April 7, 2015

Plan B or not Plan B…

Before Mauricio Pochettino joined Tottenham Hotspur there were warnings from those who had watched him closely at Southampton that his one big failing was his inflexibility. It was so pleasing, then, to see him suspend his renowned pressing system for our match against Arsenal in September, so early in his reign. It demonstrated that, when required, he was able to change his tactics to suit the occasion. It put our minds at ease about that particular criticism.

On that day we were a compact unit that defended deep and soaked up pressure, with Younes Kaboul outstanding at the back in a system he was familiar and comfortable with. Six months later, against Burnley on Sunday, questions were rightly raised during and after the game as to why Pochettino didn’t make changes, albeit in-game changes on this occasion; to the personnel (sooner, at least), to the system, to the approach.

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

It may be a little uncouth to use Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which he ponders suicide in order to create a football analogy. And, on the surface, it seems that I’ve chosen the title of this particular blog on the basis of the rhyme. Actually, though, the subsequent lines fit well too.

There have been times when we have seen flaws in some of what Pochettino has attempted, and ‘taking Arms’ might well end the troubles. In, instead, retaining the status quo, the same problems that were prevalent earlier in the season have remained fairly close to surface, even during our good periods.

An example commonly used is that our full-backs have frequently been exposed – take your pick from any number of the following reasons as to why that might be the case:
– a lack of defensive work ethic from the player ahead of them.
– a lack of cover from central midfield.
– a lack of tactical nous.
– a lack of ability.
– some or all of the above.

Likewise, we’ve seen our central midfield walked through as if it were absent when teams have managed to break through our press – the problem being that when one element of the press fails, the whole thing tends to fail. Pochettino has not yet addressed either of these issues.

Pochettino famously began his career at Newell’s Old Boys and played under Marcelo Bielsa, from whom his managerial philosophies have stemmed. The excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote of Bielsa:

“…he’s an ideologue and a purist, arguably too extreme and inflexible to be successful at the highest level, but a wonderful inspiration.”

It sometimes feels as though Pochettino is so determined that his way is the right way of playing that he is unable to adapt to circumstance. The Burnley match was a good example (though there have been others); at 0-0 and with barely a chance created for Spurs, it was a surprise to see the same eleven emerge from the tunnel. When they arranged themselves in the same way on the pitch, eyesbrows were raised. That Paulinho lasted the full ninety was deemed by most (myself included) as utterly inconceivable (albeit he was part of a team that helped to keep its first clean sheet since we played West Brom, another game in which he started). And not bringing on Townsend or Lamela sooner meant that we were unlikely to change the flow of the match.

Burnley’s game plan was to pen us in when we had possession, forcing us to play long balls forward, which they then dealt with easily. Or they’d press the deepest-lying midfield players to the extent where our back four just passed back and forth across the line, unable to find the feet of an occupied teammate in midfield. But in Townsend we had a player waiting in the wings (if you’ll excuse the pun) who offers the ability to run in behind defenders – who we could play long balls over the top to when penned in. Or even just ask to beat his man in tight spaces, get beyond the intense Burnley press, and try to make them change their own game to accommodate him. That ignores the fact that he scored for England in midweek, and so might have carried a little more oomph than usual. Pochettino waited too long to make the change, though, and Townsend ended up touching the ball just once in his eight minute cameo.

Our Head Coach could fairly cite a lack of options within the squad as part of the reason why he has not changed things up more readily. He only has four or five players outside of his favoured first eleven that he seemingly trusts. In fact, in this interview Southampton fan Connor Armstrong suggested the same had happened at their club; Connor said that he would attribute Pochettino’s inflexibility “to the fact that beyond 14 or maybe 15 players, Saints have very little by way of options.” On Sunday, Pochettino had enough options to change shape or personnel – he could have brought on Stambouli to free up Mason to break forward more, or he could have introduced Soldado to move to a system with two strikers. But perhaps his lack of flexibility is deliberate.

Earlier in the season – during Borussia Dortmund’s ‘crisis’ – I read this piece by Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein wrote:

“Schmidt and Klopp don’t believe in having a Plan B.

They’re exposed in that sense but they’re happy with that trade-off. Anyone who’s familiar with their respective bodies of work is aware that their ideas are fundamentally sound. But that’s only part of the job. Because their tactics are highly demanding, physically and mentally, of their players, they need to make sure that the players continue to buy into it.

As soon as one or two key figures start believing that the team would be better off with a less frenetic pace, they’d be finished as coaches. The great secret of Europe’s best coaches isn’t so much that they’re smarter than their peers but that they find ways to get their players to implement their ideas.”

Buy-in from each of the squad is vital, especially in a system such as Pochettino’s (or Bielsa’s) where each individual plays such a vital role. Of course, if Pochettino can mirror anything like Klopp’s successes we would be very happy to stick by him, even if he never tinkers, never changes a thing. And a fairer test will come next season, when he’s had a summer of working with Paul Mitchell, Rob Mackenzie and co to identify targets, as well as a pre-season of working with a squad made-up (hopefully) of players that not only buy into his system, but will stick with it during difficult periods.

But until then, I can’t help but feel that it’s important that Pochettino shows a little more flexibility – particularly in-game. If we are unable to impose our style on the opposition for whatever reason (be it fatigue, confidence or tactics) then something needs to change – either the players’ attitudes, the players themselves, or the system. I would be far more happy to see us play like we did against Arsenal, or the home game against Everton – using tactics that aren’t Bielsa-inspired, but that do get the result.

Pochettino and Klopp would argue, I’d guess, that that would show weakness; it would show that they are not fully committed to the system. But if the system is failing, it’s better to amend it or find one that does work, and then to explain to the players post-match what went wrong and why.

So we suffer the Leicester, the QPR and the Burnley of outrageous fortune, or we take arms against our own sea of troubles (in the form of an auxiliary midfielder, perhaps!) and end them.

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March 10, 2015

Finding Yedlin

I’m getting asked a few times a week (normally when the U21s are about to play!) where DeAdre Yedlin is, so I thought I’d post this so I’ve got something to refer to when I’m telling people I don’t know where he is!

DeAndre made his debut for Spurs U21s in the 3-1 win against West Ham on 9th January. He played an hour at right-back in that match.

After the match Ugo Ehiogu said: “I thought it was quite tough for him today… the wind… he won’t be used to that. The pitch, although it looks flat, is quite bobbly and it took him a little while to come to terms with that. No injuries; I always say that on my watch. We got him through 60 minutes. Definitely stuff to work on but pleased he’s had a little taste. We’re going to have to give him a reasonable period of time to settle in and get used to everything and then you’ll see the real reason why the club signed him.”

Here’s the interview. He didn’t exactly sound enthused with the performance, but he also acknowledged that it’ll take time for him to adjust.

On 25th January, DeAndre went back to the US for friendlies against Chile and Panama (match against Panama was in California on Sunday, February 8). Details.

He picked up an injury – do check out that Reddit thread as it includes an excellent report on him in the thread by agentdcf.

Spurs said: “DeAndre started the game at right-back, but was forced off through injury 18 minutes from time.” They didn’t give any further detail.

In terms of U21 football, he missed the 0-0 vs Leicester on 26th January as he was away on international duty. He was presumably back in time for the following two matches – the 0-0 draw with Southampton on the 23rd February and the 4-0 win against Everton on the 2nd March.

We play Manchester United U21s tonight and Yedlin is not in the squad for the match.

It is assumed that he is considered part of the first team squad, and so would not be included in Under-21 matches.

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March 3, 2015

That Was the Week That Was

Wembley Woes or an Arch of Ambition?

As Field Marshal Pochettino sent his troops off to the front line on Sunday (apologies, I couldn’t resist continuing my military analogy that I began on this week’s Fighting Cock podcast!) my optimism concealed a fear that we would be up against a wounded José Mourinho who would eke out a victory in whatever manner he could. My preferred team selection was identical to the team Mauricio Pochettino opted for, and a bursting hopefulness surged through me as the players took to the pitch.

But Mourinho’s vengeful cynicism was translated to his team and from early in the match they broke up play with tactical fouls – stopping moves before they had started – whilst drawing cheap free-kicks themselves from our players, waiting for the slightest contact before collapsing to the turf. Some of our players showed a fair amount of naivety and walked into this trap, giving Chelsea precisely what they wanted.

Of course, it wasn’t just a cynical Chelsea performance – it was a truly commendable defensive display in a season where Premier League defending has been oft-criticised. John Terry (*spits*) was dominant, ably assisted by Gary Cahill, and Kurt Zouma did a fine job as an auxiliary midfield player. Our wide players rarely got the better of César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović, and Chelsea kept us at arm’s length for most of the game.

But things could have been different. Spurs dominated the first half, playing some neat football and controlling the tempo of the match. Nabil Bentaleb was at his suave best, with Ryan Mason a bundle of industry and (attempted) invention beside him. With little help from the band of players behind him, Harry Kane was forced to drop deep to try to create for himself. On one such occasion, he drove through a clutch of defenders and won a free-kick. Christian Eriksen – so vital a player for much of the season, but recently suffering from #formloss – curled a beautiful free-kick over the wall, but it left the crossbar shaking with Petr Čech seemingly beaten by the pace of the attempt.

Chelsea scored at just the right time – a scruffy goal from a Spurs perspective – and went in at the break to receive instructions on how to shut up shop. Mourinho masterminded the second half to perfection, and it was Chelsea who looked most likely to score again, looking a genuine threat on the counter. It was somewhat inevitable that they got their second but, once again, it came via a deflection, which was unfortunate for Spurs and Kyle Walker in particular.

It wasn’t just Chelsea who showed defensive resilience, and I want to take a moment to praise Eric Dier who, for me, was our best player. At just 21, and in his first season in the Premier League, he put in an outstanding performance. Diego Costa is a pig of a player. All elbows and mouth, he tries to get under the skin of his opponent from early on, doing anything he can to gain an advantage. Dier was calm and dealt with him consistently well. Costa eventually got the better of us for the second goal, but he needed a big stroke of luck to do so – he’d been kept quiet for the rest of the game. This performance from Dier – with many eyes on him – should be enough to ensure that he starts at centre-back for England in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic this summer, an experience that will undoubtedly aid his development.

I left Wembley with a real sense of pride. Pride in our young team’s performance, and pride in our fans too. Post-match, Pochettino was keen to point out just how young the team was. He said: “The average age for my players was 23 and a half and for many players it was their first time at Wembley. It’s true that we will play a lot of finals in the next few years. I think we have a big future.”

Our fans were also fantastic, and out-sung our Chelsea counterparts for most of the match. It was a genuine delight when, after the opening Chelsea goal went in, a burst of ‘Everywhere we go…’ started up in my block.

Tuscan Travails

My trip to Florence was an experience. Florence is a beautiful city, with beautiful food and, fortunately for us, beautiful weather, particularly on the Friday. But, despite good backing for our team in a tough match, it didn’t click on the pitch, and not all of the players’ efforts matched up to those of our supporters.

Florence city centre

On arriving in Florence, it would have been rude not to order pizza for lunch. I went for the ‘Fiorentina’, which the waiter found amusing. After a couple of beers and a quick stop at our B&B, we headed off to the stadium.

Fiorentina pizza

Pre-match, my friend and I had agreed to record interviews for Spurs TV (23:10 here), meaning that we were at the Stadio Artemio Franchi for 16:45, over two hours prior to kick off.

Recording for Spurs TV

After the interview was finished, we began walking around to where we presumed we could enter the ground. We drew plenty of stares from Fiorentina fans, so we kept our mouths shut and hid our colours. As we approached the last block before a dividing fence, we realised that we were probably going to have to walk all the way back around the stadium – a steward confirmed as much. But after thirty minutes of walking back on ourselves, we met a bunch of Spurs fans walking towards us saying that there was no obvious way in around the other side either. We continued regardless and eventually came to a row of police officers, blocking off an entrance-way. We flashed our tickets, and walked through. Already the police vans were arriving behind them.

Stadio Artemio Franchi

We passed through two layers of security, and received two very thorough security checks (!) and entered the stadium. The first impression was that it was basic. The toilets were underground and pretty disgusting. There was no roof on our stand, and it felt “industrial”. Spurs had two sections, but there was a large sheet of Perspex between us, meaning that the atmosphere suffered throughout. We were so high in the stand that the strong wind became a factor, and we were freezing after a few minutes of being there. A small group of our fans stood on a concrete area to the front of the right-hand section and were noisy throughout, some not even stopping to look at the game! Unfortunately, because they were so far below us, the noise didn’t always carry and so the atmosphere felt sporadic and diluted.

Sunny day in Florence

The game itself was a crushing disappointment. I could understand the team selection, but would personally have played Harry Kane for the first sixty minutes. In spite of that, it felt like we were in control until Fazio’s sloppy pass led to the opener. Whilst this changed little in terms of what we needed to do in the match – we always needed to score at least once – it gave Fiorentina heart, and seemed to make us more desperate; we lost the sense of calm that we’d had prior to the goal.

Ice cream, Italian-style

Benji Stambouli and Ben Davies had good first halves, but rustiness and a lack of sharpness showed in the second, and Davies in particular had a tough time up against Mohamed Salah, who had switched sides. Eriksen had some flashes of good play, but was dispossessed five times – he was hindered by not having Kane to dovetail with. Roberto Soldado cut a troubled figure. The missed opportunity – where he tried to find Nacer Chadli – was obviously a huge error, but it was his lack of movement and effort that was particularly striking. Or not striking, that was the issue. He lacked desire and played like a man whose mind was elsewhere.

In the end we made it easy for Fiorentina to beat us – a real shame, especially since they’d changed shape at half-time in the first leg to make it difficult for us to beat them.

Beheadings are big here

Post-match, we expected a twenty minute wait, as had been advertised. After fifty minutes of being penned in behind large metal gates, with rain coming down heavier and heavier, the gates were opened. As we left this area, we were confronted with riot police – shields and batons at the ready – and numerous police cars and vans were parked along our route. As we got to the entrance-way where the line of police had been stood on the way in, we were told to board buses bound for the city centre. Our B&B was nearer the stadium than the centre, so we ignored the instruction and continued through the barricade, and saw no trouble (and barely another football fan!). We had a good dinner in a restaurant in which Fiorentina fans were also dining, and any interaction was friendly and calm.

Florence is a beautiful city, and Spurs’ performance didn’t do it justice. But the competition has been good for us, and we might not have the Harry Kane that we do were it not for this season’s Europa League. I look forward to hopefully being in the competition again next season, but I would understand if Pochettino used it to give more young players a chance.

Friday's lunch

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January 31, 2015

Contracts up in 2015

I thought this was worth documenting as it’s something that comes up regularly.

We have several first-team players with contracts expiring this summer:

Brad Friedel
Jordan Archer
Benoît Assou-Ekotto
Bongani Khumalo

We then have youngsters with unknown contract lengths who I suspect might be released if their deals are expiring:

Cristian Ceballos
Tomislav Gomelt
Rúben Lameiras
Aaron McEneff
Ken McEvoy
Alex McQueen
Jon Miles

Grant Hall might be included too, although the club could get a fee for him – he’s a relatively proven Championship player.

Daniel Akindayini is on the 3rd year of a scholarship and will surely be released.

Lloyd Ross is the only one of the second year scholars that I am adamant will be released – the following are borderline between being given professional contracts or offered a third year of their scholarship:

Anthony Georgiou
Cy Goddard
Shayon Harrison
Joe Pritchard – has had a serious injury.
Anton Walkes – 3 months ago I’d have had him on the ‘release’ list.

They have until the rest of the season to impress basically.

I gather the following have already signed professional contracts or received assurances:

Luke Amos
Ismail Azzaoui
Cameron Carter-Vickers
Christian Maghoma
Kyle Walker-Peters

This site is an excellent resource for contract info.

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January 26, 2015

Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Leicester City– some thoughts

We were seven minutes plus stoppage time from progression in the FA Cup on Saturday before Leicester City started a comeback that culminated in a complete turn-around.

Spurs dominated possession in the first half without creating too many openings, whilst Leicester were happy to soak up pressure and counter – doing so effectively and creating good chances.

Andrej Kramarić had an opportunity to put Leicester 1-0 up, with Danny Rose failing to cover round despite having a good view of the forward. Michel Vorm’s save was exceptional – the sort that we have become accustomed to with Hugo Lloris in goal.

Kramarić chance

Leicester’s second chance summed up – for me – why Mousa Dembélé and Étienne Capoue are an ineffective central midfield combination from a defensive viewpoint.

Schlupp chance

In the above image, Jeff Schlupp has received the ball, brought it down and Vlad Chiricheș/Andros Townsend are approaching him. Neither Dembélé or Capoue are attempting to get into a defensive position to influence the game – presumably assuming that their team mates will deal with the situation.  I have long been of the opinion that neither has particularly good natural defensive instincts, and this is a good example of that. Younes Kaboul has to keep one eye on Leonardo Ulloa, who has played the pass and is now getting forward to support Schlupp and Kramarić.

Schlupp chance 2

As Schlupp cuts in, there’s a huge gap in the centre of our defence. Either Capoue should have tracked Ulloa, allowing Kaboul to go across to the ball, or one of Capoue / Dembélé should anticipate the potential danger and get into a position to stop Schlupp having a free shot on goal. Presented with the same scenario, I would expect that Stambouli would have provided a more effective barrier.

At the other end we struggled to break down a stubborn Leicester defence, with all three of our central midfield players content to pass sideways to the wingers and give them all of the responsibility of getting in behind the defence. Lamela and Townsend actually achieved on occasions, but having provided openings, Paulinho was guilty of wasting them. His finishing was allegedly an in-joke at Hotspur Way last season, where it was said that he put lots of balls over fences. Based on this display it is easy to see why. He lacked composure and technique and wasted three presentable chances – one going wide, one over, and one straight at the goalkeeper.

Mauricio Pochettino has made some useful substitutions this season, but on this occasion his decisions did not help the situation. At 1-0 and with Leicester gaining a foothold in the game, it had become clear that we were going to need a second goal to kill off the tie. Bringing Christian Eriksen on, then, was a logical move. Taking Townsend off, however, was not. Townsend was having some joy on the right and was looking capable of creating something, especially on the counter. It would have made more sense to take off Paulinho or Dembélé to allow Eriksen to scheme in behind Roberto Soldado. Instead, Eriksen was played on the left, with Lamela switching to the right, and the ineffective Paulinho continuing in the centre (I won’t refer to him as a number 10 as he doesn’t possess any of the qualities of the traditional 10!).

Emmanuel Adebayor then replaced Soldado, which felt a little odd, as Soldado had passed the ball quite well and had won the penalty with an excellent piece of control. Adebayor added more of an aerial threat – challenging for and winning headers, as opposed to jumping into the man and giving away free-kicks as Soldado tends to do – but he undoubtedly slowed down our attacking play. Harry Kane’s introduction for Dembélé after the equaliser was too little, too late – ideally he should have come on for Soldado or Paulinho at the same that Eriksen was introduced.

Vorm’s dreadful error at the end was not his first mistake of the game and, in truth, he was quite lucky to still be on the pitch. Replays showed that he took Kramarić’s back leg rather than the ball in the first half, which should have led to a penalty being awarded and probably to a red card being shown.

Overall it was a disappointing result made more disappointing by the other upsets – this presented a fantastic opportunity to progress in a third cup, and the boos at full-time illustrated the frustration having been in a controlling position.

Pochettino has had to manage his squad carefully to mitigate against fatigue creeping in, which can cause long-term injuries as well as limiting players’ effectiveness (as was so clearly visible against Crystal Palace). But, personally, I don’t feel that we can afford to leave out Eriksen, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. With none of them in the team we lack a player who can consistently pass forward or open up a defence. My preference would have been to play one of Kane or Eriksen against Sheffield United and the other against Leicester. It will now be interesting to see the team selection on Wednesday – both should start and both should feel relatively fresh.

COYS

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