Spurs’ Spirit Rises In Portugal

Was that the smoke from flares drifting across Benfica’s Estadio da Luz or incense accompanying the incantation of the last rites of Tottenham Hotspur’s Europa League campaign? 3,000 Spurs fans turned up for the wake but in truth this was a passing that was little lamented. The EL has a remarkable ability to suck the joy out of the game of football for both fans and players. Like poor Walter Williams in downhome Mississippi, the 2013-14 campaign was pronounced dead and safely zipped up in a body bag when astonishingly signs of life were detected.

Two late goals from nowhere and a penalty denied could, should have seen us into extra time in a tie where until then we had been second best. It was a pleasure to feel disappointed. It proved that the anomie and apathy created over the last few months or so was merely superficial. Back in the game and suddenly the heart beat fast again.

This makeshift team had toddled along nicely enough, plenty of energy and application without ever looking like making a breakthrough, save for one chance badly fluffed by Soldado. A goal and Spurs were transformed. We scored two, could have had two more plus that penalty. A rousing final fifteen minutes showed fans and players alike that we could go for it. Delight in that disappointment. Maybe these days being grateful for small mercies is more the size of it. Whatever, it was fun while it lasted and we could do with some fun.

Let’s stick with the fun part. Chadli had played down the middle. At least he had run around a bit. With Kane on to replace a toiling Soldado, the Belgian was set free! Free to be the man he has always wanted to be!! Yeh, he moved to the left, where he looks much more comfortable. First effort was the right footer into the opposite top corner, which after his belter in the dying moments of the Newcastle game he is now contractually obliged to attempt. It dribbled ineffectually into the keeper’s arms.

Next one was very different. He drove towards the box and this right footer, low this time, curled away from the keeper into the side of the net.

A few minutes later, Lennon stood up a lovely far post ball for Kane to head back. Chadli pounced, ungainly contact but obeyed the basic law of a striker, get it on target. Benfica fell apart. They weren’t used to this from a Spurs side they thought they had caged in docile captivity. Lennon should have found his man when deep in the box, this from a stunning weighted ball inside the full-back from the excellent Bentaleb. Kane was pushed over from behind in the box, surely, certainly a penalty to everyone save the three officials in close proximity. Siggy heading a far-post cross too softly – great chance! Never thought I’d be writing about any might-have-beens in this article.

I had anticipated most of the action being at the other end but in fact after carelessly running out of centre halves and finding the shops were closed, our makeshift back-four did very well. Fryers responded to the pressure but credit to the full-backs Naughton and Rose for cutting out the supply of crosses. Benfica were restricted to only a single on-target goal attempt, their goal where the lack of cohesion at centreback showed. Garay got between the two of them to power a header past Friedel.

However, Spurs did not cave in and applied themselves throughout. Benteleb responded positively to being a deeper lying midfielder with the dual responsibility of breaking up the Benfica attacks and starting our own. Given a fraction more room than our players had in the first leg, he made good use of it, starring in that final frantic last 15 minutes with three stunning passes. A prospect indeed.

Siggy did his Tigger thing in the middle (Tiggy?), bouncing around energetically. Two wide men, Lennon and Townsend, but we could have made more of the width. Soldado on his own up front, hacked a great first half opportunity into the ground and over. He could have shot, he could have rolled it across the goal, he certainly and inexplicably had the time to make up his mind, but instead another bad miss. No chance of his confidence rising. Poor man-management to leave him stranded after scoring versus Cardiff.

Sherwood chose to spend the entire game in the Director’s Box. I understand this was his choice – he wasn’t banned – following his spat with Jesus at WHL. Odd – what exactly was he afraid of? That he couldn’t keep his temper under wraps? That he would look weak if he went in for more gilet-throwing? It drew attention to himself. His team needed him and he was a long way away from them. He didn’t sit next to Levy either. Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought I saw him smile and wave on the way out just before the match ended. On the way to a defeat – not the way to go. He made sure he was seen, though.

Tim made his way down to the Spurs fans after the game and fair play to him. His side showed spirit and focus in defeat. The last-kick-of-the-game penalty conceded by a tired Sandro made it a draw on the night. ITV anchor Matt Smith described it as “a moral victory of sorts”. Not even a moral victory then, talk about faint praise. For us, it was a relief and pleasure to see the players work hard for each other and for the team. That they so nearly pulled off an improbable comeback is a bonus.

Tim Throws His Gilet, Spurs Throw Away The NLD

An age ago, or so it seems, Spurs beat Ars***L at the White Hart Lane with a scintillating performance of power, commitment and creativity. It feels so distant and far away, so much time has passed, so much has changed, that dinosaurs must have walked the earth but chipping away at layers of sediment to reveal the fossilised remains of what’s left of this victory, I found the true date. March 3rd last year.

I had to check. I actually searched Tottenham On My Mind to confirm that we did indeed beat them 2-1 under Villas-Boas. Towards the end of this defeat, some of our football had been dug up from another era, aimless long-balls forward. Worst thing about it, many were grateful that at least we showed some spirit and desire. Meanwhile, Tim looks like he came out without a hankie.

This was our best effort for a while, a dubious accolade. We were well on top in the second half and had the chances to at least get a point. The crowd were right behind the team and the atmosphere was something like a proper NLD. Ars***l created little during this period but scrape away the surface of the hope and excitement, they were more comfortable than the possession and territory stats suggest. We simply did not stretch them enough or pose enough problems, especially through the middle where Eriksen should have been given a greater central role.

One factor of consistency is our unerring ability for self-inflicted pain. At kick-off we pressed forward eagerly. Too much so. Sandro’s cross-field ball was blocked. Caught high unfield instead of hanging back to ensure nothing went wrong early, he couldn’t even bring Rosicky down. The Gunners counterattacked ruthlessly. The back four’s high line was shot to pieces. Rosicky’s match-winning shot was unstoppable but he should never have been allowed anywhere near the goal. The game lost after 70 seconds. From then on in, it was all uphill.

It could have been worse. The Ox as I am now contractually obliged to call him had better get some shooting practice in before he goes to the World Cup although I was grateful that he was high and wide on two or three occasions.

More changes in formation and personnel for a Spurs team crying out for some stability. I don’t like Townsend on the right but he did well, giving us width and pace that our opponents found hard to handle. On the other flank, Eriksen came inside leaving Rose to do well one on one with Sagna. We should have used that more. Sandro hung back in centre midfield, Bentaleb tried to keep the ball moving with Chadli in an indeterminate central role further forward.

The fact that many on twitter say this was his best game for us says more about the rest than it does about his quality in this one. He neither got close enough to the excellent Adebayor or offered any threat of his own in the first half, while tracking back is clearly beneath a man of his showpony status. Oxlade Chamberlain’s break and missed chance led to a furious exchange between Spurs players with even Bentaleb having a go at the Belgian, still strolling back in the sunshine. I may be becoming obsessed. This morning in an e-mail, instead of writing ‘child’ I wrote ‘chadli’. Twice.

For a time we struggled to play it forward. More arguments as the receiving player complained about the pass under pressure. Vertonghen was nearly caught a few times. One was instructive, though – with 10 Spurs players ahead of him, he did not have a single pass available. No wonder he shrugged as if to say, ‘what am I supposed to do?’

To their great credit, the Spurs players came out with fire in their bellies for the second half and in taking the game to the gunners found some weaknesses. Ars***l were pushed further and further back towards their own goal and their counter-attacks became sporadic. Adebayor did an outstanding job of taking on their defence single-handedly, dashing from side to side, rushing back to pick the ball up and trying to link with team-mates but he still did not receive enough support in close order to take full advantage of the crosses that were raining in. Most came from the right where Townsend had a good game despite having to use his right foot more than he or I would have preferred.

Naughton did well in support, maintaining a decent accuracy rate with a series of balls into the box but his impact on the game and on our season could have been so much greater. Szczensy fluffed one but Chadli wasn’t strong enough to capitalise. Moments later, however, another error left the Belgian with an open goal and the ball at his feet but Chadli’s uncertainty eventually meant a poorly judged shot straight at a covering defender. The crowd bellowed their derision. A golden chance not just to equalise but to galvanise a Tottenham team that so desperately needs something, anything, to be proud of, but the moment was gone and with it the chance of winning the game.

Despite the set-back, Spurs kept pressing. We dominated possession and territory but this was always a game where chances would be hard to come by and had to be taken. Adebayor, falling sideways, just missed with a header and Chadli, again, failed to get much of a touch on a cracking low near-post cross.

Siggy and Paulinho came on to boost the midfield for the final 20 minutes. In fact, the move served only to dissipate our momentum and the Gunners dealt easily enough with the rest. The crosses were plentiful but now coming not from the byline but from deep – heading practice for their centre-backs. This was a throwback to the 90s, all long ball, craning of necks and straining muscles and sinews in the box. Even that we didn’t do properly. Manu took them on alone. Chasing the game, Soldado did not appear until the 82nd minute, Lennon not at all when it was clear our opponents were weakest on the flanks. If the long-ball and crosses are a plan, so be it but at least commit fully.

To be fair, going with a midfield four is fatal versus Ars***l, hence some justified caution, but a goal down with 15 munutes to go, we were narrow and needing a goal when our best opportunities were created from wide positions.

Kaboul and Sandro finally looked as if they had shaken the stiffness caused by many months on the treatment table. I have been planning to pay off my mortgage by betting on Sandro being booked in each game but he let me down by finally in the second half having the pace and therefore the confidence to stay on his feet to resist a challenge.

Lloris had little to do but made one lightening-fast stop low to his right from a header at a corner. Naughton had a good game all round. In addition to his crossing and support for Townsend he defended well.

I doubt this pre-match protest meant much. In Saturday’s piece in the aftermath of the Benfica defeat, I expressed my continued strong misgivings about the way Sherwood is managing the team. He’s forgotten that his early success came about because he kept things relatively familiar and reassuringly brought out the strengths of his men. Since then, he chops and changes formations and personnel every game. He seems bewildered and frustrated that his message is not getting through when in fact it merely shows his immaturity as a leader, blaming his players and simply failing to grasp the fact that what looks good on the tactics board is hard for players to adjust to.

Last week in one of his now daily communications in the media, he was proud that he speaks without thinking. In no other profession would that be seen as anything other than a fatal weakness for a leader. For those of you keen to have a manager that shows his emotions, I hope Tim proves to you that you need more than histrionics to manage a Premier League team.

A public service announcement: on Saturday I made a disparaging remark about The Bloke Behind Me at the Benfica game (it was actually very restrained – he was a complete embarrassment to his whole family). I have been asked to point out by The Bloke Who Usually Sits Behind Me that he missed this game and so the piece does not refer to him. At least he reads this…

Spurs Suffer As Sherwood Gets Desperate

At times this season, the hurt has been excruciating. Destroyed 6-0 by City in what was billed as a clash of title contenders, only three and bit months ago. Shipping more goals at home to the same opponents, kept it to five this time. Liverpool felt like having your spleen removed without anesthetic with only the precision of their surgical incisions to dull the pain.

The saddest and worst for me, though, occurred on Thursday evening. For an extended period at the end of the first half, Benfica corralled Spurs deep inside our own half, trapped in the fattening pen awaiting slaughter. We had no idea how to escape. We tried to go forward but found no way through the tight, eager and superbly organised midfield, We played it from side to side at the back. All that brought were a series of dangerous passes created by the pressure and the sight and sound of Vertonghen ferociously berating Kaboul and Naughton.

In the end we resorted to the long ball game. Even then we couldn’t do that properly. Adebayor flailing did his best but aside from a couple of headers from Kane, we got no one anywhere near him in case we got a knock-down. In the second half, Paulinho was pushed further forward, presumably to link with Manu and Kane. All this meant was that he saw even less of the ball than he did in the first half, thus approaching a number close to absolute zero.

Spurs were out-classed. The game proved, if any proof were needed, how far away from Champions League quality we are. Benfica have a group of talented players but the gulf in class was shown in teamwork. They were a team, we were 11 individuals. They hunted in packs, moving up, down and across the pitch in unison when they lost the ball and supporting each other they had it. We had a couple of failed one-twos, two players working together, not even three let alone a team.

The Bloke Behind Me ripped Sandro for a weak tackle. The referee gave a free-kick for an over-vigorous challenge. That’s the difference between the PL and Europe, right there. The team may or may not be trying – I think the players were committed on Thursday but there’s an alternative view, I grant you. But fist-pumping get-stuck-in rhetoric, whether it comes from row 15 on the Shelf or Tim Sherwood, is nowhere near enough. Problem is, the TBBM left early, Sherwood’s our manager but that is all he’s got.

Tim reverted to a familiar 4-4-2 ish formation with Vertonghen back in the centre of the defence, Walker and Naughton at full-back and Sandro and Paulinho in centre midfield. Paulinho was encouraged to take up more advanced positions, to be joined by Eriksen coming in off the left and Lennon wide right. Kane came in to play off Adebayor but does not have the talent either to support Manu in the box or link midfield and the striker.

You could see what Sherwood was thinking. Spurs were at home and had to try to take the game to our opponents. However, the inherent vulnerabilities were soon exposed. After a brisk start Benfica dominated midfield because we were outnumbered. To combat this, we needed width. Indeed, Lennon was our best attacking option with a couple of classic twinkling winger-type runs on the outside. Then he stopped. Came inside all the time. Didn’t link with Walker just when we needed to spread the play and have a go at them. This was compounded on the other side where we had no width at all because Eriksen was coming inside and anyway he’s not a wide player. Eriksen provided some flickers of creativity and should have been moved there in the second as Paulinho did nothing, but that was another missed opportunity.

Once Benfica got our measure, they controlled the game. Their first was a fine goal, lots of room between Vertonghen and Naughton, torn between dropping back but tempted forward by his opposite number drifting deep, but ruthlessly exploited by a delightful pass from deep and an equally fine finish.

We had a couple of opportunities right at the beginning of the second period. Adebayor missed – was he offside, I couldn’t see? And that was that. No 2014 Spurs performance is complete without some self-inflicted agony. Ironic given their superiority but the second and third both came from set-pieces. Both were unnecessary - Kane caught with the ball deep in his own half then Naughton conceding a free-kick. Both were as a result of poor marking. Their centre half rose free like a bird to head in number two, then banged in a loose ball for the third. Adebayor was deputed to mark their most dangerous header of the ball. bad mistake – he was nowhere on both.

This Spurs week has been conducted to a backdrop of Sherwood moaning. I see no reason to alter what I said over the weekend. Managers do not openly and consistently criticise their players in the media. There’s a reason for that. It doesn’t work. he may be right, he may be wrong but that’s not the question. The conundrum he has to solve is how to get the players to play better.

He clearly has a keen tactical mind. However, the constant changing of tactics has prevented the players from forming any cohesion or consistency. They need time to bed down. Sherwood is making substantial changes each and every game. The managers that do that, and there are very few, do so only after they have been with their team for a long time, they understand the players and the players can cope with the changes because they are confident. In the other words the total opposite of the situation at Spurs.

Tim says he’s trying to motivate, weed out the deadwood. but everyone knows he won’t be around in the summer. The players have no incentive to respond therefore. Sherwodd wants to get at the players, to make them harder. But people are people, they are individuals, they respond to different ways of being managed. He showed Adebayor he cared, and Manu responded magnificently. Not the others, then?

This piece from the Guardian shows Tim has form. It’s a series of examples from his own career about how he has not learned man-management lessons. Tim has a career ahead of him as a manager. What he’s doing at Spurs smacks of a job application. Tough, hard-man manager, licks players into shape, understands tactics, brings on the youngsters. A good CV for the lower leagues, then he can work his way up. he’s good mates with the Swindon chairman, look out for a west country move.

And he will do well, but it is not right for our club. That’s what I care about. This has all gone horribly wrong. It’s like Sherwood has compressed the first five years of management into a few months. Start by taking over and  settling the team down – familiar, straightforward tactics, get the best from the players, keep them happy. Try something different, new tactics. Some of it comes off. Then things go wrong. More changes, doesn’t work, more changes. Start blaming the players. This isn’t about Tim, it’s about the club and our club is a laughing stock.

Grab a bagel on the way home, see the TV. Jermaine Jenas is the pundit pontificating on our club. Can we get any lower? We may find out tomorrow.

Spurs Lose It, Tim Loses It, I’m Next

I have seen Spurs lose many, many matches in the fifty years I have supported them but even after all that time they can still come up with something new. 12 hours on, my jaw is still brushing the floor. Truly remarkable.

In a gloriously messy, drab first fifty minutes, Tottenham held the Blues and did some good stuff of our own.  Then we imploded, and when we go, we go. It’s not quite what I had in mind when I wrote Tottenham On My Mind’s tagline but boy did we cock up in style on this one.

Tactics, formations, players’ abilities? Nah. How about falling over? First goal: Vertonghen, no pressure, nil nil, near halfway, falls over. But that’s not enough. Oh no. In recovering he passes the ball 25 yards straight to their striker at the edge of the box.

Third goal: Sandro, in the box, nobody beside him, falls over. Fourth: Walker, no pressure, the most thoughtless, mindless back header you could ever wish never to see in your life. In between, the penalty that never was. 4-0.

Time was when we contrived to find inventively different ways of losing to Ars***l. Not enough it seems. Now the indignity has stretched out to Che***a and WHam too. Only our biggest London rivals. There must be some reward for such creativity. This performance is a shoe-in for the British Comedy Awards. Best Slapstick. I didn’t watch it but for sure the MOTD closing goal montage was to the Benny Hill theme.

Sherwood’s post-match warm-down was no doubt to kick in the dressing-room door, smash everything in the physio room then head-butting a new window in the dressing-room, pausing only to toss a Molotov cocktail of abuse into the team then quickly shutting the door to emerge, both stirred and shaken, to meet the media. The worst performance of the season provoked the interview of the season. “Lack of characters…too many of them too nice to each other….need to show a bit more guts…not be someone’s mate all the time” and most tellingly “some you can rely on, some you can’t.”

Such an open and scathing indictment of his players is rare in the modern game but rather than a refreshing blast of honesty, it comes over merely as symbolic of the disarray and disharmony that characterises Tottenham Hotspur from top to bottom at the moment.

Those comments should have been kept in the dressing room. I have no doubt that some deserve a 3 stage Saturn V with extra boosters up their pampered posteriors. Doing so in public and in this manner makes things worse – if that is conceivable. He may well be right – it chimes with the lacklustre, moody recent efforts of Vertonghen and Paulinho to name but two – but he’s a manager not a pundit. His job is to get Tottenham Hotspur FC playing to the very best of their ability. His comments were more than having a go about lousy football, they were personal. The question is not whether he is right or wrong, it’s whether the players will play for him between now and the end of the season. All he’s done is tell them he doesn’t trust them, so why bother?

One answer to that is professional pride, another is you play for the shirt. Both are true. However, the reality is, most of us respond best to people not concepts. Think of your own work. No doubt you do a decent job and take pride in your work but what makes you pull out that extra bit of effort and up the quality, to go the extra mile, is the personal touch. You’re doing it for the person, not the job description, the company memo, the name on the office door or the mission statement in reception. That’s how people are motivated. If I behaved that way towards my staff, I would not expect them to respond positively.

We need a massive pick-me-up. That’s a cold shower plus a bucket of rubbish over the head. In theory it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Sherwood’s comments show his lack of leadership experience under this sort of pressure. There’s a reason why you never hear the top managers talking like that in public. Goodness knows I detest the bland platitudes we get post-match but there’s a reason for that.

This said more about Sherwood’s feelings than anything else. I’m sure he was intensely frustrated. That was nothing compared with the fury of fans. No doubt we would all have liked to give them a piece of our mind after that flailing capitulation. White shirts? White flags more like. But Sherwood is the manager, not a fan. Very different.

These comments show his frustration went from simmering to boiling point, and not just about this defeat. In yesterday’s Guardian he said he had not got the credit he deserved for Spurs’ good record since he took over. Again, it’s not about him, it’s about how well the team does. Regarding the tough month ahead, Sherwood remarked that, “We’re not frightened by it, we’re looking forward to it…we’ve got players who want to play in big games..” So yesterday morning they were ready and up for it, by yesterday evening their characters had dramatically changed apparently. Which is it?

When Sherwood signed for Spurs as a player, I was delighted because a midfield organiser was precisely what we need at the time. And that’s what he did, organise. The actual playing and influencing the game that way, not so much. His defining image for me is of a figure pointing but not doing. He was in the right, others weren’t dancing to the same tune and it’s an image that comes to mind in the aftermath of this sorry effort.

Also, there’s an argument to say that his players did play for him until Vertonghen’s catastrophic error. Players were out of position playing in yet another formation, yet they responded willingly, keeping Chelsea bogged down in a turgid slow-motion swamp of a first half. It was dull but valuable, especially after two errors by Dawson, presumably one of the men Sherwood can trust, in the first four minutes, one an intercepted long ball, another being stranded out of position, let the Blues in. Luckily they missed, Hazard turning the ball high and wide with the goal open.

The formation felt like it was the product of the tactics board. Walker at right midfield in front of Naughton, Lennon in the middle (where under Jol he surprised Chelsea once upon a time. We went 3-1 up, he scored, we drew 3-3. Inevitably). and the link with Adebayor. However ill at ease they sometimes appeared, it largely worked and credit to Sherwood for that. Predictably Walker, whose positional sense is all over the place at the best of times, was, well, all over the place but he and Naughton made our right-hand side secure. The plan was to stop Chelsea’s through balls at source and we pressed hard and tangled them up.

We managed some decent possession too and pushed men into the box in good numbers as the half went on without creating many clear-cut chances. Bentaleb made then wasted the best of them, shooting wide when three begged for the cross. Kaboul headed over and Sandro’s well-taken first time shot momentarily conjured memories of his piledriver a couple of years ago, but Cech saved well.

The neutrals could either bemoan the quality of the PL or have a pre-dinner snooze but so far so good as far as I was concerned. The second half began in the same vein. Then oh calamity. Vertonghen had space and time, hesitated, turned and fell over. Eto was alert and scored efficiently as Lloris came out. Not an excuse but it seemed as if there was no forward ball on for Verts as he looked up when he first got possession therefore he turned back in on himself.

Almost straight away, Eto spun to the floor in the box with Kaboul just behind him at an awkward angle. Kaboul was saying ‘I didn’t touch him’ as the ref raised red and for once a player may have had a point. Harsh and hard to take but the cross would not have come in if Naughton had not, for once, missed the run of the attacker who got in behind him. Suddenly it had all turned spursy.

Again to our credit, we pulled ourselves together to some extent, helped by the Blues’ plan to keep the game quiet and win that way. No doubt still anxious about the threat of men coming off wide positions, Sherwood kept the full-backs the same rather than dropping Walker back right and switching Naughton left. Sandro became the makeshift centre-half. Chelsea were strolling but it looked like we could limit the damage.

Instead, we took our capacity for self-inflicted punishment to new heights. A ball into the box, Sandro running towards his own goal as he has done successfully so many times as a DM, with no one on him, just fell over. Ba tucked in the gift. Straight away, Walker headed towards his own goal from miles out. Demba Ba looked almost embarrassed to touch it in. Not even top of the table in the pub league. Thus the comedy of errors denied us even the self-righteous comfort of being hard-done by in defeat. Little comfort in being a laughing stock.

Sherwood is learning fast. He has some good ideas and I’m sure he will be a successful manager in the future. This ghastly dark comedy in fact tells us only what we already know. A manager with absolutely no experience in the role is not able to handle the pressure of being near the top of the Premier League. Daniel Levy should not have given him the job. Once offered, who could blame him for accepting but that’s irrelevant.

Also, everyone knows his is a caretaker role only. The players therefore lack the long-term desire to play for him because regardless of what Tim does and does not do, someone else will along in the summer. Not Sherwood’s fault either. The most gaping self-inflicted wound of all is allowing ourselves to be in this mess in the first place, and that is the fault of the chairman, not the manager.

My sincere condolences to the family and friends of Darren Alexander, the joint chair of the Supporters Trust, who died suddenly on Friday. I met Darren a few times and chatted via e-mail and social media for several years. Writing the blog I have met a fair few Spurs fans, and that description I’ve given seems to apply to most of them. So many people knew him and everyone who did has a kind word to say about him.

Along with a couple of other like-minded souls, he resucitated the Trust not to seek attention or personal influence but because he wanted the very best for Spurs fans, who he felt have been treated poorly over the years. The club give the Trust little breathing space over major issues but Darren achieved a lot and never lived to know that the prosecutions of Spurs fans over the Y word were dropped, after he worked tirelessly for justice.

Loyal to the core, Darren was proper Spurs. RIP.