A Good Week For Pochettino. And For Spurs. Same Thing These Days

Mauricio Pochettino expresses himself in the dressing room rather than in the media, then he lets his players do the talking for him. It’s an old-fashioned attitude from a thoroughly modern manager and long may it be that way. When he does speak, and he has been more forthcoming in press conferences over the past few weeks, he gives voice to the intensity and passion that fire his footballing imagination, recognising in the next breath that the club means as much to him as it does to supporters. In contrast, the borefest that is Jose Mourinho chunters on, taking sole credit for the wins and blaming everyone but himself when things go wrong. The only mind games he plays are those to massage his ego.

 

This has been a good week for Pochettino and for Spurs. The statements go hand in glove, such is the influence he has at Spurs. Some managers and their clubs are a snug fit, others chafe themselves red raw as they rub up against each other. I hear Mourinho is treated with disdain by many Old Trafford veterans, for example. He may bring success, or not, but somehow it’s not right. Chelsea was and is his spiritual home.

 

Pochettino on the other hand gets it, and we get him. He plays football the right way, the Spurs Way, with total commitment. In return he expects the same from his players. He takes personal charge of player development. This week Jack Pitt-Brooke wrote in the Independent about Harry Winks, describing how if Pochettino sees something in a young player, he does not send them out on loan but personally oversees their training and development, rather than delegating primary responsibility to a coach however trusted they may be.

 

Making it in Pochettino’s eyes is fast becoming the highest accolade at the club. All of this squad clearly want to play for him. They’ve been queuing up this week to sign new contracts, pictured one by one next to a beaming manager with his protective, welcoming arm round their shoulders. It’s good business too – never forget it’s a business. Those that stay are rewarded while players on the fringe like Tom Carroll come at a higher value because of a longer contract. There’s consistency and security at the Lane, and before he came it’s a long while since that could be said about any of his predecessors.

 

Interesting phrase, wanting to play for the manager. It should go without saying but it is far from being a given at any club. Yet this lot play to their utmost – he’s improved the performance of every single one of this squad. Dembele transformed, Rose from nowhere (Redknapp said of this former winger that he had to play him at full-back because he wasn’t good enough to play anywhere else) to a top-quality left back. Dier from prospect to international, Lamela, Walker, the list is as long as the squad numbers. Spurs don’t pay top dollar, not by any means. They are here for the club, for the man and for their team-mates.

 

Goal celebrations reveal a lot. Josh Onomah was delighted when he scored his debut goal on Wednesday. His team-mates rushed to congratulate him, every one of them knew what it meant, and they did so in front of the fans. None of this self-indulgent choreography that you see so often. Warm, natural, shared, together. That’s a team.

 

As well as the signings, this week has offered more insights into Pochettino’s thinking. The traditional fans’ pre-match pastime of predicting the team has become relatively easy over the last year, with changes made only through injury aside from the interchangeability of one of the wide forwards. A surprise then on Sunday to hear the pre-match chat was all about the manager. The back four and the shape reassuringly the same, and why not. One of the best defences last season and this, until Monaco that is. Vertonghen a sound centreback, Dier the best English defensive midfielder. Until Sunderland that is.

 

Sunday’s warm-up included a routine I’ve not seen before. Dier and Toby lined up in the box. The ball started with the full-backs in turn, who knocked it forward to the wide midfielder,. It was then played back to the full-back who crossed to Kane waiting in the middle. All at three-quarter pace, the drill looked as if the centrebacks were having some very late practice. Every cross was a duff one by the way, but the changes delivered a victory, the narrowest possible scoreline but Spurs were streets ahead of a dismal Sunderland side, well-organised but devoid of ambition or skill. The interest though is in the medium and long-term. Vertonghen at left back, Dier at centre half, Alderweireld on the left of the centreback pairing. The shape of things to come?

 

As a rule, the best players should play in their best position, so Dier and Toby should stay where they were. Jan doesn’t like full-back, apparently, but plays there for Belgium and will presumably do as he is told for Pochettino because that’s the way he stays in the first team. What Poch wants, he gets, and that too is the way it should be.

 

It’s hard to imagine he did this to counter anything the Sunderland attack might do. Suffice to say that when Januzaj was sent off late on, no one noticed he had gone. Against Monaco our left side of Lamela and Davies were exposed. Vertonghen hung back and allowed Son the freedom to move forward. He rewarded us with his best game for Spurs, consistently involved in the action and always a threat. Not a natural winger, as the second half progressed he stayed wide and both took on defenders and cut inside. On the other side, Sissoko gave the right midfield more stability, perhaps at the cost of his enterprise in attack but Walker could get forward and wide at will. The selection looks ominous for Davies’ long-term future but that’s one for the future.

 

Still musing on his intentions, maybe he thinks Dier’s best long-term position is at centreback, or he just wants some options. Whatever, he clearly has faith in Wanyama as a DM, and with Dembele back that’s a solid defensive spine to enable him to do his thing further forward. He’s a colossus in the middle. No one player in the league makes such a difference to his team’s play as Dembele does to ours.

 

One small but important point. Spurs made many chances versus Sunderland and missed a fair few good ones, but that’s not the only way to win matches, Sometimes persistence pays off. We kept pressurising their defence and in the end their centre half made the mistake. One was enough.

It’s going to be a long, tough season. Rotation, plan B (or C or D), whatever you call it, here’s another one from Pochettino’s fertile tactical mind. His ingenuity will be further tested by Kane’s injury. Janssen has a different style but judging by the promise he showed against Gillingham, he can provide the goals we crave if not the same link-up play. Watching him from a different vantage point at Wembley, in line with the penalty box, he pushes up tight on the back four, right on their shoulders. Fine margins and he needs the right service to make that work.

 

Versus the Gills, lower league maybe but they packed the defence yet he always found space. He’s restless, constantly on the move, hustling and bustling to make something happen. Ball played to him, body position ready, one touch then shoot. Just what you want and need in a striker. Like him, like him a lot.

 

Many changes for Gillingham, Winks and Carter Vickers first starts, Gills had everyone back. Spurs sides of old would have faltered, this lot weren’t hesitant in the slightest. Pochettino has hem playing the same way, right through the club. Lamela and Eriksen took on the role of older pros. They could have taken it easy – neither took that option, not for a moment. Movement, pace, creating space, all outstanding. It was a real pleasure to watch. Special note about Winks. First time I have seen him play a full match in the flesh, impressed. Takes responsibility as the team played through him, upright, looking for the pass, short and long within his range. Ran the midfield at 20 and looked as if he was born to it. You could see why Bentaleb, a player I really like, was let go. Right now I wouldn’t swap Pochettino for any manager in Europe.

 

 

 

Spurs Drag Their Heels On The Long Walk To Wembley

Reaction to Spurs defeat by Monaco in the Champions League has been mixed. For supporters, it quickly became one of those signpost matches, not just an uneven performance but one that pointed towards deeper issues faced by the club both on and off the pitch.

Cogitating on the way home – pleeeeenty of time for that in the queue for the tube – and on social media is an exercise in understanding loss. Reactions cover the whole spectrum of football analysis, from being outclassed through to being unlucky or inept, whichever you prefer. From being not good enough to not trying hard enough, from being inspired by the occasion to being over-awed.

I’ve heard them all and there’s truth in most, although truth is hard to find because it feels like many are coping with defeat by projecting existing views onto this one game. If you believe the players are soft then you said they did not try and were over-awed. If you like Spurs being at Wembley, you were moved by the record crowd, if you don’t then the antiseptic bowl sucked the life out of the occasion.

I was moved by it all. Can’t fail but have a lump in the throat at kick-off choking back a few of the words of ‘Oh when the Spurs…’. But that feeling of anti-climax has only just disappeared 36 hours on. So…

Team selection was a bigger hindrance than the venue. I admire the attacking approach but for me, Lamela and Son don’t belong in the same starting line-up. Both can change the game, win it sometimes, both do not make enough of an impact enough of the time. In a game that was always going to be tight and where a solid start to the group was important, too often they were peripheral.

I don’t buy the ‘not trying’ argument. This lot try harder than any team in my fifty years at the Lane. What they lacked was authority. They did not impose themselves on proceedings until the start of the second half, by which time it was too late. Monaco had their lead and were supremely well prepared to keep it. We made and missed chances but for the most part it still looked as our opponents had a better sense of what they were about.

Authority is about presence. A midfield with Dembele and Sissoko has that, plus more experience. Neither were fully fit. Dembele made a huge difference in the second half, promise in the games to come and Tottenham deserve credit for lifting ourselves in a rousing twenty minutes in the middle of that period. Plus we needed some nouse, players who had been there before, to dictate the tempo and take control. Spurs went at the game with the naïve enthusiasm of kids when some caution and stability was required. Spurs play well when they keep the tempo high yet the first half was decidedly flat, the early goal puncturing our balloon.

Our game going forward is founded on the attacking axis of Kane, Alli and Eriksen. For different reasons this functioned only sporadically. Alli is needed further forward, not lying deeper. Eriksen found plenty of space but his passing let him and us down, three occasions in the first half passing to the opposition when he could see the openings perfectly well.

But in the end, two mistakes, two goals given away. Lamela taking insufficient care as we moved out of defence, everyone therefore in the wrong place when he gave the ball away. A cross not won fell straight to a French player. Could have gone anywhere.

Above all, despite it all, chances made and missed. Son early on, Lamela half a chance, Alli inches way first from a through-ball then with a shot well saved. And Harry, straight at the keeper. What were you thinking? In the media he is convincing himself that nothing is wrong, but there is tell-tale hesitation in everything he does. We know you, H, we can see it and feel your pain, but oh Harry, we’ll take care of you.

And the future? It doesn’t show Spurs are not good enough. It shows we have to learn to adapt our game to this level, and manager and players have lessons to absorb. This is the elite. For long periods we weren’t up to it, yet one less mistake, one taken chance and the outcome would have been different.

Spurs did everything possible to make Wembley feel like if not home then a place where we were more than just passing through. For the players, the home dressing room looked very familiar, while in the build-up the team trained on a Wembley replica pitch and on matchday their routine was identical to that of a home match. This is what Pochettino’s fabled attention to detail looks like in reality, and there’s no doubt his attitude filtered through to board level too in their negotiations with Wembley.

The banners and the ‘game is about glory’ message around the top tier were appreciated by everyone I spoke to but in the end it is the supporters that make a ground home. The pre-match buzz became a crescendo at kick-off. The noise was deafening. The passion must have conveyed itself to the team. For us, we told ourselves that we were there, we are Tottenham, that Tottenham had come to Wembley and the Champions League and we would make this place ours.

That many have dismissed the record attendance figure says more about modern cynicism and over-weening expectations that anything that took place at Wembley. Sure we all would have preferred to have been at the Lane but this was something special in itself. To forget our history is to lose a huge chunk of our identity, of ourselves.  Even the glory days of swaying flat-capped terracing couldn’t match these numbers. Never. Ever. And the Spurs did it.

Any Spurs fan not moved by the torrent of white streaming back to Wembley Park after the game must have a heart of stone. It flowed endlessly, that all-time attendance record brought to life more than filling the ground did. Scaling the stairs to the station entrance and turning to gaze back at the throng became a ritual for successive waves of fans and will be the memory that many will share in years to come, rather than the game itself sadly.

Trouble is, it was a Herculean effort to get to that point in the first place. Defeat, rain and the Wembley tube queue equal one of the Twelve Labours. It stayed dry but problems with the Met line – of course there were – came on as a late substitute. It takes time to shift 85,000 people and I’m used to the wait but don’t recall comparable delays in the station itself waiting to get on to the platform.

It will never be as good as White Hart Lane because it isn’t White Hart Lane. The old ground means so much, the heritage, the ghosts of victories past, the tight enclosed stands. More than anything, it is ours and nothing will be the same. Supporters self-regulate over time to sit where they feel comfortable with, by and large, the people they feel comfortable with. It creates a culture that does not transfer well to a bigger stadium with a different shape, as West Ham fans are finding to their cost. Those things we take for granted, friendships, pre-match drinking holes, the fans who start the chants sitting together, all split up. We’re beginning to learn the lessons of moving to the new ground already.

You can hear Martin Cloake and I talking about A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur here on the Tottenham Way podcast with Tom and Dan, or me flying solo on the BBC London Radio sports show for Wednesday, recorded by the Bobby Moore statue no less, here around 7.20 pm

Thoroughbred Spurs Ease Into Top Gear

Games such as this give context to progress. Tottenham battled through a tight opening quarter then turned on the style to dominate as Stoke were routed. Spurs’ stuttering start becomes a gradual progression through the gears. Unbeaten after four games, chances now being made and taken, players easing their way into the groove. Kane breaks his duck, Alli on song, Sissoko almost scores with his first touch as a Tottenham man, Eriksen’s serious loss of form consigned to the past. Now for Janssen to score his first and we’re well and truly away. Plus, I’m really not the sort of fan who studies these things but I read that Spurs are the only side in the league not to have conceded from open play.

The manager is back on song too. Against Liverpool, Pochettino’s re-organisation after Walker went off crucially weakened our midfield in a hitherto tight game. Yesterday, Kane was restored up front but Mauricio’s masterstroke was as unexpected as it proved to be effective. I can’t imagine that Son was in anybody’s predicted team line-up, least of all that of the player himself, but he took full advantage, breaking the deadlock with a precise finish before half time then slamming home an outstanding second to set Spurs on course for a rampant victory.

The appeal of blogging for reader and author is that it’s a fan’s perspective, a different viewpoint with the personal touch. So it was that sadly I can’t give you a detailed dissection of the opening quarter of an hour because our puppy was in the living room repeatedly being sick then eating it. What can I say? Priorities. You won’t get this in the Observer.

I saw enough to see that this was the toughest period of the game for Spurs with Stoke pressing early on and causing problems in our box for the only time in the match. There followed a tight, untidy midfield battle with Spurs struggling to hold on to the ball for any length of time. Stoke deserve credit here for stifling space and time.

Gradually, Spurs broke out of this stranglehold and never looked back. Son showed both why he was picked, with willing movement into space on our left and a couple of purposeful 40 yard runs with the ball at his feet, and why he can be frustrating, because each time he feebly turned into a defender and lost the ball.

Then the chances started to appear. Alli, left unchallenged outside the box, casually chipped it in for Given to save, then he dragged our best chance wide, having been put completely clear in by a ricochet off a Stoke player. Eriksen then cleaned up the attack, placing the ball to Son who had come across from the left. Unencumbered by any challenge, he sidefooted a volley into the net. Spurs never looked back.

Eriksen, ball at his feet and head up is a fine sight, brimming with anticipation and expectation. In a flash, he takes in the moment and, above all, what could be in a few seconds’ time. In the corresponding fixture last season he was at the heart of one of the finest Tottenham performances of recent times. This time round, there’s been no hint of a repeat in his frankly poor outings so far. He signed a new contract this week – maybe he feels that has sorted a few things and his mind is settled. A bit of paper shouldn’t make any difference, it’s pulling on the shirt that matters, but fact is, it does.

Perhaps this game was his celebration. After half time he took the ball on in midfield and under pressure chipped the ball over an opponent – to himself. He laid it off to Son on the left. We waited for a touch and a turn, perhaps into a defender. Son was having none of that. First time, early, right foot, top of the net. Thrilling. I commented last season on how stiff Son becomes when faced with too many choices in the final third, that he’s trying too hard to make a telling impact every time. Maybe there’s a message here for him, just relax and let it flow.

Straight away, Stoke attacked. How many times over the years have we seen Tottenham waste hard-earned goals by conceding quickly but this Tottenham do things differently. Alderweireld came across to decisively intercept a cross bound for Bony, reacting quicker than the centre forward as he did all afternoon.

Then the third and best, a fabulous flowing move started by Wanyama from the edge of our box and finished by Alli via Lamela, Eriksen and Walker. It was a breakaway but rather than lung-busting improvisation, this was an effortlessly constructed gem of attacking football. In a few seconds, Spurs had five players forward, each in space, each in the right place to offer options to the man on the ball. It was a measured, unhurried move, born of confidence as team-mates.

Kane took the fourth, his first of the season, with exaggerated care, controlling a far post cross and tucking it in, suppressing his glee and not taking it first time. You could hear him thinking, ‘I am going to make sure, I am going to make sure.’ It’s a much-needed boost.

Stoke gave him the time to think it over. In truth Spurs will have tougher challenges ahead. Bony’s arrival did not give them any focus up front and once the game settled down, they gave us far too much room all over the field. Toby and Jan dealt impeccably with everything that came their way. Most of it was played in front of them – Stoke seldom got behind the back four – meat and drink. In my cameo on BBC Radio Stoke this week – don’t worry, it’s not changed my life – I confidently predicted a close match with Stoke more dangerous up front and certainly no repeat of last season. What do I know?

Stoke may point to the dismissal of their manager halfway through the first half for abusing the fourth official. As a player Hughes was fierce and competitive, as a manager this comes over as angry for angry’s sake, a mess of seething injustice on the bench. Players have been told not to abuse officials and managers are responsible. His actions harmed his side’s chances and his reaction to the crowd as he left, geeing them up to complain and protest, merits further punishment. The only saving grace was the comedy value of Hughes’ inability to use first a radio then a phone to communicate with the bench. At one point it looked as if he was texting his assistant. Wouldn’t work at Spurs, never a bloody signal. Imagine his reaction to that.

 

 

 

 

Spurs Lose Their Mojo

Back in the day, the first league table appeared after the third match of the season. Early days but there was enough information to take stock. These days goal difference and alphabetical order manufacture a crisis after the opening 90 minutes, but with the international break as unwelcome as ever, it’s a good time to pause.

Spurs have five points and are undefeated but we’re struggling to score. The fluent ease with which we moved the ball around last season appears in flashes of brilliance rather than for extended periods. At our best, Tottenham lay down something so funky, playing with a natural, effortless rhythm. Every player is in tune, on the same wavelength as their teammates. Like all good soul, it moves head, hands and feet and lifts the spirit, but Spurs have lost their mojo.

When Kyle Walker stayed down in front of the Paxton, Spurs’ Saturday afternoon took a turn for the worse. Walker has been Tottenham’s best player so far, adding a spark of intelligence to his athleticism and commitment. More than that, he and Rose are so important to Spurs’ driving beat as the ball flows out wide to them, an out-ball as natural as water rippling downstream, Clyde Stubblefield on the drums or James Jamerson the funkiest of the Funk Brothers.

Losing him was a blow in itself, especially as in this tight match width to stretch the Liverpool defence and by-pass the pressing was clearly crucial. Pochettino’s decision to bring on Janssen in his place was characteristically bold but dealt a grievous blow to our chances of victory. The consequent reshuffle, with Kane dropping off, Alli deeper and Dier shifted to right-back, was not only unnecessarily disruptive, it also fatally weakened us at the point where the midfield battle hung in the balance. Afterwards, the force tipped decisively in Liverpool’s favour and Spurs were always struggling to get a toehold in the match.

Liverpool were highly impressive going forward. They sliced apart our back four, players cutting into the gaps between our defenders as we despairingly tried to work out where they were. Mane is a real talent.

Spurs were stretched and desperate for extended periods, losing possession and trapped in tight corners. Even the manager had the same problem, miscontrolling a ball late on that strayed into the technical area and giving Liverpool the ball back quickly when we were trying to slow everything down. It was that kind of afternoon.

Reserve keeper Vorm kept us in the game, an impenetrable barrier at his near post and twice leave his post to dash off his line and tackle divisively. Without him, this would have been a heavy beating. Man of the match plus some lasting respect for his abilities.

A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is available now, published by Pitch Publishing. Hardback and Kindle from Amazon lowest price only £9.54. Over the next couple of weeks Tottenham On My Mind will give you a flavour of this first ever history of support and supporters.

Under the cosh, it looked as if we could hang on to half time, then some poor defending from Lamela undid the good work. Much as I admire the work ethic he discovered last year, getting back behind the ball does not mean he knows how to defend. He never looks comfortable – it goes against his instincts and his body position is often askew. Here, he committed a fraction early and was outmanoeuvred, then in a laudable effort to compensate for his misjudgement, Firmino came down in a tangle of legs and Milner scored the penalty.

From the restart, Liverpool carried on in the same fashion. Eventually Spurs had something on target, an Alderweireld header from a corner that was well saved. Just as we were running out of ideas, let alone make any chances, Dier began to push further forward on the right. One good cross eluded both strikers and defenders and there was Danny Rose at the back post to drill the ball home with great precision. It was our only shot on target from open play.

Pochettino has done a wonderful job at Tottenham, without reservation. This however was a mistake. Presumably he chose the starting line-up, i.e. Kane up front on his own and Alli back alongside Lamela and Eriksen to reinforce the midfield, with the Liverpool pressing and movement in mind. There was nothing in the opening exchanges to change that view.

Last season, we were outstanding with everyone playing to the best of their considerable ability. The smallest fall from those lofty heights and we are wound wanting. Dier isn’t quite there. Alli is coming back to match fitness, Dembele waiting to be unleashed – just one more game. Key men Kane and Eriksen are not on song. Both looked out of touch again. Kane’s late mistimed straightforward pass out wide to effectively end a rare smooth move was a frustrating and sad moment. A few minutes later he trooped off disconsolately to be subbed. Our Harry feels the pain as much as any supporter. He knows he had a bad one. Eriksen’s touch deserted him again. With it went our hopes of creating very much. I like Janssen a lot. His rumbustious approach will unsettle unsuspecting defences once he gets his first Spurs goal. On Saturday he didn’t get a kick because no one gave him a decent ball. Last season Spurs played some of the best football I’ve seen in 50 years. Eriksen was major art of that and the absence of soul and funk coincides with his loss of form.

It’s tempting to change things because Kane is so able and intelligent, he can adapt. But our best players should play in their best positions, always, and Kane is our centre forward. I wrote last week of how the team’s rhythm depends so much on what he does. It’s familiar, reassuring. They know what he can do and where he will be. He scores goals, plays others in and makes space. Moving him knocks so much of what we do out of alignment. If Janssen and Kane are to play together, Pochettino has to find a different way of making that happen. For the moment, Janssen can give Harry the rest he needs to find himself once more.

Wanyama had another good game, slotting in to the team as if he’s been part of it for years. Alli (and Kane for that matter) has not regained match sharpness. The international break will not help. More disruption on top of a disjointed pre-season which means Son is still not ready. Add a few knocks and Saturday’s bench looked lightweight. Still, we know the potential is there, know how this team and these players have more to give however much they have given already. Poch needs time with a match-sharp squad to work it out.

And so to deadline day, when the otherwise reticent figure of Dan Levy emerges from the shadows to cast a pall over our prospects. Against type we did our main business early, Wanyama and Janssen plugging the gaps that should have been filled this time last season, and good value in the current inflated transfer market. Then silence. N’Koudou has gone missing, to the point where an ironic Missing Person meme was retweeted on twitter as genuine, but that deal will probably get done to inject the option of pace into the line-up.

Discounting the usual rumours, it felt to me as if Spurs were hanging on to squad players like Mason and Chadli to see if they could upgrade. If not they would stay – wouldn’t they? Chadli is on the point of going to WBA, rumours persist about Mason and Bentaleb has already departed. We need cover and competition for every positon – this leaves a few gaps, the biggest being a creative midfielder to push and rotate Eriksen. We also need some extra class in midfield, because this league will be so competitive this season.

I’ve said recently that I don’t see the problem with a medium-term purchase of an experienced, battle hardened player to take us through a couple of seasons, but that seems unlikely. Which leaves us wondering again. With two days to go, is the cash from outgoings going to be invested in the team or the new stadium? Levy’s futile pursuit of Zaha had shades of the absurd bid to buy Berahino 12 months ago, his low offer being out of step with the inflated prices and seller’s market created by the new TV deal, where clubs are under far less pressure to sell. You would think he had learned his lesson by now.

We’ll know on Wednesday, but to stay competitive, we have to reinforce the squad. But we’re back to one of those key moments again, where the right players can boost the development and fulfil the burgeoning potential of this fine team. Laissez faire will hamper progress.