An age ago, or so it seems, Spurs beat Ars***L at the White Hart Lane with a scintillating performance of power, commitment and creativity. It feels so distant and far away, so much time has passed, so much has changed, that dinosaurs must have walked the earth but chipping away at layers of sediment to reveal the fossilised remains of what’s left of this victory, I found the true date. March 3rd last year.
I had to check. I actually searched Tottenham On My Mind to confirm that we did indeed beat them 2-1 under Villas-Boas. Towards the end of this defeat, some of our football had been dug up from another era, aimless long-balls forward. Worst thing about it, many were grateful that at least we showed some spirit and desire. Meanwhile, Tim looks like he came out without a hankie.
This was our best effort for a while, a dubious accolade. We were well on top in the second half and had the chances to at least get a point. The crowd were right behind the team and the atmosphere was something like a proper NLD. Ars***l created little during this period but scrape away the surface of the hope and excitement, they were more comfortable than the possession and territory stats suggest. We simply did not stretch them enough or pose enough problems, especially through the middle where Eriksen should have been given a greater central role.
One factor of consistency is our unerring ability for self-inflicted pain. At kick-off we pressed forward eagerly. Too much so. Sandro’s cross-field ball was blocked. Caught high unfield instead of hanging back to ensure nothing went wrong early, he couldn’t even bring Rosicky down. The Gunners counterattacked ruthlessly. The back four’s high line was shot to pieces. Rosicky’s match-winning shot was unstoppable but he should never have been allowed anywhere near the goal. The game lost after 70 seconds. From then on in, it was all uphill.
It could have been worse. The Ox as I am now contractually obliged to call him had better get some shooting practice in before he goes to the World Cup although I was grateful that he was high and wide on two or three occasions.
More changes in formation and personnel for a Spurs team crying out for some stability. I don’t like Townsend on the right but he did well, giving us width and pace that our opponents found hard to handle. On the other flank, Eriksen came inside leaving Rose to do well one on one with Sagna. We should have used that more. Sandro hung back in centre midfield, Bentaleb tried to keep the ball moving with Chadli in an indeterminate central role further forward.
The fact that many on twitter say this was his best game for us says more about the rest than it does about his quality in this one. He neither got close enough to the excellent Adebayor or offered any threat of his own in the first half, while tracking back is clearly beneath a man of his showpony status. Oxlade Chamberlain’s break and missed chance led to a furious exchange between Spurs players with even Bentaleb having a go at the Belgian, still strolling back in the sunshine. I may be becoming obsessed. This morning in an e-mail, instead of writing ‘child’ I wrote ‘chadli’. Twice.
For a time we struggled to play it forward. More arguments as the receiving player complained about the pass under pressure. Vertonghen was nearly caught a few times. One was instructive, though – with 10 Spurs players ahead of him, he did not have a single pass available. No wonder he shrugged as if to say, ‘what am I supposed to do?’
To their great credit, the Spurs players came out with fire in their bellies for the second half and in taking the game to the gunners found some weaknesses. Ars***l were pushed further and further back towards their own goal and their counter-attacks became sporadic. Adebayor did an outstanding job of taking on their defence single-handedly, dashing from side to side, rushing back to pick the ball up and trying to link with team-mates but he still did not receive enough support in close order to take full advantage of the crosses that were raining in. Most came from the right where Townsend had a good game despite having to use his right foot more than he or I would have preferred.
Naughton did well in support, maintaining a decent accuracy rate with a series of balls into the box but his impact on the game and on our season could have been so much greater. Szczensy fluffed one but Chadli wasn’t strong enough to capitalise. Moments later, however, another error left the Belgian with an open goal and the ball at his feet but Chadli’s uncertainty eventually meant a poorly judged shot straight at a covering defender. The crowd bellowed their derision. A golden chance not just to equalise but to galvanise a Tottenham team that so desperately needs something, anything, to be proud of, but the moment was gone and with it the chance of winning the game.
Despite the set-back, Spurs kept pressing. We dominated possession and territory but this was always a game where chances would be hard to come by and had to be taken. Adebayor, falling sideways, just missed with a header and Chadli, again, failed to get much of a touch on a cracking low near-post cross.
Siggy and Paulinho came on to boost the midfield for the final 20 minutes. In fact, the move served only to dissipate our momentum and the Gunners dealt easily enough with the rest. The crosses were plentiful but now coming not from the byline but from deep – heading practice for their centre-backs. This was a throwback to the 90s, all long ball, craning of necks and straining muscles and sinews in the box. Even that we didn’t do properly. Manu took them on alone. Chasing the game, Soldado did not appear until the 82nd minute, Lennon not at all when it was clear our opponents were weakest on the flanks. If the long-ball and crosses are a plan, so be it but at least commit fully.
To be fair, going with a midfield four is fatal versus Ars***l, hence some justified caution, but a goal down with 15 munutes to go, we were narrow and needing a goal when our best opportunities were created from wide positions.
Kaboul and Sandro finally looked as if they had shaken the stiffness caused by many months on the treatment table. I have been planning to pay off my mortgage by betting on Sandro being booked in each game but he let me down by finally in the second half having the pace and therefore the confidence to stay on his feet to resist a challenge.
Lloris had little to do but made one lightening-fast stop low to his right from a header at a corner. Naughton had a good game all round. In addition to his crossing and support for Townsend he defended well.
I doubt this pre-match protest meant much. In Saturday’s piece in the aftermath of the Benfica defeat, I expressed my continued strong misgivings about the way Sherwood is managing the team. He’s forgotten that his early success came about because he kept things relatively familiar and reassuringly brought out the strengths of his men. Since then, he chops and changes formations and personnel every game. He seems bewildered and frustrated that his message is not getting through when in fact it merely shows his immaturity as a leader, blaming his players and simply failing to grasp the fact that what looks good on the tactics board is hard for players to adjust to.
Last week in one of his now daily communications in the media, he was proud that he speaks without thinking. In no other profession would that be seen as anything other than a fatal weakness for a leader. For those of you keen to have a manager that shows his emotions, I hope Tim proves to you that you need more than histrionics to manage a Premier League team.
A public service announcement: on Saturday I made a disparaging remark about The Bloke Behind Me at the Benfica game (it was actually very restrained – he was a complete embarrassment to his whole family). I have been asked to point out by The Bloke Who Usually Sits Behind Me that he missed this game and so the piece does not refer to him. At least he reads this…