So let’s get this over with. Another defeat in the derby. Another reminder, if any were needed, of the gulf between the two clubs and how far we have to go. More pain for Spurs fans that is never dulled by the sad, predictable familiarity of it all.
On March 3rd last year an ambitious Tottenham side expertly guided by a young manager beat the wanderers 2-1 at White Hart Lane in a pulsating match. Many gunners agreed with me that this marked a tipping point. On the way up, we passed them sliding down the greasy pole, their manager subject to bitter, sustained criticism from his own fans and unable apparently to convince both them and his players of the efficacy of his methods.
This seems light years ago now, events in a galaxy far, far away. So much ancient history, in fact, that I’ve checked back to make sure my memory isn’t befuddled by a lack of sleep this morning. Nine months on, Spurs have imploded while 55,000 gunners sing Wenger’s name to the rafters. Pointing out the fickleness of this behaviour is justified but scant consolation. He’s kept faith in the way he wants his team to play, we’re still painting the Forth Bridge, shiny and gleaming in parts but never finished.
There are extenuating circumstances. Tottenham put out a good team but it was nowhere near full strength because of a hospital ward full of injuries. At least with Sandro and Paulinho we could have put up a fight in midfield or had Vertonghen to inspire us at the back. No criticism intended of one of their replacements, Nabil Bentaleb, given his debut at 19 in the NLD, looks an able, promising central midfielder with good mobility and touch plus an eye for the pass, typically an early one to keep the ball moving. He intercepts rather than tackles but is effective in so doing.
I look forward to his further development as a Tottenham Hotspur player under a manager keen to give youth the chances they have lacked not just at Spurs but throughout the Premier League. Sherwood is keen to stamp his mark on his early tenure in the job and in any walk of life I have some admiration for women and men with the courage of their convictions. However, persisting with his 4-4-2 for a cup tie of this magnitude was overoptimistic at best, foolhardy at worst, in reality probably somewhere in between.
A flexible, mobile five in midfield would have been better. Sherwood can do flexible and mobile, better than this season’s version of AVB. Adebayor’s significance in our current set-up cannot be over-emphasised. Yesterday he kept going but looked lethargic, quickly tiring after an enthusiastic start. You can never tell with him. I think we sometimes over-interpret his moods – it’s natural that he will be tired after his absence and so much football in a short space of time.
Whatever, it made a huge difference. Several times he half-turned to take the ball past a defender only for his marker to easily tackle him. Dropping back when we lost the ball, he faded after 15 or 20 minutes, precisely the time Ars***l took a grip on the match, never to let go. It was always going to be hard in that area – Manu’s disappearance made it impossible. Afterwards Sherwood conceded we were weary – if he knew that beforehand, he should have compensated in his team selection.
Spurs started brightly. Bentaleb was prominent in the middle and certainly not over-awed, pointing and hustling for all he was worth. Our opponents could not settle and another of our busy men, Eriksen, missed the best early chance, clean through but shooting straight at Fabianski. Sadly it was the only time in the match he was seriously called into action.
Unusually for the NLD it was an open game with Spurs successfully keeping the tempo high when we had the ball and getting the ball forward as quickly and smoothly as possible. This desire to pass it forward is one of the big differences between TS and AVB. Lloris saved from Walcott and Eriksen put a free kick over after Dembele had been fouled. Twice Soldado’s swift turns took him away from his marker – more please.
Halfway through the first period, imperceptibly and without any fanfare, the balance of the game shifted. Now, the gunners were pushing us back, able to shift the ball from side to side and stretch our four out of shape. They looked sharper near our box, able to up the pace suddenly as they neared the area whereas we in similar circumstances ground to a halt.
Their goal when it came on the half hour was well-taken but too easy. Walker was drifting a few yards out of position on the right, which as we know is a fault in his game he seems unable to eradicate despite his good performances this season. Ars***l shifted it from right to left, Cazorla was the spare man.
The NLD is nothing without its tradition and so history repeated itself. Spurs imploded. This fixture seems to bring out the worst in Spurs. There have been times when L’gooners have simply been far too good for us. I don’t like it but there you go. After all, plenty of time to have gotten used to that over the years. What grates is our unerring ability to cock it up in this fixture. Maybe it’s just the way it looks because of the importance of this fixture. Plenty of cock-ups in other games, let’s be honest. But surely – 5-0 and Liam Brady at WHL, the double Double indignities at the Lane, we score four they score one more, Simon Davies sent off and a deflected goal, Manu scores and gets himself sent off, 2 up under HR, lose 5-2…
We came out after the break with renewed application but weren’t really getting anywhere, save for an Adebayor chance well-created by Eriksen and Lennon. His control was good, his shot mis-hit. Then Danny Rose, hero on his debut with a winning volley that will never be forgotten, turned villain. Last defender, on the halfway line, the attempted Cryuff turn wasn’t the best option. It was stomach-turningly, spectacularly awful. Rosiciki ran through and gleefully scored.
My son who was at the match tells me Danny’s mum was there, in the Spurs end and happily chatting to supporters before kick-off. It’s tough being a pro, worse perhaps to be a parent when your son makes a mistake like that. She must have wept at the things she heard about her boy. I hope she and Danny stay strong.
And that was that. Spurs had the lions’ share of possession for the rest of the game without getting anywhere at all. The gunners strolled through the last half-hour, absorbing our efforts without breaking sweat. They did not play especially well and there’s a crumb of comfort in the fact that they only scored through our mistakes, but they did not have to be at their best to win at a canter.
Another depressingly familiar feature of these games: Spurs working hard, looking for chances, movement pretty good too, then the truth gradually dawns. Nothing was happening and nothing ever would.
Walker did his best to put things right, flying forward at every opportunity and occasionally giving us a glimmer of hope in his work with his partner Lennon but nothing really came of it apart from a few easily defended crosses. Lennon could have done more to take on his full-back but they always had two or three men to cover. Cazorla’s handball in the box looked as much hand to ball as ball to hand but nobody seemed that bothered. Everybody knew we were beaten.
Sherwood needs to reflect on yesterday without panic. Palace next Saturday will need the attacking approach he favours, so the team should look forward not back. I think Capoue could and should play a part in the next few games. Meanwhile, back to the doctors and physios – those get well soon cards won’t be enough on their own. Defeat hurts, but the fact is, the result merely told us what we already knew.