Stomach Churning? Shouting At The TV? Yep, Spurs Are Back

My season starts in the same way, at the same point, every year. Take a complete break over the summer these days. No friendlies, don’t even know what the new kit looks like. Need a rest, especially after last season’s debacle. Spurs’ first game, I’m keen but slightly detached. What will be will be and all that.

We begin well enough, interesting to see how we set up, Hammers come close but I have the luxury of the TV angle via my stream and it’s going wide. Then, it begins. Our marking is poor, they have a great chance. Should have scored and my stomach turns over. The bile rises, I feel sick, churning, stamping my feet, shouting at the screen. That’s a relief. Football’s back and everything is reassuringly normal.

It’s good to win on the opening day of the season and the manner of victory with a classy goal deep into added time was sheer delight. Kane, on as sub for Adebayor, spotted the runner and slid a perfect angled ball through the hapless Wham back four. That the runner was Eric Dier, full-back, on debut, 93rd minute, was a bit of a surprise but his calm, controlled finish, rounding the keeper before stroking the ball into an empty net, was worthy of Greaves or Gilzean. If my ‘new season resolution’ is to enjoy the Spurs, that’s the way to go, gents, thank you kindly.

This came on the back of a resilient hour when we were down to 10 men after Naughton was sent off for handling a supposedly goal-bound shot. Great to win but this was a mostly ordinary match between two ordinary sides. Our goal, however excellent, was our only genuine chance in the whole game. W Ham obliged by missing theirs plus a penalty. Other sides won’t be so generous but first game, down to ten men for much of it so no real conclusions to be drawn. Like I said, let’s enjoy the moment.

The penalty incident seems the obvious turning point. After we mastered early possession, without doing anything dangerous with it, our opponents stifled us in midfield and were on top. We muddled away a couple of efforts, swarming round attackers in the box, then close to the goal Naughton hurled himself in to block a shot. It was ball to hand but those hands were held high like a goalkeeper. Penalty, I’m afraid. Cue cries of ‘unlucky’, ‘seen them not given’ but after a chat with his linesman, the ref made the right choice. Naughton saw red – blocking a goalbound shot with his hands, I guess, even though it was probably going over. Inevitable. We had a couple of ball to hand pens last season. Fine if refs are consistent with this interpretation all season. Bet they won’t be.

Bright start, no goals, opposition get back into it, cock-up. The Spurs way. New season, new manager, same old story. But wait. Fans of rival clubs have more in common than they would care to admit. The Hammers I know could describe their side in the same way. Miss a penalty, then the real turning point of this match came in the second half when Adebayor knocked the ball past centre half Collins, who duly obliged by bringing him down even though it was nearer the halfway line than the goal. Already booked, Collins was gone and if Manu did little else yesterday, he knew what he was doing right then. The man advantage tossed away.

In a match without too much goalmouth incident, the other significant moment came late on. Lloris, superb in this fixture at the fag end of 2013-4, dashed out to thwart Downing’s close-range shot as finally WHam breached our defence. It was a proper save, not just an arms-and-legs-flailing block.

So Mr Poch, what do you have in store for us? W Ham’s first attack didn’t amount to anything but our response was indicative of the shape of things to come. Bentaleb and Capoue, our two defensive midfielders, dropped back straight away, taking up deep positions a few yards in front of the back four and in the gaps between them. The midfield three of Lamela, Lennon and Eriksen fell back behind the ball, leaving centre forward Adebayor up front. That DM positioning is key if we are to overcome the huge problems of last season when the back four were unprotected and therefore vulnerable.

When we had the ball, the three interchanged positions, they seemed to know what was going on and filled the space left as their team-mates moved around. The full-backs came forward to help out and Bentaleb joined them, staying deeper than the three but involved while Capoue hangs further back.

They looked comfortable and Capoue was our best player until he dropped back to centre half. However, it was all a bit cluttered – they were too close to each other – and we didn’t have a shot on goal in this early period despite being on top. Possession is important as they shifted the ball from side to side. Repeatedly we tried lofted passes in Adebayor’s direction, which seemed to me to be tactics not desperation. What’s certain is that they didn’t work. Like all our work on the ball in the first twenty minutes, it was overly deliberate and the big Hammers defenders easily dealt with them.

Eriksen and Lamela showed glimpses of promise on the ball but faded all too easily when Wham flooded the midfield and made things difficult. They tossed a few balls into the box from deep but we did little to stop them and looked unnecessarily shaky in the box. Dier’s selection shows Pochettino is looking to the future – if ever there is a match for Dawson it’s this one as we know the ball is going to ping in repeatedly. Dier is promising but the opposition forwards got in between the centre halves and missed a couple of good opportunities.

Despite the sending off, Pochettino remained resolutely positive. Capoue was our best player at this juncture. I would have brought Dawson on and kept Capoue where he was as DM. However, the Argentinian did not want to waste a substitution, so Capoue became centre half and Dier right back.

It looked as if it was only a matter of time before the Hammers scored. After half time we were pushed back. Adebayor was isolated and detached from the midfield up front, so we had no outlet. But we discovered another feature of Pochettino’s approach, his brave, attacking use of subs, which turned the match in our favour. Holtby and Townsend for Lennon and Lamela gave us renewed industry and, in Townsend the ability to take the game to our opponents. At this stage in his development, Townsend needs a yard or two to look dangerous. Close him down and he’s not learned effective options. Yesterday he posed problems every time he took the defence on. It felt as if our manager would have made the same changes regardless of W Ham’s carelessness in dropping to 10 men.

And make no mistake, the players were encouraged to get forward. Dier’s willingness to get into opposition half seemed reckless as the minutes ticked away and we were on for a decent away point. Stay back, let someone else make the runs…hah!

Early days, 10 men, no time for judgements. However: Bentaleb had a good game and a man who did not appear in any of the papers’ ‘best Spurs team’ has caught the new manager’s eye. He keeps the ball moving and finds space wherever he goes. I wonder if Kane may have to adapt to a role similar to that of Rodriguez at Southampton, a forward able to drop back when needed. Kaboul was poor outside the box – as captain he should have set a better example.

Krul Irony as Lloris and Spurs Excel

Away season tickets – the must-have accessory for any self-respecting Spurs fan. Props to all who made the long and hazardous journey to Newcastle last night through the windswept Armageddon that is the British weather these days. Those of us who made do with a stream could hear you loud and clear and enjoyed one of the honeypot delicious performances of the season almost as much as you did.

Spurs have one of the best away records in the league and this was the best of the best. The better side for the vast majority of the match, a tight, unified team effort provided the platform for Adebayor to score twice and lead the line like a master, while Bentaleb’s calm dominance of midfield proved once more that he is a high class prospect. Dembele was strong in an unusual role on the right while the return of Younis Kaboul alongside Vertonghen was very welcome. Even Chadli scored for goodness sake.

For once there was plenty of competition for man of the match but Hugo Lloris streaked ahead at the end. Flinging himself to all four corners of his goal as Newcastle finally emerged from their self-induced torpor, he made sure there were none of the Typical Tottenham wobbles late on. That strong left-hand is becoming his trademark. For the third game running he plunged low to his left to push out two chances, then kept his best til last with a reaction left-handed tip-over. Underlying the showreel saves is a determination to cut out the mistakes that have bedevilled his game since his injury versus Everton.

There is a context for all this: Newcastle were dreadful. They signalled their intent right from the beginning when Santon got caught in the corner for Dembele to steamroller in. Manu’s shot was deflected just wide. Not to be deterred, Santon did it again. We pushed forward scenting blood.

In a hectic opening, there was poor defending at both ends, ours from a free-kick when we couldn’t sort out the marking. Cue Hugo’s first save although Cisse should have put the ball further from his body.

It was very open and entertaining but then settled into nondescript period with Spurs holding sway without getting anywhere. Both teams gave the ball away frequently. Then a fine piece of football from Bentaleb created our opening goal. He shepherded the ball out of danger, deep in our half, then drove on with that seemingly effortless running style that appears slow yet takes him away from defenders with pleasing regularity. He beat one with skill, held off another with strength then crossed from the left into the danger area at the edge of the 6 yard box. Krul, on fire in the home fixture before Christmas to secure the Barcodes’ victory, got his hand to the ball but only to obligingly place it onto Adebayor’s left foot.

We should have had more before half time. Lennon hit the post and Paulinho split the defence apart with a ball to Walker whose cross was scrambled off Azza’s toes in the nick of time. The half fizzled out, Spurs on top by not giving the ball away as often as the Geordies.

Paulinho looked more fluent yesterday evening – I thought he was stiff and glum on Sunday. Good rather than great but he has that ability to up the pace suddenly. In the second half our attacks had been one-paced. The Brazilian seized on an opportunity, initiated a quick one-two and was on hand to score as Krul again parried rather than cleared.

The goals emphasised Spurs’ control rather than establishing it. Newcastle played as if running through treacle and we took full advantage. Adebayor made it three, banging home a ball on the bounce. The Barcodes looked dangerous for the only time in the game. We sat back too deep and failed to stop the crosses coming in, a fault of our attacking formation and the unwillingness of the wide midfielders to cover as assiduously as they should have done. What the back four could not handle, Lloris welcomed. Chadli scored the fourth and final goal, the classic right-foot curler into the top far corner from out on the left, but he had more time to line it up than Tiger Woods with a five iron to the green.

12 years and counting into Levy’s chairmanship, £80m give or take spent in the summer and I did not expect to watch an inexperienced manager learning on the job. It’s alternately fascinating and frightening. Sherwood has not played the same formation for two games running since his first couple of 4-4-2 efforts. Yesterday he went 4-3-3 with Lennon wide left and Dembele wide right. Newcastle did not play wingers so this gave us numbers in the centre where we were strongest. Good tactics. supposedly he doesn’t like DMs yet our efforts rested on the foundation of Capoue sitting efficiently in front of the back four. Ungainly and sometimes wasteful, he nevertheless gave others freedom, notably Bentaleb, who could get forward, leftish, to prompt and harass.

Kaboul available, Kaboul straight back into the side to replace Dawson who until now has played every minute of every game. The shape of things to come. A big man, he looks overweight to me. However, his timing in the tackle was excellent and he had enough pace to repeatedly snuff out the rare moments that Newcastle looked dangerous. Lennon again did little. Out on the left, he kept on turning onto his right foot, and turning into tackles when he should have been running wild and free into the space that Capoue and Bentaleb gave him. Interesting that we had more space because Demebele and Paulinho did not get in each other’s way down the centre.

Inverted wingers. High defensive line. Dedicated DM. Sound familiar? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as Tim would never say. Let him take some credit here, though, for getting this to work better. Away from home, his personnel and tactics are shrewd and insightful. Add that to his motivational powers, enabling Adebayor to blossom like a teenager again, he did well last night. Not everything has worked so far but he’s learning fast. Only fair therefore to conclude with this stat courtesy of Four Four Two’s James Maw via twitter last night: I am not sure how it has happened but this is the closest Spurs have been to the top of the table at this stage of the season since the Premier League began.

 

Spurs Season Starts Here

Back to school we go. We queued up to get a new blazer, sharpened our pencils and mum has been up half the night biroing our name into the collars of our clothes. Then school closed for ten days. May as well have stayed on holiday. These days the start of each season is absurd. End the transfer window at midnight before the opening game and shift the internationals. But here we are so let’s get on with it. So what do we know now that we didn’t know on the morning of August 18th?

That Spurs fans have every right to be excited about the quality of the squad. We have bought skillful, talented footballers able to play the Spurs Way, with the power and strength in key positions required to prosper in the Premier League.

That we will have to be patient. The coitus interruptus of the international break is a let down but creates time to reassess our performance. The madness of the end of the window with three transfers in a day and Bale’s impending departure (who will ever forget the regular scaffolding updates from the Bernabeu on twitter?) has thankfully subsided, leaving time for tranquil reflection, at least until kick-off tomorrow. The conclusion is, we have a lot of work to do.

Let’s start in the heart of the team, the defensive midfield. Paulinho and Capoue are highly promising. That area is their natural habitat and they know their role is not only to break up attacks but to start our own moves once we have the ball. Paulinho is the more flexible of the two, willing to get forward when the situation allows and his judgement in that respect is sound. However, after settling quickly at Selhurst Park, at the Emirates at times they both looked a long way from home. Sandro should be back tomorrow to provide more power and drive. Last season he did so well before his injury, Villas-Boas often switched to just one DM, allowing more support for the attack. And they need it.

That Soldado needs to be given the ball. Well obviously – but this guy does his best work in the box rather than leading the line as target man. Support from midfield in terms of both making chances and getting up alongside him is imperative therefore. I look forward to seeing Eriksen but it is not about one individual providing the chances, it’s a team effort.

That we have to get bodies in the box. See above. Six points from three games is a better start than we are used to but it masks the fact that we have not scored from open play. Partly this is because of a lack of creativity in the centre. We’ve directed much of our work out wide, which teams keen to pack defence find easier to handle. Partly it is due to a lack of support for Soldado in the box. We can’t be everywhere at once but have to get a better balance.

That progress hinges on the form of the old guard not the new wave. At least in the short-term that is. Sandro’s back. The back four have to get their act together. With Dawson rather stranded for the Gunner’s goal, either they sort out the high line drill or, better, Kaboul returns alongside Vertonghen. Rose needs a run while Walker has to improve his decision-taking, that is not get drawn out of position or sucked into unnecessary fouls. Chiriches still doesn’t have a work permit – I trust the club have not made a misjudgment here. I don’t understand how that can happen.

That I wouldn’t swap Lloris for any keeper in the league. Huge favourite of mine.

That Dembele is key. He has been somewhat overshadowed by the newcomers but he has the lot. Hard to shake off the ball, a good touch and the pass to pick out a man in the box. The axis with Sandro was dynamic when they played together last season. His manager likes him but should play him further forward to make best use of those talents. But we have a problem – he’s not played well for some time and he can’t finish a match. If he’s not fully fit, rest him until he is. His lack of form and fitness has had a greater impact than has generally been acknowledged.

That Adebayor has a vital role to play. Barely noticed during the transfer furore, he provides not merely cover for Soldado but alternatives too. His movement and ability to bring others into the game offers variation, provided his motivation is right. He likes to be top dog and although the club are rightly and generously nurturing him during the aftermath of his brother’s death, his mind could be elsewhere when he’s fit again, in which case suddenly we are short of options up front.

That bloody international break. AVB has had no time to work on tactics and formation, precisely the things that are most needed. I read today, for example, that Lamela hasn’t trained with the team since the break. It’s like starting all over again.

That Franco Baldini is a star.

That our rivals are benefitting from the lack of change. Arsenal had an organisation and ethic that was enough to keep us out despite our possession while at Liverpool Rodgers has begun to get the message across, despite having a worse squad on paper.

At this point last season I thought we would do well but not immediately. Patience remains a virtue, except that with this squad the rewards when they come, and I think they will, could be great. I’m looking forward to the journey.

Spurs v Villa – A Two Goal Thrashing

A nondescript autumnal evening in a mousy part of north London. Monday night football, a game on the dullest day of a week that’s barely got started. The ground’s not quite full, acres of blue until 5 minutes or so before kick-off. A game we should win, and did, by a couple of goals at home against a mid-table side. In the history of Spurs, less even than a footnote, a dash or a comma maybe.

But when we look back and talk about the best performances, the days or nights when Spurs really turned it on and played with the verve and daring that marks us out from the rest, those who were there or who gaped open-mouthed in wonder at the television will fall quiet and with a far-away look in their eyes softly whisper – Spurs v Villa, November 21st, do you remember?

A performance of style and shimmering beauty not so much took the breath away as sucked it forcibly from your lungs leaving you gasping and swooning with astonishment. In the second half there was no let-up. Wave upon flowing wave of movement and inventiveness dazzled the hapless Villa defenders into submission. Attackers ransacked from all angles. Bale steaming down the left or muscling his way into the middle, scorching swerving missiles impossible to handle. Lennon tricky on the right, Van der Vaart sliding across the edge of the box, no one could have picked him up, let alone a bedraggled Villa side. Modric and Parker driving on from midfield, and again, again, no stopping them.

We’ve seen great players and fine displays many times before but seldom one of this intensity and consistency, an attitude that spread through every player and lasted for almost the whole 90 minutes. At the end of the first half the tempo dropped and we were less effective, although still dominant, but flagged only at the very beginning of the second half where, as with QPR, we seemed distracted. It was however only a momentary lapse. For the rest of the match we played as well as I can ever remember. If you want to know what I want from my Spurs, replay this spell of glorious attacking football, of unstinting effort, of intelligence, power and guile. Brilliant.

Churlish to pick out individuals when the team is the thing. Not just the runs from deep, the understanding of team-mates’ abilities that mean Parker can loop a 60 yard crossfield ball 30 yards ahead of Walker and still he gets it, or Modric can slide a ball through for, well, any of the several men who made runs from deep or came short. Not when Benny nonchalantly sprays passes into Bale’s stride or picks out his man inside, or when Kaboul mightily heads away pretty much everything.

But there’s Luka, under pressure, two men, dips his shoulder and turns in the same movement and is gone, not pausing but head up, eyes bright, searching for the next ball. Luka driving us forward time and time again or dropping deep to sweep up. Luka, having excelled to a level few others can dream of let alone achieve, makes a rare error and holds head in hands in self-admonishment. Because he cares. Chelsea, the transfer, wages – forget it, he cares.

Here’s Scott Parker. At 30, finally, he has the chance to make it at the very top and he will not allow his ambitions to be thwarted this time. Failed transfers, poor choices of club, injuries, he won’t get a better opportunity, so without breaking focus, face etched with the effort of concentration, he runs, he holds it, waits for others to reconfigure into the right place, short passes, long passes, through balls, cover tackles made as if his life depended on it rather than being in just another Monday night league match. He inspires the players and the fans. We watch him and we believe.

Kaboul, learning alongside King the master, they shall not pass. Villa are potentially dangerous in the air and on the break but when you have power and pace like this, there was no way through. Kaboul would not allow it.

Bale, not one but two full backs in Hutton and Cuellar to beat, and beat them he did. Over and over again. I don’t blame the Villa defenders for not dealing with that cross -see it live, in real time, how can anyone handle it? Manu, two goals and a couple of misses, not at his sharpest but once again his movement and ability to hold up the ball transforms our attacking options. Rafa roaming, unleashed. Should have scored, uncharacteristically over-playing a few chances at the edge of the box and passing when normally he would have shot but a fine game all round.

Ask people around my generation about the great games. Sure we have tales of finals, of Europe and Wembley, but many will give a quiet mention to another evening game, in the early European rounds at home to Feyenord with Cruyff and a young gauche Ruud Guillit. We scored four in a scintillating first half attacking unsurpassed in my memory when we got everything right. Last night the only difference was the number of goals. A victory to live long in the memory.