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.