When he does those things, I just stand and gasp. Goal celebration bedlam feels wrong somehow, a vulgar demeaning of greatness. Several times this season, the instant adrenalin rush has propelled me from my seat, then I’ve stood, barely clapping, swaying gently as the wonder of it all flows over me, seeps through the skin, travels along each nerve until I eventually sit, long after the whistle has blown for the restart, in a little world of my own.
It recalls the time when I first heard soul music, I mean proper r’n'b soul, live, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in of all places Canterbury Odeon. I knew their songs but not that feeling, a ten piece soul band battle-hardened through hundreds of gigs in sweaty down-at-heel clubs let loose on an impressionable middle-class English teenager. After three songs I was holding onto the back of the seat in front of me for fear my legs would give way.
Bale’s goals are like that for me. Each as fresh as the first time, a driving horn section, swirling hammond, thumping bass, the crunch of the snare and screeching riff all rolled into one. That feeling.
They are all different. No speculative potshot that happens to fly in. This one began in familiar fashion, a little shuffle to the left, then acceleration and another touch, not beating a defender but simply sliding the ball where he cannot reach it. The final movement protected the ball in the instant of contact, leaning over, distorted body shape to enable the perfect contact. Low and hard this one, right in line I watched it arc into the bottom corner, finding a gap where there had been none for the previous 80 odd minutes.
Empty phrases like “world-class” don’t cut it, even if he is. Gareth Bale is a reason to believe, in the beauty of the game, in the team, in our ability to compete against the very best, to keep the faith. That anything is possible. I urge you never to take this for granted. In my late fifties, I have never seen anything like this. Greaves, Gilzean, Chivers, Hoddle, you name them, Bale is thier peer. This isn’t world-class, this is better than that. This is the fabric of myth and legend.
Until then, Bale’s demeanour and performance could not have been more at odds with this sensational moment. The other great ones strut and preen even if they are not playing well. Bale cut a forlorn figure, lost in midfield as the game went on around him. It was as if playing against his old club cast him back five years to when he was a youth team player finding his way. It was a reminder that even now he’s little more than a kid.
Lost and forlorn sums up this match as far as Spurs were concerned. It was a collective failure of epic proportions, as if the players had been introduced to each other for the first time in the dressing-room before the warm-up. To describe it as disjointed implies they knew what they were doing in the first place, which as the time passed I came to seriously doubt. After an hour, they became incapable of string three passes together, and that was when we were playing better.
The nadir was a little later. We had totally run out of ideas, then rallied with Manu and Holtby providing some much-needed impetus. Still, it was all a bit desperate. Something nearly happened, maybe we got vaguely near the Southampton box (it was that sort of game, even that lifted the crowd) and the ball went out for the throw. To break things up still further, three of their men went down. Benny restarted with three of our side having a drink by the bench, oblivious not only of the fact that the ball was in play but also that some urgency was required to rescue this god-awful mess. Walker was the width of the pitch away from his position. It showed that their minds had gone.
In the case of two key men, Dembele and Lennon, their legs had gone too. Both barely got involved, both went off injured. Neither was fit and neither should have started. Spurs were weak before the game kicked off.
It all adds up. iI the team is paying well, you can carry a man who is slightly unfit or out of position. However, we started with two men unfit and Dempsey vaguely left midfield. That’s fine if we are on top and he has some freedom to cut in. Yesterday, Southampton strangled the space and pushed him back, and the Deuce is no left midfielder. It showed. Benny was no help. Trying too hard, he gave the ball away frequently. He depends on having an outlet, but Dempsey gave him nothing and Defoe’s movement was limited. Collective responsibility. Hud’s long passes can be effective but the Saints did not allow our forwards any room. Also, the team are not used to the long ball game. With Bale denied space too, we looked distinctly uncomfortable for almost the whole match. One shot on target in 90 minutes tells its own story. 100% success rate, though.
Saints were organised and cultured, a fine side who surely won’t go down and will prosper next season. By the time Bale let loose they should have had the game sewed up, spurning two golden chances in the first half.
In an undistinguished afternoon, a little mention for Lloris who in his understated way did everything he had to and on one occasion something very special, hurling himself low to his left to tip a free kick onto the post. A lifesaver – even with Bale, such was the poverty of this performance we may not have come back from that.
Three games left and who knows. We’ve never looked less like a top four team as in the last few matches yet with Bale there’s a reason to believe. As I’ve said for a while, the defence is the key. We may not be scoring heavily but the problem is, we are shipping soft goals. The irony is, this was our first clean sheet for umpteen league games and our worst performance. Enforced changes may mean a more defensive set-up in midfield for Wednesday but Holtby and Siggy may be what we need. His goal covered up a dire effort but let’s worry about that in the close season, because with Bale on the break there’s a reason to hope.
Domination so complete, I have a crick in my neck from facing in the same direction for too long. Then, finally, Lloris’s bank holiday stroll around his green and pleasant area is rudely interrupted. He saves well, low to his right, two hands. Being alert after long periods of inactivity is another of his many attributes. The reading centre forward has a gaping net but heads the rebound wide. Pressure now, unexpected, unknown since the third minute when he put another bouncing rebound into the net. From the second corner, there’s an almighty schmozzle on the goal line. Legs, bodies, arms raised, accusing glances towards referee and linesman, but play on. A little while later, Dempsey’s celebration is indecently joyful as his deflected shot spirals over a stranded keeper. Spurs’ win is safe, 3-1 now and no way back.
Seasons turn on such short passages of play. Off the line at one end, a lucky goal at the other. If Spurs had dropped any points, it would have been a gross injustice in a match we dominated totally, but whoever said anything about football being fair? For Spurs, not pressing home an advantage and conceding late is not something that could happen, it’s something that does happen. From now until the end of the season, every point will be vital. The pursuit of 3rd and 4th will go the wire. Yet over a successful holiday period, 10 points out of 12 will do and in each of our three wins, we played well in the first half but better in the second, scoring eight second half goals and conceding none.
Our new year is a time to look forward. Without getting carried away on the back of three victories against frankly poor opposition – Sunderland were limited up front, Reading limited everywhere, Villa just arouse pathos – the signs are all positive. Bearing in mind the fact this team needed major rebuilding over the summer with the loss of both manager and its creative heart, we are moving ahead far more quickly than could be expected. The players are comfortable with each other and with their style of play that at its best offers an outlet for their attacking instincts and at its worst provides a fall-back position of solidity based on hard work. It’s pass and move in the Spurs tradition, easy on the eye and a possession game that’s entirely modern. The proviso is, we keep the tempo high, it’s what suits us best.
It’s significant that almost all of the players have improved in some way since Andre Villas-Boas took over. Fans never truly know what influence coaches have over their charges. However, something’s working. In no particular order, Sandro is a beast of a defensive midfielder who has responded to being his manager’s first choice by becoming an absolute rock. Lennon is having his best season, excellent yesterday. Defoe is scoring, Caulker has stepped easily into this side – I keep reminding myself he only turned 21 last month – while Bale is reaching stratospheric heights as the most dangerous midfielder in the league.
New comers Vertonghen and Dembele look as if they were born to play at the Lane. Their class was evident to whoever scouted them but the way they combine with their team-mates, that’s Villas-Boas again. The Dembele-Sandro axis could be as good a midfield paring as any in the Premier League. Dawson could have been transferred but wants to play and gives everything he has for the team, as does Gallas although his powers are waning not for want of trying but through the passage of time. Naughton has benefitted from having a few matches in a row, which also means we can rotate at the back. Dempsey has finally found his place after a sticky start, hence his celebration yesterday. All this without Parker and Kaboul, our best centre half.
Of the rest, none has been a disaster. Sigurdsson has taken time to settle, a better game yesterday but best as an impact sub to ensure the tempo stays high towards the end of games. Huddlestone has not picked up the pace that’s required. Walker needs guidance and perhaps some firm words about how to defend, while Adebayor, once the missing link up front, has become the weak link with a series of ineffective performances.
Again, his manager has kept faith in him, seeing the value of giving his choices several games to find their feet rather than chopping and changing every weekend. His patience was rewarded with a classic far post headed goal yesterday. In the first half Manu walked back to the halfway line bewildered after weakly heading wide. This time, he tucked Lennon’s glorious cross into the narrow gap between keeper and post. Strikers thrive on goals and the match was delayed as Manu milked it, eventually emerging from a heap of celebrating team-mates who also realised the value of that goal went way beyond putting Spurs 2-1 up. He looked to the heavens and crossed himself. This has got to be the way forward for religion too. Perhaps after a particularly good service the pope and his cardinals could spontaneously pile on top of each other in front of the altar.
Time rushes by as it does for older people like me but it doesn’t seem that long ago since the season began. Yet the media coverage at the time feels like ancient history. Villas-Boas was incompetent. Couldn’t handle players. Creates an atmosphere. Disharmony among the players was rife according to several tabloid journalists. They could not be more wrong. The players clearly want to play for him, for Spurs.
I’ve deliberately not mentioned Hugo Lloris, destined to be one of the finest Tottenham goalkeepers in modern times. Then, the papers had a hotline to Didier Deschamps and printed how unsettled he was even before he was actually fit to play. Now, his gradual introduction into the side appears a masterstroke of man-management and he’s been able to extend the redoubtable Brad Friedel’s contract. Lloris is sharp and agile on his line and seeks to dominate his area, which in turn means we play a back five, him included.
Yesterday we were unperturbed after that early setback, settled into our rhythm, kept the ball and kept probing. Dembele was back on top form after a few quiet games. The way he drops his shoulder and is gone is a sight of subtle beauty. This big man can disappear, at least as far as his marker is concerned. Sandro’s strength and Reading’s inability to get the ball forward – it seemed like they went for half an hour without holding onto the ball in our half and Lloris did not have a save to make until late in the second half – gave him the freedom to stay forward where he is dangerous.
Without Bale, suspended for the new offence of being too quick and too good, we lacked width. Naughton did well throughout but is very right-footed so we were narrow at times. As the half ended, we gave the Reading keeper shooting practice with a succession of efforts from too far out but come the second we upped the pace and put more balls into the box.
We begin the new year in 3rd place, albeit having played two more games than Chelsea, but the optimism is real. There’s plenty more work to do. Although we have beaten United we have lost to all the teams in top four contention bar West Brom, who I think will not quite keep up. It’s not so long ago when we were conceding stupid late goals and we still can’t defend a lead with total confidence. Nor do we convert our many chances as often as we should. We get more men into the box these days, finally answering my whinging about this problem that has gone on over the life of this blog, but on crosses especially we should pile into the six yard box not hang back.
In the window, Tottenham On My Mind will do everything in its power to retain the status of The Blog That Knows Nothing (TKN) and will stay resolutely ITK free. But we need a striker from somewhere. If Adebayor goes to Africa and Defoe is injured, that’s it! If Moutinho is available, I would buy him even if we pay over the odds. Buy two players and it will make all the difference.
We have to take the long view. An interesting piece in the papers recently suggested that Levy did not fully back his new manager in the market in the summer, preferring to wait and see how he does. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that is a ringing vote of confidence exactly, Villas-Boas has shown more than enough potential to be worthy of greater investment. He deserves the backing of his chairman. Looking ahead, this summer we will be again be vulnerable to bids for Bale, Sandro and others if we are not in the Champions League or have not won anything. The squad is young and like its manager still developing. The potential is rich and we must do all we can to see it fulfilled.
Happy New Year to everyone who takes the time and trouble to read this old-fashioned one-man no ads labour of love blog, especially those of you who add to the rich debate in the excellent comments section. You are a select bunch but I’m genuinely touched by the number of regular readers from all over the world who come back every week. I’m deeply grateful.
Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has been charged with many failings during his relatively short career. These include being aloof and uncommunicative, out of his depth, obsessed with tactics and worst of all, not being Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Over the weekend came the ultimate condemnation – AVB, you were seen in possession of a notebook. J’accuse!
Absurd, a manager in England should be writing things down when we all know a few sharp words of abuse in the dressing room plus an exhortation to run around a bit and get stuck is all that’s required. But this is the AVB phenomenon Few managers have ever been treated with such scepticism by the media. The problem is, some Spurs fans are joining in. The phone-ins have been full of anti-Andre sentiments on the back of the Woolwich defeat, ironically perhaps the game where he achieved the most only to find his efforts were undone by Adebayor’s moment of madness and where his brave and bold tactics after the break took the play to our opponents. Which was certainly written in that notebook.
To be fair, many other Spurs fans have praised him in defeat. There are differences of opinion so let’s take a step back and add some perspective to the debate. Here are the relevant points in, using the immortal words of Tess Daly, no particular order.
Spurs have played 18 matches under Villas-Boas. It’s hardly enough time to make a judgement and condemn him. Even Abramovich gave him more time. The demands for instant success have permeated the consciousness of too many. It was better when we had lower expectations and the CL was a distant aspiration.
In those games, Younes Kaboul has played once, Benny Assou-Ekotto three times and Scott Parker never. Abebayor and Dembele have both been injured for more than half the season so far. That’s the spine of the side and then some. Our cover has been weakened too with injuries to back-up players Naughton and Livermore. Villas-Boas has therefore never been able to select from a full squad. We don’t know what his preferred team is because he’s never been able to pick it.
If you think that’s obvious, here’s another one for you. Harry Redknapp is no longer our manager. Whatever the rights and wrongsof it, it’s pointless to use him as a reference point for absolutely everything that’s happening at the club. He’s not around.
However, AVB remains in his shadow. One underlying reason is the seldom articulated view that Villas-Boas has taken over his team as well as his job, but this is not so. Rather, AVB is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that had one major existing deficiency the lack of another high class central striker, and over the summer had its creative heart brutally ripped out. It’s hard to watch Spurs without Modric and VDV and remember the criticism both players faced. Truly you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I’m certain AVB did not want either to go and they have not been replaced, although by the same token Dembele’s absence has coincided with a series of deflated performances. He’s a quality player.
So whilst the presence of Defoe in the middle, Lennon and Bale on the wings and Walker, Friedel and Gallas at the back offer reassuring familiarity, it hides the extent to which this team has changed in a very short space of time.
The next charge leveled against Villas-Boas is that he does not attack enough. Cue the Tottenham tradition and the ‘R’ word again. I don’t quite see this one. We’ve not had two strikers available for the vast majority of the season so he can’t play two up front. Dempsey isn’t really a striker although right now no one seems exactly sure of what he is. We’ve played Lennon and Bale all season. Starting the season with two predominantly defensive midfielders that has been reduced to one on several occasions because the magnificent Sandro can do the work of two players, so with Dembele and either Dempsey or Sigurdsson plus two wide men, that’s a midfield with attacking intent. Whether we attack well is another matter.
That said, going into Wigan at home with Huddlestone alongside Sandro was unnecessarily cautious and his preferred option of bringing on defensive cover if we are a goal up going into the final quarter has served to show only that we can’t defend well. We have to preserve the initiative. If anything, we are not defensive enough sometimes. An old fault from the previous era, that of Bale and Lennon not dropping back effectively to protect their full-backs, persists in this new age. I banged on about it all last season. It seems basic to me – as someone who cherishes attacking, creative football I want us to be more cautious because it always makes us vulnerable. Every team in the Prem does it – so should we, or change the team.
The final charge is that Villas-Boas is an inflexible tactician, wedded to his doctrine of set formations and blind to all else. Again, it’s not that simple. His preferred options should enable us to find the balance between attack and defence that has been missing over the years. Again, the Portuguese has changed things around This season we’ve gone 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2. The most significant tactical option has been created by AVB, the partnership of Dembele and Sandro in the engine room. Their flexibility, movement and understanding makes a mockery of those straight line numbers and has contributed to our best football. We really miss the Belgian.
But there are problems and let’s stick to tactics for the moment. In two games this season, Wigan and Chelsea, AVB has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Chelsea is perhaps unfair as they were superb on the break but the ability of other sides to by-pass their weak midfield protection and pressure their back four led to Di Matteo’s sacking this morning. Against Wigan, we had no idea.
Then there’s the form of the players. Clearly there’s a good atmosphere around the place and the players seem eager to respond He’s given the younger men like Carroll, Naughton and Livermore an opportunity Caulker is now an international after regular games. Bringing youngsters through can be a painful business. Bale and Vertonghen have done very well, Lennon and Defoe in their best spells for the club.
Some have not prospered – Walker, Sigurdsson and Dempsey have been poor for the most part. Walker in particular is a serious loss because not only has he made mistakes at the back, we miss terribly the attacking options he gives us on the right. It could be that AVB has been unlucky in that on top of the problems I’ve already mentioned, he’s not had the best from these three. However, there’s always the suspicion that the manager is unable to get the best from them, that he is to blame in some way. I will never know. However, Dempsey is a shadow of the man who scored over 20 Premier League goals and contributed many more assists. Jol got far more from him than Villas-Boas. Dempsey is best laying off the striker, interchanging and finding space. He needs the ball given to him once he finds that space in the box. It’s not happening. Similarly, Sigurdsson is the guy who makes the late runs into the box to support the striker, something we’ve lacked in recent times. He seems lost, running around with a lack of purpose to make up for his lack of form. AVB has to decide what both of them do.
Talking of men in the box, it seems daft to me that we encourage Bale and Lennon to bang in the crosses but have so few bodies in the box on the end of them. If we play one striker, and a small one at that, we have to get the midfield in there. We don’t. This week I’ve watched two teams who could not be further apart in terms of their style, West Ham and Juventus. Both have three or four men in the box when the telling ball is made, be it cross or pass. Basics again. We have to do something about this.
I question whether we have the right midfielders for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Loathe though I am to question the presence of player I like, Lennon is not right for this set-up because he is not good defensively (although he has improved or in the box (although he has improved).
At the back, I will never have a word said against Friedel, whose ability and phenomenal focus is an example to every footballer in any league. However, Lloris must play. He’s the future. While his punching and desire to get off his line will always cause anxiety in the crowd, it works far more often than it fails. He can dominate that area like a sweeper, allowing the back four to concentrate on their man and also, when we have the ball, to get forward and make use of any space in the centre that our opponents concede. In that back four, I’d shift Vertonghen inside and play Dawson over Gallas.
And finally on players, Villas-Boas can only work with what he’s been given. Levy needs to back his manager in the transfer market. Once again the window ended without another striker and going into a long season with only Defoe and Adebayor was foolish I suspect this was not of Andre’s doing. Where he did want a player, Moutinho, that fell through. Levy should have swallowed his pride despite the agent’s last minute demands and paid up. Think of the long-term.
In the summer I speculated that the purse strings might ease. We had income from VDV and Luka. Also, with King’s sad retirement all the big earners had gone so perhaps Levy could have raised the self-imposed salary cap without putting several noses out of joint. Bale is allegedly on £100k plus.
However much I respect Levy’s prudence, he has to give our manager more time in the same way our fans do too. The best way he can support him is to allow him to buy his players. Even the purchase of Sigurdsson appears to have been sorted by Levy, before AVB came to Spurs and without Redknapp’s knowledge. This is not about breaking the bank. Rather, it’s an investment because if we do not get close to achieving anything this season, the vultures will circle around Bale and Sandro, replacements and/or reinforcements will turn us down and we’re back to square one. Only then can we judge how good AVB is. In the meantime, let’s get behind our man.
Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Sure, Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, he may be able to leap tall buildings with a single bound but could he keep the Spurs defence together? Superjan can. Vertonghen can do the lot. Centre half, he’s assured and quick. Switch him to left back, the whole team is transformed. He takes free-kicks, he scores from other people’s. Charging heroically upfield, he scores too (I know it’s been adjudged an own goal but that United effort will always be his to me).
Last night, we discovered that somewhere inside Carrow Road, there’s a chunk of green kryptonite hidden away. Unsuspecting, he took the field only to find his powers drained from his body. Ten minutes later, he was revealed as a mere mortal. Norwich wear green shorts. Coincidence?
Villas Boas clearly believes in his powers. When Vertonghen came on as substitute, Spurs were on top as they had been from the kick-off without ever playing especially well. Norwich were cranking up for a final ten minute fling. Throughout the second half we had tried but failed to add to our single goal lead, so the manager decided it was time to protect what we had. Hardly radical, although it was a surprise to see Vertonghen slot into a central defensive midfield position. An extra defender who can also turn defence into attack couldn’t do much harm.
But Superjan looked odd to me. Normally focussed and keen, he didn’t look as if he had the appetite for this one. From a corner, he airily waved a leg at a shot that was going well wide and deflected it in. A few minutes later, from a free kick that was wrongly awarded to Norwich, he lost his man and Holt headed down for Jackson to tap in the winner. A complete turnaround against the by then well-established equilibrium of a match where we were the better side but failed to score the goals to confirm our superiority. Dempsey then missed a penalty to complete our indignity.
AVB is a meticulous man who has demonstrated his commitment to cup competitions by preparing strong sides in the Europa League and League Cup. However, in a sporting age where backroom staff outnumber the playing squad, little things make all the difference. I question why Vertonghen rather than Dawson or Caulker was marking Holt, Norwich’s most dangerous player. When the penalty was awarded, the players did not appear sure about who was supposed to take it. At least Dempsey had the guts to step up to the spot. Two small but crucial errors of preparation that proved decisive.
For better or worse, right or wrong, this blog is always honest with you, dear reader. I try to be consistent but when it comes to the League Cup, I confess to some hypocrisy. I can’t get too worked up about it, win or lose. Except of course if we beat Arse**l in the semi-final or reach Wembley, where suddenly it becomes a tournament we all want to win, officially designated ‘A Springboard For the Future’.
Neither should ew read too much into a single game like this one. Whatever the rhetoric, the players of both teams were not up for it as they would be for a league game. However, place it in the context of other recent performances and there were examples of unwelcome trends that Tottenham will have to work on if we are to prosper.
We don’t score enough goals, or to put it better, we don’t turn our superiority into goals. We have a tendency to look good and take up good wide positions – Bale and Falque (in the second half) were excellent. Falque has certainly developed his game and delivered 3 or 4 top class crosses plus one sublime cutting pass that took out the entire Norwich defence only for Bale to have a weak shot saved. However, there is nobody on the end of the crosses. Not enough bodies in the box and no figurehead striker. Either get one or play a different way because defenders can get heading practice on their training pitch not in competition. Without Dembele, we miss creativity in central areas. How we were spoilt with Luka and Rafa.
Connected with this, we sit back after we’ve scored rather than snuff out the game. To be fair, this was not so much of a problem last night. After Bale scored from range, we continued to keep possession well for a period but to retreat and hang on to just a single goal, as AVB is keen for us to do usually, is a game we’re not yet resilient enough to play.
Finally, there are too many games where a couple of players go missing. Last night there were extended periods where Siggy, Dempsey and Carroll were not involved. (In defence of a talented young player, Carroll demonstrated his customary involvement in the second half). It felt as if we were playing with ten men for much of the first half. Dempsey, a player I was pleased to buy, has not yet found his niche. There’s no doubt that Martin Jol got something from him that Villas Boas can’t.
Even so we were too good for Norwich. League Cup or not, this was a missed opportunity.