May 29, 2017

Some Post-Season Thoughts

After living most of my life with Spurs as the punchline to a joke that was only funny to my friends, it still hasn’t completely sunk in that we’re legitimately good. So good, in fact, that some pundits have described us as the best team in the league over the past two seasons.

Leicester trolled us all two seasons ago, and Chelsea had a Europe and injury-free ride to the title this past year, albeit playing some fantastic stuff along the way, with Eden Hazard showing that last season was a blip, and N’Golo Kanté showing that last season was not a blip.

There was — to my eyes — a slight stylistic shift from Spurs in this season, which could perhaps be backed up by the fact that we covered less ground than other teams (I don’t have up-to-date data but on April 21st we were 4th at 114.1km behind West Brom, Man City and Liverpool). Rather than tearing at the opposition and forcing them to turnover the ball, the Pochettino-press evolved to a slightly more sophisticated level. We compressed the pitch, or areas of it, backed the opposition into narrower areas and made ‘getting out’ more difficult, forcing them into risky long-balls, and using our three centre-backs to easily pick up the pieces.

With some previous managers, as time has gone on, we have been ‘figured out’, and tactics have become almost meaningless. With Pochettino and his coaching team, there is constant evolution, some subtle changes, some large changes (i.e. to 3-4-3) and the honing of what we thought was already honed.

Where last year we managed to be largely injury-free, this year we have suffered, but the squad have stepped up. Son Heung-min has gone from being ‘first rotation’ at best to playing 3000 minutes (and starting 23 Premier League games). He has been terrific. Ben Davies has stepped in and performed admirably in the absence of Danny Rose. Kieran Trippier has become a genuine rotation option for Kyle Walker. And, prior to his injury, Harry Winks was on the road to becoming an important option in midfield as well.

There are still some question marks over depth, and finding some cover for Christian Eriksen (who got my Player of the Season vote) would be my priority for the summer. Whilst Erik Lamela and Harry Winks between them can cover some of his skill set, the way that he controls midfield and our tempo, as well as the amount of running he does for the team, makes him almost irreplaceable. Finding someone who can do some more of what he does would be useful. I am a big fan of Manuel Lanzini who, at 24, has considerable upside, but that would be a tricky deal to do (plus his output is far, far more modest).

It looks as though we will also need to find a replacement for Kyle Walker. The excellent Jack Pitt-Brooke is the voice that I trust on the issue, and his piece on the Walker situation at the beginning of the month cited long running disagreements about Walker’s fitness. Spurs’ latest England call-up, Kieran Trippier, has left egg on my face. I had been critical of him, and suggested in May that he wasn’t good enough to be a back-up:

Trippier has proven to be a more than useful back-up — at least against certain types of opposition, and his crossing is undoubtedly a weapon. Personally, I think there are still concerns over his defensive nous, and I would also question his stylistic fit. By that I mean that Pochettino full-backs (or wing-backs) are all about turning defence into attack as quickly as possible, carrying the ball at pace; Kyle Walker is almost unparalleled in this regard. These two tweets sum it up beautifully:

Trippier ended the season with six assists, a highly impressive tally. These came against Watford (x 3 across both matches), Leicester (x 2) and Millwall. Pochettino used him exceptionally, and it is clear that he is a great outlet in matches where he can push on and not worry too much about defending. Next year he needs to work on his defending, as he was exposed at times, particularly against Monaco, Manchester United (where Anthony Martial beat him with regularity) and against his former club, Burnley (Scott Arfield had the better of him several times). At 26 (he turns 27 in September), Trippier is hopefully about to hit his prime but, for me, we cannot go into next year with Trippier as first choice.

Davies on the other side had a nightmare showing against Liverpool, for whom Sadio Mané gave him all kinds of problems. He came back strongly, however, and ended the season with two assists and a goal in his final three matches. I was impressed with Davies’ consistent performances, and I think the fact that he can also fill in on the left of a back three makes him a useful squad option for Pochettino. The constant links with Ryan Sessegnon of Fulham, however, perhaps show that Pochettino would like to bolster the attacking options from the left; Sessegnon is more suited to the wing-back role than Davies.

I am regularly asked on Twitter who will be the next player to ‘do a Winks’, and break into the first team and look the part. With Marcus Edwards recently travelling to Stemwede in Germany to play for us in an Under-19 tournament, rather than participating in the end of season friendly in Hong Kong, there does seem to be concerns about his ‘situation’ again, but I would only be speculating if I were to comment.

The one who might surprise a few people is Josh Onomah. Those who only watch the first team will have seen Onomah’s cameos at right-wing, left-wing, and even as a false nine. Onomah has always played centrally for our Under-18s, Under-21s, Under-23s and for England at various age levels. He has said in the past that his favourite position is number ten but, personally, I have always thought him best as an eight (essentially in the Mousa Dembélé role). The below (unfortunately I am not sure who made it so cannot credit) is a prime example of Onomah in this role, at his best.

Onomah is just over a year younger thank Winks, and so will start next season at the age Winks started this. It is a big summer for him because Pochettino and co will need to decide whether he is to stay in-house and make up the squad, or to go on loan and have a full season of playing in his favoured position.

Despite finishing without a trophy (having come so close), this was a terrific season for Spurs, and one of undoubted progress. We saw tactical progression, nearly every player improving or consolidating, and the breakthrough of a huge prospect in Harry Winks. The only downside was that very few of our signings proved successful. However, the form and ability of Victor Wanyama was so good that, overall, one is almost tempted to shrug and say ‘one in four ain’t bad’. If we can get that hit rate down to one in three or even one in two this summer, then things will be looking even healthier.

 

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May 18, 2017

Memory Lane

Since the club confirmed that this season will be the last at White Hart Lane (at least as it is now), there has been an outpouring of articles, videos, stories, memory-sharing and emotion about the old girl. Each of us has his or her memories of this place that we have always known, grown up in.

We all remember players celebrating special goals in front of us, but for me it is those quirky memories which link me to a specific area of the ground which have stayed with me and within my family.

When I was growing up in the early nineties, my parents would take my sister and I and we would sit in the Paxton Upper. A man who regularly sat there would become part of our communal memory, such was his love for our midfielder, Paul Allen. He would loudly shout
‘come on Paul Allen’ every time he came close to the ball; man, he loved him some Paul Allen.

And repeated whenever a man named Ashley comes on the television (rare nowadays, admittedly) is the phrase ‘Ashley’s a bird’s name’ – which we had all thoroughly enjoyed being screamed at Derby County’s Ashley Ward by a guy sitting near to us in the East Lower when Ward came over to collect a loose pas.

Likewise ‘The Colonel’s’ catchphrases pop back into our heads whenever we eat burgers together. That guy was outside the Paxton every home game for decades, yelling ‘look at these’ and ‘haaaaandsome’, and became known as the colonel as that was how he’d address every third man buying burgers. The first time he called my dad ‘colonel’ was one of the happiest days of my childhood.

These ridiculous memories and thoughts are all important to me and have collective importance in my family because they represent moments that we have shared together thanks to Spurs. But there’s so much more to White Hart Lane than my compartmentalised nuggets of weirdness.

White Hart Lane is dripping in history, and I am simply unable to do it justice. From Billy Nicholson to Glenn Hoddle to Ledley King, legends have been

So, instead, you should watch Memory Lane. A group of Spurs fans including my good friend Flav from The Fighting Cock podcast spent a ludicrous amount of time researching, interviewing for and producing this wonderful movie, and all proceeds go to local charity, Exposure.

Watch and enjoy this wonderful piece of work, and if you enjoy learning more about our club’s illustrious history, consider sharing with your friends and family. COYS.

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January 29, 2017

Wycombe – second half thoughts

Having re-watched the first half this morning, I re-watched the second this afternoon.

The substitution of Vincent Janssen for ‘GK’ Nkoudou saw Son Heung-min move a little deeper, and Josh Onomah was pushed out to the left. The presence of Janssen gave Spurs the possibility of playing into feet higher up the pitch, and Janssen had a couple of early moments where he controlled the ball and brought others into the game.

Ten minutes passed and there was still no goal so Mauricio Pochettino had Dele and Mousa Dembélé preparing for action. Spurs became increasingly desperate: Josh Onomah took on two shots from range — one good, one less so.

The breakthrough finally came when Son Heung-min got on the score sheet having been found by Cameron Carter-Vickers, still up from a corner. Pochettino immediately brought Dele and Dembélé on for Kevin Wimmer and Onomah, with Dier dropping into the back line, and Dembélé slipping into midfield alongside Winks.

We levelled four minutes later — Trippier’s ball down the line was excellent, Janssen’s first touch was positive, and he was blocked off by Aaron Pierre. He took the ball off Son and buried the penalty (just), getting a big hug from Son as he retreated back into his own half for the kick-off.

Trippier was forced off injured on 73 minutes and it took Spurs a few minutes to settle into a new formation — at first, Dembélé looked to be at left wing-back in a 3-4-2, but it was soon changed to a 4-4-1 with Sissoko at right-back.

Throughout the half, Carter-Vickers made some good passes into the channels and pushed into midfield — on second viewing, he actually looked good for the majority of the game, and it was just the rash tackle for the penalty that really ‘blotted his copybook’, as they say.

Spurs were pushing and it felt like the momentum had shifted and that we would go on to win the game. That was until Eric Dier took a disastrously poor free-kick, aimed towards Sissoko but feebly struck and easily intercepted. Miles Weston broke down the right, knocked it past Dier, and then took his time when crossing, picking out a wonderful ball which fellow substitute Gary Thompson got up to power home. Ben Davies is not the best at defending back-post headers like this, and barely got up to challenge. It was poor from Dier, who went from the sublime to the ridiculous throughout the match. Some of his passing was top class, but at other times he looked sluggish and lacking in focus.

Having scored on 82 minutes, Wycombe must have felt that they would see the game out. However, Dele’s incredible piece of composure to level it on 89 minutes gave Spurs the impetus again, and when the fourth official announced the six minutes of added time, it gave the Spurs players a lift.

The winning Son goal again came via a deflection, but his positivity was the catalyst once again. He exchanged passes with Janssen and didn’t rush his finish, though it’s unclear whether it was going in without the touch from Jacobson.

It was a cruel way for Wycombe to lose, though Spurs did deserve the victory — we ended the game having had 22 attempts at goal, to Wycombe’s 17 (8 of which came from set pieces in the case of the away side). Wycombe’s goalkeeper touched the ball more than any of their other players. Their were a number of good performances from Wycombe — particularly from Sam Wood and Sido Jombati (and to a lesser extent Adebayo Akinfenwa) — but their key man of this season so far, Scott Kashket, completed just two passes all game.

Dele looked like a superstar when he came on. The goal was magnificent, but it’s the intangible — his general aura — which seemed to lift the rest of the team. Dembélé also added a calmness in midfield, and Son had another good half, showing positivity and generally making good decisions. Son’s vibrancy was key to Spurs throughout, and he was involved in most of our good moments.

Vincent Jansson looked tenacious — he was really fired up — and had some good moments, though his touch was far from immaculate and at times he looked a little immobile. Personally I feel as though he might benefit from some Under-23 games to try to regain his goal-scoring touch (from open play at least!) and to try to shed a few pounds; he could do with being a bit leaner.

It was such a mixed bag for Spurs, with Nkoudou, Davies and Wimmer having particularly shaky games, plus Onomah and Sissoko failing to push their claims for a first team place. I thought Onomah played it too safe and, though he made very few mistakes, he needed to do more. Mousa Sissoko had a better second half than first, but has such a knack of getting himself into a good position and then wasting it, occasionally in almost comical fashion. At one point he got the ball lost under his feet, at another he played a bizarre pass to nobody. Perhaps Pochettino can coach him to become a useful asset, but he still looks a very odd purchase as it stands.

It will be fascinating to see the team selection for the next round and whether Pochettino will go with a stronger core, perhaps with some youngsters on the bench to bring on if the game is safe.

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January 29, 2017

Wycombe – first half thoughts

Sometimes when you watch a game like yesterday’s in the flesh, you’re so focussed on the craziness that you don’t get to focus on what specifically went wrong. I’ve re-watched the first half of the match this morning and below are some hastily written thoughts.

Spurs were not as terrible on second viewing as I’d initially thought. Whilst we had some sloppy defensive moments, largely from set pieces, we had control of the midfield and created some good openings. Georges-Kévin N’Koudou got the ball in great areas twice in the first five minutes – once when faced by Wycombe’s right-back, Sido Jombati, and once when Son Heung-min played him into space. In the first instance he telegraphed his take-on and was dispossessed, in the second instance he had a poor touch and ended up winning a corner when he should have driven towards goal and got a shot or a cross away. Ben Davies’ resulting corner was a mishit/scuffed effort. These early moments essentially summed up the whole half.

Nkoudou was wasteful, and reminded me a lot of a very young Aaron Lennon. He shuttled up and down the touchline with speed, but more often than not backed himself into a corner and then failed to get himself out of it with very poor crosses. At one point Nkoudou played a horrendous square pass to Sissoko straight out of touch, and the edit switched to a scowling Pochettino! He also played a loose ball which surrendered possession in the build-up to the Wycombe penalty. He is a young player — he does not turn 22 until mid-February — but the signs, so far, are not great. He was taken off at half-time, and whether that was owing to injury or Pochettino being unimpressed, we’ll probably never know.

The high standard of Wycombe’s set pieces made ours look even poorer. Whomever decided to give the job to Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies need only re-watch the first half to realise that this was a bad decision. Both mishit several and lacked any real quality on their deliveries. The best came when Davies looped up a ball to Trippier just inside the box, but his wild swing sent the ball into the stands.

Trippier was also a bit of a concern defensively — he gave up a big chance to Sam Wood at the back post when he got sucked inside to mark Akinfenwa (despite there being two men on him already), leaving Wood unmarked. Later, after he telegraphed a free-kick straight to a Wycombe player and then, in attempting to recover the situation, he committed himself in the Wycombe half,  allowing them to mount a counter-attack in which Wood charged into the vacated right-back area and ended up looping a shot wide when well-placed.

Moussa Sissoko was hopelessly erratic, the ball often bouncing off his feet as if he were putting up a barrier rather than trying to take it into his control. He did have one fantastic moment, though, where he turned his marker on the edge of the box and set up Son for a good chance. At one point Sissoko had two successive dreadful touches which led to ricochets falling for Josh Onomah — he played in Son then got into the box and nearly got on the end of a Son cross. Sometimes his mis-control causes chaos amongst the opposition.

Onomah was neat and tidy but failed to impose himself on the game and wanted too many touches. If he’s to make a serious play for the first team then he needs to learn to release the ball sooner, to play more instinctively, and to impact the game. On the plus side, he often made good off-the-ball runs to create space for others, and that sort of unselfish work will not get him noticed by fans, but will please his coach. I can’t see Onomah getting too many more minutes this season, so at this point I would be keen for him to go out on loan to a club who will play him deeper in midfield, where he is far better in my opinion (see the clip I link to below).

The back-line looked rickety for much of the first half. We were given a warning of Wycombe’s set piece quality when Anthony Stewart peeled away at the back post and beat Trippier in the air, but Vorm got down well. Kevin Wimmer had a couple of wobbles, and Carter-Vickers showed his immaturity when giving away the penalty — there was no reason for him to lunge in, with Wood running the ball towards the touchline and not the goal.

Harry Winks regularly drove us forward from deep and was our second best player in the opening 45. The best, though, was Son, who put in a live-wire display and was unlucky not to score a couple. Had he buried his big chance from Jamal Blackman’s mistake early on, it might have been a very different tie. He stretched the Wycombe defence well with his movement on the shoulder, creating gaps which our first choice players would have filled with glee. He also did a reasonable job of dropping deep to link play, though those around him did not work off him as well as he might have hoped.

Another positive was the number of impressive diagonal passes from our deeper players. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Kevin Wimmer and Eric Dier all played exceptional passes in the first half, which was encouraging. Carter-Vickers finding Dier’s excellent run only for his knock-down to go inches ahead of Son was one of many ‘nearly’ moments of the first half.

I’ll be back later to give some thoughts on the second half!

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January 7, 2017

Clicked

In Mauricio Pochettino’s first year we lost one in six in the league in December and beat Chelsea 5-3 on New Year’s Day.

In his second we lost one in six in December, and then went on a six game winning run in the league from mid-January.

This season — his third — we’ve started converting draws into wins. We’ve won five in a row, scoring 15 and conceding three. Once again, we’ve clicked around the same time.

Pochettino loves this period, with the hectic schedule allowing his players’ superior (and peaking) fitness to come to the fore, blowing away the early season cobwebs and putting teams to the sword with intensity, power and precision.

Are there reasons for the slow starts in general? Maybe. This season has been slightly different, due to the European Championships, due to Mousa Dembélé’s suspension and then niggling injuries, and due to other injuries in basically every key position — Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane, and a particularly lengthy spell for Toby Alderweireld stand out.

Dele Alli was struggling for form — and, as we saw on Wednesday, he’s so reliant on Christian Eriksen playing well. Eriksen took a while to find his stride too and I think he, in turn, is fairly reliant on Dembélé, and so it’s a bit of a vicious cycle. Dembélé’s not yet back to where he was last season, but his first half against Chelsea showed signs of his getting there and, besides, Spurs are learning to cope without him playing at 9/10 levels every week.

Where Eriksen is now pulling the strings in nearly every match, that wasn’t the case earlier in the season. Kevin Kilbane offered some interesting analysis post-West Ham match on Match of the Day 2 which, if you’re lucky, you can still watch here (from 31:20 on). In the clips he shows, Eriksen’s movement was not allowing others to find him, not dragging defenders away, and not allowing him to influence the game — Kilbane says ‘just because you’re playing as a number 10 doesn’t mean you stand where a number 10 is’. Since then, Eriksen’s confidence has returned and he’s demanding the ball, driving into space, and showing a willingness to take the ball on the half-turn and think about moving forwards first, rather than wanting to take a touch and then decide whether he has the space to do so.

I’ve thought for around three seasons now that Eriksen’s slightly better when he starts ‘off-centre’ (in pockets of space) and works his way into the middle. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s been a switch to the right which has seen him find his best form.

From WhoScored.com - Eriksen on the right against Chelsea

From WhoScored.com – Eriksen on the right against Chelsea

The Chelsea game was undoubtedly one of his strongest performances of the season, and his two exquisite crosses came from pretty much the same area, having received passes from Kyle Walker in both cases.

Christian Eriksen's assists vs Chelsea

Christian Eriksen’s assists vs Chelsea

Part of Spurs stepping up their levels might well be the return of Toby Alderweireld. He missed the Southampton match, but played in the other games in this period. In fact, we’ve only lost twice this season (to Monaco and Man United) when he has played a part — P15, W10, D3, L2 — which is no great surprise.

Alderweireld’s return has allowed us to switch to a back three, and he’s played in the middle of that back three in the last three matches. The downside of that is that there’s less scope for him to play his wonderful diagonals, but the upside is that having an extra defender allows him (and the other two) to occasionally join the attack, which all of our centre-backs do well.

Personally, I don’t think this defensive shape change is a huge deal. When we play 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1, we generally have a player drop in between the centre-backs to allow us to play out from the back. Eric Dier in his holding midfield role did this better than Victor Wanyama has so far this season, but Wanyama still made that move regularly. The difference  in the 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1, or whatever you feel like calling it) is that the centre-backs take turns to move into midfield (and beyond!) once we’ve progressed the ball forward, rather than a midfielder shuttling backwards and forwards to get things started.

Interestingly, when Dier and Wanyama started together in midfield at the beginning of the season, fans bemoaned our stifled creativity and the defensive nature of that selection. In this formation, though, I’ve heard few complaints, despite the fact that we’re essentially starting with a more defensive player at the expense of another in the band behind Kane. Perception?

From WhoScored.com - Average Positions vs Swansea

From WhoScored.com – Average Positions vs Swansea

From WhoScored.com - Average Positions vs Chelsea

From WhoScored.com – Average Positions vs Chelsea

Pochettino has made it very clear that whether it’s three or four at the back, our philosophy remains the same. The pressing triggers remain the same. The full (or wing)-backs providing the width remains the same. The attacking midfielders playing narrow remains the same.

The perfect storm of Toby’s return, our roaring fitness levels, the formation tweaks, Dembélé/Eriksen/Dele/Kane each going up a notch — probably because each of the others have! — and the all important momentum has led to Spurs’ upturn, and if this continues, it’s difficult to see who can stop the coys-train. Except next up in the league is West Brom, who manage to disrupt us every season (or so it seems). Last year we had two 1-1s, and the year before they beat us 1-0 at White Hart Lane. Pochettino will genuinely see this as a huge test, and getting a(nother) win would set us up nicely for City away. It took Arsenal 75% possession and 26 shots to grind out a 1-0 against the Baggies, so it might require a lot of patience and a moment of magic but, right now, we seem to have the players who can pull that off.

Further reading – some articles I’ve enjoyed this week.
Dan Kilpatrick on Dele for ESPN.
Michael Cox on 3-4-3 for The Guardian.
Michael Cox (again) for ESPN on Christian Eriksen.
Plus here’s something I wrote about the transfer window.

Finally, if you’re interested in Tottenham tactics, you might enjoy The Fighting Cock – The Extra Inch:
Episode 1, with Talking Tottenham Tactics
Episode 2, with Ewan Roberts

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