Watching Spurs Was Fun. It Will Never Catch On.

Spurs are through to the semi-final of the League Cup courtesy of an emphatic 4-0 victory over Newcastle United. Tottenham spent the second half pinging the ball around with an exuberant freedom rarely seen during the past few years. Cracking football, plenty of goals, a vibrant atmosphere including a full contribution from thousands of loyal, loud Geordies and to make it just like the good old days there was even a miscreant visitor bodily carried out by a posse of stewards and police. Fabulous to kick back and enjoy it all. I could get used to this.

For Spurs was the perfect League Cup tie, competitive but without edge. The FA Cup is the one, real commitment and born of a long, proud heritage that links every club in the land. My advice for the League Cup is to enjoy it but forget a defeat in the time it takes to get from the ground to the station. Sure, during extra time at Wembley in 2008 I had dissolved into a gibbering froth of anxiety, so if only I could follow my own observations, but allow me the self-delusion that’s natural for every supporter.

The League Cup should be fun and this win most certainly was, but while there were promising signs of our progress, Newcastle gave us plenty of room to play. They fielded a strong side if a little lightweight up front and with two sides keen to attack, this created fast end to end football. However, their young keeper Jak Alnwick followed the inept example of brother and former Spur Ben in providing a couple of assists. Pardew also made a game-changing tactical error at the start of the second half. The vast Sissoko had trampled over our midfield during the third period but was then moved wide.

Presumably the plan was to repeat the tactics that won our visitors this season’s league match where he stampeded down our left. Instead, it gave Spurs the freedom of the park. An absolute pleasure to see Spurs moving forward at every opportunity, luscious pass and move revolving around a playmaker, Christian Eriksen, and anchored by a deep-lying midfielder, Nabil Bentaleb.

 

Both excelled, with Eriksen in particular catching the eye. Given a central role with a fair degree of freedom, he was on the move and involved for 90 minutes, welcome but rare for him lately. Not everything came off – I suspect the dreaded pass completion stats were not in the top bracket – but the best players take risks and that inspiration makes things happen.

Things happened around him all evening, the best being a delightful curling pass through the defence to Rose (I think) but Soldado couldn’t capitalise on his instant cross. He made our fourth, a 20 yard burst ending with a shot parried straight to Soldado who tucked it in from close range. Eriksen really needs a nickname. ‘Come on Christian’ sounds like something from the touchline of an under 11s rugby match in Tunbridge Wells or a call to evensong. He seemed revitalised. After Sunday’s win he credited improved fitness levels for our series of late comebacks and certainly he was a bundle of energy and joy last night.

Bentaleb lay deeper, marshalling the ball onto his left foot, head up and looking to move it on. No apologies for the over-use of ‘forward’ in this piece – it was so noticeable. Significant too – our best spells recently have all featured this approach, keeping possession but seeking to move it upfield at a decent tempo. This is key to Pochettino’s style – promising signs that the message is getting through, even to Dembele who again was influential as a sub playing in an advanced position.

Stambouli reminds me of those midfield warriors of the 70s and 80s. Every team had one, Horlock, Storey, Yorath, muscular, hard-bitten and unforgiving of any mistake by an opponent. Round-shouldered and sharp-eyed, Stambouli doesn’t run, he prowls. He tackles hard and takes the man if he can’t reach the ball. This is a different century so he’s an upgraded model, keen to get the ball forward with an eye for a quick pass.

I like him and Pochettino may be warming to him too – use of the word ‘forward’ again. Trouble is, Spurs have problems at the back because the back four need cover and that’s not the Frenchman’s instinct. Capoue is the only defensive DM we have and he deservedly lost his place as his early season promise disappeared.

These problems at the back were on show yesterday, especially in a first half that was pretty even. On several occasions Newcastle whizzed the ball across our box, including one early in the second half that the Geordies were prematurely celebrating, so sure were they that one of three forwards were bound to get a touch.

Spurs went in with a first half lead thanks to Bentaleb’s first goal for us. Under no real pressure, the keeper dropped a far-post corner and Nab moved with lightning reactions to touch the fumble home before it fell below shoulder height.

Chadli’s low shot from the edge of the box made it two before many had sat down after half-time. Our best was our third, Townsend stabbing a little first-time ball into the channel and Kane spun away from the defender to shot low across the keeper. It’s the sort of goal we seldom score and augers well for the future. Kane on fine form again up front, one of many pleasures on an enjoyable evening.

A final note: interesting to see Poch try Eriksen in the middle, trying out a few ideas maybe. Also significant is that Fazio and Vertonghen paired at centre back once more. No rotation there, rather, hard work to establish a partnership. And Vorm was very good.

Reflections On A Heartwarming Victory: Spurs Fans and Players Stand Together

The search for the lost heart of Tottenham Hotspur is over. It was there all the time, waiting to be found by three young footballers, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. They knew all along what it means to be Spurs and their performances in Sunday’s defeat of Everton not only showed their more experienced team-mates the path to follow, they ignited and inspired the crowd. Together, as one, as it should be.

This was Spurs’ best performance of the season, superior to the big win over QPR because the Toffees are a much better side. Tottenham were disciplined, keeping a shape that ensured Everton had few opportunities but flexible enough to quickly turn defence into attack. Yet what stood out was the spirit and commitment of the whole team, playing with drive, application and purpose. Regardless almost of the result, this was a remarkable transformation compared with the festering sore of last month’s apathetic and alienating efforts.

The afternoon also revealed Adebayor’s deluded whinging about how our troubles were due to supporter negativity as the narcissistic self-indulgence it really was. The intoxicating mixture of the young men’s effort and noise from the crowd punctured once and for all the smug complacency behind his comments after the Stoke defeat. Players and managers spend their careers in crowded football grounds yet they never get it. Supporters and players aren’t different breeds. We’re inextricably linked, feeding off the emotional connection between us. This reciprocity isn’t about cause and effect: sometimes they get us going, sometimes we lift them. On the good days you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and this was a very good day. The alchemy created an exhilarating, emotionally charged atmosphere that lifted the spirits of player and supporter alike, in particular aiding a flagging side in the final 10 minutes to resist a series of Everton set-pieces as they searched in vain for an equaliser.

And this is what matters, truly matters, long after the final whistle. Matches, players, seasons come and go, fortune waxes and wanes, but keep the beating heart of a football club pulsing and you have the foundation of future success. The form of even the very best footballers ebbs and flows but if playing in navy blue and white means something to them, deep inside, they can find the strength to overcome adversity.

Heaven knows we’ve waited a long time for Bobby Soldado to score. We’ve gone through disappointment, frustration and anger to sympathy and condolence. Scoring goals on instinct since he was kid, once the flow dried up, he’s had no idea what to do about it. He’s like an old friend who has been through such bad times that you are compelled to look away as you wish him well because the pain in his eyes is too much to take.

So when the moment finally came, what mattered more to him, the billowing of the net or the ecstatic reception from the crowd? It was the noise, the song, the shared joy of a homecoming almost that surely will stay with him, that will mean he’ll give that little bit more when harder times come along. We had not rejected him despite it all. After the genuine celebrations in the corner, he took a long time to walk back to the centre circle, savouring each step, deep in reflection despite the elation all around him. The demons were banished. The half-time whistle blew a few seconds later and he skipped off to the dressing room.

Kane and Bentaleb were outstanding throughout. Kane has been ‘a prospect’ for a few years but I did not think he could come on so swiftly. It’s like a child’s growing spurt – you see them every day yet suddenly they physically and emotionally mature. It’s part of nature but still we are surprised. And pleased.

No pace but his close control was always a threat to an Everton defence whose weakness for backing off proved to be their undoing. Spurs began the game in good order but just as it seemed nothing was going to come from our play, and a goal down by this time, Kane took matters into his own hands and ran at them. Suddenly the back four were exposed. Howard could only push his hard shot to the feet of Eriksen who with care and precision placed the ball into the far corner.

Kane began the match on the right, helping Lennon stifle the dangerous Baines. As the half progressed it became clear Azza was doing a fine job on his own, thank you very much, so Harry could drift in and be more involved. The midfield needed assistance as Everton had the lion’s share of possession – here’s Harry back to help out. Soldado could be isolated on his own but wait, Harry’s there to lend a hand. 50-50 in midfield becomes a Spurs ball because Harry’s in. Defence is suddenly attack, on the break Harry’s set Lennon free for his only run at the defence. On the break he slips Bobby in and the finish across the keeper is just perfect. Later, Barkley’s dangerous in the centre replacing the ineffective Eto, this could be trouble -wait! Harry’s got him. Outstanding.

Bentaleb was a presence throughout. He is always available, keeps the ball moving and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining a decent tempo in our play. That’s the mark of a quality footballer. He too has matured, if not overnight then at the World Cup. In his demeanour he seems 5 years older compared with the end of last season.

Mason had less of an impact but played his part in the most solid midfield of the season. He and Bentaleb sought each other at the end and hugged, mutual congratulations for a job well done. Lennon was excellent, dutifully up and down his wing, less winging and more tackling back it has to be said but goodness knows Chiriches, a mistake waiting to happen, needs all the help he can get. Right-footer on the right, playing well – who knew?

Eriksen did well too, working hard from kick-off. Thought there was a different look in his eyes, more determination. As a unit they excelled, pressing high when required but mostly funnelling back to set up the barricades 40 yards out. Lots of calling to each other, encouragement, where to go, plug a gap. Soldado’s goal was preceded by an equally significant piece of play, where Everton had the ball for an extended period but were forced to go from side to side, unable to find a gap. Pushed back, they lost the ball and Kane did the rest.

We kept our shape and discipline throughout. This helped the back four immeasurably. Davies and Chiriches could tuck in or if they were brought out knew someone would slot in to cover. Vertonghen was clearly inspired by proceedings, visibly growing into the match and dealing with the second half pressure that came at him.

Lamela was the only problem. On for the tired Lennon and clearly given strict instructions to keep the shape, he just couldn’t resist. After a disciplined start, he left his post and charged around committing needless fouls. He could easily have been sent off rather than booked. Baines was livid with him for a couple of tackles and I don’t blame him. This weakness could end his PL career.

Much has been made of Spurs’ conspicuous lack of success on a Sunday following a Europa League fixture but the foundations for this win were laid on Thursday night. Bentaleb, Davies and Lennon had valuable game time while key pairings of Kane and Soldado up front and Fazio and Vertonghen at the back had time to get used to each other.

I’m pleased for the manager that an incredibly brave decision to play Mason and Bentaleb in the engine room came off. Also his preferred set-up needs the forward able to get into the box and drop back, a role Kane fulfilled admirably. It’s a telling indictment of Sunday’s benchwarmers and confirmed that Pochettino does not have the type of midfielder that he wants. The young players listen and respond. Not asking a lot but too much for some, apparently.

Without getting carried away – Chelsea hot favourites tomorrow – there was so much to enjoy on an afternoon that began with a conspicuous lack of optimism in the stands. They found what it takes to be a winning side. Nothing but credit all round.

A Hero For Our Time

Spurs comprehensively dismantled QPR yesterday at White Hart Lane with a first half display of sustained flowing football that was delightfully easy on the eye. Everyone contributed and there’s a confidence about the way they went about taking control of the game from the kick-off that is remarkable given this is only Pochettino’s third competitive match in charge. 

From Lamela’s running with the ball through to Rose the overlapping full-back and Capoue’s purposeful graft to Eriksen cushioning a sky-high ball stone dead and thumping a free kick against the bar, the first half was pure purring pleasure. For once Tottenham could be excused easing off in the second. Let’s not get carried away – Rangers were dire – but Tottenham On My Mind’s mantra is enjoy it while you can and if my ambition for this season is to enjoy it all again, this was a great start.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” (Brecht) Football needs heroes and we’ve been looking for so long. Someone to revere, to get us excited when he’s on the ball, to boast about, to anticipate. In Erik Lamela, maybe the search is over.

There’s a theory that while coaches can make the running style of elite athletes more efficient, for most of us the body sorts out the biomechanics, which is why our gait is individual. Lamela is at his most natural with a ball at his feet. Relaxed and at ease in possession, he has to be on the move. He glides over the turf, effortless yet alert, making his own space and time, in search of an opening. Like a venus fly trap he seduces defenders into believing it’s safe. A slight figure, no outstanding pace, the temptation to tackle is overwhelming. They commit and he’s gone. 

He carries himself with the casual, oblivious insouciance that defines class. See him on the other side of the field, amidst a group of players, he stands out just by being there. He may not spend that much time on the ball but that’s not the point. His sudden bursts into space are game-changers. There’s danger for the opposition whenever he has room to breathe, even if as yet he’s not quite sure what to do with the power at his feet. Reminds me a lot of that great Spurs maverick, Alfie Conn. Yesterday he had more time in the second half as QPR vainly pushed forward and paradoxically was less effective. On one occasion in particular he dallied in the box when beautifully set up. Sometimes you just have to put your foot through the ball. We like our heroes to be fallible. 

Every time he was on the ball, there was anticipation in the air. He worked hard too – a few of his best moments came after he had won the ball in a hard challenge. On the few occasions we spotted him last season, he wandered aimlessly but Pochettino has enabled him to find a role. Capoue and Bentaleb provide a secure platform for the attacking midfield three to take the ball to our opponents. Capoue was strong throughout, although he must moderate his challenges or else he will be booked every game. Bentaleb had a good first half hour, important as we quickly established midfield superiority despite Rangers putting 9 and 10 men behind the ball. Rangers missed a great chance at 1-0 and that was that.

 

In front of them, Lamela, Chadli and Eriksen’s fluent interchanging of positions kept the opportunities flowing. Rose and Dier willingly pushed up to offer width. One big improvement with the new model Spurs is that as one element of the system moves, so the others shift around to maintain stability. Two examples. Last season Adebayor often had to be in two places at once, moving wide to create space while simultaneously being in the centre to get on the end of a pass or cross. Yesterday he missed two good chances, an early header from well within the box and a tame shot from the edge of the area, straight at keeper Green when Spurs had a 3 to 1 advantage after slicing through the Rangers defence. But later, when he pulled wide to unsettle the three centre halves, others took advantage of the space. Chadli at the far post controlled Manu’s cross on his chest and with calm delicacy touched it home for our opener.

Chadli again for the fabulous thrilling third. After a period of possession, Lamela burst diagonally leaving defenders in his wake. Chadli launched himself at the Argentinian’s cross, athletically powering home a thumping header. This was just terrific and Spurs were rampant. 

Also, Danny Rose can time his runs better and move forward knowing that Spurs won’t be exposed at the back if he does so. He’s not trotting forward to make up the numbers. He’s decisive, and his wing eforts helped dismantle the hapless QPR 3-5-2 system, exposing the full-back/midfield whatever (he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing). Three of our four goals came from crosses from the left. Our fourth, Rose belted onto a Chadli pass and crossed for Manu to slide home. Two passes, 50 yards, 5 seconds. Sitting on the Shelf I could hear Rose call for that ball from the opposite side of the field. That’s how much he wanted it.

Rose was excellent defensively too. When he said he wanted to stay and fight for his place, for once it wasn’t just an empty soundbite. 

I wish Glenn Hoddle well in his new coaching role at QPR but this appeared to be a case of what looks good on the tactics board fails miserably when it comes to putting into practice. It was easy for Spurs to get round their flanks and the three centre halves just confused each other. It’s not that easy to leave so much room in the box but they managed it. Barton dutifully pressed then looked round in despair to see that none of his team-mates followed his example. 

The Rangers fans could not have been more let down by their side, except of course by their manager. Four down, the Spurs fans chanted, “Harry give us a wave”, and he obliged. I could feel the heat of their fans’ anger from the Shelf. There’s an article on the Four Four Two weekly online, entitled something like, Why Do Fans Hate Harry? I don’t hate him but wherever he goes, you don’t need to hand him a shovel, he can dig a hole all on his own.

Dier looks a right bargain of a prospect, a second accomplished game with a bonus goal, a near-post header from a whipped Lamela corner so firm Green got two hands to it but could not keep it out. Pochettino’s substitutions kept our momentum going, with Dembele coming on for Bentaleb and Kane too. He’s in tune with the rhythm of the game and is pro-active.  

 

Stomach Churning? Shouting At The TV? Yep, Spurs Are Back

My season starts in the same way, at the same point, every year. Take a complete break over the summer these days. No friendlies, don’t even know what the new kit looks like. Need a rest, especially after last season’s debacle. Spurs’ first game, I’m keen but slightly detached. What will be will be and all that.

We begin well enough, interesting to see how we set up, Hammers come close but I have the luxury of the TV angle via my stream and it’s going wide. Then, it begins. Our marking is poor, they have a great chance. Should have scored and my stomach turns over. The bile rises, I feel sick, churning, stamping my feet, shouting at the screen. That’s a relief. Football’s back and everything is reassuringly normal.

It’s good to win on the opening day of the season and the manner of victory with a classy goal deep into added time was sheer delight. Kane, on as sub for Adebayor, spotted the runner and slid a perfect angled ball through the hapless Wham back four. That the runner was Eric Dier, full-back, on debut, 93rd minute, was a bit of a surprise but his calm, controlled finish, rounding the keeper before stroking the ball into an empty net, was worthy of Greaves or Gilzean. If my ‘new season resolution’ is to enjoy the Spurs, that’s the way to go, gents, thank you kindly.

This came on the back of a resilient hour when we were down to 10 men after Naughton was sent off for handling a supposedly goal-bound shot. Great to win but this was a mostly ordinary match between two ordinary sides. Our goal, however excellent, was our only genuine chance in the whole game. W Ham obliged by missing theirs plus a penalty. Other sides won’t be so generous but first game, down to ten men for much of it so no real conclusions to be drawn. Like I said, let’s enjoy the moment.

The penalty incident seems the obvious turning point. After we mastered early possession, without doing anything dangerous with it, our opponents stifled us in midfield and were on top. We muddled away a couple of efforts, swarming round attackers in the box, then close to the goal Naughton hurled himself in to block a shot. It was ball to hand but those hands were held high like a goalkeeper. Penalty, I’m afraid. Cue cries of ‘unlucky’, ‘seen them not given’ but after a chat with his linesman, the ref made the right choice. Naughton saw red – blocking a goalbound shot with his hands, I guess, even though it was probably going over. Inevitable. We had a couple of ball to hand pens last season. Fine if refs are consistent with this interpretation all season. Bet they won’t be.

Bright start, no goals, opposition get back into it, cock-up. The Spurs way. New season, new manager, same old story. But wait. Fans of rival clubs have more in common than they would care to admit. The Hammers I know could describe their side in the same way. Miss a penalty, then the real turning point of this match came in the second half when Adebayor knocked the ball past centre half Collins, who duly obliged by bringing him down even though it was nearer the halfway line than the goal. Already booked, Collins was gone and if Manu did little else yesterday, he knew what he was doing right then. The man advantage tossed away.

In a match without too much goalmouth incident, the other significant moment came late on. Lloris, superb in this fixture at the fag end of 2013-4, dashed out to thwart Downing’s close-range shot as finally WHam breached our defence. It was a proper save, not just an arms-and-legs-flailing block.

So Mr Poch, what do you have in store for us? W Ham’s first attack didn’t amount to anything but our response was indicative of the shape of things to come. Bentaleb and Capoue, our two defensive midfielders, dropped back straight away, taking up deep positions a few yards in front of the back four and in the gaps between them. The midfield three of Lamela, Lennon and Eriksen fell back behind the ball, leaving centre forward Adebayor up front. That DM positioning is key if we are to overcome the huge problems of last season when the back four were unprotected and therefore vulnerable.

When we had the ball, the three interchanged positions, they seemed to know what was going on and filled the space left as their team-mates moved around. The full-backs came forward to help out and Bentaleb joined them, staying deeper than the three but involved while Capoue hangs further back.

They looked comfortable and Capoue was our best player until he dropped back to centre half. However, it was all a bit cluttered – they were too close to each other – and we didn’t have a shot on goal in this early period despite being on top. Possession is important as they shifted the ball from side to side. Repeatedly we tried lofted passes in Adebayor’s direction, which seemed to me to be tactics not desperation. What’s certain is that they didn’t work. Like all our work on the ball in the first twenty minutes, it was overly deliberate and the big Hammers defenders easily dealt with them.

Eriksen and Lamela showed glimpses of promise on the ball but faded all too easily when Wham flooded the midfield and made things difficult. They tossed a few balls into the box from deep but we did little to stop them and looked unnecessarily shaky in the box. Dier’s selection shows Pochettino is looking to the future – if ever there is a match for Dawson it’s this one as we know the ball is going to ping in repeatedly. Dier is promising but the opposition forwards got in between the centre halves and missed a couple of good opportunities.

Despite the sending off, Pochettino remained resolutely positive. Capoue was our best player at this juncture. I would have brought Dawson on and kept Capoue where he was as DM. However, the Argentinian did not want to waste a substitution, so Capoue became centre half and Dier right back.

It looked as if it was only a matter of time before the Hammers scored. After half time we were pushed back. Adebayor was isolated and detached from the midfield up front, so we had no outlet. But we discovered another feature of Pochettino’s approach, his brave, attacking use of subs, which turned the match in our favour. Holtby and Townsend for Lennon and Lamela gave us renewed industry and, in Townsend the ability to take the game to our opponents. At this stage in his development, Townsend needs a yard or two to look dangerous. Close him down and he’s not learned effective options. Yesterday he posed problems every time he took the defence on. It felt as if our manager would have made the same changes regardless of W Ham’s carelessness in dropping to 10 men.

And make no mistake, the players were encouraged to get forward. Dier’s willingness to get into opposition half seemed reckless as the minutes ticked away and we were on for a decent away point. Stay back, let someone else make the runs…hah!

Early days, 10 men, no time for judgements. However: Bentaleb had a good game and a man who did not appear in any of the papers’ ‘best Spurs team’ has caught the new manager’s eye. He keeps the ball moving and finds space wherever he goes. I wonder if Kane may have to adapt to a role similar to that of Rodriguez at Southampton, a forward able to drop back when needed. Kaboul was poor outside the box – as captain he should have set a better example.