Lloris displayed mad skillz. Dembele is back. We had (yet another) perfectly legitimate goal disallowed for offside. Carroll's vision and pass to find Bale for that goal was sensational. He was also tidy in possession and focused with other key responsibilities such as tracking and tackling. We were in control in the early part of the game, aside from a blistering Ledesma effort. We did make it count (that disallowed goal) so it didn't actually count and then Lazio got a stranglehold and asked all the questions from that point onwards, especially throughout the second half. We held out thanks to a defining shift between the sticks from the keeper that isn't Brad. We need to beat the Greeks at the Lane (or draw) to qualify.
Was going to write a shot preview of today's game against Lazio, only to wake up to read that ten Spurs fans were attacked standing outside a pub last night, two of which were stabbed and one is in critical condition. Arrests made, but no more news at the moment. Variety of rumours about CS gas and baseball bats and 'jews'. Apparently the attackers were masked. I like how the media are referring to it as an altercation. Probably considered a normal incident out in Rome, sitting alongside corruption and match-fixing.
Tottenham 0 Lazio 0 (Europa League, Group stage)
That was a bit of alright. Not so much the result but the further progress displayed by our coach and reflected by the players out on the pitch. I can’t help but imagine that if this game was played out in front of a capacity crowd it would elevate the game and post-match mood rather than give the appearance it was all rather low key. In some ways it was, but then we were facing a resurgent Lazio side unbeaten this season that were both physical and stubborn in their style, biting at our legs, giving away countless free kicks. We also faced some questionable officiating which saw no benefit of the doubt siding our way in key moments (ball in the back of the net tends to be rather important in football).
This game, from our perspective, was one of structure, control and patience. Not perfect, as there are some missing ingredients but still there's an overriding feeling that this was another checkpoint in the path to enlightenment that Villas-Boas is guiding us towards.
We lined up in strength, as expected. Lloris, Caulker and Dempsey the changes made. Lennon handed the captains armband as longest serving player (aside from the almost transferred out Dawson). There might have been no thunderous smacks of swashbuckle or high intensity tempo but there was assured quick movement and discipline from our players. Okay, sure, Lazio had one or two moments where they created opportunities but they failed to get on the end of them. So there was plenty of evidence that we have to improve concentration at the back but this is no different to any area on the pitch. Players are on a learning curve because what they do has to fit into the way the unit works, it has to be methodical. This is about the collective. That's not to say there wasn't just a little bit of magic missing. That individualistic touch of creativity and expectancy. I see this as one of the more fascinating challenges the teams faces. Is the role of the playmaker now shared amongst many?
Currently, as a unit, we are playing with far more spacial awareness so players rely on their team mates to find space so that effective passes can be made. It's a little more complicated than running around a bit, in that the instructions given will involve how the team pressures, pushes up and defends - as a single unit made of three parts. It was far more compact than the Reading away game. Perhaps because this one was in Europe and against Lazio.
What we did see at Reading away was Lennon attacking space to beat a man rather than with ball to feet attempting to skip past them all the time. Without that single playmaker that demands and supplies, recycling possession and linking play as it shuffles forwards, everyone now has a responsibility to form a more collective approach to attack. This does mean that this more methodical approach does lack that magic. It will probably be more bullish and aggressive football in the long term. Much like the fast paced swashbuckle of the previous seasons but with far more control offensively and defensively. This means more balance and more astuteness rather than a complete reliance on individuals to perform by simply doing the same thing every week. You can stop one player but it's far more difficult to stop a team. Especially if that team, over time, fine tunes itself into a robust adaptable machine. We are but a handful of games into VB's tenure.
Dembele is a super player, but he’s very direct and not as thoughtful and subtle as Luka Modric. The fascination for me is if we wanted and still want Moutinho, then dare to imagine the added dimension to our play if such a player takes centre stage in midfield. For now however, it’s about working with what we’ve got, for the players to know their responsibilities as second nature instinctive actions. Dembele isn't Luka Modric but that doesn't mean he can't be as effective in a different way. No deep-lying role here for the Belgian.
First half was decent, Lazio had chances but we bossed possession. Some players are still not firing on all cylinders, Bale being one of them and he’s intrinsic to our attack. A storming season from both himself and Lennon is vital. At the moment both are involved without being overly influential. Aaron got himself into decent positions but couldn’t find that killer ball. He was, in his defence, kicked and fouled a couple of times. Dempsey in the startling line up, not quite match sharp but unlucky to have his goal struck off as offside. It was close. It was on. But this being Spurs lady luck once more looked the other way. Defoe leading the front-line again worked hard, was instructed to drop deeper which he did and generally looked busy. As for the Lazio chances, they struck wood work, so there was that ominous sign as a reminder that we could get mugged.
We found a way through twice more in the second half, both disallowed making it a hattrick of shrugs. One was arguably offside, the other (a Caulker header) wasn’t a foul and should have been given. Lady luck not even in the building for that one. Game opened up slightly as well. Again, you could argue that for all that structure and organisation there was no bravado, no thumping personality to the play. Can it be too structured in approach? Can you be too clinical in how you group, pressure and hassle, hold onto possession and attack? Maybe. But then again probably not because had we scored (I know we did) but had we officially gone a goal up then that extra bit of character would have been more evident. Confidence goes up a notch, so does the tempo. But we didn't make that (official) breakthrough.
It finished 0-0 so the obvious citation would be one concerning three successive home matches drawn. That next step on the curve is just getting that home win out of the way. And perhaps against known opposition as opposed to the continental variant, the game will allow us to gamble a little more. QPR might sit back on Sunday but we might have a more expressive game plan to get at them.
Not many negatives for me. Yes, there are individuals that need to give more. But the side looked comfortably on the ball and far more receptive to what is happening on the training pitch and how it translates in games (as opposed to the lacklustre display at home to Norwich). We didn’t win, we should have won. We could do with perhaps more industry through the middle of the park and not always look towards the flanks – although we do create plenty from width. We just have to step up the standard of the final ball.
Lazio were ugly on and off the pitch. Platini in the stands seated next to Daniel Levy. No doubt the hefty 30k Euro fine will hurt the Ultras. They're paying it, right? Siggy came on for Dempsey. Lennon replaced by Townsend (good to see he will play a part this season, we won’t know if he can make the grade until he’s involved in these type of pressured games). Caulker was beastly. He just looks the part. We were blessed to have Ledley King, even if it was only ever a percentage of him. In Caulker we have a centre-back that might, just might make that position his own. Offers so much more than Gallas (aside from experience) and importantly fits into the Villas-Boas mantra (athletic, composed and intelligent on the ball).
Also enjoying Dembele. Eases past players. Attacks space in a different way (mentioned that already) than what Luka did but then the comparisons should really stop now as both offer different avenues of attack (I'll stop with the comparisons now). Once Dempsey is match sharp then their Fulham connection might go a long way in settling in both players. Dembele linking with Dempsey in and around the box? Sounds like a plan. What I want is for us not to be completely reliant on the lone forward and have a midfield that creates and scores goals from anywhere on the pitch. Everyone wants that, but if you look at our team it's particularly scary to think about the potential there. Siggy hasn't bedded in just yet either and we know what he's capable on based on his time with Swansea. Go on then, why not, let me say it out loud...patience.
Adored Lloris. You can see why he was signed and why he's so important for the future. Owns his penalty area, commanding and knows how to use his feet – which he did with confident distribution. Sweeper keeper indeed. He's got that thing about him. So assured. Seriously, if I came home and found him on top of my missus I'd be like 'sorry mate, sorry...I'll leave you to it' and walk out. Why? Because I know she'll be in safe hands.
Naughton decent again but on crutches and wearing a protective boot post-game. We might see Vert slot into left-back for the weekend (unless boot was precautionary).
Frustrating night then but with plenty of positives. We’ve got such a strong spine, we’ve got technically gifted players and with more time there will be more invention and intent. The players have to be in complete comfort with the formation and movement and then their individualisms will shine through. Also, with a more complete forward (a fit and ready Adebayor) we might see more of a spark up front. It’s something we’ll have to wait for. Defoe is scoring, he's in form, so he should retain his place. Against stronger teams in tighter games, he should be benched.
The team is beginning to gel. Tidy stuff, but we need more titillation.
Special mention to Ryan Mason who came on for Dembele very late on for seven seconds. Did Mason take a shower after the match or just change back into a track suit? It's an important question that needs answering.
Lazio at the Lane under the floodlights. It's not the Champions League, it's the Europa League and if we're not in Europe we're nothing. So the saying goes. There's a fair amount of anticipation for this game. For me at least, you might not be as excited. You might not care too much. You might be hoping for some rotation and no injuries. Or perhaps not, perhaps you're rubbing hands together gleefully.
I'm looking forward to seeing how we line-up, with Andre Villas-Boas wanting to take the competition seriously. There's a very decent cut of opposing clubs in this years competition. Most of them are going to take it very seriously, so there's no reason to be dismissive in approach and application, unless we want an early exit. Doubt yourself for a second and you'll be punished for it. What Villas-Boas truly envisages in Europe won't begin to play out until the whistle kicks off proceedings. But I'd like to believe he will use the squad with the express aim to win each game, taking into account the fixtures that follow the European encounters.
He's alluded to the fact that silverware is important. Something we tend to forget and rationalise as secondary in a world where a league placement is perceived as a far more relevant accolade. We are more gutted about losing out to say 4th spot or CL than we are failing to get to a cup final or losing one. That's the royal 'we'. I know not everyone thinks the same way. There are still some traditionalists that pump their chest for a good old fashion cup run. But I'll hazard many are conflicted. I know I've argued for both sides, because I like to think it's possible to have the best of both worlds. Although admittedly I'm sided ever so closer to the league runs in recent years believing that you can consolidate in strength and be fitter to challenge for those cups. The reality of this thought process is that you're gambling the present with a vision of the future that might not play out.
League placement is important if a club wants to be able to sustain that challenge in the top tier consistently. Such is the hierarchy of modern football blah blah blah, I've made this speech a dozen times before. If you harbour dreams for the title, as far away as this might seem what with other clubs in stronger financial positions to compete - if you want to realistically be in the mix you have to qualify for the elite competition and milk it for all it's worth. Money is the commodity clubs perceive as the gateway to success. Yet this vision of the future might never materialise and remain simply a dream forever out of reach.
But as we all know, such things do not get chronicled in the history books as success or as glory glory days. That's if all you do is finish in a place that grants you access rather than seeing your clubs ribbons on a bit of silver. Although playing against the best sides in Europe, even if all you get out of it is away trips, should not be frowned upon. As a supporter you'll always desire a little more than that.
We finished fourth last year. We've been heavily involved in that top tier for several seasons now. That's the bread and butter of our season. The league games. But when was the last time we had a massive dollop of jam spread across that bread? 2008? And before that in 1999? And further back in 1991? Not forgetting some continental in 1984? Yet too many times since and in-between our tea has gone cold waiting. It's time for a fry up. And there's no need for Marmite on the table.
The days of the Cup Kings and flirtations with the Twin Towers, that's history, some of it iconic never to be forgotten. These moments are truly the building blocks of a clubs identity and their traditions. We swaggered and might have gone on swaggering had we not hit a brick wall that left us bloody and bruised and nursing injuries we've only just recently recovered from. Rehabilitation has been a long and laborious journey. Whilst we began to walk again, others around us sprinted past, knocking us back down.
We all know the story.
The 1980s. The Big Five. On the verge of something greater. A young chairman with a heart bigger than his brain. Crippling decisions with development at the Lane and the baseball bat to the knees that was Hummel. We never stood a chance. Instead of being primed for the Premiership we were left struggling, on our knees and perilous close to financial ruin. Scholar tried to innovate but all we did was dehydrate. That's just how things panned out and in 1991 we anchored ourselves to survival by winning the FA Cup. Mostly thanks to Des Walker but more so thanks to a shy Geordie that practically dragged us into the final only to then implode. Cruciate ligaments raptured, his transfer to Italy delayed for a season. Another cliff-hanger of a finale in the roller-coaster ride that is THFC. Then into the wilderness we went. In many ways, so did Paul Gascogine. Both of us at the foot of the brick wall looking up, uncertain of the climb ahead.
I remember Sunday afternoons on Channel Four, James Richardson and the odd Gazza cameo and wonder goal. He only played around 40 games for the Rome club before ending up at Glasgow Rangers. The first player, the only player I ever idolised. I remember Hoddle and adored his effortless gliding and majestic arrogance but Gascogine was the one plastered all over my bedroom wall. Somewhere, at my parents home, I have a box full of cut outs of newspapers and magazines, practically all of the match reports, articles and interviews of the player and the coverage he got just before he joined us and whilst he wore Lilywhite. I remember 1990 very well. More so that fabled 91 season. All the cup games. The queuing for the semi-final for tickets. That free kick. It's just the FA Cup right? No, it's more than that. It's something that's untouchable that nobody can ever take away from you. It's Tottenham Hotspur.
So where am I going with all this? One thing is for certain, we're over that wall. Gascoigne too, but he's still sitting at the foot of it on the other side. We've left it behind us, from a jog to a run. We're not so easily knocked down any more either. But we've got plenty of shoulder bruising and there's one or two runners up ahead.
From Europa League to the seasoned question of silverware versus Champions League and long lost love for a breed of player that no longer exists. It's simply this: You can't create history that can be looked back on with pride if you let the present pass you by as an inconvenience.
It's not that supporters don't want to win cups it's just that so many of us prioritise the league and want that top four place more than anything else that we forget that there's no necessity for sacrifice. This won't be easy. The games come thick and fast. The recognition isn't what it was in bygone eras. You could even argue it's just a financial safety net for clubs falling out of that other more grand competition. Then again, if you win it you get to play the winner of that grander competition and that doesn't always turn out the way you expect.
To host Lazio, another club to have loved and lost Paul Gascogine, unbeaten and a dangerous opponent - it's a fine way to reignite a lust for a different type of momentum. One that can lead to moments in games that remain in memory forever. One that can lead to success, regardless of its downgraded stature, regardless that its perceived as an afterthought. Football is what you make it, not what someone else tells you it is. Those conflicted thoughts around what is or should be more important pale into insignificance. It should always be about Spurs and it should always be about glory.
How else can you define yourself as a winner if you don't actually win anything? More importantly, you can't add to those blocks of identity and tradition if you don't set out to build them to stand the test of time.
"It's full of history & different winners. It does not generate financial advantages but it generates emotions when you win it."
- Villas-Boas on the Europa League