Tottenham 2 Palace 0
The clichéd classic game of two halves played out luckily in favour for Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Go on, admit it. You thought we'd walk this with comparative ease what with it being struggling but slightly improved Crystal Palace. I know I did. But then I've spent this entire season waiting and hoping that Spurs finally click and turn it on and smash someone to pieces. A little misguided considering the lack of evidence for such dramatic change.
Our players obviously guilty of the same indulgence of expectancy. The non-existent first half performance a harsh reality slap that thankfully gave us a much improved second forty-five. Perhaps it was simply a bad performance? They happen don't they? They happen far too frequently for us. The actuality is we're playing a particular type of way under Tim Sherwood and it's reactive to how the opposition react to it and how we then react to the opposition. There appears to be no forcefulness with our tactical intent. Go out and play and hope the spearhead of our attack, Emmanuel Adebayor, sticks 'em away.
Credit to Palace and their manager Tony Pulis for their zippy movement and confident drilled display, defending deep with bodies behind the ball, suffocating space and time with adventurous attacking intent when pushing forward. You then pinch yourself and remember it's Crystal bloody Palace. No offence to them but they shouldn't be allowed to turn up and instantly tell us how the games tempo will pan out. Again, sure, there are days when the unexpected happens. Days when our players don't quite get into gear and find themselves chasing. Still, it's Crystal bloody Palace. How about we seek to bully and boss and bash and belittle rather than produce self-inflicted b*llocky dilly-dallying.
From the opening seconds of the game that infamous ominous dark brooding cloud of discontent was looking down over N17 preparing a thunderclap.
Gone are the days that teams turn up and park the bus. In the long term, this might be a positive. The reason teams parked the bus was because of the free flowing swashbuckling football we played under Harry Redknapp. Everyone clocked on and in the following seasons didn't allow us the freedom to express. They sat deep, slowed us down. Under Andre Villas-Boas we played a far more patience game that saw us control possession, trying to draw the opposition in but we never made enough of an impact up front which meant it wasn't always easy to claim the three points and there was always a chance of a sucker-punch. Something that Redknapp also experienced. In the past Plan A, no plan B. Presently Plan Bale replaced by Plan Adebayor.
Now under the rebirth and redesign of Tim Sherwood we seek to refresh and rejuvenate our playing style. This means teams turn up knowing the game will be open but gives us a chance to reintroduce ye olde swagger. Tim telling the world that formations don't matter that much, suggesting that it's more to do with player movement and positioning and how we transition from defence to midfield to attack with quick fluidity rather than a slow rigid approach. Regardless of the philosophy, in the first half we looked and played like rubbish. Whilst Palace retained shape we lacked it in abundance. I kept thinking next five minutes we'll start to see more of the ball. When we finally did, we didn't do that much with it with Plan Adebayor momentarily decommissioned (returning in the second half). Not that it's fair on us or Sherwood to expect all good things to come from his boots all of the time.
Roberto Soldado, our broken £26M forward that's unable to strike the ball, continues to link up, play deft balls but was far more ineffectual in the build up play than in recent games. There was no combined dynamism with Adebayor this time round. He looked fed up. Probably with himself judging by yet another scuffed shot that ended up curling into a pass. This is what happens when you sign a footballer that spent his time at Valencia attacking the penalty box, getting onto cutbacks and crosses and finishing with technical polish and ask him to play in isolation up front without service. He's had to drop deep for the ball, work the channels, basically not spend the time poaching in front of goal. Now he's got a role where the support is far more evident, he should seek to be more greedy and ruthless. Prioritise the goals and let others worry about the build up.
He had a poor game but then so did most of our players. What amplified this further was the fact both Soldado and Adebayor made telling runs, mostly all wasted thanks to a no-ball from midfield. Distribution to and from the front-line wasn't good enough.
Between now and the end of the season we'll find out if we signed the right player and played him in the wrong system or if we've signed the wrong player for life in the Premier League. You don't simply forget how to score goals. This is psychological and he's struggling to believe he can recapture his groove. I kept waiting for AVB to solve five different conundrums. Soldado only has to solve the one: Ball. Back. Of. Net.
Whilst we spent the first half running around like strangers, Palace we free to counter to their hearts content. Spurs static and without composure on and off the ball.
The sticking point once again was the lack of ownership in the middle. Palace had a game-plan, we didn't. We looked lethargic and disinterested.
The big test came at half-time. How would Sherwood react?
Man-management time. The hair-dryer treatment was dished out to all concerned according to Christian Eriksen. A kick up the backside apparently the magic sponge of recovery for our apologetic players.
Then behold the defining difference. Spurs stepped up and it was more than enough to see off the visitors. Why couldn't we have started that way? I hear myself say. Another classic cliché of football.
A direct cross field ball from Kyle Naughton, Emmanuel Adebayor flicking it on, Eriksen running through the middle without a marker and finishing emphatically for the 1-0. Direct, quick and punishing. More of the bullying and belittling than the first half b*llocks.
The soon to be departing Jermain Defoe replaced the frustrated Roberto Soldado early in the second half and naturally scored the second. Aaron Lennon, who had provided our forward line with plenty of opportunities, intelligently found Defoe who jigged and finished. Lennon, a bright spark in a dark room, busy in the final third and a live-wire tracking back. Tottenham's shots on goal ratio still suffering because our forwards haven't got on the end of some of his delicious deliveries.
Best mention Sherwood's favourite son, Nabil Bentaleb, who gave us another impressive display when pushing forward including the best moment of that horrible first forty-five with a belter of a shot that the woodwork denied. His pass completion (99 out of 106 attempts) doing well to make you forget about the stamp at the Emirates. He isn't a clone from the school of O'Hara or Livermore.
The backheel-combo with Dembele also a highlight (yes, the game was that poor that this moment was rendered great).
Much like Tom Carroll, Bentaleb is measured and composed on the ball and when in possession always looks to find a player with a forward pass. Patient and intelligent play every time. No frantic rushed efforts here, rather a more weighted variant. The pass has purpose, the moment it leaves the stroke of his boot it's destined to find its receiver.
Defensively it's probably too much to ask him to cover in the same way some of our more experienced players can. Which leads back to the issue of not owning the midfield sufficiently enough to boss the game. Still, he looks the business. Mentally strong and assured. Has practically come out of nowhere when comparing the longer journey some of our long standing academy players have to struggle through to come anywhere near the first team. He's being fast-tracked for a reason. Although I'm not about to jump into bed with hype. I'm not that easy.
The game finished 2-0. Three points. Sherwood driving Spurs towards the top of the form table. Never in doubt right?
Well, not quite.
Rewind back to the first half and Mousa Dembele bringing down Marouane Chamakh for a Palace penalty. A golden opportunity for them to take the game by the scruff of the neck and consolidate their excellent start. Up steps Jason Puncheon. I thought there's no chance of him missing this. He lines up, he approaches. His body shape is all out of sync. I think, hold up, he might miss this. Then the ball is hit so far wide and high that it's currently on course to collide with Chris Waddle's Italia 90 effort.
We got away with it. We won ugly. Story of our season.
We found our redemption in the second half. Sherwood can quite obviously motivate. He's be in trouble if he couldn't. Spurs still stuck in limbo as we muddle through with half a team but one with a more evident identity.
Our midfield still feels like it's giving up too much space, but no denying the points accumulated in the league games under Tim; five played, four wins, one draw. Several key players set to return. When they're available then we'll see how the midfield selection works. Do we go back to four in the middle with one behind the most forward player? Don't worry about it being a 442 or 451 or whatever. As citied, it's about how it works on the pitch not how it looks on paper. Manchester City at home a key test for Sherwood. No way we can afford the luxury of wide open space inviting them on. It has to look and be solid. Compact but with flexibility. Ah yes, the search for the Holy Grail is back on.
Fair play to the Palace support. Completely obliterated us in the stands. I guess fanciful football, or the promise of it, is still not enough for the home support to find their voices. Palace singing small club mentality songs? At least they're singing. What was our excuse? 3pm Saturday kick-off right? What does it matter. We won't laud it over with the vocals until we're back in the Champions League. That's how it worked last time.
We are only a couple of wins adrift from a comfortable place from those Champions League spots. It's crystal clear that we're going to need more substance in amongst the style if we're going to contend. But is that our expectation? Is this damage limitation or a fully fledged recovery mission? It's still all up for grabs for 4th spot. Perception deems us to be having a downbeat season because momentum suggested we'd kick on from last season. We haven't. That's testament to the quality we do possess. The problem is, this is a cut-throat business and it doesn't take long to fall from grace and be replaced by another club that's equally ambitious.
We'll beat most of the Prem playing the way we are playing. We'll beat most of the Prem comprehensively once all our key players are back playing the way we are playing. However, City - Chelsea - Arsenal and Liverpool? Everton also? These are the games which will define our season.
It might not be unequivocally slick or tidy but so it's far so good for Tim Sherwoods' Tottenham. Still, it was never quite slick under AVB and ignoring the implosion at the end, accumulating points wasn't a problem. It's good to hear that Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli will get their chance to play in the hole, shadowing the forward(s). Something our former gaffer tragically failed at.
Onto the next challenge we march.