Ironic that as the minute’s applause in celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela had barely died away, the Barclays adverts flickered around the pitch perimeter. Not so long ago, or so it seems to me, we boycotted Barclays because of its persistent links with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Cashpoints were picketed, and we didn’t buy their apples. The ANC probably did more to bring down the government but it felt as though we were part of the struggle. Many still feel a deep connection with a man whose principled, single-minded compassion created fundamental political and social change, an example to all yet sadly highly unlikely to ever be repeated in contemporary politics.
Plenty of time to watch the ads in the early stages as Spurs versus Sunderland took a while to get going. Perhaps I am in sync with the team, understandable after all these years I suppose. This is the pattern lately, a slow start then build up a head of steam as time passes. I know my knowledge of male grooming products began and ended with Old Spice and Brylcreem but a skin product named Nip-Man – that’s a joke, right? And sorry to disappoint relatives and friends but you can forget the Stubhub gift certificate for this and any other Christmas. This blog does not wish its readers a Merry Tixmas. Tixmas for goodness sake.
Christmas is a time for tradition and Spurs have created one of their own in time for the festive season, the defensive cock-up. After a sedate first half-hour where our new centre back partnership of Capoue and Dawson looked unsettled without Sandro’s protection in front of them, Lloris’s horrible error put us one down but shook us out of our stupor. His feeble punch went straight to Johnson who scored easily.
From then on, we dominated the match. As at Fulham in the week, we should aim to impose ourselves on teams from the start. We haven’t got the defence to absorb relentless attacks and in this opening period we looked lousy on the break, wilfully moving the ball slowly even when we had time and space.
Having the ability to pull ourselves back from a deficit is laudable. Personally I would prefer if we didn’t make a hash of it in the first place, much more sensible. Recent victories should not obscure this fact. Never mind all the talk about tactics, formations and the merits of AVB’s managerial style, we make too many basic and costly mistakes at the back. Our early season parsimony was not due to mighty defence but our relative lack of errors.
It helps to get back quickly. After Defoe missed one opportunity and Chadli headed straight at the keeper from a corner, the value of the latter’s height and power in the box was shown to full effect. A long cross seemed to be predictably drifting wide but Chadli nodded it back and Paulinho was more alert to the loose ball. I had given it up but he didn’t, and touched home from close in. The Brazilian’s starting position was deeper yesterday, alongside Dembele as DMs, and for me he looked all the better for it.
We came out after the break with a welcome eagerness, dominating the next twenty minutes where the game was won. AVB confounded his detractors by making two significant tactical changes. The high line was notable by its welcome absence again. AVB and I still shudder at the sight of Daws stranded on the halfway line against City. Also, a right-footed winger on the right. Lennon was outstanding, and when Townsend came on as sub to play wide left, he too looked so much more comfortable.
Holtby has a painter’s eye for the angled pass and on 65 minutes with a single devastating brushstroke intended to complete this canvas. The ball sliced through the entire defence, ending at Defoe’s feet deep inside the box as he skipped across the line and free of his markers but his judgement was less certain. His diagonal beat the keeper but slid wide of the far post. It was a frustrating miss, not only because it created 15-odd minutes of palpitating anxiety whenever Sunderland hacked the ball upfield but also because a goal would have demonstrated that finally, we really could make and take a chance inside the area.
There were other opportunities for proof, mostly from players, Lennon and Walker notably, getting to the byline and crossing. I’ll just repeat that for newish supporters or those with merely normal memories: getting to the byline and crossing.
Defoe hit the post twice, coming across the defender to the near post, the classic striker’s move. One header on the right, one deft flick on the left, both were reactions, both were unlucky. These and others - Holtby’s blocked shot, Paulinho’s header – from providers cutting close to the byline. If only they had done that for me, sighed Bobby Soldier, sinking deeper inside his padded coat on the bench.
All these chances yet the winner was pure good fortune. Dembele charging forward on the left and his cross/shot hit O’Shea and into the net. An own goal but one made because we attacked from dangerous angles. It shows again the value of the Moose upfield – let it go, Al, just let it go – but overall he had a strong match before he went off holding his hip.
One of my suggestions to heal our Andre’s self-inflicted wounds was to return to a few things that worked last season. Yesterday Walker and Lennon were reunited down the right. Both made a full, flowing contribution to this win. At times they looked like they were enjoying themselves almost as much as I was. Little Azza was just terrific, buzzing up and down, irritating the Sunderland defence like a wasp after an icecream on a summer’s day. He’s learned to vary his game, not only when to take the full-back on or tuck inside but also to sense the pace of the match, picking things up with a dash forward or a calming touch or two to allow team-mates to readjust position. That is the difference that to me gives him the nod over Townsend right now. Andros is still inexperienced: let’s hope he learns, just as Lenny did.
The pair helped each other out at either end of the field. Defending is not part of Lennon’s natural game, whereas Walker quickly gets bored defending, yet time and again he was back, notably towards the end of the game to prevent Sunderland from crossing the ball. Both were tireless. Walker took stick from the crowd when he stayed down after a challenge – he was knackered after several lung-busting runs then using his body strength to stave off an opponent. He’s improved his play and this was his best game this season. If only he could learn to tuck in at the back every single time to bolster his centre-backs.
Capoue did well enough after a shaky start. He could have done with closer attendance from Walker to help out but when Sunderland went longer later in the game and pinned us back into the box, he and Dawson won most everything. Daws was especially strong at the end. Back in the box not stuck upfield, it’s what he does best and his presence was reassuring. Sunderland’s one decent chance went straight to Lloris, who showed his mettle by claiming one important ball to partly banish the memory of his mistake. Capoue won a header then instinctively went to go forward to where the ball landed, pointing to his team-mates to pounce on the loose ball as he would have done, but he can’t be in two places at the same time. That’s what you get with a midfielder at the back.
Holtby did well but tired. This is one problem with all the chopping and changing. Players get gametime but seldom play for 90 minutes. Holtby has been with us for almost a year yet I would be surprised if he has played more than a handful of full games.
AVB brought on Sandro, not in the starting line-up because he does not feel fit enough yet to play three games in a week, to shore up the defence. It was just at the right time and he did well. However, it could have been our downfall. With the stiff uncertainty of a man who has just come on the filed, Sandro handballed a corner but the ref, who was poor throughout, turned a blind eye.
And on moments like that, the game turns. We fully deserved this win, in the second half playing some of our best football of the season so far, yet we win by an own goal and the penalty that never was. That momentum again, we have kept it going and players and managers know it, judging by their expressions at the end of the game.
No complaints, it augers well for the rest of this important month. Just one caveat – we have done well against three teams who allowed us to play a bit. It remains to be seen what happens when sides park the bus at home, as did Hull and West Ham. That’s for the future = the team and manager, that’s a big ‘we’, have earned our praise for their response after the City debacle, so let’s enjoy it with them.
Sometimes you take control and smash your opponents into the middle of next week. Sometimes you have to get your head down and just keep on going. This season’s model, the AVB Mk2, keeps on rolling along. Creating chances at a steady rate throughout yesterday’s match against Cardiff, in the end shot number 29 went in, well worth the wait as the supporters in the ground celebrated as madly as the players.
If there are any non-Spurs fans reading this, forgive us if we think what is after all a basic requirement of a football team, to play for 90 minutes, is remarkable in some way. It’s just that we’re not used to it. Over the years the defence has had the concentration span of a hyperactive Tasmanian devil on acid. However well we played, it was only a matter of time before someone would go for a wander, suddenly entranced by the hidden mysterious beauty of the preformed concrete walls of the nearest stand or gazed longingly into the sunset over N17.
Villas-Boas has instilled a rare focus into his side. They not only keep going, they stick to their shape and pattern of play, retaining possession and pass-and-move towards the opponents’ goal. It proves that this system suits the players and they are responding admirably. As I’ve said before this season, it enhances their individual strengths, makes them feel comfortable and confident. Put that together with their philosophy and commitment, you have a little something going there. Their celebration of the goal was natural and ebullient, shared by the coaches and the subs – no sulking resentment at being taken off there.
And let’s not forget another basic – they are very fit. There is no noticeable dip in the levels of effort in the last 15 minutes of a game, but that’s carrying on from AVB Mk1, something he sorted out in the second half of last season.
This was a match we dominated for long periods without ever dazzling. None of the forwards had a particularly eye-catching game yet the chances flowed. Marshall, the Cardiff keeper, was undoubtedly the man of the match but without taking away any credit from his fine performance, many of our shots were very straight. Still, I would rather Soldado carry on taking the ball early because on other days those efforts will find the corners or a worse goalkeeper.
The goal was effortless class, the sort that makes the difference between winning and losing in tight situations. Holtby’s fine cameo when he came on as sub gave our late efforts renewed impetus, busy on the ball and early angled passes into the channels. In injury time he found Lamela on the right, whose cross with the outside of his left foot was touched home by Paulinho with a sublime improvised backheel-come-sidefoot.
We deserved the win but understand Cardiff fans’ frustration. They missed a couple of good chances when very well placed, missed by a fair distance if truth be told. They also could have had at least a free-kick and quite possibly 11 versus 10 when Lloris handled marginally outside the area as he rushed out at the feet of an attacker. Much as I admire him, that’s the second game in succession when Hugo has lost his bearings at the edge of the box. It’s a vital aspect both of his game and our tactics with the sweeper-keeper, he can’t afford to have a faulty sat-nav.
Second in the table, one solitary goal conceded. I’ll worry about scoring only five but leave that for another day and I’ll settle for the current 5:1 goals scored/conceded ratio at the end of the season. Twitter tells me this is the best defensive record in Europe. Remember readers, this is Tottenham Hotspur we are talking about. George Graham tried but failed to bring his ‘one nil to the Ars***l’ mentality to Spurs in the late nineties. All of this with plenty of attacking play, overlapping full-backs and Walker still going walkabout.
There’s no single reason for this. Lloris makes a huge difference – we have a back five now – and Vertonghen can cover up for the errors of others. We seem better defending set pieces and this may be my imagination but I get the impression we are conceding fewer unnecessary free-kicks in our own half. Linked to this is the value of retaining possession better, thus giving the opposition fewer opportunities.
The main factor, however, has got to be the formation with two defensive midfielders. Paulinho hasn’t dominated so far but he gets through so much work, snuffs out problems in midfield before they become serious and gets a tackle in. Finally, we don’t attack rashly these days. We don’t over-commit and there’s always someone staying back to cover. Add up the little things and you have something greater than the sum of the parts.
So that’s settled then – Villa 5 Spurs 0 tomorrow….There’s plenty of work required as I said at the start of the season but to my mind we are way ahead of schedule. In the meantime this solidity and strength is gaining us points that we would have dropped in, well, all the years I’ve been watching Spurs pretty much covers it.
Back to school we go. We queued up to get a new blazer, sharpened our pencils and mum has been up half the night biroing our name into the collars of our clothes. Then school closed for ten days. May as well have stayed on holiday. These days the start of each season is absurd. End the transfer window at midnight before the opening game and shift the internationals. But here we are so let’s get on with it. So what do we know now that we didn’t know on the morning of August 18th?
That Spurs fans have every right to be excited about the quality of the squad. We have bought skillful, talented footballers able to play the Spurs Way, with the power and strength in key positions required to prosper in the Premier League.
That we will have to be patient. The coitus interruptus of the international break is a let down but creates time to reassess our performance. The madness of the end of the window with three transfers in a day and Bale’s impending departure (who will ever forget the regular scaffolding updates from the Bernabeu on twitter?) has thankfully subsided, leaving time for tranquil reflection, at least until kick-off tomorrow. The conclusion is, we have a lot of work to do.
Let’s start in the heart of the team, the defensive midfield. Paulinho and Capoue are highly promising. That area is their natural habitat and they know their role is not only to break up attacks but to start our own moves once we have the ball. Paulinho is the more flexible of the two, willing to get forward when the situation allows and his judgement in that respect is sound. However, after settling quickly at Selhurst Park, at the Emirates at times they both looked a long way from home. Sandro should be back tomorrow to provide more power and drive. Last season he did so well before his injury, Villas-Boas often switched to just one DM, allowing more support for the attack. And they need it.
That Soldado needs to be given the ball. Well obviously – but this guy does his best work in the box rather than leading the line as target man. Support from midfield in terms of both making chances and getting up alongside him is imperative therefore. I look forward to seeing Eriksen but it is not about one individual providing the chances, it’s a team effort.
That we have to get bodies in the box. See above. Six points from three games is a better start than we are used to but it masks the fact that we have not scored from open play. Partly this is because of a lack of creativity in the centre. We’ve directed much of our work out wide, which teams keen to pack defence find easier to handle. Partly it is due to a lack of support for Soldado in the box. We can’t be everywhere at once but have to get a better balance.
That progress hinges on the form of the old guard not the new wave. At least in the short-term that is. Sandro’s back. The back four have to get their act together. With Dawson rather stranded for the Gunner’s goal, either they sort out the high line drill or, better, Kaboul returns alongside Vertonghen. Rose needs a run while Walker has to improve his decision-taking, that is not get drawn out of position or sucked into unnecessary fouls. Chiriches still doesn’t have a work permit – I trust the club have not made a misjudgment here. I don’t understand how that can happen.
That I wouldn’t swap Lloris for any keeper in the league. Huge favourite of mine.
That Dembele is key. He has been somewhat overshadowed by the newcomers but he has the lot. Hard to shake off the ball, a good touch and the pass to pick out a man in the box. The axis with Sandro was dynamic when they played together last season. His manager likes him but should play him further forward to make best use of those talents. But we have a problem – he’s not played well for some time and he can’t finish a match. If he’s not fully fit, rest him until he is. His lack of form and fitness has had a greater impact than has generally been acknowledged.
That Adebayor has a vital role to play. Barely noticed during the transfer furore, he provides not merely cover for Soldado but alternatives too. His movement and ability to bring others into the game offers variation, provided his motivation is right. He likes to be top dog and although the club are rightly and generously nurturing him during the aftermath of his brother’s death, his mind could be elsewhere when he’s fit again, in which case suddenly we are short of options up front.
That bloody international break. AVB has had no time to work on tactics and formation, precisely the things that are most needed. I read today, for example, that Lamela hasn’t trained with the team since the break. It’s like starting all over again.
That Franco Baldini is a star.
That our rivals are benefitting from the lack of change. Arsenal had an organisation and ethic that was enough to keep us out despite our possession while at Liverpool Rodgers has begun to get the message across, despite having a worse squad on paper.
At this point last season I thought we would do well but not immediately. Patience remains a virtue, except that with this squad the rewards when they come, and I think they will, could be great. I’m looking forward to the journey.
This, Tottenham On My Mind’s fifth season, begins as did all the others, with Daniel Levy as the defining character in the drama to come. The seasons ended that way too. But this one is different, whatever the ultimate outcome. Levy has responded to his manager like never before. Over to you, Andre.
First signing – Franco Baldini. A highly respected and knowledgeable figure in European football, the significance of this move could easily be forgotten because he has opted, rightly, for a low profile. That a man of his experience should come to Spurs in the first place shows that he believes in the club’s potential. It also gives Villas-Boas his clearest indication yet that he has proved himself in the eyes of the board.
To prosper, Spurs have to buy footballers with potential, not quite at the top of their game but bursting with talent and ambition. If nothing else we can’t compete at the very highest level for salaries and transfer fees but that’s not a bad place to be. These men have something to prove, they want to succeed rather than play the odd game and be more involved with their bank manager than the first team coach. Find a way of harnessing Villas-Boas’ ambition to the national grid and Britain’s energy problems are solved. Even Soldado, our marquee signing, has had to fight his up from rejection at Real Madrid.
So we depend on knowing who’s out there. They used to be called scouts, who knows these days, but it’s no coincidence that Baldini has been followed by a succession of classy players in the Spurs mould, all part of Villas-Boas’ vision. This may be the difficult second season but for the first time this is Andre’s team. He’s hardly starting from scratch but these are his men, the new guys because he wants them, the familiar figures secure in the knowledge that Villas-Boas wants to keep them rather than being here by default.
The vision is sound: our fortunes this season will be dictated by how well the players conform to it. It’s less about 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or some such, more about these key characteristics. Possession, so we need men comfortable on the ball and who know when to be patient and when to move it along. Movement, to support the man on the ball or to regroup when the opponents have possession. Flexibility: the front six in particular will interchange on the field, be able to both attack and defend. Emotional intelligence, which in football is an awareness of their role and duties in respect of the position of other players, a dynamic that shifts a thousand or more times a match, plus a team ethic rather than a selfish approach.
Pace: around the pitch and with the ball. Mobility: ditto. Poor Tom Hud was yesterday bemoaning the lack of opportunities for him and others but the Spurs game has passed him by, bless him. Hud, Dempsey, Caulker, Bentley, Parker perhaps, they’ve been upgraded because they don’t fulfill these last two criteria.
Athleticism: the power, stamina and strength to survive in the Premier League. Last but not least, resilience, a bloody-minded determination to give everything but never give ground, to keep the other lot out at all costs. It’s something we’ve not always had but there were positive signs last season.
In the modern game it’s that movement and flexibility that characterises the best teams. Whatever the formation, we depend on the midfield protecting the back four and getting forward, in and around their box. That said, 4-2-3-1 with Sandro and Paulinho a mouthwatering proposition as the DMs looks a good place to begin. Both can drive forward as well as being comfortable in defence. That’s important in the transition from defence to attack. I’ve not seen Capoue but that is his position by all accounts. Holtby can play there too but I don’t see that as Dembele’s best role. He’s better given freedom to get forward.
Chadli by all accounts is versatile but best out wide. Siggy is better in the middle and found form in the box but I can’t see him starting to begin with. Lennon has dramatically improved his all-round game but is best going forward and may have to begin as an impact sub. Note that I’ve left space for Bale, let’s leave it at that.
Soldado of course leading the line, determined, aggressive and sharp in the box. I would keep Defoe and Adebayor, although both might get moody if they don’t play in a side that seems heavy on midfield options, unless Baldini has some upgrades on the way.
Lloris is a fine keeper, unobtrusively active in his box and sweeping up behind the back four. The full-backs have defensive weaknesses. We don’t need a new right-back, we need Walker to respond to his coach and put that learning into place this season. Assou-Ekotto seems out of favour while Rose had a decent time at Sunderland, so I’ll wait to see if he has improved. Naughton is useful cover but not a regular starter. Whatever, there isn’t a full-back in the league who can handle a two on one and we have to protect them. Last season some teams worked hard to get a 2 v 1 on our full-backs, especially on the left.
That leaves centre-backs and once again Spurs can’t get it right. Last year it was the strikers, or lack of them, this we have three centre-backs, only one of whom, Dawson, is fully fit. Capoue can play there and there are rumours of new arrivals but it is a dangerous place to be at the start of a season where we are playing two games a week from the off, especially as we don’t know how Kaboul will be after his long lay off. He may recover strength but what about speed?
Anyway, never mind all this tactical mumbo-jumbo. If we can’t defend set pieces we stand no chance. And I mean no chance. Inexcusable if it carries on.
This is a fine squad that has the potential to realise the manager’s vision. No inflated ambitions – it will be hard work to settle these newcomers into a team and despite the imperative to do away with our usual slow start we may have to wait awhile before they hit their stride. I would use the Europa League matches to bed the team in rather than play reserves, especially as our pre-season has been so bitty.
I detect a note of optimism. Steady on, this is Spurs, so no more. One thing is for sure, I am looking forward to this season enormously, more so than for a while now. Come on you Spurs.
One more preview piece, have to be next week now, on the relationship between the club and fans.