Spurs’ empathic victory at Southampton on Wednesday night was a rousing, upbeat ending to the year. After a stodgy start, conceding in the opening minutes, Tottenham Hotspur took over to run the game, scoring four in the process.
That’s been the mood for December, where Tottenham have won 4 matches out of five, scoring 17 goals in the process. Three of the home games have admittedly been against teams near the bottom of the league but Spurs have swept them aside with fluent displays packed with the movement and teamwork that have been the basis of our development under Pochettino but which have gone missing at times this season.
Two of these sides, Hull and Swansea, were desperately poor, and it is a feature of the Premier League this term that unusually several sides have not prepared themselves to a level that is anywhere near acceptable to their supporters. Still, in the past we’ve been complacent versus such teams. Tottenham have apparently – I don’t count these things so I am relying on social media here – notched up more points this calendar than in any previous 12 months since the start of the Premier League. One reason is that since August we have not lost to sides below us and in most cases beaten them. Middlesboro, Stoke, West Ham, Sunderland and Palace, all beaten. We should have also defeated Leicester.
This season’s results tell the other side of the story too. Some sides have sussed us out, compacting space in front of their back four and denying us room to play. In turn, we responded ineffectually, feebly running out of ideas against Bournemouth and West Brom. This is a continuation of the pattern from April and May when the home draw against a well-organised WBA did for us even before the debacle at Newcastle.
Also, we’ve only beaten one of the sides above us, Manchester City. An away point at Arsenal will do but we were second best at Chelsea and United, while Liverpool were the better side at the Lane.
So as 2016 comes to a close, where do Spurs stand? Before it ends, stop and marvel at the wonderful football we’ve seen over the past 12 months. It’s not so much the individual moments or matches that stand out. Watching from the middle of the Shelf has been a delight as moves form from deep, whizz past me in a blur of pace and invention, the whole far more than the sum of its parts. It’s this that I will take with me as the powers fade and memories dim. As good at times as anything I have ever seen in fifty years at the Lane. That surge beginning around Christmas and lasting to March and April was sheer joy.
It’s an indication of how Tottenham’s character has changed. The traditional focus on the star men, players who provided sheer class and enjoyment deserve to be remembered, are worthy of recall because they stood out from the dross around them. Now we have a team in the full and proper sense of the word, and that is our greatest strength.
Yet it does not feel like that. We fell away in April and May, the frustration at what might have been masking our achievements. We were never going to catch Leicester – our early season form left us too far behind – but the manner in which we fell away hurt, no question, because it dented pride in a bunch of marvellous, promising and over-achieving young players. The frustration, which has tainted appreciation of the team this season, comes from not being able to supplant a stark truth of being a Spurs fan – watching Tottenham is forever laced with disappointment. This was what we had overcome, more than being title challengers or who we beat – being a Spurs fan meant fulfilment. We glimpsed what this means and how it feels, only for it to be snatched away from us in the brutality of a season’s climax.
Cold hard reality – the youngest side in the PL over-achieved. Given our lack of experience, we had no right to be there in the first place and it is testament to everyone involved, players, manager, scouts and coaches, that we did so well. This season, more frustration because we have not kicked on as we had hoped. As ever, the PL is sub-divided into several mini-leagues. Their criteria differ from the norm, however. At the bottom there are several sides woefully unprepared – Swansea, Hull and Sunderland, all caused by shabby leadership and decision-making at board level. Burnley and Boro are with them but better organised on and off the field. Note both have not changed manager in the last 18 months.
Then there’s a division between those who have improved and those who have stagnated. Saints, Stoke, Leicester and Everton differ in quality and status but have in common this lack of development from last season’s promise. Manchester United were in this groupuntil recently. Liverpool and Chelsea on the other hand, again from different starting points and resource bases, have improved considerably, joining Arsenal and City at the top.
Which leaves Spurs where we deserve to be. Sound, playing well enough – mostly – without a discernible improvement from last season. This keep us above the pack without as yet enabling a concerted challenge on those above us. It’s not a bad place to be. It is however a warning to guard against the debilitating frustration that comes from unrealistic expectations.
It’s not so much the case that Spurs have not developed, more that we have not developed together. The back five have been outstanding. Walker and Rose astonish every game – Rose was remarkable again on Wednesday – and December’s upturn in form has been in large part due to the width this pair provide, plus the timing of their runs. Both have also learned to use their pace in our box as well as that of the opposition.
Creating chances at the other end has been more of a problem. Kane, Dier, Dembele and Alli in their very different ways have not maintained their form of last season. That’s our influential spine when we have possession, so a loss. Last season we could take anyone on provided everyone was at their peak. There seemed to be no slack. Dembele can influence a side like no other midfielder in the league. He’s been good but not invincible as he appeared so frequently last season, perhaps a more realistic place to be. Kane was weary in May and needed time.
For Dele, it’s that difficult second season. No coincidence that his goals and upturn in form in the last few games is linked to his keeping it simple, movement, playing it off rather than backing into players to perform a magic turn or get a free-kick. Too often he looks for the foul, which takes him out of the game and stops our movements more effectively than any defender could. On Wednesday Jamie Redknapp’s manspreading told us we are ‘lucky to have him’. It’s not luck, you idiot, we scouted him and offered the best chance of progress – we looked after him and he knows it.
Wanyama has impressed but Dier is better if we are playing one DM. He should be given that place and groomed to be our midfield leader, bossing the centre and telling team-mates what to do.
We are also where we are because of a comparative lack of investment. The time to buy is when the team is doing well to freshen the squad and guard against complacency. Spurs continue to seek value and potential. Janssen has both but despite being an international is one for the future. He has a different style compared with Kane and will come on once he starts to score. We declined to buy experience or go for a couple of established top-class players.
Then there is Sissoko. Forget the price – supply and demand in the modern football world distorts reality like a shape-shifter in Dr Who. Means nothing. What is important is what he can bring. As disappointing as his early performances was the reaction of many fans who seemed delighted to write him off before he’d started a handful of matches. He came with baggage, although thankfully not at least half a stone of excess he carried at Newcastle.
This was always all about what Poch could give him. He responded poorly to begin with and the manager publicly slapped him down by not selecting him or bringing him on as sub when Spurs were coasting. Lashing out in the Bournemouth game for no reason told you everything you needed to know about his state of mind.
That was then. Now, coming from no pre-season, he looks sharp and is beginning to understand what Pochettino wants from him. Already he has three or four assists. In each of the last three matches he’s produced sublime passes. The ball to Dele that resulted in the penalty versus Saints was the definition of inch-perfect.
Eriksen remains our key man. He aligns workrate – consistently runs further than anyone else – and the ability to make and take chances. More assists in this calendar year than anyone in the PL, did I read? He doesn’t make the most of every opportunity, hence the irritation at times, but a steady touch and he can be the creative force we crave.
So we are where we are. I will forgive Pochettino for talking about ‘the project’. We’ve signed the entire squad bar a couple to long-term contracts. We don’t offer anywhere near what other teams do, which means in turn we will never attract those established stars I wished for above. What we can do is keep what we have and that ink on paper shows the faith these players have in their manager and their team-mates. United wanted Kane and Walker. Both could double their current salaries. At least. But they aren’t interested. That is mindbendingly out of synch with the modern world, but Pochettino’s Tottenham offers something more valuable. Let’s hope we can keep him – there’s a transfer market for managers too.
At the start of this season, Pochettino said that “It is not tactical, it is not philosophical… It is here in our heads that we need to improve.” Being hard while at the same time remaining creative to find a way past tight defences, creating resilience to hang on to a lead or not give away silly goals, or in our case especially, needless free-kicks. This should be our aim. The manner in which we dominated Southampton for 75 minutes could be as significant as the points. We weren’t playing that well but got hold of the ball. The tempo could have been higher but it meant we controlled the game first, then went on to score the goals.
That said, Pochettino has plans B and C, at least. We’ve gone 4-1-4-1 and three at the back to increase attacking options. Subs have been used effectively too, with Son up front and the highly promising Winks in midfield giving options rather than more of the same.
In the meantime, beware of inflated expectations, and enjoy what we have. A Happy and peaceful New Year to all Tottenham On My Mind readers. Apologies for a few gaps this year, not always easy to find the time or indeed anything new to say, but then again, that’s never stopped me before. Thanks again – could not do this without you.