If the wheels haven’t completely fallen off yet, the Tottenham bandwagon has been jacked up and is sitting on bricks outside the house. Might as well have a look at the exhaust while we’re about it – Spurs are badly misfiring and in need of an overhaul.
That job-lot of Brasso we picked up for the end of the season can be tucked away under the stairs because it’s the team that need some polishing after another lacklustre performance. In most respects it looked the same – the same players that had dazzled the Premier League for several months, large periods of possession otherwise known as the second half punctuated with thrilling moments of brilliance like Bale’s shot that left the keeper flatfooted but dipped onto the wrong side of the bar.
Good vibes and positive thoughts for Fabrice Muamba, the miracle man. I’m delighted for him and his family and will continue to wish him well in the long months of recovery ahead. The t-shirts were a fine gesture but the suggested applause on 41 minutes didn’t materialise. A song from the Park Lane marked the moment.
The fans were preoccupied with more immediate matters: the anxiety for three points in a game that wasn’t going our way. I don’t believe this display was unduly affected by Muamba’s heart attack. Granted we took a while to settle but the players appeared motivated and focussed. Being a professional doesn’t mean that the feelings go away, it’s just that you learn to leave them behind in the dressing room and pick them up after business is over.
Also, there were marked similarities with the recent Everton game. In both we toiled in the second half, shuttling sideways back and forth across their box unable to make a dent in their massed ranks of defenders. There’s been a lack of punch and pizazz up front for several matches now, not to mention a lack of goals since the Newcastle feast. This is no longer an aberration, it’s a trend.
So what’s not working? The formation had a welcome familiarity about it. Defoe is unlucky to not be starting. Despite his deficiencies he’s been bright for much of his time on the field. Saha can offer something to lead the line in place of Adebayor, who Newcastle notwithstanding has been in and out since Christmas. In theory. In practice, he played like an alien only recently introduced to football and more specifically the concept of passing. His inability throughout the game to pass the ball accurately over 5 yards was infuriating. His early ball placed carefully at the feet of a Stoke player when under no pressure was incredible and we were fortunate at that point in the match that Stoke wasted several good opportunities. Saha neither posed any danger bar one excellent shot that was well saved or proved able to keep possession.
Kranjcar is a talented player who is best deployed in an advanced role, playing off the main striker where he has few responsibilities when we don’t have the ball. Problem is, Van der Vaart does that best, so to deploy him on the right creates a potential problem, especially if he is as indifferent as he was yesterday. More significant is that the way round this, Walker pumping up the wing to provide width while the man on the right drifts in to offer more in the centre, does not seem to be an option any more. For several matches Walker has not been overlapping regularly. The full back has taken a few knocks lately and works prodigiously hard but he doesn’t seem to be injured. Late on, he’s so motivated that he tried to get forward even as he limped from a hard challenge that incensed the Shelf.
I don’t want to be negative about Gareth Bale who did more than anyone to try to win it. His crosses were met with indifference by the strikers in the first half and there were times when it need a hard low ball rather than the curler. However, after the break he should have stayed wider more often because width was the key to unlocking the Stoke defence. As expected they did well but our lack of movement made it easy for them. Time and again they snuffed out the space as we came down the middle and we never shifted them out of their comfort zone. Instead, our forwards hovered around the edge of the box. The long shots were decent but much easier to handle. In the second half for all our pressure and possession we made few proper chances.
Stoke fans watched most of the second period with the aid of binoculars, so far from the action were they. When they scored, they were probably cheering because the ball was up their end. We know what to expect at set pieces, once again we failed to win the ball and were muscled out of it at the finish. Friedel had little else to do except argue with the ref, although the easiest opportunity fell to Stoke as well, an apparently innocuous ball falling out of the sky close to our goal which skimmed the forehead of their man (Walters?) and plopped into Friedel’s arms.
Tactics or formations, if players are off-form there’s little to be done, and the spine of our team, Modric, Parker and King are not at their best. They are all doing well enough, it’s just that their standards are so high you notice if they are even a tiny bit off. Parker has not been the same since he missed a game or two after a kick on the knee, while Luka’s passing is less consistent than usual. I’m never going to be the one to write off the mighty King, a man who has my unending admiration but yesterday he was limp. Early on he failed to clear a couple of easy balls – there seemed to be little bounce or power in his kick.
Add this up and there’s a lack of drive and inspiration. In realising what we have missed, it’s illuminating to see how much they gave us when at their best, but that’s a hollow exercise given our lack of points, goals and bite in recent matches. With it has gone our tempo, creativity and leadership.
It’s hard to see what Redknapp can do in terms of freshening up the side. Daws and Lennon would do the trick, both are injured. Sandro did well at Stamford bridge last season but he’s still short of match fitness and our geriatric alternatives to King, who also lack match practice, does not fill me with confidence. We don’t have anything more up front to challenge Manu. Livermore and Sandro may yet have a role to play. They could shore up that defensive midfield and let the others play. And maybe give Luka a week on the beach. Perhaps that’s what he needs.
Earlier after that sticky beginning when Stoke could have scored twice, we stuttered into life. Modric was not at his best but was good enough to keep the tempo up and link with Bale for a couple of good opportunities. At the time the disappointing finishes nevertheless held the possibilities of better things to come but in fact that proved to be our best spell.
Redknapp’s bold half-time substitution, bringing on Defoe to create an ultra-attacking line-up was nullified not so much by Stoke’s worthy muscular defending but by a collective drift into the centre where defenders could easily snuff out the one-twos and through balls. We were drawn to the penalty box ‘D’ like so many druids gathering for the spring equinox. Defoe hardly had a touch.
if Rafa’s header softened the blow, the relief such as it was lasted about as long as the walk to the car. The CL and FA Cup remain viable goals and are more important than any local rivalry. 4th will do whoever finishes above us, but the news that Ar****l had overhauled that big gap was hard to stomach. Gone is the flowing football, the bounce in my stride, the sense that at last the balance of power had shifted. Logically, Redknapp could be right, this could be an important point come the reckoning, but today that sounds as if he’s protecting his men from the consequences of a poor display. This one feels like a defeat.