(*I would like to apologise to viewers for the brief outbreak of positivity which may have affected their screens during my last article; please be assured that, thanks to the efforts of my team, normal service has now been resumed).
Personally, I wanted us to stay in Europe. But, fair play to them, the Spurs manager and players took the view that the referendum result must be respected and fought hard to engineer as rapid an exit as possible. Obviously, in this ‘post-truth’ era, anyone who took the manager’s description of the Monaco tie as a ‘must win’ game at face value hasn’t been paying close enough attention to recent events. Clearly, deep down, he had other plans. That should have been apparent from the team sheet, when Johnson, Gove and Farage were named as our defence. While experienced in the sly arts of defending impossible positions and extricating themselves from difficult situations, and broadly sharing a view on the team’s direction, these three players are known to be prone to kicking the ball against each other when the going gets tough. Which is exactly what happened for Monaco’s first gift of the evening, a first-half penalty. Typically, a spoilsport Frenchman intervened to make Brexit harder than it needed to be by saving the penalty and he persisted in taking up this thoroughly undemocratic position throughout the evening, refusing to believe until the very last that he, a ‘remainer’, was in a minority of one. Thankfully, the rest of the team toed the party line by deciding that, a dubious penalty apart, there was a line that shouldn’t be crossed, namely the bit between the opposition’s goalposts, and by allowing the French team free movement of labour in our half.
Too harsh an analysis? OK, how about this. Pochettino decided to go with the three-man central defence that had served us so well at Arsenal recently but, in line with the cuts that everyone has had to make in this time of austerity, felt compelled to try it with only two men. Unfortunately, this tactic wasn’t fully explained to the chosen two, Dier and Wimmer, who both clearly felt that Vertonghen would leap between them to prevent the free header for Monaco’s second gift and first goal – how else do you explain their positioning from a fairly routine cross? Now, we’ve often had players whose presence on the pitch hasn’t been noticed for an hour or so by the fans (God knows, there were a number of them on Wednesday night) but you do expect the players to know who is or isn’t on the pitch. Then again, judging by the number of passes hit to empty spaces, as if the ‘passer’ (I use the term as loosely as Son and Alli controlled it) had seen the ghost of a Spurs player, perhaps I’m asking too much here. (And, on the subject of routine crosses, wouldn’t we kill for a couple of those; anything that beats a first defender at least).
I could go on in this piss-taking manner for a while, if for no other reason than to get the aftertaste of Wednesday’s display (choose any of the following which may apply: embarrassing; insipid; inept; spineless; clueless; lethargic; predictable) out of my system. However, I’m going to attempt some proper analysis and to put things in perspective for a change. Firstly, we are talking about good players, ones I’d praised earlier in the season. And I don’t think for one minute they went out there determined to play badly or to look as if they couldn’t run, tackle, pass, cross or shoot. But that’s how they played. Instead of the team whose high-energy pressing and quick passing undid Man. City and ended the latter’s unbeaten start to the season, we somehow got the tired lot of quitters that finished last season on a real low. (Exempt from this criticism, of course, is Lloris, who was brilliant and pulled off one save that deserved to win a match on its own, together, perhaps, with Wanyama, who did his usual best to stem the flow and start something for us, Winks, who did well considering his age and inexperience, and Harry, who is obviously still trying to get match fit). The question is: How does it happen that our best performance of the season signals an immediate downward spiral of energy and confidence? Forget about injuries; we have a squad that everybody’s been saying has good cover in every position. Is it tactics? Clearly we got those spot-off (if that’s the opposite of spot-on) on Wednesday; joking apart about us playing three at the back, Rose and, to a lesser extent, Trippier certainly played as if we had three central defenders, leaving us woefully undermanned down both flanks when Monaco attacked. I don’t blame Wimmer, who deserves a run in the team, but if Pocchettino did leave Walker and Vertonghen out to prepare for Saturday’s game against Chelsea, doesn’t that suggest a skewed set of priorities? Are the players being over-worked between games? I don’t understand why Pochettino is saying we aren’t able to cope with the demands of two games a week; that’s what any club in Europe has to contend with and it’s the chance to do it that makes us try to get in the top four every year. If we can’t handle it, there’s no bloody point struggling for a top four finish. Try telling Andy Murray that playing 180 minutes in a week is too much; he played Djokovic the day after playing a game lasting nearly four hours and still found the energy and will-power to win.
I can’t work out whether our players need a sports-psychologist, some tender-loving-care or just a metaphorical kick up the arse but they need something. Pochettino can’t absolve himself from blame every time we under-perform, which we are doing far too regularly this early in the season. As I and numerous others on this forum keep banging on about, relying on two overlapping full backs who get forward but rarely deliver decent crosses for width and trying to create openings largely by trying to thread the ball through the eye of a needle in overcrowded central positions doesn’t seem to be working. Is there any Plan B? Eriksen hasn’t turned up all year and doesn’t deserve to be in the team on current form but I suspect he favours the role normally given to Alli, as he tends to get more involved when playing more centrally. Alli has been woeful since the City game. Ok, he’s young and we should cut him some slack but someone should have a word in his ear about not going to ground so easily every time he loses the ball, which is all too frequently at the moment, (even if, as on Wednesday, he sometimes gets a penalty out of it). Otherwise he’s in danger of turning into another Jack Wilshire – too much, too young, England regular, then whinge whinge, fall over and appeal to ref. for every tackle in every game and downhill from there. Dembele will literally screw himself into the ground one of these days with those ever tighter turns, usually into trouble, of his if he’s not careful. Son has lost the smile and the spark I talked of in the City game and seems bereft of confidence.
Whatever the reason, the fact is we have exited the Champions’ League not with a bang but with a whimper. I’d rather have seen us risk losing by more by having a real go at teams, as if we believed, as Leicester have done, that we deserve to be there, than start each game as if scared of our own shadows and ultimately achieve the worst of both worlds; narrow defeats, to, it must be said, moderate opposition in the context of the Champions’ League (I wouldn’t bet on either Leverkusen or Monaco progressing much further), without making said opposition feel they’d been in a real game. Someone, somewhere, needs to get a grip. That means everyone – manager, coaches, players – taking responsibility and not looking for excuses. Try something different; you paid £30 million for Sissoko, so give him a run instead of one of our under-performers. Maybe give Nkoudou a start rather than a few minutes at the end of a game.
At the very least, we need to find some sort of spark going forward. The fact that Harry Kane has needed only three games following his return from injury to become our top scorer with five goals (and three of those penalties) says it all, really. Brian Clough always used to say that football was a very simple game. Too many modern coaches appear to take the opposite view, obsessing about formations, diamonds, men in the hole, false No.9s, wing-backs, back-wings, bat-wings, crap-wings, ball-playing sweeper-keepers, super-duper playmakers, ball-playing groundsmen, false mascots and so forth but there is one simple aim – stick the ball in the fucking net. And to do that, you need to be brave enough to go forward and take a shot now and again, not obsess about possession and go side to side and round and round like a crab on acid.
Having held a quick referendum of Spurs fans inside my head, I can report that the majority were ‘remainers’ and are massively disappointed with this week’s events, not least because of the possible ( I won’t say ‘likely’ as CSK will certainly not fear our Wembley form) booby prize of the Europa that we’ll now be offered. Personally, I think we should try a new formation, new tactics, new players, anything at all really, in that last CL game, ‘cos, if we play well, we’ll have learned something and if we lose, well, frankly, who cares if we stay in the Europa; we won’t win it and the longer we stay in it, the more it’ll affect our league form. It’s no longer a ‘must-win’, so why not go for the ‘win-win’ option. We mustn’t be dogged by thoughts of Brexit anymore. Just don’t make a dog’s breakfast of the rest of the season.
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