The international break has arrived at an ideal time for Spurs; although break is perhaps misleading as twelve of our senior players will be dispatched across the globe this weekend to turn out for their respective Motherlands- and, judging by the performance on Sunday, what some of these chaps need is a breather in its more traditional guises. One which involves being marooned on a floating lilo somewhere with a virgin pina-colada; rather than jetting off to Macedonia for a sticky World Cup qualifier. Alas, the struggles of the modern footballer.
The Big Fear at the moment is that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating itself for the Mighty Hotspur. Not without form in conceding supposedly unsurpassable leads, it was about this time last year that the ship’s wheel was beginning to twirl out of control while the Captain dreamt of England and a better life. Similar to last season, too- and it’s perhaps symptomatic of our very DNA- the minute someone from the outside world starts sounding the I-can’t-see-Spurs-finishing-outside-the-Top-Four klaxon, the underpants find their way atop the head and the inmates begin to panic. It’s happening again, boss!
While there might be a good deal of truth attached to this, you’d have to imagine the Fulham result was somewhat of an anomaly. A rotten day at the office. European hangover is a tired old chestnut but for the two-hours of aimless ball-chasing and slapstick defending in Milan on Thursday night, it can only have been a physically and mentally taxing experience for all involved. The effort it took to play that badly must have been tremendous. Indeed, Vertonghen and Dembélé looked exhausted against BMJ’s men and Scott Parker, at times, genuinely appeared to have turned to stone. But it’s not his fault he’s been required to play every game to its bitter end.
The question now is, whether you have faith in André Villas-Boas to ignore the hyperbole surrounding this mini-wobble and focus on the task in hand: sayin’ nu-uh to the haters and guiding us to the Champions League Party. Personally, I think AVB’s just the man for the job; a serious operator for whom focus and calm comes as naturally as a gravelled voice and a shiny, auburn pelt. If you remember all the Spurs in Turmoil tommyrot being pedalled in the media in August, it was Ol’ Twinkle Eyes who kept an aura of Fonzie cool around the club when the odd result went astray and the players duly responded. Even going to the trouble of beating United at Old Trafford just to prove things were under control. No big deal. There’s no denying that the run-in is a certifiable stinker but you get the impression that Villas-Boas and the players are more than up to it. So don’t despair just yet.
**To say ‘thank you’ to football fans’ amazing support throughout the Capital One Cup’s first season, Capital One is going to turn 1,000 fans into mini football figures check the app out here: http://bit.ly/Xlppk2
Having been knocked around like a woozy sot in a very one-sided bar fight- stumbling over chairs and smashing into the wall-mounted jukebox- Spurs have somehow made it into a Europa League quarter-final with FC Basel. How about that? The saloon doors are still swinging; trousers still bloodied and torn at the knee- and Tottenham are just about there.
It’s a shame to think of the waste we made of this competition under the old regime. Of course ‘Arry took us to the Big Show in his time but for a manager who’d won a single major honour in thirty years, it’s odd to suppose that he treated an imminently winnable trophy with such disdain. Not having a pop, although someone clearly was. The teams he rolled out for the Group Stages last season were a joke and if we’d have snuck into the knock-outs as a consequence, UEFA might as well have unplugged the life-support and called time on the whole damn charade.
By contrast, this campaign has been ludicrously enjoyable for Spurs. From Lazio to Lyon we’ve been spelling fun with a capital F.U.N. The whole tie with Internazionale was mental. Once the blood-pressure had dipped to an acceptable level, you’d struggle to remember a two-legged tie which was so polarised. As good as Tottenham were at White Hart Lane- and they were excellent- it was a steaming pile of holy bobbins at the San Siro. If Inter’s ineptitude flattered us last week, then boy, boy did we make their task easier this.
But, at the end of the night, when you count your chips and you’re in the business end of a European competition and you’ve a major hoodang along the way, you wonder why we didn’t think of it earlier.
Bring on the Swiss, I say. And how about some partybingo.com while you’re at it? Like them movie stars do in Hollywoodland. Arf.
Having ousted our North London neighbours in rather glorious fashion this weekend, Geologist/tactics whizz, Longwell, takes a comprehensive looks at how the devil this might have happened:
Tottenham secured three very important points and pulled seven points clear of their North London rivals in a typically frantic derby. Both teams chose to play very high defensive lines at the start, perhaps unsurprisingly as Arsenal and Tottenham rank first and second respectively in the number of times they’ve caught an opponent offside this season. Spurs did the better job of exploiting the space left behind the back four and the better job of adjusting their own strategy to stop Arsenal from scoring in similar fashion.
Gylfi Sigurdsson earned a place on the Tottenham team sheet at the expense of Lewis Holtby after a string of encouraging yet unlucky substitute appearances at last paid off when he found the back of the net against West Ham. Not before he’d once again come agonizingly close to sticking one of his trademark curling efforts into the top corner, but he won’t have had any complaints about the scrappy way he finally got off the mark for Spurs in the league. Steven Caulker, also impressive at Upton Park, was ill so Jan Vertonghen slid over to partner Michael Dawson in central defense while Benoit Assou-Ekotto returned at left back.
Arsene Wenger selected largely the same side that had beaten Aston Villa a week before, with Aaron Ramsey coming in for Abou Diaby. It seemed that the main feature of Wenger’s plan was to overwhelm the midfield area by effectively playing four central midfielders against Tottenham’s two, thereby allowing Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla time to pick out through balls for Theo Walcott or Olivier Giroud. The decision to start Giroud was a puzzling one and seemed at odds with Wenger’s overall strategy. Lucas Podolski’s pace and directness would have been more dangerous and a better fit for a compressed, high-tempo game, and it’s unclear what Wenger thought Giroud was going to bring to the table in this sort of contest. Perhaps he expected Andre Villas-Boas would set Spurs up a little deeper in order to deal with the threat of Walcott’s pace, but even when Tottenham did start to drop off in the second half, Arsenal were poor at picking up the second ball from Giroud’s flick-ons.
Both teams were fortunate not to concede long before Gareth Bale’s opener in the 37th minute. Wilshere and Cazorla both occasionally found space in front of the Spurs defense after escaping the close attention of Moussa Dembele, who was otherwise quietly superb in his defensive work, but their through balls for Walcott and Giroud were generally overhit or misplaced. A rare exception highlighted Giroud’s lack of pace when Vertonghen was able to run him down and make a fine recovery tackle. At the other end, Tottenham had chances of their own to find Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor running past Arsenal’s back four, but the right final ball eluded them.
Eventually, luck ran out for the high line and Spurs were the ones to capitalize. A loose ball came to Sigurdsson in space on the left, and he released Bale with a perfectly-timed pass after patiently waiting for Bale to surge into the space left by Adebayor’s excellent run across the Arsenal defense that pulled Thomas Vermaelen away from Nacho Monreal and created the gap for Bale. Only moments later Scott Parker took up Sigurdsson’s blueprint, and Aaron Lennon reconstructed an almost identical goal after he skipped past Monreal’s cynical attempt to cross-check him and ran onto Parker’s simple defense-splitting pass.
Arsenal got back into the game after halftime when Aaron Ramsey won a free kick from some characteristically zealous Parker defending. Adebayor could have done better to fight through Ramsey’s block and track Per Mertesacker’s run towards the near post, but he was left too far behind and the resulting flicked header clipped Gareth Bale’s head en route to the back of the net. Zonal marking, she is a cruel mistress sometimes.
Adebayor didn’t have a brilliant shift, but his subtle contribution to the opening goal was very intelligent and he did help out a lot in Tottenham’s pressing. He was often positioned deeper than Bale, and very close to Parker, so that he could put pressure on whoever had the ball for Arsenal after a Spurs attack broke down. With Cazorla constantly drifting inside as expected to give Arsenal a fourth passer in central areas, Spurs were frequently matching up with them using Sigurdsson, Parker, Dembele, and either Adebayor or Bale. Lennon generally remained high up the pitch to keep Monreal pinned back and give Spurs an outlet and width. The Tottenham fullbacks were playing much deeper and narrower than usual to deal with the inside movement of Walcott and Cazorla, which often left Carl Jenkinson loping around like an enthusiastic newborn giraffe in a vast savannah of open space on the right. On another day this could have been a cause for some concern, but if part of your game plan against Arsenal is to make Carl Jenkinson hurt you then it’s probably a pretty good game plan.
Another important part of AVB’s game plan, and one that had a significant effect on the outcome of the game, was the job done on Mikel Arteta. By now it should be no secret how important Arteta is to Arsenal, despite him not being particularly flashy. He’s a more workmanlike version of Andrea Pirlo, setting the tempo and orchestrating Arsenal’s counter-attacks from his position as the deepest midfielder, and he is–by some considerable distance–their leading passer in terms of both number of passes and success rate. On Sunday Arteta “only” attempted 59 passes and completed 85% of them. Far from a poor game objectively, but Arteta averages almost 86 passes per game and a 92-93% success rate.
The other main passers for Arsenal, Wilshere and Cazorla, were pretty much bang on their average numbers for passing, and Arsenal as a team had a typical share of the ball for them: around 55-60% depending on whose stats you use. Aaron Ramsey, on the other hand, attempted 68 passes during the game compared to his average of about 45. So Spurs effectively shifted a nice chunk of Arsenal’s creative burden from Arteta to Ramsey. That’s a key ingredient in any recipe for success against Arsenal if those two players are on the pitch together.
How did Tottenham accomplish this? An obvious choice would have been to deploy Lewis Holtby, an energetic and tenacious presser, in the middle so he could drop off onto Arteta when not in possession and try to limit his influence on the game. Villas-Boas instead chose to have Parker play much higher than usual and charge down Arteta that way, with occasional help from Adebayor and Bale dropping in from up top. While it wasn’t the way I would have thought of doing it, it was clearly quite effective, and it probably played into Parker’s natural energy and aggressiveness better than asking him to sit deep and try to stick with Wilshere.
Spurs could have put the game out of sight in the second half, but Bale, Sigurdsson, and Jermain Defoe–who was no doubt cursing his luck at not being quite fit enough to play against Arsenal’s high line from the start–all failed to convert chances that were various shades of glorious. Arsenal’s opportunities were more limited after the break, as Villas-Boas instructed the defense to collapse towards the top of the box and get narrow when Arsenal were on the ball and looking to feed their forwards. This change was largely effective, but it was fortunate that Arsenal’s one excellent shooting chance in the second half fell to Ramsey, who dragged his effort wide.
Both managers gambled with the same risky defensive strategy in this match, and Tottenham were the more clinical in finishing off the opportunities afforded them by playing against such an aggressively high line. Villas-Boas was also the more responsive of the two managers, altering his team’s defensive approach at halftime and restricting Arsenal’s chances of coming back to snatch a victory as they’d done in the teams two previous Premier League meetings.
Not for the first time in recent memory this weekend’s North London Derby is being heralded as the Most Important North London Derby For Literally Ages. To be honest, most of them feel pretty significant these days. Ever since the Footballing Gods hauled Spurs out of their mid-nineties/early-naughties funk and brain-fiddled the Wenger Drone into thinking Fourth Place was something you could polish and put in your trophy cabinet, the games have become exciting, goal-mental and above all, competitive. The equilibrium in the Capital has been tweaked and the Derby has flourished as a result.
Indeed, in each of the last three seasons there’s been at least one NLD you could hang your hat on and say: Holy Mackeral, that’s a spicy meatball! Confusing your culinary-themed exclamations while you were at it.
In 09/10 it was Gomes, Bale and Danny SH*T DID YOU SEE THAT?! Rose who baked Arsenal at White Lane Lane, in a crucial end-of-season encounter; the result of which (hilariously) ended any title hopes the Gunners may’ve entertained while going a great way to helping Spurs toward Big Euro Sexy Cup qualification.
The following year a six-goal even-spread in the identical fixture was damaging for both clubs, as it gave the Sky Blue EuroMillions winners a chance to get a throttlehold on 3rd and pushed us further down the cack heap. And, just last season, at the Emirates, what should’ve been a procession in tying up the loose-ends of a top-three finish, turned into a mummy, will I ever feel happy again 5-2 defeat and the beginning of the end for us and Harold James Redknapp. All pivotal games, all season-defining.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Gareth? Just Ignore Him
And just what will this latest epochal meeting bring? Well, if you’ve listened to Arséne Wenger this week, what shan’t be brought to the party is any semblance of a plan for sojourning the flight of one Gareth Bale:
‘We don’t plan for anybody. It is always the same – focus on our strengths and forget about your opponent.’
Yep, solid advice there. Might I also suggest that you give him loads of room? In fact, whenever he’s in possession, just run as far away from the ball as possible. He hates that.
Agent Parker, Come In- Your Time Is Now!
I’ve talked about the renewed importance of Scott Parker elsewhere, but for Spurs what might be useful is if the Brother From Another Decade had something close to the game of his life- if it’s not too much trouble. Failing that, a performance with some degree of tactical discipline would be just dandy.
If Arsenal’s midfield trio of Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere are treated to vast avenues of space as a by-product of the England man trying to put out fires in every corner of the pitch, there may be trouble ahead. Scott Parker has remarkable strengths as a player but sadly one of those isn’t the awareness of his own limitations. And if that’s not straight from the Little Red Book of Brendan Rodgers, I don’t know what is. To the teams:
West Ham at the Boleyn Ground later and after last night’s annual Luvvies Gong Show what better way to mark the occasion than by taking a look at Hammers’ fan Danny Dyer’s latest celluloid release, Run For Your Wife. Taking no less than several pounds in its opening weekend, this gripping tale of a loveably monogamous cab driver who doesn’t much care for society’s rules, has been cruelly overlooked by The Academy this year; despite managing to nail at least six of the ten most relevant themes of our time; including what happens when you step on a garden rake and whether Christopher Biggins plus Lionel Blair (to the power of Neil Morrisey) really does equal box office gold.
(Hint: it does)
Once you’ve thanked the appropriate higher powers that you weren’t involved in that motorway pile-up, we move on to the soccerball. Tottenham are in the increasingly familiar position of being able to leap-frog Chelsea this evening, should three points land in their possession at the expense of Big Sam’s Hammers.
It’s been a somewhat confusing season for the disciples of West Ham, one in which the only constant is the unpredictably of the performances. Sitting in the relative comfort of 13th (level with La Resurgent Néwcastle) they’ve picked up points in the most improbable of places since breaking free of the Championship, but countered this with several disappointing malfunctions against League dross.
Only last week did they follow their impressive win against Europe’s Swansea City with a horrible performance at Villa Park; a fixture for the most part that football historians will remember as The Game That Was Worse Than Almost Everything. They’ve drawn with City, thumped Chelsea; but also lost to Reading and been schooled by Sunderland. To misquote Milhouse, you never know which way this crazy team’s going to go!
Statistic-hater, Andre Villas-Boas, has one or two selection dilemmas ahead of tonight’s trip across town. At centre-back there’s the choice to involve Michael Dawson, whom might be best suited to negate the aerial and physical prowess of Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan. Although Caulker and Vertonghen is the technically superior combination, they were a certified mess against the bigger boys of Leeds in the Cup and you’d imagine AVB would like to avoid a repeat of that.
Another day another supposed Euro-jolly marred by the news that some tooled-up degenerates have smashed up a bar in Lyon filled with travelling Spurs fans. While it might be wrong to speculate on the motivation for the attack, the details about the masked thickies performing yes-you-guessed-it Nazi salutes strikes me as a bit of a giveaway. You needn’t be a rocket surgeon to work out what keeps them up at night.
Read the full grisly report here.
On to the football and Spurs face a Lyon side still recovering from Gareth Bale’s thighs. It wasn’t a stellar performance from He Who Can Do No Wrong last week but in part to the ludicrous quality of his two free-kicks no-one took the time to care. For the French Samuel Umtiti (snarf, quack!) reached similar levels of absurdity with his labours and it’s with that goal OL will see a chance to rescue the tie. Away goals, as experts will tell you, very much the must-have item for the Spring.
**If you’re interested in such things, I wrote a little thing for the Huffington Post about Swansea (heathen!) and their chances of reaching the Top Four. Shortly before they lost 5-0 to high-flying Liverpool. #professionalfootballblogger**
It didn’t take long but the Just Where the Heck is Ade? carry-on has reached its zenith of absurdity. Plain, rational thought would have us believe that by the time you read this, the mislaid millionaire will have turned up; presumably now held prisoner in the Spurs gym, chained fast to an exercise bike in an eleventh-hour attempt to get him match-fit for tomorrow’s visit of Newcastle. If only there was some way to track his movements, in the same way one might follow an order of *ahem* special interest DVDs from a discreet trusted internet retailer. Which I wouldn’t know anything about, officer.
The worse case scenario is that we face a resurgent Le Néwcâstle with a strike-partnership of Clint Dempsey and his hardened ghetto smarts. Not quite the End of Days, then. I mentioned in an earlier post that if we couldn’t muster up some goals with the talent we have in midfield, we might have bigger problems that we thought. No, it’s not ideal, but Dempsey was third in net-hitting charts last year and Gareth Bale appears unable to stop scoring this. Call it a tactical anomaly, an unfortunate glitch: but let’s not completely lose our sh*t just yet.
There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about Scott Parker as a footballer; the unflappable side-parting, the perma-grass-stained knees, the affection for bone-shuddering challenges. If you want a midfielder to fight tooth and nail for the cause; want them to exude a plucky wartime spirit that’ll mean they’ll bomb eighty-yards to prevent a throw-in or just put the whizzers up some Young Harry Flash, then Private Parker is without question your man…
So Deadline Day passed us by without major incident; instead of actually buying a new striker, Daniel Levy engineered the cunning plan to write a few names on a piece of paper, straighten his tie, then go for a nice dinner. If I’m honest it’s not the approach I would’ve gone for but the very fact that I’m not in charge of a football club can only be regarded as a good thing.
Will it prove to be a negligible oversight; to leave our strikeforce with so little meat on its bones? Perhaps, but as Villas-Boas made the point in the aftermath of Yellow Tickertape Thursday, there would be no use Spurs siphoning bundles of cash into Internacional’s coffers- a club by their own admission not desperate to sell- if the fallout sees us swimming in financial shark-infested-waters.
What’s more, let’s be honest, I’d wager the average kickball enthusiast hasn’t seen more than a few YouTube clips of Leandro Damião, and, up until just 2008, the lad was playing the Brazilian equivalent of Sunday League football. So, you know, he’s probably not that good anyway? Right? Huh, guys?
Moving quickly on…
As if aware that some disappointed Tottenham fans might need a quick antidote for those Deadline Day Blues, Lewis Holtby has wandered into our lives and made the bad stuff go away. Obviously we should all play it super cool as to not come across too keen BUT I AM TOTALLY GETTING THIS GUY’S NAME TATTOOED ON MY ARM and we certainly shouldn’t get carried away with one-hundred-odd minutes of delightful football. Definitely not.
Elsewhere, Bale’s getting the hang of this kicking the ball in the goal lark. Two games in a row now the Welshman has left defenders huffing on vapour trails before kerbusting it in the top/middle-ish corner. Amassing vital points in the process.
Even with Defoe sidelined, if there’s not enough goals between Bale, Holtby, Dempsey, Lennon, Dembele and Adebayor, then we really should have a good long look at ourselves in the mirror. And if you’re Lewis Holtby, well, that wouldn’t be too much of a chore, would it?