Watching Spurs Was Fun. It Will Never Catch On.

Spurs are through to the semi-final of the League Cup courtesy of an emphatic 4-0 victory over Newcastle United. Tottenham spent the second half pinging the ball around with an exuberant freedom rarely seen during the past few years. Cracking football, plenty of goals, a vibrant atmosphere including a full contribution from thousands of loyal, loud Geordies and to make it just like the good old days there was even a miscreant visitor bodily carried out by a posse of stewards and police. Fabulous to kick back and enjoy it all. I could get used to this.

For Spurs was the perfect League Cup tie, competitive but without edge. The FA Cup is the one, real commitment and born of a long, proud heritage that links every club in the land. My advice for the League Cup is to enjoy it but forget a defeat in the time it takes to get from the ground to the station. Sure, during extra time at Wembley in 2008 I had dissolved into a gibbering froth of anxiety, so if only I could follow my own observations, but allow me the self-delusion that’s natural for every supporter.

The League Cup should be fun and this win most certainly was, but while there were promising signs of our progress, Newcastle gave us plenty of room to play. They fielded a strong side if a little lightweight up front and with two sides keen to attack, this created fast end to end football. However, their young keeper Jak Alnwick followed the inept example of brother and former Spur Ben in providing a couple of assists. Pardew also made a game-changing tactical error at the start of the second half. The vast Sissoko had trampled over our midfield during the third period but was then moved wide.

Presumably the plan was to repeat the tactics that won our visitors this season’s league match where he stampeded down our left. Instead, it gave Spurs the freedom of the park. An absolute pleasure to see Spurs moving forward at every opportunity, luscious pass and move revolving around a playmaker, Christian Eriksen, and anchored by a deep-lying midfielder, Nabil Bentaleb.

 

Both excelled, with Eriksen in particular catching the eye. Given a central role with a fair degree of freedom, he was on the move and involved for 90 minutes, welcome but rare for him lately. Not everything came off – I suspect the dreaded pass completion stats were not in the top bracket – but the best players take risks and that inspiration makes things happen.

Things happened around him all evening, the best being a delightful curling pass through the defence to Rose (I think) but Soldado couldn’t capitalise on his instant cross. He made our fourth, a 20 yard burst ending with a shot parried straight to Soldado who tucked it in from close range. Eriksen really needs a nickname. ‘Come on Christian’ sounds like something from the touchline of an under 11s rugby match in Tunbridge Wells or a call to evensong. He seemed revitalised. After Sunday’s win he credited improved fitness levels for our series of late comebacks and certainly he was a bundle of energy and joy last night.

Bentaleb lay deeper, marshalling the ball onto his left foot, head up and looking to move it on. No apologies for the over-use of ‘forward’ in this piece – it was so noticeable. Significant too – our best spells recently have all featured this approach, keeping possession but seeking to move it upfield at a decent tempo. This is key to Pochettino’s style – promising signs that the message is getting through, even to Dembele who again was influential as a sub playing in an advanced position.

Stambouli reminds me of those midfield warriors of the 70s and 80s. Every team had one, Horlock, Storey, Yorath, muscular, hard-bitten and unforgiving of any mistake by an opponent. Round-shouldered and sharp-eyed, Stambouli doesn’t run, he prowls. He tackles hard and takes the man if he can’t reach the ball. This is a different century so he’s an upgraded model, keen to get the ball forward with an eye for a quick pass.

I like him and Pochettino may be warming to him too – use of the word ‘forward’ again. Trouble is, Spurs have problems at the back because the back four need cover and that’s not the Frenchman’s instinct. Capoue is the only defensive DM we have and he deservedly lost his place as his early season promise disappeared.

These problems at the back were on show yesterday, especially in a first half that was pretty even. On several occasions Newcastle whizzed the ball across our box, including one early in the second half that the Geordies were prematurely celebrating, so sure were they that one of three forwards were bound to get a touch.

Spurs went in with a first half lead thanks to Bentaleb’s first goal for us. Under no real pressure, the keeper dropped a far-post corner and Nab moved with lightning reactions to touch the fumble home before it fell below shoulder height.

Chadli’s low shot from the edge of the box made it two before many had sat down after half-time. Our best was our third, Townsend stabbing a little first-time ball into the channel and Kane spun away from the defender to shot low across the keeper. It’s the sort of goal we seldom score and augers well for the future. Kane on fine form again up front, one of many pleasures on an enjoyable evening.

A final note: interesting to see Poch try Eriksen in the middle, trying out a few ideas maybe. Also significant is that Fazio and Vertonghen paired at centre back once more. No rotation there, rather, hard work to establish a partnership. And Vorm was very good.

Reflections On A Heartwarming Victory: Spurs Fans and Players Stand Together

The search for the lost heart of Tottenham Hotspur is over. It was there all the time, waiting to be found by three young footballers, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. They knew all along what it means to be Spurs and their performances in Sunday’s defeat of Everton not only showed their more experienced team-mates the path to follow, they ignited and inspired the crowd. Together, as one, as it should be.

This was Spurs’ best performance of the season, superior to the big win over QPR because the Toffees are a much better side. Tottenham were disciplined, keeping a shape that ensured Everton had few opportunities but flexible enough to quickly turn defence into attack. Yet what stood out was the spirit and commitment of the whole team, playing with drive, application and purpose. Regardless almost of the result, this was a remarkable transformation compared with the festering sore of last month’s apathetic and alienating efforts.

The afternoon also revealed Adebayor’s deluded whinging about how our troubles were due to supporter negativity as the narcissistic self-indulgence it really was. The intoxicating mixture of the young men’s effort and noise from the crowd punctured once and for all the smug complacency behind his comments after the Stoke defeat. Players and managers spend their careers in crowded football grounds yet they never get it. Supporters and players aren’t different breeds. We’re inextricably linked, feeding off the emotional connection between us. This reciprocity isn’t about cause and effect: sometimes they get us going, sometimes we lift them. On the good days you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and this was a very good day. The alchemy created an exhilarating, emotionally charged atmosphere that lifted the spirits of player and supporter alike, in particular aiding a flagging side in the final 10 minutes to resist a series of Everton set-pieces as they searched in vain for an equaliser.

And this is what matters, truly matters, long after the final whistle. Matches, players, seasons come and go, fortune waxes and wanes, but keep the beating heart of a football club pulsing and you have the foundation of future success. The form of even the very best footballers ebbs and flows but if playing in navy blue and white means something to them, deep inside, they can find the strength to overcome adversity.

Heaven knows we’ve waited a long time for Bobby Soldado to score. We’ve gone through disappointment, frustration and anger to sympathy and condolence. Scoring goals on instinct since he was kid, once the flow dried up, he’s had no idea what to do about it. He’s like an old friend who has been through such bad times that you are compelled to look away as you wish him well because the pain in his eyes is too much to take.

So when the moment finally came, what mattered more to him, the billowing of the net or the ecstatic reception from the crowd? It was the noise, the song, the shared joy of a homecoming almost that surely will stay with him, that will mean he’ll give that little bit more when harder times come along. We had not rejected him despite it all. After the genuine celebrations in the corner, he took a long time to walk back to the centre circle, savouring each step, deep in reflection despite the elation all around him. The demons were banished. The half-time whistle blew a few seconds later and he skipped off to the dressing room.

Kane and Bentaleb were outstanding throughout. Kane has been ‘a prospect’ for a few years but I did not think he could come on so swiftly. It’s like a child’s growing spurt – you see them every day yet suddenly they physically and emotionally mature. It’s part of nature but still we are surprised. And pleased.

No pace but his close control was always a threat to an Everton defence whose weakness for backing off proved to be their undoing. Spurs began the game in good order but just as it seemed nothing was going to come from our play, and a goal down by this time, Kane took matters into his own hands and ran at them. Suddenly the back four were exposed. Howard could only push his hard shot to the feet of Eriksen who with care and precision placed the ball into the far corner.

Kane began the match on the right, helping Lennon stifle the dangerous Baines. As the half progressed it became clear Azza was doing a fine job on his own, thank you very much, so Harry could drift in and be more involved. The midfield needed assistance as Everton had the lion’s share of possession – here’s Harry back to help out. Soldado could be isolated on his own but wait, Harry’s there to lend a hand. 50-50 in midfield becomes a Spurs ball because Harry’s in. Defence is suddenly attack, on the break Harry’s set Lennon free for his only run at the defence. On the break he slips Bobby in and the finish across the keeper is just perfect. Later, Barkley’s dangerous in the centre replacing the ineffective Eto, this could be trouble -wait! Harry’s got him. Outstanding.

Bentaleb was a presence throughout. He is always available, keeps the ball moving and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining a decent tempo in our play. That’s the mark of a quality footballer. He too has matured, if not overnight then at the World Cup. In his demeanour he seems 5 years older compared with the end of last season.

Mason had less of an impact but played his part in the most solid midfield of the season. He and Bentaleb sought each other at the end and hugged, mutual congratulations for a job well done. Lennon was excellent, dutifully up and down his wing, less winging and more tackling back it has to be said but goodness knows Chiriches, a mistake waiting to happen, needs all the help he can get. Right-footer on the right, playing well – who knew?

Eriksen did well too, working hard from kick-off. Thought there was a different look in his eyes, more determination. As a unit they excelled, pressing high when required but mostly funnelling back to set up the barricades 40 yards out. Lots of calling to each other, encouragement, where to go, plug a gap. Soldado’s goal was preceded by an equally significant piece of play, where Everton had the ball for an extended period but were forced to go from side to side, unable to find a gap. Pushed back, they lost the ball and Kane did the rest.

We kept our shape and discipline throughout. This helped the back four immeasurably. Davies and Chiriches could tuck in or if they were brought out knew someone would slot in to cover. Vertonghen was clearly inspired by proceedings, visibly growing into the match and dealing with the second half pressure that came at him.

Lamela was the only problem. On for the tired Lennon and clearly given strict instructions to keep the shape, he just couldn’t resist. After a disciplined start, he left his post and charged around committing needless fouls. He could easily have been sent off rather than booked. Baines was livid with him for a couple of tackles and I don’t blame him. This weakness could end his PL career.

Much has been made of Spurs’ conspicuous lack of success on a Sunday following a Europa League fixture but the foundations for this win were laid on Thursday night. Bentaleb, Davies and Lennon had valuable game time while key pairings of Kane and Soldado up front and Fazio and Vertonghen at the back had time to get used to each other.

I’m pleased for the manager that an incredibly brave decision to play Mason and Bentaleb in the engine room came off. Also his preferred set-up needs the forward able to get into the box and drop back, a role Kane fulfilled admirably. It’s a telling indictment of Sunday’s benchwarmers and confirmed that Pochettino does not have the type of midfielder that he wants. The young players listen and respond. Not asking a lot but too much for some, apparently.

Without getting carried away – Chelsea hot favourites tomorrow – there was so much to enjoy on an afternoon that began with a conspicuous lack of optimism in the stands. They found what it takes to be a winning side. Nothing but credit all round.

I Couldn’t Handle It. We Were Winning

‘Oh, is there a match on darling?’ It’s sweet of Adriana to sound even vaguely excited on my behalf.

It’s the first time today that I’ve thought about football. I’ve known for a while that I would be working late so I put it to one side, and anyway sitting next to Adriana for the afternoon’s meeting is distraction enough.

‘No it’s fine, just fine’.

‘Are you sure? I don’t mind, really I don’t.’ She looks me full in the eyes and I almost believe her.

‘No honestly. We deserve a drink after that rubbish.’

Still holding my gaze, she strokes my cheek with her fingertip then makes her way to the bar. It’s packed but a group of city suits part to let her through.

Actually, that’s not strictly accurate, not thinking about the game. More self-deception, part of the practised art of being a fan. It’s just not been on my mind as much as a Spurs match usually would, but as kick-off time came near my concentration fell away as part of me was over the water. No one noticed. It was social care after all – talking all afternoon with no decisions, then someone looks at the clock and earnestly declares we had worked hard enough for today, let’s take it away and re-convene in the New Year. I wondered if we might pull a few strands together but blank looks sent me scurrying to the pub. No wonder my career is going nowhere. I just don’t fit in.

Adriana is still at the bar and surrounded. She says something I can’t catch and the group erupts into laughter, which one red-faced guy takes as a signal to squeeze her leather skirt.

I screw my eyes up at the screen in the corner. Two up, must be near the end of the first half. Not bad, give it a go anyway, something about a lovely strike from Townsend but we lost this one in a single home game against PAOK. Played it tidily until then, win that one and through, but not now.

I turn away to rescue Adriana but she’s more than a match for the lustful yuppies. She hands me a beer and rolls her eyes in mock dismay. ‘Cheers!’

I glance at the TV, in slow motion Defoe is rolling the ball into the net via the defender’s back. The commentator brays, ‘Now it’s on!!!’ and I have to steady myself against the table. I hold my palm to my forehead and continue to stare.

‘Bad news darling? I thought your lot were doing well’.

‘It’s terrible. We’re winning.’

‘I saw on the news last Saturday. Very good! But your manager looks ill, darling, he should give up, have a rest.’

‘Couple of setbacks lately’.

‘What’s this match?’

‘Europe,’ I reply.

‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ she asks. Soothed by her interest, I can’t fight against the weight of 40 years. Against my better judgement, I embark on a brief discussion of the merits of the Europa League.

It’s a mistake. I struggle on with diminishing enthusiasm in every passing moment. Rather like the Europa League itself, in fact.  Her furrowed brow is a signal I cannot miss so I pause. ‘So this match doesn’t mean anything?’ she asks. I hastily gulp a mouthful of beer and nod at the same time with the inevitable consequences. ‘So why are you worked up then?’ she adds as I try to brush away the beer that has already soaked into my shirt.

‘Because it’s on again. The score is good for us in the other game, if we score two more and it stays the same, we’re through. Oh no.’

I just wanted a peaceful time until Sunderland and then Chelsea. Respite. Clear the head. But the pressure was on. I was unhappy about throwing away our decent chances in the Europa League. Ridiculous to be pleased to be out of a competition, even though I seem to be in the minority of Spurs fans in thinking that way. Win something shiny rather than come 4th, although I don’t see why we can’t do both. But I had reached an accommodation. Dealt with it, it was over, move on. Knew where I stood. But now, now we’re winning. That’s thrown everything up in the air. It could be so simple but now this. I steadied myself against the table again and prepared for the second half, tense, agitated, hopping from one foot to another. For football, I was back to normal.

Adriana’s bright blue eyes searched for something arcane and buried. ‘So you’re like this because they’re winning?’

I pause. She’s not heard the cliché before so it’s fresh for her. ‘In football it’s not the despair that gets you, it’s the hope’. She continued to stare for a few more seconds, her tooth dimpling her bottom lip. Then she patted me on the shoulder. ‘Watch the game darling, watch the game.’

She likes the stories. Of Dos Santos, a talent misunderstood by his manager who wants to party. To me, ineffective in a match where he should shine, she saw a young boy a long way from home. Or Kane, struggling against criticism unfair for one so young. She didn’t see the clever quick feet in his run or the instant turn for his goal but was delighted when he scored. She’s right, I’m sure his mum will be pleased. And no, I didn’t see the first half but they must have played a lot better, and no, I don’t know why they were so limited now. Or why they kept shooting from way out. It is easier for the goalkeeper to stop it, you’re right.

Near the end, the barman brings over a drink. Her sudden warm smile of surprise catches the young man unawares and he rushes away quickly to hide his blushing cheeks, in the process almost bumping into a man carrying a full tray of drinks. He swears unnecessarily loudly. The poor boy’s total salary will go in the dry cleaning bill for that suit, at least that’s what the man threatens.

The wine is from the suits. She holds it up to them, mouths a thank you across the crowded room and then turns her back on them.

‘Nearly over’ I say, visibly relaxing in defeat.

She smiles again. ‘Let’s stay to the end. I know you want to.’ She squeezes my arm. ‘Onwards and upwards. There’s always next week’. I squeeze her hand in return. Adriana understands more about being a fan than I give her credit for.

One Touch Too Many

One touch too many, a phrase that sums up Spurs’ performance last night. A radically altered team seldom captured the flowing passing style that’s been a feature of our season and we couldn’t score against 10 men despite having all the possession and territory in the second half.

This was like a trip back in time, all the way back to, oh, last spring at least. Players wanting three or four touches on the ball when one or two would do. Turning back into their man when a simple lay-off would keep the ball moving and stretch our already beleaguered opponents. Haven’t they learned anything from playing alongside Parker the master?

As a result we were continually caught in possession and allowed PAOK time to regroup after half a break had been made. Their massed ranks meant our one-twos in and around the box bounced off knees and ankles as well as feet but they didn’t mind as long as it stayed far from their goal. Many like Defoe and Pienaar tried too hard, setting the ball up for the perfect effort rather than catching them unawares with the early shot. Pienaar in particular failed to exert any authority – let’s be kind, he was finding his way back to match fitness and leave it at that.

The fact that it looked so dire is a tribute to how far we have come since last season. We play at pace, in set patterns that rely on Walker and Bale as well as Lennon to be quick and direct out wide and for Modric and Parker to shift it swiftly and accurately in the middle. On three occasions in the second half, we played a ball wide right from about 30 yards out and there was no one running on to it. Not making excuses for shoddy passing (there was plenty of that), but this sort of move is rehearsed in training and encouraged on the night, barely look up because that’s what has been coached. Yet Walker wasn’t there, not until later. We’ve grown into comfortable patterns and couldn’t readjust in time.

It’s not so much the individual, it’s the blend. Quality players in an unfamiliar line-up are just that, individuals and by the time the worst of the shambles was over, we were two down and beaten, despite the penalty and sending off that brought us unexpectedly back into things. We couldn’t finish them off, that old familiar Tottenham. Balls into the box, no one to finish it off. Their keeper was excellent but seldom tested. Ah, the good old days.

I say it’s not so much the individual, that doesn’t excuse some of the desultory efforts on show. Rose showed why he has so much to learn about the art of the full-back, especially positional play. Corluka, a defender I have a lot of time for, was appalling. Looking to him for basics of good positioning and solidity, he failed with the basics of passing and covering all night. I realise he wants out but we looked to him for leadership by example and there was none. However, twice it was the defensive line up that left acres of space between the four of them, twice the Greeks scored. The guy with the first goal seemed almost apologetic that such a gentle header should count. Where was Livermore and the midfield cover? Where was the tracking back?

Sadly I wasn’t at the Lane last night. I say sadly – this is my foolishness, I would rather have been there to witness a defeat than stuck on my sofa. Anyway, Graham Taylor rightly picked out the ‘one touch too many’ refrain several times. He wasn’t so sure about what to do about it. When asked he chortled, ‘That’s up to Harry!” It’s a cracking gig, being a pundit. They get £2 or £3k a match, I think. I’m available. It’s true that I haven’t actually been England manager or played football at a level higher than the Oaklands Road Primary 1st XI but at least I have an opinion.

I would have played an almost full-strength team from the start. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that a European competition is worth winning and that winning something is better than coming 4th in something else. I’m also calculating enough to say that on the balance of probability, it was worth the risk, despite Liverpool’s example from earlier this week where Lucus was crocked for 6 months. I’ve praised Harry for easing us on to the outside with the minimum of effort, two furlongs to go and a clear run ahead without breaking sweat. Win this one, effectively play one match at anywhere near full tilt, and we were through to the stage where over 2 legs we could beat anyone. Get there, then take a view depending on how we doing in the league and the FA Cup. Stamina is not a problem for this team and we could have coped with this game.

Credit to PAOK. Unlike the away match, they were organised and determined, refusing to be shifted from their Alamo positions behind the barricades.

So I’m disappointed today, but onwards and upwards. Harry’s heart was never in it and in the end that was the attitude of several players. If we had been 5th or 6th in the league, maybe he would have taken a different view, but we’re third and deserve to be so Bolton it is and three points.

Finally, I’m also disappointed with how many people on the boards and on twitter have written off a few of our young players. I know we all get grumpy after a result like this but to dismiss Harry Kane’s chances totally as many have done, or Livermore’s for that matter, is ridiculous. Kane is just 18 years old, our central striker in a key European game, he worked hard and could have scored on two occasions, would have if it were not for a handball on the line.  It’s hard enough as it is for young players to make it, never mind a reaction like this.