Tim The Temp Takes Spurs To Another Win

After a sticky start, Spurs pushed on to secure a comprehensive victory against a lacklustre Swansea side. Once we went a goal up, the outcome was seldom in doubt. Strong on the counter, we protected our three goal lead efficiently in the last 15 minutes with a smooth display of possession football.

Adebayor rightly deserves the plaudits. On song for 90 minutes, his was the performance that decisively made the difference between the two sides. A roving lone striker, the Swansea defence was powerless in the face of his movement and intelligence, and at last we have someone to put away those chances.

Just as significant in the longer run, Christian Eriksen is becoming better game by game, maturing before our very eyes. He was excellent yesterday, particularly in the first half when he revelled in the increased involvement that came with his central midfield role. He wants to get on the ball, to make it work for himself and the team, and his cross for Manu’s opening goal was a thing of great beauty, hit quickly in a glorious arc, so lusciously inviting that I was shouting ‘that’s in’ even before Adebayor took off at the far post. Of the many subtle but significant changes Tim Sherwood has brought in, playing to Eriksen’s strengths could be seen as his masterstroke in the weeks and months to come.

Sherwood has his feet on the ground and is under no illusions about how he got the nod and the precarious nature of his contract. This weekend Louis Van Gaal took just a soundbite to remind him that he was second choice and that the Dutchman will come back for a second interview after the World Cup. Tim the Temp just shrugged it off, acknowledging post-match that whatever the time-period of his contract, Spurs have to finish fourth or he will be gone. Bit harsh on himself there, if I may say so, but he knows Levy and knows the score.

However, he remains unfazed. His determination to grab the opportunity with both hands is serving Tottenham well so far. No Spurs manager has ever started as well in the job as Sherwood and the indications are that this could be more than just a new manager bounce. Yesterday he showed his tactical flexibility again, confounding all the 4-4-2 debaters with a flexible 4-2-3-1. Chadli played wide left, allowing Eriksen to come inside but not to be stuck so far forward, as he was under AVB, that he could contribute little to the game. Bentaleb and Dembele’s starting positions were deeper but the Belgian could progress forward if circumstances allowed.

By the basic expedient of players settling in positions that suit them, it worked so much better than Villas-Boas’s attempts at the same set-up. While Chadli continues his quest to make as little impact on games as he possibly can, he is learning (slowly) to work back and to time his diagonal runs into the box. Lennon was busy on the right, allowing room for Walker to advance, while Sherwood protegé Bentaleb is remarkably accomplished in central midfield, especially in the final 15 minutes when under some Swansea pressure he kept the ball and stuck a toe in to break up attacks.

However, it wasn’t all sweetness and composure in midfield. They took time to find their rhythm but Swansea failed to make the most of the time they were offered in front of our back four. Bony caused more problems for our back four than any lone striker should. Swansea failed to  give him either the service he required or much support in the box so his tireless efforts were wasted. Drifting almost exclusively onto Dawson, who presumably was targeted as the weak link, he was a real handful although our skipper kept on in there in the sort of battle he relishes. Chirches tidied up where he could – he played well. Our back four were too far apart at this point but they tightened up later and the team worked hard to cut out the supply of crosses to Bony.

In these early stages we gave the Welsh side too much respect and too much room. We preferred spectating to closing down but Lloris was impeccable, saving on several occasions and timing his dashes to the edge of the box well. The one time he was beaten, Bony’s shot crashed against the woodwork.

And that, as far as Swansea’s hopes of winning, was that. Gradually we got on top, then never let go. Adebayor found Eriksen’s cross from the right so desireable, he barged both a defender and team-mate Chadli out of the way to score a classic far-post headed goal.

Swansea made it straightforward for us to pick up where we left off. Throughout they showed none of the accurate, patient football or the pace of passing that has become their trademark under Laudrup. Spurs had a bit of luck for the second. Walker’s cross from the right was hard and low into the heart of the 6 yard box but Flores could have cleared, rather than knocking it past his keeper. As with the own goal Dembele forced against Sunderland earlier this season, it proves once more the value of dangerous crosses between the keeper and his back four.

Spurs were well on top now, easily breaking down the Swans’ feeble attacks and launching a series of smooth counters. Dembele should have scored from one, or passed to an unmarked Adebayor with half the Welsh defence out for a stroll along the Gower, but the Belgian did neither and rolled it past the post.

No matter. A minute later, Danny Rose, with his new beard looking like an extra from Shaft, burst onto a sharp tackle come pass from Siggy and raced down the left. His perfect ball found Ade who guided it carefully home. There’s no greater sign of where we are right now that you did not expect him to miss.

We played out the remaining time without being seriously tested, apart from the compulsory defensive cock-up. We failed to take several opportunities to a clear a ball and eventually Bony sidefooted it inside the right hand post. But Sherwood showed another string to his bow, how to use his subs well, Siggy replacing Chadli to guard against complacency at two up then Naughton shored up our right to protect us from runs from their attacking sub.

This was a good win but without taking anything away from the performance, it is put into some perspective by the fact that Swansea were not very good at all. If Bony on his own can cause problems, City will take us apart in our next game if we play the same way. However, our cunning cup exit gives us 10 days to get Vertonghen, Sandro and Paulinho fully fit.

Also, we may not be a match for the very best but my view has always been, win the games against teams below and around us, then see what happens. And that we are doing. I have grevious anxiety about the lack of long-term planning at Spurs that led to Sherwood’s appointment, which I mentioned last time and are superbly covered in passionate depth by Martin Cloake here. No doubt at all, however, that Sherwood is doing his level best on behalf of the club and is getting good performances from his players, and right now, you can’t say fairer than that.

High Comedy At Spurs

Several years ago I spent an agreeable few days in Venice. Pretty soon I ditched the guidebook and ended up just meandering through the narrow streets or toodling round the canals on the vaporetti rather than seeing the sights. I loved the atmosphere but didn’t achieve very much.

A quarter pounder with onions outside the Colonel’s burger van in the Paxton doesn’t quite have the same ambience as a macchiato and ice cream in San Marco but the pleasant disorientation is not dissimilar, a blissful disconnect between surroundings and emotions, being there but not fully involved.

This is an odd phase for Spurs fans. There’s so much going on – new manager, different formations, the dust not quite settled yet from AVB’s departure. Yet it’s hard to engage fully. It’s going on around me but I’m not part of things.

Not sure why really. Nothing but good wishes to Tim Sherwood but I can’t as yet escape the nagging doubt that this is all temporary, that Levy and Sherwood both have long-term plans which do not necessarily involve each other. Levy will continue to seek options for another appointment in the summer, someone with kudos and experience, while Sherwood in the short-term is going along with the party line – plan for the future, no new players this window, leaving us with only two strikers is perfectly acceptable – and knows this is his chance to create a reputation for himself as a manager, but not automatically of Spurs.

For the moment, Sherwood’s gaze is fixed immovably upon stamping his authority on the side, and a frankly scary gaze it is too. Sometimes we ask the children I work with how they know their foster carers mean business, they reply simply, “It’s the look.” All the complex interaction and attachment theory takes second place to the look, and I reckon one glance from Tim sends a few of those players scurrying to do his bidding, double quick. And that’s a good thing – he’s working hard to get things right. Still, a lot of attention has been focussed on Tim’s team selections and tactics but again we’re waiting until the team of injured players return to contention to truly see what the rest of the season holds.

I guess I thought we would be somewhere else right now. After New Year was the time the plans, the training, the talent, would begin to bear fruit. Not a conscious thought, you understand. Sometimes you define your hopes only when they fail to materialise.

Plenty of time to ponder the meaning of it all during the first half on Saturday. I watched incredulously a comedic tour de force of slapstick and pantomime. This was a surreal masterpiece with an entire team apparently unable to pass the ball to each other, or run around with even the vaguest purpose, or defend, or attack. Walker and Dawson were our very own Chuckle Brothers, competing to kick the ball as hard and as far away from a team-mate as possible. Adebayor played statues; Soldado came to the party as the invisible man but no one knew if he had arrived or not.

Dizzy and disoriented, I waited open-mouthed for us to pull ourselves together but things just got worse. Palace didn’t help. Half their team of giants were lumbering around in those padded superhero suits that kids dress up in, with six-packs of stuffed cotton-wool. If only they had scored, it would have brought me back to reality. But they couldn’t, not through any skill on our part but through their own role as sidekicks, setting up the gags and executing with wild passes and misplaced crosses.

If the humour begins to flag why not get in the way of your team-mate’s goal-bound shot or wait, here’s a penalty! Dembele obligingly fouled Chamakh – that will teach him for trying to run back and tackle! Puncheon stepped up and with exquisite comedy timing choreographed his routine with the sole purpose of placing the ball into row Z. Not blasting you understand: make ‘em laugh is the motto and that would have been too obvious. Lloris added a neat touch, quietly fist-pumping as he lay on the floor, as if he had had some role in a penalty miss that left the crowd past derision into helpless laughter.

We were chuckling too at the absurdity of this game, one of the most inept 45 minutes I can recall from Spurs, so bad that the crowd were past anger. Just as bizarre was the fact that although Palace could have been three up, we came closest to scoring in the first half, when Adebayor might have got his head closer to Lennon’s cross and then Bentaleb’s sweet first time long-range effort hit the woodwork and defied the laws of physics by twisting along the goal line and out.

At half-time Sherwood got the look going. He had been dancing around on the halfway line like a demented jester for much of the half – he must have been furious. To his credit, he got through to them. Without playing especially well, Spurs upped their game to get enough of a grip to overcome a poor Palace side. A early goal helped settle any nerves. Never mind the cultured stuff. Route one, Adebayor headed down perfectly for Eriksen to smash it gratefully into the net. Manu had one of his sedate afternoons – in the first half he was at his most energetic when shouting long and hard at the bench about something or other – but his presence offers the option of the high cross or in this case, long ball.

Talking of odd things, has a player ever scored for Spurs having been sold? On came Defoe and soon afterwards reacted with quick feet in the box to stab home our second. Today there are pictures of him in Toronto doing the scarf overhead thing beloved by new signings the world over, greeted by concerted indifference from passers-by in the airport. Saturday he’s back on the bench, presumably? Like most things about this game, I don’t get it but I’m grateful for the goal, JD.

The match drifted to a conclusion. Palace were never going to score so we didn’t bother defending corners and their giants queued up to head it wide. They were unlucky early on but the organisation that confidently resisted our first half attacks broke down too easily in the second. Their supporters are second to none, however, loud, scurrilous and funny. Good luck to them.

We were dire, got three points, let’s move on. But not before praising the performance of young Nabil Bentaleb. If he is anything to go by, Sherwood is a fine judge of a player. Upright, mobile and aware, his passing is quick with a sure touch and weight. Highly promising and apart from decent supporting roles from Lennon and substitute Naughton, the only one to rise above the dross.

Hats Off To Spurs, Winners Again

The unexpected victories are often the best. If you truly thought Spurs could beat United, I take my hat off to you, because I didn’t, and enjoyed this win more than most precisely for that reason. Every player exceeded my expectations and the manager’s tactics and motivation were spot on.

Sure, we nearly threw it all away – more of giving away goals and penalties later – but this is Spurs, and the overall performance more than compensated for the tension of the last 15 minutes. A lovely win.

A lot has been made of Sherwood’s 4-4-2 and his comments about liking to take a few risks. What’s more significant is the variation he has employed, partly to adjust the set-up to the demands of different opponents, partly to compensate for injuries and suspensions beyond his control and partly as an element of his crash-course in How To Be A Premier League Manager.

Having smoothly disposed of a weak but negative Stoke side, Sherwood faced the very different challenge of defending against United for lengthy periods. When United had the ball, we kept a familiar shape but everyone dropped five yards deeper whereas against other teams we have pressed near the halfway line. The full-backs conspicuously did not get forward very much except on the break or on a run from deep when they were covered by a team-mate. Eriksen stayed wide left.

As a result, we were better than we usually are at stopping crosses at source and it was only when the Reds began to  bang them in late on that we looked in any consistent danger. Hardly surprising – we tired after massive effort for the whole game and by then United were playing a 0-10 formation with virtually an entire team of forwards.

Key again was Abebayor with another excellent performance. His movement for the goal bamboozled Smalling into submission. He foraged deeper, dropping off with or without the ball and leaving Soldado usually the furthest forward. However, they interchanged as required. The pass before the pass for the assist in both Spurs goals came from the Spaniard, cut free from his anchorage at the edge of the box under AVB.  Manu thus got in the way of United’s attempts to build from the back, although Cleverly and Carrick were inconsequential, while Lennon kept Evra fully occupied so he seldom was able to get forward.

Sherwood is a good communicator too. The players could not have responded in a better manner. Their effort and application was universally excellent, the tempo high when we had possession. Capoue was solid and economical, providing a sound base. I like him: good positional sense, an awareness of what’s going on around him, he wins it then gives it quickly. In one terrific move from defence to attack before half-time, he touched the ball 6 or 7 times, keeping it moving. Alongside him, Dembele is ferociously active.

With Eriksen we have the Modric Conundrum – he can play there but it’s not his best position. But he’s clever – witness his popping up on the right to cross the ball plumb onto Manu’s forehead for a classic far-post header, our opener. Plus he’s involved. He may like being the number 10, it may yet be his best position but his whole attitude and demeanour has changed for the better since he dropped back because he’s on the ball much more and is willing to take that responsibility. He’s eager and wants to play, which come to think of it sums up what Sherwood has done with the whole of the side. Like Redknapp at his best, Tim has given each player a role that suits them, as opposed to AVB who persisted with square pegs in round holes. Even the subs leapt to their feet in delight when we scored.

I haven’t mentioned Lennon yet. He should have crowned a fine performance with a goal, hitting De Gea early on when clean through then sliding the ball wide from the left in the second half. It would have made the game safe but as it was we had to endure another fractious and nerve-shredding 15 minutes or so. He should also have had a first-half assist when poor Soldado failed to convert his low cross at the far post.

Lennon did set up our second, his deflected cross from the right bouncing into the area. Valencia rocked back on his heels, apparently transfixed, whereas Eriksen delightedly pounced on the opportunity to dive forward and head it home. I thought De Gea could have had stronger hands and done more but then again I was in mid-air, not analysing.  United never coped with his pace and it’s noticeable how well he not only times his runs from deep but also the angles he decisively employs, dashing into space where it hurts the defence most.

After a bright start when Welbeck nearly scored and Hugo punched the ball away from outside the box (no foul), it was strange to see United so ineffective near our box for lengthy periods, but hey, I could easily get used to this. Apparently however this is not our destiny. Two up, we immediately came over all Spursy and conceded immediately. Could not have been more convenient for the Mancs – Chiriches let Welbeck run behind him, good finish – but the real problem was the ease with which the pass from deep reached him. No pressure on the ball.

Predictably this gave United momentum for the rest of the match and we were under intense pressure. Adebayor was carried off and we were more vulnerable for that loss. However, Lloris made four good saves plus a diving defensive header from the edge of his box that reached past the halfway line! Saves and bodies in the way, fighting spirit., Moyes cunningly moved Rooney, their most dangerous player, back to deep midfield and confused his team with his substitutions, so we made it.

Apart from one scare. Better to be a lucky manager than a good one, as the saying goes? Late on, Lloris launched himself wildly at Young, took him out at both ankle (right foot) and waist (left foot) but no penalty. After the Mendes “goal” and the Gomes “penalty”, I indulged in a moment’s karma and could not resist a chuckle at Moyes’ ashen-faced post-match apoplexy even though he was right in hammering the ref for a lousy decision.

I thought Smalling handled an innocuous cross in the first half when under no pressure but MOTD showed a replay. Not part of a narrative that focussed on United’s bad luck over the decisions rather than Spurs’ excellent performance that warmed this slightly soggy heart and soul.

Thanks to everyone for their good wishes after my flood and the loss of my Spurs programmes – frankly touching response, deeply appreciated. I will spare their blushes but the three best-known Spurs authors are kind, generous and entirely worthy of any money you invest in their books, so buy them. The piece is really about the hold the club has on our passions and emotions, which is the single most important theme of this blog, and that woe betide those who seek to undermine that. A very Happy New Year to you all.

The Sound of Sighlence

You can tell how a game is going by the sound of the crowd, a surefire soundtrack as the game ebbs and flows. The exultation that greets a goal, unrestrained singing in celebration, the contented hubbub as the fans leave after a win or the sharp, bitter recrimination of defeat or worse, a side that is not trying.

The sound of Spurs right now is a heavy, deep sigh. There’s disappointment there, some shaking of heads, plus a touch of resignation. It’s not working out as we planned and we’ve been here before, so many, many times.

Another day, another big fat zero in the ‘goals for’ column. However, this one was different. Same end product but only after the Newcastle goal was peppered from all angles in a second half bombardment where for 25 minutes we played scintillating, high tempo football to create more genuine chances than in the last half a dozen matches put together. There was a lot to be pleased with but still plenty of sighing, then as I drove home and still going as I type this.

65% possession, 24 shots, 14 on target – about right, I read them on the concourse as I paused on the way home and, well, sighed. Match statistics in games like these are the contemporary equivalent of a consolation goal, that is no consolation at all. Newcastle keeper Tim Krul had an outstanding game. More saves in a single match than any other keeper in Europe this season, apparently. See what I mean, they don’t help at all. First half leaps into the stratosphere to thwart Soldado and Sigurdsson were the best but just as valuable for his side were the outstretched boots and scrambled clearances. I’ve not seen a replay but how on earth he and a single defender kept the ball out after a deflected free-kick settled on the goal line remains a mystery.

Yet the harsh truth is that keepers can only make those saves if the ball is close enough to them. Weak finishing close in was our undoing. Krul could have remained the star but noble in defeat, such were the number of good opportunities we fashioned. Eriksen, Paulinho and Soldado made it too easy for him.

Things looked rosy to begin with. It felt as if both team and crowd had responded to recent criticism. Immediately we stretched the Newcastle with a move at pace, Walker freed up on the right. His cross was too close to the keeper but it augured well for things to come. Lots of encouragement too.

Eriksen was prominent, moving across the line and out wide rather than staying comfortable in the central pocket. For his game and that of Spurs to develop, he has to become more consistently involved.

The promising opening petered out. Newcastle moved the ball neatly out of defence and played two up front so they remained a threat on the break for the entire game. They were helped by Spurs giving the ball away. Friedel saved well on two occasions, then we were caught out. Dembele was fiddling around with the ball deep in our half. Although he eventually cleared, it allowed the Mags to pounce on a ball than Paulinho first misjudged, letting it run across his body, then was weak in the challenge. Remy was in: he rounded the keeper to score.

Newcastle and Remy in particular were dangerous. Our high line became our best protection. Dawson was stranded on more than one occasion and Chiriches came across to perfectly time a tackle that surely prevented a goal. Remy, a player we have been closely linked with, reminded us what we have missed this season, a focal point for our opponents’ attack and a target for balls out of defence.

We spluttered away for the rest of the half. Bad old Tottenham – too slow, not enough width as Siggy and Andros repeatedly came inside, too many players standing still and waiting for the ball.

We should really remember to start playing from the first whistle, not half time. Galvanised by the team-talk, we emerged fresh and new. Newcastle were well-organised but did not present as much of a barrier as Hull or West Ham. It was everything the first half was not, pace, movement, support for the man on the ball and above all, chances. Eriksen missed the best one, a lovely intricate move down the right put him in, he had time to take a touch but tried to place a ball to send the keeper the wrong way rather than putting his foot through it.

Driven on by substitute Sandro, his energy and power reverberated through the team even though he was the deepest midfielder. Vertonghen fizzed the ball in from wide left. Soldado headed weakly to the keeper, Paulinho missed, that scramble on the line.

Defoe came on at about 70 minutes, the right choice but as we gathered ourselves for another effort, his arrival had the reverse effect. Sandro stayed deep and Newcastle brought on another midfielder. Their 5 outnumbered our 3 and the momentum disappeared totally. Tactically outsmarted by Alan Pardew…not AVB’s finest moment.

Vertonghen hit the bar from a corner but otherwise that was that. Dawson was thrown forward late on but we couldn’t even whack the ball forward properly.

So what to make of this? This was different from some previous games where we hardly got into the box let alone make a chance. We can put a lot of this down to the keeper and should not be too down because if we play like that for an entire match, we will do well.

However, it comes in the context of an inability to score and some of the same patterns were on display. Soldado needs service – through-balls and the ball in front of him in the box. Without it, he contributes little and did not play well yesterday. We have to have faith and gear the team around his needs. AVB knew that when he bought him but he’s not so far achieved that aim.

I’m boring myself with the inverted wingers, done to death in previous columns. Suffice to say we saw more of the edge of the box log-jam that has stifled our attacks almost as effectively as the opposition back four. We are doing their job for them. Siggy and Andros ran into trouble, while Paulinho and Eriksen prefer it on the outskirts of the area. Problem is, there are few cut-backs because no one is going to the byline, no one in the box to help Soldado.

I will break a long-held golden rule and just this once make a comparison with Barcelona, which is normally the refuge of those who don’t know the game. They are one of the best club sides the world has ever seen so no wonder Spurs aren’t that good. The point I’m making is a simple one, however. For their third goal yesterday against Real Betis, Iniesta chipped the ball into the box and 4 of their players ran through to converge on it. I’m not sure we have 4 men in the box for corners let alone from open play. Regardless of the result, AVB has to solve this problem.

Also we have too many men whose instinct is to run with the ball. Good players, just not the right blend. It slows everything down. Add the fact that we have right-footers on the left and vice versa, they too want that extra touch or two. Not much in itself but add it up and it extracts the pace from our attacks.

We have a number of men playing out of position, and if AVB is sometimes accused of stubbornness then this is the point where I agree. Dembele is not best employed as a DM. His strength and passing ability have tempted AVB but he is the wrong choice. Sandro made a huge difference when he came on and should start, if he’s fit. Paulinho made his reputation as a box to box player but he’s being used elsewhere. I said last week that he needs a rest as he has become less influential as the weeks have passed. So it proved yesterday, admirably willing but a mixed afternoon and at fault for the goal.

Eriksen worsened as the second half went on but could be the creative hub with the right players around him. The wide men are not going wide and are not the men you want on the end of a chance in the box.

Townsend’s honeymoon is over. Opposition defences have sussed him out – two men and push him inside – and by the end his frustration manifested in wasted, hopeless long-shots. he still has a lot to learn. On the other side, Siggy was ineffectual.

I hope the squad are not getting fractious. Defoe gave Kaboul a right mouthful after an innocuous misplaced pass, and kept on going. This season he’s been hitherto completely focussed – this felt out of place and different.

Finally, all this money spent and no plan B. A number of quality players who are looking as though they can’t provide an alternative. Whatever Adebayor has done to hack AVB off must be the most heinous sin since Judas turned in Jesus. I enviously watched United, Arse**l even, Southampton with their central strikers as focal point and really missed Manu. We need him.

AVB needs more time to work this through. By now though, he would have expected to be much closer to his best team than he is. Or to be more accurate, the team and set-up he thought was close to his best is not working out.

Social media is awash with suggestions, including mine of course, and all of them different. These days everyone’s a manager and we’re all like Alex Ferguson – never wrong. AVB is in danger of becoming one of us, which frankly is a nightmare. He has so much potential at his disposal, he’s chopping and changing, which will create an unsettled side. He has to send a message to key newcomers, Soldado and Eriksen in particular, Lamela too, that for the next ten or so games, he’s going to stick with them and build the side around them. Let them make mistakes, allow them to learn. We’re in this for the long haul. They need time and that’s the best way to use it.