Watching Spurs Was Fun. It Will Never Catch On.

Spurs are through to the semi-final of the League Cup courtesy of an emphatic 4-0 victory over Newcastle United. Tottenham spent the second half pinging the ball around with an exuberant freedom rarely seen during the past few years. Cracking football, plenty of goals, a vibrant atmosphere including a full contribution from thousands of loyal, loud Geordies and to make it just like the good old days there was even a miscreant visitor bodily carried out by a posse of stewards and police. Fabulous to kick back and enjoy it all. I could get used to this.

For Spurs was the perfect League Cup tie, competitive but without edge. The FA Cup is the one, real commitment and born of a long, proud heritage that links every club in the land. My advice for the League Cup is to enjoy it but forget a defeat in the time it takes to get from the ground to the station. Sure, during extra time at Wembley in 2008 I had dissolved into a gibbering froth of anxiety, so if only I could follow my own observations, but allow me the self-delusion that’s natural for every supporter.

The League Cup should be fun and this win most certainly was, but while there were promising signs of our progress, Newcastle gave us plenty of room to play. They fielded a strong side if a little lightweight up front and with two sides keen to attack, this created fast end to end football. However, their young keeper Jak Alnwick followed the inept example of brother and former Spur Ben in providing a couple of assists. Pardew also made a game-changing tactical error at the start of the second half. The vast Sissoko had trampled over our midfield during the third period but was then moved wide.

Presumably the plan was to repeat the tactics that won our visitors this season’s league match where he stampeded down our left. Instead, it gave Spurs the freedom of the park. An absolute pleasure to see Spurs moving forward at every opportunity, luscious pass and move revolving around a playmaker, Christian Eriksen, and anchored by a deep-lying midfielder, Nabil Bentaleb.

 

Both excelled, with Eriksen in particular catching the eye. Given a central role with a fair degree of freedom, he was on the move and involved for 90 minutes, welcome but rare for him lately. Not everything came off – I suspect the dreaded pass completion stats were not in the top bracket – but the best players take risks and that inspiration makes things happen.

Things happened around him all evening, the best being a delightful curling pass through the defence to Rose (I think) but Soldado couldn’t capitalise on his instant cross. He made our fourth, a 20 yard burst ending with a shot parried straight to Soldado who tucked it in from close range. Eriksen really needs a nickname. ‘Come on Christian’ sounds like something from the touchline of an under 11s rugby match in Tunbridge Wells or a call to evensong. He seemed revitalised. After Sunday’s win he credited improved fitness levels for our series of late comebacks and certainly he was a bundle of energy and joy last night.

Bentaleb lay deeper, marshalling the ball onto his left foot, head up and looking to move it on. No apologies for the over-use of ‘forward’ in this piece – it was so noticeable. Significant too – our best spells recently have all featured this approach, keeping possession but seeking to move it upfield at a decent tempo. This is key to Pochettino’s style – promising signs that the message is getting through, even to Dembele who again was influential as a sub playing in an advanced position.

Stambouli reminds me of those midfield warriors of the 70s and 80s. Every team had one, Horlock, Storey, Yorath, muscular, hard-bitten and unforgiving of any mistake by an opponent. Round-shouldered and sharp-eyed, Stambouli doesn’t run, he prowls. He tackles hard and takes the man if he can’t reach the ball. This is a different century so he’s an upgraded model, keen to get the ball forward with an eye for a quick pass.

I like him and Pochettino may be warming to him too – use of the word ‘forward’ again. Trouble is, Spurs have problems at the back because the back four need cover and that’s not the Frenchman’s instinct. Capoue is the only defensive DM we have and he deservedly lost his place as his early season promise disappeared.

These problems at the back were on show yesterday, especially in a first half that was pretty even. On several occasions Newcastle whizzed the ball across our box, including one early in the second half that the Geordies were prematurely celebrating, so sure were they that one of three forwards were bound to get a touch.

Spurs went in with a first half lead thanks to Bentaleb’s first goal for us. Under no real pressure, the keeper dropped a far-post corner and Nab moved with lightning reactions to touch the fumble home before it fell below shoulder height.

Chadli’s low shot from the edge of the box made it two before many had sat down after half-time. Our best was our third, Townsend stabbing a little first-time ball into the channel and Kane spun away from the defender to shot low across the keeper. It’s the sort of goal we seldom score and augers well for the future. Kane on fine form again up front, one of many pleasures on an enjoyable evening.

A final note: interesting to see Poch try Eriksen in the middle, trying out a few ideas maybe. Also significant is that Fazio and Vertonghen paired at centre back once more. No rotation there, rather, hard work to establish a partnership. And Vorm was very good.

Reflections On A Heartwarming Victory: Spurs Fans and Players Stand Together

The search for the lost heart of Tottenham Hotspur is over. It was there all the time, waiting to be found by three young footballers, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. They knew all along what it means to be Spurs and their performances in Sunday’s defeat of Everton not only showed their more experienced team-mates the path to follow, they ignited and inspired the crowd. Together, as one, as it should be.

This was Spurs’ best performance of the season, superior to the big win over QPR because the Toffees are a much better side. Tottenham were disciplined, keeping a shape that ensured Everton had few opportunities but flexible enough to quickly turn defence into attack. Yet what stood out was the spirit and commitment of the whole team, playing with drive, application and purpose. Regardless almost of the result, this was a remarkable transformation compared with the festering sore of last month’s apathetic and alienating efforts.

The afternoon also revealed Adebayor’s deluded whinging about how our troubles were due to supporter negativity as the narcissistic self-indulgence it really was. The intoxicating mixture of the young men’s effort and noise from the crowd punctured once and for all the smug complacency behind his comments after the Stoke defeat. Players and managers spend their careers in crowded football grounds yet they never get it. Supporters and players aren’t different breeds. We’re inextricably linked, feeding off the emotional connection between us. This reciprocity isn’t about cause and effect: sometimes they get us going, sometimes we lift them. On the good days you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and this was a very good day. The alchemy created an exhilarating, emotionally charged atmosphere that lifted the spirits of player and supporter alike, in particular aiding a flagging side in the final 10 minutes to resist a series of Everton set-pieces as they searched in vain for an equaliser.

And this is what matters, truly matters, long after the final whistle. Matches, players, seasons come and go, fortune waxes and wanes, but keep the beating heart of a football club pulsing and you have the foundation of future success. The form of even the very best footballers ebbs and flows but if playing in navy blue and white means something to them, deep inside, they can find the strength to overcome adversity.

Heaven knows we’ve waited a long time for Bobby Soldado to score. We’ve gone through disappointment, frustration and anger to sympathy and condolence. Scoring goals on instinct since he was kid, once the flow dried up, he’s had no idea what to do about it. He’s like an old friend who has been through such bad times that you are compelled to look away as you wish him well because the pain in his eyes is too much to take.

So when the moment finally came, what mattered more to him, the billowing of the net or the ecstatic reception from the crowd? It was the noise, the song, the shared joy of a homecoming almost that surely will stay with him, that will mean he’ll give that little bit more when harder times come along. We had not rejected him despite it all. After the genuine celebrations in the corner, he took a long time to walk back to the centre circle, savouring each step, deep in reflection despite the elation all around him. The demons were banished. The half-time whistle blew a few seconds later and he skipped off to the dressing room.

Kane and Bentaleb were outstanding throughout. Kane has been ‘a prospect’ for a few years but I did not think he could come on so swiftly. It’s like a child’s growing spurt – you see them every day yet suddenly they physically and emotionally mature. It’s part of nature but still we are surprised. And pleased.

No pace but his close control was always a threat to an Everton defence whose weakness for backing off proved to be their undoing. Spurs began the game in good order but just as it seemed nothing was going to come from our play, and a goal down by this time, Kane took matters into his own hands and ran at them. Suddenly the back four were exposed. Howard could only push his hard shot to the feet of Eriksen who with care and precision placed the ball into the far corner.

Kane began the match on the right, helping Lennon stifle the dangerous Baines. As the half progressed it became clear Azza was doing a fine job on his own, thank you very much, so Harry could drift in and be more involved. The midfield needed assistance as Everton had the lion’s share of possession – here’s Harry back to help out. Soldado could be isolated on his own but wait, Harry’s there to lend a hand. 50-50 in midfield becomes a Spurs ball because Harry’s in. Defence is suddenly attack, on the break Harry’s set Lennon free for his only run at the defence. On the break he slips Bobby in and the finish across the keeper is just perfect. Later, Barkley’s dangerous in the centre replacing the ineffective Eto, this could be trouble -wait! Harry’s got him. Outstanding.

Bentaleb was a presence throughout. He is always available, keeps the ball moving and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining a decent tempo in our play. That’s the mark of a quality footballer. He too has matured, if not overnight then at the World Cup. In his demeanour he seems 5 years older compared with the end of last season.

Mason had less of an impact but played his part in the most solid midfield of the season. He and Bentaleb sought each other at the end and hugged, mutual congratulations for a job well done. Lennon was excellent, dutifully up and down his wing, less winging and more tackling back it has to be said but goodness knows Chiriches, a mistake waiting to happen, needs all the help he can get. Right-footer on the right, playing well – who knew?

Eriksen did well too, working hard from kick-off. Thought there was a different look in his eyes, more determination. As a unit they excelled, pressing high when required but mostly funnelling back to set up the barricades 40 yards out. Lots of calling to each other, encouragement, where to go, plug a gap. Soldado’s goal was preceded by an equally significant piece of play, where Everton had the ball for an extended period but were forced to go from side to side, unable to find a gap. Pushed back, they lost the ball and Kane did the rest.

We kept our shape and discipline throughout. This helped the back four immeasurably. Davies and Chiriches could tuck in or if they were brought out knew someone would slot in to cover. Vertonghen was clearly inspired by proceedings, visibly growing into the match and dealing with the second half pressure that came at him.

Lamela was the only problem. On for the tired Lennon and clearly given strict instructions to keep the shape, he just couldn’t resist. After a disciplined start, he left his post and charged around committing needless fouls. He could easily have been sent off rather than booked. Baines was livid with him for a couple of tackles and I don’t blame him. This weakness could end his PL career.

Much has been made of Spurs’ conspicuous lack of success on a Sunday following a Europa League fixture but the foundations for this win were laid on Thursday night. Bentaleb, Davies and Lennon had valuable game time while key pairings of Kane and Soldado up front and Fazio and Vertonghen at the back had time to get used to each other.

I’m pleased for the manager that an incredibly brave decision to play Mason and Bentaleb in the engine room came off. Also his preferred set-up needs the forward able to get into the box and drop back, a role Kane fulfilled admirably. It’s a telling indictment of Sunday’s benchwarmers and confirmed that Pochettino does not have the type of midfielder that he wants. The young players listen and respond. Not asking a lot but too much for some, apparently.

Without getting carried away – Chelsea hot favourites tomorrow – there was so much to enjoy on an afternoon that began with a conspicuous lack of optimism in the stands. They found what it takes to be a winning side. Nothing but credit all round.

Since When Does Naughton Take Corners?

Since when does Kyle Naughton take corners? From both sides of the pitch? How come that was the plan? Someone at Tottenham Hotspur sat down, thought this through carefully, maybe even deliberated with others, and came to the decision that a Spurs reserve full-back who seldom looks confident moving forward anyway, should be our deadball specialist for the day.

Sometimes you watch a game and things don’t go well for Spurs, OK, they gave it a go, could have played better but that’s how it goes. Occasionally you see something that is so bewildering, so utterly unfathomable that you have to hit yourself over the head with a tin tea-tray to make sure this wasn’t the hallucinogenic ramblings of a delusional unconscious.

Look – I know Naughton’s corner-taking ability isn’t the thought that’s uppermost in Sherwood’s mind as he reviews this hideous performance. Since the final whistle I’ve tried to come to terms with it. My only conclusion is that is represents the nightmare vision of my repressed subconscious, where every fear I have about the team, hitherto long-buried under alluvial denial, played out before me. Those dreams where you run and run yet find yourself going nowhere. Where you lose control over muscular functions so everything you try fails crazily. Where logic and rationality becomes an Alice in Wonderland parody of reality.

Much of the game held a hazy, dreamlike quality. Vertonghen, a fine centreback, intelligent, quick, tough, a footballer, crashing through with mistimed tackles he was never going to make. Dawson, marooned like a beached whale on the halfway line, stranded and gasping for air. A back four so far apart, they needed binoculars to see each other, so lacking in unity they would have been better off communicating with semaphore. Lennon with some sort of a central free role – but he can’t pass it… Chadli doing, well, not sure what really but he looks good and that’s what counts, apparently. Defensive midfield? Who needs it?

With no intended disrespect to Norwich, who were fully deserving winners, the first half was shocking. The Canaries’ hesitancy was understandable given their perilous league position. Ours was harder to grasp. We had a lot of room and took no advantage. Instead there were bizarre passages of play where both sides struggled to come to grips with the basics of football and passed to opponents, into space, anywhere but to a team-mate.

One time, we took a throw, with caution mind, nothing rushed, and precisely tossed it 10 yards to a Norwich man, who with as much consideration passed it straight back to us, whereupon we gave it to the nearest yellow shirt, all without any pressure on players or the ball. Did I imagine this or had my mango squash been shaman-laced with bad seed?

The match highlights on the Sky red button included only two incidents in the entire half. One was Van Wolfswinkel trying to kick a ball in the box that was eight foot off the ground, the other was Chadli shaping to do a far-post top-corner curler and failing miserably. After Newcastle I guess we’ll have to put up with that every time he plays from now on.

I know this because I missed the very start of the second half as I was still putting the dinner on. Add some celery and carrots to the pan, stuff the chicken with an onion, keeps it moist you see. A lemon will do, then slice the onion in the baking tray. This all takes a fraction longer, long enough for Spurs to give the ball away with the defence stuck upfield. Snodgrass, by far the game’s best player, darted into the inviting gap left by Danny Rose and scored a fine goal. At least my gravy was full of flavour.

We flattered to deceive for a while and were on top without getting very far. We had been unbalanced by Capoue’s injury early in the game, partly because we lost the protection he gives us but mainly because we missed the hard work and promptings of Bentaleb who had to drop back. Throughout we had no tempo, settling early into a dull, monotonous torpor from which we never escaped and that Sherwood was powerless to influence.

Only Dembele tried to shake things up, driving at the defence whenever he could. He dished up a perfect ball to Chadli in the second half but his fellow Belgian shot at the keeper when well-placed. Adebayor kept going but his movement was wasted because he was so far adrift from his team-mates. This was a creativity-free zone. Goodness knows what ran through Eriksen’s mind, watching from the bench. What’s Danish for, ‘are you seriously saying I’m not good enough to get into this team?’

Soldado’s form has plunged into the abyss, resting finally in a subterranean cavern that last saw daylight 300 million years ago before the grinding of tectonic plates contorted tortured sediment into an underground chamber buried beneath the rock until the sun explodes in five billion years’ time. See the way he looks round suddenly? He hears the sound of deformed otherworldly creatures scuttling by.

My pity for his misery is as deep as the chasm that has trapped him. Beyond criticism, I can’t bear to look when he comes on. Such indignity should be a private affair. The commentator had barely finished sucking clean the bones of his Thursday night miss when a rare decent move set him up on the right of the box. His first touch of the game was an outrageous slice impossibly high into the stands. A minute or two later, a close range header skimmed off his forehead without even going in the general direction of the goal. Two perfect chances, and the game, gone.

I feel so deeply, desperately sad. What have we done to him? “Soldado, ohhh oh. He came from sunny Spain, he’s going back again….” He must be on his way in the summer. Bags packed in the hall as we speak, I should imagine. And we all know the consequences if the team’s form continues to deteriorate – who else will join him? For the last few seasons, we have diced with the consequences of thwarted ambition and promises that we cannot keep. We build a side in the knowledge that success may keep it together but also acts as a season-long advertisement.  Berbatov, Carrick, Modric, Bale, all gone but thus far we have tried to replenish the pool of talent.

Now, Vertonghen, Lloris, they won’t hang around, Dembele will be a target for someone, Paulinho has a reputation plus a possible World Cup Winners medal to look forward to. What a waste.

Sherwood has a real challenge to overcome. He has to get a grip and exert a greater influence over the side. Individuals are coming back from injury, it’s true, but Paulinho and Vertonghen have to drive us on and be a presence on the field, while the problems with the inverted wingers that bedevilled AVB’s second season have reared their ugly head in the last two matches. We can’t rely on Manu’s goals all the time.

Watching the last two games on TV, I was struck by how low and worried a few of the players seem – Dawson, Verts, Townsend, Paulinho. It may be nothing but they look as if they are carrying a heavy burden.

Norwich deserved to win. They defended stoutly in the second half and should have scored more. Lloris saved well from one chance while the crossbar is still vibrating from a thundering free-kick. Other chances we got away with.

So what I mean to say is, yeah – it was s**t.

Spurs Embrace The Mediocre In The Europa League Again

Europe used to inspire Spurs. Now it just brings out the mediocre. Since we got back into the Europa League, we’ve never got to grips with the away leg. The mantra is familiar – keep it tight, keep the ball, no need to take any risks – but unfortunately so is our response. We seem desperately compelled to do the opposite, every time. Against Dnipro on an admittedly treacherous pitch, we were wide open at the back and wasteful with the ball. Add some missed chances and all in all, this was another one to forget.

Half-time, one goal down with the home leg to come, could have been worse – all of that. I’m looking forward to next week – with the goal to catch up, there will be expectation and tension under the lights and we will have to go at them. Perfect European conditions, in fact.

There’s nothing of any significance to take from this match except for the fact that it took place at all. Played against a backdrop of violence between protesters and police in the capital Kiev, the expectant faces of the fans were in stark contrast to the images of a government opening fire on its own people that played simultaneously on the evening news as we kicked off. UEFA should have postponed it until next week at a neutral venue. It was incongruous to see supporters in their scarves, cold blue jackets and silly hats, but football has always been an escape from reality. As the camera dwelt on the crowd close-ups, you sensed their minds were elsewhere.

We fielded a strong team and left at home the players who could most do with a break, bar Bentaleb. This young man relishes a challenge but needs a rest, mentally as much as physically and this was a trip too far.

He and Capoue failed in their mission to protect the defence by simply being bypassed by the Dnipro attack. Capoue was nowhere for much of the time. Naughton and Rose strayed as far as they possibly could from the two centre halves, creating inviting space for the strikers. Unfortunately for the Ukrainian team, they suffered a collective loss of muscle control and capability once they got into the box. I can’t recall a series of such feeble finishing efforts over 90 minutes. A couple barely had the velocity to reach the keeper from 12 yards out.

Friedel was excellent throughout. Part of being a keeper is working the percentages. Get the angles right, make it hard for the striker, don’t commit too early, don’t go to ground. hH doesn’t need the spring in his legs to achieve all if that and he presented a formidable barrier throughout the match. I suspect as the game went on, the mere sight of his approach from his line was enough to put off the Dnipro forwards. Without him the result could have been a lot worse.

At the other end we more than had enough chances to settle the tie then and there. In fact, some of the game was enterprisingly open. But we wasted opportunities, usually with a poor final ball or shooting when we should have passed it. Andros, you know you’ve got to sort that out but he was not the only culprit. Townsend looked really shaken when he was taken off. Usually, players on the bench obey the unwritten laws of substituted players – cursory pat on the back/high five, then leave them be. Yesterday, the unused subs looked anxiously along the line as Andros was hunched and lost, praying almost, comtemplating something.

Soldado missed the big one. An uncharacteristically fluent move involving Paulinho and Naughton put him in front of on open goal, a few yards out.  He missed. By a long way. Any sort of goal will change his whole approach and at least he’s working still to take up the right positions, and still for that matter looking heavenwards every time he doesn’t get the pass he expects. Right now, as he shaped to kick the post in frustration, you expected him to miss it.

As the game was petering out, we contrived to set up the winner for Dnipro in a piece of football in keeping with our overall performance. Capoue had three or four players clustered ahead of him at the edge of their box. Clustering is not good but we’ll leave that one. He managed to miss all of them with a ten yard ball, whereupon Dnipro countered. Daws sold himself inside their half when there was no need, Verts was exposed, had no help and brought down the attacker. The penalty was converted.

Can’t shake that lingering sense of betrayal around Ramos. As soon as he arrived, I printed up the t-shirt: We can be heroes, just for Juande.” That’s genius that is. Then he’s gone: wasted, all wasted. Good luck to him and I’m sure he’ll get a ripple next Thursday at the Lane, although Ledley King won’t join in. In a biography as mild as camomile, he’s critical of Ramos’s lack of understanding of the players and the English game, or more precisely of his lack of effort in trying to understand the game, including insufficient preparation for games other than against the big teams. Led sees the good in everyone, so by the standards of the book that’s cataclysmic.

In injury time as we hurriedly pressed for an equalizer, the ball came to Sherwood at the edge of his technical area. Unerringly he sliced it straight into the dugout. You never lose it, son. One to forget for all concerned.