And Now, A Short Intermission

I don’t always get my priorities right when it comes to football. Easy to say Tottenham comes first, it trips off the tongue, you can all laugh along, but in my case the obsession has led to a few questionable decisions. I went to the game when people close to me would have preferred I was somewhere else.

As somebody once said, of all the things that don’t really matter in life, football is the one that matters most. I missed the Southampton game and since then Mrs TOMM has been in hospital so time to write is short. This was our bedside view for the Leicester cup-tie on Sunday. Think of the last few weeks as Tottenham On My Mind’s winter break.

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This is the longest break on the blog during the season since I began seven years ago. I’ve missed writing about Spurs and apparently some of you have missed me. Sincere thanks for the messages and comments, deeply appreciated. The number of subscribers has gone right up even though there’s no content – readers don’t want to miss out.

I missed writing about the Norwich win. We played so well, so wholeheartedly, supporters and players felt closer than has been the case for so long now. A major theme of mine over the past two seasons is the yawning distance between supporter and club. This lot have bridged the gap. We and many others lingered in the warm glow instead of rushing away to Boxing Day families impatient for our return. The players felt it too, staying on the pitch, a semi-circle of honour if not quite a lap.

So I’ll see if I can make a late entrance on Wednesday night, Saturday if not. Keeps me steady, on track. Being there is more important than win or lose, helps me be the person I want to be. Winning’s nice, mind.

Tottenham On My Mind doesn’t get a mountain of page views but I’ve discovered the readers are phenomenally loyal, and that’s all right with me. Spurs are part of of our lives and I’m amazed and touched that some of you live it with me. Thanks for staying with me, a belated Happy New Year and stick around because this is going to be an interesting year for the blog. You might well be able to help. After the intermission, stay tuned.

The Day The Light In Dier’s Eyes Went Out

Kyle Walker takes a throw-in towards the end of the match in front of the Shelf. Whatever his faults, he always finds some energy if Spurs are chasing the game late on. Eric Dier is in front of me, in space, about 10 yards away from the thrower, but the midfielder is looking at the ground. His eyes are weary, his expression pained. He doesn’t want the ball. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, all season his broad shoulders have carried the weight of expectation and the burden of performing in the clatter and clutter of a Premier League midfield. Such is the fierce strength of Dier’s intensity, when he came near the Shelf you could almost warm your hands by it. Here it had become a guttering candle. Eric Dier had reached his limit.

I’m not blaming Dier for the defeat against Newcastle. He did not have a good game but that can be said for half the team and after all, his near post header from a first-half corner put Spurs ahead. Anyway, after what he’s put in lately, I’d forgive him anything. But this apparently insignificant scratch to the veneer of Spurs’ polished season summed up the team’s performance in a nutshell.

Newcastle forced their way back into the match, repeatedly slicing through our midfield with a series of fast, direct counters. In a five-minute period, four last-ditch tackles denied clear goal opportunities, two by Alderweireld, one by Rose and one by Vertonghen. The game was turned on its head after Tottenham’s first half superiority.

This was the moment when Spurs ran out of steam. Tired legs and tired minds, exhausted by the strain of relentless decision-taking and the pressure of being really quite good. When the legs give out, it’s usually because the mind has gone first. The pressing game requires countless by-the-second decision-taking – where should I be, where is everyone else, do I go or sit tight? That’s before you get the ball and switch instantly into attack and create mode, let alone think about moving into the top four with a win. You could almost hear the rush of the wind as the season caught up with us.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Since August wave after wave of opposition attacks have foundered on the rock that is Eric Dier. The magnificence of his contribution showed up in stark relief by its absence. A couple of weeks ago I described Dembele as the most influential midfielder in the league right now. My goodness me how we missed him, not just his strength or touch but also the way what he does makes the team so much better. He holds to give others a precious second or two to get into place, his barrel chest a counterpoint to Alli’s lithe skills, Kane’s touch and intelligence, Eriksen’s movement. He makes us better.

This season I’ve frequently used the word ‘drive’ to describe the big difference in midfield when we have possession. Dembele, Mason and Alli look to get the ball forward, to make something happen, to impart impetus into our tempo. Yesterday, we had too many players who did not make their mark on the game. I like Tom Carroll, the way he scurries around, always makes himself available and looks to pass early and forward. His ball inside the full-back for Rose in the first half was typical, that exaggerated body position, the care and precision of the pass. Yet as the game went on he made no difference and was substituted into anonymity.

They all faded. Alli full of flicks – ‘I won’t bother breaking my stride, I’ll just volley this pass 20 yards to Kyle over there’ – but little influence. Eriksen too, Kane not in the game enough although he had a couple of decent shots. Lamela’s EL hat-trick against Monaco was fun, the third was particularly sweet. Yesterday he drifted infield where on Thursday with more room he was so effective, here he became clogged up with the others as Newcastle cut down the space. Time and again our one-twos were easily blocked and we passed through gaps that didn’t exist. Width would have helped but we never did anywhere near enough to shift the Newcastle defence out of position.

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Fans were muttering darkly about this return to the Spurs we know and love, always doomed to fail just as we think we might have turned a corner. In reality this failure points up how consistently well we’ve played up until now. It also proved what many of us have felt so far. We have a fine, highly promising side capable of taking on the top four if everyone is right on their game. There’s little margin for error, although the defence have been resilient of late. Dier off the pace, Mason and Dembele absent and that left a big hole. Kane was isolated. Son came on as a sub to show why Poch did not pick him as a starter. He looks stiff-legged and anxious, trying too hard and so failing to do anything much. Kane remained isolated therefore.

And much as I love him Hugo was off yesterday too. The first goal found him back on his heels so he could only watch a long cross then push out a tame close-range shot straight to Mitrovic. Late on Perez shot from wide, from that angle I was certain the ball would go wide as Lloris parried his low near-post shot, only to see it roll in. It was a fine effort from a tight angle, low and hard in the spot close to their bodies that keepers dread, but Hugo has saved so many of those in the past….

Hugo’s distribution was poor when we need our captain to exude confidence from the back. I get that he is trying to pass the ball out rather than just kick it away. That succession of efforts to the left were probably a pre-planned tactic. It’s just that if he’s going to pass the ball, then he has to be judged as you would his team-mates. Part of that is all about making good decisions, and he didn’t.

Newcastle played well in the second half, discovering a pressing style and purposeful movement that has been missing under McLaren. They should move up the table if this and their excellent reserve keeper are anything to go by. However, Spurs should have put this one to bed in the first half with Kane, Rose and Lamela failing to capitalise on our superiority.

Plenty to be optimistic about. 14 games unbeaten is a start. So far this sequence of winnable matches between now and the New Year has not gone well but it’s very close at the top of the table and the quality remains. We’re learning, let’s not forget that.

For Pochettino, this is a step into the unknown. How will this relatively inexperienced squad cope with the physical pressure of the Christmas and New Year period (including 3 games in 7 days in the second week of January) and the mental pressure of the expectation of success? Dier, Kane and Eriksen need a breather but of course we are short of cover, especially up front. This harks back to my concerns about our business in the last window. Inflexible at the best of times, his squad gives him limited opportunities to freshen it up.

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Spurs Resilience As Valuable As Two Points

“Out on the wiley, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green…” Never liked Kate Bush. My loss, and I get how significant she is in the history of women in pop music, only woman to have a top 5 album in each of the last 5 decades, sold out Hammersmith nights. Her videos were hugely influential in the 70s – she danced and sang AT THE SAME TIME kids! Except where her fans saw deeply meaningful interpretive dance, I just saw a lot arm-waving.

Windy up at West Brom on Saturday, highest ground in the league and all that, and some of the football was pretty wild but don’t worry, no more WBA/Wuthering Heights metaphors, although according to Hugo, the wind was to blame for Spurs failings. Too many missed or overhit passes. The montage of same on MOTD was a montage of shame, it looked bad and most players were at fault.

Truth is, we never established the consistent fluency that has been the hallmark of recent games. I’m certain it was hard to play good football but we managed it well enough for a time in the first half. The tempo and ingenuity up front that has become pleasingly familiar went missing and we lacked the bite and sharpness to turn a draw into a win. We ended up trying to thread passes through gaps that existed only in the minds of desperate midfielders.

Yet unbeaten since the opening day of the season and I’m buying Christmas presents already, and that’s not because I am a proactive shopper. It’s a record to be proud of. I’m not at the stage where I’m thinking about the what-might-have-beens if draws had become wins because Spurs have exceeded all expectations. These are opportunities we are making not missing. As I have said for several weeks now, let’s enjoy our football while we can and worry about the table in the New Year when patterns emerge and we complete a run of games against sides below us.

West Brom played well, meeting pressing with a high level of activity. Pressing used to be called ‘closing down’ and that’s what they did, in the process counter-attacking at pace, dangerous at set pieces and scoring a good goal. We have Lloris’s point blank reaction save to thank for keeping our point. Lightning reactions and strong hands pushed a close range goalmouth stab up and over, brilliant.

Time was when we would have lost this one, bowled over and brushed aside by the Albion’s physicality. These days there’s something more. The resilience to hang on, the nouse to do enough. All good teams need it, few have. A draw and this precious quality, that will do for one Saturday.

Spurs started better than they finished. We settled into our period after scoring. No one appears to suggest the wind was a factor as Alderweireld’s long pass was judged to perfection, in between the two centrebacks and right onto Deli Alli’s foot. Of course he hit it first time on the volley – as if he’d consider any other way of dealing with a high ball looping from over his shoulder, running at full tilt with two defenders breathing down either side of his neck. He kept it down, through the keeper’s legs in fact, a stunning piece of nonchalant audacity.

Toby’s ability to hit long, accurate passes paid off. It’s good to have in the team locker, a counterpoint to our pass and move. Otherwise we did not impose ourselves up front and as time went on, looked forlorn in attack and shabby at the back, giving the ball and free-kicks away too often and Hugo’s poor clearances putting us under unnecessary pressure. In the first half Alli pushed on past Kane, it led to the goal, but Son might have given that extra punch in the box. Mind you, when he came on for Lamela, who worked hard to little effect, he barely touched the ball.

Pochettino made substitutions to keep some pace up front, as he’s always keen to do. Njie was put through in a rare moment of clarity, the offside was marginal. Poch looks after him well, directing him like a schoolchild with a remote controlled car. There’s raw talent there but a lot to learn.

And anyway, what is a ‘wiley moor’?

 

Spurs Learning To Live With The Tension

Consensus round me? Hoped for something more but the draw will do. The game opened full of expectation, by the end both sides were intent on boring each other and the crowd into submission, the consequence of several factors. The unfeasibly early kick-off saps the enthusiasm. You look forward to these derbies, as always the authorities find a way of puncturing the balloon. As my son remarked, nothing says ‘modern football’ like the announcer greeting the teams with, ‘Good morning to the world famous home of the Spurs.’

CFC paid us the compliment of starting without Costa but two false nines don’t add up to one Harry Kane. Not even close, but there was barely room to breathe let alone play much football. Spurs were tired after Europe – you’ve no doubt seen the stat that showed we ran respectively 6k and 4k less compared with our last two matches.

No lack of tension however. As time passed you were thinking the same as me, come on, you know you were. Spurs on top, late Blues breakaway… Not this time. This lot are made of sterner stuff and we’ve scored our share of late goals too.

They set up in a flexible 4–3–3 to limit our space, the pace and creativity in their forwards more than compensating for the lack of a genuine centre forward. Spurs’ defence led by the admirable Alderweireld was able to handle it without too many scares. Hazard had their two best chances, heading just over in the first half then a lightening volley was kept out by Lloris low down to his left. It was over in a flash – the shot was unexpected and fizzingly fast – so I had to wait for the MOTD replay to show what a superb save it was.

For our part, Mason slotted in wide right. It meant he had an average game out of position but he was there to counter the threat down their left. We therefore had to work especially hard to make any opportunities. Despite the lack of room, we were able to consistently play a straight ball into feet towards the edge of their box but too often a combination of the absence of space plus tiredness from Europe the previous Thursday led to uncharacteristic long balls.

Kane nearly bundled one in at the near post before many had cleared the turnstile queues then his quick shot was straight at the keeper. Dembele charged bullishly onwards, his low shot turned round by Begovic. A shame he could not have done this more but Moussa is the man who makes a difference. It’s hard to see a midfielder making more of an impact in the PL right now. He faded in the second half after taking a knock and so did our performance. As well as the runs where like Desperate Dan the defenders bounce off him, his ability to hold onto the ball without losing it gives team-mates precious moments to get into position.

Best chance fell to Son. Kane nipped to the byline but Son’s unchallenged far-post header went directly at the keeper. He should have done more with that and throughout tried just a bit too hard on the ball. Better to throttle back and be patient.

I’ll say again that Alderweireld at £10m is the buy of the season. Pace plus anticipation is a real talent to have. He’s a yard ahead of most opponents and covers diligently, easing across effortlessly if a gap appears. That gives the other so much confidence. Vertongen continues to bloom although he went blank for 10 mistake filled minutes in the second half. Walker was excellent, using his speed to full effect.

Otherwise, missed passes without any catastrophes. Kane is a gem, becoming more polished by the game. Intelligent, scheming, available. He dropped back towards the end to allow Njie to buzz around up front like a dying wasp but nothing could break the deadlock.

If this match was a benchmark of how far Spurs have come, we rated pretty strong. More important however is the feeling that win, lose or draw, next week we will just pick up where we left off and take the game to West Brom. Our progress has solid foundations. The rhythm, movement and effort isn’t contingent on the previous weekend’s result. League success can be achieved on the basis of good results against the teams below us and between now and New Year we have a sequence of winnable matches on which our season could depend. We have the talent, application and momentum so let’s make the most of it. I’m not talking about winning the league for goodness sake, just rack up a few maximum points in the next five or six games. Pressure-generated anxiety can come later – remember to enjoy it while you can.

In the last 20 minutes the players were sucked into the quagmire of stalemate. For different reasons both teams were content to hang on to what they had. CFC had to save face by not losing to upstart rivals – the point is neither here nor there, they will push up the table again especially when Santa Roman brings them a little something in the winter window. Last minute, in front of us Ivanovic put the ball in touch then follows it up, whacking it high into the crowd for good measure. We should take it as a compliment. It’s some time since Mourinho set up his side because he was worried about us.

The ref didn’t help, seemingly intent on re-writing the laws of the game so physical contact is no longer permissible. I seldom comment on referees but he really irritated, especially as I’ve seen him have some excellent games in the past.

For Spurs, the weariness in their legs had spread to their minds. Just play out time, although Walker looks fit enough to play another 90 minutes and more. Lamela and Njie have no excuses – they gave away late free-kicks for no good reason and could easily have chucked the game away. The rest were done for by the Ropey League. In Poch we are learning to trust and the win over Quarabag sees us through but it was a mistake to play a full-strength side. Spurs are admirably fit but the pressing game takes a lot of energy and effort.

At the end my son and I were too agitated to queue for the train and walked off the tension back to Seven Sisters. I guess this was a taste of what it’s like to carry expectations and the players felt it too. It made for a drum-taut game that was frankly dull for long periods but we kept our shape and our concentration. That is another marker on the journey onwards and upwards, something else the side can reflect on this week with satisfaction, the ability to hang in there when inspiration has dried up.