressing room or in the minds of Spurs fans, was colossal. Only the supporters of Tottenham and those who played with and against him truly know the tragic loss English football suffered when it was deprived of King’s special talent. His greatest foe, Thierry Henry, played and scored against the best defenders in the world and recognises King as the greatest he’s ever faced. Some praise and all the proof you need to recognise the man’s magnificent genius.

When he played, those on the pitch alongside King lifted their heads half an inch higher. He was not a captain in the same mould as John Terry; he would sometimes bark instructions to his teammates like the Chelsea defender, but his leadership emanated from the example he set on the pitch. ‘This is the standard I’m setting, aspire to play like that’. And though none of his teammates could ever match up to their captain, when they played alongside him, their level rose far beyond normal capability.

Michael Dawson was a fine defender and servant to Tottenham, but one of limited skill. Without Ledley King, Dawson may have never had a career at Tottenham, but their years together at White Hart Lane saw Dawson become a player and a man far greater than his ceiling promised. So special a man was King, that he made players around him look so much more talented and confident.

King was not alone as a talented defender at White Hart Lane. Dawson in particular had a career at Spurs that will forever endear him to the fans. Jonathan Woodgate and King may have been the defensive partnership for England for ten years, rather than Terry and Rio Ferdinand, if injury hadn’t ravaged both of their careers. In Harry Redknapp’s final season, Younes Kaboul was a towering powerhouse, the perfect partner for King and his potential successor, but once again cruel, recurring injuries stole a potentially impressive career from a Tottenham centre half.

Despite the brilliance of Ledley King and the brief successful partnerships he had, the former England international never really played in a consistently strong defence. Tottenham of course are synonymous with attacking flair rather than solid foundation, and it is their frail base in particular that has tainted them and held the club back from success in the last fifteen years. King was a master, but even he couldn’t single-handedly stop his team conceding goals whilst playing with lesser defenders, under managers that didn’t have an interest in building a defence.

Since the great man retired, things have got worse. Only four teams conceded more goals than Tottenham in the Premier League last season. They finished 14th, 15th, 17th and 20th. That’s an unbelievable statistic, embarrassing for a side that finished 5th and claims to be fighting for Champions League football. It’s even more incomprehensible when you realise the manager was an international defender for Argentina. No matter how good your forwards are, if you concede 53 league goals, like Spurs did last year, you’ll struggle to qualify for the Champions League.

It’s promising then, and refreshing at Tottenham, to see a manager address the defence first and look to build a strong base before we focus on attacking options. The turnaround in defensive personnel has been surprisingly quick and efficient. Kieran Trippier and Kevin Wimmer have been acquired to bring competition and depth into positions that desperately needed a re-shuffle. Most importantly, Mauricio Pochettino and his staff have made a signing to improve the starting team, with the exciting arrival of Toby Alderweireld. As well as the incomings, Kaboul has left after his sad decline since 2012 and you would expect at least one more to follow, necessary departures for Tottenham’s wage bill.

Spurs have shown their intent to improve where they need to most and you’d hope Pochettino and the other coaches have been doing a lot of work in the early days of pre-season to improve the defence with faces new and old. The new signings will mean nothing after all if work is not done on the training ground. Spurs don’t have someone of King’s talent now, they likely never will, but if the coaching staff can use the new signings and form a back four that can work in tandem with each other, understand each other and form a cohesion that is often a rarity in a Tottenham defence, then White Hart Lane may finally see a workable defence, one that is overall more effective than any King ever played in.

There’s no need to reel off old clichés about the importance of defence in football, but Pochettino, Paul Mitchell and Daniel Levy have clearly agreed on taking the course of action to build a solid foundation and move forward from there. It’s the sensible strategy and hopefully the one that will work for Tottenham. There’s still much to be done in this transfer window. Now that the base has been set, the architects at Spurs must start designing a midfield to protect the new look back four and an attack to support Harry Kane.

The important first bricks have been laid and it’s so far been a pragmatic and successful window. The new contract for Nabil Bentaleb is also of huge importance to maintaining the spine of Pochettino’s side and in Dele Alli there may be another midfield gem. If more support can be brought into the midfield and attack in the next few weeks, the early excitement will grow and the coming season will look even more promising. Congratulations is in order to the chairman, the manager and his team for a solid start to the window. Keep it up.