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.  

 

Spurs Preview 2: the Team. A Whiff Of Cautious Optimism In The Air

This, Tottenham On My Mind’s fifth season, begins as did all the others, with Daniel Levy as the defining character in the drama to come. The seasons ended that way too. But this one is different, whatever the ultimate outcome. Levy has responded to his manager like never before. Over to you, Andre.

First signing – Franco Baldini. A highly respected and knowledgeable figure in European football, the significance of this move could easily be forgotten because he has opted, rightly, for a low profile. That a man of his experience should come to Spurs in the first place shows that he believes in the club’s potential. It also gives Villas-Boas his clearest indication yet that he has proved himself in the eyes of the board.

To prosper, Spurs have to buy footballers with potential, not quite at the top of their game but bursting with talent and ambition. If nothing else we can’t compete at the very highest level for salaries and transfer fees but that’s not a bad place to be. These men have something to prove, they want to succeed rather than play the odd game and be more involved with their bank manager than the first team coach. Find a way of harnessing Villas-Boas’ ambition to the national grid and Britain’s energy problems are solved. Even Soldado, our marquee signing, has had to fight his up from rejection at Real Madrid.

So we depend on knowing who’s out there. They used to be called scouts, who knows these days, but it’s no coincidence  that Baldini has been followed by a succession of classy players in the Spurs mould, all part of Villas-Boas’ vision. This may be the difficult second season but for the first time this is Andre’s team. He’s hardly starting from scratch but these are his men, the new guys because he wants them, the familiar figures secure in the knowledge that Villas-Boas wants to keep them rather than being here by default.

The vision is sound: our fortunes this season will be dictated by how well the players conform to it. It’s less about 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or some such, more about these key characteristics. Possession, so we need men comfortable on the ball and who know when to be patient and when to move it along. Movement, to support the man on the ball or to regroup when the opponents have possession. Flexibility: the front six in particular will interchange on the field, be able to both attack and defend. Emotional intelligence, which in football is an awareness of their role and duties in respect of the position of other players, a dynamic that shifts a thousand or more times a match, plus a team ethic rather than a selfish approach.

Pace: around the pitch and with the ball. Mobility: ditto. Poor Tom Hud was yesterday bemoaning the lack of opportunities for him and others but the Spurs game has passed him by, bless him. Hud, Dempsey, Caulker, Bentley, Parker perhaps, they’ve been upgraded because they don’t fulfill these last two criteria.

Athleticism: the power, stamina and strength to survive in the Premier League. Last but not least, resilience, a bloody-minded determination to give everything but never give ground, to keep the other lot out at all costs. It’s something we’ve not always had but there were positive signs last season.

In the modern game it’s that movement and flexibility that characterises the best teams. Whatever the formation, we depend on the midfield protecting the back four and getting forward, in and around their box. That said, 4-2-3-1 with Sandro and Paulinho a mouthwatering proposition as the DMs looks a good place to begin. Both can drive forward as well as being comfortable in defence. That’s important in the transition from defence to attack. I’ve not seen Capoue but that is his position by all accounts. Holtby can play there too but I don’t see that as Dembele’s best role. He’s better given freedom to get forward.

Chadli by all accounts is versatile but best out wide. Siggy is better in the middle and found form in the box but I can’t see him starting to begin with. Lennon has dramatically improved his all-round game but is best going forward and may have to begin as an impact sub. Note that I’ve left space for Bale, let’s leave it at that.

Soldado of course leading the line, determined, aggressive and sharp in the box. I would keep Defoe and Adebayor, although both might get moody if they don’t play in a side that seems heavy on midfield options, unless Baldini has some upgrades on the way.

Lloris is a fine keeper, unobtrusively active in his box and sweeping up behind the back four. The full-backs have defensive weaknesses. We don’t need a new right-back, we need Walker to respond to his coach and put that learning into place this season. Assou-Ekotto seems out of favour while Rose had a decent time at Sunderland, so I’ll wait to see if he has improved. Naughton is useful cover but not a regular starter. Whatever, there isn’t a full-back in the league who can handle a two on one and we have to protect them. Last season some teams worked hard to get a 2 v 1 on our full-backs, especially on the left.

That leaves centre-backs and once again Spurs can’t get it right. Last year it was the strikers, or lack of them, this we have three centre-backs, only one of whom, Dawson, is fully fit. Capoue can play there and there are rumours of new arrivals but it is a dangerous place to be at the start of a season where we are playing two games a week from the off, especially as we don’t know how Kaboul will be after his long lay off. He may recover strength but what about speed?

Anyway, never mind all this tactical mumbo-jumbo. If we can’t defend set pieces we stand no chance. And I mean no chance. Inexcusable if it carries on.

This is a fine squad that has the potential to realise the manager’s vision. No inflated ambitions – it will be hard work to settle these newcomers into a team and despite the imperative to do away with our usual slow start we may have to wait awhile before they hit their stride. I would use the Europa League matches to bed the team in rather than play reserves, especially as our pre-season has been so bitty.

I detect a note of optimism. Steady on, this is Spurs, so no more. One thing is for sure, I am looking forward to this season enormously, more so than for a while now. Come on you Spurs.

One more preview piece, have to be next week now, on the relationship between the club and fans.

With Or Without Him, Spurs On The Right Track

While the media fixate on Gareth Bale’s transfer like a toddler staring at a lollypop in a sweetshop, Daniel Levy is getting on with business. As Spurs approach the new season, it’s remarkable that an £85m transfer is not the most significant development at the club.

Levy’s vision for Tottenham Hotspur has provoked bile-infused debate since he became chairman in 2001. His prudent approach to housekeeping has left us financially secure but perennially short of being true contenders. This summer, things have changed. Roberto Soldado is the scorer, the pivot, the leader, the talisman that we have craved for so long. Like the Holy Grail, the quest seemed never-ending but now the myth has become flesh and blood. It’s unheard of for Spurs to spend £26m on a 28-year-old: Levy has finally got the message.

Levy’s hard to work out. Goodness knows he gives nothing away. I can’t recall more than a single big interview with him in the last ten years. Certainly he’s far more complex than the two-dimensional miser he’s made out to be by his detractors. He’s a fan and like all us becomes conflicted when it comes to major decisions about the club we love. When decisions don’t come easy, he reverts to an instinctive response, and his instinct is business.

Like any businessman he seeks to manoeuvre a situation where he maximises opportunity and minimises risk. Win-win is the ideal, albeit seldom realistically achievable. If not, protect yourself with a fall-back position that ensures a reasonably soft landing. Last summer Harry Redknapp presented a demand for a new contract. Levy saw better value elsewhere and probably felt ‘arry’s ‘art wasn’t in it, still pining for that England job. All in all, not good for Spurs, so HR was sent packing with a flea in his ear.

Andre Villas-Boas was very different. Levy has a mixed record when it comes to picking managers. The last time he took a risk with a guy for whom Spurs was a step up, Juande Ramos, it was a total disaster. Again, he had sacked a manager who had been reasonably successful, at least compared with what had gone before. So this time, he hedged his bets. Cruelly he limited Villas-Boas’ funds in the market, in particular denying him Moutinho, AVB’s man, who would be his leader and lynchpin in midfield. That Villas-Boas took that plus the absence of a proper strikeforce in his stride is a measure of his committment to the club.

This wasn’t Levy being a skinflint. Rather, he wasn’t prepared to take the double risk of a new manager and large expenditure. A poor decision in my view – he should have backed his manager – but to Levy it’s the cold hard realities of business. Now however, Our Andre has proved himself. To DL the investment is worth it. Not only Soldado – Levy has made other funds available for players who provide value. In recent years, Spurs have spent good money on men for whom the club is a step up, who will mature on the field and contribute to the team while at the same time increasing their price in the market should they be sold on. Modric and Berbatov are the two best examples, Dembele and Lloris last season. Not cheap, not youngsters but with their best years ahead of them. Value on the pitch and off it. Win win.

This approach has brought in Paulinho and Chadli plus, it seems highly likely, Caboue. I can only comment from my own observations on the Brazilian, who judging from the Confederations Cup looks a fine prospect, with skill, drive and the physique to prosper in Premier League midfields. Chadli sounds like he will fit right in, a ball-player with pace and versatility, the latter being a significant attribute in any VIllas-Boas team where movement and mobility are key and tactics change not only from match to match but during the game too.

The outgoings and salaries (I strongly suspect the top end of our self-imposed restrictive salary structure has been moved too) will to some extent be offset by the sale of those surplus to requirements, Parker, Huddlestone and Dempsey, all good men and true in their way but note the lack of pace they have in common. Despite this, Levy’s spending is running at unprecedented levels. I admire his unwillingness to get caught up in the crazy upward spiral of Premier League transfer business that threatens the long-term security of clubs who get it wrong. However, his reluctance to fully commit long ago became indefensible. It’s a decisive change that is long overdue and will be heartily welcomed by supporters.

I’d like to think it’s the fan in him that has made him change tack. The passion, the romance, the danger that makes any fulfilling relationship so scary and exciting at the same time, but I doubt Levy has abandoned his principles. To him, there are real returns to be had. At other clubs it’s spending off the scale like a drunken lottery winner. Levy however maintains his dead-eyed stare on the prize. Maximise opportunity – trophies, the Champions League, TV cash – and minimise risk – there’s plenty of value and profit in the squad, plus judging by last season a fair to middling chance of being genuine contenders, if not for the league itself then the top four and silverware. Same equation. It may not be win-win but it’s close enough for Daniel to take the risk. He believes this team can really do something and so do I.

There remains the question of where the money’s coming from. Not bad, a Spurs blog 800 words in and only one mention of the B word so far. Now if you are looking for a prime example of win-win, let’s pop inside Levy’s head for a second. Record transfer fee or one of the best players in Europe stays with us for at least one more season and retains a high transfer value. He’s in clover and from such a position of security will screw Real Madrid for every last euro.

Levy’s handled this very well. As I said on the When Saturday Comes site the other day, amid the media frenzy (have you ever read so much about so little, bearing in mind Levy has said absolutely nothing and there have been no statements from the club?) he has been icy inscrutability, taking his time and resisting the pressure of jumping at riches beyond our wildest dreams. This is how he always is. 85k or 85m, all the same to him. He’s so bloody minded, he could just turn down flat that £85m and allow Gareth to play on.

I wonder if he’s actually decided. Time is key to any negotiation and he must think that’s on his side too. Maybe if they respond with something nearer £100m, he would be foolish to ignore it, especially as it’s unlikely that fee would still be on the table this time next year. Bale may play supremely well for the rest of his career but it’s unlikely that he will ever again match the impact he’s had on the world of football this past season. The shock of the new.

Given Spurs’ sound financial position and the money from the TV deal, I suspect this spending is budgeted separately from any Bale deal. Then again, it is substantial and anyway Real’s euros may be earmarked already, either for the new stadium or to prepare the club for a sale. The I in ENIC stands for investment and they have to get a return at some point.

Call me crazy, call me mad as long as you don’t call me Shirley but I would keep him, although I reckon he will be sold. But then again, for me it’s all about the passion, the romance, the pain and the pleasure that cannot be separated if the heart is to beat that little bit faster. With or without him, Levy and Spurs are headed in the right direction.

Part two of the season’s preview on Friday. Maybe Saturday. Friday probably. The Manager, The Players, the Fans.