The Sound of Sighlence

You can tell how a game is going by the sound of the crowd, a surefire soundtrack as the game ebbs and flows. The exultation that greets a goal, unrestrained singing in celebration, the contented hubbub as the fans leave after a win or the sharp, bitter recrimination of defeat or worse, a side that is not trying.

The sound of Spurs right now is a heavy, deep sigh. There’s disappointment there, some shaking of heads, plus a touch of resignation. It’s not working out as we planned and we’ve been here before, so many, many times.

Another day, another big fat zero in the ‘goals for’ column. However, this one was different. Same end product but only after the Newcastle goal was peppered from all angles in a second half bombardment where for 25 minutes we played scintillating, high tempo football to create more genuine chances than in the last half a dozen matches put together. There was a lot to be pleased with but still plenty of sighing, then as I drove home and still going as I type this.

65% possession, 24 shots, 14 on target – about right, I read them on the concourse as I paused on the way home and, well, sighed. Match statistics in games like these are the contemporary equivalent of a consolation goal, that is no consolation at all. Newcastle keeper Tim Krul had an outstanding game. More saves in a single match than any other keeper in Europe this season, apparently. See what I mean, they don’t help at all. First half leaps into the stratosphere to thwart Soldado and Sigurdsson were the best but just as valuable for his side were the outstretched boots and scrambled clearances. I’ve not seen a replay but how on earth he and a single defender kept the ball out after a deflected free-kick settled on the goal line remains a mystery.

Yet the harsh truth is that keepers can only make those saves if the ball is close enough to them. Weak finishing close in was our undoing. Krul could have remained the star but noble in defeat, such were the number of good opportunities we fashioned. Eriksen, Paulinho and Soldado made it too easy for him.

Things looked rosy to begin with. It felt as if both team and crowd had responded to recent criticism. Immediately we stretched the Newcastle with a move at pace, Walker freed up on the right. His cross was too close to the keeper but it augured well for things to come. Lots of encouragement too.

Eriksen was prominent, moving across the line and out wide rather than staying comfortable in the central pocket. For his game and that of Spurs to develop, he has to become more consistently involved.

The promising opening petered out. Newcastle moved the ball neatly out of defence and played two up front so they remained a threat on the break for the entire game. They were helped by Spurs giving the ball away. Friedel saved well on two occasions, then we were caught out. Dembele was fiddling around with the ball deep in our half. Although he eventually cleared, it allowed the Mags to pounce on a ball than Paulinho first misjudged, letting it run across his body, then was weak in the challenge. Remy was in: he rounded the keeper to score.

Newcastle and Remy in particular were dangerous. Our high line became our best protection. Dawson was stranded on more than one occasion and Chiriches came across to perfectly time a tackle that surely prevented a goal. Remy, a player we have been closely linked with, reminded us what we have missed this season, a focal point for our opponents’ attack and a target for balls out of defence.

We spluttered away for the rest of the half. Bad old Tottenham – too slow, not enough width as Siggy and Andros repeatedly came inside, too many players standing still and waiting for the ball.

We should really remember to start playing from the first whistle, not half time. Galvanised by the team-talk, we emerged fresh and new. Newcastle were well-organised but did not present as much of a barrier as Hull or West Ham. It was everything the first half was not, pace, movement, support for the man on the ball and above all, chances. Eriksen missed the best one, a lovely intricate move down the right put him in, he had time to take a touch but tried to place a ball to send the keeper the wrong way rather than putting his foot through it.

Driven on by substitute Sandro, his energy and power reverberated through the team even though he was the deepest midfielder. Vertonghen fizzed the ball in from wide left. Soldado headed weakly to the keeper, Paulinho missed, that scramble on the line.

Defoe came on at about 70 minutes, the right choice but as we gathered ourselves for another effort, his arrival had the reverse effect. Sandro stayed deep and Newcastle brought on another midfielder. Their 5 outnumbered our 3 and the momentum disappeared totally. Tactically outsmarted by Alan Pardew…not AVB’s finest moment.

Vertonghen hit the bar from a corner but otherwise that was that. Dawson was thrown forward late on but we couldn’t even whack the ball forward properly.

So what to make of this? This was different from some previous games where we hardly got into the box let alone make a chance. We can put a lot of this down to the keeper and should not be too down because if we play like that for an entire match, we will do well.

However, it comes in the context of an inability to score and some of the same patterns were on display. Soldado needs service – through-balls and the ball in front of him in the box. Without it, he contributes little and did not play well yesterday. We have to have faith and gear the team around his needs. AVB knew that when he bought him but he’s not so far achieved that aim.

I’m boring myself with the inverted wingers, done to death in previous columns. Suffice to say we saw more of the edge of the box log-jam that has stifled our attacks almost as effectively as the opposition back four. We are doing their job for them. Siggy and Andros ran into trouble, while Paulinho and Eriksen prefer it on the outskirts of the area. Problem is, there are few cut-backs because no one is going to the byline, no one in the box to help Soldado.

I will break a long-held golden rule and just this once make a comparison with Barcelona, which is normally the refuge of those who don’t know the game. They are one of the best club sides the world has ever seen so no wonder Spurs aren’t that good. The point I’m making is a simple one, however. For their third goal yesterday against Real Betis, Iniesta chipped the ball into the box and 4 of their players ran through to converge on it. I’m not sure we have 4 men in the box for corners let alone from open play. Regardless of the result, AVB has to solve this problem.

Also we have too many men whose instinct is to run with the ball. Good players, just not the right blend. It slows everything down. Add the fact that we have right-footers on the left and vice versa, they too want that extra touch or two. Not much in itself but add it up and it extracts the pace from our attacks.

We have a number of men playing out of position, and if AVB is sometimes accused of stubbornness then this is the point where I agree. Dembele is not best employed as a DM. His strength and passing ability have tempted AVB but he is the wrong choice. Sandro made a huge difference when he came on and should start, if he’s fit. Paulinho made his reputation as a box to box player but he’s being used elsewhere. I said last week that he needs a rest as he has become less influential as the weeks have passed. So it proved yesterday, admirably willing but a mixed afternoon and at fault for the goal.

Eriksen worsened as the second half went on but could be the creative hub with the right players around him. The wide men are not going wide and are not the men you want on the end of a chance in the box.

Townsend’s honeymoon is over. Opposition defences have sussed him out – two men and push him inside – and by the end his frustration manifested in wasted, hopeless long-shots. he still has a lot to learn. On the other side, Siggy was ineffectual.

I hope the squad are not getting fractious. Defoe gave Kaboul a right mouthful after an innocuous misplaced pass, and kept on going. This season he’s been hitherto completely focussed – this felt out of place and different.

Finally, all this money spent and no plan B. A number of quality players who are looking as though they can’t provide an alternative. Whatever Adebayor has done to hack AVB off must be the most heinous sin since Judas turned in Jesus. I enviously watched United, Arse**l even, Southampton with their central strikers as focal point and really missed Manu. We need him.

AVB needs more time to work this through. By now though, he would have expected to be much closer to his best team than he is. Or to be more accurate, the team and set-up he thought was close to his best is not working out.

Social media is awash with suggestions, including mine of course, and all of them different. These days everyone’s a manager and we’re all like Alex Ferguson – never wrong. AVB is in danger of becoming one of us, which frankly is a nightmare. He has so much potential at his disposal, he’s chopping and changing, which will create an unsettled side. He has to send a message to key newcomers, Soldado and Eriksen in particular, Lamela too, that for the next ten or so games, he’s going to stick with them and build the side around them. Let them make mistakes, allow them to learn. We’re in this for the long haul. They need time and that’s the best way to use it.

Eriksen Shows Spurs The Way

Christian Eriksen’s eye-catching debut provided the creative spark that has been missing from Tottenham Hotspur’s season thus far. He was the focus of an easy win against Norwich, strolling through the massed ranks of yellow and green with the insouciant air of a man out for a pleasant afternoon walk.

The supporters quickly made him our own, applauding wildly as he took first half corners. It was a bit over the top – he’s not the messiah, he’s just a fair-haired little boy – but Spurs fans know class when they see it. Two good feet, well-balanced, the upright stance of man comfortable with his body and that precious awareness of what’s going on around him. Above all, he has the ultimate mark of a quality footballer – time. Early days but let’s enjoy this fine performance while we can.

When he heard the criticism over Spurs’ early season sluggishness in front of goal, Villas-Boas bit his tongue and smiled inwardly. I bet he was bursting to tell us about what he had in store. Eriksen was the centre of attention for our players too. For a side that hasn’t worked together much on the training ground let alone the pitch, our understanding and team-play was pretty good and Eriksen was at the heart of it. A little touch here, a short pass there, to feet of course, dropping back and keeping it moving, he kept the side ticking over until his energy fell away and AVB made well-timed substitutions to ensure we kept going.

The little things – in the warm-up Spurs do a surprisingly basic drill where in pairs they pass to each other, first short and then longer. Working with Walker, Eriksen took a single touch before passing and used both feet whereas Kyle sometimes took two, left the ball further from his body and always used his right.

Spurs pushed forward from the start, giving Soldado plenty of support in the box. I would have found a place for Sandro – I can’t resist the vision of The Beast and Paulinho in that central midfield, surely that’s the long-term way to go. However, Sigurdsson, the guy most vulnerable in this set-up, has the asset of being able to get into the box. He’ll never beat his man out wide but offers width to spread the play then comes inside, allowing Rose to get outside him if required. This time, he broke the deadlock with a perfect finish, coming onto Eriksen’s deft pass, a mere two or three yards yet delightfully perfect, and planting the ball into the far corner.

We kept possession well and were always on the move, maintaining a decent tempo for most of the first half without making too many chances. Eriksen created the best, slow-motioning through three defenders deep in the box before Soldado’s improvised back-heel hit the post.

If I were a Norwich fan, I would be less concerned about the ref’s generosity towards Tottenham in the challenges and much more about the quality of my team. They were outplayed today with Lloris a spectator for vast swathes of the game. Other sides will provide a greater test but nevertheless they were well-organised in defence and hard to break down, but we did so with patience and controlled probing. In the past we’ve floundered against sides like this, not now.

Complacency was our only problem. The Spurs defence seemed disoriented when forming up for a free-kick late in the first half, the first time they really had anything much to do.

The first half rather petered out. The crowd was as quiet as a cricket-ground with the low hum of conversations from each stand. Things picked a bit in the second. We scored again, just when there were doubts about our ability to confirm our superiority. Siggy again, a far post tap-in from Paulinho’s cross. Wonder if the keeper should have cut it out. The execution was simple but the result of a passing move that took its time to move the defence around then found the weakness.

We should have scored again, Eriksen shooting when others were well-placed for a pass then Townsend’s shot hit the keeper when Soldado’s touch let him down. There were other oohs and aahs too – Siggy from range trying for his hat-trick, Townsend shooting from anywhere.

We played out time with ease apart from when Lloris, no doubt to end the boredom of his afternoon, dashed out to the edge of his box and beyond to punch the ball away. It was poor judgement but the free-kick came to nothing and the kit-man won’t have to wash the goalkeeping gear because it didn’t get dirty.

Individual performances – everyone played well enough. Paulinho and Dembele interchanged productively. Twice both were inexcusably caught forward leaving the back four unprotected, they will show more caution against better sides. I endorse the posts in the comments section of my last piece from regular correspondents concerned about Tom Carroll’s loan. However, the performances of Rose and Townsend, back from loans fitter, stronger and with the air of a first-teamer, show the value of our policy with these younger, promising squad members. Rose won all his challenges – he’s put on more muscle – and was alert to gaps at the back. Townsend had a good game throughout, always pressuring the Norwich left but shooting once or twice too often. Better sides will exploit his weaknesses when defending but that’s for another day. Nothing to get carried away about but plenty to enjoy.

Spurs Season Starts Here

Back to school we go. We queued up to get a new blazer, sharpened our pencils and mum has been up half the night biroing our name into the collars of our clothes. Then school closed for ten days. May as well have stayed on holiday. These days the start of each season is absurd. End the transfer window at midnight before the opening game and shift the internationals. But here we are so let’s get on with it. So what do we know now that we didn’t know on the morning of August 18th?

That Spurs fans have every right to be excited about the quality of the squad. We have bought skillful, talented footballers able to play the Spurs Way, with the power and strength in key positions required to prosper in the Premier League.

That we will have to be patient. The coitus interruptus of the international break is a let down but creates time to reassess our performance. The madness of the end of the window with three transfers in a day and Bale’s impending departure (who will ever forget the regular scaffolding updates from the Bernabeu on twitter?) has thankfully subsided, leaving time for tranquil reflection, at least until kick-off tomorrow. The conclusion is, we have a lot of work to do.

Let’s start in the heart of the team, the defensive midfield. Paulinho and Capoue are highly promising. That area is their natural habitat and they know their role is not only to break up attacks but to start our own moves once we have the ball. Paulinho is the more flexible of the two, willing to get forward when the situation allows and his judgement in that respect is sound. However, after settling quickly at Selhurst Park, at the Emirates at times they both looked a long way from home. Sandro should be back tomorrow to provide more power and drive. Last season he did so well before his injury, Villas-Boas often switched to just one DM, allowing more support for the attack. And they need it.

That Soldado needs to be given the ball. Well obviously – but this guy does his best work in the box rather than leading the line as target man. Support from midfield in terms of both making chances and getting up alongside him is imperative therefore. I look forward to seeing Eriksen but it is not about one individual providing the chances, it’s a team effort.

That we have to get bodies in the box. See above. Six points from three games is a better start than we are used to but it masks the fact that we have not scored from open play. Partly this is because of a lack of creativity in the centre. We’ve directed much of our work out wide, which teams keen to pack defence find easier to handle. Partly it is due to a lack of support for Soldado in the box. We can’t be everywhere at once but have to get a better balance.

That progress hinges on the form of the old guard not the new wave. At least in the short-term that is. Sandro’s back. The back four have to get their act together. With Dawson rather stranded for the Gunner’s goal, either they sort out the high line drill or, better, Kaboul returns alongside Vertonghen. Rose needs a run while Walker has to improve his decision-taking, that is not get drawn out of position or sucked into unnecessary fouls. Chiriches still doesn’t have a work permit – I trust the club have not made a misjudgment here. I don’t understand how that can happen.

That I wouldn’t swap Lloris for any keeper in the league. Huge favourite of mine.

That Dembele is key. He has been somewhat overshadowed by the newcomers but he has the lot. Hard to shake off the ball, a good touch and the pass to pick out a man in the box. The axis with Sandro was dynamic when they played together last season. His manager likes him but should play him further forward to make best use of those talents. But we have a problem – he’s not played well for some time and he can’t finish a match. If he’s not fully fit, rest him until he is. His lack of form and fitness has had a greater impact than has generally been acknowledged.

That Adebayor has a vital role to play. Barely noticed during the transfer furore, he provides not merely cover for Soldado but alternatives too. His movement and ability to bring others into the game offers variation, provided his motivation is right. He likes to be top dog and although the club are rightly and generously nurturing him during the aftermath of his brother’s death, his mind could be elsewhere when he’s fit again, in which case suddenly we are short of options up front.

That bloody international break. AVB has had no time to work on tactics and formation, precisely the things that are most needed. I read today, for example, that Lamela hasn’t trained with the team since the break. It’s like starting all over again.

That Franco Baldini is a star.

That our rivals are benefitting from the lack of change. Arsenal had an organisation and ethic that was enough to keep us out despite our possession while at Liverpool Rodgers has begun to get the message across, despite having a worse squad on paper.

At this point last season I thought we would do well but not immediately. Patience remains a virtue, except that with this squad the rewards when they come, and I think they will, could be great. I’m looking forward to the journey.

Spurs: Change Or Continuity?

You think the game has had enough of you when you get to my age. The personnel changes, so does the kit, but they play out the same old dramas of lust, envy and disappointment, the search for trophies, bitterness towards those rivals who succeed where we have failed, the crushing burden of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And then the next season begins.

Looks like the beautiful game is fluttering its eyelids and flashing come hither glances in our direction once again. This transfer window has been astonishing. The sound of jaws dropping and hitting the floor has been deafening. Our own Good Friday brought three high class footballers to the club, Chiriches,  Lamela and Eriksen to join Paulinho, Capoue, Soldado and Chadli. It’s likely there’s still time for a left-back. In writing that list, I had to stop and remember them all. Chadli seems so long ago now, there’s been so much change, I had to work a bit to get his name.

The Guardian tots that up as an eye-watering £110.5m but remarkably we remain in credit, or at least we will be after Bale is sold. No fairy godfathers, disgraced ex-dictators or russian/arab oligarchs, just Levy the businessman. Ten years of frustration in the market gone in the blink of an eye. Or perhaps they just repaired the fax machine and this is the backlog.

This may be our Good Friday but we may have to wait longer than three days for resurrection (apologies if I have the timescale wrong there but I’m jewish so the details never sunk in). Amidst all the changes there remains a thread of distinct continuity. Soldado aside, all the incoming players are on the make, young men who see coming to Spurs as a step up where they can prove themselves. This has been the template at Tottenham for some time now. The difference is, their baseline, their starting position, is several steps up the graph compared with the past.

They join a manager on the up too, a man who is calm on the outside but is fuelled by a inner furnace of ambition, to prove doubters wrong, to show that his methods work, to achieve through his team the success in football that a man of his meagre playing talent could never fulfil.

The manager’s most important signing is unquestionably Franco Baldini. Going about his business in an admirably low-key manner, his arrival and the influx of young talent cannot be a coincidence. Lamela especially – you wonder if the young Argentinian had ever heard of Tottenham Hotspur let alone believed he could up here, but damn right he knows Baldini.

Spurs fans are suspicious of the role of Director of Football after our experience with Damian Comolli. however, as I have said in previous posts, the main fault lay not so much with individuals but with an unclear management and accountability structure. The Levy-Jol-Comolli triumvirate failed because Levy as head of the company did not set clear demarcation lines about who took transfer decisions, so Jol was coaching with players he either didn’t want or had to fit into his tactics and Comolli took advanatge to go beyond his remit. Villas-Boas on the other hand has players who will fit his system. He coaches, Baldini gets the players. If we have any success in the coming years, that’s the foundation.

By the way, as a rule I don’t say much about players I don’t know well so I don’t pretend I have the encyclopedic knowledge of european football that everyone else in the social media has, apparently. But that you tube highlights video of Lamela…and he’s going to play in a white shirt with the cockerel badge…

Also as in previous years, this team is one for the future. It will take time for everyone to bed in, and just to repeat a simple fact that no doubt will be easily forgotten in the months to come, this is still a pretty young squad. Eriksen and Lamela are inexperienced despite their promise.

With the spending comes the pitfalls of increased expectations. Our Andre won over a media baying for his blood in August but any failings and they will scent weakness once again. The fans have to be patient.

Also, the team spirit at Spurs has been extremely good lately. Changes threaten that, as does the disappointment of not playing regularly, so we have to watch out for what could be a huge change there, especially with so many nationalities now. It may not seem much but these things matter. Villas-Boas is good at this.

However, the signs are positive so far. Thursday night’s victory over Tiblisi was a statement of intent. 8-0 on aggregate is usually described as a stroll but our attitude and performance was anything but. From first to last, we kept playing. The movement was excellent, Holtby and Carroll impressive. It showed players want to play for Villas-Boas and that our manager has his system. We don’t look like a side that is full of new players getting to know each other.

I’ve already mentioned one reason for this, that Villas-Boas has players who fit his way of playing. Another is that he is playing the new guys in roles that are familiar to them. Capoue, Paulinho, Sandro on Thursday (how good to see him back), that defensive midfield position is comfortable like an old wooly jumper. Not just sticking a foot in but starting attacks from deep and sniping in the middle of the field.

That is a key area for any side but especially for us where we have left our back four unprotected in the past, to our cost. It may be ‘one-nil to the Tottenham’ but that’s what the big boys do. United and Chelsea were lambasted for a dull midweek game but both knew the danger of giving ground at this stage in the season.

Spurs fans are long-suffering and accustomed to disappointment. What that means is that we have greeted these signings not with the triumphalism and sense of entitlement that supporters of our London rivals tend to exhibit but with grateful astonishment. No predictions from me, except that this will be one season to look forward to. The game may have given up on me but I’ve never given up on the game as so many fans seem to do these days. I might finally get some reward.