As Spurs’ title tilt finally ended in mayhem at the Bridge last night, what stays in the memory is not the inability to catch the champions but the fact that Tottenham were there in the first place. Nothing can detract from this season of remarkable achievement. All this guff about Spurs reverting to type and choking is so much hot air. Spurs fans know what’s right, that the very opposite is true. Against what we have sadly come to expect over the years, the youngest side in the Premier League has vastly exceeded expectations and we of all the challengers are the only ones to fulfil potential and punch above our weight.
This was supposed to be a season of consolidation, progress and potential, where the manager schooled the squad into the ways of a winning team. That’s what happened, only four times faster than anyone expected. Remember August, promise shown but losing to United and dropping a two-goal lead home to Stoke? Or an autumn with a few too many draws then hitting the buffers at home to Newcastle? It feels a world away – that’s how far Spurs have come.
Tottenham Hotspur – the team the nation wants to see defeated. A point and the entire country rejoiced. Phenomenal pressure to carry as players take the field, a burden made heavier by the behaviour of our opponents. I’m struggling to think of anything that compares in my time. Everybody, but everybody, wanted us to lose and you can’t protect the players from that entirely. By the end, it showed.
Sincere congratulations to Leicester. The fairytale narrative grates but that is not their fault. It detracts from their genuine triumph, accomplished by hard work, insightful scouting and a manager able to make the very best of the talent available to him. The football landscape is supposedly changing as it becomes oh so contemporary but these are the values behind every successful team in the last 150 years and they are no different from what Pochettino is doing. Only the style of play differs. Reassuring for an old guy like me.
There’s still a way to go in a league that can be as brutal and unforgiving as it is at times uplifting. So let’s put last night down as a learning experience, bearing in mind that we all learn best from our mistakes. From the kick-off Spurs’ determination to impose themselves was evident, not only in the familiar team press but also with a series of tackles, some fierce, others niggly. The real issue in the run-in was not the result of this match but the two points dropped against West Brom, where we allowed them to dominate in the second half. That wasn’t going to happen twice in succession. Before the match our opponents declared their lofty ambition to lay down against Leicester and on their behalf beat Spurs. Players and manager weren’t having any of that and quite right too.
After early skirmishes Spurs went into half-time two goals to the good. Both were well-worked products of our pass and move style, both were impeccably finished. Kane rounded the keeper for the first after Lamela’s through-ball sliced the defence open. This was the Argentinian at his best. It’s not about his workrate, welcome though that has become, it’s about his touch 25 yards out, another perfect angled ball to Kane’s feet. Son, who was peripheral, got himself together for the second, slotting home Eriksen’s pass. Both goals came from trademark Tottenham tactics that enable the forward three to come inside to outnumber their markers.
Spurs had other chances too. However, this classy football became increasingly at odds with a match that descended into a bitter, nasty affair. Both sides were culpable but our inexperience showed itself in another way. Over-compensating, Spurs were putting too much into it and in their determination to avoid being intimidated went over the top. In the long-run, it is a good thing. All successful teams can hold their own physically and refuse to give ground. Like I say, all part of the learning process. It’s just that the experienced, hard teams learn the dark arts of controlled aggression. By the end of this one, frankly Spurs had lost it.
By half-time three of the Spurs back four had been booked, Rose, Walker and Vertonghen. Rose and Walker in particular were playing well but the fouls were needless, ploughing in or in Walker’s case slyly kicking out. The ref missed the worst – Dembele’s attempt to gouge Costa’s eye was disgraceful and I don’t care that I’m saying this about one of my favourite Spurs players.
Hazard’s arrival after half-time changed the game. Spurs were always threatened by his skill at running at defenders who had to be careful because they had already been booked. Standing off gave him a half a yard, although to Walker’s credit he judged his challenges very well. Old failings – the two wide forwards did not come back often enough to offer more protection.
Toby Alderweireld has been outstanding and sewn up my player of the year vote by Christmas. Last night, he made errors for both goals conceded. His weakness is marking tightly and with strength at corners. All game he allowed Cahill too much room and from one corner the ball ran loose for the England man to slam it in. Spurs weathered the storm and indeed made further chances to extend the lead with Kane peerless yet again. However, we could not keep possession long enough and it kept on coming back at us. The blues equalised when Toby came forward to challenge as we have seen him do so often this season. This time he misjudged it and was easily turned by Costa who put Hazard in. A point at the Bridge was all part of the plan a few weeks ago. To repeat, the two dropped against WBA were the problem.
I say all this in the cold light of day. Last night, watching the second half was a deeply unpleasant experience. Spurs ended up with 9 bookings and could easily have had three sendings off in a frenzied finale. Think of it as a history lesson. Kids, this was what big games were like in 1986, as Dier scythed down anything in his path and Lamela launched himself into shins from distance. Dembele will be banned retrospectively, Lamela and Dier somehow escaped dismissals for two bookable offences.
So the winding-up worked. Lamela in particular fell for it – one unnecessary foul then treading on Fabregas’s hand. If Hazard and Fabregas had taunted opposition fans as blatantly on the pitch they would have been disciplined. Off the pitch pre-match – nothing. Their actions inflamed fans both home and away. Add a bitterly fought derby being played at 8pm on a bank holiday at Sky’s insistence and you have an incendiary situation that puts supporters at undue risk. Yet there are no consequences.
Above all, Spurs wasted ten minutes when they could have pushed for a winner by kicking their opponents. I feel sad but not angry – this is a step towards developing the focussed aggression that if added to our game will serve us well next season as our rich promise unfolds. On the night, it stopped us playing more effectively than anything our opponents could offer. Dembele was well up for the fight – and was largely ineffectual.
As for the blues fans, taking the time and trouble to write banners praising another team and the manager they got rid of because he wasn’t good enough for their lofty ambitions shows a small-mindedness unbefitting a side that have won the CL. I’ve never seen anything like it and betrays a deep anxiety that pays Spurs the ultimate compliment. They fear us because we are the coming force in the English game. Let’s focus totally on Sunday and beating Saints – make second place ours, we deserve it. Stay proud, we are forever Tottenham and go again.