Before yesterday’s match against Fulham, Spurs manager Tim Sherwood described his players as “much of a muchness”. Hardly a Churchillian call to arms as Tottenham aim to complete the season on a high. However, he rightly identified three players as rising above the average: Hugo Lloris and Manu Adebayor with Christian Eriksen the rising star. They proved to be the difference, making vital contributions at both ends of the field that made up for the deficiencies elsewhere on the pitch.
For much of a lacklustre first half, Spurs were disjointed and flat, devoid of confidence and shape. This has been a familiar aspect not just over the last few games but across the season. One big difference between AVB’s half and Tim’s half is that under Sherwood we are scoring goals. We made few chances in this one but took them. Two came from set-pieces, masterminded by the deadly Eriksen. At the other end, Lloris is finishing the season and perhaps his time at White Hart Lane in style. An athletic leap to reach up under the bar to tip over Rodellaga’s thumping header was followed by a penalty save. Just as valuable was an ungainly but vital block in the first half when Fulham were attacking vigorously.
Adebayor’s contribution wasn’t in assists or goal attempts – several shots were frankly rubbish. However, from the start he worked tirelessly, trying to lift the team. His team-mates should have done more to follow his example. Paulinho and Chadli both had good touches but never tried to seize the initiative in midfield. Parker is past his best and was injured early on but we missed his purpose and application.
At full-back Naughton and Rose were uncertain. Paulinho hung back but again without a designated DM or any intent to provide much cover, our already weakened back four with Fryers in alongside Kaboul were always exposed and vulnerable. The two centre halves did reasonably well but it was far too easy for a limited Fulham attack to get at us.
An early example was a long ball that caught our centrebacks dozing. Rodellega missed. We didn’t adjust despite that escape. Spurs went through the motions but lacked inspiration or energy. Flat as a pancake run over by a steamroller. Kaboul headed over, Lennon hit the post – think the keeper tipped it onto the woodwork – but that was it until Eriksen’s curling free-kick fizzed between a befuddled keeper and defenders facing their goal who feared taking a touch. It went all the way to Paulinho at the back post who touched it in from about an inch.
Rather than consolidating, Spurs immediately caved in. Sidwell shook off a couple of effete challenges, played a one-two with Fryers who laid the ball perfectly at his feet. The half drifted to a close. Attention wavered – vacant expressions in the stand, time to count the many empty seats. At this stage of the season we often hear of players halfway to the beach. At the Lane, that applies to the crowd. If the chairman has written off the season and the players can’t be bothered, neither are we.
If Sherwood is saying that we have too many players in certain positions, he has a point. There’s no room for all our attacking central midfielders while we are short in cover up front and at full-back. However, Sherwood’s role is to motivate the players, not to be a pundit. Not the right approach to criticise players in public before a game. Clearly there is dissention in the ranks – I was shown a tweet at halftime where Sandro announced he was fit. The undignified spectacle of a twitter and press conference spat continued after the final whistle. Rose and Tony Parks appeared to have words as they left the field.
However, Sherwood must be doing something right at half-time. The second half began inauspiciously with the team coming out late, hesitant as to who should lead them, Rose eventually taking the initiative while captain Kaboul was last out, talking animatedly to Adebayor. They were lifted by an early goal. Lennon had a good second half, working hard up and down the field. He curled in a deep left-footed cross from the right. Kane had a quiet game but showed his value as a man playing off the striker who has experience up front as opposed to an advanced midfielder. He headed home for his third goal in three Premier League starts.
You will have sussed by now that Fulham don’t like the ball in the six yard box. Eriksen took his next opportunity to whip in a carbon copy of his first half effort, only this time from the left. Kaboul was at the far post this time.
Fulham were well-drilled but rather rigid. They failed to adapt to having to come back into the game despite being gifted a penalty when Eriksen lost concentration and needlessly handled the ball. Sidwell’s penalty was too close to Lloris and the keeper pushed it away.
A goal then could have induced a typical Spurs wobble but instead we took control. Our possession football wasn’t exciting but just what was needed to close this one out. Much of our play was uninspiring and insipid, especially in the first half, but let’s be grateful for a few moments of class in an otherwise ordinary performance that gave us three more points.
The caretaker effect created by Levy seems to have engendered lethargy and cynicism in players, manager and fans alike. At least we are together in something. Sherwood seems to feel justified in criticising players – he’s off so what the hell. Many players don’t have the incentive to do well because the new man whoever he is may or may not have different ideas. Just a reminder, if any were necessary, that despite Sherwood’s limitations, this sorry situation was set up by the chairman.
A couple of days ago I pondered on the nature of one aspect of modern fandom, the vehement rejection of any player who leaves us if they accept a transfer. It’s not something I feel, preferring a haphazard, not necessarily logical balance sheet that factors in their previous commitment and contribution to the Tottenham cause. In January, Nacer Chadli was allegedly thinking about a move but decided to stay. Sherwood has rewarded him with regular starts, most recently in a central midfield. I’d suggest the Belgian has not repaid his manager’s faith in him. He’s good on the ball but is reluctant to work hard enough. Alert and active when he gets possession, suddenly his enthusiasm dissipates when he has to do something that he doesn’t want to. It’s unforgivable to see him jogging back when we need him goalside. Apparently he’s quite happy for his team-mates to put in the sweat and toil that is beneath him. In a midfield four, without a dedicated DM, it’s a derelication of duty. On my personal balance sheet, he’s so far in the red no amount of top corner swervers are going make up for it.
Since when does Kyle Naughton take corners? From both sides of the pitch? How come that was the plan? Someone at Tottenham Hotspur sat down, thought this through carefully, maybe even deliberated with others, and came to the decision that a Spurs reserve full-back who seldom looks confident moving forward anyway, should be our deadball specialist for the day.
Sometimes you watch a game and things don’t go well for Spurs, OK, they gave it a go, could have played better but that’s how it goes. Occasionally you see something that is so bewildering, so utterly unfathomable that you have to hit yourself over the head with a tin tea-tray to make sure this wasn’t the hallucinogenic ramblings of a delusional unconscious.
Look – I know Naughton’s corner-taking ability isn’t the thought that’s uppermost in Sherwood’s mind as he reviews this hideous performance. Since the final whistle I’ve tried to come to terms with it. My only conclusion is that is represents the nightmare vision of my repressed subconscious, where every fear I have about the team, hitherto long-buried under alluvial denial, played out before me. Those dreams where you run and run yet find yourself going nowhere. Where you lose control over muscular functions so everything you try fails crazily. Where logic and rationality becomes an Alice in Wonderland parody of reality.
Much of the game held a hazy, dreamlike quality. Vertonghen, a fine centreback, intelligent, quick, tough, a footballer, crashing through with mistimed tackles he was never going to make. Dawson, marooned like a beached whale on the halfway line, stranded and gasping for air. A back four so far apart, they needed binoculars to see each other, so lacking in unity they would have been better off communicating with semaphore. Lennon with some sort of a central free role – but he can’t pass it… Chadli doing, well, not sure what really but he looks good and that’s what counts, apparently. Defensive midfield? Who needs it?
With no intended disrespect to Norwich, who were fully deserving winners, the first half was shocking. The Canaries’ hesitancy was understandable given their perilous league position. Ours was harder to grasp. We had a lot of room and took no advantage. Instead there were bizarre passages of play where both sides struggled to come to grips with the basics of football and passed to opponents, into space, anywhere but to a team-mate.
One time, we took a throw, with caution mind, nothing rushed, and precisely tossed it 10 yards to a Norwich man, who with as much consideration passed it straight back to us, whereupon we gave it to the nearest yellow shirt, all without any pressure on players or the ball. Did I imagine this or had my mango squash been shaman-laced with bad seed?
The match highlights on the Sky red button included only two incidents in the entire half. One was Van Wolfswinkel trying to kick a ball in the box that was eight foot off the ground, the other was Chadli shaping to do a far-post top-corner curler and failing miserably. After Newcastle I guess we’ll have to put up with that every time he plays from now on.
I know this because I missed the very start of the second half as I was still putting the dinner on. Add some celery and carrots to the pan, stuff the chicken with an onion, keeps it moist you see. A lemon will do, then slice the onion in the baking tray. This all takes a fraction longer, long enough for Spurs to give the ball away with the defence stuck upfield. Snodgrass, by far the game’s best player, darted into the inviting gap left by Danny Rose and scored a fine goal. At least my gravy was full of flavour.
We flattered to deceive for a while and were on top without getting very far. We had been unbalanced by Capoue’s injury early in the game, partly because we lost the protection he gives us but mainly because we missed the hard work and promptings of Bentaleb who had to drop back. Throughout we had no tempo, settling early into a dull, monotonous torpor from which we never escaped and that Sherwood was powerless to influence.
Only Dembele tried to shake things up, driving at the defence whenever he could. He dished up a perfect ball to Chadli in the second half but his fellow Belgian shot at the keeper when well-placed. Adebayor kept going but his movement was wasted because he was so far adrift from his team-mates. This was a creativity-free zone. Goodness knows what ran through Eriksen’s mind, watching from the bench. What’s Danish for, ‘are you seriously saying I’m not good enough to get into this team?’
Soldado’s form has plunged into the abyss, resting finally in a subterranean cavern that last saw daylight 300 million years ago before the grinding of tectonic plates contorted tortured sediment into an underground chamber buried beneath the rock until the sun explodes in five billion years’ time. See the way he looks round suddenly? He hears the sound of deformed otherworldly creatures scuttling by.
My pity for his misery is as deep as the chasm that has trapped him. Beyond criticism, I can’t bear to look when he comes on. Such indignity should be a private affair. The commentator had barely finished sucking clean the bones of his Thursday night miss when a rare decent move set him up on the right of the box. His first touch of the game was an outrageous slice impossibly high into the stands. A minute or two later, a close range header skimmed off his forehead without even going in the general direction of the goal. Two perfect chances, and the game, gone.
I feel so deeply, desperately sad. What have we done to him? “Soldado, ohhh oh. He came from sunny Spain, he’s going back again….” He must be on his way in the summer. Bags packed in the hall as we speak, I should imagine. And we all know the consequences if the team’s form continues to deteriorate – who else will join him? For the last few seasons, we have diced with the consequences of thwarted ambition and promises that we cannot keep. We build a side in the knowledge that success may keep it together but also acts as a season-long advertisement. Berbatov, Carrick, Modric, Bale, all gone but thus far we have tried to replenish the pool of talent.
Now, Vertonghen, Lloris, they won’t hang around, Dembele will be a target for someone, Paulinho has a reputation plus a possible World Cup Winners medal to look forward to. What a waste.
Sherwood has a real challenge to overcome. He has to get a grip and exert a greater influence over the side. Individuals are coming back from injury, it’s true, but Paulinho and Vertonghen have to drive us on and be a presence on the field, while the problems with the inverted wingers that bedevilled AVB’s second season have reared their ugly head in the last two matches. We can’t rely on Manu’s goals all the time.
Watching the last two games on TV, I was struck by how low and worried a few of the players seem – Dawson, Verts, Townsend, Paulinho. It may be nothing but they look as if they are carrying a heavy burden.
Norwich deserved to win. They defended stoutly in the second half and should have scored more. Lloris saved well from one chance while the crossbar is still vibrating from a thundering free-kick. Other chances we got away with.
So what I mean to say is, yeah – it was s**t.
Several years ago I spent an agreeable few days in Venice. Pretty soon I ditched the guidebook and ended up just meandering through the narrow streets or toodling round the canals on the vaporetti rather than seeing the sights. I loved the atmosphere but didn’t achieve very much.
A quarter pounder with onions outside the Colonel’s burger van in the Paxton doesn’t quite have the same ambience as a macchiato and ice cream in San Marco but the pleasant disorientation is not dissimilar, a blissful disconnect between surroundings and emotions, being there but not fully involved.
This is an odd phase for Spurs fans. There’s so much going on – new manager, different formations, the dust not quite settled yet from AVB’s departure. Yet it’s hard to engage fully. It’s going on around me but I’m not part of things.
Not sure why really. Nothing but good wishes to Tim Sherwood but I can’t as yet escape the nagging doubt that this is all temporary, that Levy and Sherwood both have long-term plans which do not necessarily involve each other. Levy will continue to seek options for another appointment in the summer, someone with kudos and experience, while Sherwood in the short-term is going along with the party line – plan for the future, no new players this window, leaving us with only two strikers is perfectly acceptable – and knows this is his chance to create a reputation for himself as a manager, but not automatically of Spurs.
For the moment, Sherwood’s gaze is fixed immovably upon stamping his authority on the side, and a frankly scary gaze it is too. Sometimes we ask the children I work with how they know their foster carers mean business, they reply simply, “It’s the look.” All the complex interaction and attachment theory takes second place to the look, and I reckon one glance from Tim sends a few of those players scurrying to do his bidding, double quick. And that’s a good thing – he’s working hard to get things right. Still, a lot of attention has been focussed on Tim’s team selections and tactics but again we’re waiting until the team of injured players return to contention to truly see what the rest of the season holds.
I guess I thought we would be somewhere else right now. After New Year was the time the plans, the training, the talent, would begin to bear fruit. Not a conscious thought, you understand. Sometimes you define your hopes only when they fail to materialise.
Plenty of time to ponder the meaning of it all during the first half on Saturday. I watched incredulously a comedic tour de force of slapstick and pantomime. This was a surreal masterpiece with an entire team apparently unable to pass the ball to each other, or run around with even the vaguest purpose, or defend, or attack. Walker and Dawson were our very own Chuckle Brothers, competing to kick the ball as hard and as far away from a team-mate as possible. Adebayor played statues; Soldado came to the party as the invisible man but no one knew if he had arrived or not.
Dizzy and disoriented, I waited open-mouthed for us to pull ourselves together but things just got worse. Palace didn’t help. Half their team of giants were lumbering around in those padded superhero suits that kids dress up in, with six-packs of stuffed cotton-wool. If only they had scored, it would have brought me back to reality. But they couldn’t, not through any skill on our part but through their own role as sidekicks, setting up the gags and executing with wild passes and misplaced crosses.
If the humour begins to flag why not get in the way of your team-mate’s goal-bound shot or wait, here’s a penalty! Dembele obligingly fouled Chamakh – that will teach him for trying to run back and tackle! Puncheon stepped up and with exquisite comedy timing choreographed his routine with the sole purpose of placing the ball into row Z. Not blasting you understand: make ‘em laugh is the motto and that would have been too obvious. Lloris added a neat touch, quietly fist-pumping as he lay on the floor, as if he had had some role in a penalty miss that left the crowd past derision into helpless laughter.
We were chuckling too at the absurdity of this game, one of the most inept 45 minutes I can recall from Spurs, so bad that the crowd were past anger. Just as bizarre was the fact that although Palace could have been three up, we came closest to scoring in the first half, when Adebayor might have got his head closer to Lennon’s cross and then Bentaleb’s sweet first time long-range effort hit the woodwork and defied the laws of physics by twisting along the goal line and out.
At half-time Sherwood got the look going. He had been dancing around on the halfway line like a demented jester for much of the half – he must have been furious. To his credit, he got through to them. Without playing especially well, Spurs upped their game to get enough of a grip to overcome a poor Palace side. A early goal helped settle any nerves. Never mind the cultured stuff. Route one, Adebayor headed down perfectly for Eriksen to smash it gratefully into the net. Manu had one of his sedate afternoons – in the first half he was at his most energetic when shouting long and hard at the bench about something or other – but his presence offers the option of the high cross or in this case, long ball.
Talking of odd things, has a player ever scored for Spurs having been sold? On came Defoe and soon afterwards reacted with quick feet in the box to stab home our second. Today there are pictures of him in Toronto doing the scarf overhead thing beloved by new signings the world over, greeted by concerted indifference from passers-by in the airport. Saturday he’s back on the bench, presumably? Like most things about this game, I don’t get it but I’m grateful for the goal, JD.
The match drifted to a conclusion. Palace were never going to score so we didn’t bother defending corners and their giants queued up to head it wide. They were unlucky early on but the organisation that confidently resisted our first half attacks broke down too easily in the second. Their supporters are second to none, however, loud, scurrilous and funny. Good luck to them.
We were dire, got three points, let’s move on. But not before praising the performance of young Nabil Bentaleb. If he is anything to go by, Sherwood is a fine judge of a player. Upright, mobile and aware, his passing is quick with a sure touch and weight. Highly promising and apart from decent supporting roles from Lennon and substitute Naughton, the only one to rise above the dross.
The unexpected victories are often the best. If you truly thought Spurs could beat United, I take my hat off to you, because I didn’t, and enjoyed this win more than most precisely for that reason. Every player exceeded my expectations and the manager’s tactics and motivation were spot on.
Sure, we nearly threw it all away – more of giving away goals and penalties later – but this is Spurs, and the overall performance more than compensated for the tension of the last 15 minutes. A lovely win.
A lot has been made of Sherwood’s 4-4-2 and his comments about liking to take a few risks. What’s more significant is the variation he has employed, partly to adjust the set-up to the demands of different opponents, partly to compensate for injuries and suspensions beyond his control and partly as an element of his crash-course in How To Be A Premier League Manager.
Having smoothly disposed of a weak but negative Stoke side, Sherwood faced the very different challenge of defending against United for lengthy periods. When United had the ball, we kept a familiar shape but everyone dropped five yards deeper whereas against other teams we have pressed near the halfway line. The full-backs conspicuously did not get forward very much except on the break or on a run from deep when they were covered by a team-mate. Eriksen stayed wide left.
As a result, we were better than we usually are at stopping crosses at source and it was only when the Reds began to bang them in late on that we looked in any consistent danger. Hardly surprising – we tired after massive effort for the whole game and by then United were playing a 0-10 formation with virtually an entire team of forwards.
Key again was Abebayor with another excellent performance. His movement for the goal bamboozled Smalling into submission. He foraged deeper, dropping off with or without the ball and leaving Soldado usually the furthest forward. However, they interchanged as required. The pass before the pass for the assist in both Spurs goals came from the Spaniard, cut free from his anchorage at the edge of the box under AVB. Manu thus got in the way of United’s attempts to build from the back, although Cleverly and Carrick were inconsequential, while Lennon kept Evra fully occupied so he seldom was able to get forward.
Sherwood is a good communicator too. The players could not have responded in a better manner. Their effort and application was universally excellent, the tempo high when we had possession. Capoue was solid and economical, providing a sound base. I like him: good positional sense, an awareness of what’s going on around him, he wins it then gives it quickly. In one terrific move from defence to attack before half-time, he touched the ball 6 or 7 times, keeping it moving. Alongside him, Dembele is ferociously active.
With Eriksen we have the Modric Conundrum – he can play there but it’s not his best position. But he’s clever – witness his popping up on the right to cross the ball plumb onto Manu’s forehead for a classic far-post header, our opener. Plus he’s involved. He may like being the number 10, it may yet be his best position but his whole attitude and demeanour has changed for the better since he dropped back because he’s on the ball much more and is willing to take that responsibility. He’s eager and wants to play, which come to think of it sums up what Sherwood has done with the whole of the side. Like Redknapp at his best, Tim has given each player a role that suits them, as opposed to AVB who persisted with square pegs in round holes. Even the subs leapt to their feet in delight when we scored.
I haven’t mentioned Lennon yet. He should have crowned a fine performance with a goal, hitting De Gea early on when clean through then sliding the ball wide from the left in the second half. It would have made the game safe but as it was we had to endure another fractious and nerve-shredding 15 minutes or so. He should also have had a first-half assist when poor Soldado failed to convert his low cross at the far post.
Lennon did set up our second, his deflected cross from the right bouncing into the area. Valencia rocked back on his heels, apparently transfixed, whereas Eriksen delightedly pounced on the opportunity to dive forward and head it home. I thought De Gea could have had stronger hands and done more but then again I was in mid-air, not analysing. United never coped with his pace and it’s noticeable how well he not only times his runs from deep but also the angles he decisively employs, dashing into space where it hurts the defence most.
After a bright start when Welbeck nearly scored and Hugo punched the ball away from outside the box (no foul), it was strange to see United so ineffective near our box for lengthy periods, but hey, I could easily get used to this. Apparently however this is not our destiny. Two up, we immediately came over all Spursy and conceded immediately. Could not have been more convenient for the Mancs – Chiriches let Welbeck run behind him, good finish – but the real problem was the ease with which the pass from deep reached him. No pressure on the ball.
Predictably this gave United momentum for the rest of the match and we were under intense pressure. Adebayor was carried off and we were more vulnerable for that loss. However, Lloris made four good saves plus a diving defensive header from the edge of his box that reached past the halfway line! Saves and bodies in the way, fighting spirit., Moyes cunningly moved Rooney, their most dangerous player, back to deep midfield and confused his team with his substitutions, so we made it.
Apart from one scare. Better to be a lucky manager than a good one, as the saying goes? Late on, Lloris launched himself wildly at Young, took him out at both ankle (right foot) and waist (left foot) but no penalty. After the Mendes “goal” and the Gomes “penalty”, I indulged in a moment’s karma and could not resist a chuckle at Moyes’ ashen-faced post-match apoplexy even though he was right in hammering the ref for a lousy decision.
I thought Smalling handled an innocuous cross in the first half when under no pressure but MOTD showed a replay. Not part of a narrative that focussed on United’s bad luck over the decisions rather than Spurs’ excellent performance that warmed this slightly soggy heart and soul.
Thanks to everyone for their good wishes after my flood and the loss of my Spurs programmes - frankly touching response, deeply appreciated. I will spare their blushes but the three best-known Spurs authors are kind, generous and entirely worthy of any money you invest in their books, so buy them. The piece is really about the hold the club has on our passions and emotions, which is the single most important theme of this blog, and that woe betide those who seek to undermine that. A very Happy New Year to you all.