Semi-final? Bring Them All On As Son Leads the Way

So the FA Cup is an irrelevance, a tiresome interlude between the real business of busting a gut to not win anything in the League. Yeah right. Nobody at White Hart Lane yesterday recognises that description of a competition still dear to the heart of football fans. Full-bloodied, no respect for status, both teams going out to win it and a distinct edge in the air. Proper cup football. Give it a sponsor, call the 6th round a different name, play it on any day of the week TV fancies – the fans make it proper cup football every time.

 

On the field, Spurs rose to the challenge with style and class from the outset. They stamped their authority on the game, quickly consigning any thought of giantkilling to yesterday’s back pages, today’s chip paper. Get the ball, move it around, get hold of midfield, match every tackle. Hard work and a sustained plan was the foundation, the goals came later.

 

In the stands, Spurs lifted the spirits in response to the Millwall roar. The best atmosphere outside an AFC or CFC derby for many years. What a glorious din it was. Old school to and fro. Que sera, we going to Wembley. Que sera, Millwall are going to Shrewsbury. Spurs applaud. Janssen scores his first from open play. “He scores when he wants, Vincent Janssen…” Just like the old days but it’s future too. We can do this in the new ground, if we want to. Give us room to get on with it, give us an end, we’ll make some noise. And the rubbish silenced in the best possible way – a thumping out of sight win via a hat-trick from the bloke on the receiving end.

 

Spurs got on top at the start as is our way these days at home. We passed our way through and round Millwall, set up a few chances but the final ball was lacking, Son making the gravest error when he ignored the queue at the far post and shot straight at the keeper.

 

In Kane’s absence, Son not Janssen is Pochettino’s plan B. Let’s wait for the results of Kane’s scan before we panic. There’s ample time to panic after that. My fear is that he has a long-term weakness on that ankle. Robust but otherwise legitimate tackles have done the damage, and we give that ankle a lot of wear and tear.

 

Eriksen on to sustain our midfield supremacy. I would have played him from the start as part of our strongest possible side. Without doing anything noticeably different, he has imperceptibly developed his game over the past few months to become the dominant midfield influence in every match he plays. With so much movement ahead of and around him, he turned the game decisively in our favour.

 

Just as we started to get a bit edgy, well on top but no goals, Millwall in our box a couple of times, Eriksen swivelled on a bouncing ball in the box to find the far corner. Same corner a few minutes later. Son miscontrolled the ball again, leaving it behind and taking the momentum out of the attack. This time he turned his mistake into a virtue. Left foot from the right, across the keeper, same corner. Two moments of high class finishing stamped our authority on the game once and for all.

 

Millwall had nothing in reply. They tried to play football and were keen to shift it forward but even two goals to the good, Spurs weren’t about to let them back in the game. Less about Millwall’s deficiencies, much more about our clinical approach to finishing them off, further evidence of the winning mentality that has become part of our approach since Gent.

 

These goals were class but not classy enough for Son. Long ball, running full pelt into the box, drops over his shoulder and volleys it home. I trust BT showed it on a loop instead of their post-match analysis.

 

Good fun to be had. Dele at the far post on the end of a fine cross, made by Winks. On the ball, controls, it, changes direction, spreads an inch perfect 30 yard ball to the full-back. He plays as if he was born to it, natural, eager, fearless, oblivious to the bedlam around him and in the stands. He’s a real craftsman and a tremendous prospect.

 

Janssen has been humiliated by his manager over the past months, either staying on the bench or not making the bench at all. Pochettino knows how to get his message over. But he’s on and he scores when he wants. A glimpse of what might be, the ball only a foot or so in front of the defender yet instantly and accurately turned low into the corner. Let’s gloss over the previous shot that just missed the corner flag and the one after, a point blank header straight at the keeper.

 

The keeper threw it into the net for Son’s hat-trick. It was all there – through his legs, the irresistible reflex to desperately drag it out of the net even when you know it’s already over the line. The indignity compounded by three replays and huge cheers. Is this what the big screen is for?

 

Fine performances all round. Davies again prominent going forward, Trippier did well too. Winks excellent, polished and mature. The drive from the back three is the key though, yesterday and for the rest of the season. Vertonghen is in the middle of a purple patch, reaching heights that seemed beyond him a couple of years ago. Pushing up into the space the midfielders leave behind is crucial to our attacking play.

Dier was the only doubt, I guess there has to be something. The ease with which he was left standing on several occasions by League 1 forwards was a little bit of a worry,  something to work on in the weeks to come.

Just like the old days at the Millwall end too. Abuse of Son, which I heard but couldn’t make out at the time. Anti-Semitic abuse too, or so I read today. Singling a Korean out for abuse is a new one on me. Abuse for abuse sake is low.

 

Dan Kilpatrick from Spurs ESPN said on twitter last night that this was the biggest police presence at an English football match in a decade. These days the police have sophisticated tactics to keep an eye on potential troublemakers. Which is why I don’t understand the reason their fans weren’t kept in the ground after the match to clear the streets. We nipped up Bromley Road, a cut-through between the High Road and the Park Lane, only to find it had been blocked off first at the High Road end then, as we turned back, behind us too, so we were stuck in the road for ten minutes, no info, then were let out into the middle of the Millwall for the walk back to Seven Sisters. I didn’t see any trouble and it felt safe. They weren’t looking for any bother, indeed the most noise came from a football kicked all the way along the route, but how can that be safe crowd control?

 

Anyway, nothing gets in the way of a fine win, fabulous performance, wonderful football. Semi-final? Bring them all on.

 

 

 

 

 

Kane The Master As The Future Calls

Ledley King, Spurs captain and leader, introduces himself to our new signing Edgar Davids, who is sitting quietly in the training ground canteen. Davids shakes his hand, looks him in the eye. There’s not greeting. His first words are, “Can we win anything?”

 

Ledley told this story at the SpursShow live event before Christmas. I regard him as Spurs finest centre half in half a century. He had nothing to prove but merely being in Davids’ presence impressed him. The Dutchman was past his best when he signed for Tottenham but that aura rubbed off on a team struggling for identity. Davids is a winner.

 

This Spurs side must discover that mentality for themselves. To my mind buying in experience in the summer would have strengthened the squad but that’s not the current Tottenham way, so the players must find that resilience and bloodymindedness within themselves.

 

With progress comes pain. Spurs produced another fine home performance to deservedly defeat Everton. We scored three, could, should have doubled it, then there was a wobble or two just when the match should have been dead and buried. Typical Spurs to be well on top then concede. Typical Spurs to restore a two-goal lead in injury time only to give away firstly a needless free kick then a goal during time added on for nobody except the ref knows quite what for. More like typical of a side that’s almost there but still learning a few tricks of the trade.

 

The progress we’ve made is evident in the way we try to stamp our authority on games from the start. At least we do at home, this approach was sadly lacking away at City and Anfield recently. Pochettino likes three at the back to increase his attacking options. It suits us. Because we have ball-playing defenders, we can drive forward. Vertonghen was outstanding in this respect on Sunday, as well as being adept and alert in defence. From my seat on the Shelf the power and influence is tangible, spreading through the side. Full-backs can take up attacking positions, and it was good to see Davies reveal in the freedom, he had a fine match. Dier, Verts and Toby take it in turns to move forward according to the ebb and flow of the game. It’s simultaneously strategic and opportunistic.

 

After a tight opening, it enabled us to gain the upper hand. We wrested control from the Toffees and largely kept hold of it for the rest of the match.

 

Harry Kane at his finest. His first to break the deadlock from an improbable distance, the thrill in the unexpected. Nothing on, preparing to pass but he saw the shot and it dipped away even as the keeper stretched towards it, determined to drop into the bottom the corner. There was nothing on and Spurs were a goal up.

 

His second came from half an Everton error, half a pressing success, drilled low for 2-0. His best moment came in between, however. Right corner of the box, he pulled Vertonghen’s long, firm pass out of the air, one-two with Eriksen, then, surrounded by defenders, he had the presence of mind to slip two of them with a shimmy to the left. He banged the ball into the keeper, a shame, the gem that got away but it was the moment of the match. True class runs a game and Harry had time under his spell as well as the ball.

 

Not rating Kane says everything about the judgement of the fan in question and nothing at all about the player. Harry doesn’t have the swagger of a star, he’s not quick or graceful. Sometimes as he runs, ungainly and stiff-legged, you can almost hear his joints creaking. That’s why the superficial, the unthinking, those who don’t understand the game, don’t get him. Kane’s quality lies in the moment before he makes contact with the ball. The body shape, the way he ensures his foot is in the right place. Technique, application, concentration, for that millisecond of impact.

 

Harry Kane: decent bloke, not flash, doesn’t seek the limelight or a salary that matches his market value. English, scores goals. Like we’re spoiled for choice. You’d think he’d be popular outside the club but this is not enough it seems for many who expose their opinions on social media. Hate isn’t a word anyone would use about him, yet many opposition fans can’t bring themselves to even accept him. What they really hate, if only they would admit it, is how he’s proved them wrong. ‘One season wonder’ echoed round the ground to salute him. I hope he enjoyed it.

 

So to that wobble. At the time I had other words for it but wobble it shall be for now. Verts made a single error, falling as the fearsome Lukaku had his first and late run at goal. Then Hugo, who should be rock solid at moments like this, nearly cocked up a headed clearance. Walker, excellent once more, made his one mistake and nearly gave it away while dwelling on the ball. They got away with it but must learn not to put themselves in that position in the first place.

 

We score again. Winks is young but has been here since they cut his umbilical cord. He knows his Spurs people. He saw Dele’s run, Dele touched it in, victory assured deep in injury time. Except don’t give away a fee kick, don’t let it curl so far to an unmarked forward.

 

3-2, a win under pressure and we’re still playing with great style. Unbeaten at home, please believe this football is outstanding, please enjoy it despite the, er, wobbles. Because this is almost as good as it gets.

 

But it’s hard to stay mindful and in the moment. In the north east corner, a monolithic concrete block marches into the stadium, overshadowing everything. Its time will come but it’s not content to wait. Change is coming and our future intrudes on the present. Suddenly the Lane, our dear and precious Lane, looks small and insignificant by comparison.

There’s a sense that despite our achievements, we’re waiting. Waiting for news of next season, of seasons to come. The pre-match talk in the queue and in the stands is not of Kane, Dele and Toby, nor the gap above and below us in the table but of Wembley, or where exactly, of seats, of prices, of where will we be in the new ground. Less of outstanding home form, more a fear of how it will be if Kane, Toby or Jan are injured, of new players needed to maintain momentum and secure the future on the pitch. Second in the league and not the finished article, we will know at the season’s end but Spurs’ transfer policy has allowed too much room for what might have beens. And that stadium don’t come cheap. Face up to the lack of cash for the team next season.

 

Wembley will be confirmed at the end of the month. There’s no alternative, bar not knocking the Lane down. Details on the Trust site. The club have focussed on the premium seats at the expense of us mere mortals, the ordinary punter. All about revenue streams no doubt – the expensive seats have to pay up front. The rest of us need to know something soon, if only so that we can make the most of the last few games and of this wonderful creative football. It’s important to enjoy the good times.

Mane A Tear Has To Fall But It’s All In The Game

Last May Southampton came to White Hart Lane and deflated Spurs’ end of season celebrations with a 2-1 victory, arguably the best performance from an away team that year. Midfield grafter Steven Davis scored both goals but the star was Sadio Mane. There were rumours at the time he was going to a bigger club but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about – until then. He was a constant threat, good control, quick feet and high workrate, an eye for space between defenders and the pace to burst into the box from deep. The perfect Pochettino forward, in fact.

Yesterday evening those qualities destroyed Spurs. Two goals in the opening twenty minutes and there should have been more but for Lloris, the game out of sight with over an hour to endure. Mane wasn’t the only difference between Tottenham and Liverpool but it was a stark reminder of what we lack in games of this level and intensity against our rivals for a top four place.

Add this to the news emerging earlier in the week that Mane turned Spurs down in the summer and this defeat, a 2-0 thrashing such was the gulf between the sides, was a stark reminder of the broader limitations of our challenge for honours. Mane got as far as a visit to Hotspur Way but Liverpool offered the same prospects and better money. Tottenham’s success, as much as I enjoy it and genuine achievement though it is, also serves to mask this unpalatable truth, laid bare by a comprehensive defeat against top four rivals who like ourselves are developing their side, that as we try to rise to the top we are banging our heads against the ceiling of opportunity.

These are the games that we measure ourselves by. Judging by this performance Spurs have a body of sculpted muscle but feet of clay. Throughout Tottenham wilted under the pressure of Klopp’s press. The resultant errors blighted our entire evening. We never got the ball moving freely in possession, were constantly caught on the ball or attempting passing angles that didn’t exist and made only one chance worthy of the name in the entire game.

Liverpool won the other major battle too, the tactics. Spurs’ left was weak in the absence of the injured Vertonghen and Rose, while Lucas looked out of place in the Liverpool back four. We never laid a glove on him, whereas Liverpool steamrollered down our flank, leaving Davies isolated and bewildered. Time and again, Liverpool had two and three players overloading our left up against the Welsh full-back and he was taken apart. Mane burst past him for the first and most of their chances started out there. To make matters worse, Lloris insisted on playing out from the back and going left too.

But Davies should not carry all the blame. We played a high line, which left us vulnerable to Liverpool’s pace from midfield. Also, giving the ball away led to both Liverpool goals. Losing possession exposed the back four. Moreover, Pochettino did nothing to plug the gap. He could have dropped Son back or moved a DM across but Davies had no protection. Defending is a team responsibility these days, and we didn’t function as a unit when our opponents had the ball. The new high TV angle at Anfield exposed the horror in all its gory detail.

So Mane swept in the first, then banged in the second shortly afterwards from a loose ball. I felt Hugo could have pushed away the initial shot instead of pushing it up, thereby keeping it in the danger area. Tottenham were in total disarray at this point, unable to stem the tide of Liverpool attacks or keep hold of the ball on the rare occasions they glimpsed it. Mane missed another chance and Lloris was solid on his line.

Without Pochettino we would never have got this far, and I’m eternally grateful. He’s been criticised in the past for not having a plan B. I thought this one had been put to bed this season. However, the manager did little to change the balance of a game that had tipped decisively in favour of the Reds.  Son changed position, at times centrally to link with Kane, frustrated in his isolation, or to the right. I admire this attacking inclination but it was not right for the moment. We played as if we were 2-0 up against Gillingham not 2 goals down to Liverpool.

Eriksen and Alli, both largely ineffectual, should have dropped deeper to get hold of midfield and thereby give us some stability. Deprived of the platform to play usually offered to them by Dembele and Wanyama, they frittered away the rare moments when they had the ball at their feet. We’ve done this before, away to Southampton as the first example this season. A goal down after 15 shabby minutes, we reformed, controlled midfield and possession and used this as a base to win the match. I wrote at the time that this could a significant moment in the team’s development but we’ve forgotten the lessons, as we did at Manchester City. As it was, the game continued to rush away from us like primeval matter exploding from the big bang.

The half-time teamtalk evidently provided no solutions. I can’t recall the last time Spurs offered so little over 45 minutes. To overcome the press we went long but this was less a tactical adjustment, more an act of desperation. Our game descended into aimless long balls and petty fouls. Even Toby, the Premier League defender who has committed fewest fouls this season, was reduced to an ankle tap and a booking. Hugo and his defence contrived to almost concede again through reckless defending. The pundits chuckled and so did the rest of football looking on.

The table doesn’t lie. The table of salaries and transfer expenditure that is. Every team around us has a higher wage bill. Mane cost £35m and earns £90k a week. In the summer Spurs presumably did not want to stretch that far. Our highest paid player, Kane, gets around £100k by all accounts. At Liverpool, Milner is on £120k, Coutinho now on £200k.  We don’t try to compete and class across not just a team but a squad cost money. Tottenham’s first XI are more than a match for anyone. Injuries to Vertonghen and especially Rose take us down a notch. Because of this pressure, the up and comers find it hard to get enough game-time. Wimmer’s form has fallen off a cliff, Davies looks uncertain and Janssen has no time to break that duck.

I’m deeply proud of what this team and manager have achieved and might achieve in the future, and it’s a future about which I feel optimistic. Proud that we haven’t broken the bank and have nurtured the talents of younger players rather than bought a ready-meal of a team waiting for the manager to heat it up. Proud of how tight these players are with the supporters. Fact is though, Mane brings home the point that there is a difference between overspending and investment, because the latter brings in the returns. Nothing outrageous and prudently planned, it could be the difference between success and glorious failure. And did Mane really ask for that much more than Sissoko?

 

The Agony of Winning

A minute left and the ball drops from the sky. My eye has been drawn left following the ball as Middlesbrough mount a late, final attack. So it turns out has the Spurs back four. It falls to 14, unmarked, who appears suddenly it seems, but he’s been waiting there a for a moment or two, just as Boro had been waiting for a decent opportunity all game. In a flash it’s there, then gone. He slides it wide and remains full-length on the turf, prostrate in indignity. Walker and Dier trot upfield, trying to make out they had in all under control.

That it should come to this. We should have been celebrating another glorious victory for the twenty minutes just gone, three or four up, coasting, Hugo’s kit as neat and clean as when the kitman laid it out for him, no mud, no sweat, no shots on target. Instead it was eyes to the heavens and relieved grins. Why do we make it so hard? There are some bits of the old Tottenham I’m happy to leave behind.

You can’t escape the conclusion that with the old Tottenham, that volley would have been top corner, a MOTD goal of the month contender but even Pochettino is unable to alter the space time continuum. The plain fact is, Boro aren’t very good and that was the outcome. Spurs however were good, very very good for much of the first half and made bucketloads of chances in both halves, with only a Kane penalty to show for it. Boro brought everybody back but it made little difference. Time and again Spurs passed their way through the cover, all angles and movement rooted in the understanding that has grown up between these players over the past 18 months. It was lovely to watch. If they had scored, it would have been easier on the nerves.

The pressure’s on at the top of the table, or least for places two to six with Chelsea halfway home if not out of sight quite yet. Get used to it – it won’t change until the season ends and Spurs will be in the mix as the denouement unfolds. At Sunderland in midweek we quickly ran out of ideas, a missed opportunity to ram home our superiority, although given the other results a point was satisfactory. On Saturday evening we showed we had learned from that. Instead of pushing players up and leaving them there, the midfield rocked back and forth, sometimes right up to assist Kane while others dropped deeper. Alli roamed wild and free in front of the back four. They had no idea where he was at any given time. Around him someone was moving past if he dropped, Eriksen, Walker, Davies sometimes and Son, running from deep and hard to pick up.

Wide left, Son had a fine game and a frustrating game all at the same time. Hugging the touchline, he decisively won his battle with right back Chambers, providing a stream of crosses. This was old style wingplay, winger versus full-back, one on one. A duel rarely seen since the days of Jones, Robertson and Neighbour, flying down the touchline, pace and dexterity to tempt the defender into an error. Boro seemed content to let them get on with it because nobody moved over to cover. They have more faith in Chambers than I have, or perhaps they just enjoyed the contest. Chambers didn’t. If Rose had been playing too, he’d have spent this week in a darkened room, softly weeping.

If only Son and his team-mates knew where the final ball was going to end up. One first time move swept the ball 60 yards in three passes and Kane should have put away Son’s inch-perfect first time cross. Another from a similar spot nearly broke the sound barrier as it hurtled into the clouds. This is the way he was, is and always will be, so get used to it. Here he brought far more to the game than he wasted, above all winning a penalty when he cut inside and was taken down, a clear foul although he made sure to press every possible square centimetre if flesh against the leg of the defender.

This would have been another great performance but for overplaying in and around their box, especially on the break in the second half where Spurs contrived to miss three straightforward opportunities. The final ball was lacking, including from Kane a couple of times. However, keep playing like this and they will overcome the packed defences that even now are being drilled to ruthlessness in our opponents’ training pitches.

The run-in starts here. We have to go a long way from home because the leading pack are all around us. It will be nightmarishly tense so prepare yourself. Tense because we deserve to be up there, tense because we know we can beat anyone in this league, fraught because the margins will be slight come May. I gave Wycombe a miss. Unusual for me and I’ve had a lot on my mind hence the irregular blogs, but I needed a break. Stupid? Oh yes. Making too much of it? No sir. This is what this bloody, glorious, infuriating, joybringer of a club does to me, so roll with it and I’m back for the ride.

Keep this up and we will have the stamina to make a fight of it, and that’s all I ask. Our first eleven can take on anyone. It is therefore a crying shame that the outstanding Vertonghen and Rose are injured. For the latter, it was inevitable, such is the power that he puts into each and every step. What a player Rose has become.

Pochettino has assembled cover in every position. It is therefore a worry to see him apparently lose confidence in at least three of those men, Davies, Wimmer and Sissoko. Davies had a decent match on Saturday, released from defensive duties. He loses the ball through uncertainty though, but then again comparisons with Rose are unfair in the snese that Danny is the best in the league. Wimmer can’t repeat his form of last season, while Sissoke appears indifferent to the chance of playing in a top four side, preferring to wait until all the other players slow down to play at his pace. You can’t even say he keeps the bench warm these days, what with heated seats. He has real talent with pace and weight of pass if he chooses to show it. Take your chance mon ami.

To sustain us we have the midfield might of Dembele and Wanyama. From my seat in the Shelf you can feel the power they exude as they rule the centre of the field. I used to envy our opponents who had this aura. Keane, Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard, not so much playing as owning their territory. Now we have these two and its supporters of rival clubs who are envious.