Poch’s Judgement Sound As Spurs Stay Stable

I’ve always reckoned that Spurs and Everton fans had a lot in common. Both sets of supporters have remained steadfast through the doldrums of recent times even though loyalty has been sorely tested by the success of their neighbours and bitter rivals. Once members of the so-called ‘Big Five’, the five most influential clubs from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties (the others being Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool), now no longer movers and shakers.

To a large extent it still holds true but over the past three seasons the comparisons with the other Merseyside club, Liverpool, have been unavoidable. Both Spurs and Liverpool were in the process of rebuilding, both appointed youngish managers, Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, within 2 days of each other in June 2012 whose reputations had gone before them. In the background, both clubs were itching for success and prepared, so it appeared, to invest heavily in the transfer market but looming over them was the expense of rebuilding famous but aging grounds.

No matter – these young coaches were the new breed, their methods and tactics compensating for any shortcomings in the market. Rodgers seemed to settle best but in the end AVB’s Spurs finished 2 places and 11 points ahead of Liverpool even though our side had several weaknesses.

Times change – the following December Liverpool ferociously tore into Spurs at White Hart Lane and ripped us apart as instinctively as a lion tearing the throat out of its prey. We lost 5-0, AVB was sacked and Liverpool’s thrilling attacking football nearly won the league.

Now it’s Spurs who have stabilised and Rodgers who is unemployed. Pochettino has so far succeeded where Rodgers failed. Comparisons are instructive as we pause for breath during the international break.

Pochettino’s choice of tactics is pretty much fixed to a 4-2-3-1 although the system itself has built-in flexibility, especially with the movement of the 3 and varying the attacking freedom given to the full-backs. One justified criticism is that he doesn’t have a Plan B if after 70 minutes things aren’t working, However, he knows what he wants and, above all, so now do the players. This has been at the root of our progress this season.

Also, he chooses players to fit that system. I think he is wary of the challenges that can be presented by players with experience who may have influence in the dressing room and different ideas about how they should play and what they should do in training. That’s why he goes for youth, because he can mould them, and why he was an attractive option for Levy when it came to choose AVB’s replacement.

It’s a shame in many ways but it’s working. The players know it’s Poch’s way or the highway. Those that didn’t buy into the philosophy were ruthlessly jettisoned. Now we have a group of players who can do what their manager wants. Also, the teamwork and attitude of those who are left has forged an excellent team spirit and a side working together for each other. Without any natural standout leaders, nevertheless the culture of hard work and high tempo has taken hold firmly in the squad, witness Lamela’s recent performances. A beneficial culture that exists independently of any individual is hard to establish but once created, it’s powerful and lasting precisely because it does not depend on the character of a few fist-pumping heroes.

Liverpool have spent an astronomic amount on players since Rodgers became manager. However, he’s fatally changed his tactical approach and bought players who don’t fit and/or aren’t good enough. Too many changes, players who are not the right fit for what their manager wants them to do, players who are not right for the intensity of the PL. There’s no spine, whereas our development this season is founded on the axis of Lloris, Vertonghen and Alderweireld, Dier (and Mason until he was injured).

Mulling this article over, Pochettino’s approach comes out in a positive light. The coach making the whole greater than the sum of the parts is at White Hart Lane, not Anfield, whatever Rodgers’ reputation may be. Some of it is refreshingly familiar though. Players with the right skills, the right attitude, playing in the right position, the one that suits them and team best. This applies to every successful side football has ever produced but it’s a lesson many managers and clubs easily forget, including Liverpool. Caught up in tactics, false nines, inside legs, registas, the essence of a manager’s job is player judgement. Still is, always has been. Right player, right attitude.

Rodgers’ experience at Liverpool also highlights a real potential problem, who takes decisions. Much has been said about Liverpool’s transfer committee. Informed sources point to players being bought who Rodgers did not want and an over-reliance on analytics, which provided skill but did not assess their attitude in the highly competitive PL.

Spurs have been here before. Martin Jol did not have full control over player choice and it seems suspiciously likely that Baldini’s bunch, the less-than-magnificent-7, were bought without full consideration of their ability to survive the physicality and intensiveness of 90 minutes in the PL, week in, week out.

It’s vital that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Although we have Pochettino’s men leading the hunt for players now Baldini has gone, Levy showed in this past window that he has not dealt with a fatal reluctance to support his manager properly. The Berahino fiasco left us with one striker, Son is injured, it only takes one knock and Chadli’s up front…

Pochettino won’t repeat Rodgers’ other error, going public with his criticism of his employer. It does mean though that he will have to make do with what he’s given. Right now, I’d take the talent and attitude in or squad over anything Liverpool can offer.

Swansea – a reasonable performance and reasonable point, all in all. Blunt up front with chances missed. Kane’s fluency has eluded him but he never hides, even after the catastrophic unforced error when he sliced a corner into his own net, having been so reliable at that near post set-piece defensive position. Chances gone but not quite true to say ‘last season he would have hit that first time’, because last season he would often have a few touches and still score, but there are times when he’s thinking too much now.

Eriksen picked us up with those two free-kicks, the first the keeper should have covered, the second just about perfect. Good movement in the front three with Lamela and Eriksen offering some lovely angled balls from centre mid, Lamela really picks those beautifully. Son makes things happen in the box, maybe a different result if he had been on the end of one of them.

At the back, we let too many runners go in the first half especially. A fine header for their first but three Swansea players advanced unaccompanied on the back four. Dier looked weary at the end, still brooding about an unjustified booking. He deserves a rest over the international break plus I think he misses the Liverpool game through suspension. His frustration bubbled over at the end. After a fine 20 minutes when we should have scored, a point seemed enough, then Dier chopped down an attacker. The free-kick imposed needless pressure and all our efforts were about to go waste when Hugo arced into the top corner to miraculously tip a header onto the bar and away.

Spurs Start To Gel As Pochettino Gets His Message Through

After Wednesday’s disappointment, Spurs came roaring back to beat Manchester City. It was a performance to quicken the pulse and gladden the heart, scoring three in a thrilling second half where we took the game to City and they had no answer.

All the better because it was unexpected, partly in the sense that City were top of the table and have a good record against us, partly because after half an hour or so they looked so smooth and effective on the ball. De Bruyne at 50 mill plus looked like the bargain of the season. He put City one up, running onto Toure’s perfectly weighted pass and hitting it early past Lloris, who until then had been the last line of defence on several occasions.

Old failings though – it came from a misplaced pass by Walker, across their box and deep in their half. The old adage always was about not giving the ball away in dangerous areas – these days every area is dangerous, it seems. We’d been stuttery in front of their goal too, hanging on and not pulling the trigger.

But times, they are a’changing. Slowly but surely Pochettino is equipping the team to deliver his vision of high tempo, pressing football that moves the ball forward quickly when we get possession. After a slow start to the season and hampered by injuries, Spurs have gradually cranked it up, notch by notch. Palace was a step forward, this firm confirmation that progress is real not temporary.

Pre-season I said Pochettino’s role in shaping the team and getting them to be more than the sum of their parts was the key to success or failure. On Saturday some fine individual performances were eclipsed by the coherence and integration showed by the team as a whole. Every man worked their little over-priced socks off. They knew what they were supposed to be doing, where they should be and when.

Whatever numbers you use to describe a system, its success or failure rests on the ability of players to know where they should be in relation to their team-mates and the ball. This of course changes second by second. I remember reading in the Glory Game, Hunter Davies’ book about the 70s Spurs side, that players like Chivers and Peters would leave the pitch at the end of the game with a splitting headache, caused by the strain of concentration. YAgainst City, even those in the bottom stream for tactics and positioning like Walker and Lamela earned A* grades.

After 30 minutes and at half time – there are witnesses – I was downbeat but whispered that of all the top teams, City’s defence is the most vulnerable. Sure enough, we caught our breath and pushed on. City folded. Kane missed a good chance, when he could have passed, then Walker’s cross was saved by the sprawling keeper but cleared only to Dier whose arrow-straight shot flew 25 yards at a constant height of 1cm above the turf and into the bottom right-hand corner.

Second half and we carried on where we left off. Alli and Dier took over the midfield, a remarkable effort from 2 young men aged 19 and 21. It proves the effect of talent and application. Dier is a remarkable figure. I thought at best he was a stop-gap DM. Now he’s superboy. The intensity in his game is almost terrifying, the sheer force of will swept City’s expensive stars away.

The second half was dreamy, unadulterated pleasure. We roared as Alderweireld headed in a free-kick from close range. No City players between him and the goal. We swooned as Kane steered in the rebound from Eriksen’s free-kick that hit the post. We shared his joy, breaking his league duck, but if there was relief too he showed none of that. Steely gimlet eyes the sign of complete self-confidence.

Then we swooned as Lamela, put clear by Njie, tiptoed round a defender and  keeper before nonchalantly rolling into an empty net. Tip of the hat to Njie, who harried and chased up front after coming on as sub and both won the ball and delivered a great pass to set up this fourth goal. It was the moment he seemed to realise the physicality of this league and play his part rather than sit back. If so, he’s a quick learner.

Replays showed that a myopic linesman scored an assist with goals one and three but we were due a decision going our way/we earned it/these things even out at the end of the season/who gives a flying one – perm one or more from these. Nothing could temper the enthusiasm.

The highest praise is reserved for our defence. The other theme of the season so far is that our defence, reinforced over the summer and protected by Dier and his plus one, is vital to any improvement we make. If we’re not scoring as many, not a problem yesterday of course, then we damn sure better not give so many away.

The stats tell one story – fewest goals conceded in the PL thus far. The real story emerged in the way we handled Ageuro yesterday. Over the past few seasons we’ve not been able to get near him in the box. Yesterday he got nowhere. Late on, He advanced towards Vertonghen. Jan did not plant his feet in concrete, a problem of his in one on one situations. Rather, he stayed upright and shepherded his opponent on to his oppo Alderweireld who completed the tackle and the danger passed. Two centerbacks working together – at last – and credit to Pochettino, a defender himself of course, for getting them to gel so quickly. Vertonghen’s two jaded seasons a distant memory now. Good partnerships all over the pitch – the centrebacks, Alli and Dier or Mason and Dier, Kane and Son, as well as team cohesion.

Behind him, Lloris was my man of the match. Rock solid throughout, he saved the hard ones and cling onto the straight ones like a boa constrictor round his prey.

You could see why Davies gets the nod – strong in defence, close to his back four.Finally a special word of praise for Erik Lamela. Early September and his heart wasn’t in it. Boy it showed. Now, he’s decided he has a future here and is coming to terms with the hard work the PL demands. By all accounts Pochettino insisted he stay when the Berahino transfer fell through. Perhaps this was the vote of confidence he needed. Get goalside more often when you get back, Erik, but a real contribution to the team on Saturday.

Thanks to everyone who commented on my last piece about the team selection for the Arsenal game. Sorry, very busy with deadlines in the real world so for once not able to respond individually. I strongly felt supporters had been let down because this above all else is a game for the fans, one to win. It’s probably the most discussed article I have ever written, in the comments’ section and on social media.

I don’t feel any differently about it now. Big games against arch rivals are the matches we all remember and that’s why we go to football. The four best games at WHL in recent years, ones where the stands shook like the old days and the soul was uplifted – Arsenal and Chelsea last season, Arsenal under AVB, won 2-1, and Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final, 5-1, we played a strong team, they opted for a couple of reserves, we took them apart. One for the fans.

Many (not on here) linked the piece to their own distrust of Pochettino. Not my view – regular readers will know I broadly support what he’s doing, feel Levy has not supported him properly and he deserves my patience.

Saturday’s win was down to team spirit, talent and superb fitness, all of which have nothing to do with Wednesday night. It seems to be part of the folklore of modern football that you can’t win two matches in the same week with the same team. If that’s the case, then I’m glad I’m old-fashioned.

We Care, They Don’t: Spurs Treat Fans Like Dirt

The derby is the fan’s game. One we look forward to the most, want to win the most, feel the most. Passion lifts the team, players and supporters together. Win and you float home, sail through life for the next few days, weeks maybe. Bragging rights are a misnomer. Win and you don’t need to brag, because inside you know who’s best.

Winning isn’t everything. Giving everything is what we want, expect. Defeat hurts. Too many defeats leave scars that take a long time to heal. But not giving everything is a shame and a sin. Unforgivable.

The derby is our game. Play your best team. Do it for us. Except Spurs didn’t. And that shows what they think about us. Nothing.

The wishes and feelings of Spurs fans meant nothing when Pochettino selected his team for last night’s North London Derby. We carry the scars, the burden sometimes, because that’s how it feels when we keep getting beaten. But we are loyal, we get behind the team, we glory in the wins because when they come, as in the last home derby, they taste nectar sweet.

So you play your best team. I don’t care what Wenger does. Play your best team because it’s the Arsenal. I don’t care for the League Cup, it’s an afterthought, English football’s petrol-station flowers when the game is too busy and doesn’t care enough. But play your best team because it’s the Arsenal. The physical demands on modern footballers mean rotation is essential. Rotate another day, because tonight it’s the Arsenal. Play your best team and you beat the Arsenal.

Pochettino, the club, @SpursOfficial, they all praise the fans, they’re great, fabulous support. Blah blah blah. This team selection shows the contempt with which Spurs fans are treated. Demonstrated what they really think about us. Not the players themselves, all of whom worked hard and tried their best last night, although not all of them were especially good. I think we have a group of pretty genuine footballers who give of their best. To play a weakened team felt like a kick in the teeth.

Pochettino or any manager for that matter, doesn’t have to go home on the train with them, doesn’t work with them, doesn’t go to the pub with them. Reserve teams, League Cup, demands of a long hard season, don’t count for diddly. Stick, bucketloads. Spurs don’t care.

Rotate in a home EL tie versus a side from Azerbaijan. Rotate in the next away EL tie. Not when you play the Arsenal. Don’t change the entire back five and replace it with players who have never played together before. We don’t have the depth or experience in the squad to play anything much less than our best defence, certainly the spine, starting with the magnificent, inspirational Hugo Lloris. Vorm is a decent back-up. Lloris is a leader.

Long-term planning. Make sure we have that breadth and depth because it is a long season but in the window Levy badly let us down. So Dier at 21 and after 7 matches in an unfamiliar position, becomes indispensable. He’s been mighty in the role but we need to know there’s an alternative.

Dier was one of four good centrebacks available at the start of the season. Now he’s needed elsewhere so that leaves us with three and Fazio. He’s got something, hasn’t he, must have, career in Spain, captained Seville to an EL triumph. He’s not shown it here, but leaving that aside, he’s only at Spurs for the money. His move to West Brom fell through over terms so they say, i.e. we pay more than they do. I don’t blame him, Spurs gave him the contract, but he was hardly ready for the derby. He knows he’s past his sell-by date, festering at the back of the ‘goods reduced’ section with the other rotten vegetables. Wrong to play him.

I said all this before Fazio took the field. Fazio did what Fazio does – ok one-to-one in the box, an interpretation of the foulplay law that belongs in 1982, passing with apparent care and consideration straight ot the opposition, time and again. Before he wafted a leg at a cross and deflected it to Flamini who confounded all expectations to volley home the winner.

Before then, Spurs had lifted their game in the second half following a mediocre first period when we conceded after Oxlade Chamberlain was given far too much time to shoot, Vorm could only parry straight to Flamini again. Eriksen and Carroll got us moving again and Chadli finally surfaced although Townsend sunk without trace. Chadli’s cross was deflected in and in an open game (see, they weren’t much cop either), the win was there for the taking. Kane’s thrilling overhead volley was cleared off the line. Then the subs came on but we got bogged down in the middle with no width.

The League Cup is a miserable competition. Like the group stages of the EL it sucks the fun from the game. It’s always an hypocritical slog – it’s a cup, we’re up for it, pay the cash, Sky TV yeah! Yet no one wants it or looks forward to it until you get to the semi-finals. This is what we do in modern football, have competitions nobody gets enthused by, that get in the way, that detract from the heritage of the League and FA Cup, competitions generations of fans made famous and precious. But it’s League Cup football on Sky baby!

One theory last night was that Poch was acting on instructions – success in europe means more and is more lucrative. However, he’s consistent in letting us down. Any cup will do – Leicester in the FA Cup, Fiorentina in the EL last year, now this.

He understands what the derby means for supporters. Fact is, he and the rest of them just don’t care. What hurts most is that this is what they really think of us all the time.

One Nil To The Tottenham – The Case For The Defence

If Spurs are to achieve anything this season, and after yesterday’s win against Palace the prospects look brighter, it will largely be down to improvements in defence. The spotlight always shines on the gloryboys up front but last season’s comedy capers at the back can’t be repeated this time round. We can’t or won’t buy a striker but we have invested in defenders. 2-1 was odds on for last season, this term it’s 1-0 to the Tottenham.

Fast forward to 75 minutes. Spurs are one up, deservedly so on the balance of a game that improved as the minutes passed, but Palace are set up to counter attack. They’ve hit the post once, now they push up in search of the equalizer.

When the going gets tough, Eric Dier gets going. He and Jan Vertonghen in particular played their best football when they were tired and under pressure. Davies was strong on the ground and in the air. Excellent and frankly pleasantly unusual as in the past we have so often collapsed as soon as we get ahead. Dier, 21 years old and in an unfamiliar position, played like an old hand.

Last year I castigated Vertonghen for being the old hand who refused to take responsibility. When we scored four against Leicester then imploded, he was shrugging and moaning when he should have taken charge. Yesterday he flew around the box, anticipating and clearing. Alli cleared, Jan waved his encouragement. He’s found something to play for.

Son’s fine goal rightly garnered the headlines but I discovered the best moment of the match on the way home. Thanks to the wonders of modern science and my Times goal app, we watched the highlights while waiting on the southbound Victoria line platform at Seven Sisters. That cross shot that we on the Shelf all thought hit the post, Hugo really had saved it. The Park Lane sang his name so we thought he did but I couldn’t believe how good that save was, low to his right, a well-struck bouncing ball. He was impeccable yesterday, on and off his line.

Spurs began well enough. Plenty of circulation in midfield, always best when we move the ball with a good tempo and for the most part we succeeded. Kane headed over from a corner, 12 yards out and unmarked, but it was hard to pierce the Palace defence. They don’t press high, preferring to drop back and swarm around the edge of their box. This worked. Our attacks ground to a halt in a fug of indecision, Chadli having 17 touches when two might do, Son always a danger but apparently paranoid about using his left foot, so turning into trouble too often. Many players play off the main striker because it’s a soft option but it’s his perfect position and Pochettino used him well, allowing him freedom to come off the wing or start centrally. Either way, Palace could not pick him up and he linked well with his team-mates.

We missed the width from Walker and Davies who stayed at home to counter the attacking threat from Bolassie and Zaha. I can barely recall Davies crossing the halfway line. Last season Pardew’s Newcastle had the better of MP. Yesterday Pochettino’s tactics were spot on. It gave the front four a platform and also enabled Dele Alli, nominally a DM alongside Dier, freedom to get forward. Vertonghen brought back memories of two season ago by filling the spaces as Palace funnelled back. Also his substitutions had real impact. Eriksen kept busy and took the game to our opponents as Chadli was flagging. Unusual that Chadli should get the hook, and quite right too.

Early days but to me Alli is the best prospect we’ve had at the club since Bale. He has two hallmarks of a great midfielder, a natural effortless poise on the ball, head up and aware, and the ability to inject drive and forward movement whenever he gets on the ball. As with Bale, a love affair starts to blossom….

Deadline-day rumours suggested Lamela was on his way to Inter, only for Pochettino to block the move at the last second when it became clear Berahino was staying at West Brom. Judging by his last few efforts, his mind was already in Italy. Yesterday he showed commendable discipline and focus, working hard and never hiding. Much of what he attempted didn’t come off, and while I’m pleased to see him tracking back, his defensive positioning is naive.

After yet another run floundered on the rocks of the hard-tackling Palace defence, he beat the ground with his fist in frustration, whether this was at the toughness of the tackling or his own inability to find a way through I’m not sure but decision-taking is the root of the problem. The great goalscorers rely on icy instinct when they approach the box. The mind of, say, a Greaves or a Sheringham, is empty of conscious thought at that crucial moment, instinct takes over. Lamela’s mind is full of fireworks and whizz-bangs, a psychedelic cacophony of colour and images, sending him all over the place. In the end it’s all too much and he doesn’t know what to do.

But often enough he was around to make a difference and making a difference is his biggest problem. Finding himself as centre defensive midfield on the edge of our box, he hurled everything into a block, fell over, got up again and still had the ball. Head up now, the ball to Eriksen, just on as sub, was swift and accurate. Eriksen found Son and in full stride he shot through the keeper’s legs to score the winner. Two passes took the ball 60 yards in a fraction of the time it takes to read this. Like all good pass and move, it was simple and electric.

Good position, he used his left foot, in it goes. The Korean commentators on the gantry behind us gabbled in joy as they punched the air. Playing to the crowd like pantomime dames, they just happened to have a Korean flag handy. Bit like 5Live’s curmudgeonly Alan Green whipping out the cross of St George whenever Rooney scores. Judging by the number of Koreans in the stands, Stubhub are going to be sold out for the rest of the season.

Pochettino, suited and booted because his mum was over, sat down once we had scored. Most managers would have been up and shouting themselves hoarse. I guess it’s the Argentinian way but hasn’t he seen our defence. This time he was right to be calm. We held out with a few scares, a fine win and unbeaten since the opening day.

Through Levy’s incompetence we don’t have either an extra striker or midfield experience. What this game confirmed is that we have ambition and determination in spades. Spurs have relied on young players coming to north London and bettering themselves. Son has enthusiastically embraced the opportunity, we know what Kane et al can do, maybe Lamela is finally getting the message too.