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.