If I were a proper journalist, I’d focus on a few key incidents that altered the course of Wednesday’s night game against City. Overwhelmed early on, Spurs were only, miraculously, a goal down when Toure’s unnecessarily hard tackle in midfield confirmed the lingering suspicion that they are not entirely comfortable if put under a little pressure.
That this put some fire in Spurs bellies, that Tottenham rallied with the crowd at their backs. That Spurs nearly scored as a corner fizzed low into the six yard box, then Dawson’s ‘goal’ from an Eriksen free kick was disallowed, a close call.
That closer still was Danny Rose’s goal-saving tackle on Dzeko, tipping the ball away with his toe, only to find the linesman semaphored ‘penalty’. That Rose was dismissed, City converted the penalty and that extinguished the dim spark of comeback.
So that’s one story of the match, and it’s true. However, what worried me were the bits in between. Spurs were completely outclassed for extended periods of this game. In the first half, 11 v 11, City repeatedly scythed through our defence. I’d tell you a bit about what happened and how they did it except that it was all a blur, so swift and innovative were their attacks. For certain our defenders did not have a clue what was going on.
City’s movement on and off the ball was fluid and cohesive, a joy to behold in other circumstances. Pressing in midfield, they hunt in packs, three or four players surrounding the man on the ball. Time and again we lost possession, either tackled or in getting the ball away, thinking we had outwitted them, only to find the pass had nowhere to go except to sky blue feet.
With the ball, they could and should have scored three or four. Hugo did what he could, precious little mostly but he made one blindingly fast reaction save, hurling himself to his left to palm away a certain goal. A standing ovation, justified.
This story makes sober reading. For that opening half hour, this had a cup-tie feel with big time City slickers visiting the plucky underdogs who were hanging on for dear life in the hope that the big boys would miss a few chances then take their foot off the pedal. Spurs cast as the minnows. That’s my story and I don’t want to tell it.
There’s something wrong here and I know I’m not the only one. We sat and admired City’s play instead of urging the team back into contention. Marvelling at how they did it, as if we’d come as neutrals. Instead of railing against the injustice of the penalty, I shrugged in resignation. I bought into the minnows, no real chance but live in hope, a couple of meaty tackles, never mind playing football, come on! A sign that we were nowhere no-hopers before we kicked off. For a side as good as we might be, it’s the ultimate condemnation.
Usual rubbish on 606. “Worst team since the second division” – come on. “Sell the lot of them” – really? “It’s time to start again and rebuild over two years” – yeah right, after £100m worth of rebuilding 6 months ago. All Spurs fans these, bollo but I couldn’t identify with the anger, never mind the remedy. No solace in midnight Twitter. Those not finger-pointing were so miserable, they couldn’t muster the energy to raise a finger to point.
Tim Sherwood is making a decent fist of things in a job for which he has no experience, precious little preparation and with a squad not of his choosing. What is happening off the field at Spurs pervades the air and seeps in through every pore.
This is what I think about modern football. On the pitch, football’s fine. Football was never nine or ten months of rollicking Brazilian flair or for that matter push and run style. It’s about sweat, luck, brilliance, cock-ups and drama. Always has been, always will be, and that’s why it is compelling and irresistible. W formation, registas, heatmaps, tactics truck – the game’s the same. How team-mates players relate to each other, what they do with the space with and without the ball.
It’s what happens before and after the whistle blows that’s the problem. Spurs are not the only club to suffer but it’s the one I care about. For some time, the deteriorating relationship between the club and supporters has created a sense of alienation. Because the club makes little or no effort to look after us, we fans are increasingly distant from the reason we turn up every week. It’s us and them, not we.
No need to go over the reasons in detail. The board do lazy backstroke through deep pools of television cash yet seat prices rise year on year as living standards fall. Not that of the chairman, mind – £2.2m pa at the last call. My salary is 1% higher than it was five years ago. TV dictates we can kick-off most any time Saturday morning to Monday evening. £2 for a bottle of water. Kids priced out of it.
Alienation becomes the equilibrium, tolerated and in balance. It rumbles under the surface, omnipresent and dormant save for a few grumbles, like this one in fact. Until something happens. Then, it becomes other things – anger, resentment, bitterness, protest, resignation. Different things to different fans but the same underlying cause.
I know we shouldn’t complain in one way. Going nowhere, 12 years ago, from Pleat the caretaker (my worst ever experience at Spurs in the 45 years I’ve been going because even in Division 2 there was hope and expectation for the future) to the Champions League. I am grateful, really I am. We’re still contenders, in 5th place. At least I think we are. I don’t actually know off the top of my head where we are because it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s no plan. We all know there’s another guy lined up for the summer. We know our chairman cannot judge a manager’s ability in advance so it will be potluck. So we wait and in the meantime go through the motions.
Buying and selling over the years, buy young to build them up, stick with them to develop a team, against the odds, the admiration of football because we haven’t broken the bank, do it the proper way. Reality exposed – no plan. Buy a team for a manager, sack him, bring in another guy, he’s not happy with the squad, buy and sell. And so it goes. But Levy’s still here. As the immortal Smokey Robinson says, a taste of honey is worse than none at all. If we seem ungrateful, Mr Levy, it’s because Spurs supporters know the game. We know good football, we know how to get it, and this isn’t the right way. Sullen silence in the stands is that resignation palpable, in the air, real because this isn’t right. We know the potential and time and again it’s been wasted.
This is hard. It feels a bit like that caretaker horror year, marking time, twiddling thumbs, the loftiest ambition was just to get it over with. At least we have much better players this time and are at the other end of the table. Poyet, Anderton and Redknapp to get us through a 38 game season – hah! We are expected to be bothered when Levy isn’t. You might want to remember these last few paragraphs, these last few games, when you want to fill the new stadium, dear Daniel.
And so to the game itself. This week we had a rare insight into the tactical approach taken by Tim and his management team. I’m referring to Les Ferdinand’s interview where he talked about the role of a holding midfielder. What he said has been discussed as if he doesn’t like them but his actual meaning was admirably nuanced. Midfield defensive cover is essential, it’s just that having a midfielder in a purely defensive role is a waste.
This is something that ‘ahem’ I’ve talked about every now and again. These days we need midfielders who are flexible, who are mobile and alert, with a highly developed positional sense that is more effective a protection for the back four that the old-fashioned hard tackling destroyer, who can get a toe in but who can also pass the ball to turn defence into attack. That’s why AVB persisted with Dembele in a defensive role, the wrong position for him in my view but he fitted the bill. It also explains why Sherwood prefers Bentaleb to Capoue, whose passing range is more restricted.
Good stuff. It requires flexibility and an understanding between players, an awareness of when to go forward and when to cover depending on where the ball is, where the opponents are and the position of team-mates. We had a brief glimpse of how this works when Sandro and Dembele formed a powerful midfield axis in AVB’s first season, one goes forward while the other covers, before Sandro was injured.
Trouble is, it takes time to build up that teamwork and time is one thing Tim hasn’t had. After City sliced through what passed for our defensive cover for Aguero’s opener, Les leapt from the bench and he and Sherwood berated the midfield. Dembele and Bentaleb looked sheepish: I guess it was primarily directed at them.
This is what happens when a manager takes over. Chopping and changing. The new moves may be better but they take a while to learn. Another example: City pressed as a unit, we as individuals. Outcome – City dominated the midfield with only Dembele escaping every now and again – twice leaving Toure for dead – the nerve of it. I forgot Lennon was playing in the first half. Eriksen was invisible throughout, Siggy ineffective. It was just too quick for him.
Much of the match passed Bentaleb by. It was a brave selection and wrong for this game, but paradoxically it was confirmation that he is a player of rich potential because he never gave up, never once shirked any responsibility and did not hide. He did no worse than several more experienced men around him.
We were torn apart by stunningly beautiful attacking football. The irony was that for all their enterprise they scored only once as the fans looked on in silent envy. There was no sense of expectation that this would be anything other than the shape of the match. We expected it to turn out like this. That dull, flat mood says all you need to know about life at the Lane right now.
Dawson desperately tried to stem the flow, singlehanded. He hurled himself around the box and outside, in position, out of position, ineffective at times, heroic at others. You have to admire him – beaten for pace and he knew it but when the going got tough, he got going.
Then a tackle or two changed it. Toure’s blemish got the crowd going and you sensed that there was a soft centre underneath the hard tasty City shell. Rose made waves down the left, shame his crossing was poor because we had men over. City can’t defend set pieces either. A low corner was nearly stabbed in on the line then Dawson had his effort in the net but ruled out for offside.
Relief at half time that it was only one. Capoue on for an injured Dembele. His first touch was on a player not the ball as he ploughed through Silva on the halfway line. Then the penalty and the lingering hopes of a revival and a decent match ruined by a lousy decision. I am in a minority of one it seems in saying I have some sympathy for refs. I sit fairly low down and can assure you that you have no idea how quick Premier League football is from watching on TV. Here, the ref looked to his linesman, as he should. All I would say is the linesman is not a ref because they are not good enough, yet this crucial decision was taken on his say so.
Sherwood then showed his inexperience again by not thinking quickly about the substitution. After Rose was sent off for depriving City of a goal scoring opportunity, inevitable once the penalty was given, Capoue moved into the back four. This upset the centre back paring, moved Chiriches to left back and further unsettled a jittery and uncertain midfield. City scored quickly, Dzeko picking up a loose ball in the box. Sherwood then brought on Naughton as left back with the other reverting to their positions, but the damage had been done. Game over. Perhaps it was at kick-off.
City’s final three goals were all a bit scruffy – two loose balls in the box and one deflection. This is the stuff in the penalty box that ten men can defend as well as eleven but we were all over the place. Luckily for us so was Dzeko. We played out time wondering how many it might have been had he been on form.