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.

 

 

 

Spurs – My Semi-Final Anxiety Dream. And the Day Tony Galvin Shook My Hand

Watching Spurs in a semi-final is like an anxiety dream. That’s where you try to do something, something ordinary usually, but you suddenly find you’re unable to perform the simplest task. You can’t walk, run, find your way home, you’re late for work. You wake in a cold sweat, only for a sense of unease to remain with you long into the daylight hours.

Supposedly the most vivid and memorable occasions in the calendar because of what’s at stake, frankly they have become a bit of a blur, all melded into a mush of an anxiety dream, where Spurs turned up but couldn’t perform.

I’ve been to six of the eight successive semi-final defeats. Intensely disappointed at the time to miss Everton and Newcastle, it was probably a blessing that I could hide behind my sofa instead of suffering on the terraces. As time has gone on, bile and bitterness have given way to a sense of numbness and inevitability. As it was on Saturday – too anaesthetised by failure for anger, although I would be justified in such a reaction.

The semis against United and Chelsea showed we could not consistently play at our best on the big day. For a while, there’s been no margin of error in these big games. Spurs at their best can beat anyone but we have to have everything firing on all cylinders for that to happen. No room for off-days. I say it’s all a blur, except I can recall those moments when your heart sinks, where you think, this time, it can’t go wrong, and it does. Dawson’s slip against Portsmouth, Alderweireld’s error last season or Son’s reckless tackle on Moses, Docherty putting us a goal up at Old Trafford offering some hope…Losing to a better team I can manage, enough practice over the years, not doing our level best is always much harder to take.

Law of averages anyone? Not that I’m desperate. I’m desperate. On Saturday they did it again. Hopes raised came crashing down from a dizzying height. On top early on after taking the game to an uncertain United side, Dele scored a fine goal to give Spurs a deserved lead. We were determined, industrious and well-balanced.

Don’t give the ball away – my epitaph. Whoops we did it again. Dembele this time, a goal well-taken by Sanchez but he should never have had the opportunity. Then, a Dembele-sized hole opened up in our midfield. No off-days allowed, especially for the mighty Moussa. His ability to hold the ball sometimes slows our attacks down but it enables any player to have a moment of respite. Under pressure, give it to Moussa and he’ll hold it while everybody adjusts, usually from defensive formation into attack. The transition I believe the young people of today call it.

On Saturday, he was a shadow of himself, Superman playing with a ball made of kryptonite, David after a haircut. United sensed weakness like a lioness stalking her prey. They pressed him hard and we could not find a way round it. The team wilted from then on, as if the palsy spread to their bones and muscles. Vorm too – I thought he was weak in his dive and too far over to stop Herreras’s drive.

Also, that cross, not a particularly good one, stretched us more than it should have done. The goalscorer wasn’t tracked, and throughout the match we had a couple of midfielders drifting about in no man’s land when United attacked, instead of getting goalside. I realise Poch wants to attack but there’s no alternative sometimes, especially to get our wide men to cover Trippier and Davies out wide. We ask too much of our full-backs too often. Trippier is prone to drift up field and inside.

United didn’t do much and sadly didn’t have to. We had no creative ideas or impetus, nobody to turn the game around and regain the initiative. Kane faded but had little support. Son peaked last month and is slightly off. Eriksen did well but was forced deep where he’s less dangerous. Fine margins. Vertonghen was excellent once more. Outstanding season – it’s a pity his drive and determination couldn’t inspire his team-mates.

Nobody pinpointed what had gone wrong, and without that we can’t put it right. That worries me.

As a writer about Spurs, I am duty bound to have an Alderweireld Angle, so here it is. It doubles as a Rose Reflection, just change the names. Spurs do not pay the market rate for top-class footballers. It is a remarkable testament to Pochettino’s powers of motivation and team-building that the so many have stayed for so long because of their belief in him, what he has done for their careers and where they think he can take the club in the future. That and Levy’s allegedly fat bonus system that adds a substantial whack to quoted basics.

I’ve said repeatedly in the past that Spurs should increase their self-imposed ceiling on the top earners. Not break the bank, not make them the best payers or anywhere near it, but enough to be an incentive both to stay and to encourage new talent to join. That fits with the club’s circumspect financial planning and is sound investment planning. Without top quality players, we won’t challenge for the top four, or encourage consistently high crowds. Even win something for goodness sake.

So give Toby a substantial pay rise. And Harry, and Hugo and Jan and Dele. If that’s not enough, he wants more elsewhere, other teams will give him a longer contract than Levy would give a player of his age – nothing you can do about that, goodbye and thanks for everything. We can’t compete with the top payers without jeopardising the club’s future. We think of City, United and CFC as our peers, in terms of salaries they live in another world. Recent figures showed the gap in total spend between ourselves and the two highest payers, City and United, is greater than the gap between ourselves and the lowest payers, Bournemouth and Burnley. It’s just that we could, and should, try harder, and Levy saving money because his manager is so good with players is a false economy.

In the meantime, Toby is a Spurs player and he should play. I’m a huge Pochettino fan but I’m not blind to his faults. Managing contract niggles is part of every manager’s role. Excluding Toby sends a message to the squad that he wants 100% commitment. Fine for one player, but this is three now – Walker, Rose and Alderweireld. Players might think, well, so be it, I’ll go if the manager won’t respond.

Spurs need Alderweireld. We need his nouse and experience. Sanchez has learned fast and he’s a tremendous prospect, but time is on his side. It won’t harm him if Toby plays the season out or indeed if he had contributed his experience on Saturday. Excluding Toby with half a season to play has brought no discernible benefit. It feels like such a waste of all Pochettino’s hard work in making him and other individuals a better player.

Semi-final defeats focus the mind. It’s not a time for long-term judgements, except they force you to do just that. Spurs once again are not quite good enough. The ‘bottlers’ tag makes for easy copy, and certainly there’s some truth in the absence of a long-term winning mentality at the club.

But this is about Pochettino’s Tottenham and only that. Spurs have tended to fade around this period in the last few seasons, this after our Christmas charge. Last season, we kept going without being at our very best. In the short-term, we must push Watford and West Brom as hard as we possibly can.

At the end of this season, Pochettino has a new challenge to face. Team building gives way to rebuilding, which he must accomplish under restrictive financial conditions. The team and the individuals in it have improved immeasurably. That’s all down to his remarkable influence. Now, there are signs that progress may stall.

It seems highly likely that Rose and Alderweireld, two outstanding players, will follow Walker out of the club. Davies and Trippier (to a lesser extent) are able deputies but they are not as good as their predecessors. Many fans seem to forget how influential and dynamic Rose was for a season and a half. Seems a waste to me. If not exactly spent, Dembele cannot again be the force he once was. That’s four top class players out of the picture.

We must ease the burden on Kane. The current squad needs at least another centreback and a midfielder, plus a sub goalie. Have more alternatives available for long seasons ahead.

Pochettino seemed momentarily crushed if not by defeat then the manner of it, unable to lift them with the resources he had on the bench. Far too much has been made of this understandable reaction, but the fact remains, he’s vulnerable to an offer just like his players. Fourth – we deserve it. Third – Liverpool have other things on their minds. Fifth – for this team, this season – unacceptable. Watford and West Brom become big games. Let’s push on.

On Saturday we were in the Spurs end on the corner, ordinary seats in the lower tier. Ten minutes before kick-off, Pat Jennings quietly walks in and sits two rows in front of us. Looking around, he’s followed by a virtual team of old Spurs. Steve Sedgley and David Howells, Tony Galvin and Martin Chivers. John Pratt sat next to my son and complained about paying £65 for the seat and having to stand up for the whole game, but then again, his knees are shot because of the running he did for us. Graham Roberts down the aisle. Gents all of them chatting to fans and posing for pictures.

Second half under way, suddenly someone grabs my arm and shakes my hand. It’s Tony Galvin. Says he’s a fan of my work, loves the shows, and has always wanted to meet me. “Great to finally meet you – Danny Baker!”

Still pumping my hand vigorously, I had to let him down gently, I said I was a huge fan of Galvin’s – I was and am – and it took him a moment or two to be convinced that I was in fact Joe Schmoe from Kokomo. And that’s the day Tony Galvin wanted to shake my hand.  

And Danny has appeared before on TOMM https://tottenhamonmymind.com/2010/03/12/paul-gascoigne-and-the-ultimate-taboo/

Spurs Masters at the Bridge

It’s a stunning moment. Dele at full tilt pulls down the ball and strokes it into the net in a blur. Strokes, mind you. Not blasted, not bobbled, or sliced, but stroked. From the time the ball leaves Dier’s foot, a pass of such accuracy and dip that Glenn Hoddle would truly have been proud, (there is no greater praise), Dele is the master of the situation.

Out of the blue it came, falling from the sky. Except it wasn’t, out of the blue I mean, because Dele was off on his little run as Dier moved onto the ball. Both knew what was coming. From the comfort of my sofa, I just shook my head in wonder. So good, it was beyond celebration.

He jogged away, and smiled. Couldn’t resist cupping his hand behind his ear as he trotted unavoidably close to the home fans. Still 21, world at his feet, he can appear furtive and cunning as he runs into the box or gets stuck into a tackle. He knows what he’s doing when he goes over, or, sometimes, goes in high. But he charms his way into supporters’ hearts. With a nod to Barry Davies, just look at his face. Before he’s buried by jubilant team-mates, he delights in the goal like a little boy who has found the most chocolate in the Easter egg hunt. This is no rockstar preening or macho posturing, this is a kid come out to play.

We’re not very good with young people in this country. We say we want them to express themselves but when they do, we demand they know their place. Perhaps we’re envious of their fresh ideas, different ways of seeing things. Envious of their youth, that their time is yet to come when our future lies behind us. But every generation complains about the behaviour and attitude of young people. Their different ways, the fact they answer back.

This season, the difficult third season, Dele as a sign that he is an established figure in English football has been presented with his own narrative, comprising two elements. One, he’s a cheat. Yes, he dives, I don’t like it, partly because I’m old-fashioned and don’t like diving, mainly because looking for a foul shows that his thought-process is not fully focused on his game. He’s largely got rid of that backing into defenders looking for a foul thing he did. I’d prefer one touch and a five yard pass, if it keeps possession. But there’s a narrative. No matter the penalties he’s not given, or that he is one of the most fouled players in the division, or that – gasp – other players dive to, one of the most talented English young players gets booed as soon as he touches the ball.

Lately, he has also had to contend with being told he is off-form. If anything, to me this is his best season. Until yesterday, there have been fewer sensational moments, although let’s not forget he did alright versus Real Madrid. This has been more than outweighed by his hard, purposeful running, support for team-mates, his passing and clever use of space. His role is slightly different because Son is scoring frequently. He’s maturing, as you would expect, but without apparently getting much credit, except from the man who matters most, his manager.

I rarely comment directly on media stuff – there’s no conspiracy against Spurs or any other side, and anyway Jamie Redknapp’s secondhand opinions aren’t worth the effort it takes to press the keys to write ‘twat’. But young people should be valued and looked after. I’m sick of it. Dele moving into space used to be praised to the skies as a sign of his quality and intelligence. Now, the same thing is derided as his supposed lack of impact on the game. All brewing nicely for his role as world cup scapegoat. Instead of caring for our young players, we build them up then find something to demolish them, just when they need recognition in their own right as individuals. He suffers because he’s young, smart, English and plays for Spurs. Some fans see that as sin incarnate.

Yesterday, Dele answered back. This is me, this is what I can do. I was so pleased for him. Not that he needs anything more from me. Spurs’ third, his second. Mayhem in the box, bodies flying, chance looked to have gone. Everyone’s blasting it. Dele, one touch, no more than a single revolution of the ball, under control, left to right and that foot made enough space to shoot and score. The presence of mind to do that. This is what he can do.

Enough of Dele. This was a victory for teamwork, this wonderful, spirited, focused and creative group of players. Spurs began well enough, taking the game to Chelsea and making busy patterns in their half. Lamela was prominent, working with purpose, chasing back and looking for those dangerous ten-yard angled passes into channels. Dele and Eriksen tirelessly sought space, but there was little as the Blues bunched in centre midfield.

Chelsea made ground down either flank, Davies was under most pressure as he tried to both tuck inside and cover wide. He couldn’t be in two places at the same time. A cross from the right was perfect for Morata’s head, too high for Sanchez and, sadly, for Lloris, who mistakenly came and watched it fail even to scrape his fingertips.

Spurs looked lost but Eriksen would not rest. Twice he moved onto the ball to shoot from range. The first thudded into the keeper’s chest, the second was unstoppable. I mean unstoppable, genuinely. A few metres from the goal, it was still well above the bar, until it dipped and dropped home.

We saw again a feature of Spurs’ success this season, second half rejuvenation. We picked up the beat and were the better side throughout. A little tweak and Moses and Alonso had less room to move, while keeping our attacking options and flow. Then there was Dele.

My imagination or did both Lamela and Eriksen begin their goal celebrations for the third only after admonishing Son for not crossing to them. They’re hungry for more despite the win. Vertonghen and Sanchez tremendous again at the back, Jan a tiger in the tackle, Sanchez managed Hazard well. Chelsea looked spent after the third goal, their manager unable to motivate them to play for each other in the same way than Pochettino can for Spurs.

Beating Chelsea feels good, and there’s no escaping the significance of the result and performance as Spurs continue to build a side to challenge the best. From within they found the resilience to come back from being a goal down to play their best football when under the most pressure. It’s the stuff winners are made of.