November 28, 2014

Focus on Paulinho

I was going to post this as a series of tweets, but it quickly became too long so I thought I’d write a blog about Paulinho’s performance against Partizan Belgrade. I re-watched last night’s match against Partizan Belgrade in double speed to have another look at Paulinho as so many people had mentioned to me on Twitter that they thought he did well.

The fist thing to mention is that in our 4-1-4-1 in the first half he had a very ‘free’ role, with barely any defensive responsibility. I don’t know whether this was deliberate, but both he and Dembele left Stambouli exposed and we suffered as a result, getting caught on the counter. In fact, despite changing shape in the second half, we only looked more solid once Bentaleb came on.

In the first half, the majority of the passes he made were either sideways or backwards. Frequently he’d drop off his man, receive the ball with his back to goal and pass backwards to where it had come from. Alternatively, he’d pick up the ball in space in midfield and pass sideways, before trotting forward.

He intercepted one ball and wasted the opportunity to counter by dallying. His other interception came when the ball hit him; a counter was on if he played a quick pass into Soldado, but he didn’t get his head up, and instead ran into a cul-de-sac on the right flank and ended up turning back (although he retained possession sensibly).

All of his first time flicks failed. One in the first half was looking for Soldado, but was too heavy. The idea was a relatively good one, the execution was less good.

He played one good, floated ball out to Davies on the left, and soon after he nearly created something when receiving the ball wide on the left and cutting in, but he overhit his pass to Lamela, forcing Lamela to slide to retain possession.

Lennon fed him in on left of the box where he had two chances to shoot, but the move ended up with him passing up those opportunities, turning away from goal, and taking an awkward, heavy touch which saw him head out to the corner flag where he lost possession.

In the second half we switched to 4-2-3-1, with Paulinho dropping back in alongside Stambouli, and Dembele playing the more advanced role by himself. This was presumably because we were caught a number of times, and Pochettino wanted to ensure we were more solid at the base of midfield.

Paulinho played one nice pass with the outside of his boot through a tight space to Dembele, who immediately lost possession.

He made a useful burst into the six-yard box when Soldado got in on the left, but Soldado’s cross was poor and the goalkeeper claimed it – Paulinho might have had a tap-in otherwise. He then had a decent shot which the goalkeeper saved.

Once Bentaleb came on, Paulinho was pushed up into the most advanced midfield role, where he had another long period of not touching the ball.

He pounced on a loose ball, strode forward, dallied and ended up playing a pass slightly awkwardly onto Bentaleb’s weaker right foot, and Bentaleb mis-controlled.

Kane found him with a clever touch, but he hit a ludicrously heavy toe-poke well ahead of Lennon. Seconds later he was played in by another clever Kane pass, but he was slow to latch onto it. Lamela picked up the pieces and hit a shot just over.

After Kane came on, Paulinho was often the most advanced player, as Kane dropped deep and he ran in behind. But he had another long period of not touching the ball (failing to anticipate a clever Lennon pass in the meantime) and his next involvement was a failed first time flick to Kane.

His final involvement came when was found by a clever pass from Lamela between the Partizan defence and midfield, with an opportunity to hurt them. His clumsy dribbling led to the ball getting caught under his feet, which caused him to check and then to lose the ball with a pass straight at a defender. He immediately regained possession after a misunderstanding between two Partizan players but lost it again, dribbling straight into a defender. He was replaced by debutant Harry Winks shortly after.

Paulinho made a few runs either away from ball, or towards his own player who was driving forward in possession, which often led to the player on the ball being crowded out. But, in truth, these runs were few and far between, and he spent a lot of time just wandering around, neither showing for the ball or moving into space.

I still don’t really know what kind of player Paulinho is. I can list what he’s good at on one hand – pressing, making late runs into the penalty box, and keeping possession with backwards/sideways passes.

The things he is not good at are less easy to list succinctly: he doesn’t anticipate danger well, he doesn’t get his head up when he receives the ball, his shooting is wayward, he doesn’t have a good range of passing, he dribbles clumsily, he sometimes needs more touches than most to get the ball under control, and he can ‘go missing’ for long periods (often not showing for the ball).

I realise that he has not had a decent break from football for longer than is helpful to a top-level athlete but, even giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that after a rest he’d improve by 20%, I just cannot see any way back for him at Spurs.

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November 21, 2014

Getting to know Grant Ward

Grant Ward doesn’t turn 20 until December. There aren’t many 19-year old English footballers who can say they’ve experienced top-flight football in another country.

It was a very brave decision of Ward to move halfway across the world to play for Chicago Fire in the MLS. The move has paid off, though, and after 20 appearances for ‘The Fire’ (scoring once), Ward has come back to Tottenham with the match day experience that young players need.

Ward moved in March, and so spent around eight months in the States. He told the American press that the experience developed him and allowed him to “become more independent.” He knows that Chicago Fire want to take him back for next season, and is open to the proposal.

Grant agreed to answer a few of my questions about the move – thanks to him for taking the time.

How did the move to Chicago Fire come about?
The manger Frank Yallop was in town for a few weeks, he watched a few reserves games, I played well and he asked if I would like to have a season in the MLS.

Had you seen much MLS football before the move? Did you know what you were letting yourself in for?
I had seen an odd goal or two from Henry but, to be honest, no because games are not televised much over here. After I knew it was an option to go there I did manage to watch a few games.

Did you notice any major differences in either the coaching or playing style out there?
My coaches out there did similar sessions to what I do at Tottenham but the tempo in the MLS is a lot slower overall and I feel a lot of teams like to sit behind the ball.

What was the thing you enjoyed most about your loan experience?
I enjoyed playing against some of the players I watched growing up as a kid like, Henry, Keane, etc. I also enjoyed living in Chicago, it’s a very nice city.

And what did you enjoy least?
I enjoyed the whole experience apart from the rules that America has that no one tells you, like you cannot park near a fire-hydrant, this resulted in a few parking tickets!

Have you seen much of DeAndre Yedlin? [I was hoping that Grant may have caught him in person.]
I watched him in the World Cup, he played well when he came on and seemed to have a lot of pace.

Have you been given any feedback about the move from Spurs? Did they go to watch you out there?
Yes I received a lot of feedback and they came out to watch my last game against Houston.

Which players at Spurs do you look up to in training? Who stands out?
Growing up I always looked up to Lennon but also Eriksen and Dembele are very good trainers.

You have played at full-back and on the wing. Which position do you see yourself playing long-term?
I could see my self playing in either position but I enjoy playing on the wing or when I have the licence to go forward at full-back.

What are your aspirations for the next two or three years?
To maybe go on loan a few more times to gain some more experience to help me break into the first team.

Grant is likely to play for our Under-21s over the coming weeks, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he has progressed as a player. I wish him all the best for the future.

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October 30, 2014

I’m your biggest fan

Last night it felt like we got back on track a little. The team, the fans, the fans on social media… it all felt a bit more ‘together’. The opposition wasn’t great, of course, but I’m sure there were many Spurs fans who, like me, half expected an upset.

Starting off with the performance: it was a largely positive display. Pochettino made ten changes – whether that was always the plan or whether the poor performance against Newcastle influenced that decision, we’ll never know. Brighton made six changes themselves, including giving England Under-20 goalkeeper, Christian Walton, a debut.

The first half wasn’t exhilarating, but we were solid, with flashes from Townsend and Lennon that kept the crowd encouraged. Although both were playing on their “wrong” sides, it was notable that Townsend in particular kept the full-back guessing by alternating between coming inside and hitting the touchline on the outside. This is something I feel Lamela needs to add to his repertoire – particularly to help stretch defences. I wonder whether this was Townsend carrying out a Pochettino instruction, or whether he just enjoys beating a full-back on the outside. Either way, he frequently moved us yards and yards up the pitch with his useful driving runs, albeit he didn’t always make the right decision at the end of them.

Lennon was withdrawn at half-time – he confirmed post-match that it was a minor hamstring “issue” – and was replaced by Lamela; it took him nine minutes to score. Davies fired in a pass to Soldado, who did well to cushion it back to Lamela. Soldado received a pass back, sent Lamela into space, and his right foot was – for once – trusted to slide the ball home. From then on Spurs looked confident and competent, and when Harry Kane got the second twenty minutes later, it was game over. Kane pulled out to the left – much like we’ve become used to seeing Adebayor do. However, unlike Adebayor, after releasing the ball to Townsend, he was intent on getting into the box and, when the ball came back off the goalkeeper, he was there to steer it into the tightest of gaps.

For me, the best players on the night were Kyle Naughton and Benjamin Stambouli. Naughton seems to have bulked up since his injury, and he had a very good game at both ends. Not only did he provide a defensive solidarity on the right that we’ve been lacking in recent matches (helped by a diligent Townsend), but he provided some excellent crosses; he is amongst the best crossers at the club. The only blot on Naughton’s copybook (as they say) was a potential handball in the first half, his arm flapping away from his body – in a similar way to that which caused him to come unstuck against West Ham.

Stambouli’s unfussy but assured display caught the eye, especially with Capoue’s form taking a dip. He made some timely challenges, intercepted well, and used the ball wisely, quickly, and simply.

Away from the pitch, the atmosphere in the Park Lane end was excellent, helped by a good turnout from Brighton. There were old songs and new, including a Stambouli effort to the tune of ‘Stand By Me’ (not a fan!) and a Chadli song I’d not heard before to Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi: “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you around the country, Nacer, Nacer Chadli” (big fan!).

The game was targeted by the 1882 movement due to the lower ticket prices – although, what a shame that the club has raised the £20 tickets to £25 for this season; a 25% rise seems unnecessary and is probably what has led to lower attendances in cup games.

For the uninitiated, the movement was started by a group of fans who became dissatisfied with the atmosphere at White Hart Lane. The idea is to encourage 90 minutes of singing, regardless of what’s happening on the pitch; sing for the shirt. The hope is that the name ‘1882’ will eventually become unnecessary as the movement becomes more prevalent but, as it stands, it is used to help advertise the section in which like-minded fans who want to sing should buy tickets, and to spread the word.

Due to block 34 selling out quickly, I’m not convinced that all of those in the block knew about the movement, but most seemed to join in and created an enjoyable atmosphere. Unfortunately there were a few morons who started the type of hackneyed, homophobic songs that Brighton fans must find tedious and cringeworthy – in a large group of people not all of them are going to be sensible.

I left the ground feeling generally positive, which is strange considering the disappointing defeat just days earlier. Pochettino has us going along pretty well in the cups, and there have been signs of a growing understanding of the system. One thing that worries me is that he doesn’t always seem to select his team on merit, and the omission of Kane from the team against Newcastle seems to back this up. My preferred line-up for Villa would be:

Lloris
Naughton Fazio Vertonghen Rose
Stambouli Mason
Lamela Kane Eriksen
Soldado

A number of these players pick themselves, but to justify those that perhaps don’t:

Fazio – I don’t think there’s a great deal to choose between Kaboul, Fazio, and Dier at centre-back right now, but Kaboul needs to play like he did against Arsenal more often than not to keep his place, and he’s simply not doing that. Fazio looks very, very good in the air, but not so good on the ground. For the time being, though, he deserves to step in, and against Benteke his height and strength might be useful.
Stambouli – I was impressed, as mentioned above, by Stambouli’s performance, and at a time when Capoue is having a very obvious dip in form, it might be time to give Stambouli a chance in the league. One concern would be whether a Mason/Stambouli combination has enough strength, but the added tenacity and mobility should compensate.
Kane – Whilst Chadli has scored well, Kane’s productivity surely cannot be ignored in the league any longer. Kane has – on average – scored or created a goal every 69.7 minutes so far in all competitions. Chadli has mananaged a goal or assist every 138.4 minutes (Lamela – 101.3, Soldado – 127.8, Mason – 182.5). The key for me, though, is that Kane impacts a game more than Chadli even when he’s *not* scoring.
Soldado – Whilst he still looked uncertain in front of goal, Soldado had a promising game against Brighton and showed good appreciation of his teammates, particularly in linking up with Lamela for the opener. With Adebayor having had more bad games than good so far, it seems to make sense to give Soldado a run.

With a run of winnable games ahead – Villa (A), Asteras Tripolis (A), Stoke (H), Hull (A), Partizan Belgrade (H) – this will hopefully be an opportunity for the team to build confidence and cohesion. COYS!

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September 22, 2014

Getting WBA off my chest

Our expectations are – or should be – lower this season. But not significantly low as to shrug off a 1-0 home defeat to one of the league’s poorer sides, a side that had not beaten us at White Hart Lane since 1984, the year of my birth. And especially when the performance was also so disappointing.

It is, of course, far too early to pass judgement on Mauricio Pochettino. He is eight matches (and just five in the league) into what will hopefully be a long reign. The style of play that he’s attempting to implement is sufficiently complex to require significant work on the training ground, and he simply has not had enough time yet for it to be fair to expect a lot more than what we have: a set of players not yet fulfilling his instructions. I can absolutely forgive that at this stage.

But what I cannot forgive is a lack of effort. The players should always be sufficiently motivated to go out and try as hard as they can and, certainly for some on the pitch yesterday, it did not feel that they were. And that does concern me – and it will, no doubt, concern Pochettino. His response to this will be fascinating, and his team selections against Nottingham Forest and Arsenal will be telling.

I could spend hours reeling off reasons for yesterday’s poor showing, but I do not have the time or inclination and I’m sure, dear reader, you don’t either. So I’ll stick to three that I consider key.

Europa League

We made ten changes for the midweek game, and so the players should have been suitably fit for Sunday’s match, right? That argument totally misses the point of the Europa League ‘distraction’ argument. The key for me is not the number of games – we have a deep enough squad to cope with them – but the consequence of preparing for two matches in a week rather than one.

From Monday, West Bromwich Albion will have been working hard on their approach for this game. How to stop us, how to hurt us; analysing our strengths and weaknesses. From Monday, we had to prepare for Partizan Belgrade on Thursday. A number of players then had to spend half a day travelling to Serbia, and another half travelling home. Do we assume, then, that we spent Friday and Saturday preparing for West Brom? That’s two days. And how much can a coach achieve in two days?

I love Spurs participating in European competitions, and I would love us to win the Europa League. Even those coming from the ‘sack it off and focus on top four’ angle now have a slightly different outlook since winning the Europa League is rewarded with a Champions League place. It is no coincidence, though, that eight of Spurs’ last thirteen league defeats have come after a Thursday night Europa League match. It is clearly an issue that we need to learn to overcome if we are to be successful in both domestic and European competitions.

Dembélé

I was full of praise for Mousa Dembélé on last week’s Fighting Cock podcast. He was excellent against Sunderland – he won the ball regularly and used it well, the opening goal being a prime example of his quick and simple distribution having won possession. He found our more creative players with regularity between Sunderland’s defence and midfield, and we created numerous chances as a result.

But he was as bad against West Brom as he was good against Sunderland. He was ponderous on the ball – constantly wanting too many touches – and this led to him losing possession three times in dangerous areas. The below illustrates his passes in the 61 minutes he played yesterday, compared to his passes during the 68 minutes he played in a deep midfield position against Sunderland (before he was pushed further forward to accommodate Stambouli).

Mousa Dembele

In neither game did he make a single pass into the box, but against Sunderland he made plenty of short, incisive passes in dangerous areas. The difference is stark – you would be forgiven for confusing his pass map from yesterday with one of Tom Cleverley’s for Manchester United; plenty of sideways passes and no penetration.

In Pochettino’s teams the role Dembélé is playing is a vital one, which was one reason why Pochettino was so keen to sign Schneiderlin, despite the vast price attributed to him. The player in this role is vital for slick transition from defence to attack – he is required to be involved in ball-winning, but also to move the ball quickly to the creative elements of the team to catch the opposition off-guard having won possession.

In May I wrote a piece for FourFourTwo just after Pochettino’s appointment; I speculated that Dembélé might be a player that would struggle. It’s far too early to say that this is the case, but he will need to adapt his game in order to hold down a regular position, particularly with Bentaleb and Stambouli – two players keen to pass the ball quickly – breathing down his neck.

Adebayor

I have been an advocate for Adebayor in a community where many want him cast aside in order to give Soldado a prolonged run. Yesterday’s performance, though, was unacceptable. Ignoring the missed header – because, on seeing a few replays, the ball *was* just ahead of him – he simply didn’t trouble the West Brom defence. He failed to involve himself in the game, having just 25 touches of the ball. His pass completion was 46% – he completed just six passes.

Some of Adebayor’s below-par performance can be put down to a lack of service – Eriksen and especially Lamela were very wasteful, whilst Chadli was a peripheral figure – but he seemed to submit too easily to Lescott’s dominance.

Equally worrying was that Soldado’s cameo was one where nothing really went right for him and, whilst he managed to involve himself quite well, his final pass and shot were lacking. Harry Kane played poorly in Serbia, but would have been a useful option from the bench yesterday with his ability to link play on the edge of the box.

I could write further about Vlad Chiricheș’ nervous display, and Erik Lamela’s appalling marking for James Morrison’s winner, but I will end on a positive – we have two big matches this week, and two big opportunities. Nottingham Forest top the Championship with young striker, Britt Assombalonga, tormenting defences. Arsenal seem to have regained form just at the right time, with Welbeck opening his account at the weekend. Positive performances in these two games would transform the feeling surrounding the team and give us a huge boost. COYS.

 

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September 2, 2014

Thoughts on the transfer window

Ins:

Davies
Vorm
Dier
Fazio
Stambouli
Yedlin (to join next year)

Outs:

Sandro
Dawson
Sigurdsson
Livermore
Fryers
Falque
Obika
Coulibaly
Released professionals: Gomes, Gallifuoco, Lancaster, Michael-Percil, Miles, Stewart, McQueen, Dombaxe and Vigouroux.

Firstly, I’m glad that’s over – I don’t enjoy the way the transfer window works, and how loopy it can send people.

But in terms of assessing our window, I’m satisfied with the work we’ve done. At the start of the summer I identified left-back, centre-back, back-up goalkeeper, and wing-forward as areas to improve. We’ve ticked most of these off. We’ve also shifted plenty of deadwood and not made the mistake of last season, where we spent a lot of money on players on lots of overseas players who took a long time to settle.

We got an excellent price for Livermore, and the dealings with Swansea – giving them Sigurdsson and taking Davies and Vorm for little or no extra cash – seemed very sensible. Whilst he was a good, honest pro who had terrific technique when striking a ball, Sigurdsson failed to hold down a regular place and was not deemed good enough by the majority of fans. His sale allowed us to fill two problem areas – Vorm is closer in style to Lloris than Friedel, and Davies is the ‘steady Eddy’ left-back that Rose simply isn’t.

Dier was signed for a similar fee that we received for Falque – again, great business – and Fazio replaces Dawson (‘Michael Dawson – a tribute‘).

Stambouli has come in for roughly half of what we received for Sandro – if he’s more suited to the system than the loveable but unreliable Brazilian – and that’s a big if – then it would represent another sensible bit of business.

The key is that Pochettino is allowed a degree of control over shaping his squad. Whilst there are some players that he will be able to mould and develop, there are others that he will feel are unwilling or unable to be what he wants them to be. Of course, when transfer fees are spiralling out of control, it’s also increasingly difficult to bring better, more suitable players in.

It’s been pretty well documented that Pochettino wanted to bring in Schneiderlin and Rodriguez from Southampton. He trusts them, rates them, and sees them as able to improve us. Southampton have played hardball with both (credit to them for that) and so Pochettino either needs to be patient, or to seek alternatives – as he seems to have done with Stambouli.

I have a suspicion that his first choice ball-playing centre-back target was the Mexican, Hector Moreno, who suffered a broken leg during the World Cup; Pochettino was his manager at Espanyol. Subsequently we bid for Musacchio, but he proved to be difficult to land owing to complications with his third party ownership. Fazio, I’d guess, was always going to be signed alongside one of these; their playing styles are significantly different to suggest that.

I’m happy to trust Pochettino. If he felt that the squad was too big, I trust his trimming of it. If he felt that a player in central midfield that wins the ball and passes it quickly was his top priority, that’s fine with me. If he didn’t feel that he can rely on the likes of Dawson and Sandro – previous fan favourites – then so be it.

The only area where I feel like we’ve left ourselves weak is wing-forward. Whilst Chadli played well against QPR, I don’t think we can rely on him for the season. Lennon is not productive enough to play high on the left, and Townsend seems more comfortable on the right these days. Welbeck would have been a useful option as he’s able to play wide, or through the centre – my suspicion was that we wanted him on loan, or not at all, given that we seem willing to wait for Rodriguez’s return to fitness.

Personally I’d have also tried to replace Soldado and ship out Paulinho, but – ignoring the fact that they might have been difficult to sell after poor seasons – Pochettino keeping hold of all seven of last summer’s signings does represent confidence to get the best out of players who mostly struggled last year (for various reasons, and with mitigating circumstances).

I take more pleasure from seeing a coach improve players rather than just buying a new team, and it’s important that we give Pochettino and his coaching team a chance to do this. Expectations for the coming season are relatively low, and there will be matches – like the defeat to Liverpool – where the team under-performs as the players learn the system. But I will be staggered if, by the end of the season, we haven’t enjoyed the football more, and don’t see plenty of positive signs.

COYS

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