Look on the bright side. It’s a long time since I left the Lane so numb with disappointment and dissatisfaction, so it must mean that most of the time, we’ve been doing OK but frankly after watching this sorry mess of incompetence, I’m struggling with the optimist thing. Instead of reaching for the podium we’re not so much looking over our shoulder as being engulfed on the top bend like an 800 metre runner who went too early in order to win the premature cheers of the crowd. Ten minutes before kick-off, the turnstiles were disconcertingly closed for a few minutes. It seemed strange at the time but perhaps it would have been better if they had remained shut and left me in the street.
Watching Spurs struggle was painful enough but nothing compared with the shot through the heart that is the league table. This was our year, the moment when the long Age of Suffering came to an end and we emerged from the cold dark ages into the light, reborn as the team everyone wants to see, our rivals vanquished as the balance of power finally shifted in our favour. We deserved it, wonderful players at last fulfilling their potential. Pace and movement, grace and beauty, style and glory.
Instead we are fast in danger of conforming to type, pretty boy losers who can’t hack it with the big boys, fancy dan chokers grinding to a halt when the pressure is on. What was so galling about yesterday’s insipid collapse was that we had appeared to have worked through our problems and gathered ourselves. The performances were there if the goals weren’t always. Yet yesterday we turned in the sort of effort that I thought had been been banished long ago, shapeless, devoid of ideas and second best in virtually every challenge.
Still, we are hanging in there, our fate in our hands if we have a storming end to the season. Part of that Spurs stereotype is that we are formidable cup opponents so we’ll see. Too early to write us off but yesterday was crushingly awful. I was left hoping for one of those decisions that the big boys get allegedly but instead of two offside goals or a crazy penalty, all we got was a let-off for a possible Adebayor push in our box that frustrated Norwich. I’ve not seen a replay but it looked a good shout to me. In reality we seldom put sufficient pressure on our opponents to earn anything and long before the end the fans were cheering defenders if they thumped the ball high and long into the stands because at least that was an improvement on what had gone before.
Harry Redknapp has to accept his responsibility for this debacle. By opting for 4-4-2 he upset Tottenham’s rhythm and balance, characteristics which he himself has spent years creating. Over the last week or so I’ve heard countless pundits say that Spurs look better going forward with two wide men. It’s true – we do look better but what catches the eye doesn’t necessarily win matches. We are better all round with a 4-2-3-1 that provides a solid platform for our hugely talented front players to cast their spell. Individuals look comfortable with this set-up. There’s always someone available for a pass. They look up and a colleague is working those familiar patterns.
All teams have a blip, a flat spot during a long season. Ours coincided with a few injuries, plus the fact that, again as is always the way in this league, teams learned what to expect and began to suss out how to play against us. Also, Redknapp tinkered, going on the offensive against Ar****l and others with two up front. Because it left us vulnerable, he eventually changed back. Yesterday showed he’s not learned that lesson after all.
Earlier this season in the fixture at Carrow Road, Spurs mesmerised the Norwich defenders with a dazzling display of counter-attacking football with Bale and VDV in free roles. Yesterday, Lambert comprehensively won the tactical battle. He kept his midfield four fairly tight and narrow. As a result, there were few gaps and they consistently outnumbered Modric and Livermore in centre midfield. Meanwhile, Bale and Lennon were allowed to drift too far forward – Redknapp described us afterwards as playing four up front – thus unbalancing the equation still further. They effectively played themselves out of the game.
Also, and to Norwich’s great credit after Sunderland’s stultifying lack of ambition on Saturday, Lambert was keen to get the ball forward. Wilbraham helped out in midfield but was quick to support Holt up front. With their midfield voraciously gobbling up anything loose and constantly getting to the second ball, this meant we were never allowed to be comfortable at the back.
Redknapp admitted his folly during an odd post-match interview on 5Live where he acknowledged that he changed the formation for this game and that it did not work. He sounded bewildered, as if forces beyond his control were at work. He said that the extra man in midfield had done well for us lately and he had changed it but didn’t seem to know why. Norwich’s application and effort, plus a superb second, made him pay. What’s worrying is that Redknapp, the so-called great motivator, had no answer. He could have altered it during the game but didn’t. If the manager doesn’t know why he does things, then we are in trouble. ‘Miles too open’ we were. Yep, so do something. He brought on Adebayor but this became a like for like with Saha, still two up front, running away from the ball and waiting instead of mixing things up. Very much like for like – Adebayor was just as ineffective as Saha.
That said, the players themselves were universally poor. Before their opening goal, we had three separate chances to win the ball but missed each tackle. For the second, a great hit but no closing down. No longer “Ledley” in the crowd, who now spit out his surname in abrupt disgust. He had another poor game. So sad. Nelsen was a reassuring figure when he came on. With Kaboul hurt, we may have to rely on a player older than our highest squad number.
Modric was our most creative player when on the ball, one-twos and a few incisive first-time through balls. His problem was his inability to get on the ball often enough. Well before the end, he looked shattered, unable to summon the strength loft a late, long free-kick anywhere near their box. There was nothing: he was gone and if he wasn’t fully fit, all the more reason to help him out with more fresh legs from the beginning in centre midfield. Walker had his worst game while Bale was a sporadic threat and he hit the bar with Ruddy beaten although from the opening quarter he rationed his runs as he felt his groin and legs after every lung-bursting effort.
Defoe’s equaliser was a sweet moment out of keeping with the rest of our performance. If we could break through the midfield cordon, there was space between the Norwich back four. Only once did we exploit this, despite Defoe’s runs. Livermore found him with a perfectly paced through ball and his finish was calmness personified. It looked so simple and it was, yet that pass was never repeated. If we go 4-4-2, why on earth could we not see that?
I can only assume that Rafa was not fully fit and of course we know he’s had leg problems ever since he’s been with us. However, he is not only a top class player, he has the mental attitude to handle these pressure games. He’s the one who performs at the top of his game when the heat is on. How we missed him. As it was, several of the side showed their age, at one end in Ledley’s shot to pieces legs, at the other in the desperate inexperience of Bale, Lennon and Walker, matchwinners who made poor decisions. I know they have games under their belt but they aren’t used to this pressure at the top of the table.
Delayed by traffic, I parked further away than usual. Trudging back the car, I turned down Sheringham Road into Cromer Avenue. Even the Norfolk streetnames are taunting me.