Spurs: Is This As Good As It Gets?

It’s thrilling at this time of the season when, usually, the games pile on top of each other so there is barely time to breathe between matches, but occasionally I appreciate a break. Maybe I’m getting on a bit now, need to take things slowly at my age. Nah – I’m fine, my enthusiasm for the game is undiminished by the passing years and the way money is in danger of poisoning the relationship between clubs and their fans. Rather, maturity teaches you to rest awhile and enjoy the view on along way, rather than hurtle from A to B.

Despite Tuesday’s defeat, as I suck a thoughtful tooth there’s plenty to relish. The 2nd leg against Milan will do but we are also 4th in the league after a good run of results and are playing some cracking football. In Modric, Bale and Van der Vaart we have three of the most exciting players in Europe. However, it’s given me time to catch up on a few thoughts left over from the Milan victory, one being a radio discussion about our future prospects. Was this momentous victory, one of the great Spurs performances of the last 30 years in my view, the breakthrough moment, the Yellow Brick Road to untold future glory, or was this a time to savour because this is as good as it gets?

The case for the first proposition is obvious – I’ve mentioned enough evidence already – so let’s look at the case for proposition 2, which goes something like this: Spurs cannot play consistently well to take on and beat not only the cream of Europe but also remain a fixture in the top four. To do this requires better players and better resources than we possess or are likely to possess. As sweet as victory as this was, in the cold light of day it’s out of synch with our true status.

In taking this on, I wish I could begin on the pitch but these days we need the Financial Times not the back pages to find many of the answers. Where there’s money, there’s power, and the single thing the powerful are best at is holding on to power itself. Despite the forthcoming changes to the relationship between the salary bill and income, Chelsea and Manchester City, bankrolled by billionaires for whom the purchase of a Torres or Toure has no more impact on their wallet than using a £50 note to light their cigar, will hold sufficient advantage to distort the market in their favour. United or would-be challengers like Liverpool have the might of corporate finance behind them. L’arse depend more than any of the others on the skill of their manager. Whilst his current reluctance to spend is unfathomable, the Emirates is a goldmine, their debt must soon be paid off and there’s a takeover in the air.

Fighting our corner is a shrewd businessman who falls into neither of these camps. More accurately he actually has both – our de facto owner Joe Lewis is a billionaire and corporate financier – but has access to neither. Consistently up in the top 15 clubs in the world in terms of income, we are unlikely to have the massive resources to match those of our main rivals. In ten or 15 years time maybe, not just when the new stadium is built but when the debts are manageable, but not yet.

However, I’m not giving up that easily. Let’s get back to what matters, what happens on the pitch. Spurs have to take the blueprint that got us here and throw everything behind that. Players. Players are our future. Young players who will mature – we will find them and once here, cherish them as if they had returned to suckle at their mother’s breast.

Time – give them time to develop, grow and achieve their full potential. With patience, time is a resource conspicuously lacking in the minds of Abramovich or City’s sheikhs, yet it is within our gift.

Process – this is a process, a flow of players joining us. As one reaches the first team, another is out on loan learning their trade, a third is sweating blood in the youth side. Whilst our own youngsters need to progress, our success has been to identify young players who have some first team experience elsewhere.

Football men. Football men in charge of the team who can make these players believe and excel, to be better than they think they can be. Most significantly, football men off the pitch and in the stands of grounds around Britain and and Europe, men who understand not just what a player can do but what they could become. A man like Comolli. Allowed too much influence by Levy, the club’s management and accountability structure hampered progress and Levy must never allow that mistake to be repeated. I’m aware he may not have personally picked all of these players, but in his time Gomes, Bale, Lennon, Corluka, Modric and Assou-Ekotto joined this club.  Director of Football, chief scout, I don’t care what he is called, we need someone who can ensure a flow of  players on their way up.

We’ve shown we can compete. Keep this team together and add quality all over the pitch, especially up front, and I am convinced we can challenge the best. Walker and Sandro are next in line: hugely promising. Hard enough though it is to find these precious and scarce resources, the true test is whether we can keep our young (ish) stars at the end of this and next season. The signs are good at the moment but let’s face it – in the summer bids for Luka and Our Gareth will start at £30m. I trust Levy is practicing his cold stare as we speak.

In one of the first ever posts on this blog, I answered the question of where we would finish in the league that season by saying that my true hopes were about the manner in which we went about things. I would have been happy if we were genuine contenders with a realistic chance of challenging for honours and the top four. Whilst I’m still not sure exactly how to  define it, I know when I see it and that’s still how I feel. It’s what we are doing now. If we give it a right good go and finish 5th, I’d be disappointed but not too downhearted.

Right now, I’m pessimistic about the top four – 5th, lost by a short head is how it feels. The burden of expectation is starting to weigh heavy on our shoulders and our strikers are seriously misfiring, but to be serious challengers, now and in the future, is good enough because one day, one of Chelsea, City, United and L’arse are going to fall from their pedestals, as did Liverpool, and we need to be waiting. That day could be sooner than you think. As I write, L’arse will have to pick themselves up from their League Cup defeat, a hammer blow that they did not anticipate. City have drawn with Fulham – they are not yet a team, they have problems gelling as a team. Chelsea have misplaced their mojo and in the longer term need to rebuild. Finally, at some point in the next couple of years, United have the twin problems of replacing Ferguson at a time when they are burdened with debt.

Let’s reflect on how we got here, make a plan and stick to it. Levy has found money for a striker, even though we couldn’t find one, but in the transfer market it’s a scout that we need the most. Maybe we have one already. If so, if there is a man who brought Walker and Sandro to the club, then I salute you and I’m glad you do not seek the limelight. In considering the future let’s not forget to enjoy the present. This season is chock full of glorious memories and there are more to come. Now and in the future.

Finally, I’d like to join Spurs fans in mourning the loss of Dean Richards, who died yesterday at the tragically young age of 36. Signed from Southampton by Hoddle for £8m, a fee that was without looking it up the highest at the time for a centre half even though he was uncapped, I hoped he was the solution to our problems in the centre of defence that had dogged us since Richard Gough departed. Strong, experienced, not the quickest but still mobile, he was the big man at the the back, the leader we craved.

Well though he played, the fact that he never quite hit those heights meant that he was underrated by many. We now know something that even he did not at the time, that his balance was affected by a serious brain condition that eventually claimed his life. In the circumstances, his achievements were remarkable. My sincere condolences to his family. At Spurs we will have good memories. 

Spurs v Wigan. Joy and Pain. Without the Pain.

Just a fantastic day, one for celebration and delight rather than analysis. I cannot recall a 45 minutes of sustained joyous brilliance like it, a whirlwind of marvellous passing, electric shooting and outstanding athleticism.

Less a football match, more an exercise in physical and psychological destruction, imagine what the total might have been if we had actually played for the last 30 minutes of the first half, instead of sitting back and allowing Wigan to ease back into the match. Come on, be honest: at half time how many of you said this was typical Tottenham, letting our advantage go to waste? The Bloke Behind Me confidently predicted one-one.

Remember the way the old teleprinter on Grandstand would chatter the big scores, giving the figure and then the word in brackets, lest anyone think an error had been made. Tottenham Hotspur 9 (nine) Wigan 1 is how I shall hold this victory in my memory.

I saw the 9-0 against Bristol Rovers but as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t recall that as being an exceptionally good Spurs performance. What was different about yesterday was that every goal was fabulous. Not a deflection or scramble amongst them.

It was as if the forces that hold the cosmos in equilibrium decided that the Tottenham Yin and Yang needed squaring up, but rather than do so over the course of a season or two, they squeezed the reckoning-up into 45 minutes. To make up for all those moments of hand-wringing, hands clasped to face in horror or utter derision, everything worked. The mental aberrations and Laurel and Hardy pratfalls, the late comebacks and underserved breakaway deflections, balanced out in one fell swoop on a chilly November afternoon. The earth is spinning more smoothly on its axis, don’t you agree? Although it might have been nice if Bentley could have saved the one decent free kick since goodness knows when for the winner against Chelsea or United.

The fact that Defoe scores five and I’m not sure if he was Spurs’ best player says something about the quality of the second half onslaught. Earlier in the season in a match report I remarked on JD’s progress. He has bags of natural talent but not the football nouse that delineates the good finishers from the great. Or so it used to be. Against Hull he moved better, one touch for control and the second for the strike, and yesterday showed how far that development can take him. His running and positioning was canny (granted Wigan gave him enough space but he took full advantage) and his finishing was deadly. Twice he took the ball too wide, or so I thought, twice he found the net, unerringly into the corners, keeper a tangle of limbs.

Through-balls and crosses, they were all the same in this display of the art of finishing. This is what he can do if given the service – all afternoon he was able to run onto the ball rather than have his back to the goal. Credit to Crouch, who bewildered his markers by coming off the back four into no man’s land where he was not picked up. Mind you, it did not take much to befuddle Titus Bramble, bless him. Plaudits also to Harry, who insisted in the second half that our runs started higher up the pitch, thus exploiting Wigan’s lack of pace in defence, just as we did against Burnley.

Our 4-4-2 looked right, a brave decision to leave Keane on the bench but absolutely the correct one. However, who needs tactics when all you have to do is give the ball to Lennon. It still took us 45 minutes to work that out but poor Wigan never quite sussed it. Even right at the end of the game, we were still passing the ball wide right to Lennon or Defoe and they were still leaving them all alone. They were great passes, though.

Eric 'the Invisible Man' Edman pictured yesterday

Lennon produced a scintillating performance of classic wing-play, harking back to the golden years of Jones and Robertson, although neither were as quick as he is. In the first half he loitered on the wing, feeding on sweeping cross-field passes from Huddlestone and Kranjcar, whose abilities mean we can change the point of attack quickly and opposition defences can never therefore be at rest. After the break his diet was supplemented by telling through balls, but these days it is all meat and drink to him. No longer does he dwell on the ball, twisting hither and thither because he can’t make up his mind, nor do crosses sail aimlessly into Row Z. He can pick out a man, cut to the by-line or switch inside. A remarkable achievement for one who is still comparatively young, and an absolute credit to the coaching staff.

But what is most memorable is just how thrilling this was. When he came onto the ball, I held my breath and rose from the seat in genuine expectation and excitement. Something would happen but you didn’t know exactly what, and there’s the beauty.

Wilson stayed back and Tom went forward, that’s the natural order of things. The stand-out for me was Kranjcar’s superb midfield creativity. He displayed the complete array of skills: impeccable first touch, the vision to see the ball early and inch-perfect weight of pass to deliver. Deft flicks, through-balls or 50 yarders across the pitch, they were all the same, all performed with the nonchalance brilliance of the top class thoroughbred. I adored that cross from the left in the second half, caressed early with the outside of his right foot, or the flick over the hapless opponent’s head late on, followed by a run into the heart of the box.

I’m enjoying this so much, I’ll leave to another day the debate about how we shoehorn all this talent into the team, but suffice to say that Woodgate had to have a strong word with him about his failure to pick up Scharner’s runs into the box, one of which led to the handball, sorry, goal, a defensive shortcoming which better teams would have punished more severely.

I ended the game with a sneaking admiration for Scharner. He kept going for the whole match as his team-mates disintegrated around him, still making runs, still trying to get something out of the game. He had the front to look the Shelf right in the eye when given the bird towards the end of the match (you can’t put your heart and soul into abusing a bloke who was seven goals behind at the time, even if he is a cheat) and straight-faced hold up his right hand. I’d invest in that bloodyminded attitude for our midfield – shame about the talent.

A few minutes from the end, I managed to draw breath and it started to sink in. That bloke in Worcester Avenue, laughing uncontrollably, that was me and I’m chuckling still. It’s a feeling that won’t go away for a good while yet and I hope you had as much fun as me.

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In Praise of Aaron Lennon

A short celebration of Aaron Lennon’s England performance against Croatia last night. His toes have never twinkled more brightly.

After last time’s disparaging comments on the international scene, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the match, glowing with pride as Lennon justified Capello’s faith in him. The England manager is a stern judge, yet his choice over Lennon over the much more experienced Wright Phillips or indeed over another tactical option involving Beckham, says so much about the winger’s growing maturity this season. I noted in Sunday’s piece that despite the attention drawn towards him by his goal, Defoe was perhaps making less progress than Lenny, and I was especially pleased last night with the mental strength that underlies his (Lennon’s) development. He is clearly thinking harder about his game and in particualr about his role as a team player.

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Monument to Our Lenny

The Gerrard header displayed this new found maturity more so than his more eye-catching runs. Lennon did not overplay the position. Instead of setting off on a run, potentially dazzling but liable to end in a cul de sac, as we have seen so often at the Lane, these days he has another option. Running at a defender can obviously pay dividends, but also it cuts down any space that the player in possession has, and space is such a precious commodity in modern football. This is a huge problem in David Bentley’s game, by the way. Before he was ejected from the team, he would gather the ball  in space and run straight towards a defender like a moth to a flame.

Aaron used to do the same, but no longer. Instead, he picked out Gerard and delivered a perfect ball onto his head. Simple in one sense, but it was the choice that was the clever part. It also demonstrates his confidence in his final ball. I admit to despairing last season that he would never be able to cross or pass accurately, and his therefore his promise would be wasted. Now, not everything works but he’s so much better. His play has variation; we have seen him come inside to score for Spurs this season and last night he tucked in to offer a perfect through-ball for Heskey. Again, it’s the apparently simple things, allied to his pace and ability to beat a full back, that is so impressive.

Capello was brave to pick him but Redknapp and his many coaches deserve the credit for his progress. Much was made in the commentary of the lack of a proper Croatian left back (would Corluka have been detailed to mark him?!), but Lennon made room by clinging to the touchline, just as Harry encourages him to do. With good passers in the team, like Gerrard and Barry for England or Huddlestone for us, he’s not isolated. In turn, this creates more space for the rest of team and dilemmas for the opposition back four. If they spread out to mark him, there’s room for other players infield. If they leave him, havoc ensues down the right.

It was such a pleasure to see one of ours play so well. Aaron Lennon is becoming a real force in English football. One man didn’t enjoy watching the game: even as I write, Fergie is worrying about what to do on Saturday. I can’t wait.