New Year, I’m Happy

Domination so complete, I have a crick in my neck from facing in the same direction for too long. Then, finally, Lloris’s bank holiday stroll around his green and pleasant area is rudely interrupted. He saves well, low to his right, two hands. Being alert after long periods of inactivity is another of his many attributes. The reading centre forward has a gaping net but heads the rebound wide. Pressure now, unexpected, unknown since the third minute when he put another bouncing rebound into the net. From the second corner, there’s an almighty schmozzle on the goal line. Legs, bodies, arms raised, accusing glances towards referee and linesman, but play on. A little while later, Dempsey’s celebration is indecently joyful as his deflected shot spirals over a stranded keeper. Spurs’ win is safe, 3-1 now and no way back.

Seasons turn on such short passages of play. Off the line at one end, a lucky goal at the other. If Spurs had dropped any points, it would have been a gross injustice in a match we dominated totally, but whoever said anything about football being fair? For Spurs, not pressing home an advantage and conceding late is not something that could happen, it’s something that does happen. From now until the end of the season, every point will be vital. The pursuit of 3rd and 4th will go the wire. Yet over a successful holiday period, 10 points out of 12 will do and in each of our three wins, we played well in the first half but better in the second, scoring eight second half goals and conceding none.

Our new year is a time to look forward. Without getting carried away on the back of three victories against frankly poor oppositionSpurs blog 88 – Sunderland were limited up front, Reading limited everywhere, Villa just arouse pathos – the signs are all positive. Bearing in mind the fact this team needed major rebuilding over the summer with the loss of both manager and its creative heart, we are moving ahead far more quickly than could be expected. The players are comfortable with each other and with their style of play that at its best offers an outlet for their attacking instincts and at its worst provides a fall-back position of solidity based on hard work. It’s pass and move in the Spurs tradition, easy on the eye and a possession game that’s entirely modern. The proviso is, we keep the tempo high, it’s what suits us best.

It’s significant that almost all of the players have improved in some way since Andre Villas-Boas took over. Fans never truly know what influence coaches have over their charges. However, something’s working. In no particular order, Sandro is a beast of a defensive midfielder who has responded to being his manager’s first choice by becoming an absolute rock. Lennon is having his best season, excellent yesterday. Defoe is scoring, Caulker has stepped easily into this side – I keep reminding myself he only turned 21 last month – while Bale is reaching stratospheric heights as the most dangerous midfielder in the league.

New comers Vertonghen and Dembele look as if they were born to play at the Lane. Their class was evident to whoever scouted them but the way they combine with their team-mates, that’s Villas-Boas again. The Dembele-Sandro axis could be as good a midfield paring as any in the Premier League. Dawson could have been transferred but wants to play and gives everything he has for the team, as does Gallas although his powers are waning not for  want of trying but through the passage of time. Naughton has benefitted from having a few matches in a row, which also means we can rotate at the back. Dempsey has finally found his place after a sticky start, hence his celebration yesterday. All this without Parker and Kaboul, our best centre half.

Of the rest, none has been a disaster. Sigurdsson has taken time to settle, a better game yesterday but best as an impact sub to ensure the tempo stays high towards the end of games. Huddlestone has not picked up the pace that’s required. Walker needs guidance and perhaps some firm words about how to defend, while Adebayor, once the missing link up front, has become the weak link with a series of ineffective performances.

Again, his manager has kept faith in him, seeing the value of giving his choices several games to find their feet rather than chopping and changing every weekend. His patience was rewarded with a classic far post headed goal yesterday. In the first half Manu walked back to the halfway line bewildered after weakly heading wide. This time, he tucked Lennon’s glorious cross into the narrow gap between keeper and post. Strikers thrive on goals and the match was delayed as Manu milked it, eventually emerging from a heap of celebrating team-mates who also realised the value of that goal went way beyond putting Spurs 2-1 up. He looked to the heavens and crossed himself. This has got to be the way forward for religion too. Perhaps after a particularly good service the pope and his cardinals could spontaneously pile on top of each other in front of the altar.

Time rushes by as it does for older people like me but it doesn’t seem that long ago since the season began. Yet the media coverage at the time feels like ancient history. Villas-Boas was incompetent. Couldn’t handle players. Creates an atmosphere. Disharmony among the players was rife according to several tabloid journalists. They could not be more wrong. The players clearly want to play for him, for Spurs.

I’ve deliberately not mentioned Hugo Lloris, destined to be one of the finest Tottenham goalkeepers in modern times. Then, the papers had a hotline to Didier Deschamps and printed how unsettled he was even before he was actually fit to play. Now, his gradual introduction into the side appears a masterstroke of man-management and he’s been able to extend the redoubtable Brad Friedel’s contract. Lloris is sharp and agile on his line and seeks to dominate his area, which in turn means we play a back five, him included.

Yesterday we were unperturbed after that early setback, settled into our rhythm, kept the ball and kept probing. Dembele was back on top form after a few quiet games. The way he drops his shoulder and is gone is a sight of subtle beauty. This big man can disappear, at least as far as his marker is concerned. Sandro’s strength and Reading’s inability to get the ball forward – it seemed like they went for half an hour without holding onto the ball in our half and Lloris did not have a save to make until late in the second half – gave him the freedom to stay forward where he is dangerous.

Without Bale, suspended for the new offence of being too quick and too good, we lacked width. Naughton did well throughout but is very right-footed so we were narrow at times. As the half ended, we gave the Reading keeper shooting practice with a succession of efforts from too far out but come the second we upped the pace and put more balls into the box.

We begin the new year in 3rd place, albeit having played two more games than Chelsea, but the optimism is real. There’s plenty more work to do. Although we have beaten United we have lost to all the teams in top four contention bar West Brom, who I think will not quite keep up. It’s not so long ago when we were conceding stupid late goals and we still can’t defend a lead with total confidence. Nor do we convert our many chances as often as we should. We get more men into the box these days, finally answering my whinging about this problem that has gone on over the life of this blog, but on crosses especially we should pile into the six yard box not hang back.

In the window, Tottenham On My Mind will do everything in its power to retain the status of The Blog That Knows Nothing (TKN) and will stay resolutely ITK free. But we need a striker from somewhere. If Adebayor goes to Africa and Defoe is injured, that’s it! If Moutinho is available, I would buy him even if we pay over the odds. Buy two players and it will make all the difference.

We have to take the long view. An interesting piece in the papers recently suggested that Levy did not fully back his new manager in the market in the summer, preferring to wait and see how he does. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that is a ringing vote of confidence exactly, Villas-Boas has shown more than enough potential to be worthy of greater investment. He deserves the backing of his chairman. Looking ahead, this summer we will be again be vulnerable to bids for Bale, Sandro and others if we are not in the Champions League or have not won anything.  The squad is young and like its manager still developing. The potential is rich and we must do all we can to see it fulfilled.

Happy New Year to everyone who takes the time and trouble to read this old-fashioned one-man no ads labour of love blog, especially those of you who add to the rich debate in the excellent comments section. You are a select bunch but I’m genuinely touched by the number of regular readers from all over the world who come back every week. I’m deeply grateful.

 

 

Villas-Boas and Spurs – Sit Back, Deep Breath, How’s It Going?

Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!

Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon  Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.

To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.

Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.

In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.

If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.

However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency  the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.

So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.

The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders  that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.

That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.

The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around  This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.

But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning.  Against Wigan, we had no idea.

Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond  He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity  Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.

Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.

Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.

I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved  or in the box (although he has improved).

At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.

And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish  I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.

In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.

However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.

Weebles Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down

 

The Spurs back four yesterday

Even after all these years, you do wonder. Is it just us that so totally dominates one half then disappears so completely in the second? Or can other teams perform the Halloween Jekyll and Hyde routine? Spurs eased past all Southampton resistance in the first half, playing some gorgeous flowing football in the process but halfway through the second period we were wobbling like a Weeble on speed.  Thanks largely to our two central defenders, Gallas and Caulker, we held firm when in the past we might well have crumbled. We wobbled but didn’t fall down and there’s a lot to be said for that. Not straighforward, never is, but 4th in the table is a good place to be this Monday.

This is Tottenham On My Mind’s 300th post. Not one for anniversaries really but those lovely people at WordPress remind me how well I’m doing, adding a quote from a well-known author to give this slave-to-a keyboard a boost. I preferred the 298th post but not even the BBC would celebrate that. Perhaps for a change I should ask a fan of another club to blog about matches like this one. Their perspective might be fresher. They could answer my question – I suspect it’s not just us but that’s how it feels.

They say it’s a sign of a good team that they win when playing badly. Another indicator is when sides notch routine victories without much of a fuss, in which case we still have a lot to learn. As against Maribor on Thursday, we failed to generate momentum from within when under a little pressure.

Centre-backs were the eventual stars of this game but at half time they had barely touched the ball. All eyes were on Bale and Lennon. Against his old team Bale lost his first challenge against a young full back then proceeded to shred his confidence into tiny, tiny pieces, first heading in at the far post, an unstoppable late run onto Huddlestone’s perfect cross, then producing a series of tantalising crosses that others should have made more of. On the other side, the Saints defence was largely absent and Lennon made the most of it.

Defoe missed the several beautifully crafted chances that came his way but it is a measure of his improvement this season that as he cocks the trigger, you expect him to put them away. But a goal up and  the pleasure of enjoying the way we were moving the ball around, fluent and effortless football at times. Dempsey remembered how he plays the game, one or two touches then move, in stark contrast to last week where he held onto the ball for an age each time he had possession. It just confused him. He was effective but has yet to build up a partnership with Defoe – they could be good for each other. He popped up for the second, though, reacting quickest to a loose ball after Defoe’s fine run and shot had been cleared off the line. We’ve missed those poacher’s goals these past few years. Now he and JD are in the right place, right time.

Southampton were awful – they left too much space, the ref probably counted how many men they had on the field. Second half, they decided to turn up finally and quickly our possession game broke down. We shrivelled like shrink-wrap exposed to a flame, curling up until we were pressed back to our own box, seldom emerging except for fleeting moments of promise that disappeared as quickly as they came, as we generously presented the ball back to our opponents.

Saints banged over the crosses and pinched a smart goal from a corner, another rebound, this time from Friedel’s save, but he had an unnecessary amount of room. For 20 minutes we could not keep hold of the ball at all. I intended to comment that Dempsey and Defoe disappeared but then realised the same could be said for most of the team at this point.

Livermore epitomised the problem. I like him as a player – quick feet, willing to take responsibility, decent passer with a good engine. Last weekend AVB brought him on to pep up the tempo – win the ball, pass and move. He tried the same this week, replacing the ponderous Huddlestone but it was a complete failure because Jake showed the other side of his character, giving away possession and unnecessary free kicks, one of which began the passage of play that resulted in their goal. I’m disappointed – he simply must put that aspect of his game right.

They had a few more chances but the majority of their efforts were headed away by the excellent Gallas and Caulker. Big Willy is one of those players I would not have picked for yesterday’s game but I’m glad to see him there, and if that doesn’t make sense it’s intentionally contradictory. He was poor last week but he is so shrewd and determined in the box. He misjudged a bouncing ball early on then did not put a foot wrong, winning virtually everything that came his way. He’s also a fine tutor for young Caulker, who grew stronger under pressure.  They won the game for us. Despite the pressure (and my anxiety), Saints made few chances and Friedel few saves in the final quarter and we ran the clock down well enough towards the end.

Hudd was in and out, some good, some not so good but never quite finding his range for his long passing. Lovely moment for the goal, though – if you see it again, watch how he’s looking for bale without looking at the ball yet he knows exactly where it is and delivers an inch-perfect ball. Sandro was strong defensively, culminating in a headed block that knocked him over but not out. He rose immediately, brain scrambled but his mind on one thing, stopping the next attack.

A Defining Week For Spurs and AVB

The value of some performances transcends the goals, the points or the league table. Spurs victory at Old Trafford yesterday evening was infused with meaning that runs deep and will resonate long after the celebrations die down, although I suspect those who were fortunate enough to be there floated home rather than requiring any form of transport.

Not just the years since we last won there. I can’t remember how long it is even though the commentator appeared to be contractually obliged to repeat it every 5 minutes. Perhaps the fear and nausea in the pit of my stomach as the ball pinged around our box in the second half dulled my other senses.

Not even the manner of the win, magnificent though that was. Delightful flowing football in the first half as we took the game to United and were by far the better side, followed by desperate dogged defence in the second as we were remorselessly pushed deeper and deeper by United at their best.

Not even showing a skeptical footballing public and a rabid media that we can play. This was the moment when the new Tottenham Hotspur believed it could play. As the self-confidence spreads, the fall-out from this game could be picked up in years to come, like faint radio static from the far reaches of the cosmos.

This is that rare sort of win, one that creates an unshakable resilience that Spurs are doing the right thing, and if the players keep on doing it, they will succeed in the end, whatever the odds. Faith in your own ability, that of your team-mates and your manager, to overcome and prevail. Something we’ve seen in others but has always been beyond our grasp in modern times, almost real but eluding our grasp like a vivid dream fading as we wake and open our eyes.

More about yesterday in a moment, but if we are looking for the signs in the runes, the portents have been excellent all week. It’s not all about 3-2 in Manchester. A goal down and stinking the place out like a parcel of rotting fish nailed under the floorboards, at half-time just 7 days ago the world was a different, bleaker place. Then AVB looked his players in the eye and said, “I’ve made a mistake but together we will put it right.” Superman goes left, Bale pushed forward, 2 goals and 3 points.

A tricky midweek tie in the far flooded north, Carlisle were summarily dispatched. The young men came in without, as I understand it, there being much of a problem, because they play the Tottenham way. In the past, this game could have posed a threat to the well-being of the team. These are ties that expose weakness, as in the hapless away game at Stevenage as recently as last season. Yet this was a comfortable win.

Back to yesterday, and we took the game to United in the first half, boosted by Jan the Man’s second goal in a week, a great run into the heart of the defence and huge deflection. Bale set up this one then scored our second himself with the type of run that makes him unique in the Premier League. Over 6 foot and filled out from boy to man over the summer, there is simply nothing like this fearsome combination of power and pace, physical presence and touch on the ball.

We fully deserved the 2 goal lead at half-time. Sandro was a powerhouse throughout, Dembele dominant in front of him. How I’ve quickly grown to relish his arthritic shuffle on the ball, stiff, head bowed and so effective. A real gem.

One of the issues I’ve identified this season is that Spurs must find the right set-up to get the best from Dempsey, a goalscorer who is not a classic striker. Last week he was wasted stuck out on the left. Now AVB moved him to a more central starting position. He should be able to get on the ball more here. All this stems from the influence exerted by the mighty Sandro, who is playing so well that we can manage with only one defensive midfielder not two, thus freeing options further forward.

He popped up with the third, pouncing on a loose ball to restore our two goal advantage  That was swiftly reduced to one, then it was backs to wall for a sickeningly tense last 30 minutes.

We dropped ever more deep as wave after wave of United attacks swept down on our goal. Partly this was due to an inability to hold onto the ball on the precious few occasions we got hold of it, partly due to the debilitating effects of illness – a couple had suffered a bug during the week. Mainly it was down to the excellence of our opponents, who played the ball into the channels between our back four on endless occasions. It’s hard to believe England never built their team around Paul Scholes.

We defended well but like any team that beats them, we relied on United missing their chances, which obligingly they did.  Ultimately those same cosmic forces tend to balance themselves out. The ball banged against post and bar, skimmed just wide or sunk into Friedel’s all-enveloping grasp. And Chris Foy, always said he knew what he was about when it comes to penalty decisions. After yesterday I like to think that the universe is a more stable place as equilibrium is restored.

Walker’s poor positioning led to problems and sometimes both full-backs were exposed by a lack of cover. However, the grim determination of Vertonghen, Caulker and the steely eyed Gallas epitomised the spirit in the squad. You have to hand to Willy – after a long career and dodgy ankles, he is a winner and you can see why AVB has persisted with him. Caulker will learn so much from him, but did his bit by winning a series of headers.

A word of praise for Defoe, who has not always shown the selfless running and intelligence that helped make a couple of goals yesterday. This is the best form of his career. I’m not this biggest fan but all credit to him.

The unity between team and manager has paid rich dividends on the field this week. The Mirror and Sun are hell-bent on ruining him and our achievements, but the lies of their weaselly snout in the camp were disproved for all to see.

A single win does not mean everything is done and dusted. There will be good times and bad, struggles and wasted energy, but AVB’s Spurs is a team with a future and whatever happens I’m glad I’m coming along for the ride.