The Gloom Gathers at the Lane

Last season’s home north London derby was a triumph, and not just because of the 3-0 scoreline. Driven on by relentless fervour from the stands, Spurs matched the supporters’ passion to blow our rivals away. Under pressure, we flourished as they wilted before our eyes, a spirit and confidence we then took into the next couple of games, thumping wins, exuberant football and a place in the Champions League. It was a corner turned: our manager’s ferocious will to win was now part of the team’s collective psyche too. 

How times have changed. In the space of not more than 25 league games, the red side of north London have become utterly dominant. In the first half, yesterday, Spurs were pitiful. It was nothing short of humiliating. Harsh words but that’s what it was, and I say this advisedly as a fan whose loyalty over 55 years remains cast iron and who has seen Spurs lose 5-0 at the Lane and was there as they sealed two league titles. 

Under pressure, we produced gutless, banal and inept football, riddled with unforced errors. For extended periods, we were barely able to get the ball into our opponents’ half, let alone mount a challenge on goal. At times, it reminded me of a cup game between an elite team and a League 2 side, aimless long balls that were easily and gratefully gobbled up by quick defenders, and that may be an insult to League 2 sides. I’d say we were fighting for the scraps of second balls, except we weren’t fighting. 

The foundation of their win was pressure, the very quality we learned to overcome not so long ago. We simply could not play out of their press. Time and again, they won the ball through our errors.  

Hugo, there was a time when I admired you with warmth and affection, one of ours. And no doubt that’s how I’ll feel when you return in 5 years, rounded out a little but looking well, to have a cosy pitchside chat with Coytey. Right now, I think of you and slump in my seat. Say nothing, that doesn’t help the team and that’s what matters most, but his jitters vibrate through the whole side. Clearances put teammates in trouble and the ball’s coming back our way again. 

The goal from one such moment, keeper and two men on the near post, easy to block, then there’s the ball, dropping into the net like a table tennis ball bobbling onto the floor. The Park Lane was stunned into silence. No howls of anger, just disbelief. The bloke in front turned round to me. I told him ‘it’s gone in’. He saw it but didn’t believe his eyes. It took another moment for the away fans to react, like the delayed sound from an event miles away, light travels faster than sound. They couldn’t believe their good fortune. 

When Conte tells them to create space, he doesn’t mean for our opponents. The second, their best player, again stemming from a turnover, proverbial acres at the edge of our box. Partey had earlier hit the woodwork from a similar position, and of course he scored from there in the game at their place. We don’t learn our lessons.  

The players were all found wanting, save for Harry who was head, shoulders, knees and toes above the rest of that shower. Sarr has real potential but this was not a day about potential, while Kulu was dangerous in the second half when allowed to come forward. 

Conte had a terrible game yesterday. These problems stem from tactics and shape that allow teams into the game. AFC do their business at the edge of the area – we leave it wide open. Teams create ways of beating a press and Conte is known for inculcating set patterns into his side to move from defence to attack, yet time and again those patterns failed and we were trapped. Conte is known to like a week to prepare for games. And this is what we came up with. Subs in the last 5 minutes usually come on to waste time, not attempt to win a north London derby.  

I say this without excusing the players. There were several occasions at the end of the first half when a player tried to play out from deep and his 10 teammates were virtually standing still. And Son, dear Sonny, have you ever seen a player so out of touch for so long? Even his teammates moan at him.  

To make things worse, as I write this I’ve discovered hope in Spurs’ second half revival. The pessimism I carried with me as I left the ground remains, but we really had opportunities to score without playing especially well. We pushed Kulu further up and immediately made chances. So it didn’t take much, and that’s the point, do that earlier why don’t we, but we couldn’t score. Their keeper was on good form but a couple were bad misses. So actually, we could have got something from this. Just makes it worse.

The muted reaction in the Park Lane felt at odds with the stakes of the NLD. There was no concerted uplifting let’s get at ‘em come on! that typically goes with games like this. We were only two down, after all. Maybe it was louder elsewhere but the resignation and hopelessness born of despondency spoke volumes.  

I’m proud of being a Spurs fan but there are times when that cast iron loyalty is a dead weight pulling me down. Where to from here? Losing the derby is bad enough, but that despondency is more than just about this match. As I touched on in my last piece, it’s the cumulative effect of years of permanent transition without ever reaching our destination. Hopes raised then dashed again as we discover that we have changes without any club strategy, where the fit between manager, recruitment and finance is always, always found wanting. Of high seat prices with diminishing returns. I am weary with it all, this state of institutional disfunction.  

And – we have to face up to this however unpalatable it may be, because it is real – look at them lot. Appoint a club man but one without any experience as a manager. He’s paid a fortune to essentially learn on the job. He makes mistakes, money wasted in the transfer market, there are grumbles but he’s given time, as are the talented young players he’s brought on or bought. Maybe it was because they couldn’t spend that much, but he and they had time. Turns out, last year’s derby was their turning point, where in their reaction to adversity, they got it all together. 

This is the point where I should insist the manager shakes things up, tries something different. Except that’s not the Conte way. Past experience suggests he sticks with his formation and tries different players. Except we’ve run out of options. He’s tried everyone and this is where we are.  

These problems won’t be solved by a better right wing back. Having a fully fit squad will help – Bentacur’s return is much anticipated. Given this long-term gloom, our fanbase, I suspect, will not have the patience to wait two or three years for a younger guy to learn the ropes. One vital difference between our experience and theirs is the context. Arteta comes in with twenty-odd unbroken years of success integral to recent collective memory, including titles and cups. That gives him some leeway, however much some of their fans complained. Anyone coming to us carries the burden of unfulfilled promise as well as that of a board who don’t know what they are doing.  

So support the manager in this window, let’s see what happens. Hardly a ringing endorsement but it’s all I can muster right now. It’s irrelevant, Conte will walk in the summer if this carries on, he’s got a reputation to think of. There may be trouble ahead. 

Good News About My Kitchen. The Rest, Not So Much

A bad day. Far too many moments of slack-jawed horror, and always worse, the hope. Emerging from periods of extended pressure, the chances that came and went. It was too much. After their third capped their deserved win, I switched from pictures to the radio and furiously cleaned the kitchen, with particularly savage use of an abrasive cleanser on the sink. I found scant refuge but it was spotless by the end so at least my household was pleased. Horrible.

This is one game, and we should retain a sense of perspective. It’s our first league defeat since April, I believe. There’s no escaping, however, that the significance of this fixture goes way beyond local rivalry. It’s a benchmark to show how well we are doing. The home fixture near the end of last season felt utterly satisfying both in the manner of the win and the aftermath, what it meant for the team’s rise under Conte. Saturday’s match confirmed that this is still a developing side, albeit from a high base.

We played the side at the top of the table and we weren’t good enough. To reiterate something I said last month, I’m completely behind the manager but his approach is a tough watch at times. He allows sides to play in front of our penalty box, where danger lies and chances remain only a missed tackle away. It serves to compound the gut-twisting agonies of the NLD, as like the players, fans have to prepare to absorb the pressure. For me, I know no amount of anxiety-prevention techniques are going to scratch the surface. Leicester squandered the opportunities thus available, these opponents did not. There will be few occasions this season when a player hits one first time into the top corner, but they can if we are stretched in that area, and he did, and it was unstoppable.

That said, this formation provides opportunities and it could have worked. We defend a lot but we’re not defensive. Conte could easily have covered for Kulu’s absence with an extra midfielder. That would have been my preference in a 3-5-2, but he’s bold enough to play three up front, and it could easily have worked in a first half where we had several opportunities. Long ball it may be sometimes but it suits our attackers, only to be let down by a wayward final ball or indelicate touch. If Kulu had been fit, one of those at least would have materialised into a gilt-edged chance. But Sonny is still not on it despite the hat-trick, Harry’s legs are feeling the weight of so many long seasons, while Richarlison doesn’t possess the certainty of touch in the build-up.

Games at this level turn on moments. Possession, pressure, position xG, whatever you call it, in the end it’s about what happens in the key moments. So it could have worked but ended up being a tale of squandered opportunities, followed by lamentable failure when it mattered. Hugo has had a good season on his line and coming for crosses, whether he punches or catches, but he’s always had moments when he thinks about things for a fraction too long and ends up being lost in indecision. He did it the other week, was it versus Leicester, when he could easily have caught a long ball under no pressure whatsoever yet suddenly punched it wildly. On Saturday, he got down early only to leave it in the danger area, then let it through his legs. I’ve only seen it once but it’s seared in my memory.

Then Emerson obliged with a right Royal cock-up. The contest on the left between him and Martinelli was always going to be important. He defended well enough until then, but they must have got into his head. Why do it? Good question. I think he wanted to give Martinelli a reminder, a little tap when the ball wasn’t in a dangerous area, or am I being over-generous in believing there was any coherent thought process at all? It may or may not have been red (I thought it was), that’s not the point. Don’t even give the ref the option.

So the disappointment and anger of defeat was compounded by a feeling that after the end of last season, the tide is turning. In fact, it’s probably no more than the inexorable ebb and flow of fortune. A stat from Jonny Blain on twitter showed that since 2008, in the NLD the home team has won 17 and lost only 2, with 9 draws. No stat covers the feeling that we seldom do well in this fixture, which from our side has had more than its fair share of cockups and those moments where you are left wondering, what on earth happened then?

This is a long and unpredictable season. Due to the World Cup, the table won’t unwind until March as teams count the cost of top-class footballers being ground down. The injury list will be more significant than the fixture list. A long way to go, in other words, and Spurs have room to improve.

Meanwhile, Conte has to adjust for a side full of good players but weaker than his system requires in key areas, especially at wing-back. I’d opt for the occasional 3-5-2, giving us greater solidity with enough creativity and firepower up front. Alistair Gold said Bissouma wasn’t fully fit after international duty, so he couldn’t start. Skippy needs match practice but as with Pochettino, he’s not getting any. Later this month, there has to be some rotation, surely, so there are opportunities. I’m not the only one hoping Spence gets a chance with his strength and pace, something different to unsettle opponents.

And speaking of what ifs, what if a Spurs player were in the same situation as their first goalscorer? If I were in charge, I wouldn’t prioritise the need for a decent holding midfielder. I’d insist he stayed at home on full salary. As a fan, if he played I’d cheer my team to the hilt but wouldn’t rise to give this man an ovation. If I were the Spurs manager, I wouldn’t speak of how well this man had taken the strain. But I am only a fan. Do I think my club would have acted differently in the same situation? I like to think they would, but I don’t know. Presumably with Bissouma they knew he had no case to answer before signing him. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it is, assume nothing. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. I don’t know precisely where that is in every case but I’d draw the line here.

Spurs In For a Conte Shake-up

Context is everything. The first defeat of the season with one Champions League home victory tucked away safely, third in the Premier League table and a point off the top with only five goals conceded will do, for now. It’s something to build on, and this is a Spurs team that Conte is building, by no means the finished article despite us being named top four candidates. As I said last time, all of us, are itching for success and can see the potential Conte and his squad offer, but we can help most by getting behind the team and showing some patience.

The context of the defeat in Lisbon, though, is that we’ve had this coming for a while now. We stayed on top against Fulham, a good all-round performance, but there have been extended periods in other recent games – W Ham, Marseille, Wolves – where our football has been stilted and opponents have been able to stifle our attacking play. ‘Starting slowly’ has become ‘not getting anywhere’, or ‘letting it slip’. Conte’s strategy leans heavily on pressing home our advantage when we do get on top, yet we’ve not managed this, certainly not last night, so we’re left with the frustration of another missed opportunity to win a match that was there for the taking.

Last night we looked jaded, not physically but in terms of ideas. We played familiar patterns, in to Harry, space out wide, yet nothing came of it. I’d have liked to have seen more subs to freshen it up. Teams have sussed us, so we’ve become easy to counter. Extra bodies in midfield where we have only two. Press to force errors as we play out and restrict Kane’s time and space, then limit the options he has available by cutting off passing routes. Once again, Emerson demonstrated the futility of creating a system where he is the spare man because he cannot be relied upon for end product, be it a cross, pass or shot. Reliability is a vital ability for Conte’s style.

The problems with such predictability is that key individuals, Harry and Sonny, bless them, are off the boil, so those moments of inspiration that lift us from the workmanlike are few and far between. There’s no flow or rhythm. Breathless anticipation as we break replaced with dull resignation as the ball flies off a boot or a defender gets back because of an extra touch. We’re relying on Harry more than ever as the best striker and best midfielder all in one. That tell-tale extra touch or over-ambitious pass, he knows where Sonny is but can’t rely on his mate, Richarlison still tuning into the wavelength, although he knows how to get on the end of crosses.

Individuals not on it, but it’s a team thing, always a team thing. If Harry is being harried and hurried, it’s because too often he becomes isolated with limited options to make a pass. Teammates should do more to help out. Similarly, I like Hojbjerg and Bentancur a lot, although not everybody does, but last night they stayed in a pattern that clearly wasn’t effective rather than changing it up.

Making changes from a position of relative strength is a good place to be. We’re much stronger than when he had to do something last season – think Burnley away. I see Conte got the players in for training this morning – he really cannot tolerate defeat. But he has his way of wanting things done, with entrenched shape and patterns, so it may be more about injecting some pace and drive into what we have without losing the defensive solidity he prizes. Our squad gives options to refresh things, with players surely keen to come in and make their mark.

Also, it’s early days but this season is going to be a long haul. This is another reason for disappointment after Lisbon. Two wins or a draw and a win would have put us in a strong position early on in a group where every game presents a challenge, thus easing the pressure in the longer term. However, we have time to make that up.

Leicester on Saturday is big game, an opportunity to reassert ourselves before the break against a failing side, whose manager will be all too well aware of the way to play against us. Starting from the back, Lenglet’s passing from the back is welcome, and I would inject Spence’s pace on our right side, although Conte doesn’t seem so keen on him and Barnes on Leicester’s left is a danger, so Docherty may be a more reliable option. Bissouma in, Skippy too but again I don’t see Conte making two changes in that key position. Kulu for Son, who deserves a break to rediscover his touch. Sess may replace Perisic. That still means a lot goes through Harry, it will be interesting to see how Conte adapts, if at all, to that particular problem, or indeed where Harry can get a rest.

We’re Spurs: Let’s Suffer Together

In order to prosper, first we must suffer. So runs an essential element of Antonio Conte’s core philosophy. His total devotion to winning is intrinsic to his every word and action and his squad are undoubtedly working hard to embody his vision. After the win at Forest where the team withstood extended periods of concerted pressure, he said they are learning to suffer together.

In Conte’s world, that’s a good thing, demonstrating their resilience and spirit, and we’re all part of Conte’s world now. Therefore, we suffer too, and what journalist Raph Honigstein called Conte’s ‘sufferball’ has been a tough watch at times. We had better get used to it. That’s fine – this is the process, this is what he does, and we’re unbeaten without playing especially well coming forward and with last season’s leading scorer right off the pace. This is progress, and it’s a platform for further development. I had hoped we would be playing better at this point but satisfied in that there is plenty more to come.

It’s long been clear that if we are to get anywhere this season, it will be down to our defensive solidity. We can now see the Saints romp for what it is, the outlier rather than the norm. It’s been a tough watch, though. He’s the pro. I admire his faith in his methods and in his defenders, and I’m learning to trust them too as they drop back and block.

But here’s the difference between the pro and the fan. He and I come to this with different experiences. Conte has unshakable confidence in his system and in his defenders to implement it. I’m a Spurs fan. I expect things not to turn out as we expect or hope. He knows Forest can weave patterns in front of our defence while rarely getting in behind, where it hurts. To gain all their possession they did so by sacrificing a central focal point that a striker would offer, hence they are less dangerous. I think every shot is bound to go in via two deflections, the post and a header off the ball-boy unaccountably missed by the ref, his assistants and 37 cameras.

So judge sufferball under Conte’s terms, and thereby suffer less. I understand what he’s doing and appreciate the advances made by our defenders. The central back three have been good, by and large. We defend well in the box. Ben gets his toe in more often than not, Dier is a sound defensive pivot and Romero is a fine defender. We are less good if pulled out of shape. Sanchez has defended stoutly in the box since he came into the side but pull him out of his safety zone, as W Ham targeted our right side, and he becomes shaky, as well as restricting our play out from the back. Hojbjerg divides opinion: I think he’s been excellent this season, tireless and focussed, covering at the back and scavenging for loose balls in the middle of the park. Bentancur’s status rose in his absence against W Ham where we sorely missed his calm, unfussy (and often unnoticed) interventions, reliable passing and smooth work on the ball.

Conte’s method depends on reliability. On Wednesday, Hugo celebrated his decade at the club with the sort of wobbly performance he seemed to have eradicated from his game since Conte arrived. It spread uncertainty whenever we tried to play out, which became worse as the game went on. His crass error gifted the ball to the Hammers, which they duly and deftly exploited for their equaliser, just when Spurs had spent the first 10 minutes of the second half painstakingly doing absolutely nothing in order to take the heat out of any W Ham revival.

The distraction caused by Hojbjerg’s boot wasn’t the problem. Our opponents were going nowhere. Unable to find their way from within, they needed an external boost, firstly from the penalty disallowed by VAR, correctly because the ball hit Cresswell’s face first, then from our error. It could, should have proved costly. We failed to exploit their open midfield and they should have taken one of their late chances.

That said, these errors have been few and far between this year and it is one of Conte’s achievements that thankfully Spurs tend to make few mistakes at the back. Like Aurier, the full-back rejected in his favour, Emerson has improved his game but like his predecessor, he cannot be relied upon when under pressure. Wing backs are crucial in Conte’s system and as a source of creativity Emerson is not up to the standard required, especially without Romero beside him. I like the way Conte gives his players time without chopping and changing constantly but it’s time to try Doherty or Spence.

Getting the ball forward has also become a problem. Up front, Sonny is going through one of his lean spells. He’s always had them, up until last season anyway, but this one is painful. Harry is scoring but he’s off it too. The tell-tale signs are there, taking an extra touch, marginally off-balance when he shoots, slightly scuffing shots. But they will come good. The poor progression out from the back is a more serious problem, though. We can’t play easily out of a high press and in the middle, opponents have learned to isolate our man on the ball, and possession is lost. We must improve here.

If Bissouma improves at the same rate as he did on Wednesday from the first half to the second, he will prove to be a valuable influence. We need more creativity but that doesn’t have to come from a purely creative midfielder. Which is where we return to the wing-backs, not offering enough at present.

So it comes back to supporters and our expectations. We have the right to want the best. We’ve seen substantial progress, but must accept that the pace of change is slower than we anticipated when we trashed Norwich on the final day of last season.

Conte knows it. He now has to work with what he’s got. We had a decent window, it’s just that most of it took place by the end of July, not on September 1st. He’s said it will take a couple more windows to get the squad to the standard he expects, positive in itself because it implies he’s planning to stay for a while longer. If the players we wanted were not available, then it’s right not to waste money on players of a quality no better than what we have now. However, with Spurs there’s always the lingering feeling that we did not push hard enough or offer enough money for those key players. That’s an inescapable part of Levy’s tenure.

We won’t ever know. Based on reliable journalists, our real focus was a top-class left sided centre-back, we couldn’t get our first choices but Lenglet should be decent. Our late attention to Daniel James seems odd, hardly the upgrade I’ve assumed Conte seeks. However, it implies he wants the option of pace and direct one-on-one play. Time to see more of Gil or Spence, who is quick and powerful with the ability to unsettle defences if he comes from deep, even starting in front of the wingback as he did for a few minutes at Forest.

In other news: Richarlison did keepie-uppies and took the whatsit – I laughed. He got done – I laughed. That’s what should have happened. But then I don’t earn a living from keeping a non-debate going incessantly.

On twitter this morning, @Lilywhite_Rose who follows our development of young players closely, bemoans the lack of loans and therefore gametime experience for most of our promising young players, Scarlett and Parrott excepted. This seems a waste.

VAR is useless number 34449948423 in a never-ending series. There is no reason why that penalty decision took over 4 minutes when all the relevant information was available after three or four replays. It takes far more from the game that it offers. Bin it.

In the meantime, incremental change. Get the front three going and goals will come. Get Perisic settled, try something new on the right. If this is suffering, I’ll take it.