The memories of last season’s 6-0 defeat at Manchester City are hard to erase. The goals themselves, one conceded after 13 seconds, were bad enough but it was the manner of the capitulation that can still bring out a cold sweat in the middle of the night. In particular an image revealed by the TV of four or five Spurs players otherwise engaged as the whistle blew. Thinking more about the first train home than the game. Kaboul tying his shoelaces.
A section of the media, Neil Ashton and Martin Samuels in the vanguard, saw that their victim was vulnerable and pounced on Villas-Boas, unleashing a torrent of criticism stored up from days at Chelsea, not Spurs’ fault but we suffered most. ‘We’ meant ‘them’ but soon enough AVB had to refer to Tottenham as ‘them’ not ‘us’ because he was gone. Two managers later, it feels like several seasons have passed but in fact it’s under a year. Time flies when you’re not having fun.
The match ebbed and flowed in timelapse, half a season’s worth of incidents speeded up and packed into 90 minutes. 4 penalties, sublime skill, pathetic defending (form both teams), end-to-end football in an open, exciting match that for neutrals could have been the best game of the season so far. How dare they enjoy that?
39 goal attempts and almost as many turning points but Soldado’s missed penalty after an hour did for us. The time for ifs and buts, could-haves and should-haves was past. In the middle of a spell in the second half where we took the game to City and found their defence was almost as porous as ours, Bobby stepped up, waited for the keeper to move and as usual put the ball low towards the corner, tried a tested routine, reliable….except this time something in the wiring of a brain that has seen him score goals for a lifetime fused. It compelled him to put the ball in the direction Hart was diving. It sucked all the strength from his leg muscles.
Hart saved the feeble effort. Shortly afterwards the keeper blocked Soldado’s fine effort from Rose’s cross. The game was gone and with it what remained of the Spaniard’s fragile confidence. Until then it had been his best game for Spurs for a long while. The link-up play with Eriksen in particular was delightful at times and one first-half pass sliced apart the City defence only for Mason to hit Hart’s legs with an outside-of-the-foot prod when something more substantial was required to put Spurs one up.
So: goals and penalties, let’s go. Preface: in my view Aguero is the best in the world in the box and this was an outstanding day even for him.
First goal: Lamela gave the ball away and had a lousy match. City overloaded on our left in the first half, seeing Dier and Lamela as our weak spot and how right they were. Aguero does this thing: in the box most strikers take a touch forward before shooting. He shifts the ball a yard diagonally away from the goal and therefore from the defender in front of him then shoots. It’s impossible for the defender to tackle because he’s now two yards from the ball with Aguero in between. This also opens up the angle for the far post. The real problem here for Spurs was not so much Kaboul even though he gave him too much room but that Aguero needs two men to block and cut down that angle and space. We never did that.
And Lampard was in an offside position in the keeper’s line of sight. Questionable to say the least. not according to Alan Shearer on MOTD. Lampard couldn’t be offside ‘because Lloris wouldn’t have saved it anyway.” Rewrite the laws if it suits why don’t you. Or use your brain, which is why you get paid a 7 figure sum for a torrent of smug drivel.
Penalty: down goes Lampard who as all English football knows is a fine upstanding top hole pip pip decent chap. Except he wasn’t upstanding this time. he never dives so it must have been a penalty. He did and it wasn’t.
Second penalty: Kaboul ploughs in on the trickiest player in the league David Silva. Blatant pen, Kaboul reckless in the extreme and as captain no example to the rest of his side. Lloris saves with his legs. Lloris always dives to his left, you know.
Third pen: ours, Soldado was tripped outside the box. You know the rest. The ref’s having a mare, you may have gathered by now.
Fourth pen: Fazio who had until watched the penalty box mayhem without contributing much, pulled Aguero down as he ran in the box towards a cross. Might have got away with that in Spain. Sent off: was the ref certain Aguero would get on the end of that ball? I don’t think he could be. No red.
Fourth City goal: long ball, Aguero did that thing again. The free kick was taken quickly, three yards in front of where it should have been. Should therefore have been brought back. Did I mention the ref wasn’t having a good game?
Returning to the problems posed at the top of this piece, what’s important to me is whether or not we have moved on since then. That match was an example, albeit stark and extreme, of our problems in recent years against the top four. I used to say, ‘our rivals for the top four’ but there’s no chance of that, long gone. Spurs have a long-standing fatal problem of team deficiencies in attitude and togetherness coupled with failures of individuals at key moments. It’s a toxic combination.
Leave the ref out of it, yesterday showed familiar flaws. There were signs of better team play, especially coming forward. In the week Eriksen’s international manager criticised him for not dominating games. It’s something I’ve pointed out here too. Without putting undue pressure on a player who is still quite young, he has the talent to do much more. Goodness knows we need it. Yesterday he scored our equaliser with a fine right-footer, could have had another in the fist half when he passed unaccountably instead of shooting with his left and for the first hour was always a threat. Maybe he responded. It may be more to do with the extra room we have when we go away. City are the most attacking and therefore open of the top four and give others room.
Without the ball we didn’t press so much as fall back, staying narrow, compressing the space and forcing City down the flanks, which worked well versus Arsenal and defending a lead against Southampton. Mason was delightfully energetic and combative, robbing the City midfielder to set up the first and generally being a right old nuisance. He moves the ball on quickly and his determined to take his chance. He’s waited a long time. Perhaps in the modern game 23 is the new 19. Players have to learn their trade elsewhere before coming into first team contention, more fully formed as footballers than in past generations.
On the bad days we’ve tended to fade. Fade – say what you mean man: give up. The late goals plus Milner hitting the post is a sign that problem hasn’t gone away but some mitigating circumstances, I reckon. 2-1 down, we had to push up and had a real chance until missed chances and the sending-off. Pochettino’s substitutions hindered rather than helped. The arrival of Townsend and Dembele disrupted the team’s balance. It would have been better to tweak, keeping the central midfield solidity as an attacking base.
However, we’ll get nowhere if we give the ball away with such profligacy. Kaboul and Lamela were the worst culprits in the first half, losing the ball close to our box. These errors led directly to at least two goals. Also, our progress was hampered by individual errors. Kaboul’s tackle for the penalty was inexcusable and even allowing for Aguero’s brilliance in the box there were other unnecessary, totally avoidable mistakes. The faults of key players are there too often, especially when we don’t have the ball. Never mind the ref, we simply can’t play like this. It’s our fault, no one else to blame.
Lloris was great, I love him. End on a positive.