The media have taken a solemn and binding oath never to say a bad word about Harry Redknapp. He’s teflon-coated, surrounded by a legion of sycophantic pundits who at the slightest hint of a problem adopt Roman strategy and surround their man with an impenetrable wall of shields. Spurs fans ringing the phone-ins who dare speak his name in vain are showered with ridicule, for example.
I was going to write about this at the end of the season, when we can properly and soberly reflect on a season of wildly fluctuating emotions, but suitably deflated after West Brom’s equaliser, this seems as good a time as any to bring the subject up. It’s a remarkable achievement in an era where the media covers football as never before, not merely examining their subjects with a fine tooth comb but individually picking out each and every head-louse, then sticking that under a microscope. If they can’t find a louse, they’ll invent one.
Yet Redknapp is immune. I can’t recall the last time I read or heard any sustained critique of his managership at Tottenham from a professional pundit. Any suggestion of negativity is met with snorts of derision, not even examined but immediately and forcefully ruled out of bounds. No other manager has such protection, not even Alex Ferguson. Nothing sticks, rather like Pav trying to trap the ball yesterday.
I am genuinely and sincerely grateful for the progress made by Tottenham Hotspur under Harry Redknapp. Harry bless him has obviously been told to stop intoning his mantra but for once I’ll save him the trouble: I have not forgotten that we did have 2 points from 8 games. To me that seems like if not yesterday, then only last week. The tilt at fourth place, the Champions League, the players, the football, all of this I’ve loved and will never forget. Building a team takes time and I’m not impatient. I’m not expecting overnight success. However, Harry’s mantra can’t hide the problems and in the midst of the final few games that will define the season as one of success or failure, the old problems that we hoped had gone away have bubbled back to the surface.
Redknapp had a bad game yesterday. Starting with the team selection, he ignored the evidence that the pairing of Crouch and Pavyluchenko had worked pretty well. Now this was Harry’s selection in the first place and he deserves the credit: TOMM regulars will know that whilst I love each and every one of my lovely boys, Crouch is not my favourite son. Yet it’s been good so unless there was an injury, I saw no reason to break it up.
Harry will say, of course, that the job of a striker is to score goals and both did yesterday. However, there is no hiding from the reality that both were downright awful. Our problems stemmed from the fact that JD was never in the game (if he touched the ball at all in the first 20 minutes then I missed it) and Pav’s ball-control was a comic tour de force worthy of top billing at the Edinburgh festival. Leading the line is not his game, there’s been plenty of evidence over the years. He’s fine if he can push the ball a metre ahead of him. Do that, suddenly he’s a world-beater, as he was against Chelsea at home and yesterday he took his chance superbly. Then, as West Brom closed us down and left us no room in the box, he and Defoe looked so ordinary and ineffective. Time and again we played the ball to him, only to see it ping back from his rubber boots. When they call strikers ‘spring-heeled’, this is not what they had in mind.
It was odd not to see Benny up and down that wing. He’s been injured before but his presence is reassuring somehow. I missed him after he went off and so did Gareth Bale. He was at fault to some extent for the early goal, giving the player too much room inside him. However, he managed to get back, as he so often does, and the slip/injury did us in. Well-taken but so much room. Old failings.
Sandro came on and had an excellent game, adding attacking drive and bounce to his defensive work. However, to fit him in required our two best players, Modric and Bale, to move out of position. This weakened our team more than if we had brought on Bassong, not a full-back and certainly not ideal but a quick and competent defender. Luka’s body language when he heard the news was a picture. He visibly slumped.
Taking of body language, an expert on Radio 4 said that tugging or touching the neck was the surest sign on a person that something was up. Feel free to use that in your next poker game or contract negotiation. As the game wore on, my neck resembled that of a turkey in early December. We never kicked on after our equaliser. It was one of those ‘nearly’ performances. Lots of good passes or touches that nearly came off but not quite. The pass looked a good one but was just cut out, or the flick opened up the defence – almost. In games like these, what begins as promising and inventive becomes over-optimistic and downright naive, as time after the moves broke down. Credit to West Brom here. Even though we pushed them further and further back towards their own goal, their defensive shield did not crack and they were always able to break quickly.We ended up trying to pass through the eye of a needle. Nothing to aim for up front because nothing was going on.
We needed a change but were treated to a mystifying substitution. For better or worse, usually better, throughout the season we’ve played with two wide men, Lennon and Bale, and this is the shape where we feel comfortable. Not only that, the combination of width and extra pace was ideal to stretch and break down the resolute WBA defence, so for the life of me I can’t see why Lennon stayed left. I can only presume that Harry wanted to double-team our opponents who had Brunt filling back to protect the full-back from Bale’s runs. Instead, it cluttered everything up and neither player was half as effective as they might have been.
Moreover, it left Kaboul unprotected on our left, as VDV was cutting inside at every opportunity. Several times WBA exploited this themselves. They found it easier to get two on one than we did. Kaboul did well enough in the circumstances but WBA had several opportunities, scoring from one, an admittedly excellent shot from deep but still Cox had plenty of room. He may well never score another like that in his career but that’s not the point. We were unbalanced by the formation.
On 5Live, after the obligatory ‘it’s been a great season’ Harry muttered something along the lines of, ‘I suppose we could be more defensive but that’s not how we are’, then he let the sentence trail away. This isn’t a precise quote as at the time the topical storm over east London had turned the North Circ into a tributary of the Ganges, not the best moment to discover that there was something wrong with my windscreen wipers. Well actually Harry, that’s precisely how we should be at times like that. Fair play again, in the bad old days we would not have fought back to go 2-1 up and that is much of the manager’s doing. However, even if we had had Lennon back on the right we would have been not only more solid to protect the hard fought lead, we could have still attacked on the break.
Rafa had a fine second half. Coming off his wing he worked tirelessly, prompting and probing, looking for an opening. Much more effective when he doesn’t drop deep, this is his position, in the area in front of the back four. However his and the runs of others were too often lateral rather than penetrating. The West Brom midfield shield pushed them across. No width and they weren’t stretched out of shape. Kaboul could not attack because he was occupied with defensive considerations. Luka had a decent rather than commanding game. Tiring towards the end, even slightly off colour and out of position he remained inventive, but there was so little room.
So Rafa ran hard but he did not run back. Two up front plus Rafa, that’s three out of the reckoning when they had the ball and that’s too much, especially at a time when we were a goal up. I enjoy the cavalier football but there is a time and a place for caution. Unbalanced and unprotected, West Brom could get at our back four all too easily. One on one, Dawson did very well and Gallas was OK. However, left one on one, unprotected, they are left with an invidious choice. Dive in and there’s no one behind. Stand off and our opponents have space to create, or in this case line up a curling shot that they wouldn’t have the time to do in training. The midfield are there to protect, and survive, but they were absent. Redknapp should have reorganised.
Same old story. Weak up front and not converting our superiority into goals and points. midfield not defending. Without taking anything away from a well-organised and determined West Brom team, these points dropped against teams we should have beaten have virtually done for our hopes of the CL. Never mind that, now we are looking over our shoulders and the key match of the season is now the trip not to Manchester but to Anfield. What a waste.