Never Change, Tottenham

From the depths of despair to the heights of elation in ways only this football team can achieve. Watching Tottenham is unbearable when we don’t score, unbearable when we do. Never change.

Shall we begin at the end? Why not. Hojbjerg is knackered. Bentancur is too, after giving everything in another hugely influential performance, and has left the field, but Hojbjerg cannot rest. As the ball breaks forward, he should have just hung back, seconds to go, but the Dane cannot rest. Not everything he does works, we know this, but in that Tottenham shirt he is utterly driven and I want that in my team. The space is wide open, he begins his lung-bursting run 70 yards from goal, smashes it inside the post.

It’s a fabulous piece of football, a thrilling moment. The players swamp each other in celebration. Hojbjerg has the ashen, hollow-eyed look of an exhausted boxer who has taken a pummelling but remained standing. Harry should have smeared the blood from the wound on his arm across Hojbjerg’s forehead and cheeks. Warrior!

Spurs top the group with the last kick of the game. That’s my Tottenham. It was both unbelievable and beyond belief, given an abject first half where the performance levels were so low, they were scraping the bottom of a barrel entombed in a subterranean labyrinth in a darkness so deep, no human could even imagine let alone venture into. That’s my Tottenham.

I like to think that I’m not prone to exaggeration but the Marseilles goal was the most ridiculous defending I’ve seen in a long time. Granted, this season there have been many, too many, contenders for that dubious honour, but at least Bournemouth came up with a couple of excellent moves on Saturday. At least they made it difficult for us. But letting the ball run out of play only to see it was a corner not goal-kick, then be chatting amongst themselves while the big bloke heads it in, the comedy value escaped me at the time but that is surreal stuff worth a chuckle if you saw it in the park on a Sunday morning but this is a crucial CL qualifier from a team with 10 internationals.

Sadly it was completely in keeping with that appalling first half. I’ve written before about how Conte wants his players to suffer for the cause, so we fans must hurt too but this was the hardest of watches. I have no idea what they were doing and neither did they, so maybe that’s something to bring players and supporters closer together. The defensive selection looked suspect. Dier looked good on the right in the second half against Bournemouth but that was when we were coming forward. If it was a move to improve the back three, fine, but if it was to accommodate two left-sided players in the shape of Lenglet and Davies, then it was an unnecessary, disruptive change in a crucial game, as was starting poor Sessegnon on the right. He was blown away by the whole occasion, to the point where I was relieved Emerson was brought on. Not a sentence I’ve written before or frankly am I likely to write again. Just a shame we didn’t have a replacement for Moura.

In a season of worst ever first halves, that was the worst. But there’s something there in this squad, isn’t there. There’s professional pride and then there’s playing for the shirt, and some of these players are starting to get it. It means something to play for this club. Hojbjerg I’ve mentioned, then there’s Bentancur, fast becoming the game-changer, who when allowed to come forward changes the team’s tempo and rhythm. In his face the determination to be a leader, an influencer, is visible. And never take Harry for granted. Exhausted, kicked, surrounded by four opponents whenever he got the ball.

We’re no nearer solving the great mystery of our times that I posed in my last piece, namely why on earth to we play the first half in such a passive manner? Conte remains inscrutable. In press conferences he implies the players are not following his instructions, yet he controls everything. Surely they comply with his instructions to a large extent. If they didn’t, Conte wouldn’t pick them. One theory doing the rounds is that he wants them to conserve energy during this unusual and disrupted season, that we can’t play flat-out for 90 plus minutes. Miguel Delaney in the Independent suggested that he had heard from a few sources that Conte has hatched a cunning plan to hold back now and go all-out from February onwards.

I suspect he’s asking the players to control the first half without extending themselves unduly, except that Spurs aren’t good enough to do so and it allows opponents to seize the initiative. The match may be lost by the time we get into gear. If on Sunday we start as we have recently, the Liverpool attack will have won the game by half-time. A reminder that both Marseille and Sporting missed golden late chances. The players seem far more comfortable playing at the higher pace and getting into forward areas. More of that please.

A mention of Perisic before I leave you. Not perhaps the force he was, his shrewd defending in the second half was a stabilising influence, and that late block where he read the play and got himself into just the right position, right time would have got us into the knockout stages without the late winner. That’s what experience at the highest levels brings.

VAR Anger Righteous But Spurs Fail to Shine

Big build up, big crowd. Lousy first half, all over the place, can’t pass, move or defend. Concede to a player we sold. For every glory glory night, there’s a classic Spurs fail.

So let’s talk disallowed 95-minute winners. Let’s talk about the future of the game we know and love. Kane’s goal was ruled out by not one marginal decision but two. Offside by a line the width of a pixel, and a referee’s interpretation that a defender’s attempt to prevent the goal was accidental. “The Accidental Defender”, there’s an existential novel in there somewhere. At least I think that’s why it was disallowed. I was in the ground behind that goal and I’m the last to know.

Football’s attraction is that it is in essence a simple game. It can produce unforgettable moments of sublime athletic artistry and improvisation but at its heart lies a glorious human chaos. This is what we sign up for when we commit to supporting our team. We choose not to stand back and contemplate painstakingly crafted creative artwork or the marvels of precision engineering. Such aesthetic pleasures are for others, or for us at another time. Our bargain is we take the disappointment and joy as a whole, two sides of the same coin, one without the other cannot and does not exist.

It’s untidy and unpredictable and it’s ours. VAR is everything football is not. It’s not a game to be slowed down or judged on a matter on a matter of millimetres, dissected like a poor dead specimen pinned to a laboratory workbench. Last night a good friend of mine, equally exasperated, said that it would take a major controversy in a World Cup final before anything would change. Perhaps, but I reckon the powers that be would respond by burrowing further down a labyrinthine rabbit hole to refine the laws and the technology in a futile search for perfection imposed upon a fundamentally messy reality.

This isn’t about Spurs, it’s about the game itself. On Monday, the W Ham centre half parried a cross two-handed, volleyball style, in the box, ruled accidental. The Hammers then headed in after some goalmouth confusion but because this took place approximately 1.5 seconds later, it was deemed a different phase. This was a goal under the laws of the game, I get that, and that’s my point. It’s not about Spurs or W Ham, it’s about the law, and the law in this case is an ass.

VAR is anti-football and anti-fan. It sucks the life out of the game, forcibly snatching away the precious joy of collective unbridled celebration, of being in the moment, of belonging. Of being a fan. If we can’t have even this, what do we have left?  Shall we pass down the generations stories of how we gloried in watching the big screen, the deep purple contrasted – joyously! – with a lighter mauve?  Remember the time it took almost 3 minutes – oh the waiting! Of how we applauded politely in recognition that on the balance of probability, we’ve gone a goal up?

None of this is new. On the contrary, I and others predicted precisely this once the refs got their hands on the tech. This is unscientific, but last night and this morning, I have seen so many comments from long-standing matchday regulars who I know, complaining not so much about being a denied a goal, we are practiced in handling that, but what VAR and the aftermath meant to their involvement in and enjoyment of football. Anger and disillusion characterised these comments. People saying they had had enough, seriously thinking of jacking it all in. Because this is another invidious consequence of VAR. It is a crushing reminder of how little supporters matter when it comes to it, especially matchgoing fans.

VAR adds to the drama for the passive consumer. And in so doing, it sits along all the other issues imposed on fans – ticket prices, TV shifting dates and kick-off times at short notice, awaydays with no trains. VAR is a symbol of a wider malaise that separates fans, the supposed lifeblood of football, from the game itself and how we are being alienated. Fans organised and paid for the tifo, beamed to a TV audience worldwide, but we don’t matter otherwise. Just background noise, thrown away in the wind like so many paper aeroplanes made from our tifo card. Loyal fans are close to walking away.

No solace to be found in the game itself. The best that can be said for Spurs’ first half performance is that it was lacklustre. I thought we were awful, and VAR controversy should not obscure that. Not enough movement, gaps between the midfield and a static front three, long balls because there was no room in the midfield where once again we were outnumbered. This isn’t a one-off description, rather, it sums up recent games, where opponents have sussed our patterns and easily counter them. Even when we direct the ball out wide to the spare man, the wing-back, they are left isolated and therefore straightforward to deal with, with players waiting inside for something to happen rather than working to support them and/or create an overload out wide.

Significant moment at the end of the first half. We had a free-kick at their end. The keeper formed a wall to block a shot, leaving four of our players at the edge of the box against their two defenders, yet we opted for a clearly pre-planned routine that failed. It shows the lack of thinking in the moment and not responding to what is happening in the game at that time.

Give Conte time and space to develop the side, bearing in mind the anticipated timescale for progress has extended into years rather than months, because we’re not moving forward as fast as I naively hoped when the season began. But I simply don’t understand why we start games so slowly. After 10 minutes or so, teams realise that we are letting them play, not taking the game to them to impose our authority, as seems reasonable. Yesterday, in the second half we didn’t play that well but took the game over just by pushing onto them, giving them less time and pushing more players up. We should have had the match won well before VAR took over.

Good to see Gil’s talents, largely hidden until now because he has tended in his rare appearances to rush around frantically all over the place, whereas yesterday he stayed wide with a clear role. Again, a sub making a difference by taking men on and upping the tempo. Spence can also do this, but we’ve not seen them even when as against Newcastle, we were getting nowhere because we persist with patterns of play that are manifestly not getting anywhere.

And Bentancur is an excellent player. Good to see him in a system that allows him greater freedom to come forward. He picks up the pace of the game and tries to change things up. Hard-working and committed too.

Rachel Martin from the Trust spoke to Coytey pre-match about the invaluable work of the Tottenham Foodbank. My site is and always will be free, if you like it, maybe drop them a donation however small. Thank you. Text COYSFOODBANK plus the amount in numbers to 70085 e.g. COYSFOODBANK5

Good News About My Kitchen. The Rest, Not So Much

A bad day. Far too many moments of slack-jawed horror, and always worse, the hope. Emerging from periods of extended pressure, the chances that came and went. It was too much. After their third capped their deserved win, I switched from pictures to the radio and furiously cleaned the kitchen, with particularly savage use of an abrasive cleanser on the sink. I found scant refuge but it was spotless by the end so at least my household was pleased. Horrible.

This is one game, and we should retain a sense of perspective. It’s our first league defeat since April, I believe. There’s no escaping, however, that the significance of this fixture goes way beyond local rivalry. It’s a benchmark to show how well we are doing. The home fixture near the end of last season felt utterly satisfying both in the manner of the win and the aftermath, what it meant for the team’s rise under Conte. Saturday’s match confirmed that this is still a developing side, albeit from a high base.

We played the side at the top of the table and we weren’t good enough. To reiterate something I said last month, I’m completely behind the manager but his approach is a tough watch at times. He allows sides to play in front of our penalty box, where danger lies and chances remain only a missed tackle away. It serves to compound the gut-twisting agonies of the NLD, as like the players, fans have to prepare to absorb the pressure. For me, I know no amount of anxiety-prevention techniques are going to scratch the surface. Leicester squandered the opportunities thus available, these opponents did not. There will be few occasions this season when a player hits one first time into the top corner, but they can if we are stretched in that area, and he did, and it was unstoppable.

That said, this formation provides opportunities and it could have worked. We defend a lot but we’re not defensive. Conte could easily have covered for Kulu’s absence with an extra midfielder. That would have been my preference in a 3-5-2, but he’s bold enough to play three up front, and it could easily have worked in a first half where we had several opportunities. Long ball it may be sometimes but it suits our attackers, only to be let down by a wayward final ball or indelicate touch. If Kulu had been fit, one of those at least would have materialised into a gilt-edged chance. But Sonny is still not on it despite the hat-trick, Harry’s legs are feeling the weight of so many long seasons, while Richarlison doesn’t possess the certainty of touch in the build-up.

Games at this level turn on moments. Possession, pressure, position xG, whatever you call it, in the end it’s about what happens in the key moments. So it could have worked but ended up being a tale of squandered opportunities, followed by lamentable failure when it mattered. Hugo has had a good season on his line and coming for crosses, whether he punches or catches, but he’s always had moments when he thinks about things for a fraction too long and ends up being lost in indecision. He did it the other week, was it versus Leicester, when he could easily have caught a long ball under no pressure whatsoever yet suddenly punched it wildly. On Saturday, he got down early only to leave it in the danger area, then let it through his legs. I’ve only seen it once but it’s seared in my memory.

Then Emerson obliged with a right Royal cock-up. The contest on the left between him and Martinelli was always going to be important. He defended well enough until then, but they must have got into his head. Why do it? Good question. I think he wanted to give Martinelli a reminder, a little tap when the ball wasn’t in a dangerous area, or am I being over-generous in believing there was any coherent thought process at all? It may or may not have been red (I thought it was), that’s not the point. Don’t even give the ref the option.

So the disappointment and anger of defeat was compounded by a feeling that after the end of last season, the tide is turning. In fact, it’s probably no more than the inexorable ebb and flow of fortune. A stat from Jonny Blain on twitter showed that since 2008, in the NLD the home team has won 17 and lost only 2, with 9 draws. No stat covers the feeling that we seldom do well in this fixture, which from our side has had more than its fair share of cockups and those moments where you are left wondering, what on earth happened then?

This is a long and unpredictable season. Due to the World Cup, the table won’t unwind until March as teams count the cost of top-class footballers being ground down. The injury list will be more significant than the fixture list. A long way to go, in other words, and Spurs have room to improve.

Meanwhile, Conte has to adjust for a side full of good players but weaker than his system requires in key areas, especially at wing-back. I’d opt for the occasional 3-5-2, giving us greater solidity with enough creativity and firepower up front. Alistair Gold said Bissouma wasn’t fully fit after international duty, so he couldn’t start. Skippy needs match practice but as with Pochettino, he’s not getting any. Later this month, there has to be some rotation, surely, so there are opportunities. I’m not the only one hoping Spence gets a chance with his strength and pace, something different to unsettle opponents.

And speaking of what ifs, what if a Spurs player were in the same situation as their first goalscorer? If I were in charge, I wouldn’t prioritise the need for a decent holding midfielder. I’d insist he stayed at home on full salary. As a fan, if he played I’d cheer my team to the hilt but wouldn’t rise to give this man an ovation. If I were the Spurs manager, I wouldn’t speak of how well this man had taken the strain. But I am only a fan. Do I think my club would have acted differently in the same situation? I like to think they would, but I don’t know. Presumably with Bissouma they knew he had no case to answer before signing him. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it is, assume nothing. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. I don’t know precisely where that is in every case but I’d draw the line here.

Spurs In For a Conte Shake-up

Context is everything. The first defeat of the season with one Champions League home victory tucked away safely, third in the Premier League table and a point off the top with only five goals conceded will do, for now. It’s something to build on, and this is a Spurs team that Conte is building, by no means the finished article despite us being named top four candidates. As I said last time, all of us, are itching for success and can see the potential Conte and his squad offer, but we can help most by getting behind the team and showing some patience.

The context of the defeat in Lisbon, though, is that we’ve had this coming for a while now. We stayed on top against Fulham, a good all-round performance, but there have been extended periods in other recent games – W Ham, Marseille, Wolves – where our football has been stilted and opponents have been able to stifle our attacking play. ‘Starting slowly’ has become ‘not getting anywhere’, or ‘letting it slip’. Conte’s strategy leans heavily on pressing home our advantage when we do get on top, yet we’ve not managed this, certainly not last night, so we’re left with the frustration of another missed opportunity to win a match that was there for the taking.

Last night we looked jaded, not physically but in terms of ideas. We played familiar patterns, in to Harry, space out wide, yet nothing came of it. I’d have liked to have seen more subs to freshen it up. Teams have sussed us, so we’ve become easy to counter. Extra bodies in midfield where we have only two. Press to force errors as we play out and restrict Kane’s time and space, then limit the options he has available by cutting off passing routes. Once again, Emerson demonstrated the futility of creating a system where he is the spare man because he cannot be relied upon for end product, be it a cross, pass or shot. Reliability is a vital ability for Conte’s style.

The problems with such predictability is that key individuals, Harry and Sonny, bless them, are off the boil, so those moments of inspiration that lift us from the workmanlike are few and far between. There’s no flow or rhythm. Breathless anticipation as we break replaced with dull resignation as the ball flies off a boot or a defender gets back because of an extra touch. We’re relying on Harry more than ever as the best striker and best midfielder all in one. That tell-tale extra touch or over-ambitious pass, he knows where Sonny is but can’t rely on his mate, Richarlison still tuning into the wavelength, although he knows how to get on the end of crosses.

Individuals not on it, but it’s a team thing, always a team thing. If Harry is being harried and hurried, it’s because too often he becomes isolated with limited options to make a pass. Teammates should do more to help out. Similarly, I like Hojbjerg and Bentancur a lot, although not everybody does, but last night they stayed in a pattern that clearly wasn’t effective rather than changing it up.

Making changes from a position of relative strength is a good place to be. We’re much stronger than when he had to do something last season – think Burnley away. I see Conte got the players in for training this morning – he really cannot tolerate defeat. But he has his way of wanting things done, with entrenched shape and patterns, so it may be more about injecting some pace and drive into what we have without losing the defensive solidity he prizes. Our squad gives options to refresh things, with players surely keen to come in and make their mark.

Also, it’s early days but this season is going to be a long haul. This is another reason for disappointment after Lisbon. Two wins or a draw and a win would have put us in a strong position early on in a group where every game presents a challenge, thus easing the pressure in the longer term. However, we have time to make that up.

Leicester on Saturday is big game, an opportunity to reassert ourselves before the break against a failing side, whose manager will be all too well aware of the way to play against us. Starting from the back, Lenglet’s passing from the back is welcome, and I would inject Spence’s pace on our right side, although Conte doesn’t seem so keen on him and Barnes on Leicester’s left is a danger, so Docherty may be a more reliable option. Bissouma in, Skippy too but again I don’t see Conte making two changes in that key position. Kulu for Son, who deserves a break to rediscover his touch. Sess may replace Perisic. That still means a lot goes through Harry, it will be interesting to see how Conte adapts, if at all, to that particular problem, or indeed where Harry can get a rest.