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.

Risible Then Remarkable

Another win in a game where we played some decent football without ever being in full control. It’s becoming a bit of pattern. This time we defended in the second half with uncharacteristic but welcome vigour. Naturally by this time we had tried to throw the match away but Sunderland weren’t quite good enough on the day to exploit our lacklustre start by getting any more than a single goal clear, and by the end I was enjoying some old fashioned everyone back bodies in the way defending.

I can’t remember why www.dictionary.com send me a Word of the Day. Probably one of my periodic attempts at self-improvement that usually ends with a swift click of the ‘delete’ button before it’s been opened. However, Saturday’s word was ‘risible’. How appropriate. In my reflections on last week’s match, I noted our talent for the farcical, starring Gomes as N17’s Brian Rix (one for the kids there). Just when you think all the gags have been done, b’dum tish here’s new one. Gallas goes off to change his boot, teammates apparently totally oblivious to this fact, huge gap into which dashes sharp opposition striker. The eventual outcome on the game has meant this incident has been underplayed but how on earth can a professional football team get up to such rubbish?

Throughout the first half we showed a distinct lack of drive and imagination. Despite our good squad, we don’t adapt well to the loss of certain key players. We’ve learned to cope without Huddlestone but looked lost and bereft without Luka or a matchwinner like Bale or Rafa to turn the game and set the creative juices flowing. Even with the absences we should be able to generate some momentum from within but none was forthcoming, although it provoked a concerted burst of arm-waving from Harry. Our task was made harder by Sunderland’s pressing game, pushing right up on our back four to stifle attacks at source. This left gaps in behind their midfield that we tried to exploit with a series of long balls but this isn’t Pav’s game, back to the goal, so back it came. We searched in vain for a ball out wide but no width either. JD worked hard for the team, pulling out to hold up the ball. He deserves credit for this and he held it up well enough, but we were stuttering at this point.

I’m grateful for the goals when they come, obviously, but sometimes I wish we don’t need to wait for a goal to shake us from our lethargy, or a stunner to win it. How we needed Dawson’s header. The keeper should have done better. We’re off then. More bounce and nouse. Still much to be done and nothing was being created for our strikers. Then Nico’s stunning volley, studied technique preceded by shrewd positioning: rather than take the easy but worthy option of the space at the far post, he came inside diagonally to just the right spot.

Now we were keeping the ball much better. Corluka’s value was demonstrated once again in the way he times his runs (his strolls?) forward. No pace of course but he comes up from deep when the attack may founder and there he is, out wide, enabling the centre midfield to switch the point of the attack. As with last week, Benny did this less but just as effective once he got the hang of it.

Jenas had another strong game, working hard and energetic from first to last. Nothing more. Won’t say anything. That’s two or three now…STOP IT!

Sunderland as expected had plenty of possession as the game went on but we protected Gomes well. More often than not, our opponents were forced to shoot from a distance. When they did get into the box, the centre backs were able to come across to intercept because our midfield shield provided the first line of defence. So often this season we’ve conceded because that has not been in place and the back four have been compelled to come out.

Sandro played an important role in our win. Recovering well from a poor first half, he showed promise and application in the second. To me he looks a natural defensive midfielder for the modern game. In particular he seems comfortable just in front of the back four or dropping into the box when we are under real pressure, as opposed to Palacios who is more of the old style midfield destroyer, ranging across the centre looking for tackles. Equally, Sandro has  good touch on the ball and can pass short or long. He moves well, gets forward quickly and usually his first touch sets him well for a quick pass on, should something be available.

His weakness is getting caught with the ball and Sunderland tried to pressure him. Too frequently in the first half he played the ball forward and it was intercepted. However, this wasn’t all his fault. He usually played it to feet as Pav or JD dropped back and they were easily dispossessed, whereas a run into the channel and a ball to match could have suited better. That’s not just for Sandro: surely our strikers, who had barely a chance between them, could thrive on those sort of passes and start their runs from deeper, rather than being caught with their backs to the goal.

So a resolute second half plus a brilliant goal and we have yet another win without playing fantastically well. Yet in its way this current run that we are putting together is remarkable. On Saturday we were without the heart and soul of the team. Four top class footballers were absent – Modric, Bale, Van der Vaart and King. Let’s not forget the excellent Huddlestone or the promising Kaboul, who has done so well this season. Umpteen changes in the back four, different players meaning different patterns, yet we are regularly wining matches. Such an injury list would unbalance any team – just look at Chelsea with all their riches and how they struggled without Lampard and Terry. Full credit all round.

Public Information Service: don’t go yet. TOMM is warm-hearted and generous, thinking only of its readers’ well-being. I’ve been contacted by a few people with some things you might like to know, so read on.

First, a shirt from our friends at Philosophy Football:

Offside? An always controversial decision but none so more than when an oafish pair of TV studio so-called experts make the claim that it is gender that determines your knowledge or otherwise of the rule. Philosophy Football’s handy T-shirt design provides the signals of the Assistant Referee as they wave their flag for offside together with the rulebook definition to start the argument. Complete with ‘Lets Kick Sexism out of Football’ campaign logo against dinosaur attitudes to wear on your sleeve. Available from www.philosophyfootball.com
Next, memorabilia fans sit up:

Double winners Les Allen; Peter Baker; Maurice Norman; Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson will be appearing at the Memorabilia Show, NEC Birmingham, 26-27 March.


Finally, Our Ledley endorses a worthwhile scheme, showing our Spurs make an effort in the community:


On the final day of National Apprenticeships Week, www.notgoingtouni.co.uk has received the backing of Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Ledley King. King has joined forces with the online portal for apprenticeships and vocational opportunities, to encourage young people to consider vocational opportunities during National Apprenticeship Week 2011.

“Apprenticeships are a great way of entering the world of work for those who, like me, know what they want to do for a living,” King said to notgoingtouni’s free digital magazine for prospective apprentices.  “Apprenticeship Week is the perfect time to start looking into the options. I came up through the Tottenham youth academy, so I know the value of on-the-job training. And I know it can lead to the best job in the world!”

The increase in tuition fees, as well as one in five graduates currently being unemployed, is opening the door for more and more young people to consider vocational qualifications.

“Young people looking to enter the professions are now beginning to discover, for example, that it is actually quicker to become a chartered accountant through an apprenticeship programme than via a degree, with a higher proportion finding employment at the end of it,” explains Spencer Mehlman, managing director of notgoingtouni.co.uk.

A free digital guide for Apprenticeship Week, is available at www.notgoingtouni.co.uk, also tells the story of Rohan Duncan, 25, who joined Tottenham Hotspur Foundation’s Future Job Fund programme in February 2010. He was offered an apprenticeship on completion of the programme and now leads coaching sessions and studies for an NVQ Level 2 in Sports and Allied Recreational Studies at Croydon College.

“I was a Spurs fan before I got the job. I went to the job centre because I’d been unemployed for a while and I saw there were jobs going coaching at Spurs. I’m a sporty guy but I’d never done any coaching before. I didn’t think I’d get it – it seemed too good to be true!” Rohan explained.

Now, Rohan coaches young people from the local community, leading PE lessons, table tennis sessions and the Kickz programme aimed at keeping young people out of trouble on the streets.

“I’m on contract until June,” Rohan adds. “I’d like to stay on at Spurs, but even if I don’t I’m much more employable than I was before. I’d like to stay in coaching or mentoring.”

40,000 companies work with notgoingtouni.co.uk including industry giants such as IBM, British Gas, Rolls Royce, Unilever and Tesco.

What A Waste

Not That Frustration. Although the Popamatic Dice Shaker Brings Back Memories

Against Birmingham, a decent performance for the most part that ended in frustration, at least in my back room where I was hiding from the builders. Peace and quiet, you understand, total focus. They weren’t after me for money. Yet.

Harry seemed to share my exasperation. Post match, he waxed philosophical about being on top for so long, moving the ball well, holding possession and making chances, only for the game to turn on the introduction of Zigic.

Two points dropped for me, this one. Birmingham are a hard nut to crack. They have an enviable home record with one loss in over 30 games, I think. Much of this is built upon their famed powers of organisation and resistance, which can be of a ferocious intensity as they demonstrated in the derby against Villa in midweek. I thought they missed a trick in starting 4-5-1: these days we can deal better with this than when teams are able to put pressure on our defence. That’s what holds us back, the need to think about the possible repercussions of coming too far forward too often.

As it was, we passed the ball smoothly with the excellent Modric once more on top in midfield, energetically supported by Palacios and with Lennon and Bale as willing accomplices out wide. Loads of room despite the 5 midfielders. Anyway two of them were treading on Bale’s laces for most of the time in order to protect Steve Carr. Bale can play his part these days just by standing still.

Carr was a terrific player, flying down the wing and alert in the tackle, better coming forward than at the back, a mop of wavy black hair. He was never the same once injury blunted his pace. Although he became a better player technically on his return, making up in some part for the deficiencies imposed on him, he was encouraged to bulk up but athleticism not muscle was his game. Carefree expression gave way to surly shaven-headed dissatisfaction. I’m glad he’s still in the game after his career was threatened. I just hope it’s not a portent of things to come for another, much better, carefree flying wide man. One of the many tackles Bale rides each week finds its mark and the head clippers come out.

I admire the way Birmingham defend. Pinned back in their box, as they were for long periods on Saturday, they respond like wild cats backed into a corner. Bodies pile into the box to form a barrier packed tighter than bricks in the wall of a Mayan temple. Despite this, and here’s the source of that frustration, we were able to stretch them out of shape and out of their comfort zone.

Usually we had an extra man, not something that has always been the case this season. Defoe’s movement around Crouch, centrally stationed, was effective, Lennon and Bale were available as I’ve already mentioned and Crouch himself pulled wide to the far post usefully. He had a good first half, coming a little deeper so he could link up better with his team mates and encouragingly he had a couple of runners coming past him as targets for a lay-off or flick, another quality often absent in our play.

This Frustration

Chances fell to Defoe and Crouch and were missed but the advantage of 60% first half possession was not converted into scoring opportunities because of a problem with the final ball. JD, Crouch, Lennon, even Modric made poor choices when the moment came. Too often the wide option was taken: it’s safer but easier to defend if it ends up with a slow high cross and could have been balanced with incisive central thrusts into the channels. The goal when it came was from a loose ball after a set-piece, rather like Liverpool’s last weekend.

We began the second half well enough but soon the Spurs fans’ songs, loud and clear on my stream, sounded gradually more anxious, a sure sign that our opponents were creeping back into the match. I thought we had worked through a troublesome 20 minutes or so as we regained both our composure and possession.

However, Zigic meant a 4-4-2 with a focal point that hitherto Birmingham had lacked. The signs were there: Crouch becoming increasingly isolated and our midfield dropping deeper. Lennon and Bale out wide had worked back admirably well thus far but they stood off now. It’s not as if we don’t know what was happening – we get Crouch wide onto the full back often enough – but it’s hard to defend. Our back four missed Dawson and Kaboul all of a sudden. We should take our opponent’s example and have big men hammering through the middle to pick up the headers across the box. Gomes and Gallas scrambled one way from Ridgewell but Gardner did enough.

By the end, Lennon seemed reluctant to take on his man when given the chance in the last 5 minutes. I’m sure he was tired after a hard afternoon’s work but I hope they weren’t settling for the point.

Wilson worked so hard, again tiring towards the end – perhaps he felt safer away from the crazy booing last week. Gallas had another solid match and Bassong is back to good form but they weren’t quite strong enough in the end. Hutton’s passing was off and he was lucky not to be dismissed. The problem with these incidents Is not what happens on the day, it’s the mental note made by the rest of the League as they watch MOTD that Hutton can be wound up.

Harry was on about taking a point at Birmingham before the match but as I’ve said before, the problem with this ‘settling’ business is that it denies the potential, what might be. On the day, we should have converted our first half superiority into goals, so two points dropped for me, although to be fair, a year or two we may well have lost 2-1.

No sackcloth and ashes, mind. Progress can be judged over sequences of matches, beat Chelsea on Sunday and that’s 10 from 12 including victories over 3 of last season’s top four. I remain a little disappointed, however. I don’t obsess over the table but the fact is, this is the most open league for years. We’re opening a gap between us and 7th, thinking of Europe next season, but we should be looking up not down. A win would have left us only 4 off the top, 1 off the top four. We’ve let slip a few too many points already and can’t afford to waste many more.

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Not So Much a Match Report, More a Celebration

Last night Spurs produced a fearless, compelling and utterly irresistible display of bravura football, the like of which I have seldom seen in my 40 plus seasons of watching my beloved team. Inter Milan, proud champions of Europe, a defence the envy of the competition, were repeatedly torn to shreds. One of the greatest nights in our modern history, but with football like this, there’s scant need to be parochial – this morning the eyes of Europe are upon us.

At the end of the night, a shy, modest young Welshman was anointed as a world-class talent. Gareth Bale shattered Inter with an unstoppable combination of muscular direct running and devastatingly accurate crossing. Top class players with every trick in the book,  pace, hard tackling, positioning plus the arcane dark arts of international defenders, they’ve seen it all before but on the night all they saw was his backside as he powered past them. As they thrash around in the middle of the night in storm-tossed demented half-sleep, the number three will float into their consciousness and torment them for evermore.

I’ve seen a game or two in my time but I’ve never seen anything quite like Bale. In full flight this big man is a fearsome sight. he needs a stride or two to get moving but once he gains momentum he’s away. Yet despite this, the most remarkable aspect of his play is the final ball.  Viciously swerving crosses that are nigh on impossible to handle or the far post ball on the ground, they are dispatched with great accuracy whilst he’s stampeding through at full tilt. The touch to the byline, the amount of times the ball does not cross the line but is pulled back as his instep curls around it and into the box. This is not a reflex reaction. Rather, he’s learned to pick his passes much better, witness the second and third goals last night. As the blood pumps furiously and every sinew strains, his mind remains focussed and calm. He is twenty-one years old.

It’s not as if Inter were unprepared. Not only was there plenty of first hand evidence from the first leg, Benitez knows the English game intimately, yet his team offered too much space. Even if they had closed him down, Bale would have escaped their clutches. This signals a new strand of defensive tactics. Against Bale, formations are no longer described with players spread across the pitch horizontally. Goal-line to goal-line, 5-3-2. It’s the only way.

This was no one man band. Modric was outstanding in the centre. Low to the ground, seeking space and then filling it with an angled ball or a short stabbing run to collect the pass and move on. Always active, he provided both an outlet for team-mates and a steady supply of creativity. Little arms outstretched, give it to me, give it here, I want it give it to me. The opening goal was exquisite, a simple natural beauty rather than the glamour of those that followed but nonetheless it took the breath away. The touch and turn, head up, how can a football rolling 6 yards be so sumptuous? Van der Vaart, on the same wavelength, as one and in. Stunning.

VDV roamed wild and free in the first half. Not everything came off but Inter could never rest. Hud was solid in the centre, spraying the ball wide and undertaking defensive duties diligently. Gallas had a decent match. He bounces around like tigger, hopping up, down and sideways, alert and balanced, barking out instructions. No thought of bygone days, only Spurs on his mind and new challenges ahead. Lennon occupied Inter’s attention, if only the final ball were better but he made his fair share of opportunities. Another word of praise for Kaboul. He should be way over his head in this company but he’s not having any of that. He wants it, wants it bad, and he had another good game. For our third, the little Inter forward had possession, edge of the box, back to goal, and Kaboul stayed patiently on his feet rather than diving in. Result? We gained possession and Bale disappeared into the wide blue yonder.

Yet the really wondrous aspect of this match was the team itself. No hint of the disjointed, aimless play we’ve seen so often with this squad. They produced a sustained display of attacking endeavour, moving as a single organism with one intent, victory. The movement was excellent throughout with barely a moment to catch their breath. They supported each other magnificently and played from the off with sustained purpose and high tempo. From the kick off Bale took a waist-high pass under pressure and first time knocked it back, to Benny I think. A footnote on a wonderful night but it was a sign of confidence. Spurs imposed themselves on their illustrious opponents from the beginning and never let up. My head was spinning as we tried to break down the Italian barrier – both wings, running, passing, onetwos, the entire gamut of creative football.

I suspect Benitez had no sense that Spurs would dare to attack so consistently. It’s the Champions League, a group match, you want to win but are cautious because losing is a crime. Everyone knows that. Kudos to Redknapp and the coaches for setting up the team in this way and for instilling the will to win. The fluency up front was a joy to behold. Not just VDV and Luka, but Bale making diagonal runs off the ball into the middle and pushing JJ forward when Rafa went off. Inter had barely a moment’s respite from this unceasing assault.

So Bale, this giant of the game, runs amok then amidst the tumult of celebration absent-mindedly checks his hair. In the post match interview, he looks at the floor, says he’s still learning. Last week he had a few days off. Went to stay with his mum. Just a kid of twenty-one. Me, I’ve seen it all before, but I’ve not seen anything like this. Past 1 am, can’t sleep, watch the recording and waves of goosebumps flow down my body from head to toe. After all this time, I should not surprised by what Spurs does to the emotions, but once again they’ve floored me. A head-spinningly joyous night of wild passion and wonder.

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