Spurs on solid footing

Ian Ridley talks to Gerry Francis about a stronger case for Tottenham's defence
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IT IS a record to stand with that of Blackburn Rovers at the top of the Premiership; going into yesterday's match at Coventry, Tottenham Hotspur had accumulated 19 points during an unbeaten run of seven games. And while Alan Sugar's six-pointer w ith theFootball Association may have had most to do with that rare return, it has been the new management of Gerry Francis that has had most to do with Spurs' relocation from relegation zone to Uefa Cup territory.

It is a toughening of attitude - not readily associated with North London's traditionally nicer half - that has more than anything improved matters at White Hart Lane. Arsenal's roundheads are likely to encounter a less cavalier outfit in the derby matchtomorrow night as Spurs begin a New Year week that ends with another gift from the independent tribunal, the home FA Cup third-round tie against Altrincham from the GM Vauxhall Conference.

"They have often outstrengthed us and we didn't want that to happen again," said the then Tottenham manager Terry Venables after a muscular confrontation against Arsenal a few years ago. It did happen again, though, after his departure and it now falls to the new man to recreate that approach.

Francis, who is admirably his own man in working without a long-term contract, resembles Venables in several ways. It is an irony for the Tottenham chairman to have procured someone of similar approach, although fortunately for Sugar, Francis shows no signs of interest in the computer systems that service the club. Both Francis and Venables were attacking midfield players who as coaches believe in the basis of solid defence.

Tottenham have latterly mislaid some style to coincide with Jurgen Klinsmann's pining for his accustomed midwinter break after his laudable efforts of the first half of the season, but the short-term priority of shoring up defences is understandable given the excesses of the Ossie Ardiles era.

The 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace last Tuesday was Spurs' third clean sheet in succession; last season they could not manage two in a row. The back four, with personnel previously discredited, moved more coherently as a unit, even if they betrayed occasionally the capacity for regression. "I hoped the ghost of Ossie Ardiles past might have appeared at Christmas but they were quite resolute," said the Palace manager Alan Smith.

Francis has done what Ardiles could not bring himself to; work on the training ground at the less glamorous task of stopping rather than creating. Had he brought in an experienced defensive coach such as Don Howe for a period, he might, with the restoration of the six points, then have retained his job.

"Under Ossie we weren't playing as a team unit," says the club captain Gary Mabbutt. "We were split into defence and attack." It had become a Tottenham tradition, mind you. "They've become lazy. Our play means a lot of hard work and our forwards in particular have not been keen to carry on that hard work," Bill Nicholson said as public motivation to the temporarily slipping Double team of 1960-61.

"Gerry has worked hard at organisation, so that we attack and defend as a team," Mabbutt adds. "Each person knows his responsibilities when we lose the ball. After a Saturday match, Gerry will watch the video and on Monday morning point out the mistakes we made. Then we go out on to the training ground and recreate the situations. He is very thorough about it."

It is, however, mending and making do at the moment. The inclusion again in the midfield of a tackler, David Howells, at the expense of the delightful but often dilettante Ilie Dumitrescu, now loaned to Seville, has benefited Gica Popescu, who was previously firefighting, and brought more balance without looking likely to excite. The famous five is now a functional 4-4-2. "I've had the same system for 10 years as a manager and it has worked very well for me," Francis says.

Tottenham's greatest need remains a commanding centre-back, and the eventual sale of Dumitrescu may free the funds. The club have needed one ever since Mike England, it seems, though Richard Gough, before homesickness claimed him back for Scotland, and Neil Ruddock, before Sugar's sacking of his mentor Venables, promised to fill the void.

Though his positioning goes some way towards compensation, Mabbutt's lack of pace can be exposed and Colin Calderwood's qualities at Premiership level are questionable. Sol Campbell looks capable enough, but at left-back, while Stuart Nethercott needs time for confidence to return.

"I'm not one for wholesale changes," Francis says. "I believe in team work and organisation, on developing the collective skills in the side into consistency." He does acknowledge the need for fresh contributions, however, and has outlined the type of player he needs. "I have not got an abundance of people who can tackle in certain areas."

Arsenal - who buy centre-halves while Spurs buy centre-forwards - remain ruthless exploiters of any such deficiency in the tackle away from home, even if they flounder at Highbury where the offensive onus is on them. Recent wins over Manchester City and Ipswich have illustrated as much. Ian Wright is also back to provide a more demanding test for the Spurs defence than goal-starved Norwich and Crystal Palace managed over Christmas.

Altrincham should present a less rigorous challenge, though they were physically robust enough in securing a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup 16 years ago when their manager John King was a player. That was then, however, and though this is still a Tottenham in transition, the rehabilitation under Francis should continue.