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.

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