Watching Spurs falter against a resolute Newcastle defence on Sunday was like a trip back in time. Pre-Pochettino, half the home matches, or so it seems, saw teams pitch up with 10 men behind the ball, lay out the deckchairs and sit back as we buzzed around for 90 ineffectual minutes. All perspiration and toil with brains disengaged, and no goals.
Newcastle did it a couple of times, Krul heroics denied us, a superb breakaway winner set up by a player charging 50 yards up the pitch. Sissoko, I think his name was. Wonder what happened to him? I don’t blame them, because it worked. Works. Villa did the same but were not as well-drilled as the Geordies and ran out of steam. The league has found a way to play against us.
Sunday’s Spurs was the most dispiriting performance I’ve seen for a long time. There was a total absence of creativity and thought. These experienced footballers forgot basics such as movement off the ball. They left their team-mates isolated and without support.
I’d say there was no plan B, except I’m not sure what plan A was. Poch’s formation changes shifted players along the same laterals without breaking the lines. Whether Lamela played centrally or out wide made no difference to the end product. Moura went more central after a while, which simply made it easy for the defence to pick him up. No concerted attempt to shift defenders out of their cosy togetherness. Kane tried to come off the centre halves, again without doing so consistently. We tried long passes into the non-existent gaps between the keeper and the centrebacks.
Width and tempo are key in these games. We seemed content laboriously to pump the ball out to the full-backs, then sat back and watched them, rather than trying to get 2 against 1 in those wide areas.
Newcastle’s winner was the ultimate mug’s goal. It’s barely conceivable that an opponent could be in as much space at the edge of our box as Joelinton was allowed. It’s the equivalent of arriving at Margate on the Bank Holiday to find you had the beach to yourself.
The goal encapsulated the performance, individual errors compounded by a lack of team purpose. Rose could see the centre forward but did not react. Sanchez knew he was behind him somewhere but not exactly where. Sanchez is a promising player, mobile and times interventions well but like many centre halves of his age, he must take on an air of authority, to command his space rather than fill in for those around him, if he is to progress. Ultimately though, a collective failure. As Toby pulled out to help Walker Peters, the back four was stretched so far out of shape that it could not cope with a single striker.
Although there have been changes in personnel, these players know each other well enough to not make such basic errors. It’s worrying that they did, more so that they also made mistakes against Villa and City, or indeed that Newcastle’s other chance came from a simple long downfield pass.
Ten years ago, I wrote the first post on Tottenham On My Mind. 548 later I’m struggling for match fitness these days but have washed my kit ready for another season. Sincere thanks for the many messages of support from people who say they enjoy this old-fashioned little blog. It means a lot. Time is tight, so no regular match reports but the clue’s in the title and I can’t stop now.
This can’t be dismissed either as a one-off or a rusty side clanking through the gears of the new season. This is a continuation of our league form at the back end of last term, when there was a gradual deterioration from the New Year onwards. Something’s not right.
The season began full of expectation. We had a solid foundation of experienced players at the peak of their ability, allied to team-work forged in the red-hot coals of Champions League football. A spine of Hugo, Toby, Jan and Harry, with Eriksen and Dele in the middle and Sissoko reborn. To this, Poch grafted four new players of his choosing, for once, including N’dombele, the powersource in the middle. We brought the collective confidence that we can succeed at elite level and the motivation to go one better to win something.
Instead, Pochettino could be facing his biggest challenge, rebuilding a side rather than developing one. Travelling back in time again, the term ‘transitional season’ when applied to Spurs became an exhausted euphemism for disorganisation and missed opportunities. Yet, when taking last season’s league form into consideration, this begins to feel like a team that has run its course.
Transition is not a dirty word. Purposeful change is a necessary element of evolution. Levy has backed his manager and by all accounts he has his top four transfer targets. The question marks surround the foundation of the team. What we thought we could take as given, the reliability of our proven stars, begins to look uncertain.
The fact is, none of us know what’s going on in the club’s inner sanctum. It’s one reason why I seldom dive into social media debates in Tottenham On My Mind. Nevertheless, there’s a feeling that several experienced players are not entirely happy at the Lane, and more to the point, that the manager is not at all happy with them. Vertonghen, magnificent and committed last season, is on the bench because he’s not match fit, supposedly. Toby has not signed up, Dier is not in the team and has had fitness problems for a worrying length of time, while Eriksen will take any offer where he can get the sun on his back.
These and other contracts are coming to an end. No team has a squad that is 100% focussed all the time. Managers have to deal with this. At Spurs, even If these players fall a little from their peak, the team suffers. From the outside, they are not taking a long-term view that Spurs will bring them the money and success they desire. Far from last season’s heroics being a gateway to something special and lasting, perhaps several believe this was their zenith in a Spurs shirt and that it’s time to move on, either to greater success or a big final pay deal.
Also, Pochettino may be in a quandary as to his approach. In the past, he’s never been afraid to sideline players who are not behind him fully. He treated Alderweireld and Rose in this way last season. Both came back to play crucial, committed football in the last quarter. This has paid dividends. When he came to the club, he gave everyone a chance. Then, he got rid of undesirable influences in order to move forward. The story goes that the turning point was a home defeat by Stoke, a game very similar to Sunday’s, which provoked a dressing room row as Kane and Mason took on the experienced players who laughed off the defeat.
We’re probably not at that stage yet and these players have given so much for the team, lest we forget. If he took the same approach this time, we may lose more than we gain. Isolating Lennon and Kaboul is one thing, dismissing the Spurs spine is quite different. But he does not seem clear about Eriksen’s role, for example. He’s available but on the bench. We don’t know if he will leave. What we have found out, which frankly we knew already, is that this side pulses to the Eriksen beat. It’s more than his passes, movement, his goals even. It’s the tempo and rhythm. We miss Dele too, his ability to find space in front of and between the back four. In time, Pochettino has plans to rebuild the side without Eriksen, but this could be a painful process. In the meantime, he’s there and I’d play him.
Also, full-backs have been integral to the Poch plan, yet this has been a weak area this season. Danny Rose has earned my undying respect for the way he came back from the heinous sin of that Sun column and confronted mental health issues and racism to produce compelling and committed performances in the final months of the season. Gawd bless him, he can’t cross the bloody thing, though. Poch the fullback whisperer will coach Foyth and Sessegnon to good things. In the meantime, Aurier is nowhere and KWP is playing like the talented but inexperienced player he is. The shortfall was laid bare on Sunday.
Pochettino is not at ease right now. He’s not afraid of big decisions. Hard work ahead for Poch and his new team. Change is in the air as he integrates new players. There could be pain before he sorts it out.