It’s official – Tottenham have ruined football forever. Sunday’s unforgivable late collapse not only lost two valuable points in this open league, it blighted the memory of some uplifting attacking football (and in these troubled times I need uplifting) and will forever undermine supporters’ confidence whenever we are ahead.
Some of us are perpetually anxious, having lived through Man City at home, 3-0 at half time against 10 men, lost 4-3, and Man Utd, at home, 3-0 up, lose 5-3. When the angst becomes overbearing, I start watching the clock. I’ve even created a hierarchy of times to match anxiety levels, a sort of league table of misery.
35 minutes isn’t up to much (you can see on bad days I begin this early) whereas 40 is getting to half time- either ahead or don’t concede, my system works either way.
Second half timings are naturally of a different degree entirely. 55 minutes, not much of a moment but we’ve got through the first ten minutes since half time. I have mixed feelings about the hour mark, initial relief that a substantial portion of the match has elapsed giving way to concern that fate still has 30 whole minutes to do its worst. 65 means nothing to me, neither here nor there, we can rule that one out completely. 70 is important as the time to avoid dangerous complacency because we’ve gone a long way but there’s still 20 to go but 75, more promising and 80, well 80 is significant because the next ten go past at half the speed of the rest, so in my head that can be twenty.
When it gets really tense, when time passes but the clock doesn’t move, I ascribe undue significance to the numbers in between, 73 is better than 72, 77 a step forward from 75. Curiously, around the 80 mark rather than levels increasing, I’ve taken lately to finding myself on another mental plane, where destiny will decide the outcome so there’s no point in worrying. What will be will be. But even I, at 82, 3-0 up, WHam have missed their golden chance early in the second half and while playing well aren’t making any impression on Hugo’s goal, even I…
We were even deprived of one of the classic moments of football crowd behaviour, late equaliser greeted with shared silent disgust so dense you couldn’t cut it with a sharp knife, the banging of seats as we rise en masse and jostle around the exit in a desperate rush to get away from it all. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work in a football context.
Most football fans have a healthy fatalism about their team’s prospects. It’s something that binds us, an antidote to contemporary tiresome tribalism, but we don’t think it will really happen, because actually, it doesn’t, at least not very often. But now here’s proof. It’s real, the Spurs of hardnosed serial winner Mourinho really can concede 3 in the last 8 mins. We can never enjoy football again.
Despite the ruthless destruction of the Saints and Man United defence, that feeling that Spurs have a soft centre never quite goes away. We’ll use these goals to blame whoever we usually blame when things go wrong. My hobby horse is conceding needless free-kicks, I’m looking at you Lamela even though you weren’t in the ground, but Sissoko then Aurier stepped up. It’s infuriating to give teams a free hit because it undoes all the hard defensive work and reveals a weakness embedded deep in the mindset. They just couldn’t stop themselves.
Marginal gains is a popular theory in sports these days where in an intensely competitive field, small advantages add up and make all the difference to the outcome. Spurs demonstrated the art of marginal losses. Moura has added hard work to his game but doesn’t have a defender’s mindset so he’s back to help out but doesn’t read the run outside him, leading to the second goal. Sissoko and Aurier challenges a touch too heavy. Spurs adopt zonal for the free kick but don’t respond to WHam overloading the far post with big blokes.
Where were you when Bale trotted on to the pitch? Er, making my wife a cup of tea, actually. One for the treasure house of memories there. One of my favourite Spurs players, straight into my ‘best ever’ team of the fifty plus years I’ve been going, alongside the other greats. Let’s be patient as he gets back to fitness, his body is not as robust as it once was. A tantalising glimpse on Sunday, the way he shifted that ball from one foot to the other at top speed, only to shoot wide.
As to where we go from here, Spurs remain one big contradiction. Capable of dazzling attacking brilliance to cower hapless defences, dominating the game then folding at the slightest pressure like a house of cards in the breeze.
These contradictions are a stage in normal team development. Progress is never a smooth and steady upward curve. Hindsight smooths out the undulations and bumps that are all too jarring when you’re in the moment and don’t know the outcome, where the curve ends. Since Mourinho took over, my main concern has been an apparent lack of direction. What he wants to achieve on the pitch wasn’t clear and, worse, the players did not seem to grasp what was required of them either. Transition from defence to attack was a particular problem.
The manager has sorted that now. Low block, everybody behind the ball, absorb the pressure and move it quickly when we get the ball. Players know what is expected of them. Kane, already a titan, is getting better. He drops deep, Son and Bergwijn or Moura, soon to be Bale, go wide. If the centre half comes out, they leave a gap, if they stay put then there’s space. Defences can’t cope and it brings the very best from Son and Harry, our two best players, and Bale will gorge himself on service like this.
Moreover, Levy has supported his manager’s efforts to strengthen the squad. Doherty and Reguilon give us pace and width. While some talk of needing more creativity in midfield, this means we can build attacking play in a variety of ways. Plus, the rehabilitation of N’Dombele continues. His ability to hold the ball in central midfield and to pick out a player with precision can unlock any defence. We’re impatient because we can see his untold potential, and so forget he’s young, relatively inexperienced as a late developer and he’s getting accustomed to a different culture. He’s never going to be box-to-box, covering the runners then hurling himself forward, so we need to accommodate that in the system, and Hojbjerg is the foundation upon which we can build all this. Highly impressive, he is alert, strong, mobile and a leader. We even have another centre forward, who can either replace Harry or play with him.
Above all, this looks like Mourinho’s squad, where he can take ownership. He has the players he wants, I say that, what he really wants are the players Frank Lampard can play fantasy football with at the Bridge, but at least Levy has sprung for new blood. Hojbjerg, Reguilon and Doherty look to be good value. Rodon I don’t know, he’s one for the future and at that price we can’t go far wrong.
So with time, let’s see where this takes us. Meanwhile, Mourinho has three problems to address, as highlighted by the WHam feels-like-a-defeat-but-remember-we-didn’t-lose. The first one is pretty basic – are the defenders good enough? Sanchez had a wretched afternoon, although admittedly he was out of position on the left side. Hesitant throughout, WH targeted him from the beginning. Misjudgements are a fact of any defender’s life and can be forgiven but his effort to head that ball was indecisive. Toby has lost that spark that made him one of the very best, while Dier does not yet convince as the dominant centre back we need. Tanganga is highly promising but needs time and his injuries are a worry. On the right, Aurier does good work but a mistake is never far away. With the proviso that Dier has room to grow because he remains relatively inexperienced as a centre half, this area is a problem. Also, we still don’t seem to have a natural partner for Hojbjerg in front of the back four.
The second problem was identified post-match by Declan Rice who said he was surprised that Spurs stood off in the second half. The interviewer then asked Mourinho if this was deliberate, he replied, ‘not really’. He’s being disingenuous because we always play like this. There’s an inherent problem with it, which is that it cedes the initiative to the opposition. It allows them to come forward and gives hope that they can get back into the game. It leaves Spurs vulnerable, however well it is put into practice, to a deflection, worldie or mistake. We can’t sit back as we did on Sunday. You can be more aggressive in that formation, looking for the ball, rather than being passive.
Finally, the speed in which confidence evaporated after WHam’s first goal revealed collective mental weakness. After the game, when Mourinho had pulled himself together (he was visibly shocked at the final whistle), he said again that his team were not psychologically strong enough. True, the football world now knows it and every opponent between now and the end of the season is going to bust their gut for 90 minutes because of it.
It’s legitimate to ask again what he is going to do about it. Mourinho the winner has been here for almost a year. He wants us to be a bunch of c***s. Fine, and Lamela and Lo Celso have taken that on board, but mental strength is about clear thinking under pressure and building resilience, and the manager has to do something about this.
I thought he was getting somewhere, that the penalty shoot-out versus CFC and, lest we forget, scoring twice late on to beat Plovdiv marked the turning points that build confidence in adversity. Now it’s one step back again. In his first match as Spurs manager, Mourinho saw us go three up against Wham only to concede two late goals. 11 months later, it’s three late goals. Mourinho the motivator has to get through to them.