At the risk of letting light in upon magic, I sometimes prepare a few things to say before the game starts. Bit of background, some context maybe, the key themes to put the match into the context of what’s gone on before. For this one, as recently as last week I resolved to stand back from the clamour about this being the 4th place decider. Whatever the result, Liverpool away was the real deal because I had long since given up on the Champions League, even if others hadn’t. The Europa League was the only prize at stake, and given the anti-climatic season’s end, I would have been satisfied.
That innocuous introduction seems absurdly presumptuous now, just a few days on. Through no shortage of effort or application, we struggled to break down the resolute defences of first Blackpool then Manchester City, dominating both games in terms of possession and territory but with only a single goal and point to show for it, and that a long range effort. Make that one win in 13, and as if things couldn’t possibly be worse, Liverpool score 5 Fulham with a star performance from a striker we were seriously after.
Defeat is one thing but life, rub it in our faces, why don’t you. Last year’s hero turns villain with an undignified own goal for an undeserved winner. At the end, caution and negativity triumphs over the cavalier devil-may-care attacking darlings of the neutral who wants exciting, open football.
We the fans watch and feel the process, the ups and downs of our fortunes, but there’s always one moment when the true impact hits, whether that be pain or joy. That instant is different for each of us: mine was 5 minutes before the final whistle last night. I knew the wheels had come off, we all did, disappointment but I never had outrageous expectations so that had cushioned the blow. Until then. For in the eyes of the City fans, desperate and twitching for the end yet simultaneously giddy with the ecstasy of what is to come, I saw me, 12 months ago almost to the day. Defeat was not so much disappointment, it’s deprivation.
Suitably crushed, in the spirit of comradeship I wanted to tell them what all Spurs fans knew – we were never going to score. On twitter, most seemed to have turned over to watch the Apprentice. Ironic then that the programme’s lead character Alan Sugar took us to midtable mediocrity whilst trousering tens of millions in personal profit.
In many ways this match was our season in microcosm. After a few early scares, we gradually asserted ourselves through some fine possession football. City had done their homework and tried to exploit our season-long weakness of keeping too large a gap between the centre halves and the back four. The difference when we attacked was marked, with their fullbacks tucking right in. Rose made one or two positional errors to start with, but he’s quick and a quick learner. Get the positioning correct and with that pace he’s looking a genuine prospect at full-back – he had a fine game.
We were under real pressure but to the players’ credit we seldom played as if this were the case . Then we threw it all away. Crouch’s’ lackadaisical effort to clear that ball, off-balance as the messages from brain to foot took even longer than usual to pass along the nervous system, was poor but the real problem was the dozy marking that enabled Milner to put the ball across from close range. It’s a short corner with no one there. Kids stuff. We’ve been there before, so often.
Spells at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second were as good as any we’ve seen this season. Flowing, composed possession football with Modric the heart and soul, Sandro driving on in the middle and Lennon as a bright as a button on the right. After a dreadful start, Pienaar picked up the pace and made his contribution. Van der Vaart worked hard across the box.
All to no avail. Few chances and sadly the two gems, Modric in the first half (I was certain that was in!!) and Pienaar in the second, were missed. Nothing much going on once we get to the edge of the area. Too often we made good passes wide to left or right to produce good crosses but after a while you realised that in fact this was the soft option. City were far happier heading these away, as were Blackpool on Saturday, than if we had burst for the heart of their defence. Crouch was awful, City defenders ravenously gobbling up the supply of weedy predictable knockdowns with Peter the Grate oblivious to the presence of the goal itself a mere 12 yards distant.
A few comparisons with our usurpers makes for sobering reading. Up front, at first sight there’s not a lot of material to work on, seeing as we penned them back for the majority of the game, yet what they did offer was noticeably more incisive than the majority of our work. At the start of the second half we broke down the right and lennon crossed. In teh middle we had four or five players busitng a gut to get into the box. One of them, Pienaar, forced a brilliant save from Hart. The real reason why we don’t score more is that we did not do that again. Goals can come from the midfield as well as the strikers but not if we sit back in the comfort zone at the edge of the area. Late on, it was Corluka and Lennon who reached the byline. Good crosses, both watched by three or four players who should have been bombing into the 6 yard box, looking for a touch or nudge, anything. An own goal, even….
City do not get numbers forward but those that do come late into the box. Silva is especially good at this, Tevez when he plays, Toure latterly. They come onto the ball, often simple short stabbed passes into the gaps between defenders. We on the other hand are static and stationary, ahead of the ball and waiting for it. Problem is, so are their defenders.
Secondly, when they were on top early on City’s front three closed us down high up the pitch, stifling our development of the passing movements we love. We don’t do that, and we easily could.
Thirdly, and most crucially for our season, City did not concede and held onto a lead. They cut out mistakes at the back and didn’t give us any room. We played so well to keep the ball despite their efforts – sure City are defensive but we pushed them back for extended periods so they didn’t have that much of a choice. We are able to play like this – Milan home and away anyone – but we don’t do so often enough.
This blog tries its best to avoid cliches but unashamedly adopts Danny Blanchflower’s famous quote: “the game is about glory, doing things in style.” I keep returning to this because it sums up what I believe about football and what I want from my beloved Spurs. There’s no way I wish to play like City, but the sobering thought that lingers this morning is: they are 4th, we aren’t. As the quote continues, the game really is about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom as City did last night. It’s just that sometimes, there is a balance where caution and graft takes its place alongside the beautiful attacking football. The lesson to take from this match and from this season is that we haven’t got the balance quite right yet. Like an F1 car running low on fuel, on the screen in isolation everything looks the same, bright, shiny and streamlined. Pull away and in wide angle, compared with the rest of the pack, it’s going backwards. The nearer the destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.