Fine Margins As The Title Slips Away

Fine margins at the top of the table. Spurs hit the woodwork three times but the chances bounced away and with them all realistic hopes of the title. After a bright start, Tottenham could not find a solution to the problems posed by a rejuvenated West Brom. With twenty minutes to find a winner, the pressure that Spurs have swatted away so frequently in this wonderful run-in finally exacted its revenge.

No signs of later problems when the game began. Right away we stroked the ball around as if there were no opposition on the field. Drop the needle, into the groove and stay on the beat. Keeper Myhill was stretched on several occasions. To be more accurate, he’s stocky for a goalie so stretched isn’t quite right, more a roll at times but effective, most notably when he pushed Kane’s early chance onto the inside of the post. It bounced away, a good chance missed, classic Kane, right foot across the keeper. Sure it would go in but he did not hit it with sufficient power, symptomatic of Kane’s least effective performance for a while now.

Myhill was flat-footed with Eriksen’s free-kick, dipping right above him but he still couldn’t get anywhere near it. It too hit the woodwork. Spurs’ artistry was far too much for the Albion, sheer delight to watch the movement and creativity. The flicks and first-time touches weren’t flash, they were simply the best way for Spurs to keep the ball moving. Mighty Dembele breaking up attacks and moving the ball on. Alli, fouled three times early and the subject of Fletcher’s and Gardiner’s incessant attempts to tell the ref how to do his job, found space despite these attempts to knock him out of his stride. As it turns out, he whacked one of their midfielders (not obvious to anyone where I was sitting) – he has to be careful and not get a reputation as a player who can be niggled into doing something silly.

Glorious moments, such a pleasure to watch a Tottenham team playing this well and under pressure too. However, chances were thin on the ground. The goal when it finally came was from a set piece – did I read Spurs have scored more goals from et pieces than any other PL team? Purring we may have been but the gaol was a right mess, the free-kick going in off a defender who, under pressure from Vertonghen, was attempting to head a ball that was approximately 3 mm off the ground.

As the half wore on, Spurs uncharacteristically allowed the tempo to drop. Before Christmas my blogs were festooned with pleas to maintain the tempo. In those days, lost in the mists of the memory, all of 4 or 5 months ago, tempo was something we turned on and off. Now, high tempo is the default setting, so it was surprising to see the drop in intensity, indeed after half-time to feel it, because our performance was palpably flat in the second half.

We waited for it to pick up, overcame a few scares as Albion missed a couple of beauts, Rondon twice I think, but for once the Spurs could not be lifted. I am not the most optimistic of watchers, truly enjoying games only when we are four up in injury time, but I did not expect us to drop any points last night. It’s not so much the quality of our football, it’s the focus with which we go about our business.

Credit to West Brom, who decided to go on the offensive. They pushed up 10 yards, got the ball up to Rondon and began to pick up more than their fair share of loose balls in the midfield. Spurs did not respond quickly enough or adequately enough. Perhaps Dembele and Dier dropping 10 yards too, a defensive outlook for 5 or 10 minutes to take stock.

At the other end, Lamela hit the inside of the post on a rare Spurs raid. A fine move carved out the opportunity and it should have been taken. Fine margins. As it was, West Brom kept up the pressure and scored from one of a series of set pieces. Dier beaten, Lloris lost and the header dropped into unguarded goal.

73 minutes gone – the next 20 to define our fate. Ultimately we capitulated meekly. For the first time quite a while, we did not know what to do. West Brom had knocked us out of our stride and we could not pick it up again. It felt as if the impact of what we have achieved finally hit the players. They became tense and uncertain as the enormity of the season sank in.

The final whistle was supporting Spurs in a nutshell, simultaneously deflating and uplifting. I tried so hard to put the idea of the title to one side. Didn’t do any of the permutations and predictions, or take on board the ifs-buts-and maybe equation that can see us into the Champions League. Like a wine-stain on the carpet that you cover with a rug, you know it’s there but don’t want to think about it. One game at a time, win all of ours and see what the other lot can come up with.

Yeah right. My heart sank in time with Kyle Walker as he fell to the pitch in front of us. My self-delusion unmasked. Of course I had dared to hope, and for once it was not wishful thinking because after Man U and Stoke we looked unstoppable.

Then, straight away, we stood to applaud rather than nip away into the cold dank side streets. (Although some left well before the whistle – beat the traffic or be there as Spurs possibly take a step towards winning the league? It’s not much of a choice, frankly.) We sang, ‘oh Tottenham we love you’ and the players responded. This uplifting moment sums up so much of this wonderful season – fans and players closer than ever before, taking shared moments at the end of games in disappointment as well as victory, of giving thanks for the good football, thanks for trying even if last night they did not quite succeed. Scenes in stark contrast to those at the Emirates as fans either stay at home or protest at finishing in the top four AGAIN. At the Lane, it’s different. My only fear is that if we do qualify for the CL, that will change because it creates a sense of entitlement, but that’s for next season’s Tottenham On My Mind.

Spurs have become the team to beat. Opponents seem to galvanise themselves when they play us, whereas Leicester, champions elect, do not seem to such a scalp. West Ham excelled themselves against us, Liverpool turned it up a notch or three as did the Baggies, who didn’t put heart and soul into last week’s efforts at the Emirates. Meanwhile Swansea at Leicester were in their shorts and flip-flops, sipping cocktails and hiring a pedalo. We’ve also had to chase Leicester by playing after them and while this is no excuse, it has given us a harder task, no question, because they have been able to set the pace. Week after week of chasing takes a toll but Sky are allowed to dictate football so the PL will never say, well, it’s not quite right. But of course the fixtures on the final day kick off at the same time so that no team has an unfair advantage.

Stunning Spurs Hunt Glory

I would have written earlier, except after last night I’m awestruck. Still a little stunned, struck dumb by Spurs’ shimmering brilliance. Tottenham tore a resilient Stoke team apart. It was outstanding even for an outstanding season, not merely the best we have played but it bears comparison with the best I have seen in fifty years of watching the club. To come up with that performance under white-hot pressure is beyond all expectations. It is impossible to exaggerate praise.

Spurs scored four, hit the woodwork twice, it could, should have been 6 or 7 and it would not have flattered us. But it’s the manner of the win that captivated. This was football to take your breath away, leaving you gasping in delight and amazement. Open-mouthed gobsmacked chin on the floor point at the screen how did they do that entertainment.  This was football of the highest class whatever your benchmark, whoever your team.

Stoke set up with an enterprising front four that could have unsettled our defence. However, they were not the sort to bust a gut when it comes to tracking back and pressing. Sure enough, after a few early efforts at penning us back near Hugo’s area, it was easy enough to pass our way through or over them. Any defence would have been stretched by the numbers coming at them from all angles. Rose and Walker offered constant width. This was dangerous for Stoke in itself but it also enabled Lamela and Eriksen to come inside. Time and again Stoke were outnumbered centrally as the Spurs players gathered to win the ball then split at all angles like fireworks from a roman candle. The electronic hoardings advertised a future murder mystery evening at the Britannia but the fans didn’t have to wait to see the slaughter. By the end the Stoke back four didn’t know where they were, and wished they were in a warm, dark room with a nice duvet for comfort.

The contrast in the teams illustrated what Pochettino has achieved. It’s not just the press or the movement, it’s how quickly the Spurs players see the opportunities. Kyle Walker, bless him, always popular with me because of his effort but he’s not the sharpest when it comes to positioning. Yet three times he was instrumental in shifting the ball from back to front in seconds because he started his run the absolute split-second a team-mate won the ball. It is only a shame that his final ball was not better but this is not a day for complaints.

Almost churlish to single out any particular player. They were all on top form but the team’s the thing and their understanding was uncanny. Curmudgeonly sceptic I may be but after this I could be convinced that telepathy exists. But – Kane gets better and better. Never take him for granted – he’s curling a shot past four defenders into the far corner, selflessly running along the line to drag defenders out of the way, linking with Alli to form an unstoppable partnership, back in his own half to tackle.

Alli was a constant threat. Some players loiter in between the lines in search of an opportunity. Alli feeds off the unseen energy, bursting into that space, making something happen. He shot over three or four times and missed an open goal but scored two, one the calmest, coolest chip over the keeper, the other a volley from 15 yards. Double figures for the season. He’s just 20 years old.

Praise for Lamela, effective in a central position. One assist but he did the Modric thing of being the man who made the pass to the player who gets the assist. Behind them, Dier provides the security that frees up the movement, Dembele is battling away alongside him and can turn defence into attack.

Eriksen’s sublime first-time lofted through-ball to Alli for the second, how did he see it never mind deliver… again in the move that set up Alli’s miss, that began in Hugo’s 6 yard box….he began the move for Kane’s third…involved twice in the fourth, providing the pass that Alli volleyed in…

Not so long ago, Pochettino was inscrutable on the touchline. Now he’s a dervish, pummelling the ground in frustration that were we ‘only’ two up because missed chances hurt. When Eriksen hit the bar as he was clean through, as the ball thumped against the woodwork I let out a huge groan as if the ball had struck me in the stomach. He feels it as much as the supporters.

Less than 12 months ago, Spurs’ lost 3-0 at Stoke. Centrebacks were Fazio and Chiriches. I’ll leave that thought with you.

I’ll stop now. I’m just not doing them justice. This is unbelievable. Unbelievable not in the sense of far-fetched unreality but because I never for a moment thought this young team, a newish team remember who are only now coming together, that this team could play this well. Pressure has led other sides to wither and wilt, and you can understand that perfectly well. What is harder to fathom, almost beyond our experience, is that pressure inspires Pochettino’s Spurs.

Leicester deserve the plaudits for taking on the vested interests in the Premier League. There never was a fairytale but that’s the media’s fault, not theirs. Recently I’ve expressed my disappointment that Spurs’ achievements would get lost as the media cling on to their precious narrative. After last night, not any more. The whole of football sat up and took notice. And Leicester, we’re coming for you.

Brutal Spurs Shatter United

Some games are won on points as the losers gradually buckle under sustained pressure. Others are won in a sudden percussive explosion of blows that land a knock-out punch. Yesterday’s Spurs victory was the latter. In a seismic 6 minutes Tottenham tore United apart, scoring three times. It was brutal. Even in a season full of incident and memories, it was sensational.

It had been pretty tight for 70 minutes. Spurs had the better of it, especially in terms of chances. Lamela missed a golden opportunity in the first half, heading Eriksen’s floated chip wide from close range, while De Gea had been far more active than Lloris. Hugo stepped up to the mark however for a match-defining save after Martial waltzed through our defence, which in the end was United’s only shot on target.

Sometimes a goal sums a game up. Spurs’ first summed up the entire season. Lamela furiously battled for a ball in midfield, ending up on the floor thrashing away desperately. But Pochettino’s Spurs don’t leave their mates on their own. Kane joined in. As the ball bounced his way, Harry knocked it on to Eriksen without hesitation. He took it on and produced the most perfect ball into the box, bending it round the retreating defenders and into Dele Ali’s stride. The combination of all-out effort, physical presence and sublime skill has been a feature of this season’s success. First touch and the deadlock was broken, as were United hearts. They never recovered.

Ah Spurs, you spoil us so. Our lousy home record against United was yet another impediment to the title chase, as if Sky’s decree that Leicester can play first and set the pace wasn’t hard enough to overcome. The sense that this might be unfair in any way just isn’t a factor for the Premier League, provided they have the TV cash.

All worries gone with that goal. A couple of minutes later, Lamela’s perfect free-kick (not a phrase I’ve typed that frequently this season) was expertly headed in by Toby Alderweireld, a phrase that has been used before now. He is a top class player, unquestionably my man of the season, confirming my view first mentioned in January.

The old Lane was rocking again, not the first time this season and hopefully not the last. The atmosphere was fabulous all game, helped in the first half by United’s lusty voices. But there was more. The ball was gently rolled out of our penalty area. Walker slammed it 50 yards cross field, Eriksen’s delicate flick fell to Rose and his cross was gloriously swept in from the edge of the box by Lamela. I saw the cross, saw his body arc in the act of shooting, saw the keeper plunge to his right but never saw the ball hit the net, only the Paxton rising as a blue and white wall to acclaim it. Barely 10 seconds from nothing to everything, one end to the other.

Lamela’s goal crowned a fine performance. Full of tackles, he ran and harried United players all afternoon. He added what I have wanted all season but have seen only sporadically, that poise on the ball in key moments. Maybe he’s best when he doesn’t have time to think. Later he ran at goal with the ball at his feet only to grind to a halt near the box, as he has many times before.

Not carping, just sharing, but sitting fairly close to the pitch I can see and sometimes hear the players at close quarters. Yesterday there were two occasions when Walker and Eriksen had strong words with our Erik about his positioning when United had possession. He has that habit of drifting inside, for noble reasons as he wants to get involved in the game but he has to focus on his task. Despite this, he should be our ‘11th man’ (the other 10 pick themselves) for the run-in. That goal will do him a power of good. Have I mentioned that I thought it was rather good?

Kind of Spurs to delay the kick-off to allow a loyal fan and his granddaughter to make it on time, having been stuck in Kent after the A2 was completely closed. Or maybe it was the late arrival of the Untied team coach. Not the biggest issue right now but just how can one of the biggest teams in the world not understand that London is actually quite busy even on a Sunday.

Whatever, it was Spurs who looked unsettled to begin with. United had their best period, working hard in midfield to close us down but they were weakest in the final third. Then Spurs had a spell in the ascendancy. Dembele and Kane featured with Rose as ever supporting on the left. Martial’s deployment on United’s left tied Walker down however but he made one fine dash at full-tilt into the box only to see his cross come shot blocked.

Never quite at our best, Spurs kept working. Many moves did not come off but enough did to give us the upper hand after the break. We kept playing, another feature of our play these days. Then the final twenty minutes became a celebration of how far we have come and how well we are playing.

The key moment may well have had nothing to do with Spurs. United’s excellent young right back Fosu-Mensah went off injured. Eriksen tiptoed forward into the space. Whether he worked this out himself or Pochettino deserves the credit, United didn’t spot him, either when he made the first or set up the third. In between, Kane was fouled out there for the second by sub Darmian.

Last week I wrote about my ambitions for the rest of the season, not so much the title but more the manner in which we take on the challenge. Yesterday Tottenham achieved everything I could have wanted and more. So proud.

Spurs Slug It Out But Can’t Land The KO

Spurs came away from Anfield with a point in a match of stunning quality and excruciating tension. The NHS may be busy but all Tottenham fans need a heart check-up. It’s an emergency.

The game crackled with electricity throughout, a feeling a bit like the time I picked up the end of a bare wire when I was a kid. I accidently pulled the flex from the standard lamp in our front room. Playing football, see, the standard lamp was a perfect goalpost. Football, the cause of all my troubles…

Like the shock, this was breath-taking stuff, football of the highest quality played at breakneck speed. Spurs got on top from the whistle, knocking it around with panache and majesty. I could have reflected on how far we’ve come this season, that this is the norm now, but there was little time to draw breath let alone stop and think. Couple of might have beens as Son and Alli stretched to balls that were just a touch too far or when Walker should have shot himself, instead passing to Eriksen who hit it straight at the keeper.

Then Liverpool collected themselves, got their game together and so from then on the two highly drilled pressing teams pressed each other in a pressing contest. Impressively. They hurled themselves at each other like two boxers in a 50s black and white boxing B-movie, going the distance toe to toe without landing the knockout blow.

Spurs were denied any space yet refused to back down, skilfully improvising their way out of defence, sprinkling the pass and move with long passes and crossfield balls to change the point of attack. For their part, Liverpool surrounded the man with the ball in the hope of forcing errors and saw the spaces vacated by our advancing full-backs as an opportunity. Then, they inserted Lallana and Sturridge into the gaps between our back four, allowing the wily Coutinho to find them with clever passes.

Palace and Wham closed down our full-backs. Liverpool instead targeted the awe-inspiring Dembele as our danger man. He shrugged them off like a wounded bull in the ring. Yet while the Reds never downed him, they did enough to limit his effectiveness going forward and in a game of the finest margins, that was sufficient.

Liverpool landed the heaviest blows. Lloris made three excellent saves, those powerful hands pushing away efforts at full stretch then an easier fourth when Sturridge shot straight at him, wasting the best chance of the half.

For Spurs it was one of those might-have-been evenings. The abiding image is of touches being a fraction too heavy and forwards stretching for balls that were just out of reach. I’ve not bothered with the stats but it felt as if we carved out more room in the box than for many a game with no shortage of bodies up front. However, the best opportunities were squandered. Kane uncharacteristically hesitated twice and saw his trademark cross-shot blocked as we glanced up expecting to see it nestle in its customary spot inside the far post. Alli and Eriksen too. Son meanwhile took his chance first time but volleyed a long ball from Dier decisively wide when a mis-kick or toe-poke might have seen it dribble in.

Liverpool finally scored in the second half. Not for the first time Tottenham were split apart by neat, incisive passes and Coutinho slotted home. Replays focussed on how Dier lost his man’s run from the edge of the box. Sure, but for me this was a game where good football from both sides rather than crass errors created the opportunities. Pressing occupied players further upfield, exposing the back four and limiting numbers. Both sides did it supremely well, Liverpool probably had the better chances. One cross come shot, I can still see it in my mind’s eye hitting the back of the net, but thankfully it was an optical illusion and the ball somehow drifted past the post.

But this is Pochettino’s Tottenham and they are relentless. Spurs came at them again, or rather did not stop attacking despite the setback of conceding. When Eriksen chased a lost cause into the corner, nothing much looked on but with the outside of his foot he hooked the ball back into play. There was Kane, one touch away from the defender but also away from goal. Such difficulties mean nothing to him. Second touch, he turned the ball back across the keeper into the goal, a masterful finish.

Good performances across the board with Lloris’s contribution by a whisker having the most influence on the final result. Kane and Alli were not quite as good as they were for England in Germany where the four Spurs players made a fanbase deeply proud and confirming that Pochettino is the best England manager since Ramsey. Predictably though their efforts blunted their edge on Saturday evening. The passes that connected in Berlin were inches wide, the first touch an inch too heavy and as I’ve said this was a fullblooded game with no room for error.

That 11th man problem in the forwards was again highlighted. We need everyone to function to win games of this level and Son for all his movement and effort failed to make an impact in and around the box where we need it.

Spurs have a knack of bringing out the best in their opponents. I keep reading about how Liverpool are weak in the last 15 minutes and concede late goals but no sign of that. Then of course the London derbies turn hurdles into Grand National fences. Claiming Leicester’s scalp doesn’t apparently have the same kudos. Then again, you can’t expect any favours.

Playing like this feels like earning a point not dropping two. I don’t carry a sense of failure from this match, which we could just as easily have lost as won. What can we do except keep playing, keep attacking, keep going for the win as we did to the final whistle yesterday. A wise man once said something about it being better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. If in the end we’re not quite good enough, so be it. It’s the manner in which we take on the challenge that I’m so very proud of.