Against Birmingham, a decent performance for the most part that ended in frustration, at least in my back room where I was hiding from the builders. Peace and quiet, you understand, total focus. They weren’t after me for money. Yet.
Harry seemed to share my exasperation. Post match, he waxed philosophical about being on top for so long, moving the ball well, holding possession and making chances, only for the game to turn on the introduction of Zigic.
Two points dropped for me, this one. Birmingham are a hard nut to crack. They have an enviable home record with one loss in over 30 games, I think. Much of this is built upon their famed powers of organisation and resistance, which can be of a ferocious intensity as they demonstrated in the derby against Villa in midweek. I thought they missed a trick in starting 4-5-1: these days we can deal better with this than when teams are able to put pressure on our defence. That’s what holds us back, the need to think about the possible repercussions of coming too far forward too often.
As it was, we passed the ball smoothly with the excellent Modric once more on top in midfield, energetically supported by Palacios and with Lennon and Bale as willing accomplices out wide. Loads of room despite the 5 midfielders. Anyway two of them were treading on Bale’s laces for most of the time in order to protect Steve Carr. Bale can play his part these days just by standing still.
Carr was a terrific player, flying down the wing and alert in the tackle, better coming forward than at the back, a mop of wavy black hair. He was never the same once injury blunted his pace. Although he became a better player technically on his return, making up in some part for the deficiencies imposed on him, he was encouraged to bulk up but athleticism not muscle was his game. Carefree expression gave way to surly shaven-headed dissatisfaction. I’m glad he’s still in the game after his career was threatened. I just hope it’s not a portent of things to come for another, much better, carefree flying wide man. One of the many tackles Bale rides each week finds its mark and the head clippers come out.
I admire the way Birmingham defend. Pinned back in their box, as they were for long periods on Saturday, they respond like wild cats backed into a corner. Bodies pile into the box to form a barrier packed tighter than bricks in the wall of a Mayan temple. Despite this, and here’s the source of that frustration, we were able to stretch them out of shape and out of their comfort zone.
Usually we had an extra man, not something that has always been the case this season. Defoe’s movement around Crouch, centrally stationed, was effective, Lennon and Bale were available as I’ve already mentioned and Crouch himself pulled wide to the far post usefully. He had a good first half, coming a little deeper so he could link up better with his team mates and encouragingly he had a couple of runners coming past him as targets for a lay-off or flick, another quality often absent in our play.
Chances fell to Defoe and Crouch and were missed but the advantage of 60% first half possession was not converted into scoring opportunities because of a problem with the final ball. JD, Crouch, Lennon, even Modric made poor choices when the moment came. Too often the wide option was taken: it’s safer but easier to defend if it ends up with a slow high cross and could have been balanced with incisive central thrusts into the channels. The goal when it came was from a loose ball after a set-piece, rather like Liverpool’s last weekend.
We began the second half well enough but soon the Spurs fans’ songs, loud and clear on my stream, sounded gradually more anxious, a sure sign that our opponents were creeping back into the match. I thought we had worked through a troublesome 20 minutes or so as we regained both our composure and possession.
However, Zigic meant a 4-4-2 with a focal point that hitherto Birmingham had lacked. The signs were there: Crouch becoming increasingly isolated and our midfield dropping deeper. Lennon and Bale out wide had worked back admirably well thus far but they stood off now. It’s not as if we don’t know what was happening – we get Crouch wide onto the full back often enough – but it’s hard to defend. Our back four missed Dawson and Kaboul all of a sudden. We should take our opponent’s example and have big men hammering through the middle to pick up the headers across the box. Gomes and Gallas scrambled one way from Ridgewell but Gardner did enough.
By the end, Lennon seemed reluctant to take on his man when given the chance in the last 5 minutes. I’m sure he was tired after a hard afternoon’s work but I hope they weren’t settling for the point.
Wilson worked so hard, again tiring towards the end – perhaps he felt safer away from the crazy booing last week. Gallas had another solid match and Bassong is back to good form but they weren’t quite strong enough in the end. Hutton’s passing was off and he was lucky not to be dismissed. The problem with these incidents Is not what happens on the day, it’s the mental note made by the rest of the League as they watch MOTD that Hutton can be wound up.
Harry was on about taking a point at Birmingham before the match but as I’ve said before, the problem with this ‘settling’ business is that it denies the potential, what might be. On the day, we should have converted our first half superiority into goals, so two points dropped for me, although to be fair, a year or two we may well have lost 2-1.
No sackcloth and ashes, mind. Progress can be judged over sequences of matches, beat Chelsea on Sunday and that’s 10 from 12 including victories over 3 of last season’s top four. I remain a little disappointed, however. I don’t obsess over the table but the fact is, this is the most open league for years. We’re opening a gap between us and 7th, thinking of Europe next season, but we should be looking up not down. A win would have left us only 4 off the top, 1 off the top four. We’ve let slip a few too many points already and can’t afford to waste many more.