Luka Modric – Virtuoso of the Spurs Midfield

In the coffee bar of St Paul’s Church in the Park Lane, the benign Martin Luther King gazes down at the queue for tea and bacon rolls. The children have been remarkably inventive with their colouring project, considering that all they had to work with is the outline of a black man in a suit.

The ladies in the kitchen bustle at their task. Each treats the cramped servery as their own. At home the kitchen is their domain yet here they must share, so the fussing and unwanted advice means the service is slow. Even the vicar tuts with impatience as he takes the money. It’s value at £1.50.

Vaguely Gratuitous Use of A Great Man in Spurs Blog.

Looking around, there’s spiritual inspiration to be had from a few religious images, or perhaps the giant stuffed Speedy Gonzales, lying in the corner with a fixed grin.

This peaceful setting, with its attentive service (‘how would you like your egg cooked?’), youth club chairs and shiny toilets is tranquil yet vaguely unsettling. Football’s not about this. It’s about the grease of burgers, watered down sauce trickling down the wrist and  hurried gulps of indigestion before the expectant rush to get into the ground. Too nice, it’s just not right.

The contrast with what was to follow could not have been more marked. Twenty minutes later, we were plunged into the midst of a physical battle that became increasingly intense as the match wore on, a seething froth of steaming tackles, gross duplicity and red cards. Newcastle’s defensive tactics gradually descended into systematic intimidation, encouraged by lenient refereeing.

That Spurs did not buckle under such pressure is a measure of our resilience, both mental to overcome the threats and our ingenuity in playing our way out of trouble. Yesterday, Bale and Lennon made and took two superb goals with a precious combination of breathtaking pace and slide rule finishing, but we were led all the way by a virtuoso performance from Luka Modric.

From first whistle to last, he scurried and scampered through the markers and tackles, untouched by the mayhem all around. When we had the ball he dictated the pace of the entire game, pass and move, a touch on or 50 yards cross field all the same to a player at the peak of his powers. He ran and ran and ran, constantly available to ease the pain of teammates under pressure. As the infidels thundered down upon him, he swayed and swivelled, a drop of the shoulder and he’s gone, no discernable change of pace but look, there he is, he’s away. No space in the crowded midfield throbbing with opponents intent on destruction, but there, look, in daylight, crouched over the ball then head up, a seemingly idle flick of the outside of the boot or a firm instep. Frail legs hide a frame of tensile steel, clip his ankles but he’s still upright, protecting the ball as if it were precious treasure, shielding and caressing it to safety. One moment, under pressure in our left full back position, the pass down the line to Rafa defied the laws of geometry and physics. A masterpiece from a truly wonderful footballer: one of the most complete individual performances I’ve seen for years.

From such rarefied heights, back to the blood and thunder. Early on, the air of expectation was palpable as Carroll took on our centre halves, for the game would surely turn on how we coped with their dangerman. Very well as it turned out. Daws was not prepared to give an inch. He’d spent days focussed solely on winning that first high ball and he was on top from the start. Such is our confidence that we let Kaboul take him on when the ball was on the left – whoever was closest. The Frenchman bolstered his growing reputation by not flinching either.

Defensively our task was made easier by Newcastle’s reluctance to support their centre forward. Later in the half Carroll won a few balls, headed perfectly into space but the nearest teammate. Barton usually, was 15 yards away. A total waste of their greatest asset.

However, the Geordies’ defensive outlook stifled our attacking efforts. Rafa struggled to find room, Pav’s control let him down at crucial moments and the wide outlets were blocked. Newcastle’s high line begged for a ball to be slipped in behind them but we didn’t make those runs, then they dropped back behind the midfield shield and that route to goal was blocked.

We found it hard to make any chances but could have scored just before half time when first Rafa missed a good headed chance then Pav’s downward header tantalisingly hit both posts before rolling clear. A fine save from Krul. We needed to up the tempo in the second half, We play better at the level of quick bordering on frantic.

Alongside Luka, Palacios was back to his bouncy best, covering diligently and snapping in with the tackles. He was a yard faster around the pitch, add something for his sharpened sense of anticipation and for 45 minutes it was as effective a piece of defensive midfield play as you could wish to see. Well, for almost 45 minutes. Twice he gave the ball away, leading to chances that Newcastle would not have otherwise made. The second time, the lunge and booking on Carroll was as predictable as England’s Ashes win.

The guy in the Newcastle midfield looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment to realise this was Alan Smith. Once a highly gifted and mobile young striker at Leeds, Fergie paid a fortune to convert him into a decidedly average, albeit committed, midfielder. Injuries haven’t helped. I know he’s been away a long time because of injury but someone should have let him know that in the meantime they’ve changed the way you can tackle from behind these days. Trouble is, the ref seemed to be back in the nineties too.

Now I have some sympathy for refs these days. No really – the game is so fast in reality and so damn easy with the benefit of 37 slow motion replays that they have a nigh on impossible task. However, here was an instance where by not setting the standard early on, the referee allowed players to take too much freedom. Time and again Smith, Barton and Tiote chomped in. They should have been punished more severely, if not for individual fouls then for repetition.

Newcastle's View of the Build Up to the First Spurs Goal

If the eye was drawn throughout the game to Carroll, it was also impossible to avoid paying attention to Joey Barton, however hard I tried, and believe me I did try, so hard. I admit prejudice: surely no professional deserves the 50k a week less, given his history. But I am a warm and generous man, willing to embrace efforts at rehabilitation. Newcastle fans have been saying it’s ‘Joey for England, and certainly his effort can’t be faulted, trying to hold down a midfield berth whilst pushing forward to support Carroll and, later, dropping deep to try and start something, in the face of utter indifference from the anonymous Routledge and Gutierrez

But of course he started. On Rafa first, who is becoming a target now that the league has spotted his short fuse. Leaving his foot in on Kaboul, then twice digging Modric in the ribs as the ball was dead, actively looking for trouble. Luka just looked at him. Barton sees a frail victim, we see a battle hardened child of a war zone.

Then the free kick. We have the ball, about to launch from deep. Carroll goes down holding his head, ref stops the game. Carroll gets up, he’s hurt his leg. Barton takes the free drop, looks at Gutierrez, they point, Barton drops it the corner as Gutierrez follows up. If they had scored from that free kick… Naked opportunism, carefully thought through, that no one else would do. This loathsome objectionable individual is the Newcastle captain.

Still it got the game going. The atmosphere was boiling over once Kaboul stupidly fell for the provocation and saw red. This foolishness could have lost us the game – as it is, he’s out for three games just when we need him. Need him because this adolescent indiscretion aside he’s fast maturing into a high quality centre half. I believe he’ll become a top class player.

By this time, we were a goal up. Speedy Gonzales came to life with a lightening dash and rifled finish. Earlier we had struggled to raise our game and raise the tempo – we did everything too slowly but gradually cranked it up, inspiring this terrific little goal from an impossibly wide angle. Anderle anderle indeed.

A man down and we took over until the final whistle. Quality shone through the whole team. Luka shrugged, picked up the pace and the ball, dominated. Jenas had another good match, excepting his loss of the ball in front of goal. Harry could have withdrawn Wilson because the booking rendered him impotent but it was perhaps more positive than that. JJ can take the game to opponents who are retreating and he did so effectively, but perhaps his best moment  was the great last man tackle at the edge of the box. Too many false dawns in the past to signal a JJ comeback but in this form he’s a cracking player.

Lennon and Bale pinned back the defenders, while Bassong showed the same fearless attitude towards Carroll as he did to Drogba recently. Against a bigger man he refused to give ground. Daws was there to sort him out too.

Another day, another ten men, another 80 yard move. Bale was off before you realise how much room he has, then it’s the familiar hold your breath surely he can’t get through no shooting from there never, it’s in, it’s in in, it’s in… you beauty.

A moment of breathtaking skill that was as incongruous in this match as the pre-match tranquillity of St Pauls Church. There’s a lesson there somewhere, that stick to your principles, play it right and you shall be rewarded. Vicar, there’s your sermon for next Sunday, Harry and the Parable of the Two Wingers. And if you could get some mustard in next time, that will be perfect.

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Spurs v Everton. A Game to Savour, At the Final Whistle That Is…

If only home life and work did not get in the way of blogging, the world would be a better place….

So having entertained a group of fellow professionals from the Czech Republic today, which in the process developed my skill of looking really quite absorbed as someone gabbles away at you for five minutes in a foreign language, (‘look, I’ll make a cup of coffee and pop back when it’s the interpreter’s turn. OK?’) it’s only now that there is time for a few thoughts on the match yesterday, less match report and more postscript.

It’s over now and I just want to say – what a fabulous game. On the way home, the 5Live reporter at the Sunderland – Fulham match was less than enthralled with the spectacle in front of him and commented disparagingly about the Premier League being the so-called best in the world. All I can say is that he would have taken a different view if he had been at the Lane. Spurs divine first half performance was in danger of being wasted as Everton came back into things, usually courtesy of a Spurs error, but at times it was frenetic end to end play with that classic British mixture of endeavour and skill. Heart in the mouth stuff at both ends, with great goals, unbelievably crass misses, fizzing shots, passes that were beautifully crafted and vulgar fouls. The end product for the fan was complete involvement, total and utter. After all these years. there is simply nothing like that feeling of playing every ball, shouting gibberish instructions to players 70 yards away who cannot possibly hear you and all parts of the ground leaping up to dispute refereeing decisions in their area of the pitch.

The greatest feeling of all is emerging into Worcester Avenue, with its penetrating drizzle and carpet of horse-dung, and going home a winner. And it’s only then when reflections on the game itself are possible because Spurs, being Spurs, had both won and then almost lost the same match. At times we were hanging on by our fingernails, or more accurately on at least one occasion, by Gomes’ fingernails. No enjoyment there, when the next mistake was possibly seconds away, when Palacios passes unaccountably straight to Pienaar or the admirable Dawson allows his anxiety at his lack of pace to cloud his judgement and trick him into a doomed attempt at an interception. The neutral may have thoroughly enjoyed the second half but we fans most certainly did not. Good football? Enjoy? No, no idea what you mean.

If we had lost or even drawn, it would have been a bitter blow not so much because of the points dropped in the struggle for fourth but because it would have tarnished the memory of that sumptuous first half display. Rich in inventiveness and sublime in execution, our movement and passing was breathtaking. Huddlestone’s 50 yard pass perfectly into Defoe’s stride, taken down with the precision of a diamond cutter and then the beautiful effortless ball rolled across the box.  It was done with both swiftness and great care. Pav’s movement was a threat while he was on the pitch but Tom’s pass deserves repeated viewing.

And then we topped it. Modric, lovely Luca,  on the ball and pass, move and pick it again, pass it on, there for more, into space and the ball at feet again, one side to the other, dictating the shape and pace of the game and everyone around him, defenders in thrall to the simplicity of it all, pass and move, pass and move. Then the thrust, the time right, clean, quick and deadly. A genuinely stunning moment.

A brilliant goal from an outstanding footballer. Not a perfect game yesterday but a dazzling performance, full of purposeful movement, astute passing and total involvement. His effort could not be faulted and he made his fair share of tackles. Harry allowed him to come inside in search of the ball. He can overload their midfield and with Bale rampaging down the wing there’s no need to worry about a lack of width. Soon after the start Everton shifted Osman over to mark him but that was frankly a waste of time. You can’t mark a man of his quality out of the match.

It was as good a first half as I can recall. No need to state the obvious once again, that the team look so much more comfortable with the passing game that Pav’s presence encourages. Crouch is ungainly at the best of times but when he came on, in contrast he looked as gawky as a newborn foal. And that’s not even mentioning the Russian’s goals. Defoe held the ball up well, which is unusual for him, and Hudd had a good game. In addition to That Pass, he trundled around to good effect in front of the back four, sweeping up as he went. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, and how we missed him as he went off injured, a huge man almost too big for the stretcher. Kaboul did surprisingly well in his defensive role – he’s certainly very mobile and his postioning was good, given the role is unfamiliar. However, he could not support the strikers, witness that ball that ran invitingly along the edge of the Everton box shortly after he came on, one for Hud’s shot but Kaboul looked on from 20 yards away. Nor could he find them with passes. A deputy for WP in the future, though.

Everton’s tactical change made by pushing Hietinga forward allowed them more attackers and gave Arteta room to start all their movements. They played to their strengths: Yakubu has lost his pace but not his strength. He’s a brute of a man to handle with his back to goal and ball played to feet. We could have screened the back four better by cutting off his supply from the ever able Arteta but Daws was strong and tall. For the most part we coped well with their efforts but the self-inflicted pain casued by the mistakes mentioned above could have hurt us even more by the end: Donovan’s obliging and glaring miss helped us out. Watching the highlights, no one seems to have mentioned that Gomes was fouled on the line by Anechebe (I think) as the ball came over for their goal. He moved Gomes out of the way without going for the ball at all. Dawson and Bassong won many headers and once again Daws’ enthusiastic blocks are almost as inspiring as a goal.

Bale was once more superb. Those runs are fast becoming impossible to stop and have done much on their own to lift us from the doldrums of the beginning of the year. He remains one of the best prospects in the league. I’m so impressed with the way he has learned as he has come back into the team. His concentration is much better now. Defensively he still has work to do, but he is just so exciting to watch right now.

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In Praise of Aaron Lennon

A short celebration of Aaron Lennon’s England performance against Croatia last night. His toes have never twinkled more brightly.

After last time’s disparaging comments on the international scene, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the match, glowing with pride as Lennon justified Capello’s faith in him. The England manager is a stern judge, yet his choice over Lennon over the much more experienced Wright Phillips or indeed over another tactical option involving Beckham, says so much about the winger’s growing maturity this season. I noted in Sunday’s piece that despite the attention drawn towards him by his goal, Defoe was perhaps making less progress than Lenny, and I was especially pleased last night with the mental strength that underlies his (Lennon’s) development. He is clearly thinking harder about his game and in particualr about his role as a team player.

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Gerrard header displayed this new found maturity more so than his more eye-catching runs. Lennon did not overplay the position. Instead of setting off on a run, potentially dazzling but liable to end in a cul de sac, as we have seen so often at the Lane, these days he has another option. Running at a defender can obviously pay dividends, but also it cuts down any space that the player in possession has, and space is such a precious commodity in modern football. This is a huge problem in David Bentley’s game, by the way. Before he was ejected from the team, he would gather the ball  in space and run straight towards a defender like a moth to a flame.

Aaron used to do the same, but no longer. Instead, he picked out Gerard and delivered a perfect ball onto his head. Simple in one sense, but it was the choice that was the clever part. It also demonstrates his confidence in his final ball. I admit to despairing last season that he would never be able to cross or pass accurately, and his therefore his promise would be wasted. Now, not everything works but he’s so much better. His play has variation; we have seen him come inside to score for Spurs this season and last night he tucked in to offer a perfect through-ball for Heskey. Again, it’s the apparently simple things, allied to his pace and ability to beat a full back, that is so impressive.

Capello was brave to pick him but Redknapp and his many coaches deserve the credit for his progress. Much was made in the commentary of the lack of a proper Croatian left back (would Corluka have been detailed to mark him?!), but Lennon made room by clinging to the touchline, just as Harry encourages him to do. With good passers in the team, like Gerrard and Barry for England or Huddlestone for us, he’s not isolated. In turn, this creates more space for the rest of team and dilemmas for the opposition back four. If they spread out to mark him, there’s room for other players infield. If they leave him, havoc ensues down the right.

It was such a pleasure to see one of ours play so well. Aaron Lennon is becoming a real force in English football. One man didn’t enjoy watching the game: even as I write, Fergie is worrying about what to do on Saturday. I can’t wait.

England v Croatia

As the World Cup qualifier against Croatia looms, I confess to having little enthusiasm for the England international team. It isn’t outright antagonism (I’ll certainly watch the match), more a mild case of indifference.  Whilst I want them to win, the lack of any excitement on my part serves only to heighten my anticipation of the Manchester United game this coming Saturday, when adrenalin and the desire for victory will create an intoxicating brew.

Notice I wrote ‘them’, not ‘us’. Didn’t think about it, that’s just the way it came out. For some this admission denotes an absence of patriotism bordering on the treasonable, but I’m not alone. Several of my fellow bloggers have recorded similar feelings, and last year when the Spurs Odyssey messageboard discussed this, a large number of contributors clearly stated that Spurs meant more to them than England. The majority of people I know who are fervent England fans do not support a Premier League team as passionately.

The Croatian contingent at Tottenham poses another layer of varied and complex dilemmas. I really don’t want them to win, but if I am honest I would have liked our three to have all played extremely well. Maybe 4-3 to England, hat-trick for JD and Luka man of the match. No Modric of course, and Corluka obligingly managed to get sent off at the weekend so he can rest up nicely, thank you very much. Obviously he has the same focus on Saturday as I do, but am I the sole Spurs fan who would prefer Kranjcar to play better than Lampard?

This is very different from when I first started to watch England. In those days, Spurs and England both stirred the emotions equally. In my teens in the 70s I attended several internationals at Wembley. Living in West London, I just hopped on the 83 bus, tickets were cheap and plentiful, and Wembley still had that sense of mystery as a special place, kept exclusively for the biggest games, floodlights bathing the fading paint and rusting girders in a magical glow. I wore my Spurs scarf, to show where my true loyalties lay, and puffed out my chest with pride if any of our players did well. Seeing Hoddle score against Bulgaria in his debut was a great moment.

In those days it felt like the fans came together to get behind England, setting aside club rivalries and united under the banner of national pride. No one ever gave me any stick for wearing my colours. Now, club allegiances are more deeply entrenched. The all-consuming Premier League, with the media hype, the shirts, the merchandise and the international stars, dominates football.

The other major change that affects our attitude towards the national team is the way we relate to the individual players. In the 70s and 80s, visiting stars received a fair amount of stick at the Lane but it was nowhere near as strident as it is today. The worst chant I can recall was the one that pursued the Chelsea keeper Peter Bonetti for years after the Germany game at Mexico 1970. ‘Bonetti lost the World Cup, and so say all of us’ was hardly going to have Spurs fans being hauled up in court….

Much of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the players. Their enormous wealth and apparent prioritising of celebrity status over an honest performance has distanced them from the fans. If Lampard delights in displaying his life in Hello magazine, or on his own Orange channel, then dashes over to bait the Park Lane when he scores, then he should also realise the bitterness that such behaviour creates when people are paying a fortune for the privilege of watching him play football.

Ashely Cole was loudly barracked during the recent international against Kazakhstan. The media pompously castigated the fans (or ‘so-called fans’ as they became) for so doing. Supporters are always blamed as being fickle and stupid in such circumstances, but curiously we are not foolish when we turn up week in week out, or buy the shirt, or shell out half a week’s wages for tickets, food and transport. That night Cole got what was coming to him. He was not playing well but more significantly, as was missed by all the media, he had built up a huge groundswell of resentment. This loathsome oick is rich, talented and has a beautiful wife, yet he’s in and out of bed with every passing mini-skirt and chooses to remind us how shocked he was at being offered a mere 60k a week by the Arse. It’s not the money that truly irks me, rather it’s his overbearing arrogance in the fact that in his autobiography he genuinely expected us to empathise with his troubles. Poor old Ashley.

So if we do not unequivocally join hands as one to back Capello’s boys, it is the players not the fans who need to take a hard look at themselves, for it is they who have created a chasm of bitterness that cannot be spanned just by pulling on an England shirt.