Spurs Win At Saints Points To A Bright Future

Spurs’ empathic victory at Southampton on Wednesday night was a rousing, upbeat ending to the year. After a stodgy start, conceding in the opening minutes, Tottenham Hotspur took over to run the game, scoring four in the process.

That’s been the mood for December, where Tottenham have won 4 matches out of five, scoring 17 goals in the process. Three of the home games have admittedly been against teams near the bottom of the league but Spurs have swept them aside with fluent displays packed with the movement and teamwork that have been the basis of our development under Pochettino but which have gone missing at times this season.

Two of these sides, Hull and Swansea, were desperately poor, and it is a feature of the Premier League this term that unusually several sides have not prepared themselves to a level that is anywhere near acceptable to their supporters. Still, in the past we’ve been complacent versus such teams. Tottenham have apparently – I don’t count these things so I am relying on social media here – notched up more points this calendar than in any previous 12 months since the start of the Premier League. One reason is that since August we have not lost to sides below us and in most cases beaten them. Middlesboro, Stoke, West Ham, Sunderland and Palace, all beaten. We should have also defeated Leicester.

This season’s results tell the other side of the story too. Some sides have sussed us out, compacting space in front of their back four and denying us room to play. In turn, we responded ineffectually, feebly running out of ideas against Bournemouth and West Brom. This is a continuation of the pattern from April and May when the home draw against a well-organised WBA did for us even before the debacle at Newcastle.

Also, we’ve only beaten one of the sides above us, Manchester City. An away point at Arsenal will do but we were second best at Chelsea and United, while Liverpool were the better side at the Lane.

So as 2016 comes to a close, where do Spurs stand? Before it ends, stop and marvel at the wonderful football we’ve seen over the past 12 months. It’s not so much the individual moments or matches that stand out. Watching from the middle of the Shelf has been a delight as moves form from deep, whizz past me in a blur of pace and invention, the whole far more than the sum of its parts. It’s this that I will take with me as the powers fade and memories dim. As good at times as anything I have ever seen in fifty years at the Lane. That surge beginning around Christmas and lasting to March and April was sheer joy.

It’s an indication of how Tottenham’s character has changed. The traditional focus on the star men, players who provided sheer class and enjoyment deserve to be remembered, are worthy of recall because they stood out from the dross around them. Now we have a team in the full and proper sense of the word, and that is our greatest strength.

Yet it does not feel like that. We fell away in April and May, the frustration at what might have been masking our achievements. We were never going to catch Leicester – our early season form left us too far behind – but the manner in which we fell away hurt, no question, because it dented pride in a bunch of marvellous, promising and over-achieving young players. The frustration, which has tainted appreciation of the team this season, comes from not being able to supplant a stark truth of being a Spurs fan – watching Tottenham is forever laced with disappointment. This was what we had overcome, more than being title challengers or who we beat – being a Spurs fan meant fulfilment. We glimpsed what this means and how it feels, only for it to be snatched away from us in the brutality of a season’s climax.

Cold hard reality – the youngest side in the PL over-achieved. Given our lack of experience, we had no right to be there in the first place and it is testament to everyone involved, players, manager, scouts and coaches, that we did so well. This season, more frustration because we have not kicked on as we had hoped. As ever, the PL is sub-divided into several mini-leagues. Their criteria differ from the norm, however. At the bottom there are several sides woefully unprepared  – Swansea, Hull and Sunderland, all caused by shabby leadership and decision-making at board level. Burnley and Boro are with them but better organised on and off the field. Note both have not changed manager in the last 18 months.

Then there’s a division between those who have improved and those who have stagnated. Saints, Stoke, Leicester and Everton differ in quality and status but have in common this lack of development from last season’s promise. Manchester United were in this groupuntil recently. Liverpool and Chelsea on the other hand, again from different starting points and resource bases, have improved considerably, joining Arsenal and City at the top.

Which leaves Spurs where we deserve to be. Sound, playing well enough – mostly – without a discernible improvement from last season. This keep us above the pack without as yet enabling a concerted challenge on those above us. It’s not a bad place to be. It is however a warning to guard against the debilitating frustration that comes from unrealistic expectations.

It’s not so much the case that Spurs have not developed, more that we have not developed together. The back five have been outstanding. Walker and Rose astonish every game – Rose was remarkable again on Wednesday – and December’s upturn in form has been in large part due to the width this pair provide, plus the timing of their runs. Both have also learned to use their pace in our box as well as that of the opposition.

Creating chances at the other end has been more of a problem. Kane, Dier, Dembele and Alli in their very different ways have not maintained their form of last season. That’s our influential spine when we have possession, so a loss. Last season we could take anyone on provided everyone was at their peak. There seemed to be no slack. Dembele can influence a side like no other midfielder in the league. He’s been good but not invincible as he appeared so frequently last season, perhaps a more realistic place to be. Kane was weary in May and needed time.

For Dele, it’s that difficult second season. No coincidence that his goals and upturn in form in the last few games is linked to his keeping it simple, movement, playing it off rather than backing into players to perform a magic turn or get a free-kick. Too often he looks for the foul, which takes him out of the game and stops our movements more effectively than any defender could. On Wednesday Jamie Redknapp’s manspreading told us we are ‘lucky to have him’. It’s not luck, you idiot, we scouted him and offered the best chance of progress – we looked after him and he knows it.

Wanyama has impressed but Dier is better if we are playing one DM. He should be given that place and groomed to be our midfield leader, bossing the centre and telling team-mates what to do.

We are also where we are because of a comparative lack of investment. The time to buy is when the team is doing well to freshen the squad and guard against complacency. Spurs continue to seek value and potential. Janssen has both but despite being an international is one for the future. He has a different style compared with Kane and will come on once he starts to score. We declined to buy experience or go for a couple of established top-class players.

Then there is Sissoko. Forget the price – supply and demand in the modern football world distorts reality like a shape-shifter in Dr Who. Means nothing. What is important is what he can bring. As disappointing as his early performances was the reaction of many fans who seemed delighted to write him off before he’d started a handful of matches. He came with baggage, although thankfully not at least half a stone of excess he carried at Newcastle.

This was always all about what Poch could give him. He responded poorly to begin with and the manager publicly slapped him down by not selecting him or bringing him on as sub when Spurs were coasting. Lashing out in the Bournemouth game for no reason told you everything you needed to know about his state of mind.

That was then. Now, coming from no pre-season, he looks sharp and is beginning to understand what Pochettino wants from him. Already he has three or four assists. In each of the last three matches he’s produced sublime passes. The ball to Dele that resulted in the penalty versus Saints was the definition of inch-perfect.

Eriksen remains our key man. He aligns workrate – consistently runs further than anyone else – and the ability to make and take chances. More assists in this calendar year than anyone in the PL, did I read? He doesn’t make the most of every opportunity, hence the irritation at times, but a steady touch and he can be the creative force we crave.

So we are where we are. I will forgive Pochettino for talking about ‘the project’. We’ve signed the entire squad bar a couple to long-term contracts. We don’t offer anywhere near what other teams do, which means in turn we will never attract those established stars I wished for above. What we can do is keep what we have and that ink on paper shows the faith these players have in their manager and their team-mates. United wanted Kane and Walker. Both could double their current salaries. At least. But they aren’t interested. That is mindbendingly out of synch with the modern world, but Pochettino’s Tottenham offers something more valuable. Let’s hope we can keep him – there’s a transfer market for managers too.

At the start of this season, Pochettino said that “It is not tactical, it is not philosophical… It is here in our heads that we need to improve.” Being hard while at the same time remaining creative to find a way past tight defences, creating resilience to hang on to a lead or not give away silly goals, or in our case especially, needless free-kicks. This should be our aim. The manner in which we dominated Southampton for 75 minutes could be as significant as the points. We weren’t playing that well but got hold of the ball. The tempo could have been higher but it meant we controlled the game first, then went on to score the goals.

That said, Pochettino has plans B and C, at least. We’ve gone 4-1-4-1 and three at the back to increase attacking options. Subs have been used effectively too, with Son up front and the highly promising Winks in midfield giving options rather than more of the same.

In the meantime, beware of inflated expectations, and enjoy what we have. A Happy and peaceful New Year to all Tottenham On My Mind readers. Apologies for a few gaps this year, not always easy to find the time or indeed anything new to say, but then again, that’s never stopped me before. Thanks again – could not do this without you.

Spurs, Wembley and Fears For The Shape of Things to Come

This has been a decent week for Spurs fans. Two thumping victories, one of which was the most one-sided Premier League match ever, statistically at least. The 8 goals were the product of a return to the flowing attacking football that was a feature of last season’s success yet has often eluded us this time around. Rose and especially Walker were excellent, Alli a growing influence playing high, Eriksen too coming into a bit of form. Son’s goal against Swansea was a beauty, but for me it’s Kane who caught the eye. Rejuvenated after a much needed break – his injury could be the best thing that’s happened to Spurs  lately – he’s sharp in front of goal, his movement a delight. We’ll put to one side the weakness of both opponents and the bucketload of chances missed on Wednesday to enjoy this after a sticky few weeks. And Toby is back!

 

Which leaves us a moment to ponder two enduring controversies, participation in the Europa League and playing at Wembley. It’s said that for every complicated, complex question there is a simple, straightforward answer – that’s completely wrong. But to cut through the blather and froth, let’s stick to the basics. The EL is a cup competition – play to win it. Wembley isn’t right for Spurs but it’s the only option so make the best of it. No, better than that, embrace it as a chance for players to shine and fans to get behind their team.

 

Granted the EL group stages appear part of football’s governing bodies’ long-term aim to suck every ounce of joy from this wonderful game. But this is straight knock-out, two legs, home and away, under lights. This is classic European football, as it always was. At Spurs we glory in the UEFA Cup triumphs, especially Anderlecht at home in 84 and the Cup-Winners’ Cup in ’63. Nobody says, ‘The UEFA Cup was only a secondary competition, cups are not a priority on the continent.’ Win something. Trust me, it feels good. Also, it’s time for this team to taste some success as part of their development. There’s nothing like winning something for players and fans alike. We don’t start again until February, by which time we can take stock of what is happening in the league and FA Cup. I’m growing weary of being locked into this commitment to futility where the aim is qualify for a tournament we can’t win so we can qualify again, and so on and so on. The lack of squad depth hampers a tilt at all three but it is not impossible. Better to aim high, did someone say?

 

Martin and I are delighted and honoured that A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club has made the Guardian List of Best Sports Books 2016. It’s a tribute to the vibrant, passionate, challenging and loyal support of generations of Spurs fans. Thank you.

 

It’s been suggested to me that this is all part of a cunning plan, that all along the EL has been Pochettino’s target. He’s spoken in this week’s press conference of the EL as a target.  This is why he’s not played full-strength teams in the CL – we were never going to get too far so go for a more realistic target plus get top four, which generates more income than going to the CL knock-outs but finishing 5th or below. This implies Levy has had a hand on the tiller, mindful of the bill for the new stadium. Overused saying alert, but I tend to go for cock-up not conspiracy as a rule and don’t buy that argument. I do think Poch wants to keep his options open. If we had qualified without too much effort, so be it, but he’ll take the EL. Fact is, he does not prioritise cups but may re-think, in my view should re-think. Any which way, he’ll get to February then make some choices.

 

Wembley is partly about the here and now, partly a taste of things to come. The pros and cons of playing there are well-rehearsed but worth restating. For the CL, as I understand there was effectively no alternative. Technically it was possible but given the reduced capacity, lowered still further by UEFA rules for segregation of away fans, press and seats at the front it would have been a push to accommodate all season ticket holders, let alone go to members. The EL would be little different.

 

Next season, no one wants us. British football tribalism means sharing in London is impossible. Stratford is nominally public but West Ham made it impossible for that to be considered. If Milton Keynes was ever a realistic possibility, the problems in getting home from Wembley would pale into insignificance compared with a late finish in MK and anyway soon people would complain about playng matches in a small League 1 ground. Let’s get real about this.

 

So Spurs fans did what we have always done, from the 1880s and the Southern League onwards. We get there, get in and get behind the team. There’s carping about the support but just take moment. Not our ground, not easy to get to, record attendances for a British club match. 83,406 tickets sold for the Moscow game, and for a dead rubber over 62,000 people turned up. 62,000 Spurs fans. Atmosphere doesn’t come easy but Spurs took it on. Huge kudos to the block in the West corner who sang ‘being a yid’ for most of the second half. Brilliant.

 

I think that much of the angst around Wembley is about the future rather than the present. This as yet largely unspoken anxiety is better brought out in the open. Football fans don’t like change. We embrace the familiar, the comfortable. It’s not just about the football, it’s about pre- and post-match routines, who we sit with and where we sit, making the best of the journey. People complain about Wembley travel and rightly so but the Lane is hard to reach for the majority of us yet we do it because it’s worth it and because we’ve worked out a way to deal with it.

 

This is the thing. They are our choices, our routines, our decisions. I don’t like queuing at Wembley but 61,000 people getting away from the new Lane will be a neverending nightmare, yet we’ll do it because it’s our nightmare. These are hugely important to every football fan of every club, yet seldom articulated. Wembley takes them all away. Where do you eat, drink and bump into people even if they are not mates. Who do you sit with, and where? I am petitioning the club to put me at least 400 yards away from the bloke who sat in Wembley block 141 row 26 seat 232 or else I am not responsible for my actions. I don’t know Arthur, Steve, Mark, Dennis, Jackie, Derek or Graham outside football but I want to sit with them as I do at Spurs because it’s a great way to watch the team. This lies at the heart of the fan experience and we fear it will disappear, that our choices will taken away from us.

 

And underlying that is the growing realisation that as the home games run out, being a Spurs fan will never be the same again. I’m welling up writing this sentence, because it’s the first time I am committing these thoughts to the keyboard and thereby making them public. However good the new ground is, it will never be the same again. Maybe I’m over the top with this, because the club means so much to me, but I’m being honest. We fear those long-term changes too.

 

So let’s confront this. Enjoy Wembley, make the best of it. Let’s do what Spurs fans have always done, turn up and get behind the team. It’s part of our supporter DNA. Whether Wembley is full or not is immaterial. Keep prices down and get people in. And I may be a soppy, sentimental old lag, but the day my heart fails to lift at the sight of Wembley Way full of Spurs fans is the day I stop going. That’s not likely to happen for a long, long time.

Christmas is coming. Vision Sports have two outstanding Spurs books, The Lane, a sumptuous large-size history of the ground by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley, good friends of the blog, and Cliff Jones’ autobiography. Reviews to come very soon. Until January the Lane is only available from the club shop in person and mail order – it’s gorgeous.

Hear Martin and I talking about the history of our supporters on the Fighting Cock podcast

 

Feeble Spurs Exit the Champions League Without A Whimper

I’m getting on a bit now. April next year, my 50th anniversary at White Hart Lane. Football’s changed, watching the game even more so, but I haven’t, not really. Lose and it affects my mood for several days. A good win in a big game, nothing like it. Nothing, because this is a grand old team to see. If anything my connection with Spurs is deeper than it’s ever been. It’s not a fashionable view, because fans are drifting away from the game, and I get it, I see why. It’s just that I’ve had my crisis of faith several years ago when logic demanded I should loosen the ties, but I couldn’t, instinctively couldn’t, and wouldn’t.

I’m old. I don’t have unrealistic expectations or the sense of entitlement that characterises a generation of support brought up on Super Sunday, the holy grail of the anointed Top Four or a history that begins in 1992. I just want them to give a right good go, league and cup. Be contenders, be something, win something. And I’ve been let down.

Last night Spurs slipped out of the Champions League, unnoticed and unmourned, not with a bang but with a whimper. Monaco beat us home and away. They are a neat, decent side well set up to make the most of their talents and, in both games, Tottenham’s deficiencies. But that’s not the point. What matters is, it didn’t matter. Not apparently to the players who did not give of their best not just last night but in the whole tournament, nor to the manager.

Pochettino expressed anger about the performance in his post-match quotes but throughout he has been unwilling to put out a full-strength side. Yesterday in a match we had to win to stay in the CL, he left out Vertonghen, Eriksen and Walker, Sissoko too, compounded by fiddling around with the formation to a sort of 4-3-2-1. He didn’t want it and this fed through to the players.

I don’t like it and I don’t get it. Well, I do, in that the manager’s message is that the Premier League is the main target and nothing else matters very much. Bu this is the Champion’s League. We toiled long and hard to get there, surely it’s worth more than this. Prestige. Money. Glory. Choose any one of those and you have a reason to be motivated. We opted for none of the above.

Stay in the competition at least to the knock-out stages and even more money comes rolling in. Far be it from me, old-fashioned, living in the past, to say that glory in taking on Europe’s best is motivation enough. Giving supporters a treat, those supporters who formed the biggest ever British crowd for a club game and promptly beat it three weeks later, far be it from me to suggest we could have some fun, get behind the team, all in white and take them all on.

I admire Pochettino and his team hugely. They are as committed and as motivated as any Spurs side I have ever seen and the manager has worked wonders at the club. With this decision, he is wrong. It’s a waste. This is the Champions League not the League Whatever It’s Called This Year Cup 2nd round. Never mind the good old days of Europe under lights at the Lane, Benfica, Gornik, Anderlecht, Barca, Milan, I’ll take those memories to my grave with me and alongside them will be the outstanding football this young side played last season. I love this team. And for what? Losing I can deal with, the lack of interest I cannot.

So what’s the plan? Finish on the top four to qualify for a tournament we won’t try in because we want to concentrate on finishing in the top four to qualify for a tournament we won’t try in. Repeat to fade.

Last night Lloris played them on his own. Heroic Hugo saved a penalty and produced a string of top class saves including one astounding reaction leap than defied the laws of nature. Sadly it failed to inspire those in front of him. The back four was constantly stretched. Although Wanyama dropped in between the two centre halves, the full-backs had no protection from the midfield and were exposed, or rather the space behind them was, a fertile breeding ground for opposition attacks.

From one cross, our back four lined up on the 6 yard box as if they were zonal marking for a corner. The Monaco attackers stood off and were all unmarked. One headed it in, the others had the freedom of the box. Back in the game after Kane’s penalty, we conceded straight from the kick-off. What were they thinking? Nothing, apparently. This was a mug’s goal. Spurs stalwart and friend of the blog Adam Powley tweeted that the team of the early 80s, after they scored they either got possession or fouled within three opposition touches. We need some of that nouse.

One more example sums up the game. Loose ball, edge of the box. Wanyama takes a wild slice, misses. On Saturday, I praised Dier for the immaculate way he shepherded Payet to safety, nullifying a dangerous break without even tackling him. Yesterday he too took a wild clumsy heave at this same ball, nowhere near it and conceding a penalty. It’s all in the mind and their minds were somewhere else.

I’m disappointed and numb. This is so out of character. This is the team that gives everything, 100% commitment, that’s their trademark. I know Spurs weren’t going to win the Champion’s League but I wanted Europe to see how good we are, to see some of that flowing, effortless football, how we take the game to the opposition and don’t sit back and wait for the other side to die of boredom. I wanted people to see proper Tottenham because I’m proud of them. Even that was denied me, me and all the other proud Spurs supporters. Newsnow filter out articles containing swearwords, so here is reader participation – insert your expletives of choice here. I’m truly hacked off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winks Melts Hearts of Stone

Modern football’s greed and rampant consumerism threatens to drive fans away from the game they love but if any of those departing paused to look back over their shoulder, Harry Winks’ goal celebration on Saturday would melt the hardest of hearts. Janssen’s fierce shot was beaten away by the keeper and up Winks popped to thump the bouncing ball home from close range, whereupon he dashed joyfully to the touchline and into the arms of the manager who had given him his chance.

Nothing rehearsed, no in-jokes but wild youthful exuberance from a player delighted just to be out there, for whom pulling on the white shirt is a privilege. I say youthful but he’s actually 20 but looks younger. Compared with the others, with his fresh face and hair carefully parted, he’s somebody’s young brother who has sneaked into the party. Local boy makes good after manager from halfway round the world reckons he can play. The rest of the side piled in, pleased for him.

And play he can. He’s a fine player, willing to take responsibility, always play the ball forward quickly and has the right weight on his passes. Switched to a more central role in the second half, he shone, playing without fear in a fearsome, frantic derby atmosphere. Highly impressive.

His team-mates celebrated the goal with him but, and let’s fall to earth here, their pleasure was mixed with relief because up until then, Spurs were second best. The first half belonged to Slaven Bilic. His set-up gave West Ham the edge all over the pitch. He had three at the back and two wing-backs in Creswell and Antonio suited for that system, i.e. not converted midfielders, plus one up front. Against that, Pochettino went 4-1-3-2, with Kane and Janssen up front, as opposed to like for like after the success of our three at the back versus Arsenal.

Our strikers were still outnumbered while our full-backs could not get forward. Also the forward three, Dembele, Winks and Eriksen, are all essentially central players, so they drifted in and we had no width. Repeatedly our opponents were first to the ball, no more so than when Antonio picked up a loose ball from a corner to open the scoring. That passage of play – two corners in succession – came after we gave away possession playing it from the back. Kicking the ball long can give it way too but we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves and gave away the initiative.

This was a cracking game for the neutral, full of high-speed attacking football and complete commitment from both sides. The only problem is, I’m not neutral, so enjoyment was to be had only after the final whistle (but that made up for the rest, mind). Four games in one, as Spurs lost it, looked like they would win it, threw it way then improbably but joyously pinched not one goal and a point, which I would have settled for, but two and three respectively.

At half-time I couldn’t see anything changing. Then Winks’ goal changed everything. Never mind the tactics. I enjoy the sophisticated analysis that people like Spurs Fanatic and TTT Tactics do superbly on twitter and on their sites, it’s fascinating. However, nothing compares with scoring a goal. Spurs were rejuvenated, winning tackles all of a sudden and putting some useful passing moves together. Any passing move was an improvement on what had gone before.

Tactics though – yep. Rose was finding a way through on the left. Once more he was outstanding. He’s among the best full-backs in Europe now and if there is a player who has improved his game more in the middle part of his career then I’ve yet to see him. First to the byline for the cross to set up the equaliser then from deeper he found Dier, whose header was well-saved low down but he really should not have given the keeper the chance to get near it.

At this point Spurs had the Hammers rocking, Winks leading from the back, comfortable again in front of the back four, then from a corner Janssen blatantly fouled Reid, penalty. Back on our heels again, no ideas or creativity, ten yard passes had become too much again. Vertonghen’s tackle on Payet was perfect and saved a certain goal, making up for his ineffective marking at the corner that put them one up. Later, when Payet was belatedly a danger, Dier jockeyed him to safety in a manner that suggested he is a centre half born and bred.

Son came on to give us width. Instead he provided tragi-comedy, perhaps the worst, least-impactful 10 minutes possible, running into defenders and kicking it at them at every opportunity. Switched left, transformed. Few minutes left, low cross to Kane, touched in. Unexpected even by the most optimistic and missed by the many who had already left in exasperation.

Son again, on the left, going away from goal then going down after a clumsy tackle. Kane, calm, bottom corner, bedlam. Lost and won then lost, now won, didn’t see that coming, unexpected and all the sweeter for it. A game to savour more on the way home than during the 90 minutes.

My mantra – enjoy it while you can. But while we defended well – Lloris had little to do again – for extended periods we showed little creativity and the tempo was slow. The problems we have had all season in making chances, let alone scoring goals, were evident again and Pochettino was outmanoeuvred in the first half after a fine ‘performance’ last week. But this was Harry’s game – Winks that is. he’ll remember his debut until the day he dies and who knows, in twenty years fans may be saying, ‘Winks, I was there when he made his debut you know…’

So victory in the Lop-sided Derby – their cup final, we’re indifferent. It’s an odd relationship, one which if not unique then can’t be repeated in too many towns and cities across the country. Bilic himself said this was their most important match of the season and I have no doubt they despise us with a passion, but it’s not reciprocated, at least not to the same extent. Derbies have to have a balance of feeling on both sides, surely.

The stadium business cranked up the anger. To me Stratford is W Ham territory, no question, and I don’t blame them, I would get wound up at the very thought of another club muscling onto our patch. 1913 was bad enough…. Again though, it wasn’t reciprocated because most Spurs fans didn’t want to go there and we delighted when we stayed in N17. When in the lead, the Hammers’ fans taunted us with ‘it’s happening again.’ I’m duty bound to ask, what exactly? They won the last match, 1-0 and fully deserved it, in the process forgetting their 4-1 defeat at the Lane and the series of late goals that have given us a point or three in recent times. Kane’s 95th minute penalty rebound winner, Bale’s glorious top-corner winner, Stalteri’s late tap in or Dier’s cultured touch round the keeper. Odd.