Harry Redknapp was always a kidder. Not interested in tactics, just go out and play, enjoy yourselves lads. Do me a favour. He came out on top in the tactical battle at Loftus Road yesterday, his QPR team retreating deep into their own half to restrict the space and deny Spurs the room to play. Dull but effective. Confronted with this problem, our feeble solutions were as effective as a Deal Or No Deal contestant who finds themselves in an episode of Mastermind by mistake.
It began well. Cesar reached up into the top righthand corner to tip Defoe’s goalbound 20 yarder onto the post, then Adebayor was fatally tentative from the rebound and the Brazilian saved again. It was as if the team shrugged collectively, said to themselves, ‘oh well, not our day’, and went through the motions for the remainder of the 90 minutes.
Redknapp’s strikerless side smothered our passing game at source. So effective was this, we were treated as early as the 35th minute to the unedifying spectacle of Dawson shooting from 35 yards. That’s how lousy our attacking efforts were today. Buses can get closer to the target than that effort.
This past week Redknapp demonstrated once again why Spurs fans have appreciated what he’s done for the team but never taken him to our hearts. A sly dig at any Chelsea manager who couldn’t come up with goods was followed by dark hints of high-level political conspiracies to remove him as Spurs boss. Then classic Harry – in the same breath as he praises Levy for being a decent bloke and calling him to wish him luck at Rangers, he makes fun of his former chairman’s transfer policy. He may have a point but there’s no sense that anything bad is ever his responsibility, at Tottenham or elsewhere. Underneath this good ol’ Uncle ‘arry schtick lies resentment and bitterness. Other managers can sidestep these questions, Redknapp can’t resist it.
At the close his extended chat with Villas Boas was presumably to reassure him that it was nothing personal. Too late. I adored some of his football and reaching the CL quarter finals from being bottom of the league is enough to rank him as a top Spurs manager. Harry, let your achievements speak for themselves, they will always sound more eloquent than you and now you’re gone, let us get on with it.
Adebayor did not repay his manager’s faith in him. Starting up front, he offered nothing. It was easy for QPR to isolate him from Defoe and the rest of his team-mates, and he has the air of a striker who knows he is out of form, waiting for the ball instead of attacking it and wanting always to take the extra touch. When he returns, he will have to work hard to dispel the thought that when City and Ars***l fans warned us that he’s a one-season wonder, they might have been correct.
A great pity as Rangers central defence is vulnerable. However they were well protected as Redknapp threw a midfield defensive blanket over Spurs. We never once got the pass and move going. QPR made the most of their limited ambitions – to be positive it’s a compliment to our status in the game currently that they feared us to the point where players and fans alike reckon a home draw against us is a cause for celebration. However, we did precious little to unsettle them. Dembele was anonymous, while Lennon and Bale were not allowed to get up a head of steam. Only Parker provided occasional bursts into danger areas which committed defenders but we made nothing of the gaps that thus appeared.
We could have done more on the wings but never established combinations between the wide men and the full-backs, never created two against ones. This was compounded by Lennon spending much of the second half on the left, which meant that we had two right-footers out there. They turned inside where Rangers gratefully gobbled them up, rather than seeking the space by the touchlines. Also, Bale’s wandering was unpredictable for the defenders but for his team-mates too. They did not know where to find him.
Spurs have made fantastic progress in a short time under Villas Boas but we don’t have the patience, wit and invention to break down a packed, well-drilled defence. The evidence is there from Stoke, Wigan and now at Loftus Road yesterday. We have to pass, make the runs and try to draw them out. Easier said than done but the League will take notice, that this is how to play us. Launching long balls from midway through the first half onwards is raising the white flag. Back to his tactics charts for our Andre.
I kept waiting for things to improve and we perked up a bit after half-time, then gradually it dawned that we were getting nothing from this one. At least we didn’t fall for any sucker punch counter, although we were helped in that respect by Wright-Phillips ability to fall over when he’s faced with a shooting chance.
We carried on, not supporting the man on the ball, who turned into his marker and was tackled, again and again. Dempsey’s overdue arrival might have sparked something but by then, we had forgotten how to pass. At least the time passed fairly quickly to the final whistle.
Domination so complete, I have a crick in my neck from facing in the same direction for too long. Then, finally, Lloris’s bank holiday stroll around his green and pleasant area is rudely interrupted. He saves well, low to his right, two hands. Being alert after long periods of inactivity is another of his many attributes. The reading centre forward has a gaping net but heads the rebound wide. Pressure now, unexpected, unknown since the third minute when he put another bouncing rebound into the net. From the second corner, there’s an almighty schmozzle on the goal line. Legs, bodies, arms raised, accusing glances towards referee and linesman, but play on. A little while later, Dempsey’s celebration is indecently joyful as his deflected shot spirals over a stranded keeper. Spurs’ win is safe, 3-1 now and no way back.
Seasons turn on such short passages of play. Off the line at one end, a lucky goal at the other. If Spurs had dropped any points, it would have been a gross injustice in a match we dominated totally, but whoever said anything about football being fair? For Spurs, not pressing home an advantage and conceding late is not something that could happen, it’s something that does happen. From now until the end of the season, every point will be vital. The pursuit of 3rd and 4th will go the wire. Yet over a successful holiday period, 10 points out of 12 will do and in each of our three wins, we played well in the first half but better in the second, scoring eight second half goals and conceding none.
Our new year is a time to look forward. Without getting carried away on the back of three victories against frankly poor opposition – Sunderland were limited up front, Reading limited everywhere, Villa just arouse pathos – the signs are all positive. Bearing in mind the fact this team needed major rebuilding over the summer with the loss of both manager and its creative heart, we are moving ahead far more quickly than could be expected. The players are comfortable with each other and with their style of play that at its best offers an outlet for their attacking instincts and at its worst provides a fall-back position of solidity based on hard work. It’s pass and move in the Spurs tradition, easy on the eye and a possession game that’s entirely modern. The proviso is, we keep the tempo high, it’s what suits us best.
It’s significant that almost all of the players have improved in some way since Andre Villas-Boas took over. Fans never truly know what influence coaches have over their charges. However, something’s working. In no particular order, Sandro is a beast of a defensive midfielder who has responded to being his manager’s first choice by becoming an absolute rock. Lennon is having his best season, excellent yesterday. Defoe is scoring, Caulker has stepped easily into this side – I keep reminding myself he only turned 21 last month – while Bale is reaching stratospheric heights as the most dangerous midfielder in the league.
New comers Vertonghen and Dembele look as if they were born to play at the Lane. Their class was evident to whoever scouted them but the way they combine with their team-mates, that’s Villas-Boas again. The Dembele-Sandro axis could be as good a midfield paring as any in the Premier League. Dawson could have been transferred but wants to play and gives everything he has for the team, as does Gallas although his powers are waning not for want of trying but through the passage of time. Naughton has benefitted from having a few matches in a row, which also means we can rotate at the back. Dempsey has finally found his place after a sticky start, hence his celebration yesterday. All this without Parker and Kaboul, our best centre half.
Of the rest, none has been a disaster. Sigurdsson has taken time to settle, a better game yesterday but best as an impact sub to ensure the tempo stays high towards the end of games. Huddlestone has not picked up the pace that’s required. Walker needs guidance and perhaps some firm words about how to defend, while Adebayor, once the missing link up front, has become the weak link with a series of ineffective performances.
Again, his manager has kept faith in him, seeing the value of giving his choices several games to find their feet rather than chopping and changing every weekend. His patience was rewarded with a classic far post headed goal yesterday. In the first half Manu walked back to the halfway line bewildered after weakly heading wide. This time, he tucked Lennon’s glorious cross into the narrow gap between keeper and post. Strikers thrive on goals and the match was delayed as Manu milked it, eventually emerging from a heap of celebrating team-mates who also realised the value of that goal went way beyond putting Spurs 2-1 up. He looked to the heavens and crossed himself. This has got to be the way forward for religion too. Perhaps after a particularly good service the pope and his cardinals could spontaneously pile on top of each other in front of the altar.
Time rushes by as it does for older people like me but it doesn’t seem that long ago since the season began. Yet the media coverage at the time feels like ancient history. Villas-Boas was incompetent. Couldn’t handle players. Creates an atmosphere. Disharmony among the players was rife according to several tabloid journalists. They could not be more wrong. The players clearly want to play for him, for Spurs.
I’ve deliberately not mentioned Hugo Lloris, destined to be one of the finest Tottenham goalkeepers in modern times. Then, the papers had a hotline to Didier Deschamps and printed how unsettled he was even before he was actually fit to play. Now, his gradual introduction into the side appears a masterstroke of man-management and he’s been able to extend the redoubtable Brad Friedel’s contract. Lloris is sharp and agile on his line and seeks to dominate his area, which in turn means we play a back five, him included.
Yesterday we were unperturbed after that early setback, settled into our rhythm, kept the ball and kept probing. Dembele was back on top form after a few quiet games. The way he drops his shoulder and is gone is a sight of subtle beauty. This big man can disappear, at least as far as his marker is concerned. Sandro’s strength and Reading’s inability to get the ball forward – it seemed like they went for half an hour without holding onto the ball in our half and Lloris did not have a save to make until late in the second half – gave him the freedom to stay forward where he is dangerous.
Without Bale, suspended for the new offence of being too quick and too good, we lacked width. Naughton did well throughout but is very right-footed so we were narrow at times. As the half ended, we gave the Reading keeper shooting practice with a succession of efforts from too far out but come the second we upped the pace and put more balls into the box.
We begin the new year in 3rd place, albeit having played two more games than Chelsea, but the optimism is real. There’s plenty more work to do. Although we have beaten United we have lost to all the teams in top four contention bar West Brom, who I think will not quite keep up. It’s not so long ago when we were conceding stupid late goals and we still can’t defend a lead with total confidence. Nor do we convert our many chances as often as we should. We get more men into the box these days, finally answering my whinging about this problem that has gone on over the life of this blog, but on crosses especially we should pile into the six yard box not hang back.
In the window, Tottenham On My Mind will do everything in its power to retain the status of The Blog That Knows Nothing (TKN) and will stay resolutely ITK free. But we need a striker from somewhere. If Adebayor goes to Africa and Defoe is injured, that’s it! If Moutinho is available, I would buy him even if we pay over the odds. Buy two players and it will make all the difference.
We have to take the long view. An interesting piece in the papers recently suggested that Levy did not fully back his new manager in the market in the summer, preferring to wait and see how he does. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that is a ringing vote of confidence exactly, Villas-Boas has shown more than enough potential to be worthy of greater investment. He deserves the backing of his chairman. Looking ahead, this summer we will be again be vulnerable to bids for Bale, Sandro and others if we are not in the Champions League or have not won anything. The squad is young and like its manager still developing. The potential is rich and we must do all we can to see it fulfilled.
Happy New Year to everyone who takes the time and trouble to read this old-fashioned one-man no ads labour of love blog, especially those of you who add to the rich debate in the excellent comments section. You are a select bunch but I’m genuinely touched by the number of regular readers from all over the world who come back every week. I’m deeply grateful.
Spurs’ qualification into the knock-out stages of the Europa League won’t settle the long-running argument about the importance of this tournament. However, there’s no doubt that this Europa League has been of huge benefit to this Spurs team. In future years, maybe not, but it’s moved the team-building process on more swiftly than if we had not participated.
The theme running through my last few posts is progress. Andre Villas-Boas is closer to understanding what suits his players and is getting the best from them. Many managers make little effort to hide their irritation with the Europa League but for Tottenham it has been a help not a hinderance.
I wonder if it is a generational thing. Games against teams like Maribor that take place in the early stages of each group barely keep the pulse beating, never mind set it racing, but those of us of a certain age still hear echoes of glory glory, however faint. I suspect that they are out of range of younger generations brought up on the Champions League for whom the EL has the equivilent importance of the Anglo-Scottish Cup. Commenters, let me know.
Villas-Boas has taken the bold step of playing strong teams throughout. Granted there’s the danger of burn-out later in the season but right now I can’t recall a Spurs team in recent years that has looked so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. AVB is building a new side rather than scrabbling together the remnants of the old, so what better way to move forward than get them to play together.
He’s seen the Europa League as an opportunity not a threat. Each game is another chance for him to put over his methods and ideas, to enable the players to become familiar with their roles and those of their team-mates. Not everything has worked – there have been some flat-spots along the way – but better to make them in a EL group game than in the glare of the Premier League.
Contrast his approach with what’s going on a couple of miles up the road. Wenger likes a moan at the best of times but their league form is solely down to fatigue, apparently. It won’t wash. Maybe Spurs have better fitness coaches because we haven’t seen any signs of that. On the contrary, the team to a man appear invigorated by the growing realisation that they could be part of something good.
It’s more an attitude of mind. The difference is that the years have wearied Wenger as he creates yet another side without the full backing of his board in terms of buying players of the highest quality. In contrast, Villas-Boas’ desire to succeed burns like an everlasting flame. Without a footballing career behind him, like Wenger the only way he can prove himself is through his team and he has communicated that enthusiasm and desire to his players. They want to play, to play for him, and he deserves credit for getting through to them. Few can now doubt that this is his side, that this young, mild-mannered man is in charge and has the respect of the players. The risk he took in playing virtually full teams in the Europa League has paid off.
Dempsey, a man who needs to fit in more than most, has been played throughout, giving him game time and his performances are slowly improving. More assists on Thursday night. Dawson’s role and the authority of captain meant he wasn’t excluded from the first team action and helped produce those fine Premier League performances when his chance came. Carroll, Huddlestone and Sigurdsson have all had useful time on the pitch, while AVB’s gradual introduction of Lloris to the English game, much derided in September and October, could in hindsight be a managerial masterstroke. Everyone has had some chance, none have been excluded. This is all shrewd man-management.
I wasn’t at the Lane on Thursday but watched on TV. We did more than enough to win without playing well throughout. Just as the jitters set in, class told. We think it’s always us, these periods where we seem to switch off. While we have to cut them out if we are to get close to the final, every other team does it. All the other British sides that I’ve seen have the same inexplicable lethargy at some period, making the games dull to watch. If it helps us learn lessons, then I wouldn’t worry about it. Two-legs ties increase the pressure, let’s make a judgement then.
Ironic that The Glory Glory Nights, Martin Cloake and Adam Powley’s luscious history of Spurs in Europe should arrive unexpectedly just before kick-off. I’ve preserved its shrink-wrapped beauty until now. Seemed wrong somehow to expose it to Spurs in Europe, the 2012 version. Borey Borey night, more like.
This otherwise forgettable effort contained one notable feature. Lazio away marked the arrival of Hugo Lloris as a Spur. He spent the evening flinging himself across his goal and all over his area. Diving saves, calmly snaffling crosses, hurling himself at forwards’ feet like a fifties custodian. He kept Spurs in the game. One point to Lazio, one to Hugo Lloris.
Lloris has the hallmark of a real Spur. He’s classy, catches the eye and distinctive. And he also possesses the classic characteristic of all great Spurs: the man has style. There’s no other keeper in the Premier League like him. Because he’s so different, he has his moments. We must get used to his punching and his fondness for coming off his line will lead to wincing as well as gasps of gratitude. However, as I said earlier this week, the good far outweighs the scary. He leads from the back.
It’s not as if he’s a flamboyant man. Many keepers are ‘characters’, or bonkers as their team-mates would call them, and they relish the limelight. Lloris does not strike you as that kind of man. This, he’s decided, is the best way to do his job and how well he did it last night. His is a quiet determination to protect not just his goal but his area too. A relatively slight man, he maintains a presence by fearlessly getting amongst the bodies in the box. His mind is sharp too. He can see the play spread before him and as sweeper he dashes to the edge of his territory and beyond to snuff out danger. This in turn enables us to play a higher line and have more bodies in midfield.
He’s even got that magic ingredient, that somehow the headers and shots are drawn to his feet and legs rather than a foot or so either side. My son who was at the game reports that he threw his shirt and gloves into the crowd at the finish. One of us now. It may not even rate a footnote in the next edition of the Glory Glory Nights but his emergence could be the catalyst to energise our fortunes this season and for years to come.
He certainly had more than enough opportunity to demonstrate his talents. The defence was porous throughout and Lazio earned a steady stream of chances, created by clever passing picking out forwards who consistently found the gaps between our back four. They were far too wide apart and the full-backs should have tucked in much more than they did. Sandro did some sterling work in front of them and Carroll is always willing but mostly we failed to cut those passes out at source. Pressing from the front was effective in the second half on Saturday but we seemed to quickly forget that lesson. Given that Dempsey and Adebayor failed to get in a goal attempt between them, they were badly anonymous.
Overall, the match was characterised by the timid vagueness typical of our away performances in this season’s Europa League. The fans are waiting for something to happen – it’s as if the team are too. These group games have ‘dull’ wired into them but we could have been actively dull yesterday by holding onto the ball better, even if we were unable to create any chances. Siggy on the right allowed for more men in the box at times, something I’m in favour of, but he hardly made much of an impact. Once more Carroll showed his maturity. Apparently unfazed by the pressure, he is always looking for the ball and his touch means often he can do something valuable with it. Things might have been different if his superb early through ball to Bale had met with the plaudits for an excellent goal it deserved rather than an unjustified offside flag.
AVB (boring, some say…) went for the points but the arrival of Lennon and Defoe merely hastened the deterioration in our defence. An away point in Rome is fine. As it happens, my suspect maths confirm that the task would have been the same even if we lost. Win or draw in the last game and we are through. At last – proper cup football where results matter now. It’s how the Glory Glory Nights were created.
The Glory Glory Nights by Cloake and Powley is published by Vision Sports, review to follow next week
Last week I was copied into a letter from Alex Stein re the Spurs yids issue, which was sent to the editors of the Guardian, Times and Telegraph, Peter Herbert, Daniel Levy and me. That’s the company I keep. It’s the first item in the comments section and adds some perspective as the premeditated attacks on Spurs fans in Rome could well be the work of fascists.