Villas-Boas and Spurs – Sit Back, Deep Breath, How’s It Going?

Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!

Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon  Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.

To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.

Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.

In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.

If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.

However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency  the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.

So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.

The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders  that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.

That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.

The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around  This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.

But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning.  Against Wigan, we had no idea.

Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond  He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity  Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.

Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.

Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.

I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved  or in the box (although he has improved).

At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.

And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish  I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.

In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.

However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.

Superjan Struck Down By Kryptonite Posioning

Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Sure, Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, he may be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound but could he keep the Spurs defence together? Superjan can. Vertonghen can do the lot. Centre half, he’s assured and quick. Switch him to left back, the whole team is transformed. He takes free-kicks, he scores from other people’s. Charging heroically upfield, he scores too (I know it’s been adjudged an own goal but that United effort will always be his to me).

Last night, we discovered that somewhere inside Carrow Road, there’s a chunk of green kryptonite hidden away. Unsuspecting, he took the field only to find his powers drained from his body. Ten minutes later, he was revealed as a mere mortal. Norwich wear green shorts. Coincidence?

Villas Boas clearly believes in his powers. When Vertonghen came on as substitute, Spurs were on top as they had been from the kick-off without ever playing especially well. Norwich were cranking up for a final ten minute fling. Throughout the second half we had tried but failed to add to our single goal lead, so the manager decided it was time to protect what we had. Hardly radical, although it was a surprise to see Vertonghen slot into a central defensive midfield position. An extra defender who can also turn defence into attack couldn’t do much harm.

But Superjan looked odd to me. Normally focussed and keen, he didn’t look as if he had the appetite for this one. From a corner, he airily waved a leg at a shot that was going well wide and deflected it in. A few minutes later, from a free kick that was wrongly awarded to Norwich, he lost his man and Holt headed down for Jackson to tap in the winner. A complete turnaround against the by then well-established equilibrium of a match where we were the better side but failed to score the goals to confirm our superiority. Dempsey then missed a penalty to complete our indignity.

AVB is a meticulous man who has demonstrated his commitment to cup competitions by preparing strong sides in the Europa League and League Cup. However, in a sporting age where backroom staff outnumber the playing squad, little things make all the difference. I question why Vertonghen rather than Dawson or Caulker was marking Holt, Norwich’s most dangerous player. When the penalty was awarded, the players did not appear sure about who was supposed to take it. At least Dempsey had the guts to step up to the spot. Two small but crucial errors of preparation that proved decisive.

For better or worse, right or wrong, this blog is always honest with you, dear reader. I try to be consistent but when it comes to the League Cup, I confess to some hypocrisy. I can’t get too worked up about it, win or lose. Except of course if we beat Arse**l in the semi-final or reach Wembley, where suddenly it becomes a tournament we all want to win, officially designated ‘A Springboard For the Future’.

Neither should ew read too much into a single game like this one. Whatever the rhetoric, the players of both teams were not up for it as they would be for a league game. However, place it in the context of other recent performances and there were examples of unwelcome trends that Tottenham will have to work on if we are to prosper.

We don’t score enough goals, or to put it better, we don’t turn our superiority into goals. We have a tendency to look good and take up good wide positions – Bale and Falque (in the second half) were excellent. Falque has certainly developed his game and delivered 3 or 4 top class crosses plus one sublime cutting pass that took out the entire Norwich defence only for Bale to have a weak shot saved. However, there is nobody on the end of the crosses. Not enough bodies in the box and no figurehead striker. Either get one or play a different way because defenders can get heading practice on their training pitch not in competition. Without Dembele, we miss creativity in central areas. How we were spoilt with Luka and Rafa.

Connected with this, we sit back after we’ve scored rather than snuff out the game. To be fair, this was not so much of a problem last night. After Bale scored from range, we continued to keep possession well for a period but to retreat and hang on to just a single goal, as AVB is keen for us to do usually, is a game we’re not yet resilient enough to play.

Finally, there are too many games where a couple of players go missing. Last night there were extended periods where Siggy, Dempsey and Carroll were not involved. (In defence of a talented young player, Carroll demonstrated his customary involvement in the second half). It felt as if we were playing with ten men for much of the first half. Dempsey, a player I was pleased to buy, has not yet found his niche. There’s no doubt that Martin Jol got something from him that Villas Boas can’t.

Even so we were too good for Norwich. League Cup or not, this was a missed opportunity.

A Defining Week For Spurs and AVB

The value of some performances transcends the goals, the points or the league table. Spurs victory at Old Trafford yesterday evening was infused with meaning that runs deep and will resonate long after the celebrations die down, although I suspect those who were fortunate enough to be there floated home rather than requiring any form of transport.

Not just the years since we last won there. I can’t remember how long it is even though the commentator appeared to be contractually obliged to repeat it every 5 minutes. Perhaps the fear and nausea in the pit of my stomach as the ball pinged around our box in the second half dulled my other senses.

Not even the manner of the win, magnificent though that was. Delightful flowing football in the first half as we took the game to United and were by far the better side, followed by desperate dogged defence in the second as we were remorselessly pushed deeper and deeper by United at their best.

Not even showing a skeptical footballing public and a rabid media that we can play. This was the moment when the new Tottenham Hotspur believed it could play. As the self-confidence spreads, the fall-out from this game could be picked up in years to come, like faint radio static from the far reaches of the cosmos.

This is that rare sort of win, one that creates an unshakable resilience that Spurs are doing the right thing, and if the players keep on doing it, they will succeed in the end, whatever the odds. Faith in your own ability, that of your team-mates and your manager, to overcome and prevail. Something we’ve seen in others but has always been beyond our grasp in modern times, almost real but eluding our grasp like a vivid dream fading as we wake and open our eyes.

More about yesterday in a moment, but if we are looking for the signs in the runes, the portents have been excellent all week. It’s not all about 3-2 in Manchester. A goal down and stinking the place out like a parcel of rotting fish nailed under the floorboards, at half-time just 7 days ago the world was a different, bleaker place. Then AVB looked his players in the eye and said, “I’ve made a mistake but together we will put it right.” Superman goes left, Bale pushed forward, 2 goals and 3 points.

A tricky midweek tie in the far flooded north, Carlisle were summarily dispatched. The young men came in without, as I understand it, there being much of a problem, because they play the Tottenham way. In the past, this game could have posed a threat to the well-being of the team. These are ties that expose weakness, as in the hapless away game at Stevenage as recently as last season. Yet this was a comfortable win.

Back to yesterday, and we took the game to United in the first half, boosted by Jan the Man’s second goal in a week, a great run into the heart of the defence and huge deflection. Bale set up this one then scored our second himself with the type of run that makes him unique in the Premier League. Over 6 foot and filled out from boy to man over the summer, there is simply nothing like this fearsome combination of power and pace, physical presence and touch on the ball.

We fully deserved the 2 goal lead at half-time. Sandro was a powerhouse throughout, Dembele dominant in front of him. How I’ve quickly grown to relish his arthritic shuffle on the ball, stiff, head bowed and so effective. A real gem.

One of the issues I’ve identified this season is that Spurs must find the right set-up to get the best from Dempsey, a goalscorer who is not a classic striker. Last week he was wasted stuck out on the left. Now AVB moved him to a more central starting position. He should be able to get on the ball more here. All this stems from the influence exerted by the mighty Sandro, who is playing so well that we can manage with only one defensive midfielder not two, thus freeing options further forward.

He popped up with the third, pouncing on a loose ball to restore our two goal advantage  That was swiftly reduced to one, then it was backs to wall for a sickeningly tense last 30 minutes.

We dropped ever more deep as wave after wave of United attacks swept down on our goal. Partly this was due to an inability to hold onto the ball on the precious few occasions we got hold of it, partly due to the debilitating effects of illness – a couple had suffered a bug during the week. Mainly it was down to the excellence of our opponents, who played the ball into the channels between our back four on endless occasions. It’s hard to believe England never built their team around Paul Scholes.

We defended well but like any team that beats them, we relied on United missing their chances, which obligingly they did.  Ultimately those same cosmic forces tend to balance themselves out. The ball banged against post and bar, skimmed just wide or sunk into Friedel’s all-enveloping grasp. And Chris Foy, always said he knew what he was about when it comes to penalty decisions. After yesterday I like to think that the universe is a more stable place as equilibrium is restored.

Walker’s poor positioning led to problems and sometimes both full-backs were exposed by a lack of cover. However, the grim determination of Vertonghen, Caulker and the steely eyed Gallas epitomised the spirit in the squad. You have to hand to Willy – after a long career and dodgy ankles, he is a winner and you can see why AVB has persisted with him. Caulker will learn so much from him, but did his bit by winning a series of headers.

A word of praise for Defoe, who has not always shown the selfless running and intelligence that helped make a couple of goals yesterday. This is the best form of his career. I’m not this biggest fan but all credit to him.

The unity between team and manager has paid rich dividends on the field this week. The Mirror and Sun are hell-bent on ruining him and our achievements, but the lies of their weaselly snout in the camp were disproved for all to see.

A single win does not mean everything is done and dusted. There will be good times and bad, struggles and wasted energy, but AVB’s Spurs is a team with a future and whatever happens I’m glad I’m coming along for the ride.

Goodbye Luka. Remember The Good Times

Luka, goodbye and good luck. I’ll only remember the good times, and they were rich, plentiful and sweet.

The finest midfielder to wear the shirt since Gascoigne, on his day he made the team hum with energy and purpose. He was the link between defence and attack, taking the ball from the toes of the back four and looking up, always looking up. In his mind’s eye he saw not what was happening but what could happen. Pass and move, the ball had barely left his foot before he was gone into space, finding some where before there was none. Available and ready, pass and move.

Loutish uncouth opponents clattered in, lured by the thin, bony frame,but they arrived and he was gone, riding the challenges and away. Pass and move. The Tottenham way. This was his home. Many looked his way, we made eye contact and began a 4 year love affair that sadly ended as all affairs do but the ecstatic pleasure will last until I’m old and grey.

When he played, Tottenham played. He dictated the shape and pace of the whole game. He oiled the cogs and powered the engine. He demanded attention so his team-mates had more time and space. They made a run, knowing Luka would find them. Too often he paused at the edge of the box, instinct compelling him to roll the ball into channels, only to find others on a different wavelength. But when it worked, Spurs sang a song of joy. Flowing, easy movement as natural as breathing yet breathtaking given the ferocious pace and physicality of the modern game. Too late now but watch him from pitch level. We spectators merely have to sit, not worry about a bouncing ball or stalking defenders, but he sees gaps where you see massed ranks of defenders, he sees opportunities where you see only threats.

Every great player has their trademark, something which makes them stand out from the rest. Luka could pass short into the channels or take half a team out of the match with a sweeping diagonal stretching 50 yards. He buzzed around the edge of the box or drove us onwards  from deep. But I will always fondly recall the way he took a ball under pressure, often his own half and with his back to the onrushing tacklers, and with a dip of the shoulder send them one way as he went the other into clean, fresh air.

For many the undignified end to his time at Spurs has tarnished his reputation. Whilst I have no wish to either ignore his refusal to play or make excuses for him, frankly it didn’t much matter. Sorely peeved after his move to Chelsea was vetoed last season, he knuckled down and gave his best. This summer, he was always going to leave and everyone knew it. Pointless to play him for just 2 games if we are rebuilding the team, although goodness knows we missed his creativity. If he went on strike as is rumoured, we probably saved a few bob on his salary. We can’t begrudge him a move to one of the two most famous and illustrious club sides in the world, and he had the good grace to shun Chelsea and United.

Even so, this isn’t the way to remember him. Players come and go, only we the fans are constant, lasting, loyal. And what do we have if we don’t have good memories, golden exuberance that balances out the drudgery and pain. That’s what supporting a club is all about, the precious moments that linger for a lifetime. Ask yourself this – when you tell your wide-eyed children or grandchildren about this wonderful game,  this great club and its heroes, what story will you spin? Majestic players who left the crowd spellbound, or contract negotiations?

Some say Luka Modric is not all that. Over-rated. Ineffective. Never mind show me your medals, show me your stats. Where are the goals? Where are the assists?  He should have scored more, of course he should, a man with his sublime touch couldn’t connect cleanly, I can’t understand that. But he played deep, he made the pass to the man who made the pass yet that’s discounted. He lifted the side when times were rough. Miserable and wretched stats, the curse of the modern game where there’s no need to make up your own mind, to have an opinion, to even watch the match, just count.

Let’s therefore expunge the memory of the Tottenham greats. Let’s rid ourselves of the others who don’t match these standards, starting with another midfielder who only played in 20 minutes spells, who couldn’t kick a dead ball for toffee, who scored only 16 times in over 220 appearances, who tired as the game went on. Ossie Ardiles, a peerless maestro who ran the game in those 20 minute spells and picked up a World Cup winners medal along the way.

With Ossie as with Luka, remember them for what did rather than what they did not. They conjured magnificent creations of joy and wonder on the pitch. Luka, thanks for memories. I’m glad my children could see in their lifetime a midfield player as good as you. They understand. I wish I could have seen you, for one last time, not to change your mind but just to say, I miss you. Good luck, goodbye.