He’s taken us ten points clear of the rest, laid hands on the lame and made them score, and thwarted the combined might of the taxman and the Crown Prosecution Service. Yesterday, he couldn’t resist the impulse to fiddle around with the formation, and it didn’t come off. After all that, Harry’s only human. Where Blair, Cameron and so many others have failed, he’s succeeded in uniting the nation. Perhaps this was a subtle hint that he shouldn’t be appointed. England teams underperform in tournaments, it’s what they do, isn’t it?
Stevenage are determined, gutsy and robust but in changing the tried and tested formation, we paid them far too much respect. 3-5-2 has its temptations. If anyone can make it work, we can. All our full-backs are fast and fit to get up and back again plus offering attacking options, centre backs with some experience to sort out the positioning and it gives us two up front to make the most of the chances that will surely come their way because of the creativity in the side. Out of fashion for many years, it’s made a comeback of sorts. Not so much 5 sell-out nights at the Albert Hall, more a tour of the provinces, but it’s back. Liverpool have tried it a few times and we looked good when we were chasing a goal at Stoke earlier in the season.
3 big centre halves to out-muscle the big men on the end of Stevenage’s direct style and their lack of penetration down the flanks meant they didn’t threaten the big weakness of the system, the space out wide. Early on, as the ball wanged into our box from all angles, it was reassuring to have all those big guys around. The full-backs tucked in and Parker and especially Livermore picked up the pieces in and around the area.
Ultimately, however, it caused us more problems than it was worth. The unfamiliar set-up was disruptive. The full-backs are key in 3-5-2 and although Rose had a good first half coming forward, both he and Walker are not strong in terms of their positioning. Walker in particular was not sure whether he was a defender or midfielder and ended doing neither effectively.. Also, we fell foul of the fundamental weakness of the system: we were over-committed defensively in the centre. At times we had 5 men in defensive positions – 3 centre halves and two defensive midfielders – dealing with at most 2 of theirs. They really only pushed the midfield into danger areas at set pieces. If dead balls were a concern, then play Kaboul at full-back for this one with Dawson and Nelsen at centre-back.
As a result we were often outnumbered in midfield, especially as they worked admirably hard to close us down. We didn’t support the man on the ball nearly well enough until later when we made changes. The gap between the strikers and midfield was too great, so we resorted to unfamiliar and unfathomable long balls that nullified the advantages our skill and talent gives us normally. Granted we learned that Bale is no central midfielder. He was completely wasted. To repeat something I’ve noted several times this season, he’s great if he comes off the wing because of the precious unpredictability of his movement, but if he’s hanging around in the middle he’s easier to mark, same as everyone, and he can’t get up a head of steam.
Stevenage came at us early on but Dawson and Nelsen did enough although there were a few scares on the way. Their tactic was to give Cudicini some muscle and the referee wasn’t keen to protect him. These tactics depend on being first to the second ball and for the most part we were alert to the danger. Bodies in the way, a toe here and there.
With the ball, we did little. Parker seemed unsure until we pushed him further forward but this was by now well into the second half. Livermore was the pick in the first period, good movement and technique, he broke up attacks and kept the ball moving, at one point having the confidence to take the man and tell Parker where to drop back. However, neither of them could get us moving. No tempo or rhythm, couldn’t keep a passing movement going, static off the ball. The commentators were all about making it ugly: I didn’t think they meant us.
Rose had a decent first half and he was really the only player setting up any opportunities. As the game went on, his defensive shortcomings were evident as he failed to close down his man so they could launch more bombs into the box.
We changed things a little come the second half. In possession the back three spread wide and the spare man pushed into midfield. Kaboul’s run unsettled a previously untroubled defence. the two men could not be further apart in stature but we yearned for Lennon to take them on in the same way. Raising the tempo paid dividends with some combination moves and a scrappy effort from Saha (ironically we were the team that nearly profited from a loose ball in the box) was unluckily but rightly disallowed because it hit Parker on the line.
That momentum soon dissipated. Lennon looked bright but Niko, on to provide creativity, whacking the ball miles in the air on 80 minutes, summed it all up. Stevenage deserve a great deal of credit for their disciplined, energetic approach, particularly in defence where they brought men to the ball and crowded us out. Nelsen has no pace but used his experience to be first when Cudicini spilled a shot, Dawson did well to clear a dangerous cross but otherwise, without minimising their achievements, the fact is that despite ITV’s frantic efforts to crank up the giant killing, Stevenage’s increasingly sporadic second half efforts mostly consisted of long shots flying into the crowd behind the goal.
It’s odd and, to me, unexpected that we have looked so ill at ease at Watford and Stevenage. I really don’t want to talk it up but we have as good a chance as any in the Cup. On the evidence of these two away ties, we’re concentrating on the league. The team is best in certain patterns. We can accommodate a few personnel changes but not a significantly different formation. The run-in will be tough but the message is consistency. Opponents may know what to expect but I say bring them all on. Let’s match ourselves against the best and see what happens. We were poor yesterday but still in the Cup. Two winnable home games and it’s the semi-final. Only complacency can stop us.
On a brighter note, on Thursday I became an ultra. The Fighting Cock website corralled a bunch of us to support the youth team in the 5th round of the Youth Cup away to Charlton and give them a taste of what it was like to be a Spur. Over 300 fans took the locals by surprise and sung for the whole match. A good time was had by all, despite Charlton’s last minute winner, and the players really appreciated it. I’ll let you know if there are more events planned.