This is starting to bother me. Since beating City at the beginning of the month, Spurs have scored a single goal from open play and only three points from a possible nine in the league. It’s not as if we’ve been making and missing a hatful of chances either, although some shot stats I saw yesterday suggest shooting practice is in order.
Against Leicester we hit the bar twice while at the other end Lloris barely had a save to make, their equaliser coming from a rare Wanyama error. Yet this is no demonstration of superiority. Rather, the game always felt it was in the balance because of their threat on the counter and because we had so much of the ball without getting anywhere. I’m delighted that once more our defence impressed, with Vertonghen covering everything and Dier’s best performance of the season, a strong, composed centre half again. It’s just disconcerting for a Tottenham fan of my vintage to be relying on a solid back line. While we’ve had some great defenders in my time, it’s always been a case of we’ll score one more than you.
What worries me most is that on Saturday, for the first time this season the team did not convince themselves. The familiar patterns were in place but the players couldn’t join the dots. Janssen pushed up on the centre backs, the midfield interchanged, Dele swayed up and back, the full-backs were herculean in their efforts in attack and defence, Wanyama the midfield lynchpin. All of which led to little end product. By the final quarter, movement had slowed and the players started shrugging at each other. They had run out of ideas and no one had the spark or leadership to change it.
If these patterns are familiar to us, then they are well-known in the Premier League. Teams know how to play against us. Fall back, cut out the space, crowd the centre. Sure enough, time and again our on-twos were ineffective, bayonets against concrete bunkers. The Leicester back four did exactly what they had planned for, stayed stock still and beat away almost every effort.
It’s all relative. We remain unbeaten with the best defence in the league and within touching distance of the leaders. So no panic. But I don’t think we do enough to pull these defences out of shape. Son was ineffective – their defence just watched him run about a bit – while Janssen is intent on winning a personal old-school battle with his centre-half rather than trying to slip away from him and into some space. Three times in the first five minutes Janssen bored into Morgan as the ball was played up to him, three times Morgan won it. With the ball we push up early to have three men up on their back four but it is too easy for them to be marked especially if as on Saturday the build-up is slow. Drop back, interchange, push midfielders into the gaps, give opponents something to think about.
City came to attack, therefore they left more space for us when they lost the ball and we could exploit them on the counter. It’s no coincidence that our best move on Saturday came on the break when Leicester had pushed up, Walker’s run and cross came to Dele who thundered a first time shot against the bar. It was a brilliant piece of football, a shining light as the performance descended into gloom.
Later, Janssen finally got some change out of Huth and Morgan. First he touched the ball back and therefore away from the tackle to slide a shot just wide, then another header just behind him hit the bar too. He has a lot to give but his team-mates do not combine with him.
Alderweireld is not merely absent from our defence, we also miss his play from the back, be it keeping the ball on the go, his forays into space left behind as opponents drop or those long balls for Dele. Fine margins, all make a difference.
In a tight game goals were bound to come from penalties and mistakes. We had the pen, Janssen manhandled by Huth. I’ve not seen a replay. On the day it looked a foul but could have been dismissed as an over-reaction as the Dutchman fell. It seemed a case of a referee whose poor officiating put him under pressure. Amidst the tugging and shirt-pulling he asserted himself by giving this one after failing to see others, on both sides I may add. Spurs were playing on it, going down on every challenge.
The mistake was ours too. Early in the second half Wanyama’s uncommitted pass back was intercepted and ended up being bundled in at the far post. He’s been excellent this season – before the restart he hung not just his head but his body in shame and despair.
Rose and Walker were outstanding once more. Walker’s maturity since the Euros is remarkable, beyond anything anyone could have hoped for. If only he was a more reliable crosser of the ball. Vertonghen did well again. For the past few games he’s defended on his own almost, covering everything, blocking everything. On Saturday Dier was imposing in his own right, a welcome return to form. One first-half tackle on Vardy as he was clear was terrific, a potential match-saver.
On the down side. Eriksen’s afternoon was summed up by his three free-kicks – weak and unconvincing. Son and Dele were ineffective, Dembele easing his way back to fitness and from but too deep to threaten. Winks came on late and produced the only throughball of our afternoon, which was encapsulated in two free-kicks in the las quarter. Both were in their half. One was played backwards across our back four, the other was knocked forward with both centre halves firmly rooted on the halfway line.
As a postscript, Spurs deserve a major bollixing over their decision to move the Burnley home fixture from Saturday 17th to the Sunday. It’s the start of the Christmas period which for many people signals the commencement of finely tuned advanced planning to get things done. It gives us an extra day’s preparation, fine, but there’s no excuse for making the move well after the TV fixture changes have been announced. It’s not been done for TV but that makes it worse – the delay will cost a lot of people a lot of money, and there’s no excuse.
And don’t forget – how could you – A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur by him and me, a groundbreaking history of Spurs support and supporters. Amazon here, including Kindle and Amazon.com currently less than a tenner. I mean honestly.