Like the child whose parents have surreptitiously removed their much-loved comfort blanket in the night, we woke this morning missing the precious consolation of a game in hand, and soon discovered that we can manage perfectly well without it. For some it provided a welcome safety net, for others the promise of future delights. Now, in the cold light of day, we don’t need it any more. Tottenham Hotspur can stand proud and tall this morning, halfway through the season and third in the league, with only goal difference separating us from second and a mere 3 points from the top. Look how we’ve grown.
After the growing pains, which some called ‘transitional years’, most were less polite, last night demonstrated how Spurs have blossomed into a side not only worthy of our position in the table, but also a team others fear. Redoubtable opponents were gradually broken down and subsequently overwhelmed by a combination of sustained fluidity, movement and pace that proved irresistible. In the process, there were moments of stunning dexterity and class. It’s not just Fergie who has noticed – the game knows that right now we play the best football in the league and it’s a privilege to watch it.
The performance of Jake Livermore epitomised the Tottenham transformation. Before the match, the talk was how we would miss Scott Parker. Maybe Kaboul would be drafted in to fill the gaping hole, because with Sandro out the rest weren’t up to it. Redknapp has shown faith in the young midfielder and Livermore did not let him down. He works hard and has a decent touch with quick feet, but what makes him stand out is his willingness to take responsibility. He’ll make the challenge and knock it off, then run some more, calling for the ball. Last night he refused to hide, taking not so much the easy or difficult option, but the right option, almost every time. His 99% pass completion rate tells only part of the story. He wanted that ball as if he were a veteran. Arthur, who sits in front of me, knows the family. Bouncers mostly, the men at least ( I assumed he meant the men), a cousin is a bare knuckle fighter. Allegedly, because that may not be legal and frankly by the sound of them I wouldn’t want them knocking on my door. But Jake is tough, ready and willing to step up when the going gets tough. In the first half he competed as an equal in the crowded central midfield against a well-organised unit. By the time second half concluded, he was the boss.
Yet such is the talent in this side, he wasn’t the best player on the field. That honour goes to Rafa Van der Vaart. Did people once dare to suggest he doesn’t work hard enough? He was everywhere last night but was particularly and powerfully effective in the way he dropped back to get attacks going then managed to come forward to be a danger in and around the Everton box. Inch-perfect crossfield balls became the norm, precede usually by that lovely little turn he does when he controls the ball and shifts away from the opponent in the same movement, thus opening himself up for a pass, typically left-footed. His first-time shot early on nearly dipped under the bar, while on another occasion he began a move with a long pass, then dashed diagonally 50 yards from right to left to get on the end of the resulting cross, deep in the area. This was the latest in a series of high class performances from a man who has seen it all and played all over the world yet is apparently enjoying the game more than ever.
Everton were neat and brisk at the start, nearly scoring from the now traditional early opening that we present to all teams at the Lane, in this instance Saha firing just wide. They lived up to their name, which is of course Everton Hardtobreakdown FC. We did well enough, Assou Ekotto’s passing finding willing runners in Adebayor, Bale and Modric. Three times we did a neat move, a few passes creating space then Luka runs left towards the edge of the box where Benny picks him out. And they say the coaches don’t do anything.
However, Manu wanted just that one touch to many and Everton defended assiduously, crowding out men in the box and cutting out crosses at the near post. Two or three rushed to Bale wherever he was and it wasn’t until the second half that he could really work up a head of steam, bar one lovely move that set up Adebayor.
Two penalty appeals, Manu and Modric, were rightly turned down but they signalled a shift in the balance of power as the half wore on. We managed to insert players into those channels, a sign that gradually we had cranked things up. from then on, there was only one team in it.
Oddly the goal came from the Spurs player who otherwise had the quietest evening. Lennon seldom got on the ball, although he did his fair share of work off it. Pouncing on a Baines error, he cut inside. His left foot shot unsettled Howard, perhaps with the aid of the merest deflection as it passed under a defender’s body. The keeper found himself committed early and was therefore off-balance as the ball rolled forlornly into the net. Some keepers go a fraction too soon and here was an instance where Howard might have been better to stay on his toes.
Quickly into our stride after the break, we proceeded to dominate for the next 35 minutes, until we became careless and allowed Everton a few opportunities at the end. Ball and men were completely in unison as the football flowed unceasingly towards the Paxton and the Everton goal. The movement, the understanding between the players, the close control – wonderful, simply wonderful, and capped with a suitably spectacular shot from Benny, thirty yards if it was an inch, rising all the way into the corner.
So much to enjoy. All a blur. One move stays in the mind, Walker cleverly dummying the ball into his possession then hurtling 60 yards upfield, the chance missed. My sole regret is that goals didn’t come from those many moves that deserved a goal and I would have liked more to have emerged from the times we had the ball in their box, rather than rely on a thunderbolt. Manu was not at his sharpest and at times we overplayed in the area, Everton’s massed ranks gratefully blocking and tackling for 90 long minutes.
Our opponents have organisation and passing that no so long ago I would have envied. I’ve remarked before about my affinity for them and the parallels between our two sides. Both have an illustrious heritage and loyal, passionate fans who have suffered as city rivals have eclipsed them, then fallen further behind as the money follows money. However, we have moved on. Everton for all their hard work and good touches posed little threat in the final third. Their more attacking approach in the last 10 minutes suited them but it was too late and by then Dawson and Kaboul had mopped up their efforts to the point where the latter had freedom to join the attack.
It’s good to see Daws back. He has his limitations against pace but then what centre back doesn’t? (The correct answer to my otherwise rhetorical question is Ledley King). That chest proudly puffed out is a reassuring sight, and he was especially strong at the near post. In the second half he was felled by a shot that hit him square on the head. Toppling backwards, which is a long way, he picked himself up in time to win the header from the resulting bouncing ball. That’s attitude.
Friedel didn’t have a real save to make but made everybody feel better just by standing there. Benny’s passing and support play were outstanding, never mind the goal. Luka was busy and involved but he’s not at the dizzy heights that represent the peak of his form. Rafa more than made up for him. Bale’s runs were unstoppable, at least by fair means, and both he and Walker made good use of their pace as the space opened up an increasingly bedraggled Everton defence.
Later on, Luka picked up possession and carefully passed the ball into touch. He received a polite ripple of applause, hard lines, good attempt. Now that shows the degree of satisfaction in the stands. No inflated expectations – let’s not worry about the title. Sit back and enjoy the challenge, this team is as good as anything I’ve seen for at least 30 years. A pleasure and a privilege to watch them grow up.
Edit: I am indebted to my friend Rich who saw Benny being interviewed on French TV. The reason he wears odd boots is that he can’t be bothered to find a sponsor so he bought 2 pairs for himself. He ruined one boot so just decided to wear odd ones. He is a top man.
For any regulars mortified, nay bereft, at the lack of a match report for the Cheltenham game, I didn’t see it, couldn’t find a stream and decided not to either pretend or concoct a witty post on shopping in TK Maxx. By the end of that, I had nothing left to give.