Three points but complaints about our performance. Fourth in the league, yet harsh words for our manager. A strike force that sets up and scores a goal, but that’s not enough. Yep, all the hallmarks of a Spurs fan’s blog.
The minute’s silence for Poppy Day was respected by all except about a third of the West Stand boxes. Confronted by a proud parade of soldiers, cruelly let down by politicians but heroically prepared to do their duty for queen and country in pursuit of a futile, unwinnable war in Afghanistan, they remained resolutely seated throughout. I have always suspected that it is another world in the moneyed gallery of sponsors and the wealthy at play, and clearly these folk believe that being sealed behind a thin slice of smoked plexi-glass protects them from not only the rest of the fans but also from the moral values of compassion and humility.
Both teams lined up in unfamiliar formations. Spurs set out three across the midfield with Keane behind Defoe and Crouch up front, while Sunderland compensated for the absence of Jones, Cattermole and Cana by having Campbell drifting wide right but working to get to the lone striker Bent and allowing further support from other midfielders. Plenty of discussion continued amongst the players for the first half as the teams sought to settle down, with the benches frequently joining in. Harry was more active than usual. Often Bond or Jordan do the shouting whilst Harry remains in the comfort of his heated seat, twitching and glum, but judging by what followed, it is doubtful if the tic tac man’s gesticulating made any sense.
After a stuttering opening, the early goal was welcome. A classic big man/little man striker’s combination, Benny’s lovely curling cross to the far post was headed back by Crouch for Keane to run onto. He tried hard to miss from inside the six yard box but bundled it past the keeper. The absence of an offside flag produced pleasant surprise from the home fans and fury from the Sunderland supporters, whose anger at the referee’s performance grew steadily as the game progressed. No replay was shown at the time, usually a sure sign of a dodgy call, but the big screen proved at half-time that the run was timed perfectly.
Far from the goal settling Spurs, our first half then proceeded to degenerate, apart from a few promising flashes from Keane and JJ, and Sunderland wasted several opportunities. Ours was a dreadful display, disjointed and decrepit, as poor as anything I have seen since Ramos left. Passes continually went astray as the man in possession looked in vain for support. The pressure was alleviated occasionally when Keane dropped back to get something going but our moves were thwarted by a consistently wasteful final ball. Jenas was at his frustrating best and worst, moving purposefully to intercept and drive forward only to fail with the final pass, whilst Crouch was, with a few notable exceptions, uncoordinated and the ball-control of a brick wall.
Three in midfield was a total failure. Sunderland easily outnumbered us with their four or at times five, whilst the lack of width was further compounded by the full-backs’ unwillingness or inability to run into the space on the flanks. On the few occasions Benny did venture upfield, he produced effective crosses – more please. However, neither he nor Corluka (who had a bad game) did not enthusiastically embrace the attacking possibilities as would, say, Cole or Evra, or even Hutton, who hammer forward as the need arises. Palacios was another with a low rating. His domain is firmly centre midfield, so he is wasted on the left, whilst Hud struggled to get going, until later that is.
Fielding Keane in the hole makes the best use of his talents. He can both make and take chances, he’s clever with the angles, aware of what is happening around him and, moving late into danger areas, has the intelligence to find precious space in the box. However, this should not be at the expense of the shape of the team. To accommodate this role, Jenas and Palacios were forced out of position and our defensive-minded full backs did not compensate. Keane’s positioning unbalanced the entire team and this should not be allowed to happen again. On other days, with a different referee and if opponents had taken chances, it would have led to defeat. This is not so much about how Keane plays – he did well enough at times, and I haven’t forgotten his goal. With this squad, the man in the hole simply does not work.
Harry recognised the problem, moving Keane to the left after the break. But Keane for all his effort is not a left sided midfielder, so still the team was unbalanced and the standard remained low. He is then substituted, again, and immediately we look better as Kranjcar came up with an excellent cameo, full of accurate penetrative passing and good support play.
The real point is, we know all this already. We have seen this season that Keane is not a left midfielder, neither is WP, that Corluka doesn’t do overlapping, that 4-4-2 is our thing. So why expect that today would be different? Harry is a strong man, not weighed by sentiment however he may present himself in the media, but the feeling that he is trying to shoehorn Keane, Defoe and Crouch into the same team is inescapable. From now on, either Keane plays up front (with either strike partner) or he does not play.
Although Kranjcar’s arrival bucked us up and we finished on a high note, the real turning point was of course Gomes’ penalty save. That Darren Bent, chucking himself over, and there’s me thinking he was such a nice quiet boy… Other refs would have sent Gomes off, although the booking was right. The business of keepers diving at attackers’ feet is so fraught these days, I actually feel for referees. It’s so quick and cheating, or bending the rules, or making the most of an opportunity, whichever way you choose to perceive it, is now an expectation for forwards, who, if they remain on their feet, are subject to almost as much comment as the referees, however they decide.
Whatever, he galvanised both the players and the crowd, following the penalty with a series of fine saves. He’s learning: witness the save at the foot of the right hand post from a header, where he not only dropped quickly and low but decisively pushed the ball away from the oncoming forward to avoid a rebounded tap-in. This as much as the penalty shows his awareness, confidence and presence of mind.
Then a wonderful strike from Hud, thrillingly rising for all of the twenty yards into the roof of the net. A great goal, frankly out of keeping with our performance. He then became a man inspired, full of energy, purpose and guile, although the suspicion nags away, why does he need a boost like this before he plays so well? It is significant that he was pushed further forward during the final quarter of the game. Although this may waste his long passing ability, I believe he is more effective in this role, released from defensive burdens to slot the ball into the gaps and to shoot dangerously.
The game closed with some gleeful Bent-baiting, comparing him unfavourably with his nemesis Sandra. Oh what fun we had: three points but in the long run some hard lessons to be learned.
Tottenham Hotspur approach the away match against Bolton this Saturday knowing that we have an appalling record at the Reebok. However, let history count for nothing, at least in this instance, and ensure that we return with a victory.
Since they returned to the top division, Bolton have performed with a brusque physicality that in truth we have seldom coped with. Hard running plus brute force have been our undoing and we have been incapable of mounting a serious challenge. One abiding memory from the Allardyce era was thinking that Bolton have an extra one or two players on the pitch, a function partly of their dominance but also, tellingly, of our inability to resist.
Bolton regularly exposed perhaps the single biggest problem with our team over the last decade. No matter the personnel or managerial changes, we lacked spirit and caved in under pressure. Soft. Weak. Spineless. Leaderless.
This blog has threatened regular readers with massive over-use of the word ‘resilience’ this season and makes not the slightest apology for raising it once more. We need it because we haven’t got it, and without it, we won’t get anywhere. Now is the time to make real inroads into the problem by defeating one of our bogey sides, at least away from home. We have the form and certainly the players, so all that is left is the mental attitude to focus on the job at hand for 95 minutes, deal with the pressure and the inevitable periods when the home side will be on top, and push on to a win.
Lack of confidence in our own ability is the main, perhaps only, impediment to success. We have played some gorgeous football recently and are well set up to make that talent count. Even without Defoe, chances will come and surely there is little to fear in the post-Allardyce Bolton. Davies remains a difficult opponent and will both unsettle our central defenders and drift over to the left where Megson will believe he can out-muscle Benny and drift in from wide positions. Dawson may play alongside Bassong to deal with this threat, well though Hud performed last week. Fuller can come from deep and Cohen is scoring from midfield. However, the protection offered by their physical approach has dissipated and JJ and WP will able to compete in what promises to be a crowded midfield. We will strike swift and sure on the break, but may end up playing like a home team for long periods because Bolton will go for a defensive formation with 5 in midfield. They are down the bottom for a reason and even the home fans have little time for their manager. Remember the stick he received from the Bolton fans when they came to the Lane last year.
Last season’s match at the Reebok was notable for the debut of Wilson Palacios, the Man Who Saved Us All. Otherwise, it was all depressingly familiar. By January, the new-manager bounce of Harry’s arrival had well and truly worn off. A desultory first half performance looked to have been turned around as two goals from Darren Bent put us level. With four minutes left, we gave away first the ball and then, from the resultant corner, a soft headed goal. Those were the days, when at dead ball situations we may as well have stood to the side of pitch and noshed a burger, for all the good our defenders were.
Much has changed for the better since then but we still suffer from those two faults, namely giving the ball away too frequently and conceding unnecessary free kicks and corners, as I said in my report of last week’s Burnley game. Cut this out and we are well on the way. Our Saviour must stay on his feet and not dive in, or soon we will worship no longer.
I understand that Spurs have sold 4000 tickets for the game, testament once more to the phenomenal support for our club and passion aroused by even the merest glimpse of good football. It’s the same for Arsenal away, where the loyalty points total is way above that required for the corresponding fixture last season.
Darren’s Bent’s transfer to Sunderland for £10m plus add-ons means we can recoup most of the cash Charlton trousered and have now squandered. His fee was never as high as the often quoted £16.5m and Levy softened the blow with easy payments over three years. So not a bad deal in the end and I wish him well; a decent player and by all accounts a decent bloke too.
You could never tell how Bent was feeling. Happy or sad, he habitually wore a similar fixed expression, the only clue being a slight movement of the eyebrows, up for ‘goal!’ and down for, well, let’s be honest, they were down for a lot of the time. Yet this mask failed to hide his unease at being a Tottenham player. Despite being our top goalscorer, he seldom looked the part and never settled.
His recent outburst on Twitter was rather endearing. In this bland world of media-managed comments and interviews, here was a guy expressing an opinion. No wonder he was hacked off, as delays jeopardised his transfer. It revealed how much he wanted to get away.
Footballers are extremely well recompensed for the inconvenience of criticism from the media and from fans, but being dragged off a plane at the last moment, in front of your team mates, could not have been a pleasant experience for him. Yet this was nothing in comparison with Harry’s famous comment about his headed miss, the one that Sandra could have put away.
In this morning’s papers Bent says this comment hurt at the time and still does, and that he never felt valued by his manager. Remember that Bent invested considerably in our club, turning down a substantially larger offer from West Ham to join us under Martin Jol. It reveals another side of Redknapp, darker than the avuncular father figure image that he so assiduously cultivates. No friendly arm around the shoulder here, but stark rejection. Some Portsmouth players have commented on this same feature. If Harry makes it clear that you are unwanted, that’s a cold place to be.
It also demonstrates that Bent is one of those players for whom confidence matters hugely. We rarely saw him at his best. For all the occasions when he looked sharp in front of goal, these were outweighed by feeble misses, not wide so much but the certainty that he would score was missing in his glazed expression. He waited for something to happen instead of making it so, in the same way that playing up front he hung back rather than attacked the ball. In his head he needed to give himself that extra fraction of a second, but all he did was allow defenders to time and again get in first. He left too great a gap between himself and the midfield, therefore the link-up play constantly foundered.
Neither goalscorer nor target-man, there’s no place at the club for him. I feel odd in dismissing our top goalscorer but the move is right, for him and us. He will do better at Sunderland, a bigger fish in a smaller pond. With less of a burden on his shoulders, it will be nice to see him a crack a smile.