Spurs and the NLD: Mourinho Digs In for Victory

In the seventies during the bad old days on the terraces, one north London derby, there was the usual taunting back and forth, fingerpointing and gestures. Then a sudden surge, a scrum, a gap opens on the terrace and in the middle there’s a Spurs face leaning nonchalantly on the crushbar, alone in his donkey jacket, 501s and DMs, minding his own business. Now, Mourinho is that face. We’re Spurs, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.

I’ve never seen a derby like this one. I’ve never seen a Tottenham side like this one. Whether you saw it as bravura performance or destructively nerve-wracking, it was remarkable and compelling. Two up, then absorb the pressure. By the end, two or even three centre halves were not enough, we want four. Can’t play out of defence, well sod it, just kick it out and wait. By this time, Spurs were so much in control, to seal the deal our tactic was to give AFC the ball. It’s worth repeating that. To win the north London derby, we gave our opponents the ball.

AFC were left bewildered and utterly frustrated. Torn apart by two stunning pieces of attacking football at its finest, they spent a large portion of the game confronting their own deficiencies. Unable to find a way through the outstanding Hojbjerg and the impenetrable barrier in front of our central defence, they were forced out to the wings, able to create a steady stream of crosses which the excellent Alderweireld and Dier duly headed away.

Earlier in the week, Arteta said that to get over their goalscoring problems, he wanted his players to keep the crosses coming in because that would pay off in the end. Mourinho reduced this able young coach to the percentage game. Academic articles about goals and crosses show that there are variables, but crosses have a success rate in terms of leading to goals of between 1 in 49 and 1 in 70. By the way, don’t excited about corners either: about 3.5 % lead to goals. Towards the end, Mourinho reinforced the full-backs still further. A back eight is surely the future of football tactics. How it turned the screw. Spurs had our opponents by throat and Mourinho wasn’t about to let go.

And this is what we get for our £14m or whatever he gets paid. This stuff about mind games is infuriatingly banal. Mourinho’s press conferences are knockabout pantomimes where according to his mood he plays the dashing handsome hero or the sinister melodramatic villain boo hiss. While you’re at it, stick his carefully curated reality show Instagram account where it belongs, in the recycle bin.

However, he has certainly got through to Arteta and Lampard, who last week put his array of young attacking talent back in the box to preach caution. Mourinho knows that stuff about crossing. He did his homework, and AFC were left floundering.

I regret being unable to write more frequently, partly because I don’t have time, mainly because I expend so much emotional energy surviving life under covid, unable to get to the Lane. But when I get time to think and reflect, it highlights how much has happened in a relatively short space of time. After months of uncertainty, Mourinho has got it together. He’s not only found a formula that works, he’s convinced the players that it works.

Recently I’ve been putting a little something together about Spurs in the past 60 years. What comes over is the fundamental difference between the years when we had a sense of direction and those where we drifted into football doldrums, players coming and going while the club stagnated, Alan Sugar’s era being one example. Using these terms, for several months Mourinho was as directionless as Graham, Francis or Terry Neill.  Now, he deserves credit in finally putting a few things together.

One, a few new players make this feel more like his own squad rather than one he inherited. One purchase, Hojbjerg, was inspired. I’m not aware of a player who has made more of an impact on his team in such a short period of time.

Just as important is the way he has turned deficiencies into virtues. Sissoko was becoming a hard-working player whose passing, dribbling and shooting were lousy, so what did he have left to offer? Stick him in front of the back four and tell him to fall into the gap between right-back and right centre back, it strengthens the whole defence. Aurier is a man transformed because he has fewer decisions to make per game. He stays at home, knowing he has cover. No more wandering into gaps. His far-post header to take the ball way from Aub, caught outside the line then comes between ball and attacker to head it away. Not so long ago, he would have had the best view in the stadium as the goal went in. Plus, Dier can be a box centre half, rather than risk being exposed.

If the benchmark of a good manager is getting the best from his players, then Mourinho is doing just fine, at last. His players have clearly bought into his methods.  The same goes for N’Dombele, still a relatively young player learning his trade at the top level, and I need hardly point out, for Son and Kane up front. The devasting duo are a marvel. Kane never ceases to amaze me, one of the finest Spurs forwards of all time, and getting better. For his second, 4 v 2 is not enough, to make sure he drifts inside as Spurs approach the goal to occupy the centre half and give the player on the ball a fraction more time. Son’s goal goes up there with the best NLD goals.

The derby is all about character, who can cut it under pressure, a stress ramped up as the weight of expectation fills the stands while the fans can’t. It’s a captivating watch. Hardly the Spurs Way and all that I hold dear, but I can’t look away. It’s entirely absorbing to see the complete and total commitment the players give to the cause, and what else can we ask for but total commitment and a manager who gets the best from his players. Love the shirt, that’s what it’s all about.

Plus, we’ve seen unforgettable moments of breathtaking brilliance, from Kane and Son especially. Even waiting for these to come brings its own special thrill. And stat fans, I’m indebted to James Maw on twitter who points out that Spurs have not scored more goals in this many games at the start of the season since the sixties.

As the season goes on, if we get back Coytey will have to lead community mindfulness at half time to help us stay calm. I find it easier at home, either squirming with anxiety on the sofa or, in games less significant than the derby, slipping into a zen trance, what will be will be and there is no need to worry (BUT GET IT AWAY!!!!!). I fear it will be far worse for me in the ground, although friends have said that will be better for them because it feels as if we have some influence over the outcome. I’d be interested to know how the crowd who were there on Sunday responded. On TV, the noise was great but the anxiety of levels of 60k fans will transmit to the players.

More to do. The next step comes against Palace, another team who sit back and counter, so we have to find a way through with more possession. Also, we can’t away with Sunday’s tactics indefinitely. In the second half, the gunners clustered players around our man as we tried to get out, hence the number of turnovers. More able opponents will exploit that.

This was a proper derby in its all gut-wrenching, stomach-somersaulting glory, and where would I be without it. A reminder that the Hotspur alone stirs the emotions so, for me a precious reminder of normal life in case I lose sight of who I am. The TOMM mantra: enjoy the good times. Top of the league. Tottenham Hotspur are top of the league. For now, that’s all that needs to be said.

Pochettino’s Impact On Spurs: Remarkable Barely Covers It

 

History will have the last word, as it always does, but if Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career gets any better than this, he’ll have one hell of a life. Whatever he may win in the future, sustaining Spurs in the title race is nothing short of remarkable.

 

I avoid sweeping statements or premature judgements. By nature I am cautious. In life as in football my dash towards a conclusion is slowed by the friction of nuance and doubt. With Poch, he’s currently receiving a great deal of credit from Spurs fans and the media, but that’s still not enough.

 

He’s a steadfast, reassuring presence, an anchor keeping us steady during a time of change and uncertainty. The ground’s still not ready, transfer policy lacks purpose or direction and all around us at Wembley familiar faces are replaced by tourists or empty seats. The chairman is content to fade into the shadows, Pochettino steps up and into the spotlight.

 

He has instilled courage and resilience into players who have come to believe they are capable of scoring at any time up to the very final kick. I had given up hope against Watford and Newcastle but the players hadn’t. We’ve run out of defensive midfielders, so let’s concentrate on players who can get the ball and get it forward quickly. Poch turns adversity into strength.

 

And the players. Sissoko, for over two years a waif and stray, who not so long ago approached a football with the suspicion and disdain of a toddler presented with a plate of vegetables, who could eat it but just as easily it could end up all over the place, now a dynamic, muscular deep midfielder. Vertonghen, who at the age of 31 produces against Dortmund the performance of a lifetime in a position he’s actively avoided. Son, who has played for about 18 months straight, often carrying the burden of a country’s expectations on his shoulders, and has become a better player for it instead of asking for a rest, better because he believes he has a duty to be the best he can be for his club and his country. And they say the modern professional doesn’t care. At Pochettino’s Spurs, they do.

 

It’s interesting how a few pundits and managers have said our top four rivals have had a bad run with injuries, unlike Spurs. It’s foolish but in reality, a compliment to players and managers that they haven’t noticed our absences.

 

Injuries. An absence of squad depth and player investment, the latter in stark contrast to our competitors. Playing every match away, when in the last season at the Lane we were unbeaten. Often a lack of atmosphere. These things are being said so often, they are in danger of becoming clichés, but their significance cannot be discounted. These are the disadvantages Poch deals with before he begins each day.

 

Pochettino and his team fashioned one of the great European nights against Dortmund with a second half performance that’s up there with anything I’ve seen Spurs produce in Europe since the late sixties, save the first half versus Feyenoord in 83. The first 45 minutes set the scene – tight, tactical and full of tension. Half-time was spent muttering about how we couldn’t see a way out of this impasse.

 

But Poch could. Vertonghen’s run and cross emerged from the dark depths of inertia, Son’s volley shimmered under the lights and Wembley shook. An unforgettable moment. I hope the latecomers who missed it enjoyed the popcorn and doughnuts they proudly clutched as they straggled to their seats.

 

We pushed up, just a little but enough to make a difference. Poch went for it, going for the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom. I followed Aurier’s cross, didn’t see that Vertonghen was there where he had no right to be, to get on the end of it. Out wide, he saw the game ahead of him, went for the space and moulded it to his wishes like a sculptor creates beauty from a lump of clay.  And for goal celebrations, less is more.

 

Pochettino inspires his players to believe they can be better than they ever thought they would be. They don’t stop and are resilient enough to battle back when games seem lost. More than that, under pressure, knackered, running on fumes in front of our eyes, they keep thinking, keep being creative. Anyone who has done any work, of any type, when tired knows that is the most difficult feat of all.

 

However, Spurs’ recent success is more than that. Pochettino has upped his game too this season. Developing his in-game intelligence, he makes better use of substitutions and changes tactics mid-game, often several times a match. Given the limits of his bench, that has made a huge difference.

 

But no silverware. It’s a genuine shame, and at times I feel like celebrating the heady days of finishing top of the London Combination. It’s tough. Our points total might have won the league on several occasions in the last decade, but competition is fierce.

 

Here’s the thing though. I spend time talking with fellow fans about what it means for them to be a Spurs fan. A lot of this made its way into A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, some is for some research I’m doing. Ask people what being a Spurs fan means for them, and they talk first about how it is part of them, their identity, who they are. Being Spurs runs deep. They talk about their pride in being Spurs, even if they aren’t happy with the way the club is run, and the experience of being with fellow fans to get behind the team, whether this be in the ground or as with, say, US based supporters, in the pubs they’ve made their own. In the place they’ve made home.

 

It’s the experience they talk about, who they go with, the faces (seldom names) they met along the way, their pre- and post-match routine. They speak fondly of the memories, the moments that lifted them from their seats, 30 or 40 years ago sometimes yet they feel it as if it were yesterday.

It’s only then that that fans mention trophies. I’ve talked with perhaps 30 or 40 supporters, for extended periods. Nobody says, I’m a Spurs fan because I want to win something and all my memories are worthless because in the 21st century we’ve only won one League Cup.

What Spurs fans want first and foremost is pride and dignity in their team. This why so much twitter fan dialogue is instantly disposable. Being a supporter is not primarily about winning things. It’s about loyalty, about caring whether you win or lose. Success is a bonus. Anyway, playing the Pochettino way is the way to win something in the current era. It’s not one or the other.

Managers are football tourists. They come and go, although sometimes they don’t stay as long as they might like. Pochettino understands the club’s heritage. He is not in it for as long as we are, but he’s not using Spurs as a career stepping stone. He’s stayed when others would have moved on, taking their reputation to somewhere with a more generous chairman. His paternal pride in his players is deeply touching in an era where money and greed justify any expediency. In return, they exude the loyalty and the passion we fans take pride in, which is why this team are closer to the fans than ever before.

The atmosphere against Dortmund was fabulous. The singing lacked variety, though. There’s come on you Spurs and marching in. The third big chant on the night was Mauricio Pochettino’s name. That’s how much he means to Tottenham fans. He cares as much as we do.

 

 

 

No Stadium, No News. Spurs Play the Waiting Game

International breaks drain the enthusiasm of supporters and sap the mental and physical energy of overworked footballers. Those entrusted with the game’s well-being instead pummel elite players into the ground with wanton determination.

Tottenham Hotspur internationals: a case study. Vertonghen, Eriksen, Dembele and Dele out with muscle and sinew wear and tear. Dier, Rose and Lloris lack focus at times in a game that requires 100% concentration. I swear Kane’s legs are getting shorter, worn down by the hard yards he unstintingly puts in.

Maybe this time England have done Spurs a favour. Kane was absolutely terrific in last night’s exhilarating victory over Spain, Winks got another 90 minutes, while Dier had his best game for some time. In the process, overnight his calculated cleaning out of Ramos has evidently surpassed World Cup penalty shoot-out heroics and overcome brainless fan tribalism to win over the hearts and minds of a grateful nation.

Let’s hope this is the boost Spurs need. We’re fifth, two points off the top, without playing consistently well. The familiar flow and balance of Pochettino’s Spurs is missing. Not that we needed convincing, but the value of Eriksen and Dele in creating opportunities and finding space has been underscored in their absence.

The contrast between our opponents in successive games, Barcelona and Cardiff, could not be greater, but we gave both undue time and space. Neither had to work hard to get the ball because we gave it to them time and again. Stocks of mental energy seem depleted.  Against an organised but ordinary Cardiff side, we ran out of ideas early on. No one took control of the game. Three free second half free kicks, we lined up zonally. Their centre half from Land of the Giants moved away, no one picked him up. Late on against Brighton, we were criminally casual and nearly lost three points. Players not thinking for themselves.

Spurs are a match for any side if everyone is on their game. I’ve written that sentence so often over the last few years that it comes up on my autocorrect. Any side would be hamstrung by the absence of so many high quality players but Spurs have not invested in high quality cover. Dembele’s powers are waning. He gets caught on the ball more frequently and opponents have sussed this, descending on him en masse to stifle our attacks and gather possession. while Wanyama struggles to overcome a debilitating, long-term injury that may permanently remove that important element of his game, power.

The balance of the squad and therefore the team isn’t right either. We don’t have players naturally suited to a left and right midfield, able to both attack and drop back and defend. Moura sparkles on the ball and works hard, but while I admire Pochettino’s attacking instincts, playing him in advanced positions leaves gaps behind. Sissoko is not as bad as most would have you believe, but again both Cardiff and Barca sought to exploit a perceived weakness on our right, with Trippier keen to come forward and left exposed and unprotected.

It’s hard to see how Hugo can be the same player after his drink driving abomination. He’s a proud man, focussed, hugely admired in the dressing room. The man is the player, the player is the man, able to deal with pressure, make the right decisions, a respected leader. Such a rank error of judgement cannot be entirely banished from his mind. As he tries, rival fans will remind him for the rest of his career. It must affect his self-image and therefore his self-confidence.

On the bright side, Lamela has been more effective than at any point in his Spurs career, and Toby is showing why his departure should not ever have been considered for a flicker of nano second. And Harry Winks is back. He is a key player because of his ability to get the ball forward from deep accurately and early, and because he always makes himself available, ready, able and willing to take a pass under pressure, part of Dembele’s role in the midfield. If Dier, the worst culprit in terms of needlessly giving the ball away, can regain his mental fortitude, then he and Winks can really get something going.

Spurs are fifth, and I’m grateful. Not on song, more games away than at home, yet our best ever PL start. Then again, this feels like an odd season all round. High expectations of a stadium fit for a marvellous team. Something to enhance the present and secure the future. Disappointment became impatience, now given way to lethargy and weariness. Wembley feels less like a stepping stone, more a deadweight dragging me down.

Maybe why I’ve written so little recently. I’ve nothing much to say, if I’m honest. Spurs are there, and so are my mates in the stand, and watching Spurs is still the best thing in my life after family. And I go with my family, so that’s good. But it’s a long while since I enjoyed a match less than the Cardiff game.  There’s always a day when summer fades and autumn begins, yet it caches us unawares each year. Overcast and wet, one less layer than needed.  A roof, sitting well back, rain visibly slanting away from us, yet the seat’s soaked. My bones ache with the chill and the anxiety of a single goal lead, one goalmouth scramble away from dropping points against a poor team.

Waiting. Waiting for the ground. Waiting to sit in a seat I’ve paid a fortune for. Waiting for news from a club always reluctant to communicate unless it’s about something we can spend our money on, now more afraid than Theresa May to commit to anything. Waiting for trains that exist on a timetable but not apparently in reality. Waiting for a full team. Waiting for new players. Waiting for news about where we are going to play next.  Waiting to go home. Home is a feeling and it feels like a long way away.

In the normal scheme of things, that is since Tottenham Hotspur existed, there’s another game soon enough. To come, four games in an absurd nine days. Two home league games between now and November 24th. The chat in the queue after Cardiff was along the lines of at least that’s over with. That’s not why I go to watch Spurs. This is not like me, but that’s how it is.

We’re two points off the top. In the grand scheme of things, the stadium delay is a tiny blip in our grand heritage. Soon come, and something to look forward to by the looks of it. I’ll cope with the delays but the uncertainty hampers Pochettino’s best efforts. My imagination or are his energy levels depleted too? He seems more tetchy in his press conferences, looks more anxious on the touchline. He said a while back that he had been assured we’d be in by Christmas. He can’t be happy at his chairman’s failure to deliver a new ground or new players for that matter. I hope Levy is properly looking after our biggest asset.

 

Spurs Last Two Games a Watershed: the Most Important of Levy’s Era

Spurs final two games, at home to Newcastle tomorrow and Leicester on Sunday, are arguably as significant as any since Daniel Levy became chairman. Two wins and a top four place is guaranteed. Anything less and it’s Thursday nights on the BT channel that nobody subscribes to, but the ramifications could reverberate long into the future.

Playing in the Champions League is enticing, exciting and a source of pride. It’s not the Holy Grail, as many would have us believe. I’m an old-fashioned soul. I think we should push for third, because third is better than fourth. Finishing second is good, because we’re better than all but one of the other teams, and because it’s better than third. I want Spurs to be contenders, not also-rans.

No trophies for finishing third or fourth but there will be lots of money. In the past, the sense is that Levy does not budget for CL qualification and presumably he took this approach into negotiations with the banks offering the loans that pay for the stadium. I suspect the banks looked harder at season ticket sales than the league table, and those have gone very well despite the insufferable price rises.  So the club finances won’t fall apart if we fail to qualify – Levy would not let his vision hang by a thread as flimsy as a place or two in the table.

However, although with Levy there’s no apparent causal link between CL qualification and the transfer and salary budget, the CL money gives him more room for manoeuvre in a summer where Spurs must invest heavily in the squad in order to stand still, let alone make progress. As I said last time, Pochettino faces a new challenge – having built a side, he now has to rebuild one. Rose and Alderweireld seem certain to go. Dembele too – he will never be the same force again – Wanyama possibly. The squad needs to build muscle. Kane has no reliable cover, four years of this now. Sissoko and Lamela are given responsibilities by their manager who seems to see things in their overall play that have escaped many of us, including dependability and creativity, not to mention goals. And so many goals have escaped Sissoko this season.

Money will come from sales but we still have to buy. A perfectly reasonable scenario is that we have to replace four high quality players in the summer. That’s digging deep into the team’s flesh. And deepen the squad on top of that. And can we wait for players to mature to fill the boots of the class players that went before them- we need to pay extra for experience.  These feel like big changes, on a scale greater than Pochettino has had to face before.

In a cut-throat market where everyone is climbing over themselves to buy success, Spurs choose to operate at a disadvantage. As a counter-balance, we have Pochettino and his reputation for playing the young men and making them better players. We also have the CL. Poch plus playing regularly plus the CL equals, what, 20k less a week on the salary? 30k? Some won’t even think about it, others will listen.

Levy relies on this and the patience of his manager, in order to keep down the budget, but for how much longer? Walker, Toby and Rose grew tired of the disparity. For now, Spurs are less of a draw if we’re out of the CL, and perhaps the ties to their manager, genuine though they clearly are, might begin to loosen if the big offers come in this summer for Eriksen, Dele and – I dare not speak his name out loud.

Next season, with the league the way it is, with other sides in what is effectively a top six getting their act together, competition will be intense. CL qualification means more than I can ever remember. It feels like a watershed. On one side, continued improvement, Levy willing (big if). On the other, half a squad leave, are not replaced adequately, we fall backwards, even slightly, and players and fans alike become unsettled. And manager?

Enough of the balance sheet. We need to finish in the top four for the fans’ sake. We want this. Not a trophy, but it means something. Means we finish above London rivals. Means we’re not bottlers. Means we have achieved something without playing any home matches.

Means the pride we have expressed in our team is justified. To me, fans have shown faith in the team. Spurs are good and we want to be able to tell people that. No league or cups but look where we finished. Above you. May not be much but that’s what we’ve got. We can tell people this is what good football gets you. That feeling is always around but again it feels more important that ever before. We’ve endured Wembley, no trophies, considerable expense – two wins mean something. This matters. Wish we had something more tangible to cheer, but right now, this matters.

Like a blunt knife, just ain’t cutting. Spurs are off the boil. Simmering or has the gas been turned off completely? Son has gone back to kicking the ball straight at defenders. Kane’s back on his heels. Dele drifting. Marking at corners helps too. And not giving stupid fouls away.

I was going to identify Eric Dier as the key man, the Dier who cleans up the midfield, not the Dier who loses concentration and gives the ball away. Like the others, he looks weary. But he’s sick, so Wanyama has to step up. Take charge, take our chances, take the top four.

Pochettino seems worried that he’s not getting through. He relies on players taking responsibility for their performances, as opposed to a ranting captain or manager berating them into action. Too late to change that – they must find motivation within. And maybe, ultimately, they need to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to win under pressure. Whatever they say to the media, the niggles must be there.

Glory, stagger over the line, I don’t mind which. Two games, two wins.