The criticism most often levelled at Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas is his lack of flexibility. He sticks rigidly to his ideas, tactics and formations come what may, so the stroy goes. At this point his more snide detractors add something about clipboards and never having played professional football.
I’ve never fully bought that. Tottenham have tried different formations, although always with a back four, and the permutations have seldom included the classic 4-3-3 that was supposed to be his trademark. He persists with certain players but then again being accused of giving players a chance to prove themselves over a run of games is laudable. When he chops and changes, he gets it in the neck too.
However, his capacity to change will never be tested under as much pressure as over the coming month. How he responds in the nine games of December will define not only this season but the longer-term future of the club. Spurs are slipping down the table, we can’t score and sections of the media will pounce like starving hawks on the slightest sign of weakness. And in our last league match, we were slaughtered.
Early signs are positive. From first to last the team’s attitude was exemplary. They all played for each other and, as ‘we’ is an inclusive pronoun, presumably for the manager too. After the City debacle, what I feared most was a slump in morale but the opposite was the case, with a fighting determination to do the right thing that will see us through if it continues. For long periods we were the better side and imposed our pattern on the game rather than reacting to United. We made the chances too, but missed them when it mattered.
In the end, a deserved point, a pearler from Sandro and the optimism that it could have been more. The result was less important than the performance. This was never the ‘must win’ game that many named it because we have a lousy record against United. This fixture has meant nothing but frustrated hopes and soggy disappointment for a decade or more, so three points are an aspiration rather than a benchmark.
AVB changed the team too, with Lennon on the right and Chiriches at the back alongside Dawson, who looked the most vulnerable of the defenders after last week but I doubt Kaboul is fully fit, or indeed if he will ever be again. The inclusion of Chadli was the most surprising. We’ve seen a bit of him looking ripped and hanging around on the left but little else. He started at Palace and now he’s back after injury so safe to say his manager rates him.
However, some things don’t change. The way the team was given to me, I assumed Dembele was playing further forward – regular readers will know I firmly believe his considerable talents are wasted as a DM. In fact, it was just a random order of the midfielders so there he was, with Paulinho pushed up into an unfamiliar advanced role as the link between striker and the rest of the midfield.
After the early skirmishes Spurs took the game to United. With Paulinho in that advanced role we were better able to press high up the pitch. Dembele got stuck in too and the United midfield never had time to settle, looking dangerous only when the excellent Rooney got on the ball or when Valencia powered towards Vertonghen. The Brazilian enjoyed his work near the box without ever appearing entirely comfortable. He was part of the best move of the game, returning Soldado’s first time ball with a pass of his own that sliced through the defence to give the Spaniard a precious chance deep inside the box. As we’re on the subject of defining moments, as he took aim and without hesitation hit a first time shot, you knew this embryonic goal of the month could resurrect his reputation, silence the doubters and send his flagging confidence sky-high. But into the crowd and the moment had gone.
Still, he played well, encouraged by his manager to adapt to the English game by increasing his movement and work rate. As a result he got on the ball more and played an instrumental role in fashioning our other great chance. Lennon’s shot was saved and from the rebound his perfect cross to the far post found Paulinho hanging back when he stood have been idling near the goal-line for a tap-in.
Paulinho made our opener, Walker slamming home a direct free kick after the Brazilian was fouled at the edge of the box. I like to think we had scouted the fact that the United wall jumps as the kick is taken and that’s why it was a low ball straight at, then through, the wall, rather than a slightly scuffed effort. Positive, that’ the approach…
Walker has been playing better recently. If only he could concentrate for 90 minutes. He seemed surprised a cross came to him and sliced his clearance straight to a grateful Rooney. He put everything into this game and I feel for him even though his howler put United on level terms and back into a match that was at that point slipping out of their grasp. His positioning and body-shape were a tiny bit off and that’s all that is needed for a mistake.
However, that cross would not have come if Dembele had not lost the ball in midfield. His good game was spoilt by repeating this error on several occasions, each time it gave the impetus back to United.
Lennon was outstanding in the first half. Townsend essentially gives us a single angle of attack – Lenny gives us several, going outside like a proper winger or whizzing directly into box in a series of dangerous diagonals. Pleasure to see him do so well.
Walker’s error took the wind from our sails and we were becalmed until half time. We picked up again after the break, then we were lifted by the gale-force blast from Sandro’s right foot, a classic top-right-corner-keeper-rooted-to-the-spot from 25 yards.
And now – an official TOMM apology to referee Mike Dean. When Lloris dived at Welbeck’s feet, I was convinced he reached the ball first. I, like many in the stands. were frankly uncomplimentary about his powers of decision-taking. But I was wrong. Welbeck made the most of it as is the modern way but there’s no defence if the keeper doesn’t touch it. Penalty, and United had both the goal and renewed momentum.
So the lead lasted only three minutes. Mind you, I really enjoyed those 180 seconds, among the best of the year so far, but hey ho.
Spurs performance never recovered but we were steady enough to see it thorugh for a point. The ball shot across our box a couple of times but otherwise we did not look like losing this one. I can’t recall Lloris making a diving save.
Trouble is, perhaps we could and should have done more to win it, and back we come to Villas-Boas’ inflexibility. Both his subs – Defoe Soldado, Townsend for Lennon – were like for like, thus United did not have to confront anything new and uncomfortable. Later that afternoon, his fallen mentor Jose Mourinho turned deficit into victory with his substitutions. Perhaps AVB was legitimately cautious after last week but there were opportunities to change things around with Paulinho remaining on the pitch to the end despite a fading contribution.
Sandro had a good game, dropping back into the back four when necessary to shore up the defence. Dawson tackled and blocked, while Chiriches looks accomplished with timing in the tackle, dare I say it, reminiscent of our dear Ledley. My imagination or did we defend deeper for the most part? I wonder if AVB wants to dump the high line. Interesting to see if that is permanent.
AVB has certainly changed his tactics when it comes to sections of the media, firstly tucking into Alan Sugar’s bid to install Alex Ferguson as his replacement then going on the offensive with journalists like Neil Ashton who interpreted his use of the word ‘we’ in the analysis of the City defeat as meaning that he blamed the players, not himself. Taking on the media is a dangerous game but good luck to him on this occasion at least. It’s a fine line between appropriate assertiveness and outrageous paranoia (see Mourinho, J. and Wenger, A.) but this was the right time to take a stand. More on this later in the week but we think the boy done good.
The dank days and chilly evenings of winter are already with us but right now there is nowhere colder than the chilled marrow of Andre Villas-Boas’s bones. The clocks have long since gone back but for him the long dark night of the soul is fast approaching.
The six goal shambles of defeat against Manchester City violently sucked all meaning and purpose not just from shell-shocked, traumatised players but from everything our manager holds dear. Shape, tactics, motivation, the principles of team-work, the very existence of AVB’s Spurs rendered meaningless and empty. We thought there were solid foundations even if we have not been playing well. In reality, nothing beneath our feet except fresh air. The players had no idea what they were supposed to be doing and neither did their boss.
It started badly, could not have started worse even by Tottenham standards. We kicked off, they scored after 14 seconds. Barely possible but the laws of time and motion shifted just enough for Lloris to fluff a clearance under no pressure, short and straight to an opponent. He saved the shot but Navas curled in the rebound. From then on, the collapse continued, unhindered and without boundaries, the team imploding on itself until like a burnt out star in a far-off galaxy, our performance became a pinprick of the most dense and unresponsive matter in the universe.
The defining period of AVB’s reign has begun. Successive matches versus the Manchester giants were never likely to be profitable but the manner in which he deals with the games between now and the New Year will dictate the outcome of Tottenham’s season and beyond. His methods, challenged by our weakness in attack, will have to withstand the battering of outraged fans and sections of the braying media scenting blood. That’s not to mention the questioning looks from his players.
Faced with massive problems, players and manager seemed incapable of an adequate response. I’m not talking about the subs – the game was lost by the time they appeared – but a fatal lack of recognition that there were any problems. The midfield, flaccid and incoherent from first to last, offered no protection to the back four save for a couple of Sandro tackles. City like to get the ball wide – in Navas they play a genuine winger. yet it never for a moment occurred to anyone to drop back to protect our full-backs. As a result City took full advantage of the wide-open plains down our flanks like lions hunting antelope in the Serengeti.
Many of us want to see Lamela given a chance. Today we saw why Villas-Boas has been cautious. While his free role gave him scope to cut in and appear in unexpected positions, his team-mates did not know what to expect either. He watched and reacted too late when City created a two on one down our left and the cross was turned in. Welcome to the Premier League.
On Sky Hoddle was banging on about shutting the front door, meaning Kaboul should have dropped a yard closer to the six yard box at the near post, but that was shutting the door, front or back, after the horse has bolted. You have to cover – Lennon wasn’t much more use on the other side – and you have to keep the ball. Yet time and again we gave it away, most dangerously when the side had shifted into positions to mount an attack thus leaving us bare and exposed. City took full advantage, with Lloris, our best player this season by far, again the culprit. It wasn’t as if City were playing particularly well. They didn’t have to.
This blog tries to be fair, balanced and consistent. Annoying I know but it’s how I am and as I approach my sixties I’m too old change. So let’s be fair – I was happy with this starting line-up. Lennon for Townsend was brave, given the furore around Andros’s England performances, but the right choice. I was pleased to see Lamela - we have to give him a chance. I would have preferred both Holtby and Dembele, the latter in the advanced midfield role that suits him best, so that leaves only one wide man because City are so strong in midfield. Kaboul back, definitely, and Sandro of course. But not so different from AVB’s choice.
It’s what they did that was so poor. Wandering wide men gave the flanks no protection. Paulinho and Holtby were too far forward too often. Neither contributed a thing to this match. Paulinho’s starting position should have been deeper. You have to defend against City by denying them space and he’s able to get forward when the moment is right. He and Sandro could make a fine partnership but he was too far forward. If he stays back, there’s time and manpower to move across and cover, i.e. to provide the very platform that Lamela and Lennon need to be at their best.
Fact is, he is knackered and bewildered, worn out after his exertions coming straight to the under pressure Tottenham midfield after the Confederations Cup. He needs a rest. Send him back to Brazil for a couple of weeks, he’s no use to us now and we’ll need him fresh in the New Year.
Soldado got barely a sniff. It seemed to me that in the few moments in the first half when we approximated a football team he was moving more, both deeper and laterally. Or maybe that was hope playing tricks on my eyes. He depends on being the given the ball. If AVB is trying to find the right formation for him and the team, that is worthy of some patience. What worries me is something worse, that he sanctioned the purchase in the conviction that he knew how to play to his strengths and that what we have seen so far this season is the failure of that plan. Which begs the question, what the hell is he going to do now? And that’s why I’m worried, not just a striker failing to spark but a squad composed of players who do not do the job they were bought to do.
And so to the back four. Kaboul, my first choice but rusty. Dawson a fine warrior but all at sea today. Stranded in midfield for City’s fourth goal as a simple one two with a runner from midfield took him out of the game, worse was to come when he simply left his man unmarked. Standing near him, he did nothing. Vertonghen, unhinged by what was going on around him, nearly got himself sent off for a reckless sliding challenge. His mind was gone long before his weak and inept challenge let Navas in for the sixth. Was it just the defeat playing on his mind, as he’s a serious, proud professional, or was he wondering why the best centre half in the Premier League is playing at full-back?
George Graham’s classic drill for the back four was to get them to imagine they were tied together by a piece of rope. In Spurs’ case, it’s elastic. They wandered as if strangers on a ramble, occasionally surprised but pleased as they bumped into each other, but mostly going their own sweet way. Negredo and the fabulously lethal Aguerro don’t need the help we gave them but they revelled in the gaps between our defenders.
I have no desire to kick a man when he’s down but this was AVB’s worst effort as manager. City have a four man midfield and yet we allowed them to outnumber us and paid dearly for the consequences. My sympathy to the loyal Spurs who went that far for this stinking detritus, and if it is any consolation we could hear you singing loud and clear until the end.
If things could possibly be worse, consider one final thought. Last season, Villas-Boas succeeded in getting his message and methods through to the players. Motivation has been good, team-spirit similarly. That will be called in question after this, not just by fans or media but inside the club itself. Heads went down. I’ve already mentioned how the players did not know how to react. This is why this defeat will gnaw away at confidence and belief. Like I said, tonight will be a long dark night for our Andre.
If I were you Andros my friend, I’d pop down the bookies and bet on every 100-1 shot, buy a lottery ticket (you’ll only need one) and nip into the casino on the way home. When you’re hot, you’re hot and Andros my boy, you are currently smoking. If Townsend ever again has a couple of weeks anywhere near as good, we Spurs fans are in for a treat. A sensation for England and yesterday the crucial opening goal, a cross rather than a shot at that. Give Scarlett or Mila a bell when you have a moment, it can’t go wrong.
Spurs deserved this win against Aston Villa without ever reaching top form. After a frantic opening, the game settled into a flat, monotonous pattern, all effort but little guile or inspiration. Just as our performance was in danger of spiralling down the plughole, Townsend’s goal lifted the spirits and crucially the tempo. From then on, Spurs stayed on top save for the period around the hour when Villa talisman Benteke came on. The earth shook and defenders’ nerves trembled as he leapt then fell to the ground, vainly trying to convert a series of dangerous crosses. Narrowly wide on a couple of occasions, the ball went safely by the woodwork and that was essentially that. Spurs’ second, delightfully set up by Holtby and Paulinho, finished by Soldado in style, may have been a rare instance of incisive creativity but it put us out of sight. Again it came at just the right moment, effectively extinguishing hopes of a home revival. From then until the final whistle, the momentum stayed with Spurs.
Townsend won the man of the match award. Undeniably he played well, contributing throughout and running rampant in the last 15 minutes when he had more space as Villa pushed forward in search of a goal. However, our Brazilian central midfield (I can’t believe I’ve written that about a Spurs side, think I’ll type it again), our Brazilian midfield made a telling contribution to victory. Sandro was the unobtrusive powerhouse, loping across in front of the back four to sweep up the danger and provide a platform for our more creative players. Paulinho was industry and application from first until last. He was always available for his team-mates, made a series of telling runs into the box (missing a great headed chance from close in to make it three near the end) and his energy kept the ball moving when Spurs were in danger of falling into the torpor of a slumbering first half.
Last night on twitter Townsend modestly said his award should rightfully be Sandro’s, a rare and interesting insight into the mind of the professional who knows that the dribbles and runs are not possible without foundations of graft and effort, without someone to get the ball back when it has been lost. It was heartening to see the Brazilian’s return. He looked fully fit and determined to play both for a win and for his place in the side. It’s something I advocated in last week’s blog and so it proved. Paulinho began the game alongside him but was able to get further forward as the match settled into a pattern. In the second half in particular he supported Soldado as well as asserting his authority in midfield. This central axis proved decisive yesterday: it has to be the way forward.
After a busy first few minutes, Spurs allowed the tempo to fall and with it the standard of performance. We have to shift the ball around quickly to be at our most effective. Agbonlahor missed early on then Villa posed few dangers. Spurs were lacklustre, giving the ball away too easily and clumsy in our distribution from the back with our opponents’ main efforts coming from our mistakes.
Then Townsend’s goal, an inswinging left-footed cross that Soldado and Holtby both missed at the near post but occupying keeper Guzan’s attention so the ball floated in at the far. It was fortunate in some ways but the quality of the ball created that indecision and the sight of two Spurs players attacking the ball in the box augers well for the future.
Soldado’s goal, his first in the league from open play, was a beauty, calmly converting a well-worked set-up. With the ball at his feet in the box, in a trice he was a player transformed. Upright, calm, in control of the ball and everything around him, it was a moment of high class finishing. He’s busy up front, not a target man but the target for crosses and balls into channels. He waits, that’s what he does, and so we have to be patient and give him the ball in those areas. He can do the rest.
Holtby did well, staying involved and he has both the eye for an angled pass into channels and a left foot to deliver. He deserves a run in the side. While it was good to see Chiriches make his debut, Vertonghen left too many openings in the second half and did not have a strong match. he needs a rest on Thursday. Daws was involved in a couple of shaky moments but won his share of challenges. Pleased to see Lennon scampering enthusiastically onto the field like a puppy out for his first walk.
Overall, a win we earned and, glancing back at last week’s piece, some early signs that Villas-Boas understands more about what might constitute his best side.
That Erik Lamela, seems like a nice boychick. Needs to fill out a bit but a lovely touch, easy on the eye with the ball at his feet and a flowing stride that whets the appetite. More please, but I’m not sure when, not in the League at least.
So how about our Andros then? Our policy of loaning out young players to gain experience has paid dividends, although using England as our feeder club is a little cheeky. Hearty congratulations to him on two fine, eye-catching performances for the national side. Particularly impressive was the way he mixed it up, going outside to cross right-footed as well as cutting in, knocking the ball short to keep possession if he could not make any headway (rather than trying a futile dribble) and his link-up play with Rooney and others up front.
I don’t want to rain on his parade or pee on his bonfire when I add that for us, it’s not worked as well. Against West Ham he ran into brick walls and blind alleys, unwilling or unable to go wide and cross with his right foot, while Chelsea turned the match in their favour by targeting our right-hand side. In the end, Townsend was substituted.
It’s stating the bleedin’ obvious to say that the Premier League is different. Lamela and Townsend have different styles and are at different stages of their development but both face the same issue. They have little to space in which to operate and any defensive shortcomings will be ruthlessly exploited. Also, the Wham game will become a template for how to play against us.
As Villas-Boas struggles to create the best blend from the riches at his disposal, he has to get that balance right, not just for these two young men but for the team as a whole. More bleedin’ obvious: the side needs time to bed in. It takes a while before players can settle. Most of the new signings are young, although Eriksen and Lamela have already played for years outside their home countries. The singular demands of the Premier League are by no means insurmountable but they exert considerable physical and mental pressure. Add to that the fact that Villas-Boas has yet to decide his best side and the question becomes not whether they need time but how much time is reasonable?
Hardly part of the Spurs pantheon but Steve Hodge always sticks in my mind. Signed from Forest, he made an immediate impact when he arrived only to fade into obscurity as his influence dwindled away to nothing. I mention this only because his experience was unusual. The vast majority of players give of their best after many months or typically in their second year. I’m including most of the best here: Ardiles, Mabbutt, Waddle, Sheringham, Bale. Not everyone fits the bill – Gough and Lineker hit the ground running – but although it is an obvious point, it tends to get lost in these days of media hype and inflated expectation. Players need time and fans need to be patient.
So maybe a year is reasonable, not to peak but to significantly raise the level of influence a player has. We probably haven’t got that but our buying policy is based around playing the long game, with developing talent able to take us to the level of contenders but, crucially, with room to improve still further. Holtby, Lamela, Paulinho, Sandro, Chadli, Eriksen, these are the imports who fit the bill, with Townsend and Rose as home-grown talent. Lloris, Dembele and Vertonghen have their best years ahead of them.
Sounds good but there is frustration in store. The media will severely scrutinise any weakness as a sign of failure. Having built us up to title contenders after our good start to the season, anything less than that will be deemed by them as failure. The narrative has been created even though it was false in the first place – I would be amazed if we got near the league title this year.
The issue for supporters is different. For us, we can see the potential and desperately want the success we crave after so many years of loyalty and unfulfilled dreams. It’s the what-might-be that gets us, every time and there is so much to look forward to here.
So what to do? In this next phase of the season, Villas-Boas has to let loose the skill and creativity he has invested in. I follow the tactics discussions a little and like to think I can grasp most of it. Basically however, in the Premier League you need to get enough players back to defend and enough to get forward. Easy, huh? You need quick, flexible and versatile players. Check – we have that in abundance. The formation itself is less significant than players having an awareness what’s going on around them, to know when to get forward and when to hold back. Check – we should be able to do that.
Back to Lamela and Townsend – either they (and Chadli, Siggy or Lennon) learn to work harder and track back or you sort out the rest of the team to give them some cover. We have played most of the season in a 4-2-3-1 with one of the DMs getting forward to support an attack if there is room, the wide players in the three cutting in and width coming from the full-backs. Who would have thought the return of Danny Rose would ever be so anticipated? One of the key elements of our balance disappears without him.
At home I’m inclined to have one DM to enable another in a further advanced position to ensure we dominate that area and support Soldado in the box. Attacking full-backs should be extras – they can join the attack later, the second phase so to speak, or break from deep on the counter with others staying back to cover. With their first thought a defensive one, hanging back gives the midfield more freedom to get forward. Siggy has done well but I would give others a go. Holtby in particular looks raring to go. Townsend will have more freedom and Lennon is waiting in the wings. Soldado needs crosses – I think he tends too far towards the near post and should remain more central in the box. This positioning is even more important if we have left-footers on the right and right-footers on the left. The near post is less profitable for strikers in this set-up as crosses curl to the back post or the centre.
At centre-back, Kaboul’s absence worries me. if fit, he should replace Dawson. In reality, I am worried that he will never recover his pace and strength that was so formidable. Chiriches needs game time, and the upcoming round of the Europa League and League Cup is perfect. We must rotate. So far playing a strong team has put us in a good position and allowed the team to play together. Before Christmas, many need a rest.