May 14, 2015

Toothless Tottenham

Disclaimer: within this article I use various stats. I am most definitely not a statistician, and I apologise in advance if any statisticians read this and cringe at their use within my piece. I hope that I balance their use with descriptive sections about the way that I see our play (rather than just stating the way that the stats see our play). Please feel free to leave a comment to explain any flaws you see in my logic – it’s always good to learn).

So, here goes.

There have been many excellent articles recently about Spurs’ horrendous defensive performances in recent weeks. The ever-reliable @brettrainbow nailed the defensive performance against Stoke City and, before that, had written well about our defensive midfield problems.

With such loose defensive play, you might think that Spurs should expect to see plenty of joy at the other end of the pitch. However, as James Yorke pointed out in his article this week, ‘Tottenham take a high percentage of their shots from range and struggle to create opportunities inside the box.’

It seems on the surface that we don’t have many players in our squad capable of picking the lock of the opposition – of exploiting gaps and seeing the next move before the opposition defence.

Key passes can be seen as a slightly crude measure of creativity, since they are defined as a pass leading to an effort on goal. When you have a player like Gareth Bale, for example, that can just be a square pass on halfway! Across a season, however, the data is useful, and a comparison of key passes per 90 minutes (KP/90) across the other top seven teams is interesting – note that I only include players who have played more than 500 minutes.

Key passes per 90 minutes - top five players (who have played more than 500 minutes) for each club in the Premier League's current top seven								Key passes per 90 minutes - top five players (who have played more than 500 minutes) for each club in the Premier League's current top seven

The first thing to note is that the top three clubs each have two players with more KP/90 in the Premier League than any of our players. Manchester City have four with better KP/90!

Most of the players listed – certainly in the top threes across the board – play as the forward or in the band behind the forward in their respective teams’ set-up. The notable players that don’t are Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, who have mostly played in the central midfield zone. Cesc Fabregas has moved between the number ten role and playing as one of a double-pivot.

It’s no surprise that Spurs’ top three have been the three most regular incumbents of the band of ‘3’ in our 4-2-3-1 in the league this season. That could mean that the players most suited are getting the game-time, or that a consistent run in the team leads to a better return.

Whilst Spurs’ top three lead the chance creation, the assist output is slightly different. Lamela has more assists than any other Spurs player in the league (6), Nacer Chadli is second (5), but Christian Eriksen (2) is behind Danny Rose, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason, and level with Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon and Nabil Bentaleb.  This is despite taking a lot of our set pieces (20 of his 79 key passes come from corners or free kicks). There are actually 76 players with more Premier League assists this season than Eriksen. James Tomkins (3) has more assists than Christian Eriksen! Staggering.

Perhaps Eriksen is just unfortunate – perhaps players have just not scored from the chances that he’s created. Of players who have made more than five appearances, Eriksen is 21st in the Premier League in terms of chance creation per 90 minutes (James Tomkins is 280th; have some of that, Tomkins!). That’s not elite level, but it is passable. He’s been our best at creating chances.

Just to linger on Eriksen a little longer as he is our chief chance creator – he has made 79 key passes, of which 15 were corners and five free kicks. But only three were through balls. That’s a record of 0.1 through balls per 90 minutes – joint 40th in the Premier League for through balls per 90 minutes for those who have made more than five appearances. In fact, those with the best record for making through balls for us in the Premier League are Lennon (0.3 per 90 albeit in only 276 minutes, a tiny sample size), Paulinho (0.2), and Roberto Soldado and ÉtienneCapoue (both 0.1). Eriksen makes through balls at a near identical rate to Bentaleb, Mason and Erik Lamela.

Eriksen has managed 10 goals – as has Chadli – and other than Kane (20), they are the only Spurs players with more than two Premier League goals. That’s astonishing in itself. In terms of minutes per goal or assist so far in the Premier League for us, our top five are:

1. Kane, 96.4 minutes
2. Chadli, 148.5 minutes
3. Townsend, 185.8 minutes
4. Eriksen, 248.5 minutes
5. Lamela, 264.9 minutes

This doesn’t make good reading for Eriksen, who has more opportunities to both create and score as a regular set piece taker. It also shows how Chadli justifies his inclusion, despite some poor overall performances.

It is well worth noting that Eriksen has famously covered more ground than any other players in the Premier League this season. This has left him fatigued, heavy-legged and well below his best in the final third of the season. Early in the season there were many articles questioning how he is adapting to Pochettino’s high-press style, and there was a period in the middle of the season where he not only seemed to be adapting, but truly flourishing. Hopefully after a pre-season break he can come back refreshed, and with a stroke of luck he will have some direct competition next season so that he does not have to play so many matches.

So why are we struggling to create chances? Is it that we have a forward that doesn’t read passes? Do we lack other bodies making run into the box? Is the system failing us? Or do our players just not have the vision? Is ‘all of the above’ a cop-out?

Harry Kane’s movement is good. He excels at drifting into the channels, and coming deep to collect the ball and linking play. He finds space well in the box, and we have seen him be in the clichéd ‘right place at the right time’ on many occasions. But he is not a player that regularly runs in behind defences, or who makes regular runs off the shoulder off a centre-back; he doesn’t have the pace to make that worthwhile. So we do legitimately lack a through ball option at times.

In recent weeks we have lacked support in the penalty area. Ryan Mason has notably made more forward runs – missing a glorious chance against Manchester City, for example. But where Chadli looked good at making runs off the shoulder of the defence or to the back post earlier in the season, he’s failing to do this with any regularity. Eriksen himself does most of his work outside the box, and Lamela does not seem overly keen on getting beyond Kane either.

Creative vision comes from confidence, and it could be argued that our teams’ confidence has been low for much of the season (for various reasons). But we have only played 15 through balls all season – Eriksen with 3, Lamela 2, Kane 2, Bentaleb, 2, Mason, 2. Chadli has not played a single through ball this season. To not have completed one through ball in well over 2000 minutes of football suggests a systematic problem.

Mauricio Pochettino wants us to win the ball as early as possible, but it is pretty clear that we are then are not doing enough to spring opposition defences. Our movement off the shoulder is insufficient, and we lack players who will look for runners – these issues could work in tandem and create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby our attacking players don’t make runs in behind the opposition defence because they don’t expect the ball to come to them, and players don’t attempt through balls because our forwards are not making runs – or are making insufficient runs.

Kane has been double and even triple-marked recently, and so one might have expected Spurs’ other attacking talents to profit from this. In theory, Kane being occupied should mean that there is more space for others to exploit, and should have led to an increase of goals and assists – or at least of chances and shots. If I had the time I’d love to delve deeper and investigate whether this is the case. On the surface we seem toothless with even less creativity present than previously.

There’s no simple answer, but there are things we could do better.

In my opinion, Erik Lamela has been one of the few positives in the last few games, but if we are to persist with this 4-2-3-1 (*sigh*) it would be a good idea to experiment with him as the ‘number 10′. He has shown signs of having creative vision, and also has the intensity in the press which we’ve really lacked at times. Lamela is second to Eriksen for non-set piece KP/90 (ignoring Lennon, because the sample size is way too small).

Eriksen should probably play wide on the left or the remaining games (if at all). When Eriksen has played on the left previously there has been uproar on social media and cries for him to be moved into the centre. And yet in the centre he seems to frequently be crowded out by opposition defensive midfielders, whereas on the left he finds pockets of space to work in.

In a recent article about Alex Pritchard for The Fighting Cock blog, Joshua Olsson argued that Eriksen has actually been more productive from the left:

Eriksen has started 10 times in the Premier League on the left this season, and has accumulated 4 goals and 1 assist in those appearances (he has also played 4 times on the right and scored 1 goal).

By contrast, in his 22 appearances in a central role, he has scored 5 goals and made 1 assist. These numbers alone would suggest that Eriksen is more of an attacking threat from the left, where he is able to find space, get time on the ball, and come inside and shoot on his right foot.

Again, the sample size is small, but it is an interesting point to keep an eye on. Creative players are being pushed out to the wings more and more as teams play 4-2-3-1, often with two dedicated holding players. David Silva thrives in this role for Manchester City, for example, and Eden Hazard is much the same for Chelsea. Perhaps teams’ most creative players will play as an ‘inverted winger’ by default now, rather than as a number 10.

Chadli is a strange footballer. He scores goals at a good rate, his non-set piece KP/90 is nearly identical to Lamela’s, and yet his work rate is substandard and so often he flatters to deceive in his play. We need to get more from him but, equally, perhaps he will always be a player that doesn’t do a great deal across a match, but who will pop up with a vital goal – much like Dempsey did a few years back. There is value in these types of players, and if we can encourage him to play on the shoulder and make more runs to receive through balls, he could easily replicate what Jay Rodriguez was achieving at Southampton.

Interestingly, Mousa Dembélé comes fifth in terms of non-set piece KP/90. That came as a surprise to me, but it makes sense, since over half of his appearances have been as an attacking midfielder, or number ten. His rate is just 0.15 off Eriksen’s – perhaps he is more of a viable alternative than I had previously given him credit for. That said, if this is an area we are looking to improve in, we should be looking for a player with a rate better than Eriksen’s, and thus it would absolutely make sense to upgrade on Dembélé as our back-up trequartista.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I think for our remaining matches we should give match time to youngsters. Harry Winks or Josh Onomah could play in midfield or as a number ten, and both are creative, in different ways. Winks is an excellent possession player who also has an eye for a key pass. Onomah’s creativeness comes from running with the ball and drawing players to him – a little more like Dembélé.

And for next season, we have two youngsters who could make a difference coming in from promising loans spells.

Alex Pritchard made 114 key passes in 3779 minutes in the Championship this season. He makes KP/90 at a better rate (2.7) than any of our players (again, bar Lennon and his small sample size). He also makes non-set piece KP/90 (2.1) at a better rate than any of our players. It’s the Championship, and we need to be aware that this might not translate directly to the Premier League, but it will certainly be interesting to see. He won’t help with through balls, though – he makes those passes at a rate less than all of our players that have attempted a through ball – he only played two across the whole season.

We will also have the option of using Dele Alli, who has a phenomenal goal and assist rate in League One (16 goals and 9 assists in 3399 minutes – that’s a goal or assist every 136.0 minutes from central midfield!). We have no idea how he will adjust to the Premier League, but it’ll be fascinating to see.

There’s a lot of work to do at both ends of the pitch, and my hope is that it ‘clicking’ at one end will have the result of making it click at the other too. Hopefully our new Head of Recruitment and Analysis, Paul Mitchell, will be using data like this (but better, much better!) to help advise Pochettino on new players, on existing players, and the system in general.

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May 1, 2015

Pochettino’s five-year project

Football is obsessed with an immediate return on investment. New signings are expected to hit the ground running. Managers (or Head Coaches) who don’t bring about an instantaneous ‘bounce’ are viewed suspiciously. Changes in tactics are seen as failed experiments if they don’t positively impact results straight away.

In 2014, sports scientists at Sheffield Hallam University published a study titled ‘You don’t know what you’re doing! The impact of managerial change on club performance in the English Premier League’. In their study, the researchers looked at data from the 2003/2004 season to the 2012/2013 season, covering 36 Premier League clubs. Lead author, Dr Stuart Flint, summarised their findings:

The main findings of this study were that managerial changes led to an increase in points per match but did not necessarily lead to an improvement in final league position.

Further analysis revealed that when considering final league position, clubs in the bottom half of the table improved their final league position, while clubs in the top half did not.

The findings of the present study suggest that previous managerial change for clubs in the top half of the league in the past 10 years of the English Premier League was an ill-informed decision if the objective was to improve league position.

Source: Telegraph

That this study was even conducted illustrates that there are questions to be asked of constant churn. That its results (albeit using limited data) showed that changes rarely had a positive impact is, at least, food for thought and, at best, evidence that top-half clubs could benefit from periods of stability.

As Tottenham Hotspur fans, we have become quite used to Daniel Levy’s impatience leading to frequent changes of manager or Head Coach and we have – at times – been guilty, as a fanbase, of getting swept along in that and demanding such changes ourselves. In defence of Levy there have been some mitigating circumstances – Harry Redknapp was a gobshite, for example, and he was most likely removed for non-football reasons.

With the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino came the feeling of something different; for a start, he was given a five-year contract. When compared to André Villas-Boas’ three years this seemed significant, especially given Levy’s reluctance to give Tim Sherwood more than eighteen-months for fear of having to pay him off. But it was the subsequent appointments – of Paul Mitchell as ‘Head of Recruitment and Analysis’ and Rob Mackenzie as ‘Head of Player Identification’ that signified a very definite change of approach.

Spurs had been heading down the separate departments route for some time, with a collection ‘Directors of Football’ or ‘Sporting Directors’ with varying responsibilities coming and going since 1998, when David Pleat was the first to hold the role at Spurs. But, with the new set-up, it feels like the elements of running the ‘football’ parts of the club have been finally divided up formally. And it’ll take time for these component parts to become – in modern business parlance – joined-up.

Mauricio Pochettino has frustrated, irritated and angered fans (depending on your starting point) for various reasons this season. Some of those reasons have been legitimate, for example:

– his reluctance to rotate the squad during the second half of the season.
– his reliance on a system which has rarely ‘worked’ without trying to tinker.
– his sidelining of potentially useful players (most notably Dembélé and Stambouli).

But that these have led to doubts being raised about his long-term suitability is fairly ludicrous. Firstly, because we don’t know the ins and outs of what happens at Hotspur Way – there could be clear reasons as to why, for example, Dembélé has (mostly) been out of the picture. And secondly because nearly all of us recognised this as a ‘transition’ season at the beginning of the campaign – so why the sudden moving of the goal-posts?

Much has been made of the Bentaleb and Mason double-pivot not working, and I have been calling for a switch to 4-3-3 since November. Yet it is plausible that Pochettino sees these two as a long-term combination (be that in a two or in a three) who need to better know the central-midfield role, to learn the requirements. Whether you think that his trust is misguided or not, Pochettino could believe that playing them over and over is giving them the experience that he hopes will benefit them in the long-term.

Either way, we will know a lot more after a summer when Mitchell, Mackenzie and Pochettino – as heads of their various departments – will have been able to work together to try to find solutions for the problems that this season has identified. The hope is that, with a more suitable squad, there will be greater sign of on-pitch progression, and we will see some flowing football and a coherent philosophy. But even if this doesn’t happen from the start of next season, let’s not panic or demand change.

We all know that there’s a lot of work to be done this summer. There are feasibly ten players to shift, and at least half of them will require replacing. That is significant change. And whilst Southampton have shown that new players *can* hit the ground running, it’s certainly not the norm, and nor should we expect that to happen.

Frustrating though it is that we feel constantly in transition, it’s the clubs’ own doing. I have been guilty myself of jumping to conclusions, of projecting short-term downturns and assuming the worst. But we need to give this new set-up time and a healthy amount of backing. We might as well – for once – give this five-year project five years.

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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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Oh to be touched by greatness. http://t.co/96M8JP2EZk
11 hours ago