As the row over the new stadium cranks up a notch or three, the kick-off at St James’s Park was a blessed relief, never mind a pleasure. Football was the main attraction, rather than Daniel Levy and Karren Brady’s personalised version of Punch and Judy. Judging by yesterday’s sparring, this is a modern re-telling, with Brady landing all the blows onto Levy as a hapless Judy. Brady’s next opponent: Richard Keys.
Ah yes, football. Redknapp’s team selection was characteristically bold. BAE’s injury would have provoked caution in most managers but Harry saw it as an opportunity to slot in Pienaar in front of Gareth Bale, with Defoe as the only genuine striker. It shows a desire to go for a win away from home right from the start and Newcastle no longer have Routledge on that wing, as they did at the Lane a few short weeks ago.
However, our cunning plan was soon undone as Bale’s frantic season took its toll and he went off with a back injury. Although his replacement Bassong did well in a largely unfamiliar role, the Welshman’s absence upset our attacking options. It’s not just those now familiar unstoppable surges from deep. With one man up front, we depended on players coming late into the box to convert chances, something that we singularly failed to do for most of the game and which nearly led to us dropping three points instead of merely two.
The story of this match for Spurs was one of possession and passing with no end product. Our passing and movement was uniformly excellent. Modric once more led the way, less obtrusive than in recent games but effective none the less. He kept the ball moving, looking to touch it forward or spread it wide. Lennon provided width with Bassong available too. Jenas, invariably coming into the movement later as the more defensive of the two central midfielders, provided able support and the wide men were an outlet for his long passing.
The game showed why Harry was so keen on Pienaar. He settled in straight away. No disrespect to his former club but did I detect a sense of relief as he found a natural home in the welcoming prompting of Luka and the movement of VDV and Lennon around him? He certainly felt the frustration of the many opportunities that never became chances at goal, falling to the penalty box turf late on and banging his fists into the grass. He moved well across the line and that ability to cut in is handy. He’s very comfortable in possession and made a major contribution to the ease with which we kept the ball. What a difference compared with even a few months ago. Once, he just remained still on the left, waited until his colleagues had readjusted their positions then upped the pace again.
When this worked, it all looked good, especially in the first half when we pushed back our opponents. Lennon injected welcome bursts of pace in case we let the tempo drop and he was active for the full 90 minutes, or more accurately 94 as the final 4 minutes was a bonkers end to end melee when both sides totally forget years of training and went at it like schoolboys in the playground just before the bell sounds. The back four, one at a time, pushed up into the space as Newcastle retreated.
With all this support, the chances should have flowed freely. One sublime move cut the defence apart only for Defoe to find Harper’s feet. The keeper did well but you hope JD can put those away. Later, Modric hit the bar and Harper was active but in truth it was a case of so many possibilities, so little end product. Defoe worked hard – Rafa praised his movement earlier this week – but he’s not at his sharpest. The biggest problem, however, was the lack of a consistent presence from midfield, making purposeful runs into the box and getting ahead of Defoe. Newcastle dealt with Rafa effectively, stifling him by crowding the space around him. Moran kept close, which of course meant he was less of an attacking force, and knocked him about a bit, all part of the game and VDV can take it. He did little on a day when we really needed him.
Otherwise, we were too content with hanging around the edge of the box. It’s fine one or two waiting for a cutback as Lennon rips forward but others must hit the 6 yards box. More commitment is needed – they have to go for it but instead stayed in the comfort zone 18 yards out. Watch Barca or remember Inter Milan in Italy: their front men push up, then one comes deeper, the other moves across, keep the ball, keep prompting, have the ability to up the pace suddenly and the chances will come. We loitered without intent and for the most part did not speed things up.
At the other end, Newcastle intermittently looked dangerous in the first half but a high ball could on several occasions have brought some reward and they hit the bar after a fine far-post cross. Dawson was uncharacteristically uncertain, missing a couple of high balls and once, in the second half, left standing. We’re so used to his commanding presence, it was noticeable when he missed even one or two high ones.
The biggest problem was Hutton, who had a poor match throughout and whose ineffectual presence made a centre half look like Ronaldo for what could so easily have been Newcastle’s matchwinner. Time and again our opponents made hay down his wing. For the move when Best hit the bar, he stood and watched as the cross was carefully prepared. To be fair to him, Newcastle planned for this, exploiting Lennon’s absence on winger’s duties by doubling up down our right but he had an afternoon to forget.
On the other flank, Bassong did well enough. His central defender’s instincts meant that he tucked in, closer to the centrebacks, rather than being isolated, which is where Benny sometimes has trouble. A more defensive minded full back with all our attacking players could be useful.
Who needs all this fancy dan football? Crouch on, long ball down the middle, Lennon cuts in and a fine finish. At last. Harper berated his full back for not sending him wide but in the home game a few weeks ago, Lenny did go wide and still scored. It shows how his game has developed. Almost makes me forget a couple of crosses that sailed over Crouch’s head when he was unmarked on the far post. Still, can’t have everything and in the end we were grateful for a point in a match where we should have gained more, if we are to keep up the pressure on the top four.