Last night Tottenham Hotspur produced an outstanding 90 minutes of football to dominate, frustrate and then, astonishingly, defeat AC Milan. Mighty Milan, clear at the head of Serie A, bristling with world-class footballers skilled in the particular wiles of winning in Europe, we took them on and left them bewildered and whinging.
This was a remarkably mature and composed performance. Throughout we remained poised and self-assured, playing with purpose and unshakable focus. Injuries, substitutions and our opponents’ calculated determination to disrupt our concentration by fair means or foul, mostly foul, were brushed aside. The game was all there was. Such was their application, if the city had gone up in flames around the stadium, Palacios would still be tackling, Sandro tracking back, Van der Vaart and then Modric prompting, Crouch labouring heroically, Dawson and Gallas a brick wall at the back.
These and others crafted highly impressive individual displays but the victory was all about the team. From first to last they worked their socks off for and on behalf each other. Whether it was the wide men dropping back, Crouch being available up front or Rafa slipping between their back four and midfield, not once was a Spurs player in possession left isolated, nor a defender left exposed. A mate was always around to lend a hand.
Already I’m repeating myself but I can’t get over how smooth and assured we were. Over and above the individuals or tactics, of which more later, we carried ourselves with a confident collective determination that I’ve not seen from this team before. It was a self-awareness, a collective consciousness that transcended the combined talents of 11 footballers. It’s like watching your children grow up. There comes a moment when you suddenly realise that they become young adults. Gradual though it may be, there’s a point at which they appear to transform. Last night, these 11 had a sense of being, of being Spurs.
I confess: this blog is peppered with references to lack of resilience, concentration and leadership and I did not believe that we were capable of playing this way. In Europe, away, against Milan, at the San Siro. I’m struggling to recall a performance as momentous in similar circumstances. I say struggle – lying awake because the adrenalin is pumping hours after the final whistle, thinking about Spurs in Europe is hardly a struggle. However, I couldn’t come up with much. The team of the early seventies produced a draw under intense pressure, maybe also in Milan. I haven’t looked it up so I’m happy to be corrected, but it was the same thing, under pressure we stayed cool and controlled much of the game, Recognise the context: without exaggeration this one is right up there with the great away European trips of the last 50 years.
Hard to know where to begin, especially as I’m still reeling with the emotion of it all. I’m so bursting with pride over the efforts of my wonderful team, just hook me up to the National Grid and the surge will mean that global warming is a thing of the past. However, let’s start off the pitch. Redknapp set up the team perfectly. Given what has transpired, I have to pinch myself that this was a makeshift midfield that had never before played together, comprising a winger, one centre midfielder prone to errors, brainstorms and wayward passing, another who is only 21 and who has made only a handful of starts, rounded off with an arrival so recent he can barely find his way from the dressing room to the coach. Two world-class footballers were absent, although one, Modric, came on to great effect later. A matchwinner who has electrified Europe and twice destroyed the European Champions was at home, injured.
Yet we proceeded to outwit and out-battle Milan. From the outset, we pressed and harried, with a few little niggles into their heels, in safe areas far from our goal. Sandro covered and chased while Wilson pursued them like a man possessed. Seedorf, their key link between defence and attack, was pushed further back, rendered ineffective. Deprived of service, Milan’s two strikers were largely anonymous in the first half. Rafa inserted himself between their midfield and the back four, chasing again to prevent attacks developing from deep and constantly occupying the attentions of their back four and defensive midfielder. He prompted and crossed, always dangerous with his shooting, and the turn and chip was utterly exquisite.
Because Milan play with little width, Pienaar could come off his wing to make the extra man in the centre when we had the ball. He’s a skilful, shrewd addition to the team. Here, he helped us hugely with the main task, that of retaining possession. Lennon was a constant threat, upping the pace and the anticipation as he repeatedly took on and beat his full-back. Just as valuably, both men dropped back to cover when we lost the ball. Noticeably we learned the lessons from earlier this season, from the San Siro in particular, where the wide men stayed too wide. By staying tight, we restricted Milan’s space in front of our area, precisely the space that VDV was exploiting so effectively at the other end.
Another confession: loving it, I was equally waiting for it all to end. i thought we would be pegged back at the start but no, right into our stride and on top. Flowing effortless movement on and off the ball, diagonal crosses to Crouch causing problems. Only a matter of time before Milan pulled themselves together. Ok then, 30 minutes gone now, nothing from our opponents but we had gone quiet too. They decided to handle Crouch by giving him a sly nudge with the keeper coming way off his line to claim the ball. His substitution could upset that tactic but we sat back and didn’t pressure him.
Half time now, we’ve dominated. Pato on, we’re pushed back, can’t get hold of the ball. But still Milan fail to make serious inroads. Palacios and Sandro diligently track back, patiently waiting for our chance. Two men out when the Italians attack down the flank, bodies between them and the goal.
VDV brilliant but tired. Luka on, two weeks after a serious operation yet as fit as a fiddle, smoothly settling in slightly deeper but what we needed, collecting the ball, moving it on, foot in with the tackle. probably pre-planned, kudos again to Harry, knowing we needed Luka’s game at this point. It was then, as we got onto the ball once more, that I realised this wasn’t going to change. We stopped Milan from playing. Flamini would have been sent off in the Premier League, no question, but he achieved his gaol – do some damage. I feared Gallas on the flank could be a problem. he was caught out once and scampered back, no damage done, never again to venture forward. Otherwise, immaculate. Benny’s expression, unchanging mild surprise, up and down the flank, calm in defence.
Don’t want to dwell on Gattuso’s ill-advised confrontation with Joe Jordan – I know who my money was on – for fear of drawing attention from our wonderful victory. Suffice to say that needle is part of the game whether we like it or not. Gattuso tried to take us on. He says Jordan had been having a go throughout the game ‘in Scottish’ (has the joy caused me to become delirious or is the Italian married to a scot?). Whatever, Gattuso failed on and off the pitch. A sign of our superiority that that had to resort to the roughhouse to put us off but they singularly failed to knock us out of our rhythm. Spurs won that confrontation too.
Unfair though it is to single out individuals, Sandro was astonishing. As I said on Saturday, he drops back naturally into the back four when the ball is out wide or tucks in just in front of the back four when it’s in central areas. Alert always, he tirelessly tracked runners into the box then was fearlessly decisive in the challenge. This man could be the lynchpin of our team for years to come.
Plaudits to two men I have criticised in the past. Alongside Sandro, Palacios gobbled up the yards and the ball whenever it was in reach. The two of them shielded the back four so they had to do their work where they are at their best, in the area. The mighty Dawson did not let us down. Only twice was he forced out of position, such was the protection, and on both occasions he won the ball. And Crouch, dear Crouchie, Simply – on the night we could not asked for more.
Then, a moment dreams are made of, where legends are created. Humble beginnings. Sandro wins the ball for the umpteenth time and Luka touches it on. Suddenly, Lennon’s pace takes the breath away, he’s off into the wide open spaces, defenders shattered in his wake. No aimless run this, the ball is perfectly under his spell. A touch just a little touch sideways and it’s in the back of the net from Crouch.
Normally I like to hold the real-time memories of goals in my head, the blur, the thrill, the exhilaration, but this one, in the low angle replay, Crouch turns to the camera, arms outstretched, no choreographed goal celebration, just genuine joy, while in the background Lennon wheels away in the opposite direction, in his own world, arms similarly outstretched, the joy of the provider as great as that of scorer.
Let’s end it there, although I could go on for pages. Because the game is ultimately not about the formation or tactics. Rather, it’s about the blissful exhilaration from moments like these, the unconfined overwhelming joy of such a complete performance plus, lingering today, a glimpse of the future in the staggering potential revealed last night. To unashamedly borrow a well-worn phrase – this is glory, this is style. One of the best displays in the last 30 years. Magnificent.