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.

Spurs Paint A Masterpiece

The ball is played out of defence to Victor Wanyama. He’s about 40 yards from the Tottenham goal, near the touchline, facing the wrong way. Three West Brom midfielders swiftly cluster around him. The game is long gone by now, Spurs triumphant, but they sniff a chance to make something happen.

 

The Kenyan controls the pass perfectly and sways gently like long grass in the wind, shielding the ball as he does so. His opponents check back and hesitate, and in that moment Wanyama has created half a yard of space with which to first turn and then play it without fuss to an team-mate advancing in the middle.

 

Wanyama puts the defend into defensive midfielder. The guy who protects his backline at the expense of the side’s creativity. Or that’s what everyone says. Yet this solid block of muscle with football boots is airily running the midfield. I could just as easily picked any moment of any Spurs player on the ball. They reeked of self-assurance and bravura. Confidence seeping from their pores, assurance coursing through their veins.

 

We came to White Hart Lane expecting a dour struggle. Instead Spurs painted a modest masterpiece, no fanfares or bright lights but a gem for the true aficionados of the Spurs Way. Tottenham’s football flowed with grace and power, insistently inventive, always played on the run, a torrent of ideas that slowed down only for a couple of short periods in the second half, and then only to draw breath.

 

West Brom are our bogey side, shorthand for, they are highly organised and Spurs have consistently failed to break them down. Last season the 1-1 draw on a Wednesday night at the Lane saw our title momentum grind to a halt. It wasn’t the Chelsea game at all. That night we not only gave away a daft goal after going ahead, we ran out of ideas. Towards the end the players had the ball and were looking around not knowing what to do next.

 

On Saturday the contrast could not have been greater. I wouldn’t want to single out individuals: they all played to the highest standard, played for each other, played for their manager, played for the shirt. The first half was a delightful haze of movement, blurred white shirts dashing by onto passes that were invisible and impossible from the stands but crystal clear to those amidst the hurly burly on the pitch. Almost everything came off. We won the tackles and second ball, we spread fifty yard passes from boot to toecap, one-twos in the tightest of spots. Spurs had the lot.

 

This season as last, Spurs have had plenty of possession but have slowed down when we get to the edge of our opponents’ box. The big change recently, which I would argue is one of the two changes that has turned us into genuine contenders, is that we have men making runs into the box and we are finding them. I say men – Dele is barely more than boy. He’s not the only one but attacking instincts released by Pochettino, he is hard to stop and impossible to control, as Chelsea found out to here cost. Eriksen is creating an endless supply of diagonal balls into the box for him. If only his first half goal had not been offside, what a stunning memento from this match that would have been.

 

We’ll have to make do with his scooped pass for the fourth, a one-two with Kane and finished by the hat-trick striker on the volley, made because they just get each other perfectly. Kane scored three, missed another two that were easier that than the ones he put away. His body shape for his second, Spurs’ third, horizontal to get over the ball after Walker was rewarded for his refusal to give up a lost cause by the goalline. He left nothing to chance and made an awkward hit appear straightforward. His movement was a joy throughout, ghosting into space in the box where none seemed to exist, or coming off the front to allow others to move up past him.

 

The other change is of course going three at the back. For Pochettino this is primarily about the attack. It gives Spurs the platform to play, for the best pair of attacking full-backs in Europe to get forward and for Dele to have freedom. Our centre backs can all play. They eagerly pushed up into the space vacated by a retreating West Brom side, as one goes up the other moves across to cover. The sole blemish on the afternoon was Vertonghen’s injury. He beat the ground not so much in pain but in frustration that he would not be able to play for this team for some time. Right now any time out is a curse. He’s been good all season, outstanding in the last ten games.

 

Defeating West Brom was in its own way as strong an indicator of our progress as beating Chelsea. Hard to beat, we swept them away. Building up a head of steam in December and January is the new Spurs Way. Compared with last season, we are stronger physically and mentally, able to remain inventive when minds, hearts and legs grow weary, all this powered by massive self-belief. Add the improvements in individual performances – Walker, Rose, Dele, Vertonghen, Eriksen (playing so well right now) – Wanyama’s influence and the continued form of Kane, Lloris and Alderweireld, and we have become genuine contenders. Second in the league having beaten the top side two weeks ago is a good place to be.

 

When asked if this was the best performance since he took over, Pochettino agreed.Spurs v West Brom ‘17 could be become one of those ‘remember when’ performances admired by the cognoscenti and true believers, like the first half against Feyenoord in 83 or Gazza beating Oxford singlehandedly (or so it seemed) in the Cup. Not famous or a glory glory night but one of the best examples of pure Tottenham football that you could ever wish to see. Beautiful to watch.

Spurs Sweet Victory Up There With the Very Best

Last night my heart nearly burst out of my chest, I was so proud of my team. Spurs took on the champions-elect and outplayed them in every aspect of the game. Two headers from Dele Alli either side of half-time, put away with the power and finesse of a master amidst the frenzy of this derby . He’s a natural. He’s a hero. He’s twenty years old.

Last night my lungs emptied of breath, my throat turned red-raw in the chill night air. Get behind the team. Give everything. 12th man. Except Spurs, these Spurs, didn’t need a 12th man. 11 were too good for the blues.

And they needed no exhortation to give everything, because their motivation comes from deep inside. They want to be here, at our club, want to play for this manager because he looks after them, just as we look after them too. Dele scores and buries himself in the crowd. I get the safety issues, the booking, but he’ll be remembered almost as much for his reaction as the excellence of his goal. These days players bask in the adulation. They celebrate with choreographed in-jokes or luxuriate in the marvellousness of themselves. Giroud does a little dance instead of trying to win the game, because he’s just so wonderful so look at me. It’s the selfie generation oozing with narcissism. He could jump back and kiss himself.

But Dele’s first reaction is to join with the supporters and share the joy. We give to each other. Which comes, first, the fans lifting the team or the team lifting the fans? At Tottenham it’s seamless, one and the same. The players get it, get what it means to us. They are well-paid but not chasing the cash alone. It’s theirs, it’s permanent and it’s a force that could power them on to greater things, greater than even this performance, the finest of Pochettino’s era and arguably the best of the last 20 years.

Coming into this match on the back of a good run, Spurs had to lift their game to compete, or so the pre-match discussion would have it. But for this Spurs, competing isn’t good enough. They chewed up these platitudes and spat them in the faces of their opponents. They had to dominate, and they got at it from the kick-off. Our opponents had no room, no space to move or time to think. Tackling, intercepting, pressing, nipping at heels, Spurs were right at it.

Wait for it to ease off. This is Tottenham after all. Nah, not having it. It eased off only we dictated it would, in the second half when tactics changed and we cut out the high press in favour of denying space forty yards out. Disciplined, organised, alert. In control. We ran this game. We shaped the tempo, the tactics, the shape. The temperature the Chelsea kit was washed at, perhaps. That’s how much we determined the play and pattern of this victory.

This is the derby of bitterness and bile. The venom in the stands is matched apparently in the respective boardrooms. Spurs went about the act of revenging last season’s away draw with remarkable calm, their sense of purpose rising above the frenzy and foment. I can’t recall a time when they have remained so focussed when under so much pressure for 90 minutes. Nothing would get in the way of playing their very best football, all the the time. Nobody stepped out of line. There are no weak links.

It shows how far we have come in such a short period of time. At the Bridge, Tottenham disintegrated. (They still didn’t beat us, mind). After the dust settled and they washed the blood from the pitch, we said the real test was if Spurs could learn from this. Yesterday we were ice-cool in N17. Maybe though we’ll look back and see the recent away win at Southampton as significant. Poor in the first fifteen minutes, we lifted ourselves as a team and took back control even though we never played especially well.

Chelsea didn’t fancy the pressure as much. I could see it in their eyes in the second half. Hazard, world-class, missed a great early chance then drifted around in a fog of frustration rather than being consistently creative in the pursuit of a goal. Costa and Pedro had a public and protracted spat in the first half. Daniel Taylor, a fine football journalist, wrote in today’s Guardian that this showed how motivated they were. To me they looked like petulant schoolboys more concerned with being right than winning the match. I wouldn’t swap them for my Spurs.

Spurs were on top in a tight first half. Eriksen whizzed a shot past the post and Alderweireld, I think (I was there so haven’t seen a recording) failed to get his toe on the ball in the 6 yard box. Rose played a prominent part in our attacks and flew back like a man possessed to tackle and harry whenever the ball came near our box. Dembele bestrode the midfield like a conquering warrior. His run generated a stabbed pass to Kane rather than the usual blocked shot but it was a fraction heavy. More please.

Just before half-time, we drew breath. Time to be grateful for what we had achieved and go again after the break. Then Walker pushed up on the right. His way was blocked but it gave Eriksen more space because he had occupied a couple of defenders. Eriksen crossed. We don’t do crosses well, normally. But suddenly Dele is frozen in mid air. We’re right behind the arc of the header, curling away, the keeper’s arched back in despair, trying, flailing, failing to touch the ball. In a split second I can track the ball, see the keeper and begin to think, hang on, that’s going in, isn’t it. It’s in, it’s really in.

Dele left the field with 33,000 voices singing his name at the top of their voices. Listening to Talksport on the way home, John Cross from the Mirror praised him to the hilt, adding that Spurs could not hold onto him for long. Wherever in the world he goes, however long he plays, he won’t ever hear noise like that again, never be as close to the fans as in that instant, never feel as good about himself. He knows this is where he belongs, where his potential, destiny even, can be fulfilled. So why should he leave.

Chelsea began the second half brightly, the only period where they matched us. In the past, we would have folded, and have done so against lesser teams. This Spurs, Pochettino’s Spurs, kept playing. Walker again, taken out the game but touching the ball back to Eriksen. This cross was a few yards closer to the far post, Dele rose again to nod it across the keeper from a tough angle.

And that won the match. Lloris by my count had only a single save to make. Spurs meanwhile took both the chances created. Our defending was out of this world. Vertonghen excelled, Alderweireld was masterful, Rose and Walker as good at the back as they were going forward. All man of the match performances. Normally. Except this time Victor Wanyama’s second half was out of sight, the best of the best. He smoothly dropped into the back four or timed his intervention impeccably. All this on a booking too. Out of sight.

Last night Mauricio Pochettino received the ultimate accolade for any manager, the entire stadium (bar 3000 in the corner)  singing his name. More than tactics, it is having players with the wit and in-game intelligence to perform in the white-hot heat of battle. I’ve read three match reports this morning written by football journalists. Each complimented the formation,  each characterised it differently. 3-4-3, 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, take your pick. These apparent contradictions in fact reveal the truth, that the key is flexibility, adjusting to the position of team-mates and opponents in respect of the ever-changing position of the ball. For Poch, three at the back is an attacking formation, designed to achieve his over-riding aim to get the ball and get it forward.

As Jimmy Hughes once said, it ain’t what you got, it’s how you use it. In the second half, Spurs fell back, the high press largely replaced by a shutting down of space 35 yards from our goal. The back three rippled with movement as they covered for each other, punctuated by bursts of power as they fought to be first to every ball. Vertonghen and Alderweireld in particular were strong. Both made a series of immaculate tackles in and around the box – the nerve that takes when some of the best dribblers in the league come at you. Wanyama slipped in between them to cover any remaining gaps, late on Walker and Dier chose not to dive in, because that was the right option at that moment. Decision-making in the heat of battle.

At the same time, the three can see what’s being played out in front of them. They’re happy to take advantage of any space. I’d have been happy if Toby and Dier had stayed at home when they both made winger-type runs in the last 10 minutes, but this is what they do regardless of the time on the clock. If the chance is there, take it. If we have them outnumbered at the back, push one more forward. That’s our philosophy, push on, always push on, the new Spurs Way, same as the old way.

Give everything, be contenders, take on all-comers and give it right good go. This is what I want from my team, it’s all I ask. If they give everything and don’t scale the heights, so be it. On this outstanding showing, Spurs don’t know just how far and how high their potential can take them. A thrilling, memorable, life-affirming night at the Lane that ranks with the best of them. I love this team. Bloody love them.