I had to finish off the small section of fencing that needed repair, apparently, although to me it still fulfilled the basic requirement of a fence, namely a barrier between next door’s garden and ours. So I missed the first ten minutes.
I don’t like gardening. It’s a chore rather than a pleasure. Many extol the virtues of being outdoors, surrounded by the relaxing sights and sounds of nature, toiling the soil, turning the sod, but it’s not for me. No, I prefer a Sunday afternoon skewering my heart with twin barbs of hope and crushed ambition and corkscrewing my guts into a tormented helix of anger and frustration. Lead me to the cliff edge, tease me with an ebullient comeback, then for good measure chuck me off the precipice onto the rocks below.
This one hurts not just because Spurs came so close but because defeat was utterly avoidable. Moments. Football memories are a collection of moments upon which matches, and seasons, turn. In this case, we must begin at the end. Spurs were bad, Spurs were good, in the end there was a moment.
Lloris, captain, mainstay, World Cup winner, moves to his right with ease towards a soft Salah header, minute left, maybe two at the most. Two hands. Spurs are defending against Liverpool’s late onslaught that was more desperate than cogent. This to mop up the remnants of a set-piece. Steady, delay, keep the ball, whistle.
Instead of catching it, or pushing it forcefully away, he – he doesn’t do much, except bobble it feebly in front of him, where Alderweireld is covering. Hits Toby’s knee, and in. Caught in two minds, he didn’t seem to know whether to catch it or push it out, as is the fashion these days for keepers. Catch was the right option but Hugo’s indecision caused a calamitous, sickening error, which could cost us more than 3 points.
It leaves us on a run of 1 point from the last 15. We had regained our momentum after an excellent second half, under pressure amid a febrile Anfield atmosphere. This was the boost we needed, matching title contenders. Instead, it sucked the life out of us. It jeopardised our top four spot. It reminded us of a telling weakness in the side – if your skipper and keeper caves in under pressure, it’s no example for the rest of the team. I like Hugo, he’s made mistakes before but they have been exaggerated at times and his balance sheet for me is in the black, but this was a shocking error, at that point in the game, at this point in the season.
In the first half, Liverpool ruthlessly, gleefully exposed our problems in central midfield. Width plus running into channels laid a minefield of indecision for our 5-man defence. Stay back, come out – either way we were exposed. Liverpool are so good when they play like that, mind, let’s not forget that. Relieved it was only one at the break, partly because Poch belatedly dropped Moura back to elasticize our narrow midfield into a four to limit the danger out wide.
To their credit, Spurs lifted themselves after torrid periods in the first half and could have won, let alone take a point. We looked comfortable attacking, happy to be on the front foot and taking advantage of the space Liverpool conceded. Some of our football was a delight to see, especially after Son came on. Kane, getting little out of Van Dijk, became provider, dropping deeper to allow Son and Moura to push on. His quick free kick was a game changing pass wide to Trippier. Eriksen half-hit a pass across the box but it came to Moura who banged it in. The Brazilian had a good game, energetic and willing in a number of positions between midfield and attack. His pace and control comes into its own when he has space in front of him.
And there are other moments. Two against one, and one of them is Sissoko. He’d had a better second half, able to drive forward with power rather than be pinned back in an unfamiliar role. Clean through thanks to Son’s impeccable pass, settled on the ball, left foot and, well you knew where it would end up. What a waste.
There’s another reason this one hurt (more pain, I have it right here for you. One benefit of working from home is that on days like these, I don’t have to talk to anyone). To get where they are, Spurs have over-achieved but there is no denying the chronic shortcomings in the squad, laid bare in matches like this, flat out, toe to toe against the top teams, a fraction from victory. We’re taking on the best with no defensive midfield. A couple of injuries, in this case to Dier (who never should have started for England) and Winks, leaves Sissoko, bless him, on his own, trying his darnedest in unfamiliar territory. Wanyama is finished, I’m so sad to say, Skipp’s not ready, otherwise nothing.
To their credit, Eriksen, Dele (ran 13.2k apparently) and Moura worked hard but it’s not their game. Any manager has a limit if the players aren’t good enough or he doesn’t have the right players for his needs. How many windows? We’re trying to be contenders, for goodness sake. The team’s getting old, we need upgrades anyway, others like Eriksen may leave. Perhaps now we need a new keeper too. To repeat something I said at the time, Hugo’s drink driving offence must have affected him. Getting behind the wheel was a fundamental error of judgement. Perhaps there’s something else that led him to be in that state in the first place, we’ll never know, but a keeper with flawed judgement is lost.
These shortcomings are a snug fit to the ‘Spurs as bottlers’ narrative, which will be thrown at us if we don’t end up in the top four. It’s not the whole truth. Closing games out is a necessary attribute of all top sides but lately we’ve lost that hard-won resilience. Where we used to score late winners, now we’re conceding, avoidable goals at that. Burnley, Southampton, now this.
Before the break, the players looked physically and mentally jaded, wedded to familiar patterns of play that opponents have become wise to, devoid of creative inspiration to produce something new, prone to late errors. The team seem at full-stretch for many recent games, even the victories. The strain of plugging gaps, especially in centre midfield, key players like Eriksen who are not quite there, exposed full-backs (Souness when asked why Trippier didn’t come out to prevent Robertson’s cross for their first: “because he’s not a very good defender”) and the injuries have all taken their toll.
They appeared weary, the exception being Dortmund, where we raised our defensive game to produce a classic European away performance. Perhaps we’ll go back to the 70s and 80s when we lifted ourselves for cup games but were inconsistent in the league. We must look to the new ground to provide the incentive to find our momentum again.
Excitement about the opening of the new White Hart Lane (because that’s what it’s called) is building to a crescendo. The test events were tempting but I’ve waited this long so Wednesday will be my first time inside. There will be noise. Let us disregard the fact that the pitch, sightlines etc are totally unfamiliar to the players and anticipate a new stadium bounce, the team inspired by the roars from the stands.
To end on an optimistic note, Spurs didn’t look tired and played really well in the second half. Plus, we have five games at home out of the last seven, against teams we should do well against. The whole club must rise up after yesterday and take the opportunity. There are no medals for top four but I need it this season, to help us plan for the next and, above all, just to say we did it. Finish above a couple of our dear rivals. Because we can, because we are good enough. Pride matters.