Bright start, on top early, turning to complete domination as the first half progresses. Creating a steady stream of chances that cry out for a finish, a mere touch but the crosses find only fresh air. Playing well after the break but gradually tire as the other lot come into it more. Defensive calamities suddenly appear where before there was calm and serenity. This week was worse because we went ahead but it’s becoming a habit.
Different formations and new beginnings but by the finish there was a depressing familiarity about this performance with two standout features. One, a stream of crosses and four good inside the box chances that were created by football with an easy, natural rhythm, but they were missed. Two, defensive shambles precisely at the time when we should be shutting the game down dead.
I tend towards a philosophical approach at this point in the season. Depends on how you see it. Undeniably there was plenty of good football. We passed our way through the West Brom team on many occasions. Movement was intelligent, the energy and purpose beyond reproach. Our untroubled defence coped easily with our opponents who did not manage a shot until right at the end of the opening half. Sandro and Livermore were strong in centre midfield, breaking up any attempts to come close. We missed the chances but the time to really worry is when we don’t make them in the first place.
On the other hand, this match was ours for the taking – we earned it – yet it drifted away with some tired, weak-minded defending. As soon as the pressure was on, we looked vulnerable. As the second half wore on, Sandro was visibly wilting after 70 minutes, Rafa was excellently creative for an hour, then was gone, whilst Bale and Lennon struggled to get into the game at all.
The introduction of Lukaku changed everything. ‘He came from Stamford Bridge, he’s bigger than a fridge,’ sang the Baggies. They have a real player on their hands, at least for the season. He’s fearsomely muscular and athletic. Immediately he tore into our defence, Gallas’s years of nouse melting away in the face of this mighty raw talent. Thunder and lightning around the ground was a portent of doom. I’m fully aware of Dawson’s shortcomings but what he brings to the pitch outweighs any problems and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he could have handled this better.
Friedel made a series of excellent saves to keep us first in the game and then ahead, once Benny’s fluky effort bounced in past Foster, stranded by the deflection. One in particular, low to his left, was top class. Panic ensured as easy clearances were missed. The mantra of possession was quickly forgotten as West Brom pushed forward in numbers.
Even so, it looked as if we got away with it, enjoying a few precious boring minutes of dull possession with about 5 to go. Then a few corners, two off the line before the Baggies deliriously celebrated their equaliser. We failed to not only clear the crosses, we left their big men unmarked deep in our territory. Inexcusable.
On the way home, there was plenty of time for reflection in the North Circular car park. The RAC travel app, it’s not accurate and that’s all I can bring myself to say about it, although other language was used yesterday evening. Two matches in and there’s room to be philosophical. I’m wary of judgements at this point but although there was a lot to admire, I remain sourly disappointed. At the back, we fell apart under pressure – that will be noticed. Up front, as the crosses sizzled in, Defoe and others hung back. What’s the point? If the plan is to cross, the edge of the 6 yard box is the first and only place to be.
The chances fell to Sandro, Vertonghen, VDV and Lennon, to Bale in the second half after a sumptuous diagonal from Rafa. Wrong foot, not strikers – it showed but if we are playing with one up front, the midfield has to take this kind of chance. Our efforts were dreadful – Foster didn’t have to save any of those 5. Manu offered a focus but there is an inherent problem with one up front in our current formation. Bale and Lennon offer width but there’s nothing to aim for in the middle. If we are to set up chances using these wide players rather than through-balls, this has to change. Lennon looks speedy and bouncy, but he’s not sharp in the area. Much better than he was, but still not sharp enough.
This was a problem last season. It’s a work in progress so my patience is holding out, but progress right now is slow. I predicted that the fans should brace ourselves for a sticky start, and so it has proved. Things will get better, but these two matches, whilst demonstrating our potential, has ended up focussing attention on long-standing problems still to be solved.
Warm, rich applause rippled around the Lane for every second of the 26th minute, a token of our gratitude to Ledley King, one of Tottenham’s finest. A real Spur, I wish him well in retirement, although I wonder if he might feel empty without football. He doesn’t strike me as someone who will easily slip into either punditry or business, so I hope the club properly look after him.