One touch too many, a phrase that sums up Spurs’ performance last night. A radically altered team seldom captured the flowing passing style that’s been a feature of our season and we couldn’t score against 10 men despite having all the possession and territory in the second half.
This was like a trip back in time, all the way back to, oh, last spring at least. Players wanting three or four touches on the ball when one or two would do. Turning back into their man when a simple lay-off would keep the ball moving and stretch our already beleaguered opponents. Haven’t they learned anything from playing alongside Parker the master?
As a result we were continually caught in possession and allowed PAOK time to regroup after half a break had been made. Their massed ranks meant our one-twos in and around the box bounced off knees and ankles as well as feet but they didn’t mind as long as it stayed far from their goal. Many like Defoe and Pienaar tried too hard, setting the ball up for the perfect effort rather than catching them unawares with the early shot. Pienaar in particular failed to exert any authority – let’s be kind, he was finding his way back to match fitness and leave it at that.
The fact that it looked so dire is a tribute to how far we have come since last season. We play at pace, in set patterns that rely on Walker and Bale as well as Lennon to be quick and direct out wide and for Modric and Parker to shift it swiftly and accurately in the middle. On three occasions in the second half, we played a ball wide right from about 30 yards out and there was no one running on to it. Not making excuses for shoddy passing (there was plenty of that), but this sort of move is rehearsed in training and encouraged on the night, barely look up because that’s what has been coached. Yet Walker wasn’t there, not until later. We’ve grown into comfortable patterns and couldn’t readjust in time.
It’s not so much the individual, it’s the blend. Quality players in an unfamiliar line-up are just that, individuals and by the time the worst of the shambles was over, we were two down and beaten, despite the penalty and sending off that brought us unexpectedly back into things. We couldn’t finish them off, that old familiar Tottenham. Balls into the box, no one to finish it off. Their keeper was excellent but seldom tested. Ah, the good old days.
I say it’s not so much the individual, that doesn’t excuse some of the desultory efforts on show. Rose showed why he has so much to learn about the art of the full-back, especially positional play. Corluka, a defender I have a lot of time for, was appalling. Looking to him for basics of good positioning and solidity, he failed with the basics of passing and covering all night. I realise he wants out but we looked to him for leadership by example and there was none. However, twice it was the defensive line up that left acres of space between the four of them, twice the Greeks scored. The guy with the first goal seemed almost apologetic that such a gentle header should count. Where was Livermore and the midfield cover? Where was the tracking back?
Sadly I wasn’t at the Lane last night. I say sadly – this is my foolishness, I would rather have been there to witness a defeat than stuck on my sofa. Anyway, Graham Taylor rightly picked out the ‘one touch too many’ refrain several times. He wasn’t so sure about what to do about it. When asked he chortled, ‘That’s up to Harry!” It’s a cracking gig, being a pundit. They get £2 or £3k a match, I think. I’m available. It’s true that I haven’t actually been England manager or played football at a level higher than the Oaklands Road Primary 1st XI but at least I have an opinion.
I would have played an almost full-strength team from the start. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that a European competition is worth winning and that winning something is better than coming 4th in something else. I’m also calculating enough to say that on the balance of probability, it was worth the risk, despite Liverpool’s example from earlier this week where Lucus was crocked for 6 months. I’ve praised Harry for easing us on to the outside with the minimum of effort, two furlongs to go and a clear run ahead without breaking sweat. Win this one, effectively play one match at anywhere near full tilt, and we were through to the stage where over 2 legs we could beat anyone. Get there, then take a view depending on how we doing in the league and the FA Cup. Stamina is not a problem for this team and we could have coped with this game.
Credit to PAOK. Unlike the away match, they were organised and determined, refusing to be shifted from their Alamo positions behind the barricades.
So I’m disappointed today, but onwards and upwards. Harry’s heart was never in it and in the end that was the attitude of several players. If we had been 5th or 6th in the league, maybe he would have taken a different view, but we’re third and deserve to be so Bolton it is and three points.
Finally, I’m also disappointed with how many people on the boards and on twitter have written off a few of our young players. I know we all get grumpy after a result like this but to dismiss Harry Kane’s chances totally as many have done, or Livermore’s for that matter, is ridiculous. Kane is just 18 years old, our central striker in a key European game, he worked hard and could have scored on two occasions, would have if it were not for a handball on the line. It’s hard enough as it is for young players to make it, never mind a reaction like this.