Tottenham Hotspur: Football The Way It Should Be Played

We were in our places a few minutes earlier than usual, standing not sitting, hopping around not so much to stave off the bitter cold, more in excited anticipation. Even the veterans haven’t seen anything like this.

The players had a prematch kickabout, the mascot’s nervous pride shone through as they found a hero to play with, but all eyes were on the tunnel. Harry scuttled to his seat, eyes down, surrounded by his loyal lieutenants. A few short paces, but the march of an ancient Roman Emperor returning to the city from a successful campaign could not have been greeted as a greater triumph.

The ground sang his name from beginning to end, ‘one Harry Redknapp’, ‘we want you to stay’.  Pause for breath and it was ‘Pardew for England’. As if determined not to be overshadowed, the players proceeded to rip their hapless opponents to shreds. Inspired by a tidal-wave of goodwill, they swamped Newcastle in a breathtaking display of bewilderingly complex movement, stunning pace and ice-cold finishing.

Modric dominated the centre, sinew and artistry in contrast to his team-mate Bale, pace and muscle

Harry waves at me

rampaging through the defence. He and Krancjar swapped sides, Saha became 10 years younger in an instant. Throwing off all those injuries and scars as he drank deep from an elixir of youth. Assou Ekotto strolled up and down the left and was both playmaker and unlikely scorer. And through it all Emmanuel Adebayor provided the focus and vision around which every attack revolved.

Beforehand Redknapp tried to pretend this was business as usual but as the goals went in one by one he was as thrilled by his marvellous side as any fan in the land. He’d created this, a team of all talents that swept away a rival for the coveted top four. Harry’s a tough old bird but he’s seldom seen football this good, and he made it happen. This was beauty, the way the game is supposed to be played. He punched the air after the first goal then quickly sat down to regain his composure. Less than twenty minutes later, number four and he punched the air, a little dad at a wedding dance, part joy, part incredulity, much relief. After a week like he’s had, everything had come right and the expelled tension flowed into the night air. The Lane is home now. He’ll never feel safer.

Everything happened around and because of Adebayor. Four assists plus a sweet delicate chest high volley, it’s hard to believe he’s been out of sorts lately even though his most disappointing game was only 6 days ago. Maybe that’s the sign of a quality professional, that he decided to do something about it. Drifting wide he took the defence with him, leaving the keeper cruelly exposed, as for the opener when Benny had enough room to throw down a picnic blanket and open the hamper at the far post. More central, he held on to it under pressure or toppled sideways, in the act of falling touching back to a team-mate, eye on the ball, mind on the half chance.

His work for the first two goals was masterful, an irresistible combination of skill, pace and precision. He’s top dog here if he plays like this. He has no rival for that position. Rather than making him complacent, that’s where he wants to be, on the pitch and in the dressing room. That’s why we don’t get any disruption from him. This was the definitive modern lone striker and the first half should be used in traingn videos.

We prospered from the stream of crosses and neat balls into channels that came from all sides. Walker, Modric, Bale, Benny, Niko, a few from Parker who for the most part stayed in the background and made sure nothing much happened at the other end. Although Saha was playing off Manu, his instincts take him into the box. Recently I’ve mentioned that if I do have a niggle, it’s about scoring more goals from inside the area and noticeably we had a couple more bodies in there last night. Our second showed the value of how an ageing striker may not have the legs but he has the instinct. Right place right time, only the finest goal scorers make it look that easy. I’ll leave you to the blockbusting blasters from 25 yards. This is my kind of goal. I’ve watched it 20 times on ESPN goals and you now what, I’m pausing for a second to have another look. Oh Harry, you’ve done it again.

Manu and Louis again for the third, back to the goal touch this time, Saha close by. They say it takes time for partnerships to build and develop, but 20 minutes?

Newcastle are shattered and there’s still three-quarters of the game to go.

HR looks worried. This wasn't taken yesterday

Adebayor has pulled them all over the place. Like an old woollen jumper after a downpour, they are sagging and out of shape. Collocinni has no idea what to do but he makes a better effort than the rest of his defence. Our opponents had injuries but no pattern or organisation. Their midfield offered no protection whatsoever and their fullbacks will have nightmares for years to come, in the depths of the night a vision of blurry white shirts rushing past them from all angles. Make it stop, in heaven’s name stop, have mercy! You don’t have to be a first-teamer to stand in the right position but they failed to do even that.

The gaps opened and e filled them, piling into the space at lightening speed from all directions. Saha almost with a hat-trick then Niko followed up.

We drew breath and the second half was bound to be an anti-climax after that. We strolled, largely untroubled although Friedel made one good save, as attentive to his duties as ever. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him on the end of one of those first half crosses, such was our superiority.

I love Harry Redknapp, Harry Redknapp loves me. I think he’ll go but if anything keeps him here, it will be nights like these. The Lane is rocking, the football is delightful and Harry’s heart was pounding. He’s one of us now, and he likes that feeling. He’ll forever be associated with West Ham but Harry, be honest, you never had a night like this one at the Boleyn, now did you?

On a day when the headlines have been dominated by the wretched Suarez and a minority of apologist Liverpool fans who seek to justify his foul, base attitudes, this was the perfect antidote. Football as it is supposed to be. An outstanding, stunning performance.

Hale and Hearty!! Tottenham. Hale. Hearts. Oh Never Mind…

The pleasure of seeing Spurs play football. White shirts, navy blue shorts, a proper game. That’s all I ask. Not so much the victory, not even its emphatic nature, but just to know that our season is under way and a sense of how we are and what’s to come.

Monday’s cloud of Great Depression, created by an unhealthy combination of high quality mystery drama and an increasing sense of personal anxiety, has blown away. Yesterday’s concern about the media antics of our manager and the conflict at boardroom level won’t disappear so easily but last night we saw that Redknapp has been working hard with his players and prepared them impeccably. A potential disaster became a triumph. An early goal settled the nerves – of the fans I mean, the players seemed utterly focussed – leaving us to relish some breathtaking passing interplay and cracking goals.

Hearts fans must have been disappointed with their team. I don’t watch nearly enough Scottish football to make any sort of judgement on the quality of their league but they must have played  better than this in the recent past. I suspect they understandably haven’t settled under yet another new manager, and their fans deserve credit for their warmth towards both teams at the end.

Opponents don’t have to be on top form to deny us the room to play; we’ve seen that often enough in the last few years. Hearts packed the area 30 or 40 yards out and pressed hard, yet we passed our way around them as if they weren’t there. No big centre forward meant we had to keep it on the ground. Considering this was our first competitive match of the season, the movement and surefooted interchange was outstanding. Van der Vaart moved freely between midfield and their box yet we never looked short up front because there was plenty of support for Defoe. Bale and Lennon provided width without becoming detached and although Hearts lacked any penetration both worked hard defensively when required.

Kranjcar kept things moving in midfield, Benny did the same from the left while Walker’s pace and strength (he’s filled out a bit in the last two years!) kept the Scots busy. All the talk is about his attacking prowess but on two occasions he showed how valuable his speed will be in defensive situations, dashing back to rob attackers plus the timing of the challenge under pressure when he got there. Livermore impressed in the first half especially with a thoughtful, disciplined performance. He’d been well coached in his role; he stayed back when he needed to, always made himself available for a pass and timed his few runs forward perfectly, notably for his sumptuous goal. What a first touch and then quick feet for the shot.

Defoe consistently took up decent positions and let’s hope he’s learned something in the close season. For his goal he found space between the two centre halves and didn’t stray offside. It’s asking a lot to overcome the biggest problem of his entire career.  When they came on, Hudd and Townsend were on the pace and passing well. Lennon’s superb breakaway goal came when Hearts were down but they still had three men back when that move began. Townsend’s pass and Lennon’s run took them out of the equation.

We can enjoy last night without getting carried away. The serious business begins on Monday night, when defensive uncertainty similar to that shown at the start of the second half will be ruthlessly exposed. However, we can only play who we play, and last night they could not have done any more. Above all, the team were purposeful and focussed, organised and highly motivated. Whatever is going on behind the scenes has not affected the team in the slightest. That desire, teamwork and camaraderie, the genuine delight in the moves that led to the goals, that’s why the clouds have gone and sunlight streams.


Tottenham Hotspur Season Preview 2011-12 Part 2 How Do We Fit Everyone In?

It’s started. Prematurely ecstatic over Diarra’s arrival, a couple of days ago a messageboard poster was positively drooling over his midfield selection. ‘Diarra and Sandro as DMs, Modric and Hud further forward with Lennon and Bale on the wings. Can’t wait to see that!’ It took a while before a few people gently pointed out that add a back four and keeper, that makes eleven – a team without strikers. Actually, come to think of it, bit like most of last season

With or without Diarra, it’s the tactics and formation that will be crucial in the weeks and months to come. Redknapp doesn’t do tactics, of course. Just extends Uncle Harry’s Long Arm of Comfort round the shoulders of our lads, and that’s inspiration enough. Go out and enjoy yourselves, boys.

Harry’s done a decent job for us, so why does he have to insult us with rubbish like this? Another example of how important it is for him to cultivate his image as football’s good ol’ boy. And while I’m about it, of all the absurd cliches that infect our game, ‘just go out and enjoy it’ is surely one of the most ridiculous. I don’t want you to go out and enjoy yourselves, gents. I want you to play like you have never played before, run yourself into the ground so your legs are mere stumps at the end of the 90 minutes and lay bare your heart and soul for the badge. If you want enjoyment, join me in the park for a kickabout.

Harry will have hard choices to make, whoever we add to the squad in the next two weeks. Having too many fine players is a good problem to have but Redknapp and his coaches could struggle to keep a large squad content, never mind the fans.

This season poses fresh problems. Although our experience as battle-hardened European veterans will stand us in good stead, any degree of success means a long hard road ahead with the prospect of over 60 matches. Not only that, the grind of Thursday/Saturday will be further disrupted by kick-offs moved to suit TV – Spurs do not have a home game with a 3pm Saturday kick-off until December 3rd – plus long trips into Europe. Winning with a weaker team is an art, one we haven’t yet learned.

I don’t buy Redknapp’s statement about ‘playing the kids in Europe’. We have to go all out to win trophies and can’t take too much of a risk. The Europa League has a tiresome format designed to make money for teams whilst simultaneously sucking all pleasure from playing the game. However, it’s still a big tournament, undoubtedly worthy of winning, and we have a decent chance. I wouldn’t fear any team in that competition over two legs and should go all out to win it without sacrificing anything in our efforts to challenge the top four.

It is asking a lot but such is the pressure success brings and I wouldn’t be without it. This is the key message that should reverberate around and through the whole squad. To be fair to HR, he never said we would play all kids. Naming only Livermore and Townsend, both of whom have League experience and are hardly kids, he knows that his squad has enough depth to operate a midweek team capable of muddling through the group stage. After Christmas, we’ll see where we are. The main danger is complacency. It’s partly the fringe men entering those games with purpose and motivation, partly also about the more experienced amongst them imposing themselves to make the most of their talents. Hud in the centre maybe, Kaboul at the back, Krancjar and Pienaar as attacking midfielders and whoever plays upfront.

However, there are more fundamental issues to be faced. Last season we gave away too many goals because at the back we were too open too often. Some of our covering was naive in the extreme. If I’ve faced facts then so must Redknapp – we cannot play so much attacking football. In the Premier League our priority is to attack only when we have a solid base and if that means sacrificing one of two players to each attack, then so be it. There’s no alternative.

When the team was set up to press in midfield and lie deeper, as against Milan or Chelsea away for example, we performed those roles well. Problems came when we were stretched out of shape when we took the game to other teams, who could then hit us on the break, Blackpool away being the classic instance. If Bale and Lennon both play, they have to not only work back but shift their starting positions to somewhere deeper. Or, only go forward if others are back covering. The fullbacks have to tuck in tighter to their back four when we don’t have the ball. All of which provides a shield for the back four and the centre halves who were so frequently left exposed and vulnerable.

Defending better doesn’t mean being defensive. We have the men to turn defence into attack with the speed that’s required in the modern game. This is what Manchester United do so well. Sitting low on the Shelf, it is phenomenal to watch them and we need to match their pace and purpose – we have the men to emulate them. They don’t run with the ball like Bale and Lennon do so much as run to get onto the ball, moved swiftly into space. 

We have to buy a striker who can give us the option of playing on their own up front. It’s essential. Banging the ball up  to Crouch must stop. The other requisite for Spurs is width. It plays to the strengths of the team both in terms of men like Lennon and Bale but also the passing ability and vision of Huddlestone and Modric.

The other vital element is possession. We can’t be like Barca but we can follow their example in one sense: keep the ball, because if we’ve got it, the other lot can’t score. It’s not only about skill on the ball, it’s also about movement, ensuring one or two men can always be available to receive a pass. We have the players who are perfect for this. So why didn’t we do that more last year? We could do, for spells only, now let’s be geared to keeping hold of the ball.

So here are a couple of options, assuming that Modric isn’t sold. One is the classic 4-4-2, with Hud or Sandro alongside Modric in the middle, Lennon and Bale wide and VDV off the main striker. Whilst this appeals to me, it’s basically the same line-up that failed to defend well last year, so everyone has to play slightly differently and be more circumspect.

The other option is to get the width from the full-backs. Much as I love Lennon, Walker could offer both the attacking options (coming from deep again) and allow an extra central midfielder who tucks in to allow the full back to come past. Put Bale at full back on the other side and you have more height at the back plus another midfield option, say 2 DMs and still there’s width, and I say this in the full knowledge that if I love Lennon then I adore Benny.

These two aren’t mutually exclusive and we have plenty of options to vary tactics according to our opponents. In some games it may be better to play a defensive-minded fullback, Corluka, behind Lennon, for example.

Three final thoughts. One, in whatever formation Van der Vaart will be crucial. Shrewd and dangerous at the edge of the box, He also offers even more options (stay with me on this one). Whilst he shouldn’t come too deep as he sometimes did last season, that actually is a problem only if there’s no one forward. However, if he chooses to drop back and Bale, Walker or Lennon are hammering forward, that’s fine. We can attack and have men covering.

Which leads on to a second point. Football isn’t played in straight lines. It’s about movement and flow. If our men are clever enough to work on a principle based on knowing where team-mates are, they can vary the options. Men must get forward, men must stay back, but they don’t have to be the same men doing the same thing every time. Flexible intelligence to get the job done, the job (covering, attacking, width etc) being identified with different players doing it at different times, whoever is best placed on the the field at that point.

Finally, and crashing down to earth, set pieces .All this flow and movement doesn’t mean diddly if we can’t do anything from free-kicks and comers. I don’t recall a single goal direct for a free kick last year and we had some pathetic routines that went out with steel toecaps and Brylcreem – tapping the ball cunningly two feet sideways, who would have picked that one up…


Tottenham Hotspur Season Preview 2011/12. Now Is The Time

Football hardly seems important in N17 today. Regards to the families and good people of Tottenham.

Here’s part 1 of the season preview – an overview. More on Tuesday, earlier if I pull my finger out – the best of the rest, tactics and off the field

Season 2011-12 represents a watershed in the modern history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Add two or three players to a squad bursting with talent and ambition, Spurs have a side that could compete with the League’s elite this season and found a modern dynasty as success breeds success. Get it wrong even by the smallest margin and the consequences will reverberate for years to come. We won’t notice anything to begin with – we’ll do all right as we are. Then, gradually, the momentum of a season in the Champions League will dissipate and some of of the brightest emerging talents in Europe will leave, disillusioned. Fade to grey.

I prefer evidence to rumour, reality to fantasy. Although there’s little transfer gossip in these pages, even I have reached the point where the next striker who arrives will receive a personal welcome upon a carpet of rose petals and garlanded with handpicked flowers. The season begins not against Everton on Saturday but when the transfer window closes. It’s not right.

Last summer’s failure to strengthen our ability to score goals was a significant moment. However, this time it’s now or never. Key players are a year older and four or five years wiser, battle hardened veterans of Europe where they earned as much in defeat as in victory. Not only that, they hunger for glory, having whetted their appetite. The difference is, now they know what to do and that they can do it. Also, all summer I have said that never mind who comes in, the absolute imperative is who stays. if we don’t make it this time, There’s no way we can resist the instable demands and unrestricted resources of top teams in this country and abroad. By the end of August, our plans could be in tatters. Now is the time.

The Core

Spurs can build the team around the sumptuous Luka Modric, a supremely skilled footballer and precious playmaker. At his feet, football becomes a thing of wonder and beauty, yet his real value to the team is as the fulcrum around which everything flows and revolves. Criticism of his lack of stature by the unseeing and unknowing is laughable. He’s fearless in the tackle, his work rate not in question.

He’s brave in another sense too. He rarely takes the easy option, making himself readily available to colleagues in all areas of the pitch and when in possession seeking the ball that means something rather than handing over responsibility to someone else to make things happen. If that should be in two or three passes time, he anticipates and moves to be in the right place at the right time. Would that his team-mates were so acute.

Alongside him we have two of the best young prospects in Europe, Gareth Bale and Sandro. The threat posed by Bale’s power and direct running first took our breath away at the Lane then was reflected in the glazed empty eyes of a succession of terrorised Premier League right-backs. Europe sat bolt upright when he destroyed the European Champions  over two games. In 40 years I’ve never seen so much skill on the ball coupled with such rampant athleticism.

Yet even he could be eclipsed by Sandro. After a hesitant start under the unaccustomed pressure of English football, he not merely found his feet, he made an exponential leap. Again Europe was his platform with performances of remarkable maturity. He’s a real defensive midfielder, mobile, physically very strong and comfortable on the ball and utterly  fearless in his challenges in his own box. The possibilities are limitless.

Step forward big Tom Huddlestone. Say that every year. His progress has been held back by injury but perhaps it’s given him time to reflect on how he can add anticipation and positional sense to his superb passing and control.

Further forward we have Rafa Van der Vaart. His late arrival surprised Redknapp to the point where he wasn’t quite sure where to play him. A central free role in front of midfield  makes the best use of his eye for an opening, speed of thought and execution plus his accurate shooting. The opposition simply cannot contain him for the whole 90 minutes.

Recently I was asked to name my best ever Spurs team from players I’ve actually seen, which in my case is 1967 onwards. Without hesitation Ledley King took precedence even over over greats like Mike England. His strength, pace and anticipation coupled with precise timing in the challenge make him the perfect centre back. His injury is tragic for a man loyal to the club and who deserves worldwide recognition. We can’t rely on him being available regularly, if at all, but I refuse to right him off until I see him trundling down the High Road in a wheelchair, and even then I’d be inclined to give him a go. He may have 15 or 20 games a season in him, but think what he could give us if Redknapp chooses the right 15 or 20.

Michael Dawson has overcome his lack of pace to become a giant of the penalty box, a true leader. he wants to win so much, his passion is infectious. He’s also a fine example to younger players hoping to break into the team. When many said he was not good enough, he was determined to prove otherwise. Out of the picture for a time, he took his opportunity a couple of years ago as if it were his last, and has never looked back even after a serious knee injury on international duty. Like he’s never been away, back he came, unflinching in the tackle and a steely glint in his eye. Our captain, our inspiration.

Alongside him he has the canny Gallas, another man who could have allowed his career to slip away in comfortable well-paid security but who took on the challenge of not only the Premier League but also of playing for the bitter rivals of his previous teams. His commitment and experience won over even the greatest cynic, culminating in a defensive masterclass at the Emirates.

He may look at times like a labrador puppy, long-limbed and unco-ordinated, but Younis Kaboul is proving to be one of Harry’s shrewdest signings. Another man anxious to take his chance, he has the pace, power and touch to become a top quality centre half. i expect much from him in the months and years to come.

The Problems

So that’s what we’ve got, and it’s a lot. The main problem is, there’s no mention of a striker so far. Pointless if we don’t have anyone to make and score goals on a regular basis. Last season we were embarrassingly lacking in this respect and all this prodigious talent will be criminally wasted if we don’t right that wrong.

Best of the bunch was Pavlyuchenko. Scorned by a manager supposedly famous for his man-management skills, Pav was toddling along, not doing much and apparently not too bothered, oblivious of what was going around him and of haircuts post 1971. Through  clenched teeth Redknapp was forced to name him because the others were so bad. Pav blew hot and cold. I’m sure his YouTube showreel makes him look like a world-beater as the shots thumped in from range towards the close of least season, yet on other occasions his amateurish control and poor link-up play made one despair. Give him a yard to move onto the ball – look at those goals again, see what I mean – he’s a world beater but that’s the yard you don’t get that often in the Premier League.

Defoe’s work rate improved in inverse proportion to his ability to create danger in the box. A couple of piledrivers show his talent but we need him in the box. Too often he hung back in the comfort zone rather than hammer to the edge of the 6 yard box. In so doing he often bumped into Crouch, ambling towards the back post. It’s a refrain familiar to readers of this blog over the last 12 months. Play Crouch and sure, you will always get something. The point is, we could get something more from the players at our disposal. His presence encourages the long ball, as did sadly the coaches’ tactical talks towards the end of last season. At a stroke the advantages of our passing game are largely nullified. Opponents know where the ball is going to go and anticipation is two thirds of the battle. A nudge in the back and he’s out of the game.

Redknapp’s quintessentially British big man/little man up front is outmoded in the modern game. We need two pacy, mobile strikers able to bring others into the game. If they do so, we can improve on the goals from midfield total, an area where we’ve been lacking of late. If the man can poach 20 goals a season, so much the better, but he doesn’t have to be a high scorer provided he makes the team play. VDV and Luka are desperate to slide balls into  the space or to pick up a late runner from midfield. 

At the other end, Gomes proved the doubters wrong once before, now he has to do so all over again. The occasional ricket from this likeable, agile keeper was outweighed tenfold by fabulous full-stretch saves but just as his confidence off his line increased, the mistakes became a habit. Friedel is a sound signing, both as back-up and to give the Brazilian a nudge without undermining him. His opening month will be crucial for him and the team.

High Stakes

Without raising ridiculous expectations, there’s potential busting out of N17 0AP. I’m convinced Levy has money available for transfers and does not have to rely on sales to fund incoming players. The men we want are much in demand and his legendary bargaining qualities will be fully stretched over the next two weeks.

Keep what we have. Adding a couple of strikers plus a centre half will work wonders to a quality squad all set to achieve. Players are maturing. They’ve learned to be resilient in Europe, a quality they must take to every single league game. Redknapp has to stir it all together, it’s a tasty future. Fail this time around and it will all fall apart.

More next week – the squad, the tactics, off the field