“Things aren’t working as well as I had hoped and I’m worried.” That’s not what Andre Villas-Boas said after Spurs narrow win against Hull yesterday but that was what he meant. It’s not so much what he said about the atmosphere or the fans, it’s why it was on his mind in the first place.
Villas-Boas strikes me as someone whose understated manner and schoolteacherly demeanour hides a burning determination not merely to find success but to do it his way. I welcome that: Tottenham need a leader with fierce ambition. So it’s odd that for someone so single-minded, he’s allowed factors outside his control to intrude.
I’ve seen Spurs play a lot worse than they did yesterday but we certainly should have made much more of our superiority in terms of possession and territory. Not for the first time this season a debatable penalty gave us all three points in a match we dominated but where we failed to score from open play, make that seldom looked like scoring from open play. We’re fourth in the table with a squad that needs time to gel, yet something is bugging our manager when his sole focus should be on the team. The last thing Tottenham need is a distracted manager. After all, he has more than enough to occupy his mind.
The Machiavellian interpretation of Villas-Boas’s comments suggests it was a planned diversion away from questions about the quality of his team. Today’s headlines are all about the press-conference not the match, but I doubt it. In time-honoured media tradition he slammed” the fans and “lashed out” in a “post-match rant.” In fact, its tone was more considered:
“Today we played in a very difficult atmosphere – very tense, very negative. We looked like the away team…I think the stadium reflected that atmosphere – very tense, very little support and it made it very difficult. I’m very happy with the players and the way they fought against that anxiety and kept their cool to get the three points.”
At its best there’s no place like the Lane but the atmosphere is undeniably subdued at many home games. Yesterday was more raucous than many recently, not much singing or chanting but plenty of noise in the second half as Spurs upped the tempo to try to force a goal. There was tension in the air but that’s only because the crowd are genuinely anxious. It’s not so much that we expect a win, more that we know how important these home games against teams below us in the league are. The stakes are very high these days – when we are challenging for the top four there is bound to be anxiety in the air.
In an ideal world we would be carefree and happy-go-lucky. In real-life that anxiety leaks out. Most of the time I can keep a lid on it but our lack of application after we scored was infuriating. We gave away two unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions and could not keep the ball. Most of the time, though, I stick to a self-punitive approach. At one point I was so angry, I punched my hand in frustration, so hard that I have a bruise today. Others let it all out, and no wonder.
Yesterday I felt there were as many moments in the second half when the crowd tried to lift the team as there was negativity. I wonder if the manager was irritated by some impatience shown when we had possession but were going sideways. Patience is important – we had to move the ball around to break down the massed ranks of Hull defenders who dropped further and further back as the match wore on. There was one moment when Dawson was roundly barracked for passing the ball backwards but that was unreasonable on the part of the fans because he was under pressure and sensibly played it the way he was facing. We have to be patient.
Equally, some of the problem comes because Spurs fans know their football. For the last few games we have not played with a consistently high tempo. This makes it easy for teams to defend against us. We know the solution and have the players to put that into practice, so it’s frustrating when they don’t respond.
What I dislike about AVB’s statement is the oppositional position he takes up between team and fans. The team were battling Hull, not the anxiety in the stands. This is the reality of being contenders. Sadly it’s part of football culture these days. Manchester United supporters booed their team off the field at half-time on Saturday, Arsenal fans were apoplectic after their first home game (wonder how the guy who threw away his season ticket is feeling now?) and for many Chelsea fans last season represented abject failure.
However, regardless of this, Spurs were not playing well and they should look at their own shortcomings rather than those of the supporters if they wish to solve the problem. We put a lot into the club and chant AVB’s name. I hope he’s not creating an ‘everyone is against us’ mindset in the dressing room. Later he added that, “I represent the group and I’m speaking for them. This [anxiety] is a feeling that invades us in games like this.”
Still, hardly a rant of negativity as he went on: “I’m extremely happy with the crowd normally. Fans for me represent the essence of football. To put myself in this position is very difficult for me. The away support has been immense but the reality is we have managed to beat the record of away wins because we play comfortably away from home – we don’t find situations of pressure.”
Far be it from me to suggest the media have made too much of this. But to return to my question, if the crowd have been good normally, why did it get to him yesterday? AVB knows something is not quite right, which comes back to one of my recent themes about not knowing his best team. Our team does well away from home not primarily because of the support but because we are well placed to profit from counter-attacking. Yesterday it was no coincidence that our three best first half attacks were all on the break after a Hull set-piece.
The other reason is that teams do not put ten men behind the ball at home. As I predicted, the West Ham performance has become a template for how to play against us. We still lack the wherewithal to prise open a packed defence. Two things from yesterday. Much as I love seeing a winger in full flight, two wingers means we have width but no one in the middle to give the ball to, or with the inverted wingers, they come inside and are gobbled up by opponents grateful that they are not being torn apart out wide. Also, however quick they are, wingers aren’t as fast as the speed of a moving ball being passed at speed. When defenders are packed deep, it’s easier for them to recover when faced with a man running with the ball.
Connected with this, yesterday we were trying one-twos through the eye of a needle. None came off. It’s more than one or two men, we failed to involve three, four or more men in the moves. Contrast that with Liverpool and Arsenal who at their best involve several players with purposeful movement at pace off the ball.
Spurs have put in more shots on goal than almost any other side but have a low percentage of chances and converted chances. Soldado missed our only genuine chance in the box, shooting tamely for Harper to save. We have to get the ball in the box more often and have more players to compete there. Pointless having Eriksen or Holtby as the number 10 if there is no one to pass to.
Time. Time and patience. Time and patience to find a good blend and the right balance. We are fourth with another clean sheet so that’s a good place to be even knowing that it could be better. In that respect, it’s something the crowd, the players and the manager should have in common.