Back in the day, the first league table appeared after the third match of the season. Early days but there was enough information to take stock. These days goal difference and alphabetical order manufacture a crisis after the opening 90 minutes, but with the international break as unwelcome as ever, it’s a good time to pause.
Spurs have five points and are undefeated but we’re struggling to score. The fluent ease with which we moved the ball around last season appears in flashes of brilliance rather than for extended periods. At our best, Tottenham lay down something so funky, playing with a natural, effortless rhythm. Every player is in tune, on the same wavelength as their teammates. Like all good soul, it moves head, hands and feet and lifts the spirit, but Spurs have lost their mojo.
When Kyle Walker stayed down in front of the Paxton, Spurs’ Saturday afternoon took a turn for the worse. Walker has been Tottenham’s best player so far, adding a spark of intelligence to his athleticism and commitment. More than that, he and Rose are so important to Spurs’ driving beat as the ball flows out wide to them, an out-ball as natural as water rippling downstream, Clyde Stubblefield on the drums or James Jamerson the funkiest of the Funk Brothers.
Losing him was a blow in itself, especially as in this tight match width to stretch the Liverpool defence and by-pass the pressing was clearly crucial. Pochettino’s decision to bring on Janssen in his place was characteristically bold but dealt a grievous blow to our chances of victory. The consequent reshuffle, with Kane dropping off, Alli deeper and Dier shifted to right-back, was not only unnecessarily disruptive, it also fatally weakened us at the point where the midfield battle hung in the balance. Afterwards, the force tipped decisively in Liverpool’s favour and Spurs were always struggling to get a toehold in the match.
Liverpool were highly impressive going forward. They sliced apart our back four, players cutting into the gaps between our defenders as we despairingly tried to work out where they were. Mane is a real talent.
Spurs were stretched and desperate for extended periods, losing possession and trapped in tight corners. Even the manager had the same problem, miscontrolling a ball late on that strayed into the technical area and giving Liverpool the ball back quickly when we were trying to slow everything down. It was that kind of afternoon.
Reserve keeper Vorm kept us in the game, an impenetrable barrier at his near post and twice leave his post to dash off his line and tackle divisively. Without him, this would have been a heavy beating. Man of the match plus some lasting respect for his abilities.
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Under the cosh, it looked as if we could hang on to half time, then some poor defending from Lamela undid the good work. Much as I admire the work ethic he discovered last year, getting back behind the ball does not mean he knows how to defend. He never looks comfortable – it goes against his instincts and his body position is often askew. Here, he committed a fraction early and was outmanoeuvred, then in a laudable effort to compensate for his misjudgement, Firmino came down in a tangle of legs and Milner scored the penalty.
From the restart, Liverpool carried on in the same fashion. Eventually Spurs had something on target, an Alderweireld header from a corner that was well saved. Just as we were running out of ideas, let alone make any chances, Dier began to push further forward on the right. One good cross eluded both strikers and defenders and there was Danny Rose at the back post to drill the ball home with great precision. It was our only shot on target from open play.
Pochettino has done a wonderful job at Tottenham, without reservation. This however was a mistake. Presumably he chose the starting line-up, i.e. Kane up front on his own and Alli back alongside Lamela and Eriksen to reinforce the midfield, with the Liverpool pressing and movement in mind. There was nothing in the opening exchanges to change that view.
Last season, we were outstanding with everyone playing to the best of their considerable ability. The smallest fall from those lofty heights and we are wound wanting. Dier isn’t quite there. Alli is coming back to match fitness, Dembele waiting to be unleashed – just one more game. Key men Kane and Eriksen are not on song. Both looked out of touch again. Kane’s late mistimed straightforward pass out wide to effectively end a rare smooth move was a frustrating and sad moment. A few minutes later he trooped off disconsolately to be subbed. Our Harry feels the pain as much as any supporter. He knows he had a bad one. Eriksen’s touch deserted him again. With it went our hopes of creating very much. I like Janssen a lot. His rumbustious approach will unsettle unsuspecting defences once he gets his first Spurs goal. On Saturday he didn’t get a kick because no one gave him a decent ball. Last season Spurs played some of the best football I’ve seen in 50 years. Eriksen was major art of that and the absence of soul and funk coincides with his loss of form.
It’s tempting to change things because Kane is so able and intelligent, he can adapt. But our best players should play in their best positions, always, and Kane is our centre forward. I wrote last week of how the team’s rhythm depends so much on what he does. It’s familiar, reassuring. They know what he can do and where he will be. He scores goals, plays others in and makes space. Moving him knocks so much of what we do out of alignment. If Janssen and Kane are to play together, Pochettino has to find a different way of making that happen. For the moment, Janssen can give Harry the rest he needs to find himself once more.
Wanyama had another good game, slotting in to the team as if he’s been part of it for years. Alli (and Kane for that matter) has not regained match sharpness. The international break will not help. More disruption on top of a disjointed pre-season which means Son is still not ready. Add a few knocks and Saturday’s bench looked lightweight. Still, we know the potential is there, know how this team and these players have more to give however much they have given already. Poch needs time with a match-sharp squad to work it out.
And so to deadline day, when the otherwise reticent figure of Dan Levy emerges from the shadows to cast a pall over our prospects. Against type we did our main business early, Wanyama and Janssen plugging the gaps that should have been filled this time last season, and good value in the current inflated transfer market. Then silence. N’Koudou has gone missing, to the point where an ironic Missing Person meme was retweeted on twitter as genuine, but that deal will probably get done to inject the option of pace into the line-up.
Discounting the usual rumours, it felt to me as if Spurs were hanging on to squad players like Mason and Chadli to see if they could upgrade. If not they would stay – wouldn’t they? Chadli is on the point of going to WBA, rumours persist about Mason and Bentaleb has already departed. We need cover and competition for every positon – this leaves a few gaps, the biggest being a creative midfielder to push and rotate Eriksen. We also need some extra class in midfield, because this league will be so competitive this season.
I’ve said recently that I don’t see the problem with a medium-term purchase of an experienced, battle hardened player to take us through a couple of seasons, but that seems unlikely. Which leaves us wondering again. With two days to go, is the cash from outgoings going to be invested in the team or the new stadium? Levy’s futile pursuit of Zaha had shades of the absurd bid to buy Berahino 12 months ago, his low offer being out of step with the inflated prices and seller’s market created by the new TV deal, where clubs are under far less pressure to sell. You would think he had learned his lesson by now.
We’ll know on Wednesday, but to stay competitive, we have to reinforce the squad. But we’re back to one of those key moments again, where the right players can boost the development and fulfil the burgeoning potential of this fine team. Laissez faire will hamper progress.