Never Change, Tottenham

From the depths of despair to the heights of elation in ways only this football team can achieve. Watching Tottenham is unbearable when we don’t score, unbearable when we do. Never change.

Shall we begin at the end? Why not. Hojbjerg is knackered. Bentancur is too, after giving everything in another hugely influential performance, and has left the field, but Hojbjerg cannot rest. As the ball breaks forward, he should have just hung back, seconds to go, but the Dane cannot rest. Not everything he does works, we know this, but in that Tottenham shirt he is utterly driven and I want that in my team. The space is wide open, he begins his lung-bursting run 70 yards from goal, smashes it inside the post.

It’s a fabulous piece of football, a thrilling moment. The players swamp each other in celebration. Hojbjerg has the ashen, hollow-eyed look of an exhausted boxer who has taken a pummelling but remained standing. Harry should have smeared the blood from the wound on his arm across Hojbjerg’s forehead and cheeks. Warrior!

Spurs top the group with the last kick of the game. That’s my Tottenham. It was both unbelievable and beyond belief, given an abject first half where the performance levels were so low, they were scraping the bottom of a barrel entombed in a subterranean labyrinth in a darkness so deep, no human could even imagine let alone venture into. That’s my Tottenham.

I like to think that I’m not prone to exaggeration but the Marseilles goal was the most ridiculous defending I’ve seen in a long time. Granted, this season there have been many, too many, contenders for that dubious honour, but at least Bournemouth came up with a couple of excellent moves on Saturday. At least they made it difficult for us. But letting the ball run out of play only to see it was a corner not goal-kick, then be chatting amongst themselves while the big bloke heads it in, the comedy value escaped me at the time but that is surreal stuff worth a chuckle if you saw it in the park on a Sunday morning but this is a crucial CL qualifier from a team with 10 internationals.

Sadly it was completely in keeping with that appalling first half. I’ve written before about how Conte wants his players to suffer for the cause, so we fans must hurt too but this was the hardest of watches. I have no idea what they were doing and neither did they, so maybe that’s something to bring players and supporters closer together. The defensive selection looked suspect. Dier looked good on the right in the second half against Bournemouth but that was when we were coming forward. If it was a move to improve the back three, fine, but if it was to accommodate two left-sided players in the shape of Lenglet and Davies, then it was an unnecessary, disruptive change in a crucial game, as was starting poor Sessegnon on the right. He was blown away by the whole occasion, to the point where I was relieved Emerson was brought on. Not a sentence I’ve written before or frankly am I likely to write again. Just a shame we didn’t have a replacement for Moura.

In a season of worst ever first halves, that was the worst. But there’s something there in this squad, isn’t there. There’s professional pride and then there’s playing for the shirt, and some of these players are starting to get it. It means something to play for this club. Hojbjerg I’ve mentioned, then there’s Bentancur, fast becoming the game-changer, who when allowed to come forward changes the team’s tempo and rhythm. In his face the determination to be a leader, an influencer, is visible. And never take Harry for granted. Exhausted, kicked, surrounded by four opponents whenever he got the ball.

We’re no nearer solving the great mystery of our times that I posed in my last piece, namely why on earth to we play the first half in such a passive manner? Conte remains inscrutable. In press conferences he implies the players are not following his instructions, yet he controls everything. Surely they comply with his instructions to a large extent. If they didn’t, Conte wouldn’t pick them. One theory doing the rounds is that he wants them to conserve energy during this unusual and disrupted season, that we can’t play flat-out for 90 plus minutes. Miguel Delaney in the Independent suggested that he had heard from a few sources that Conte has hatched a cunning plan to hold back now and go all-out from February onwards.

I suspect he’s asking the players to control the first half without extending themselves unduly, except that Spurs aren’t good enough to do so and it allows opponents to seize the initiative. The match may be lost by the time we get into gear. If on Sunday we start as we have recently, the Liverpool attack will have won the game by half-time. A reminder that both Marseille and Sporting missed golden late chances. The players seem far more comfortable playing at the higher pace and getting into forward areas. More of that please.

A mention of Perisic before I leave you. Not perhaps the force he was, his shrewd defending in the second half was a stabilising influence, and that late block where he read the play and got himself into just the right position, right time would have got us into the knockout stages without the late winner. That’s what experience at the highest levels brings.

VAR Anger Righteous But Spurs Fail to Shine

Big build up, big crowd. Lousy first half, all over the place, can’t pass, move or defend. Concede to a player we sold. For every glory glory night, there’s a classic Spurs fail.

So let’s talk disallowed 95-minute winners. Let’s talk about the future of the game we know and love. Kane’s goal was ruled out by not one marginal decision but two. Offside by a line the width of a pixel, and a referee’s interpretation that a defender’s attempt to prevent the goal was accidental. “The Accidental Defender”, there’s an existential novel in there somewhere. At least I think that’s why it was disallowed. I was in the ground behind that goal and I’m the last to know.

Football’s attraction is that it is in essence a simple game. It can produce unforgettable moments of sublime athletic artistry and improvisation but at its heart lies a glorious human chaos. This is what we sign up for when we commit to supporting our team. We choose not to stand back and contemplate painstakingly crafted creative artwork or the marvels of precision engineering. Such aesthetic pleasures are for others, or for us at another time. Our bargain is we take the disappointment and joy as a whole, two sides of the same coin, one without the other cannot and does not exist.

It’s untidy and unpredictable and it’s ours. VAR is everything football is not. It’s not a game to be slowed down or judged on a matter on a matter of millimetres, dissected like a poor dead specimen pinned to a laboratory workbench. Last night a good friend of mine, equally exasperated, said that it would take a major controversy in a World Cup final before anything would change. Perhaps, but I reckon the powers that be would respond by burrowing further down a labyrinthine rabbit hole to refine the laws and the technology in a futile search for perfection imposed upon a fundamentally messy reality.

This isn’t about Spurs, it’s about the game itself. On Monday, the W Ham centre half parried a cross two-handed, volleyball style, in the box, ruled accidental. The Hammers then headed in after some goalmouth confusion but because this took place approximately 1.5 seconds later, it was deemed a different phase. This was a goal under the laws of the game, I get that, and that’s my point. It’s not about Spurs or W Ham, it’s about the law, and the law in this case is an ass.

VAR is anti-football and anti-fan. It sucks the life out of the game, forcibly snatching away the precious joy of collective unbridled celebration, of being in the moment, of belonging. Of being a fan. If we can’t have even this, what do we have left?  Shall we pass down the generations stories of how we gloried in watching the big screen, the deep purple contrasted – joyously! – with a lighter mauve?  Remember the time it took almost 3 minutes – oh the waiting! Of how we applauded politely in recognition that on the balance of probability, we’ve gone a goal up?

None of this is new. On the contrary, I and others predicted precisely this once the refs got their hands on the tech. This is unscientific, but last night and this morning, I have seen so many comments from long-standing matchday regulars who I know, complaining not so much about being a denied a goal, we are practiced in handling that, but what VAR and the aftermath meant to their involvement in and enjoyment of football. Anger and disillusion characterised these comments. People saying they had had enough, seriously thinking of jacking it all in. Because this is another invidious consequence of VAR. It is a crushing reminder of how little supporters matter when it comes to it, especially matchgoing fans.

VAR adds to the drama for the passive consumer. And in so doing, it sits along all the other issues imposed on fans – ticket prices, TV shifting dates and kick-off times at short notice, awaydays with no trains. VAR is a symbol of a wider malaise that separates fans, the supposed lifeblood of football, from the game itself and how we are being alienated. Fans organised and paid for the tifo, beamed to a TV audience worldwide, but we don’t matter otherwise. Just background noise, thrown away in the wind like so many paper aeroplanes made from our tifo card. Loyal fans are close to walking away.

No solace to be found in the game itself. The best that can be said for Spurs’ first half performance is that it was lacklustre. I thought we were awful, and VAR controversy should not obscure that. Not enough movement, gaps between the midfield and a static front three, long balls because there was no room in the midfield where once again we were outnumbered. This isn’t a one-off description, rather, it sums up recent games, where opponents have sussed our patterns and easily counter them. Even when we direct the ball out wide to the spare man, the wing-back, they are left isolated and therefore straightforward to deal with, with players waiting inside for something to happen rather than working to support them and/or create an overload out wide.

Significant moment at the end of the first half. We had a free-kick at their end. The keeper formed a wall to block a shot, leaving four of our players at the edge of the box against their two defenders, yet we opted for a clearly pre-planned routine that failed. It shows the lack of thinking in the moment and not responding to what is happening in the game at that time.

Give Conte time and space to develop the side, bearing in mind the anticipated timescale for progress has extended into years rather than months, because we’re not moving forward as fast as I naively hoped when the season began. But I simply don’t understand why we start games so slowly. After 10 minutes or so, teams realise that we are letting them play, not taking the game to them to impose our authority, as seems reasonable. Yesterday, in the second half we didn’t play that well but took the game over just by pushing onto them, giving them less time and pushing more players up. We should have had the match won well before VAR took over.

Good to see Gil’s talents, largely hidden until now because he has tended in his rare appearances to rush around frantically all over the place, whereas yesterday he stayed wide with a clear role. Again, a sub making a difference by taking men on and upping the tempo. Spence can also do this, but we’ve not seen them even when as against Newcastle, we were getting nowhere because we persist with patterns of play that are manifestly not getting anywhere.

And Bentancur is an excellent player. Good to see him in a system that allows him greater freedom to come forward. He picks up the pace of the game and tries to change things up. Hard-working and committed too.

Rachel Martin from the Trust spoke to Coytey pre-match about the invaluable work of the Tottenham Foodbank. My site is and always will be free, if you like it, maybe drop them a donation however small. Thank you. Text COYSFOODBANK plus the amount in numbers to 70085 e.g. COYSFOODBANK5