Spurs Fail to Learn Their Lesson

The home game that’s away. The club that goes unbeaten for an entire season then demolishes the ground. This doesn’t feel right.

The Bakerloo line to Wembley Central is easy enough. Too easy. There’s nobody on the train, the dingiest of lines with old-fashioned carriages and 40-watt bulbs. Never mind saving energy, it’s sapping mine. The journey is part of the match for fans. The buzz, the chatter, rubbing shoulders with strangers who are friends because they wear navy blue and white. Smelling the booze, the sweat, the fags, all set the scene, whet the appetite. This is merely another tube, destination suburbia, our companions mostly central London workers with tired eyes going home after the early shift. Thank goodness for the bloke in the t-shirt, a picture of Bob Marley in Spurs gear, just about the sole reminder that Spurs are at home today.

Then burst into daylight and the first sight of the stadium. Both lift the spirits. The Lilywhites are here and so are we. Except it feels like a cup semi-final. 19 semi-finals this year, then. The Trust twitter feed has been fun this week with a stream of reminders to fellow supporters, at first plaintive then increasingly desperate, that this is a Spurs home game and there are no designated pubs for home and away support, so I’m not the only one.

It’s better once we’re in. Seeing the same faces and greeting them like lost long relatives gives a sense of stability and continuity. I’ve seen them every fortnight for the last 16 years, don’t know the names of most of them, but they remain part of my life. Spoke to Karen, I now know her name to be Karen, like old friends we are. Never said a word to her until now.

We have been lucky enough to move with the people we have always sat with, except oddly the seat allocation has been reversed, so the people who were on my left on the Shelf are now on my right. This is surprisingly disorienting. Football support is about familiarity, routines, they’re comfortable, we wear them like a favourite old overcoat to feel snug and protect us against the intrusions of the outside world. That’s why we go to football. Isn’t it?

Kick-off is imminent. A thought shared. There are a touch off 70,000 Spurs fans here, and we can make a hell of a noise if we put our mind to it. Not like a semi-final at all. And one thing above all else. Results, players, managers, none mean as much as being there. When I look around just before kick-off, let the atmosphere wash over me, and think there’s somewhere else in the world I would rather be, then that’s the time to say goodbye. Not yet. Not for a long time. Home is where the Hotspur play.

In the end, it felt more like a home game that I expected. The noise when it came was mighty, deafening when we scored, but this is new to all of us and there were flatspots too. The fans sort things out for ourselves and that takes time. Everyone has been moved around, from my seat on the halfway line the efforts of those at our end were much appreciated and loud and clear. The Park Lane/Shelfside thing, made me feel at home.

So the amplified drum beat – that actually happened, right? Not a figment of the dark recesses of my imagination, a fever-ridden nightmare? The Chels fans chanted WTF was that and they were right. Nobody joined in and mercifully it was substituted at half-time, hopefully never to be heard again.

Football clubs still do not get supporters. The history of fans – any club, from parkland to the Noucamp – is we do want we want. We choose when to sing and what to sing. The decision of someone at Spurs that playing a drumbeat over the tannoy is going to energise the atmosphere is on one level laughable, on another a measure of the disturbing lack of understanding that exists from clubs in respect of their supporters. They did not consult the Supporters Trust – why ask the fans what they want. It’s that simple, yet the club doesn’t get it. Another desperate moment in the undistinguished relationship between club and fans in this crucial season away from home and when we all feel discomfited.

To fulfil their true potential, this season Spurs must accomplish consistently two things that in the past have eluded us, namely impose themselves on teams and cut out the mistakes. Everything else flows from there. Take chances of course, but first make the chances. The way we’re playing, chances will always come. Stay strong in those periods, and there will always be periods, when the other team are on top.

Matches against Ch**sea, the most bitter of our rivals, the nasty game, the bring-them-on game, these games have become the benchmark of how close we are to satisfying that potential. At home, at White Hart Lane that is, we learned the knack. Two seasons ago the mistakes came only after we’d scored five glorious goals. Last season in a skintight match we scored twice from as many chances in the whole match but took it to them from the start and they was no comeback in their hearts.

Last season’s semi-final showed how much we still have to learn. Justified expectation evaporated with a free-kick conceded by Alderweireld’s uncharacteristically poor judgement under pressure and a free-kick sliced into the top corner. Uphill from 6 minutes, our efforts to chase the game were in vain and I’ve drawing a veil round that penalty and Son’s excuse for a tackle.

Yesterday we were imposing for long periods but the mistakes did for us. One out of two is progress but not enough. The result was defeat, and defeat in the worst possible way. It’s one thing being beaten, but losing after being the better team, after hopes raised by a late equaliser then skewered by an even later winner, that’s bad. I still feel the pain.

The game took a while to get going then Spurs were the team who rose above the midfield morass that this match had become. But don’t make mistakes. Another free-kick conceded without undue pressure on the defence, superbly converted by Alonso. And now we’re running uphill.

To their great credit, Spurs lifted themselves and played extremely well either side of half-time. Kane it was who lead the charge, singlehandedly taking on the defence, shooting, lay-offs, dribbles, sometimes delicate, at other times stumbling forward under the weight of the tackles but always forward. He narrowly missed then hit the post. These are trademark moves from him and we expect these cross-shots to go in. Perhaps he’s falling away ever so slightly on contact with the ball.

We needed to put pressure on their reorganised defence. Despite the lack of space – everybody back behind the ball – we managed to find the gaps between their three centre backs to make the opportunities. Dembele charging forward, Eriksen looking to prise open a gap, Dele not part of the action. All the action was at the Blues’ end.

Gradually however our opponents stifled our efforts. A goal up, they could fall back to soak up the pressure. Effectively playing five at the back, those channels dried up. They forced us into the middle, broke up the attacks. We had all the ball but insufficient nouse. The selection of two DMs, Dier and Wanyama, was intended to create a solid platform against the champions. By this point, it left us short of creativity and options, compounded by Wanyama giving the ball away repeatedly.

Frankly we were getting nowhere, then a stroke of luck. Batshuayi on as sub had clearly not got his bearings. His near-post header was firm, decisive and perfectly executed, except into his own net. For all the world he looks as if he genuinely lost his head for a moment and though he was scoring for his team not against them, such was the intent behind the header.

A draw was the least we deserved. Then mistake upon mistake. Wanyama brought the ball out of defence but before we could draw breath after a sigh of relief, he gave it away. Alonso, dashing forward, shot through Lloris at his near post. If he had stood still it would have hit his knee, leg, torso, any part of his body would do. Instead, Hugo attempted to plunge his right hand downwards to push it away and obligingly moved his leg out of the way.

Positives and problems. Those spells either side of half-time showed how we can dominate matches and, without being at our most fluent, create chances against an 11-man defence intent on re-introducing the tackle from behind, without being at our most fluent. Kane was an outstanding leader.

Wanyama’s lack of a full pre-season became glaringly obvious as the game went on. Dier had little influence alongside him. And how we missed Walker and Rose. The merits of Trippier and Davies are immaterial – they’re not as good as Walker and Rose. The former should not have been sold, the latter needs to be brought back into the team as soon as he is fit, regardless of his rubbish interviews. Kyle and Danny offered stamina and pace as well as width, and how we need all three of those qualities when we were chasing the game in the second half. Without them, Spurs are far less potent an attacking force, and I worry about this in games to come. Dembele and Dele spent periods going out wide when like paperclips to magnets they are drawn to central areas, unbalancing the side and wasting their prodigious talents.

Hoodoo? No such thing. Play better is all. It will be hard. Home advantage has not disappeared but has been diminished and teams will lift their game because it’s Wembley.

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 Lose Their Mojo

Back in the day, the first league table appeared after the third match of the season. Early days but there was enough information to take stock. These days goal difference and alphabetical order manufacture a crisis after the opening 90 minutes, but with the international break as unwelcome as ever, it’s a good time to pause.

Spurs have five points and are undefeated but we’re struggling to score. The fluent ease with which we moved the ball around last season appears in flashes of brilliance rather than for extended periods. At our best, Tottenham lay down something so funky, playing with a natural, effortless rhythm. Every player is in tune, on the same wavelength as their teammates. Like all good soul, it moves head, hands and feet and lifts the spirit, but Spurs have lost their mojo.

When Kyle Walker stayed down in front of the Paxton, Spurs’ Saturday afternoon took a turn for the worse. Walker has been Tottenham’s best player so far, adding a spark of intelligence to his athleticism and commitment. More than that, he and Rose are so important to Spurs’ driving beat as the ball flows out wide to them, an out-ball as natural as water rippling downstream, Clyde Stubblefield on the drums or James Jamerson the funkiest of the Funk Brothers.

Losing him was a blow in itself, especially as in this tight match width to stretch the Liverpool defence and by-pass the pressing was clearly crucial. Pochettino’s decision to bring on Janssen in his place was characteristically bold but dealt a grievous blow to our chances of victory. The consequent reshuffle, with Kane dropping off, Alli deeper and Dier shifted to right-back, was not only unnecessarily disruptive, it also fatally weakened us at the point where the midfield battle hung in the balance. Afterwards, the force tipped decisively in Liverpool’s favour and Spurs were always struggling to get a toehold in the match.

Liverpool were highly impressive going forward. They sliced apart our back four, players cutting into the gaps between our defenders as we despairingly tried to work out where they were. Mane is a real talent.

Spurs were stretched and desperate for extended periods, losing possession and trapped in tight corners. Even the manager had the same problem, miscontrolling a ball late on that strayed into the technical area and giving Liverpool the ball back quickly when we were trying to slow everything down. It was that kind of afternoon.

Reserve keeper Vorm kept us in the game, an impenetrable barrier at his near post and twice leave his post to dash off his line and tackle divisively. Without him, this would have been a heavy beating. Man of the match plus some lasting respect for his abilities.

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Under the cosh, it looked as if we could hang on to half time, then some poor defending from Lamela undid the good work. Much as I admire the work ethic he discovered last year, getting back behind the ball does not mean he knows how to defend. He never looks comfortable – it goes against his instincts and his body position is often askew. Here, he committed a fraction early and was outmanoeuvred, then in a laudable effort to compensate for his misjudgement, Firmino came down in a tangle of legs and Milner scored the penalty.

From the restart, Liverpool carried on in the same fashion. Eventually Spurs had something on target, an Alderweireld header from a corner that was well saved. Just as we were running out of ideas, let alone make any chances, Dier began to push further forward on the right. One good cross eluded both strikers and defenders and there was Danny Rose at the back post to drill the ball home with great precision. It was our only shot on target from open play.

Pochettino has done a wonderful job at Tottenham, without reservation. This however was a mistake. Presumably he chose the starting line-up, i.e. Kane up front on his own and Alli back alongside Lamela and Eriksen to reinforce the midfield, with the Liverpool pressing and movement in mind. There was nothing in the opening exchanges to change that view.

Last season, we were outstanding with everyone playing to the best of their considerable ability. The smallest fall from those lofty heights and we are wound wanting. Dier isn’t quite there. Alli is coming back to match fitness, Dembele waiting to be unleashed – just one more game. Key men Kane and Eriksen are not on song. Both looked out of touch again. Kane’s late mistimed straightforward pass out wide to effectively end a rare smooth move was a frustrating and sad moment. A few minutes later he trooped off disconsolately to be subbed. Our Harry feels the pain as much as any supporter. He knows he had a bad one. Eriksen’s touch deserted him again. With it went our hopes of creating very much. I like Janssen a lot. His rumbustious approach will unsettle unsuspecting defences once he gets his first Spurs goal. On Saturday he didn’t get a kick because no one gave him a decent ball. Last season Spurs played some of the best football I’ve seen in 50 years. Eriksen was major art of that and the absence of soul and funk coincides with his loss of form.

It’s tempting to change things because Kane is so able and intelligent, he can adapt. But our best players should play in their best positions, always, and Kane is our centre forward. I wrote last week of how the team’s rhythm depends so much on what he does. It’s familiar, reassuring. They know what he can do and where he will be. He scores goals, plays others in and makes space. Moving him knocks so much of what we do out of alignment. If Janssen and Kane are to play together, Pochettino has to find a different way of making that happen. For the moment, Janssen can give Harry the rest he needs to find himself once more.

Wanyama had another good game, slotting in to the team as if he’s been part of it for years. Alli (and Kane for that matter) has not regained match sharpness. The international break will not help. More disruption on top of a disjointed pre-season which means Son is still not ready. Add a few knocks and Saturday’s bench looked lightweight. Still, we know the potential is there, know how this team and these players have more to give however much they have given already. Poch needs time with a match-sharp squad to work it out.

And so to deadline day, when the otherwise reticent figure of Dan Levy emerges from the shadows to cast a pall over our prospects. Against type we did our main business early, Wanyama and Janssen plugging the gaps that should have been filled this time last season, and good value in the current inflated transfer market. Then silence. N’Koudou has gone missing, to the point where an ironic Missing Person meme was retweeted on twitter as genuine, but that deal will probably get done to inject the option of pace into the line-up.

Discounting the usual rumours, it felt to me as if Spurs were hanging on to squad players like Mason and Chadli to see if they could upgrade. If not they would stay – wouldn’t they? Chadli is on the point of going to WBA, rumours persist about Mason and Bentaleb has already departed. We need cover and competition for every positon – this leaves a few gaps, the biggest being a creative midfielder to push and rotate Eriksen. We also need some extra class in midfield, because this league will be so competitive this season.

I’ve said recently that I don’t see the problem with a medium-term purchase of an experienced, battle hardened player to take us through a couple of seasons, but that seems unlikely. Which leaves us wondering again. With two days to go, is the cash from outgoings going to be invested in the team or the new stadium? Levy’s futile pursuit of Zaha had shades of the absurd bid to buy Berahino 12 months ago, his low offer being out of step with the inflated prices and seller’s market created by the new TV deal, where clubs are under far less pressure to sell. You would think he had learned his lesson by now.

We’ll know on Wednesday, but to stay competitive, we have to reinforce the squad. But we’re back to one of those key moments again, where the right players can boost the development and fulfil the burgeoning potential of this fine team. Laissez faire will hamper progress.



Stunning Spurs Hunt Glory

I would have written earlier, except after last night I’m awestruck. Still a little stunned, struck dumb by Spurs’ shimmering brilliance. Tottenham tore a resilient Stoke team apart. It was outstanding even for an outstanding season, not merely the best we have played but it bears comparison with the best I have seen in fifty years of watching the club. To come up with that performance under white-hot pressure is beyond all expectations. It is impossible to exaggerate praise.

Spurs scored four, hit the woodwork twice, it could, should have been 6 or 7 and it would not have flattered us. But it’s the manner of the win that captivated. This was football to take your breath away, leaving you gasping in delight and amazement. Open-mouthed gobsmacked chin on the floor point at the screen how did they do that entertainment.  This was football of the highest class whatever your benchmark, whoever your team.

Stoke set up with an enterprising front four that could have unsettled our defence. However, they were not the sort to bust a gut when it comes to tracking back and pressing. Sure enough, after a few early efforts at penning us back near Hugo’s area, it was easy enough to pass our way through or over them. Any defence would have been stretched by the numbers coming at them from all angles. Rose and Walker offered constant width. This was dangerous for Stoke in itself but it also enabled Lamela and Eriksen to come inside. Time and again Stoke were outnumbered centrally as the Spurs players gathered to win the ball then split at all angles like fireworks from a roman candle. The electronic hoardings advertised a future murder mystery evening at the Britannia but the fans didn’t have to wait to see the slaughter. By the end the Stoke back four didn’t know where they were, and wished they were in a warm, dark room with a nice duvet for comfort.

The contrast in the teams illustrated what Pochettino has achieved. It’s not just the press or the movement, it’s how quickly the Spurs players see the opportunities. Kyle Walker, bless him, always popular with me because of his effort but he’s not the sharpest when it comes to positioning. Yet three times he was instrumental in shifting the ball from back to front in seconds because he started his run the absolute split-second a team-mate won the ball. It is only a shame that his final ball was not better but this is not a day for complaints.

Almost churlish to single out any particular player. They were all on top form but the team’s the thing and their understanding was uncanny. Curmudgeonly sceptic I may be but after this I could be convinced that telepathy exists. But – Kane gets better and better. Never take him for granted – he’s curling a shot past four defenders into the far corner, selflessly running along the line to drag defenders out of the way, linking with Alli to form an unstoppable partnership, back in his own half to tackle.

Alli was a constant threat. Some players loiter in between the lines in search of an opportunity. Alli feeds off the unseen energy, bursting into that space, making something happen. He shot over three or four times and missed an open goal but scored two, one the calmest, coolest chip over the keeper, the other a volley from 15 yards. Double figures for the season. He’s just 20 years old.

Praise for Lamela, effective in a central position. One assist but he did the Modric thing of being the man who made the pass to the player who gets the assist. Behind them, Dier provides the security that frees up the movement, Dembele is battling away alongside him and can turn defence into attack.

Eriksen’s sublime first-time lofted through-ball to Alli for the second, how did he see it never mind deliver… again in the move that set up Alli’s miss, that began in Hugo’s 6 yard box….he began the move for Kane’s third…involved twice in the fourth, providing the pass that Alli volleyed in…

Not so long ago, Pochettino was inscrutable on the touchline. Now he’s a dervish, pummelling the ground in frustration that were we ‘only’ two up because missed chances hurt. When Eriksen hit the bar as he was clean through, as the ball thumped against the woodwork I let out a huge groan as if the ball had struck me in the stomach. He feels it as much as the supporters.

Less than 12 months ago, Spurs’ lost 3-0 at Stoke. Centrebacks were Fazio and Chiriches. I’ll leave that thought with you.

I’ll stop now. I’m just not doing them justice. This is unbelievable. Unbelievable not in the sense of far-fetched unreality but because I never for a moment thought this young team, a newish team remember who are only now coming together, that this team could play this well. Pressure has led other sides to wither and wilt, and you can understand that perfectly well. What is harder to fathom, almost beyond our experience, is that pressure inspires Pochettino’s Spurs.

Leicester deserve the plaudits for taking on the vested interests in the Premier League. There never was a fairytale but that’s the media’s fault, not theirs. Recently I’ve expressed my disappointment that Spurs’ achievements would get lost as the media cling on to their precious narrative. After last night, not any more. The whole of football sat up and took notice. And Leicester, we’re coming for you.