Beat the league leaders in glorious style then sink against Palace, 1 point out of 6 from them this season and that was dead lucky. So Spurs, so Spursy as COYS social media shrugged in collective resignation on Saturday night.
You could be forgiven for that because we’ve seen it all before. However, in this case it was less about our inglorious inconsistency and more about something many teams have in common. Tottenham suffered the classic growing pains of a developing team and I’m afraid we are just going to have to put up with it for some time to come.
Always enjoy a win, even more so when it’s accomplished by playing such good football. Last week I stretched out in celebration on Tottenham On My Mind and judging by the positive comments and number of page views, that’s what you wanted to do too.
However, there was nothing in that piece on the Chelsea victory about what it meant for the future, and that was deliberate. The win showed the potential of the side, to us supporters and even more importantly to the players themselves. But that remains aspiration because we are a long way from achieving that week in week out. So without ignoring Palace and while the feelgood memories of Chelsea still linger, let’s take stock.
First the good news. We’re 6th in the table, and although that flatters us somewhat, this season is one where you feel you have a chance against most teams as few seem impregnable. None below us, save Liverpool, are favourites to make a concerted move upwards. Win a few, lose a few seems to be the way for many sides. Still in the Cup and Europa League, semis of the League Cup.
That’s a good place to be to make changes in a gradual, organic way. Those are the changes that last, they embed themselves in a squad, forming a culture that becomes instinctive. That has to be our aim. Change under pressure can work, witness Redknapp’s ‘2 points from 8 games’ becoming ‘2 points from the top of the league’. However, that involved considerable horsetrading and expense in the market and arguably the team was never fully developed.
Spurs fans are fond of saying that the media are negative towards us. In my dotage, I have to come to dull but accurate conclusion that every supporter says the same about the media and their own side. Nevertheless we’ve been helped by the media focus on the problems at Arsenal (if only I had their problems…CL for 87 consecutive seasons must be sheer hell), Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool. It shouldn’t make a difference but it does, it eases the pressure in the same way that Redknapp’s cosy cosy relationship with the media twice protected him and us during end of season slumps. It gives us time and that’s what Pochettino needs.
Pochettino has played the media well too. He keeps his head down, staying polite and available without saying very much. Post-match interviewers give up after a while as his apparent lack of both English and interest means he’s not going to say much, but I reckon that’s part of his game. It’s refreshing not to read a Spurs manager him in the papers every other day.
On the field, Pochettino is getting his message through to the players, although some remain hard of hearing. Notwithstanding some barren spells in games and flat-out luck – a 90 second compilation video of our opponents’ misses this season would be X rated – a growing proportion of the squad are fit enough to sustain the energy levels he insists upon and have bought in to the key elements of his approach – high tempo, keep the ball moving, get it forward quickly, get compact and press when we lose possession. Note this has been achieved without many injuries in contrast with teams like Everton and Manchester United. Kudos to the fitness coaches and medical team. Time a factor again – rush this process and injuries are certain.
Earlier this season I bemoaned the apparent lack of motivation after a series of lacklustre, sluggish performances. Largely that’s not a concern now, partly because the players have discovered that if they do what their manager says, it works, partly because Pochettino has weeded out those who don’t fit. It’s noticeable that the young players have readily bought into his philosophy. They realise he will give them a chance and make them better players. Kane has exceeded all expectations, even I suspect his own, but it’s the engine room of Bentaleb and Mason who have really taken the team forward. They’ve freed up Eriksen to play his best football for us so far, consistently, in the middle where he belongs, Without both against Palace, the team looked open and directionless for all of Stambouli’s and Dembele’s sweat and toil. Bentaleb has what it takes to be a top class footballer.
Time has been a vital resource also because our manager tends to give players a chance. He gave Kaboul and Capoue a run of games before deciding, rightly, that they didn’t fit. Mason and Kane have repaid their manager’s trust. Lamela is learning, slowly, but we shouldn’t give up easily on a talent like that. Chadli and Rose both had a run, were left out when it wasn’t working and have now forced their way back into the reckoning again. Neither are perfect, and in Chadli’s case he may not be what we want, but more saliently their efforts show the players feel it is worth making the effort to play for Tottenham Hotspur, not to put their energies into getting a move away.
Hugo Lloris. Not sure what endears him more to me, his elastic, committed goalkeeping or his utterly crestfallen expression when he makes a mistake. I care about the club, so does he and our Hugo is earning the right to be one of our own.
But. Playing 4-2-3-1, high tempo, pressing puts a great onus on the forwards, that 3. They have to get up and back, covering and getting past the frontman into the box to score goals. Our problem is on the right and left of that 3. A lot of fuss about ‘inverted wingers’. I’m not keen but the real problem is not the ‘inverted’, it’s the ‘wingers’. To make this system work, you don’t want wingers, however entrancing their flying feet and weaving runs may be. You need mobility, strength, hard work. The ability to pass is more significant than the ability to beat a man. It gives me little pleasure to say this but it’s true.
We don’t have the right players for that role. Chadli is a fine athletic player, so skilled. Blink and you miss his subtle touches but he does not work hard enough when we don’t have the ball. Lamela runs hard but his positional play without the ball is a liability. Townsend is like a schoolboy eager to please his new teacher – he’s trying too hard. He needs to stop and think and I’m not sure he can. He’s a left winger and should be used there when we need it. Lennon is so in and out, either through lack of fitness or his manager doesn’t rate him, it’s as if he’s not in contention.
We also lack depth in key positions. We have a skipfull of midfielders ready for recycling. Capoue is a natural DM but too slow for his manager. Paulinho in 2013 was a tailor-made box to box midfielder who had his best years ahead of him. Then he came to Tottenham and like many before him saw his career crumble. At least he has comfort in knowing that after not making the bench for an EL game, the only way is up. Dembele is not and has never been a defensive midfielder and I cannot for the life of me see why a series of managers have played him there.
The lack of strikers has been a scandal for several years. Nothing more to add about that. I respect Soldado for his attitude but he can’t score in navy blue and white and it’s not going to happen now. He deserves another go, somewhere else. Adebayor is bored with us now.
At centreback, another pair have benefited from Pochettino’s policy of giving players a run. Vertonghen has been playing his best football for at least a year, while Fazio is settling. Any defender looks vulnerable if forwards are allowed to get at them but he looks especially vulnerable unless he’s protected. Mighty in the box but get him on the run and we look shaky.
That protection has not been evident. No coincidence that 2 of our 3 best performances this season, away to Arsenal plus Chelsea at home have come off the back of prodigious effort from the front 6. The third, versus QPR, well, they were poor.
Pressing is less about making tackles and more about controlling space. We still have to learn that lesson. Palace was the latest game this season where they had far too much room in our half. It’s like when Poch says, ‘create space’, they think he means ‘create space between ourselves.’ Looks like players are fit enough now to run, now they need to learn about where they go.
Time. Patience. A plan. We’re doing OK but there’s a long way to go. We know what the problem is: in recent years Daniel Levy has failed to create let alone implement a coherent strategy. Spurs cannot settle because of the turnover of managers and, just as importantly, of Directors of Football because they should be responsible for medium and long-term player policy and development. Given that Joe Lewis is a billionaire owner not prepared to lavish his fortune on a football club, player and team development is the only route to progress.
The absence of a plan represents a chronic failure at the top, compounded by an apparently wilful lack of investment at crucial times in each of the last three summers, when surely buying two or three quality players to add to the able, developing squad would have transformed a good team into real challengers. Three seasons at least now without a proper strikeforce, or backing for new managers in the market as opposed to appointing them then leaving them unsupported.
If the problem is long-term, the conclusion is that the solution is long-term too. That may be unpalatable for some but that is the only way forward and with Pochettino as coach. He has inherited a squad lacking balance with too many players who do not fit his pressing, high-tempo tactical approach. My assessment above is basically him spending half a season sorting it out. We simply cannot keep sacking the manager, Levy owes it to him and especially to us the paying public to give him a decent chance. That means we have to build again, and that takes time.
Not again. Another “transitional season”, the Spurs’ euphemism for we don’t know what we’re doing. Never mind managerial churn, the thought of it makes my stomach churn. Bale’s fortune wasted, the Champions League quarter-final a distant memory. Yet there’s no alternative. We have to say to the manager – what sort of team do you envisage in two years’ time? That’s how long it will take and we have to rein in our expectations accordingly, however distasteful the prospect.
The transfer window is now open, a time to think about those plans. Not to take anything away from the progress made by team, manager and many players but the lack of depth leaves us exposed. Short-term, half a team of internationals have no long-term future here: Chiriches, Paulinho, Capoue, Adebayor, Soldado, Kaboul maybe, plus Naughton (a decent little full-back by the way). But we can’t sell unless we have replacements and quality is hard to come by in January.
Say Kane and Vertonghen get injured. Christ on a bike, quite frankly. And then there’s the summer. All the attention in the window is on buying players but team-building depends on keeping the good ones. Lloris is one of Europe’s best keepers. Did he stay for one more season because he was promised a move? Eriksen and Vertonghen by all accounts declined new contracts earlier this season. Contracts of course don’t stop a transfer but it indicates that they were prepared to forgo thousands of pounds a week extra in order to make a summer move easier, should they so wish.
Don’t mean to end on a downer but this is Spurs’ reality. The only way forward is to make a long-term decision to support this manager and buy players he wants. Hopefully the arrival of Paul Mitchell from Southampton signals that this support will be forthcoming. Otherwise it will be typical Tottenham – one step up and two steps back.