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. 

Do It Right This Time

Some questions deserve more than a straightforward answer, but working out where to begin and what to include can be a complicated business for me. So when our friendly builder casually mentions that he’s none too enamoured with the rail strike, immediately this creates a dilemma for me. They have a legal right to strike but, in my head, that sounds inadequate. I want to say, well, they are working people trying as a last resort to protect their income as living standards fall, that the right to strike goes back to the nineteenth century and working people had to fight every step of the way to earn the basic rights that you and I take for granted. Would my finely honed and tellingly evidenced analysis of class conflict grounded in history and political theory be a bit much at this point, especially as he’s just come over to put up the shed?

In the end, I paused, said that I hoped the government would settle it soon and we both got on with our respective jobs, suitably unenlightened. And it’s the same with regard to Spurs. The reason many Tottenham fans are frustrated and angry with the manager, the board and some players is about tactics, or underperformance, losing comprehensively against a Villa side who defended stoutly (the nerve!) and who capitalised on two pieces of atrocious defending. But that doesn’t seem enough either. It’s not about that really. Fundamentally, it’s something only a Spurs fan would understand, that this failure to achieve our potential is yet another in a long line of disappointment, a never ending cycle of hopes raised then expectations dashed and opportunities squandered. New manager, new players, same outcome.

In the mid and late nineties, it was frustrating but easier to deal with. We weren’t getting any anywhere much because the players weren’t good enough. Now, to my mind at least, it’s about potential unfulfilled, watching Spurs a series of brutal reminders that we are never going to be as good as we could be. Some fans’ booing of Emerson has become audible. Is he as good as we want him to be? No. Will booing make him play better? No (because he tries hard already). Will booing him make the chairman transform his transfer buying policy? No, so why do it? I don’t and I don’t condone it but it is also true that through this scapegoating fans are projecting a broader, deeper frustration onto someone who to me is an honest player who tries but is not what we need. The scapegoating of any player is wrong but the underlying exasperation and anger is real.

There’s a huge problem at the heart of everything that happens at Spurs. The club does not know what it wants to be, a success or an also ran, and Levy is the only Spurs fan who hasn’t worked it out by now. It’s not about throwing money around. It’s about planning and leadership, and our chairman provides neither.

Success in any organisation needs a vision that is shared and is achievable. Levy is by all accounts a successful businessman. As CEO, he’ll set that philosophy out and choose key staff to carry it out. He will take enormous care in getting the right people, but he appears unable to do that at a football club. At no point have Spurs created the lasting alignment between manager, recruitment and finance that is the foundation for success. There have been moments but one of those three elements is almost always out of sync.

Succession planning is non-existent, especially so with Levy’s vanity project choices of big name short-termists like JM and Conte. Constant changes undermine continuity so we end up with mismatched squads made up of players bought by different managers for different reasons and for different tactics. This is not the first time I’ve written that in this blog and it probably won’t be the last.

Conte doesn’t want the long, complete answer. He won’t be around for that long, whatever happens in the next year or two. He just wants to know if he can get what he wants, now. I was unable to get to the Villa game, but television revealed the most significant concerning aspect of that dreadful game, Conte’s face after the second goal. The blank expression, eyes staring into space. He did not know what to do. Powerless in the face of his team’s ineptitude.

His reaction fanned the flames of supporters’ anger, already white-hot. Searching for coherence within the verbal quagmire that is a Conte press conference is a futile exercise, and it’s best to sidestep his tedious posturing. The content is all about his anxiety, projected onto the board and lack of transfers. It’s a message to the board that he wants better players, and only that. He is not speaking to us even when he mentions the fans. He cares about us or the club only if it reflects his own glory. That’s ok, provided that you know where we stand with that.

We back Antonio from the South Stand and I join in, it’s a message he needs to hear. Managers and players for that matter can give their all without being emotionally attached. Professional football, the clue’s in the name. But maybe we get more if players do value our heritage. Kulu and Bentancur have clearly bought into the pride and passion we as supporters express and both have raised their games accordingly. Kulusevski has listened to the long answer and taken to heart our history and what the club means to supporters. Conte probably hasn’t but success will come because of his ego, just don’t expect anything more. He never stays around, we knew that when we appointed him.

I hope the board give him enough of what he wants and of the players we need. I think they plan to respond, although it may not be enough. At some point, the financial stability offered by income from the stadium and the CL must give us more to spend. Conte has said it will take three windows – we know he could have 23 available without getting who he needs if history is our guide – and he may not have the patience to wait until next autumn, which even if we buy the players he wants is the earliest they can be fully integrated into the system. 

Spirits rose after thumping Palace, led by Harry as his most magnificent. I was delighted for Gil. His positional play has developed, evidence that coaching does exist at Spurs after all and hopefully his headless chicken routine is a thing of the past. Getting used to the PL is not just about the physicality, it’s also about passing quickly and decisively rather than holding on the ball.

The derby is a chance for a new beginning but I’m a realist too. If we defend versus our north London neighbours like we did against Palace, we’ll get slaughtered. Fans are running out of patience. The mood could turn ugly. There may be trouble ahead.

Spurs Are Back But Nothing Much Changes

We needed that break. I always sigh as international breaks disrupt the ebb and flow of Spurs’ season, but it was all getting a bit much, if I’m honest. Games hurtling past without a chance to take stock, players running hard but only intensity without quality, repetitive patterns yet lacking shape or style. One match merging into the next, another game over and done with, and nothing was special or something to look forward to.

It must have done some good, because it took a while on Boxing Day before it slowly came back to me that we don’t play in the first half, that we can’t defend and that another mistake is just around the corner. That optimism soon disappears as reality bites.

Before this round of fixtures began, there was much speculation about the impact of the World Cup on players. Would they be tired or would they come back match-fit as opposed to those left behind? After the first half, the answer at Spurs was obvious – nothing’s changed. And so I can lift a few sentences from previous pieces this season. Predictable build-up, two in central midfield easily outnumbered by Brentford’s formation, so we are last to every second ball and regularly caught in possession. Sitting back. The defence vulnerable because it lacks protection. Dier’s error when under no pressure. Zonal at a corner (I have deliberately avoided using the word ‘marking’ because it was not appropriate in this case) and unthinkingly following instructions without responding to the fact that their main goalscorer was unmarked and unchallenged, a repeat I think of two other goals we’ve conceded from corners this season. My son missed the game as he was working. I told him simply that he’s seen it several times already this season.

Einstein is quoted as defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He never actually said that, by the way, it’s one of those quotes that is frequently repeated because it has the ring of truth, so add Einstein’s name for a greater cachet than if, say, Alan Fisher had said it.  I strongly suspect it’s not one of those motivational quotes beloved by coaches and pinned up on the wall of the Spurs dressing room. 

Conte won’t change, however mystifying the reasons for this approach appear to supporters, and it’s wrong to make judgements solely on the basis of this game. The return of Bentancur and Romero makes a significant difference, and Kulusevski is fit again. My admiration for Perisic grows game by game. His fitness, experience and application is why we pay him so much, and he’s delivering. Emerson should remain on the bench. And Harry is scoring, despite it all. Was it my imagination or did he look more relaxed, the burden of captaining England lifted from his shoulders. We fans can show him he belongs at the Lane with us, and we will care for him.

But I don’t understand what Conte sees when we sit back and get overrun. Opponents sussed us long ago, yet we carry on. The only explanation I can come up with – you may have others – is that he wants us to keep it tight early on. But we don’t, especially if we sit back and get overrun, and we can’t, because we can’t defend. Simply, we can’t do what he wants us to do.  Many fans are crying out for more exciting football. I don’t think Conte’s formation is intrinsically boring, after all, he prefers three in advanced starting positions, it’s dull because we’re not playing well or doing what he expects.

Which begs the question, what can improve matters? We need better players – simplistic but Conte knows that. But there are three problems restricting development. First, at the start of the season, it looked like squad depth had improved compared with the recent past, and Kulu, Romero, Bentacur and Richarlison are good buys, while Bissouma will develop if he gets minutes. However, several of the covering players have been found wanting. Also, Conte appears largely disinterested in bringing players through. Skipp, Tanganga, Sarr and Spence have not had a look-in, while Sessegnon has been favoured but his undoubted talent remains undermined by a sense of fragility, which could prove fatal in the long run.

Then, it’s all very well talking about building on what we already have when the foundations show signs of crumbling. Conte’s style relies on reliable defence and the absence of mistakes, yet Dier and Lloris are wobbling on a regular basis. Not so long ago I spoke of having a solid spine. These are the experienced players to rely on, yet their current uncertainty visibly spreads though the side if things aren’t going smoothly. Dier in particular, a player I like despite his limitations, looked good as the lynchpin of the central defence. He was becoming a leader, a strong organising voice that every successful side requires. It’s worrying, although I hope with Romero back things will start to improve.

And finally, there’s Levy. There’s always Levy. He’s made money available, and now he needs to commit more. It’s not about throwing money at the problem, rather it’s a fundamental question about deciding what sort of club we are. Get Conte, and get the players he wants. Or, build a team of developing players and get a manager suited to that task.

Decide if we want to hang around the top four, and watch as floundering giants like United or the nouveau riche like Newcastle get their acts together to overtake us, never mind AFC who have well and truly sorted themselves out, damn them, or commit the funds to get the players ready to fit straight in. If Paratici does his job, it may not have to be a fortune, but it may have to be more than Spurs usually pay and decisions have to made without dithering.

There’s growing frustration around the fanbase at the moment. Fans are right to think we should have made more progress, but the real frustration comes from the fact that this question has largely gone unresolved in the past twenty years. What sort of a club do we want to be? We’ve heard this all before, but if anyone can make the board listen, it’s Conte, plus Levy will be looking over his shoulder at our rivals. He’ll also be looking at the balance sheet, which with the income from the ground and the CL must reassure him. 

Conte’s press conferences have become Mourinhoesque, and I don’t mean that in a good way. He is contradictory and chucks stuff out there about the future, contracts and what-ifs, so best to ignore it all. So with that caveat, the manager has said it will take three windows before he can get things together. That leaves me with the feeling that he could do more with what he has, and he may have to because January windows are rarely transformative. Let’s start with a RWB and another central defender, and don’t be afraid to pay for quality.

A happy and peaceful New Year to one and all. Sincere thanks for reading and commenting, and for still dropping in after all these years. It’s warmly appreciated.

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.