The search for the lost heart of Tottenham Hotspur is over. It was there all the time, waiting to be found by three young footballers, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. They knew all along what it means to be Spurs and their performances in Sunday’s defeat of Everton not only showed their more experienced team-mates the path to follow, they ignited and inspired the crowd. Together, as one, as it should be.
This was Spurs’ best performance of the season, superior to the big win over QPR because the Toffees are a much better side. Tottenham were disciplined, keeping a shape that ensured Everton had few opportunities but flexible enough to quickly turn defence into attack. Yet what stood out was the spirit and commitment of the whole team, playing with drive, application and purpose. Regardless almost of the result, this was a remarkable transformation compared with the festering sore of last month’s apathetic and alienating efforts.
The afternoon also revealed Adebayor’s deluded whinging about how our troubles were due to supporter negativity as the narcissistic self-indulgence it really was. The intoxicating mixture of the young men’s effort and noise from the crowd punctured once and for all the smug complacency behind his comments after the Stoke defeat. Players and managers spend their careers in crowded football grounds yet they never get it. Supporters and players aren’t different breeds. We’re inextricably linked, feeding off the emotional connection between us. This reciprocity isn’t about cause and effect: sometimes they get us going, sometimes we lift them. On the good days you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and this was a very good day. The alchemy created an exhilarating, emotionally charged atmosphere that lifted the spirits of player and supporter alike, in particular aiding a flagging side in the final 10 minutes to resist a series of Everton set-pieces as they searched in vain for an equaliser.
And this is what matters, truly matters, long after the final whistle. Matches, players, seasons come and go, fortune waxes and wanes, but keep the beating heart of a football club pulsing and you have the foundation of future success. The form of even the very best footballers ebbs and flows but if playing in navy blue and white means something to them, deep inside, they can find the strength to overcome adversity.
Heaven knows we’ve waited a long time for Bobby Soldado to score. We’ve gone through disappointment, frustration and anger to sympathy and condolence. Scoring goals on instinct since he was kid, once the flow dried up, he’s had no idea what to do about it. He’s like an old friend who has been through such bad times that you are compelled to look away as you wish him well because the pain in his eyes is too much to take.
So when the moment finally came, what mattered more to him, the billowing of the net or the ecstatic reception from the crowd? It was the noise, the song, the shared joy of a homecoming almost that surely will stay with him, that will mean he’ll give that little bit more when harder times come along. We had not rejected him despite it all. After the genuine celebrations in the corner, he took a long time to walk back to the centre circle, savouring each step, deep in reflection despite the elation all around him. The demons were banished. The half-time whistle blew a few seconds later and he skipped off to the dressing room.
Kane and Bentaleb were outstanding throughout. Kane has been ‘a prospect’ for a few years but I did not think he could come on so swiftly. It’s like a child’s growing spurt – you see them every day yet suddenly they physically and emotionally mature. It’s part of nature but still we are surprised. And pleased.
No pace but his close control was always a threat to an Everton defence whose weakness for backing off proved to be their undoing. Spurs began the game in good order but just as it seemed nothing was going to come from our play, and a goal down by this time, Kane took matters into his own hands and ran at them. Suddenly the back four were exposed. Howard could only push his hard shot to the feet of Eriksen who with care and precision placed the ball into the far corner.
Kane began the match on the right, helping Lennon stifle the dangerous Baines. As the half progressed it became clear Azza was doing a fine job on his own, thank you very much, so Harry could drift in and be more involved. The midfield needed assistance as Everton had the lion’s share of possession – here’s Harry back to help out. Soldado could be isolated on his own but wait, Harry’s there to lend a hand. 50-50 in midfield becomes a Spurs ball because Harry’s in. Defence is suddenly attack, on the break Harry’s set Lennon free for his only run at the defence. On the break he slips Bobby in and the finish across the keeper is just perfect. Later, Barkley’s dangerous in the centre replacing the ineffective Eto, this could be trouble -wait! Harry’s got him. Outstanding.
Bentaleb was a presence throughout. He is always available, keeps the ball moving and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining a decent tempo in our play. That’s the mark of a quality footballer. He too has matured, if not overnight then at the World Cup. In his demeanour he seems 5 years older compared with the end of last season.
Mason had less of an impact but played his part in the most solid midfield of the season. He and Bentaleb sought each other at the end and hugged, mutual congratulations for a job well done. Lennon was excellent, dutifully up and down his wing, less winging and more tackling back it has to be said but goodness knows Chiriches, a mistake waiting to happen, needs all the help he can get. Right-footer on the right, playing well – who knew?
Eriksen did well too, working hard from kick-off. Thought there was a different look in his eyes, more determination. As a unit they excelled, pressing high when required but mostly funnelling back to set up the barricades 40 yards out. Lots of calling to each other, encouragement, where to go, plug a gap. Soldado’s goal was preceded by an equally significant piece of play, where Everton had the ball for an extended period but were forced to go from side to side, unable to find a gap. Pushed back, they lost the ball and Kane did the rest.
We kept our shape and discipline throughout. This helped the back four immeasurably. Davies and Chiriches could tuck in or if they were brought out knew someone would slot in to cover. Vertonghen was clearly inspired by proceedings, visibly growing into the match and dealing with the second half pressure that came at him.
Lamela was the only problem. On for the tired Lennon and clearly given strict instructions to keep the shape, he just couldn’t resist. After a disciplined start, he left his post and charged around committing needless fouls. He could easily have been sent off rather than booked. Baines was livid with him for a couple of tackles and I don’t blame him. This weakness could end his PL career.
Much has been made of Spurs’ conspicuous lack of success on a Sunday following a Europa League fixture but the foundations for this win were laid on Thursday night. Bentaleb, Davies and Lennon had valuable game time while key pairings of Kane and Soldado up front and Fazio and Vertonghen at the back had time to get used to each other.
I’m pleased for the manager that an incredibly brave decision to play Mason and Bentaleb in the engine room came off. Also his preferred set-up needs the forward able to get into the box and drop back, a role Kane fulfilled admirably. It’s a telling indictment of Sunday’s benchwarmers and confirmed that Pochettino does not have the type of midfielder that he wants. The young players listen and respond. Not asking a lot but too much for some, apparently.
Without getting carried away – Chelsea hot favourites tomorrow – there was so much to enjoy on an afternoon that began with a conspicuous lack of optimism in the stands. They found what it takes to be a winning side. Nothing but credit all round.
My season starts in the same way, at the same point, every year. Take a complete break over the summer these days. No friendlies, don’t even know what the new kit looks like. Need a rest, especially after last season’s debacle. Spurs’ first game, I’m keen but slightly detached. What will be will be and all that.
We begin well enough, interesting to see how we set up, Hammers come close but I have the luxury of the TV angle via my stream and it’s going wide. Then, it begins. Our marking is poor, they have a great chance. Should have scored and my stomach turns over. The bile rises, I feel sick, churning, stamping my feet, shouting at the screen. That’s a relief. Football’s back and everything is reassuringly normal.
It’s good to win on the opening day of the season and the manner of victory with a classy goal deep into added time was sheer delight. Kane, on as sub for Adebayor, spotted the runner and slid a perfect angled ball through the hapless Wham back four. That the runner was Eric Dier, full-back, on debut, 93rd minute, was a bit of a surprise but his calm, controlled finish, rounding the keeper before stroking the ball into an empty net, was worthy of Greaves or Gilzean. If my ‘new season resolution’ is to enjoy the Spurs, that’s the way to go, gents, thank you kindly.
This came on the back of a resilient hour when we were down to 10 men after Naughton was sent off for handling a supposedly goal-bound shot. Great to win but this was a mostly ordinary match between two ordinary sides. Our goal, however excellent, was our only genuine chance in the whole game. W Ham obliged by missing theirs plus a penalty. Other sides won’t be so generous but first game, down to ten men for much of it so no real conclusions to be drawn. Like I said, let’s enjoy the moment.
The penalty incident seems the obvious turning point. After we mastered early possession, without doing anything dangerous with it, our opponents stifled us in midfield and were on top. We muddled away a couple of efforts, swarming round attackers in the box, then close to the goal Naughton hurled himself in to block a shot. It was ball to hand but those hands were held high like a goalkeeper. Penalty, I’m afraid. Cue cries of ‘unlucky’, ‘seen them not given’ but after a chat with his linesman, the ref made the right choice. Naughton saw red – blocking a goalbound shot with his hands, I guess, even though it was probably going over. Inevitable. We had a couple of ball to hand pens last season. Fine if refs are consistent with this interpretation all season. Bet they won’t be.
Bright start, no goals, opposition get back into it, cock-up. The Spurs way. New season, new manager, same old story. But wait. Fans of rival clubs have more in common than they would care to admit. The Hammers I know could describe their side in the same way. Miss a penalty, then the real turning point of this match came in the second half when Adebayor knocked the ball past centre half Collins, who duly obliged by bringing him down even though it was nearer the halfway line than the goal. Already booked, Collins was gone and if Manu did little else yesterday, he knew what he was doing right then. The man advantage tossed away.
In a match without too much goalmouth incident, the other significant moment came late on. Lloris, superb in this fixture at the fag end of 2013-4, dashed out to thwart Downing’s close-range shot as finally WHam breached our defence. It was a proper save, not just an arms-and-legs-flailing block.
So Mr Poch, what do you have in store for us? W Ham’s first attack didn’t amount to anything but our response was indicative of the shape of things to come. Bentaleb and Capoue, our two defensive midfielders, dropped back straight away, taking up deep positions a few yards in front of the back four and in the gaps between them. The midfield three of Lamela, Lennon and Eriksen fell back behind the ball, leaving centre forward Adebayor up front. That DM positioning is key if we are to overcome the huge problems of last season when the back four were unprotected and therefore vulnerable.
When we had the ball, the three interchanged positions, they seemed to know what was going on and filled the space left as their team-mates moved around. The full-backs came forward to help out and Bentaleb joined them, staying deeper than the three but involved while Capoue hangs further back.
They looked comfortable and Capoue was our best player until he dropped back to centre half. However, it was all a bit cluttered – they were too close to each other – and we didn’t have a shot on goal in this early period despite being on top. Possession is important as they shifted the ball from side to side. Repeatedly we tried lofted passes in Adebayor’s direction, which seemed to me to be tactics not desperation. What’s certain is that they didn’t work. Like all our work on the ball in the first twenty minutes, it was overly deliberate and the big Hammers defenders easily dealt with them.
Eriksen and Lamela showed glimpses of promise on the ball but faded all too easily when Wham flooded the midfield and made things difficult. They tossed a few balls into the box from deep but we did little to stop them and looked unnecessarily shaky in the box. Dier’s selection shows Pochettino is looking to the future – if ever there is a match for Dawson it’s this one as we know the ball is going to ping in repeatedly. Dier is promising but the opposition forwards got in between the centre halves and missed a couple of good opportunities.
Despite the sending off, Pochettino remained resolutely positive. Capoue was our best player at this juncture. I would have brought Dawson on and kept Capoue where he was as DM. However, the Argentinian did not want to waste a substitution, so Capoue became centre half and Dier right back.
It looked as if it was only a matter of time before the Hammers scored. After half time we were pushed back. Adebayor was isolated and detached from the midfield up front, so we had no outlet. But we discovered another feature of Pochettino’s approach, his brave, attacking use of subs, which turned the match in our favour. Holtby and Townsend for Lennon and Lamela gave us renewed industry and, in Townsend the ability to take the game to our opponents. At this stage in his development, Townsend needs a yard or two to look dangerous. Close him down and he’s not learned effective options. Yesterday he posed problems every time he took the defence on. It felt as if our manager would have made the same changes regardless of W Ham’s carelessness in dropping to 10 men.
And make no mistake, the players were encouraged to get forward. Dier’s willingness to get into opposition half seemed reckless as the minutes ticked away and we were on for a decent away point. Stay back, let someone else make the runs…hah!
Early days, 10 men, no time for judgements. However: Bentaleb had a good game and a man who did not appear in any of the papers’ ‘best Spurs team’ has caught the new manager’s eye. He keeps the ball moving and finds space wherever he goes. I wonder if Kane may have to adapt to a role similar to that of Rodriguez at Southampton, a forward able to drop back when needed. Kaboul was poor outside the box – as captain he should have set a better example.
Before yesterday’s match against Fulham, Spurs manager Tim Sherwood described his players as “much of a muchness”. Hardly a Churchillian call to arms as Tottenham aim to complete the season on a high. However, he rightly identified three players as rising above the average: Hugo Lloris and Manu Adebayor with Christian Eriksen the rising star. They proved to be the difference, making vital contributions at both ends of the field that made up for the deficiencies elsewhere on the pitch.
For much of a lacklustre first half, Spurs were disjointed and flat, devoid of confidence and shape. This has been a familiar aspect not just over the last few games but across the season. One big difference between AVB’s half and Tim’s half is that under Sherwood we are scoring goals. We made few chances in this one but took them. Two came from set-pieces, masterminded by the deadly Eriksen. At the other end, Lloris is finishing the season and perhaps his time at White Hart Lane in style. An athletic leap to reach up under the bar to tip over Rodellaga’s thumping header was followed by a penalty save. Just as valuable was an ungainly but vital block in the first half when Fulham were attacking vigorously.
Adebayor’s contribution wasn’t in assists or goal attempts – several shots were frankly rubbish. However, from the start he worked tirelessly, trying to lift the team. His team-mates should have done more to follow his example. Paulinho and Chadli both had good touches but never tried to seize the initiative in midfield. Parker is past his best and was injured early on but we missed his purpose and application.
At full-back Naughton and Rose were uncertain. Paulinho hung back but again without a designated DM or any intent to provide much cover, our already weakened back four with Fryers in alongside Kaboul were always exposed and vulnerable. The two centre halves did reasonably well but it was far too easy for a limited Fulham attack to get at us.
An early example was a long ball that caught our centrebacks dozing. Rodellega missed. We didn’t adjust despite that escape. Spurs went through the motions but lacked inspiration or energy. Flat as a pancake run over by a steamroller. Kaboul headed over, Lennon hit the post – think the keeper tipped it onto the woodwork – but that was it until Eriksen’s curling free-kick fizzed between a befuddled keeper and defenders facing their goal who feared taking a touch. It went all the way to Paulinho at the back post who touched it in from about an inch.
Rather than consolidating, Spurs immediately caved in. Sidwell shook off a couple of effete challenges, played a one-two with Fryers who laid the ball perfectly at his feet. The half drifted to a close. Attention wavered – vacant expressions in the stand, time to count the many empty seats. At this stage of the season we often hear of players halfway to the beach. At the Lane, that applies to the crowd. If the chairman has written off the season and the players can’t be bothered, neither are we.
If Sherwood is saying that we have too many players in certain positions, he has a point. There’s no room for all our attacking central midfielders while we are short in cover up front and at full-back. However, Sherwood’s role is to motivate the players, not to be a pundit. Not the right approach to criticise players in public before a game. Clearly there is dissention in the ranks – I was shown a tweet at halftime where Sandro announced he was fit. The undignified spectacle of a twitter and press conference spat continued after the final whistle. Rose and Tony Parks appeared to have words as they left the field.
However, Sherwood must be doing something right at half-time. The second half began inauspiciously with the team coming out late, hesitant as to who should lead them, Rose eventually taking the initiative while captain Kaboul was last out, talking animatedly to Adebayor. They were lifted by an early goal. Lennon had a good second half, working hard up and down the field. He curled in a deep left-footed cross from the right. Kane had a quiet game but showed his value as a man playing off the striker who has experience up front as opposed to an advanced midfielder. He headed home for his third goal in three Premier League starts.
You will have sussed by now that Fulham don’t like the ball in the six yard box. Eriksen took his next opportunity to whip in a carbon copy of his first half effort, only this time from the left. Kaboul was at the far post this time.
Fulham were well-drilled but rather rigid. They failed to adapt to having to come back into the game despite being gifted a penalty when Eriksen lost concentration and needlessly handled the ball. Sidwell’s penalty was too close to Lloris and the keeper pushed it away.
A goal then could have induced a typical Spurs wobble but instead we took control. Our possession football wasn’t exciting but just what was needed to close this one out. Much of our play was uninspiring and insipid, especially in the first half, but let’s be grateful for a few moments of class in an otherwise ordinary performance that gave us three more points.
The caretaker effect created by Levy seems to have engendered lethargy and cynicism in players, manager and fans alike. At least we are together in something. Sherwood seems to feel justified in criticising players – he’s off so what the hell. Many players don’t have the incentive to do well because the new man whoever he is may or may not have different ideas. Just a reminder, if any were necessary, that despite Sherwood’s limitations, this sorry situation was set up by the chairman.
A couple of days ago I pondered on the nature of one aspect of modern fandom, the vehement rejection of any player who leaves us if they accept a transfer. It’s not something I feel, preferring a haphazard, not necessarily logical balance sheet that factors in their previous commitment and contribution to the Tottenham cause. In January, Nacer Chadli was allegedly thinking about a move but decided to stay. Sherwood has rewarded him with regular starts, most recently in a central midfield. I’d suggest the Belgian has not repaid his manager’s faith in him. He’s good on the ball but is reluctant to work hard enough. Alert and active when he gets possession, suddenly his enthusiasm dissipates when he has to do something that he doesn’t want to. It’s unforgivable to see him jogging back when we need him goalside. Apparently he’s quite happy for his team-mates to put in the sweat and toil that is beneath him. In a midfield four, without a dedicated DM, it’s a derelication of duty. On my personal balance sheet, he’s so far in the red no amount of top corner swervers are going make up for it.
Since when does Kyle Naughton take corners? From both sides of the pitch? How come that was the plan? Someone at Tottenham Hotspur sat down, thought this through carefully, maybe even deliberated with others, and came to the decision that a Spurs reserve full-back who seldom looks confident moving forward anyway, should be our deadball specialist for the day.
Sometimes you watch a game and things don’t go well for Spurs, OK, they gave it a go, could have played better but that’s how it goes. Occasionally you see something that is so bewildering, so utterly unfathomable that you have to hit yourself over the head with a tin tea-tray to make sure this wasn’t the hallucinogenic ramblings of a delusional unconscious.
Look – I know Naughton’s corner-taking ability isn’t the thought that’s uppermost in Sherwood’s mind as he reviews this hideous performance. Since the final whistle I’ve tried to come to terms with it. My only conclusion is that is represents the nightmare vision of my repressed subconscious, where every fear I have about the team, hitherto long-buried under alluvial denial, played out before me. Those dreams where you run and run yet find yourself going nowhere. Where you lose control over muscular functions so everything you try fails crazily. Where logic and rationality becomes an Alice in Wonderland parody of reality.
Much of the game held a hazy, dreamlike quality. Vertonghen, a fine centreback, intelligent, quick, tough, a footballer, crashing through with mistimed tackles he was never going to make. Dawson, marooned like a beached whale on the halfway line, stranded and gasping for air. A back four so far apart, they needed binoculars to see each other, so lacking in unity they would have been better off communicating with semaphore. Lennon with some sort of a central free role – but he can’t pass it… Chadli doing, well, not sure what really but he looks good and that’s what counts, apparently. Defensive midfield? Who needs it?
With no intended disrespect to Norwich, who were fully deserving winners, the first half was shocking. The Canaries’ hesitancy was understandable given their perilous league position. Ours was harder to grasp. We had a lot of room and took no advantage. Instead there were bizarre passages of play where both sides struggled to come to grips with the basics of football and passed to opponents, into space, anywhere but to a team-mate.
One time, we took a throw, with caution mind, nothing rushed, and precisely tossed it 10 yards to a Norwich man, who with as much consideration passed it straight back to us, whereupon we gave it to the nearest yellow shirt, all without any pressure on players or the ball. Did I imagine this or had my mango squash been shaman-laced with bad seed?
The match highlights on the Sky red button included only two incidents in the entire half. One was Van Wolfswinkel trying to kick a ball in the box that was eight foot off the ground, the other was Chadli shaping to do a far-post top-corner curler and failing miserably. After Newcastle I guess we’ll have to put up with that every time he plays from now on.
I know this because I missed the very start of the second half as I was still putting the dinner on. Add some celery and carrots to the pan, stuff the chicken with an onion, keeps it moist you see. A lemon will do, then slice the onion in the baking tray. This all takes a fraction longer, long enough for Spurs to give the ball away with the defence stuck upfield. Snodgrass, by far the game’s best player, darted into the inviting gap left by Danny Rose and scored a fine goal. At least my gravy was full of flavour.
We flattered to deceive for a while and were on top without getting very far. We had been unbalanced by Capoue’s injury early in the game, partly because we lost the protection he gives us but mainly because we missed the hard work and promptings of Bentaleb who had to drop back. Throughout we had no tempo, settling early into a dull, monotonous torpor from which we never escaped and that Sherwood was powerless to influence.
Only Dembele tried to shake things up, driving at the defence whenever he could. He dished up a perfect ball to Chadli in the second half but his fellow Belgian shot at the keeper when well-placed. Adebayor kept going but his movement was wasted because he was so far adrift from his team-mates. This was a creativity-free zone. Goodness knows what ran through Eriksen’s mind, watching from the bench. What’s Danish for, ‘are you seriously saying I’m not good enough to get into this team?’
Soldado’s form has plunged into the abyss, resting finally in a subterranean cavern that last saw daylight 300 million years ago before the grinding of tectonic plates contorted tortured sediment into an underground chamber buried beneath the rock until the sun explodes in five billion years’ time. See the way he looks round suddenly? He hears the sound of deformed otherworldly creatures scuttling by.
My pity for his misery is as deep as the chasm that has trapped him. Beyond criticism, I can’t bear to look when he comes on. Such indignity should be a private affair. The commentator had barely finished sucking clean the bones of his Thursday night miss when a rare decent move set him up on the right of the box. His first touch of the game was an outrageous slice impossibly high into the stands. A minute or two later, a close range header skimmed off his forehead without even going in the general direction of the goal. Two perfect chances, and the game, gone.
I feel so deeply, desperately sad. What have we done to him? “Soldado, ohhh oh. He came from sunny Spain, he’s going back again….” He must be on his way in the summer. Bags packed in the hall as we speak, I should imagine. And we all know the consequences if the team’s form continues to deteriorate – who else will join him? For the last few seasons, we have diced with the consequences of thwarted ambition and promises that we cannot keep. We build a side in the knowledge that success may keep it together but also acts as a season-long advertisement. Berbatov, Carrick, Modric, Bale, all gone but thus far we have tried to replenish the pool of talent.
Now, Vertonghen, Lloris, they won’t hang around, Dembele will be a target for someone, Paulinho has a reputation plus a possible World Cup Winners medal to look forward to. What a waste.
Sherwood has a real challenge to overcome. He has to get a grip and exert a greater influence over the side. Individuals are coming back from injury, it’s true, but Paulinho and Vertonghen have to drive us on and be a presence on the field, while the problems with the inverted wingers that bedevilled AVB’s second season have reared their ugly head in the last two matches. We can’t rely on Manu’s goals all the time.
Watching the last two games on TV, I was struck by how low and worried a few of the players seem – Dawson, Verts, Townsend, Paulinho. It may be nothing but they look as if they are carrying a heavy burden.
Norwich deserved to win. They defended stoutly in the second half and should have scored more. Lloris saved well from one chance while the crossbar is still vibrating from a thundering free-kick. Other chances we got away with.
So what I mean to say is, yeah – it was s**t.