February 9, 2016

“Spurs did well at the weekend”

I wrote this for Iain Macintosh’s wonderful site, The Set Pieces.

“Spurs did well at the weekend,” is something my work colleagues generally used to say to me, perhaps twice a year and usually in a slightly surprised tone of voice. The sort of voice that suggested they were still questioning the accuracy of the late James Alexander Gordon correctly. These days, or this season at least, it’s never said. It’s just expected that Spurs did well at the weekend because, and I can’t believe I’m writing this either , Spurs do well most weeks.

But Spurs don’t just do well in a Spurs way, by looking the better team, going a goal ahead before playing a horrible back pass or scoring an own goal or doing something equally daft which ultimately leads to defeat. Spurs are doing well and winning matches. They are also drawing a lot of matches, granted, but they are winning quite a lot of matches, More than they lose, that’s for sure.

Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are a new breed of Tottenham, regardless of how this season ends. They are a youthful, exciting, progressive Tottenham. A Tottenham that, prior to this weeks’ fixtures, had recovered more points than any other team in the Premier League (14). A Tottenham that runs and runs and presses and presses and doesn’t just rely on individual moments of brilliance from Gareth Bale or Dimitar Berbatov or Robbie Keane or David Ginola or José Dominguez (EDITOR’S NOTE: Wait…what?). There is no ‘I’ in this young, united Tottenham Hotspur team, despite the presence of some brilliant individuals.

And young they are; the youngest in the Premier League. That Mauricio Pochettino likes to work with young players is surely one of the main reasons why he was employed. The Spurs Academy has recently produced a conveyor belt of talent that just needed a chance. That chance began with Tim Sherwood, and has thoroughly continued under Pochettino. There’s more talent to come too.

18-year old attacking midfielder Josh Onomah has started a couple of cup matches and had a handful of league minutes. He is a direct, hip-swivelling, creative player who commits defenders and carries the ball well. His 20-year old central midfield buddy Harry Winks has made an appearance, too — a more patient player, Winks likes to dictate tempo, and passes and moves a little like a more forward-thinking, more right-footed Tom Carroll. The likes of Cameron Carter-Vickers (centre-back) and Shayon Harrison (forward) have been involved in first team training, and 18-year old right back Kyle Walker-Peters (EDITOR’S NOTE: I checked, he’s real. Imagine him and Kyle Walker and Moussa Dembele and Mousa Dembele) might just be the best Spurs youngster that you’ve never heard of; his ability to carry the ball forward at pace, and especially his dribbling and control in tight spaces, are exciting indeed.

Spurs are, for once, a functioning, coherent football club. Daniel Levy is accumulating expert Heads of Department in every area that you could imagine a football club might need: Mauricio Pochettino (Head Coach), Paul Mitchell (Head of Recruitment), Rob Mackenzie (Head of Player Identification), John McDermott (Head of Coaching & Player Development), Aaron Harris (Head of Sports Science & Medicine). I could go on. We have so many departments that we’re like the football equivalent of John Lewis. Never knowingly ripped off; Levy’s price matching game is strong.

Levy has finally got it right. He’s tried pretty much every style of manager: the traditional, the less traditional, the dogmatic, the experimental. And he’s settled on a coach that wants to… well, coach. Pochettino has more philosophy than Aristotle, Plato and Confucius put together, but he doesn’t just talk, he delivers. Spurs have a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, possibly for the first time in my lifetime. The system works because each player is indoctrinated, each idea entrenched.

When Eric Dier robotically drops in between the centre-backs, giving the full-backs license to push on to allow us to transition from back to front, it excites me almost as much as Harry Kane’s finishing, Son Heung-min’s quick feet or Christian Eriksen’s vision. It is the tactical, methodical minutiae that add up to create a fully functioning game-plan. When the opposition get over the halfway line: press them. When Toby Alderweireld gets his head up: make a diagonal run. Like clockwork.

Spurs’ season is going swimmingly, but there are a couple of things that could still derail them in what would be Spursy*, as the kids say. The lack of cover for Harry Kane is well documented, but the lack of cover for Eric Dier is less so. An injury to either would be fairly devastating. And the spectre of burn-out looms on the horizon like a Dementor, not sucking the soul, but rather spewing lactic acid directly into the legs of key players.

Pochettino has been smart in his rotation of the wingers and band of three behind Kane, but Kane himself, Dier and Alli have played an awful lot of games for players not accustomed to a full season at this level. They have done remarkably well to last as long as they have, but it would not be a great surprise to see a dip in form from any of them. Let’s hope that adrenalin can get them through.

Regardless of any potential drop-off, Pochettino has delivered a season of which everyone can be proud. A fit, well-drilled, youthful, and fairly home-grown Tottenham team that consistently plays good football, consistently defends well, and consistently doesn’t get thrashed by their top four rivals is a rare delight; fans will be speaking of this season for many years to come for all the right reasons.

*I say ‘as the kids say’ because those of an older vintage will remember 2013 — very different times — when Spursy was ‘invented’ by a poster on The Fighting Cock forum known as Carlito Brigante. He used it to describe the flair players at Spurs — a bit lightweight but with a touch of class. Those who he said may ‘go missing at Stoke on a cold February evening’. It now has an Urban Dictionary entry, but alas with the newer definition: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Spursy.

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January 21, 2016

The Tottenham Clique

I was going to try to go with clique-bait as a title, but I’m not sure it works and I’m not clever enough to think of something else witty. Anyway, I wanted to write a few words about last night, because I *really* enjoyed the match…

We know we have a good squad, missing just a couple of players to make it a ‘complete’ squad — a striker and a defensive midfielder, yada yada yada. But, when we have rested players previously, the team has not always clicked. Last night it felt like it did, eventually.

The first ten minutes or so were pretty loose. Nabil Bentaleb was loose, the passing was loose, nothing was really coming off. We kept trying to do things ‘the right way’, though. We moved the ball quickly through the centre-backs and particularly through Tom Carroll and Bentaleb and got it into the final third as early as possible. The attacking quartet of Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli tried to play early passes between Leicester defenders or into channels and made aggressive runs in behind regularly enough to keep Leicester guessing. They didn’t often come off but the ideas were there. And then finally Son smashed a beauty in just before half-time and we were halfway there.

When Leicester came at us in the second half we were under pressure without ever really looking vulnerable. The second string centre-backs were doing a great job – Kevin Wimmer was as solid as ever and Eric Dier dropped in as if he’d never played anywhere else. Even Michel Vorm put in a steady performance.

It was pleasing to see a (mostly) second string play at a promising tempo and with a style nearly identical to that of the first team, and for the job to be done in such a professional way. It gives me hope that we *can* compete in three competitions, and I hope that it gives Mauricio Pochettino more confidence to be able to rotate more regularly, as several players are at risk of burn-out at this point.

Whether Son has done enough to force his way into the starting XI for the Palace game is to be seen, but we know from experience that Pochettino does tend to operate a meritocracy. Of course, he could legitimately be rotated in for any of the attacking midfielders without question of one of them being ‘dropped’, as all will need a break — particularly Alli.

And Bentaleb did himself no harm either. After a couple of dicey moments early on, he settled into the game and spread play early, with nice, firmly struck passes which got us moving forward quickly. That won’t have gone unnoticed and I think we can expect to see him get more game-time over the next few months.

Colchester United await in the next round, and another opportunity to give the second string a go – hopefully with Josh Onomah and Harry Winks getting some pitch-time. It’s all going so well; what could possibly go wrong?

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January 10, 2016

What happens when a Head Coach coaches

I’ve done some coaching in my time… Not sports coaching, of course, but coaching in the workplace. The idea is to assist someone in unlocking their potential — to help them achieve a goal, an end point. To help an individual to improve an element of his or her self in some identifiable way.

In years gone by, coaches in football have been in the background. They’ve been the ones quietly doing the work on the training pitch whilst a manager identifies signings, picks the team, signs the player, gives the team talk, and talks to the press.

Things have changed and our players have changed — as a result of our Head Coach (and his team – Miguel D’Agostino, Toni Jiménez, Jesús Pérez).

Mauricio Pochettino has created an enabling culture in which he systematically identifies the aspects of his players which hold them back from fitting his philosophy, and goes about fixing them. That he has so dramatically ‘fixed’ so many players in the space of eighteen months is remarkable, and must be attributed, at least partly, to the positive environment that he has delivered at Hotspur Way.

There is a confidence that pervades — not just a confidence in Pochetinno and his staff, but an individual confidence that is pushing each player to improve, and to believe that they will.

The most encouraging element of this coaching is that not all of the improvements have come in terms of technique, although technical enhancements have been apparent (Rose is an obvious example). He has — as I mentioned — found the most relevant weakness of each player, and worked on it. Kyle Walker had everything required of the modern full-back in terms of athleticism and agility. But he lacked tactical nous and a calm head — Pochettino has delivered. Eric Dier was a promising centre-back, but has had a complete overhaul in position — in doing so, his reading of the game has improved ten-fold. Erik Lamela was talented, hard-working, but rudderless — he now works to rule. And the most staggering of all transformations is that of Mousa Dembélé.

Dembélé was an enigma. His ability was obvious to anyone who had watched him, and it was never a surprise when teammates picked him out as one of the most talented players in the squad. Les Ferdinand and Tim Sherwood touting him (at least by way of cajoling him) to Real Madrid was based purely on his technical ability and touch. His close control and dribbling are almost unparalleled, certainly in English football. And yet he was a failing player.

Pochettino has given him direction, responsibility, and a sense of purpose. He can now adequately cover any one of three positions (central midfield, number ten, right of the front three) and has arguably established himself as the first choice partner to Eric Dier in the pivot. He presses, he wins the ball, he does something with it. He takes the ball under pressure, he dribbles, he swivels to create space, and passes. He even sometimes scores; his 1 in 6 rate this season is far, far better than anything he had previously mustered at Spurs.

In the last few weeks we have seen glimpses of what Pochettino has done to Tom Carroll. Another technically able player, the phrase ‘neat and tidy’ has always been used to describe Carroll, damning him with faint praise. He seemed destined to be the modern-day Vinny Samways (affectionately known as ‘Vinny Sideways’). But Pochettino has delivered again; Carroll is already more aggressive and progressive with his passing and, against Everton (where he admittedly faded in the second half), he came away with some impressive passing figures:

He is still a work in progress, but I don’t doubt that Pochettino will to do with him what he has done with so many others. Ben Davies is moving in the right direction, Kieran Trippier has shown signs too. Alex Pritchard, on his return from injury, may be the next to be given the Pochettino treatment.

For someone like me who has always wanted to see the club promote from within and develop what we already have at the club, these are exciting times.

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December 29, 2015

Jingle bells, jingle bells…

Well look at this! Here I am, blogging, so soon after my last post – the joy of the Christmas break! First, an apology for my previous slack levels of blog productivity; a new job and new house have changed things for me slightly over this last year. I intend to maintain a healthier work/life balance in 2016 and so will be back on my blogging game. Shout at me if that doesn’t happen.

Onto the good stuff. Isn’t Christmas going well? A thoroughly professional deconstruction of an adequate Norwich City team filled me with festive joy, but not half as much as Son Heung-min’s last minute winner against Watford. It was cheeky (insert emoji here), offside, and came moments after Lloris had *just* kept Ben Watson’s corner from going over the line. I made a noise in my front room that linguists are yet to classify!

It wasn’t a particularly good performance against Watford; we got dragged into a battle of attrition whereby their strikers attempted to bully our defence over the ninety. But we showed resilience and a bit of quality at the end (albeit via a poor decision from the Assistant Referee) won it for us.

Mauricio Pochettino’s switch to a back three was fascinating for two reasons; firstly because I can’t remember us seeing anything like that in his tenure so far and, secondly, because it showed absolute respect to Quique Sánchez Flores (and Troy Deeney/Odion Ighalo). On the whole it worked; the numerical advantage at the back helped us deal with the toughest physical threat our centre-backs will come up against all season.

Pre-match I was a little concerned about Jan Vertonghen’s one-on-one defending and so Eric Dier dropping in made sense. But it was Dier who struggled with Ighalo for Watford’s goal – although the striker got a somewhat lucky bounce, and Dier had a lack of assistance from Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, when there was ample time for one of them to cover round.

Where the formation worked from a defensive viewpoint, it gave us one less passing option in midfield, and this had an impact on our creativity. Our pass completion rate as a team was down on the season average (78% vs 80%) and it was notable that Danny Rose had his poorest match of the campaign so far, with nobody ahead of him to link up with.

Danny Rose vs Watford

Danny Rose vs Watford

Danny Rose vs West Ham

Danny Rose vs West Ham

Conversely, Keiran Trippier had arguably his best Spurs showing on the opposite flank, setting up the winner with a fantastic ‘straight back in’ cross despite being under pressure. He did finish the match with the lowest pass completion of all starting outfield players, though (65.8%), and only 2 of his 9 crosses (which are counted separately to passes) found a man.

Trippier's passing vs Watford

Trippier’s passing vs Watford

The difference between the two was that Trippier got free on his side more regularly and provided a better delivery. Essentially, though, I don’t think the back three experiment is something we will continue with, although it’s nice to have it in our locker.

The Norwich City match was just pure fun. It was a real ‘tails up’ attacking performance, with Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Harry Kane clicking, and Alderweireld immaculate at the back too. Kane’s ‘shift and shoot’ finish was wonderfully precise, and the first-time passing move of Davies-Son-Davies followed by Carroll’s drive from range was a fitting end, as we played some beautifully fluid football throughout.

Next up we go to Everton, who have just one win in their last six Premier League matches, and only two wins in their last six at home. They are struggling defensively and have conceded more goals at home than any other team (19 – next highest 16, West Bromwich Albion). Having said that, only Manchester City have scored more home goals (Everton 22, City 29). On paper we should expect goals, and with the amount that Everton ‘faff about’ at the back, I would expect our high pressing to cause them huge problems – how many times have we seen us pounce on an error and punish it this season? Prime examples of this came in the recent wins against Southampton and Watford.

It will be interesting to see whether Pochettino dabbles in more rotation given the number of games over the Christmas period. Son could start and Eriksen may well come back in too. With Mousa Dembélé likely to be missing, Alli and Dier could fill the deep midfield roles, or indeed Tom Carroll could keep his place. With Nacer Chadli, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb also now fit there are options, and that’s really encouraging. Bentaleb didn’t even make the bench against Watford!

Before I sign-off, I started by talking my productivity so I thought I’d end with Spurs’ – so below are some productivity stats that I tweeted earlier.

See my Twitter timeline for some of my thoughts on these.

Happy New Year to all – thanks for the comments here on my blog, for engaging on Twitter, and for all the questions for and feedback on my weekly Fighting Cock podcast segment. Much love. COYS.

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December 23, 2015

I love Pochettino’s Tottenham

I love Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham. I’m putting that out there, unapologetically.

I love his ‘straight down the line’ take with the media. No sound-bytes, no misleading quotes,  no digging out players. He’s honest, but he keeps his cards close to his chest. Politically switched on, but appearing straightforward. He toes the party line but comes across as a pleasant guy, who backs his players.

I love that he’s created a coherent unit. I can’t remember a Spurs team ever being so tactically ‘as one’ in my lifetime. We’ve had good teams through having great individuals. We’ve played some great football through those great individuals. But most of our players are – roughly – around the same level (with a couple of exceptions) but it is the team playing as a unit that is so, so vital. We are greater than the sum of our parts, and when else could we have said that in recent memory?

I love that he has improved individuals beyond recognition. Last season Danny Rose went from one of my least favourite Spurs players to one of my very favourites. I had previously always liked his attitude but did not think he had the ability or intelligence to be a regular; yet he was in our top three performers. In the summer I wanted Mousa Dembélé gone. Now, he’s utterly pivotal. He has clearly always had ability, so I won’t pretend that Pochettino has dramatically improved him technically. But he has identified his key weakness and made him a more complete player. And that weakness? A lack of aggression. There was never a cutting edge with Dembélé. Now, he’s bossing games, taking responsibility, and we miss him when he’s not there.

I love his judgement and the way he backs himself. Daniel Levy said of him: “He said to me [in the summer]: ‘I don’t want a defensive midfielder. I am very comfortable that I can make Eric Dier into a top defensive midfielder.’ “I think if we asked most people [before the season started], they would have said he was wrong. We have to give credit to Mauricio for his skill, and you have to trust his judgement.” (via the official site). That is remarkable. Dier is a talented boy – I think we all saw that last season. I actually predicted that he’d be an England player this season. But as a midfielder? Absolutely remarkable! I would never have thought that he would have the mobility (he’s quick, but he never seemed that nimble) or the speed of thought. Yet he has slotted in like an absolute natural.

I love his ‘management’. Andros Townsend messed up. He was silly, he made a mistake. Pochettino called him out on it:

“Discipline for me is very important. I can understand the player – we have a young squad and a player can make a mistake – but when you cross the limit it is important to stop that. As a manager I am very fair but the discipline is very important. The staff need to show respect to the player and the player needs to show respect to the staff.” (via The Guardian).

Now, Townsend’s volunteering to play Under-21 football to keep his fitness up, putting in a proper shift at that level, and becoming a role model for our young players. He will probably leave in January, but the handling of the whole event was perfect.

Last season was imperfect, and there were a few gentle concerns. But now it’s clear that it was about building foundations, planning for the future. Cutting loose the deadwood and building a team of like-minded players who will fight for the shirt and their leader.

I can’t wait for 2016’s Tottenham Hotspur. Happy New Year and COYS.

 

 

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