The final piece of four wrapping up the season, delayed by a few mishaps but here finally
So let’s pull this all together. I’ve looked back at the players, the team and the manager. It’s been a positive season with unforgettably cracking football and the blazing thrill of the Champions League tainted by the frustration of what might have been. The goal is to keep the positives, learn from our mistakes and put them right next year. Get it right and the prospects take the breath away. This is the best squad we’ve had for twenty or thirty years. Well placed financially, without the riches of the the top four but unencumbered by debt, the potential is staggering.
This summer is a watershed period for the club. Lurking in the background are the imperatives of history – Spurs’ saga of unfulfilled expectations and the unerring capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Chairman Daniel Levy and manager Harry Redknapp have momentous decisions ahead of them that could cement the foundations of a top class team for years to come or signal a slide back to midtable mediocrity. It’s that big a deal:. the season ahead of us isn’t just about rebuilding, certainly not another transitional season. This is a once in a generation opportunity that we must seize with both hands.
The most significant decision in the transfer market is not the purchase of a new striker, despite our desperate need for goals. It’s keeping four top class footballers: the divine Luka Modric, one of the finest midfielders I’ve seen at Spurs, Gareth Bale, Rafa van der Vaart and Sandro. Europe may have given us glory: it was also one long advert for the brilliance of these players.
There’s no irresponsible ITK in these pages but this summer there will be an auction between Chelsea and Manchester Untied for Modric. Accounts vary: some say he’ll stay, others that he wants to go. The reality is both are true: I believe he is happy here but every player in the world would consider CL football at double the salary, which is what both clubs would give him. And that’s not including the rest of Europe.
Some say Bale is at his peak and think what we could do with the inflated fee. Madness: no reason at all to dispose of talent like his whose career has only just begun. VDV is not so much in demand but again there’s quick profit to be had with a sale. Sandro is the dark horse that few are mentioning. However, his best games have been against Milan, therefore in full view of Europe’s top clubs, he’s young and to my mind has got the lot. The star of the new era of Brazilian football will be in demand.
As ever Levy is the key. How he deals with that auction and whether he bites will determine the future of the club. £30 or £40m could revitalise our buying power but I would not sell any of them under any circumstances, for this quartet are the bedrock of our future. They are here now, they know each other’s game, they know the club. Build on this continuity, not destroy it. Sadly, I give some credence to the rumours that Modric and Bale have been touted around. I sincerely, desperately hope I’m wrong. Both are so wonderful they make the game a thing of beauty and awe.
The money for new players has to come from elsewhere and not necessarily by reckless firesales. We have to take the hit on Keane, Hutton and Bentley but I would not sell players like Kranjcar, Jenas, Palacios and Bassong, back-up men currently, without ensuring we have replacements in the bag. If they left, I wish them well but won’t lose any sleep. What this does mean is that Levy must decide soon about our own Big Four. Wait until deadline day and we could be left with nothing.
Next, Redknapp has to decide how we are going to play then buy players who fit the bill. As Modric blossomed and VDV arrived unexpectedly, HR’s oh so English big man-little man combo looked old-fashioned. We have to get two pacy, alert strikers who can both score and bring others into the match, not necessarily bag a hatful of goals, the assists total is almost as significant. They may not play together often. This season people have said Rafa doesn’t fit in but I would play around his skills, so that’s a free role off a single striker with another attacking midfielder to cover for him. Kranjcar would be ideal despite my misgivings about his efforts but looks like he’s on his way. Lennon may not have the luxury of being both a winger and a regular starter. However, variety and variation are essentials in what could be a season of over 60 matches in very different situations. Whoever, we must score more from midfield.
Another centre half is likely, preferably one with a bit of pace. Kaboul could well make a breakthrough into top class. Friedel is a decent signing. Free, solid, capable, he’ll either give Gomes a gee-up or compete with a replacement as well as providing cover. Again I’d be in no rush to sell Gomes: we must avoid the mistakes of L’arse and ensure that if we buy, it’s a genuine upgrade.
Whoever we buy, they must have two qualities: the ability to keep possession and the bloody-minded focus on being a winner as epitomised by Willy Gallas. This is what we’ve learned during our travails in Europe and at the top of the league.
Finally, let’s not forget the overall plan that got us here. Several years ago more out of necessity than design, we started to identify, buy and nurture talent for the future. It’s not been smooth by any means and many have fallen by the wayside but here we are with Bale, Modric, Hud, BAE, Lennon and now Rose. We must think now about the next crop. it takes time and no little agony as we watch their growing pains but it’s worth it.
So it could be a momentous window as make our plans, but ironically not in the way I envisage because two crucial matters totally beyond our control could scupper the whole voyage. Redknapp’s tax case could at best leave him tainted, at worst a criminal, while if Capello keeps this up, England could come calling sooner rather than later. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to it already.
Tottenham On My Mind will be here during the summer as and when. Many thanks to everyone who has visited the blog this past season, especially those of you who have taken the time and trouble to make the comments section so vibrant. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments
The second in a series this week – the Players
Rubbishing Crouch and Jenas, demanding a wholesale clear-out, insisting on bids for every striker in La Liga. If only it were that straightforward.
It’s not just about the individuals, it’s where they will fit into the shape of the team as defined by our tactics and how they combine with each other in crucial areas of the field such as up front and in central defence. It’s also going to be a busy old season, with two European games before the end of August let alone the league and two cups.
The absurd demands of the Europa League mean that we have to have a squad capable of playing consistently well over a long period of time. Old heads to steady the ship alongside youngsters who should relish the chance not only of first team experience but also of reminding the manager that they deserve a step up into contention for a league start. We have much to learn in this respect – last season we could not rotate the squad to any extent without significantly reducing our chances of winning.
Redknapp has some big decisions to make regarding our approach next season. In the previous piece I advocated a more cautious approach – reality dictates that our open formation neglectful of our defensive responsibilities will not bring sustained success.That doesn’t mean we have to be dull and boring – that’s not what I want from my Spurs and that too does not win trophies. It’s asking a lot but we have the nucleus of a team who are able to deliver, better perhaps than for twenty or thirty years. Top class players who could be the heart and soul of a consistently successful team for years to come.
Some of those partnerships are well defined. Our strikers have looked lost and lonely for much of the season, an estranged couple waiting for the divorce papers to come through. At the back Dawson’s game has improved but he’s mightier still alongside Ledley’s pace and anticipation. Other combinations are no less important, however. If our wide midfielders are going to attack, perhaps they are better off having a defensive minded full-back behind them, who prefers to stay back. Alternatively, a flank combination of full-back and attacking midfielder is potent going forward, then an extra defensive midfielder to slide across can protect us at the same time. It’s about equilibrium – change one part of the system and the rest has to readjust to maintain the balance.
Finally, one formation isn’t enough. We need not only to have plan B at our disposal, we should be comfortable and familiar with any changes necessitated by the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents or the need to change gear during a game.
The very roles themselves have been altered by the demands of success in the modern game. Flexibility has a high value, the ability to be mobile and alert physically and mentally, to play a variety of roles often within the same minute or two never mind in the same game. Midfielders have to defend whether they like it or not. A player like Defoe suffers because he’s geared to do his best work in the box but doesn’t bring other players into the game. In the crucial position of defensive midfield it is no longer sufficient to be able to run and tackle. You have to be able to pass the ball and turn defence into attack.
Ah Gomes, you were so nearly the love of my life. Our very own cult hero, derided by many, we could see the potential. We nurtured and protected you until the world saw what we already knew – you could really do it. Until this season when you kept chucking the ball in your own net. Overall he’s not had a bad season, making many vital saves almost as a matter of course. The problem is, the high profile cock-ups have ben recent and stick in mind. Better on crosses lately, the real problem was not the soft one against Madrid or Chelsea (although of course actually that was a save because it didn’t go in) but the panic shown against Blackpool and earlier versus Inter. Mad dashes off the line are one thing but pulling down players for no real reason indicate a lack of composure essential for any reliable keeper.
Reliable, that’s all we need. Solid rather than spectacular will do, good handling, takes the crosses, cuts out the mistakes in front of a sound defence and maybe doesn’t always get into the top the corner. I’d keep Gomes unless we can buy a world-class upgrade.
Cudicini has been a capable back-up but we need more. His legs have lost their spring and anyway I’d prefer to see someone challenging Gomes for the first team place rather than just hanging around for injuries. Pietklosa came well rated but ignored, while if Alnwick cost a penny it was too much. His signing shows the dangers of buying a back-up as opposed to someone who could mount a proper challenge for the first team.
A few weeks back i started selling the house and all my possessions, not for the Rapture but for a charitable medical foundation with the sole aim of healing Ledley knee. A true Tottenham great, I raved about him a couple of weeks ago. His magnificence radiates not just from his pace, ability to read the game and perfect timing, it’s his dedication to just playing. he’s adapted his game, using short scurrying strides when once he strode across the turf, minimising his running to save every last drop of energy for the few yards that take him into the right place at the right time. The many fans who wrote him off should be ashamed of themselves. They failed to recognise the willpower of the truly great.
However, he can’t play every game. Dawson can, or appears to want to. Undeterred by a serious injury sustained whilst playing for England. he’s come back stronger than ever. He’s learned to deal with his lack of pace and doesn’t plough in high up the field, timing his interventions with assurance. He does his best work in the box, however, as does Gallas, so Spurs benefit from some defensive midfield protection. This was conspicuously absent in the matches where our back four were stretched. Any defender on the planet looks uncertain if left exposed and vulnerable.
Gallas and Assou Ekotto both demand special praise for outstanding seasons. Harry’s best acquisition, once fit Gallas has proved himself a fierce warrior. His performance at the Emirates was one of my highlights of the season, his goalline clearance against Milan one of the moments. No hint of the dressing room disruption that has tainted his reputation. On the contrary, everyone around him must surely learn from and respect his attitude. In two or three games he has been injured yet played on as if nothing happened. At the Lane I sit close enough to the pitch to see his pain was real, yet he simply will not bow to the pressure.
If Redknapp likes a player, he will give that man a chance. Although Benny appears not to be moved by anything much, he’s taken his chance, upped his game and become a canny consistent footballing full back, good touch, bit of pace and neat on the ground. He still makes mistakes, usually due to his welcome obsession with not conceding possession – ironically he tries so hard to hang on to it for the team rather than wang it away that he ends up being caught – but the moments where his brain checks out have virtually disappeared. He still needs to tuck in closer to his centrebacks, though.
Another player given his chance by Harry and who has taken it is Kaboul. Sometimes he still looks like an overgrown Labrador puppy but once those growing pains disappear, we have a top class centre half versatile enough to cover at full back. These things are important if we are playing over 60 games a season with squads limited to 25. Another one with a great attitude.
Woodgate’s demise seems to be premature with rumours of a pay as you play deal on the table. Only the club know his true fitness but it will have to be good to get a squad number, given that Ledley will certainly be there.
Less good news on the right flank. Corluka has been extremely disappointing this term. We’ve seen little of the positional shrewdness and strength on the ball that used to cover his chronic lack of pace, whilst his distribution has not been up to previous standards. I still see him as a centre back playing out of position. With Hutton, it’s the opposite – his pace can’t make up for his dreadful positioning. He has no future here.The speed of Walker’s development has certainly surprised Harry but he will be first choice and vindication of our policy of armin gout young players to gain firs team experience, although from what little I’ve seen, he has work to do on his defensive play.
Bassong needed a run but never quite deserved it on the basis of his play. he had a good subs appearance marking Drogba but fatally he lets players get behind him
Danny Rose. Was he a winger or a central midfielder? No, he’s a full-back and a damn promising one at that. Remarkably good positioning and determined in the air, he’s definitely a first team squad man.
So we are in good shape at the back. Bassong will probably depart although he has the ability to stay, and we will go for another centreback, It’s up to the coaches to weld them into a unit – the raw material is there already.
I have never made any secret of my love for Luka and I remain besotted despite his many other suitors and admirers who belatedly have succumbed to his charms. My eyes linger for a fatal fraction of a second after the ball has left his foot, just to see him run. One of my moments of the season was against Newcastle, when as the knee-high tackles flew in, three opponents descended upon him in the centre circle, scenting blood. Waiting until he could feel their breath on his collar, he dropped one shoulder, left two of them stranded, beat the third and was away in a flash, the same focussed, purposeful expression on his face, already looking to shift the ball forward in search of an opening. World-class, he makes football beautiful. One of my favourite players of the last thirty years.
Gareth Bale suffers from being too good. Fans’ expectations reached absurd heights, then he gets criticised for not doing the impossible. This is the Premier League not Melchester Rovers. He’s marked by two or three players most games so he can’t run through the lot of them any more. To me it is astonishing how often he almost does. I’ve never seen someone as big and powerful with such pace and touch. If our strikers had been half decent he would have twice as many assists. He delivers more than enough excellent crosses despite the attention he receives now, and his exploits against Inter are the stuff of legend. Long term his best position may be full-back, where his height and pace will be handy in defence and he can make runs from deep.
Sandro is the discovery of the season. His performances against Milan were those of a man who’s played 210 games, not 10. He’s everything a modern DM should be – moves well, slots into the back four and tracks the runner, yet in a trice is up the other end, and he can pass it too. Genuinely a world-class prospect, he and Modric are already a magnificent pairing and could be the cornerstone of years of success.
Pienaar will fit in well next season: his movement and passing can keep attacks going. I’m less enamoured of Kranjcar, Jenas and Palacios. The former may be able to hammer the ball in from distance but he’s overweight and does not work hard enough. If a theme of this year has been the way several team-mates have made the most of their opportunities, he seems intent on wasting his considerable talents, although to be honest he’s had little chance to shine of late. I always liked JJ although he’s so frustrating. he seems to have the ability to do anything and everything, effortlessly, yet he’s never consistent. His arrival as sub has injected drive in the second half when we have been flagging but he’s now in Sandro’s shadow. Palacios is more of an old-fashioned midfield ball winner and does not either pass the ball well enough or tuck himself into the back four when required. We may have outgrown them all.
Lennon’s game is still developing and he’s come on again this time but his final ball, although much improved, needs further polishing. He’s a fine sight whizzing down the wing: his future to me is more about the shape of the team and whether we can afford to have so many attack-minded players in the team at once. Believe me, I hate to say this, but he and Bale have to work back more than they do.
Hud did well before his injury. We seemed most comfortable when he slotted in in front of the defence and we don’t make the best use of his passing range. For someone who once played centre half, he has little awareness of his defensive responsibilities: it’s partly his stature but mainly he does not have that sense of anticipation. A fine player, if he had that first yard in the head he’d be a world-beater.
Van der Vaart was a steal at £8m. We’ve learned enough to know that he must play in that free role between the midfield and the striker. More about this in my final segment of this series, about the future, but suffice to say I would gear the team to play to this strength, perhaps sacrificing a winger and definitely finding a striker who can genuinely play up front on his own. Rafa can play off and around him with the midfield piling through to help out.
Once again we have riches almost beyond my dreams. Another wide man with different skills to those of Lennon to prevent Luka being moved wide is on the cards and perhaps some experience for the long haul ahead. Again the coaches have to the get the formation right. If Hud could lose 7 pounds, who knows?
This is the shortest section but has been the biggest problem all season. Shortest because I’ve been banging on about the same things all season, most recently in the previous blog post.
Crouch is immobile, his touch is dreadful and his accuracy from the balls he wins in the air is poor. We’ll always get something but I want more than a percentage game. Moreover, his mere presence encourages the high ball, thus negating the advantages presented to us by the skilful players in the rest of the team. If he hammered in towards the goal with headers, touches and deflections, that would be fine, but he doesn’t know where the goal is half the time and a nudge in the back takes him out of the equation.
Pav is great if he has the time. Many of his goals are scored when he can push the ball a metre or so ahead of him and move onto it. Sunday was the prime example. The reality is, this seldom happens in the Prem and his touch lets him down more often than not.
Also technically poor is Defoe. Erratic ball control, inadequate positioning and a reluctance to get in where it hurts in the box have led to a poor season punctuated with a few great goals, again when he has the space to move onto it. He’s worked harder than ever (not on Sunday) and his link up play is better but that does not mean it’s up to scratch. Hugely disappointing.
In this department, major surgery is required.
Some players have not been around for a while and we’re never going to see them in a Spurs shirt again. Keane has been an example to every professional footballer that the grass is not always greener. Stick to what you know, where you feel comfortable, and it will bring out the best in you. I’m sure he’ll find another club that he supported as a boy.
I was all for the signing of David Bentley – he worked hard and his crossing would be just what we need, so I take no pleasure in identifying why it’s not worked out. The signs were there early on. Suddenly he began to appear in the media, opinion pieces and interviews. His agent was shaping him to be the star he was in his own head but he failed to realise you have to work at it. He didn’t have the nouse to realise that alongside Modric and others, he could cover up his inability to beat players and his lack of pace. A real shame.
Dos Santos never showed any consistent talent. To be fair to him, he was always stuck on the wing (small and skilful, see) whereas for Mexico he has a freer role across the pitch. Levy will have to take the hit on all three.
Next – the manager
Another win in a game where we played some decent football without ever being in full control. It’s becoming a bit of pattern. This time we defended in the second half with uncharacteristic but welcome vigour. Naturally by this time we had tried to throw the match away but Sunderland weren’t quite good enough on the day to exploit our lacklustre start by getting any more than a single goal clear, and by the end I was enjoying some old fashioned everyone back bodies in the way defending.
I can’t remember why www.dictionary.com send me a Word of the Day. Probably one of my periodic attempts at self-improvement that usually ends with a swift click of the ‘delete’ button before it’s been opened. However, Saturday’s word was ‘risible’. How appropriate. In my reflections on last week’s match, I noted our talent for the farcical, starring Gomes as N17’s Brian Rix (one for the kids there). Just when you think all the gags have been done, b’dum tish here’s new one. Gallas goes off to change his boot, teammates apparently totally oblivious to this fact, huge gap into which dashes sharp opposition striker. The eventual outcome on the game has meant this incident has been underplayed but how on earth can a professional football team get up to such rubbish?
Throughout the first half we showed a distinct lack of drive and imagination. Despite our good squad, we don’t adapt well to the loss of certain key players. We’ve learned to cope without Huddlestone but looked lost and bereft without Luka or a matchwinner like Bale or Rafa to turn the game and set the creative juices flowing. Even with the absences we should be able to generate some momentum from within but none was forthcoming, although it provoked a concerted burst of arm-waving from Harry. Our task was made harder by Sunderland’s pressing game, pushing right up on our back four to stifle attacks at source. This left gaps in behind their midfield that we tried to exploit with a series of long balls but this isn’t Pav’s game, back to the goal, so back it came. We searched in vain for a ball out wide but no width either. JD worked hard for the team, pulling out to hold up the ball. He deserves credit for this and he held it up well enough, but we were stuttering at this point.
I’m grateful for the goals when they come, obviously, but sometimes I wish we don’t need to wait for a goal to shake us from our lethargy, or a stunner to win it. How we needed Dawson’s header. The keeper should have done better. We’re off then. More bounce and nouse. Still much to be done and nothing was being created for our strikers. Then Nico’s stunning volley, studied technique preceded by shrewd positioning: rather than take the easy but worthy option of the space at the far post, he came inside diagonally to just the right spot.
Now we were keeping the ball much better. Corluka’s value was demonstrated once again in the way he times his runs (his strolls?) forward. No pace of course but he comes up from deep when the attack may founder and there he is, out wide, enabling the centre midfield to switch the point of the attack. As with last week, Benny did this less but just as effective once he got the hang of it.
Jenas had another strong game, working hard and energetic from first to last. Nothing more. Won’t say anything. That’s two or three now…STOP IT!
Sunderland as expected had plenty of possession as the game went on but we protected Gomes well. More often than not, our opponents were forced to shoot from a distance. When they did get into the box, the centre backs were able to come across to intercept because our midfield shield provided the first line of defence. So often this season we’ve conceded because that has not been in place and the back four have been compelled to come out.
Sandro played an important role in our win. Recovering well from a poor first half, he showed promise and application in the second. To me he looks a natural defensive midfielder for the modern game. In particular he seems comfortable just in front of the back four or dropping into the box when we are under real pressure, as opposed to Palacios who is more of the old style midfield destroyer, ranging across the centre looking for tackles. Equally, Sandro has good touch on the ball and can pass short or long. He moves well, gets forward quickly and usually his first touch sets him well for a quick pass on, should something be available.
His weakness is getting caught with the ball and Sunderland tried to pressure him. Too frequently in the first half he played the ball forward and it was intercepted. However, this wasn’t all his fault. He usually played it to feet as Pav or JD dropped back and they were easily dispossessed, whereas a run into the channel and a ball to match could have suited better. That’s not just for Sandro: surely our strikers, who had barely a chance between them, could thrive on those sort of passes and start their runs from deeper, rather than being caught with their backs to the goal.
So a resolute second half plus a brilliant goal and we have yet another win without playing fantastically well. Yet in its way this current run that we are putting together is remarkable. On Saturday we were without the heart and soul of the team. Four top class footballers were absent – Modric, Bale, Van der Vaart and King. Let’s not forget the excellent Huddlestone or the promising Kaboul, who has done so well this season. Umpteen changes in the back four, different players meaning different patterns, yet we are regularly wining matches. Such an injury list would unbalance any team – just look at Chelsea with all their riches and how they struggled without Lampard and Terry. Full credit all round.
Public Information Service: don’t go yet. TOMM is warm-hearted and generous, thinking only of its readers’ well-being. I’ve been contacted by a few people with some things you might like to know, so read on.
First, a shirt from our friends at Philosophy Football:
Double winners Les Allen; Peter Baker; Maurice Norman; Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson will be appearing at the Memorabilia Show, NEC Birmingham, 26-27 March.
Finally, Our Ledley endorses a worthwhile scheme, showing our Spurs make an effort in the community:
LEDLEY KING SPURS ON BRITAIN’S APPRENTICES
On the final day of National Apprenticeships Week, www.notgoingtouni.co.uk has received the backing of Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Ledley King. King has joined forces with the online portal for apprenticeships and vocational opportunities, to encourage young people to consider vocational opportunities during National Apprenticeship Week 2011.
“Apprenticeships are a great way of entering the world of work for those who, like me, know what they want to do for a living,” King said to notgoingtouni’s free digital magazine for prospective apprentices. “Apprenticeship Week is the perfect time to start looking into the options. I came up through the Tottenham youth academy, so I know the value of on-the-job training. And I know it can lead to the best job in the world!”
The increase in tuition fees, as well as one in five graduates currently being unemployed, is opening the door for more and more young people to consider vocational qualifications.
“Young people looking to enter the professions are now beginning to discover, for example, that it is actually quicker to become a chartered accountant through an apprenticeship programme than via a degree, with a higher proportion finding employment at the end of it,” explains Spencer Mehlman, managing director of notgoingtouni.co.uk.
A free digital guide for Apprenticeship Week, is available at www.notgoingtouni.co.uk, also tells the story of Rohan Duncan, 25, who joined Tottenham Hotspur Foundation’s Future Job Fund programme in February 2010. He was offered an apprenticeship on completion of the programme and now leads coaching sessions and studies for an NVQ Level 2 in Sports and Allied Recreational Studies at Croydon College.
“I was a Spurs fan before I got the job. I went to the job centre because I’d been unemployed for a while and I saw there were jobs going coaching at Spurs. I’m a sporty guy but I’d never done any coaching before. I didn’t think I’d get it – it seemed too good to be true!” Rohan explained.
Now, Rohan coaches young people from the local community, leading PE lessons, table tennis sessions and the Kickz programme aimed at keeping young people out of trouble on the streets.
“I’m on contract until June,” Rohan adds. “I’d like to stay on at Spurs, but even if I don’t I’m much more employable than I was before. I’d like to stay in coaching or mentoring.”
40,000 companies work with notgoingtouni.co.uk including industry giants such as IBM, British Gas, Rolls Royce, Unilever and Tesco.
Spurs opening match in the Champions League was an intoxicating mixture of breathless brilliance and the downright infuriating. Just as we became accustomed to the new model Eurospurs, dictating and dominating to the manor born, as if this were our 51st game in the competition rather than our first, familiar frailties threatened to expose it all as a giant conceit. In the end we discovered a measure of equilibrium and the result not only provides sustained satisfaction, it also heightens the anticipation for the home game against Twente in a fortnight. A point to begin with is fine, four after two matches and the possibilities are staggering.
Wide eyed we marvelled. Pass and move, smooth, purposeful and easy on the eye, punctuated by a few moments of swooning beauty, like gazing into the eyes of a stunning woman for the first time and she looks right back. Two mesmerising moves for the goals, both moving the ball 60 yards with two passes. I roared at the first, gasped open-mouthed at the second. A move of classic simplicity, made to look effortless by outstanding skill and finished with a header that was glorious in its perfection. The opening passages were truly the stuff of dreams.
Our five man midfield was set up to avoid being over-run but we proved how effective an attacking option such a formation can be. The proviso is, we have to have the right players. Last night the blend was almost perfect. Huddlestone and Jenas toiled unstintingly in the centre and crucially could also deliver the ball accurately when required. JJ in particular was excellent throughout, his stamina and passing adding another dimension to that key area of the battle. His selection to replace the off-form Palacios was a bold move by Redknapp and the manager was rewarded with a fine display.
Definition of a class midfielder: Rafael van der Vaart. This guy has got it. In spades. Strong, shrewd and skilful with a great touch and sense of where to be, right time right place. The Bremen defence were permanently on edge as he moved around in the area between back four and midfield. He wasn’t averse to dropping back when we lost the ball.
In the delicate balance between our attacking instincts and the need for prudence lay the destiny of the match. On the left we clearly ran out winners. After the group stages are over, Gareth Bale will be the most talked about young footballer in Europe. He slaughtered an international opponent in a battle-hardened team. In fact the most grief he had all evening was from his manager who appeared to be giving him an ear-bashing for not doing more of the same in the second half.
Over on the other side, the scales tipped the other way. Lennon failed to sparkle but even so he provided width that stretched their defence and kept their left side occupied. His lack of tracking back, however, left our flank ripe for exploitation and Marin took full advantage. In the same way that Bremen did not close us down in the centre, Marin was given far too much room: too often he faced only one man when he should have been double-teamed. His sense of freedom was enhanced by Corluka’s wretched evening. Left exposed, he appeared to have totally lost his bearings, a dyspraxic lost at sea. In vain I waited for this solid player to gather himself. His form has been poor for some time now and is becoming a major concern. His positional play and sound timing always has to be sharp to compensate for his lack of pace, and these resources have deserted him. A favourite of mine, I’m so disappointed.
The strength of our centre backs provided a solid platform at first for our early enterprise and later for some hard defending as Bremen pressured. Kaboul was the pick. This raw talent is maturing in front of our eyes, His application has been superb this season, taking Dawson’s determination to seize his chance in the middle of last season as his example.
Benny. Ben. Benjamin. Benny boy. Benny the ball. Ben Dover no not that one. Ben Jovi. What on earth. You know I like you, wrote about it a few weeks ago. But we’ll never know what passes through your mind. Lovely passes, good support of the attack, nicely timed tackles. Then a wildly misplaced hack up the field. I’ll actually let you off the goal. You could have done more but even if you had, he’s a big bloke and would have beaten you to that ball.
But here’s the thing. Don’t give the ball away unnecessarily. Regular readers (I can dream) know what’s coming…I’m retitling the blog. From now on it will be called ‘Giving It All Away’. It could be sub-titled ‘Severe Ball Retention’ but that would get the wrong sort of interest from Google searches. Here’s the infuriating bit. Keep the ball. Don’t give it away, let them come and get it. Time and again we presented Bremen with possession. Even when we played keep-ball in the last 10 minutes, we had that throw-in and free kick in the far left, in or near injury time, and no one took it to the corner flag. This will come with experience, or so I would wish to believe, but we’ve heard it all before, in the Premier League. It’s the hardest lesson to learn and frankly Bremen should have punished more severely.
As it was, our defence was pierced too easily in the second half. The midfield who were sound by and large, were asleep after the restart. All five of them were upfield, presenting Bremen with a open path to our box, uncluttered by tackles or pressure. Well-finished by Marin but he could not believe his luck in getting that far.
A combination of good fortune, wayward finishing and some good blocks saw us through. Cudicini could have come for the cross that led to Bremen’s first but it was a decent ball (delivered with any pressure being applied) and he was solid enough on his line. Notably his distribution was an asset – on several occasions he passed the ball to team-mates from the box where most keepers would have hacked aimlessly downfield.
The contrast between VDV and Keane could not have been more damning against the Irishman. I say this with no pleasure as in his experience and all-round game is welcome in a substitute. However, he too gave the ball away and wasted precious opportunities, opting for over-complicated passes and making runs that look good but in fact ask far too much of his colleagues. Notice how often his runs require a ball of such precision, into the narrow strip between the back four and keeper, or a ball right into the corner that takes him into safe areas for the defence.
I detest the popular phrase ‘settle for a point’ because it denies potential and restricts ambition. However, the fact of the matter is, an away point at Bremen is a fine outcome. Undoubtedly parts of the second half were excruciating – I covered my face with my hands on more than one occasion – but this morning I was quietly delighted, a feeling that has stayed with me all day. Driving late last night night, I found myself switching from station to station, just to hear the sports bulletins, opening item, “and in the Champions League tonight…”, followed a few moments later by ‘Tottenham Hotspur’. These words are so familiar, yet so distant. Until now that is. Exhilarating and excruciating, this is the Champions League and we are part of it. And I want more.