The dank days and chilly evenings of winter are already with us but right now there is nowhere colder than the chilled marrow of Andre Villas-Boas’s bones. The clocks have long since gone back but for him the long dark night of the soul is fast approaching.
The six goal shambles of defeat against Manchester City violently sucked all meaning and purpose not just from shell-shocked, traumatised players but from everything our manager holds dear. Shape, tactics, motivation, the principles of team-work, the very existence of AVB’s Spurs rendered meaningless and empty. We thought there were solid foundations even if we have not been playing well. In reality, nothing beneath our feet except fresh air. The players had no idea what they were supposed to be doing and neither did their boss.
It started badly, could not have started worse even by Tottenham standards. We kicked off, they scored after 14 seconds. Barely possible but the laws of time and motion shifted just enough for Lloris to fluff a clearance under no pressure, short and straight to an opponent. He saved the shot but Navas curled in the rebound. From then on, the collapse continued, unhindered and without boundaries, the team imploding on itself until like a burnt out star in a far-off galaxy, our performance became a pinprick of the most dense and unresponsive matter in the universe.
The defining period of AVB’s reign has begun. Successive matches versus the Manchester giants were never likely to be profitable but the manner in which he deals with the games between now and the New Year will dictate the outcome of Tottenham’s season and beyond. His methods, challenged by our weakness in attack, will have to withstand the battering of outraged fans and sections of the braying media scenting blood. That’s not to mention the questioning looks from his players.
Faced with massive problems, players and manager seemed incapable of an adequate response. I’m not talking about the subs – the game was lost by the time they appeared – but a fatal lack of recognition that there were any problems. The midfield, flaccid and incoherent from first to last, offered no protection to the back four save for a couple of Sandro tackles. City like to get the ball wide – in Navas they play a genuine winger. yet it never for a moment occurred to anyone to drop back to protect our full-backs. As a result City took full advantage of the wide-open plains down our flanks like lions hunting antelope in the Serengeti.
Many of us want to see Lamela given a chance. Today we saw why Villas-Boas has been cautious. While his free role gave him scope to cut in and appear in unexpected positions, his team-mates did not know what to expect either. He watched and reacted too late when City created a two on one down our left and the cross was turned in. Welcome to the Premier League.
On Sky Hoddle was banging on about shutting the front door, meaning Kaboul should have dropped a yard closer to the six yard box at the near post, but that was shutting the door, front or back, after the horse has bolted. You have to cover – Lennon wasn’t much more use on the other side – and you have to keep the ball. Yet time and again we gave it away, most dangerously when the side had shifted into positions to mount an attack thus leaving us bare and exposed. City took full advantage, with Lloris, our best player this season by far, again the culprit. It wasn’t as if City were playing particularly well. They didn’t have to.
This blog tries to be fair, balanced and consistent. Annoying I know but it’s how I am and as I approach my sixties I’m too old change. So let’s be fair – I was happy with this starting line-up. Lennon for Townsend was brave, given the furore around Andros’s England performances, but the right choice. I was pleased to see Lamela - we have to give him a chance. I would have preferred both Holtby and Dembele, the latter in the advanced midfield role that suits him best, so that leaves only one wide man because City are so strong in midfield. Kaboul back, definitely, and Sandro of course. But not so different from AVB’s choice.
It’s what they did that was so poor. Wandering wide men gave the flanks no protection. Paulinho and Holtby were too far forward too often. Neither contributed a thing to this match. Paulinho’s starting position should have been deeper. You have to defend against City by denying them space and he’s able to get forward when the moment is right. He and Sandro could make a fine partnership but he was too far forward. If he stays back, there’s time and manpower to move across and cover, i.e. to provide the very platform that Lamela and Lennon need to be at their best.
Fact is, he is knackered and bewildered, worn out after his exertions coming straight to the under pressure Tottenham midfield after the Confederations Cup. He needs a rest. Send him back to Brazil for a couple of weeks, he’s no use to us now and we’ll need him fresh in the New Year.
Soldado got barely a sniff. It seemed to me that in the few moments in the first half when we approximated a football team he was moving more, both deeper and laterally. Or maybe that was hope playing tricks on my eyes. He depends on being the given the ball. If AVB is trying to find the right formation for him and the team, that is worthy of some patience. What worries me is something worse, that he sanctioned the purchase in the conviction that he knew how to play to his strengths and that what we have seen so far this season is the failure of that plan. Which begs the question, what the hell is he going to do now? And that’s why I’m worried, not just a striker failing to spark but a squad composed of players who do not do the job they were bought to do.
And so to the back four. Kaboul, my first choice but rusty. Dawson a fine warrior but all at sea today. Stranded in midfield for City’s fourth goal as a simple one two with a runner from midfield took him out of the game, worse was to come when he simply left his man unmarked. Standing near him, he did nothing. Vertonghen, unhinged by what was going on around him, nearly got himself sent off for a reckless sliding challenge. His mind was gone long before his weak and inept challenge let Navas in for the sixth. Was it just the defeat playing on his mind, as he’s a serious, proud professional, or was he wondering why the best centre half in the Premier League is playing at full-back?
George Graham’s classic drill for the back four was to get them to imagine they were tied together by a piece of rope. In Spurs’ case, it’s elastic. They wandered as if strangers on a ramble, occasionally surprised but pleased as they bumped into each other, but mostly going their own sweet way. Negredo and the fabulously lethal Aguerro don’t need the help we gave them but they revelled in the gaps between our defenders.
I have no desire to kick a man when he’s down but this was AVB’s worst effort as manager. City have a four man midfield and yet we allowed them to outnumber us and paid dearly for the consequences. My sympathy to the loyal Spurs who went that far for this stinking detritus, and if it is any consolation we could hear you singing loud and clear until the end.
If things could possibly be worse, consider one final thought. Last season, Villas-Boas succeeded in getting his message and methods through to the players. Motivation has been good, team-spirit similarly. That will be called in question after this, not just by fans or media but inside the club itself. Heads went down. I’ve already mentioned how the players did not know how to react. This is why this defeat will gnaw away at confidence and belief. Like I said, tonight will be a long dark night for our Andre.
You can tell how a game is going by the sound of the crowd, a surefire soundtrack as the game ebbs and flows. The exultation that greets a goal, unrestrained singing in celebration, the contented hubbub as the fans leave after a win or the sharp, bitter recrimination of defeat or worse, a side that is not trying.
The sound of Spurs right now is a heavy, deep sigh. There’s disappointment there, some shaking of heads, plus a touch of resignation. It’s not working out as we planned and we’ve been here before, so many, many times.
Another day, another big fat zero in the ‘goals for’ column. However, this one was different. Same end product but only after the Newcastle goal was peppered from all angles in a second half bombardment where for 25 minutes we played scintillating, high tempo football to create more genuine chances than in the last half a dozen matches put together. There was a lot to be pleased with but still plenty of sighing, then as I drove home and still going as I type this.
65% possession, 24 shots, 14 on target – about right, I read them on the concourse as I paused on the way home and, well, sighed. Match statistics in games like these are the contemporary equivalent of a consolation goal, that is no consolation at all. Newcastle keeper Tim Krul had an outstanding game. More saves in a single match than any other keeper in Europe this season, apparently. See what I mean, they don’t help at all. First half leaps into the stratosphere to thwart Soldado and Sigurdsson were the best but just as valuable for his side were the outstretched boots and scrambled clearances. I’ve not seen a replay but how on earth he and a single defender kept the ball out after a deflected free-kick settled on the goal line remains a mystery.
Yet the harsh truth is that keepers can only make those saves if the ball is close enough to them. Weak finishing close in was our undoing. Krul could have remained the star but noble in defeat, such were the number of good opportunities we fashioned. Eriksen, Paulinho and Soldado made it too easy for him.
Things looked rosy to begin with. It felt as if both team and crowd had responded to recent criticism. Immediately we stretched the Newcastle with a move at pace, Walker freed up on the right. His cross was too close to the keeper but it augured well for things to come. Lots of encouragement too.
Eriksen was prominent, moving across the line and out wide rather than staying comfortable in the central pocket. For his game and that of Spurs to develop, he has to become more consistently involved.
The promising opening petered out. Newcastle moved the ball neatly out of defence and played two up front so they remained a threat on the break for the entire game. They were helped by Spurs giving the ball away. Friedel saved well on two occasions, then we were caught out. Dembele was fiddling around with the ball deep in our half. Although he eventually cleared, it allowed the Mags to pounce on a ball than Paulinho first misjudged, letting it run across his body, then was weak in the challenge. Remy was in: he rounded the keeper to score.
Newcastle and Remy in particular were dangerous. Our high line became our best protection. Dawson was stranded on more than one occasion and Chiriches came across to perfectly time a tackle that surely prevented a goal. Remy, a player we have been closely linked with, reminded us what we have missed this season, a focal point for our opponents’ attack and a target for balls out of defence.
We spluttered away for the rest of the half. Bad old Tottenham – too slow, not enough width as Siggy and Andros repeatedly came inside, too many players standing still and waiting for the ball.
We should really remember to start playing from the first whistle, not half time. Galvanised by the team-talk, we emerged fresh and new. Newcastle were well-organised but did not present as much of a barrier as Hull or West Ham. It was everything the first half was not, pace, movement, support for the man on the ball and above all, chances. Eriksen missed the best one, a lovely intricate move down the right put him in, he had time to take a touch but tried to place a ball to send the keeper the wrong way rather than putting his foot through it.
Driven on by substitute Sandro, his energy and power reverberated through the team even though he was the deepest midfielder. Vertonghen fizzed the ball in from wide left. Soldado headed weakly to the keeper, Paulinho missed, that scramble on the line.
Defoe came on at about 70 minutes, the right choice but as we gathered ourselves for another effort, his arrival had the reverse effect. Sandro stayed deep and Newcastle brought on another midfielder. Their 5 outnumbered our 3 and the momentum disappeared totally. Tactically outsmarted by Alan Pardew…not AVB’s finest moment.
Vertonghen hit the bar from a corner but otherwise that was that. Dawson was thrown forward late on but we couldn’t even whack the ball forward properly.
So what to make of this? This was different from some previous games where we hardly got into the box let alone make a chance. We can put a lot of this down to the keeper and should not be too down because if we play like that for an entire match, we will do well.
However, it comes in the context of an inability to score and some of the same patterns were on display. Soldado needs service – through-balls and the ball in front of him in the box. Without it, he contributes little and did not play well yesterday. We have to have faith and gear the team around his needs. AVB knew that when he bought him but he’s not so far achieved that aim.
I’m boring myself with the inverted wingers, done to death in previous columns. Suffice to say we saw more of the edge of the box log-jam that has stifled our attacks almost as effectively as the opposition back four. We are doing their job for them. Siggy and Andros ran into trouble, while Paulinho and Eriksen prefer it on the outskirts of the area. Problem is, there are few cut-backs because no one is going to the byline, no one in the box to help Soldado.
I will break a long-held golden rule and just this once make a comparison with Barcelona, which is normally the refuge of those who don’t know the game. They are one of the best club sides the world has ever seen so no wonder Spurs aren’t that good. The point I’m making is a simple one, however. For their third goal yesterday against Real Betis, Iniesta chipped the ball into the box and 4 of their players ran through to converge on it. I’m not sure we have 4 men in the box for corners let alone from open play. Regardless of the result, AVB has to solve this problem.
Also we have too many men whose instinct is to run with the ball. Good players, just not the right blend. It slows everything down. Add the fact that we have right-footers on the left and vice versa, they too want that extra touch or two. Not much in itself but add it up and it extracts the pace from our attacks.
We have a number of men playing out of position, and if AVB is sometimes accused of stubbornness then this is the point where I agree. Dembele is not best employed as a DM. His strength and passing ability have tempted AVB but he is the wrong choice. Sandro made a huge difference when he came on and should start, if he’s fit. Paulinho made his reputation as a box to box player but he’s being used elsewhere. I said last week that he needs a rest as he has become less influential as the weeks have passed. So it proved yesterday, admirably willing but a mixed afternoon and at fault for the goal.
Eriksen worsened as the second half went on but could be the creative hub with the right players around him. The wide men are not going wide and are not the men you want on the end of a chance in the box.
Townsend’s honeymoon is over. Opposition defences have sussed him out – two men and push him inside - and by the end his frustration manifested in wasted, hopeless long-shots. he still has a lot to learn. On the other side, Siggy was ineffectual.
I hope the squad are not getting fractious. Defoe gave Kaboul a right mouthful after an innocuous misplaced pass, and kept on going. This season he’s been hitherto completely focussed – this felt out of place and different.
Finally, all this money spent and no plan B. A number of quality players who are looking as though they can’t provide an alternative. Whatever Adebayor has done to hack AVB off must be the most heinous sin since Judas turned in Jesus. I enviously watched United, Arse**l even, Southampton with their central strikers as focal point and really missed Manu. We need him.
AVB needs more time to work this through. By now though, he would have expected to be much closer to his best team than he is. Or to be more accurate, the team and set-up he thought was close to his best is not working out.
Social media is awash with suggestions, including mine of course, and all of them different. These days everyone’s a manager and we’re all like Alex Ferguson – never wrong. AVB is in danger of becoming one of us, which frankly is a nightmare. He has so much potential at his disposal, he’s chopping and changing, which will create an unsettled side. He has to send a message to key newcomers, Soldado and Eriksen in particular, Lamela too, that for the next ten or so games, he’s going to stick with them and build the side around them. Let them make mistakes, allow them to learn. We’re in this for the long haul. They need time and that’s the best way to use it.
Even my wife noticed. “See your lot are doing what the manager wanted then.” I watched Thursday’s Europa League victory against Sheriff from the comfort of my sofa but the sound of the crowd came through loud and clear. The noise was generated primarily by supporters sitting behind the Park Lane goal, the traditional Spurs ‘end’, who had bought tickets in a section allocated by the club for the 1882 movement, a loose grouping of mainly younger fans who want to bring back the atmosphere to White Hart Lane.
This time last week I wrote about the unease with which an increasing number of Spurs fans express their support for the club. The loyalty remains but the ground can be deadly quiet at times, there’s anxiety in the air and despite our league position and highly promising squad, there is a puzzling but tangible undercurrent of dissatisfaction about the direction the team is taking under Villas-Boas.
I suggested that while there’s no single reason for this (high prices, changing demographics, Sky TV and unrealistic, barely achievable expectations caused by the dominance of the Premier League and Champions League are all factors), many supporters have developed a growing sense of alienation in terms of their relationship with the club. They feel distant, cut off and undervalued. The feeling is by no means unique to Tottenham, indeed it is a worrying trend that is spreading throughout the Premier League. It’s not something that you can grasp easily or put a name to, but it’s around and therefore all too real.
This feeling hasn’t stopped life-long Spurs fan, season-ticket holder and author Martin Cloake from regularly attending games. He was curious about what he calls the “new ultras”, groups of fans at clubs in Britain, Europe and the States who encouraged fellow supporters to gather and sing. Unlike traditional supporters’ organisations they prefer to remain anonymous and keep officialdom at arms’ length.
These groups manifest their allegiance in different ways. For many european Ultras, violence and protest is never far from their vocal support, others like St Pauli have political elements while others focus on the team. The Spurs response is the 1882 initiative. My son and I were present at a tiny bit of Tottenham history, the first gathering at a Youth Cup match at Charlton. I was probably the oldest one there. It was organised by Spooky from Dear Mr Levy and, well, I wasn’t sure at the time. Find Flav Bateman and co-conspirators at Love The Shirt but at the time, I heard the call because it was just a great idea. Come and sing for the shirt. No other reason, get behind the team and where better than at a youth game where we don’t know the players but they are Tottenham so they are ours.
Martin makes 1882 his starting point for a riveting history of Spurs’ fan culture in the last thirty years. I’ve called 1882 a movement but it’s not really. It has organisers but no leaders. It has no manifesto or political ambition, other than to increase support for the team and enable fans to enjoy themselves in the process. It’s inclusive – you don’t have to be a member of anything, you just turn up. It isn’t po-faced – I didn’t take my shoes off to support the lads and I didn’t sit down if I loved Tottenham because it would play havoc with my knees, but that doesn’t matter. Sing your heart out for your lads.
Love the Shirt is clear about one thing: their starting point is the long and proud heritage of fan culture at Spurs. They see themselves as carrying on that tradition, spontaneous and anarchic in the past, it’s just that now because of the alienation, it needs a bit of work. One particular aspect of fan culture that is unique to Spurs is how this heritage has persisted despite fundamental attacks by the club. Sound of the Crowd takes you through the scurrilous, sordid tale of how Spurs tried to emasculate loyal and loud support.
When I began supporting Spurs in the mid-sixities, the vocal and mostly younger fans gathered behind the Park Lane goal with away fans at the Paxton and other home support in the Shelf. Spurs must be the only ground where home fans share an end with away support. That’s bad enough but imagine turning up one season to find you’ve been turfed out of your end, your place without any warning. Yet this has happened not once but twice at Spurs. First, away fans were moved exclusively into the Park Lane, then in the mid eighties, the ultimate indignity or in my view betrayal when one close season executive boxes replaced the Shelf, the home of the most loyal and most vocal.
In Martin’s hands, this sorry saga becomes the tautest of thrillers, heroic resistance in the face of mendacity, intrigue and conspiracy. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in our history and the relationship between the business of football and supporters. The revurberations of that period rumble on. The atmosphere has never been the same but more than that, it opened wide that distance between club and fans that has never been closed. Football is about a sense of belonging and place: our fans have nowhere to go.
The supporters are happy, there’s an atmosphere at the Lane and the manager has a response to something he identified as a major impediment to the team’s continued success. Spurs reach the League Cup quarter finals and the knock-out stages of the Europa League. You would think there’s a message there somewhere.
So this is what the club do next. The West Ham game is category C and there’s no 1882 block. Big game, intense rivalry, the manager wants the fans to get behind the team, yet no discounts, no singing section, both dropped because THFC can make a sweet profit from a full house derby.
Stoke was due to take place on the Saturday after Christmas, 3 pm kick-off. Yesterday the club announced that it had been moved to Sunday, 4pm. No reason has been given and it’s not on Sky. Many fans make their Christmas arrangements around the fixtures. Even I for once, a bah-humbug bloody Christmas man if ever there was one, have organised things in advance. If I am to attend this match, and for the first time in a long time it has become an ‘if’, 12 people close to me will have to shift their diaries around too.
A twitter pal of mine, big Spurs fan, used to blog, goes mostly to aways as he lives in the West Country, young family so short of cash, planned a real treat for himself to be at this game. Now he can’t make it. He can get a refund on his match ticket but not his advance rail fare. He can’t be the only one. He’s disgusted and so am I.
Clubs should make a profit. These days with vast television and commercial revenue they can do so without it being at the expense of the supporters. If you’re puzzled as to what alienation is, it’s probably the feeling you get when you read the three paragraphs above. Things must change, not for my sake – I’ll be there til I die then scatter my ashes under the feet of the crowd after the match – but for future generations.
It’s not all bad. There is a once in a lifetime opportunity with the new ground to create an end and keep some prices reasonable. 1882 and the Trust are doing some fine work. The club must welcome not reject them. 1882 isn’t a separate movement, it’s us, you and me. It is inspired by our past and we are the future.
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.