My feet are firmly on the ground. I don't levitate unless I'm high on something. Although watching Spurs can make you floaty. For now, on the ground, is where they belong. We only drew 1-1 at the Emirates after-all. That doesn't mean we can't take the positives from the performance and piece them together as part of a vibrant bigger picture.
Spurs are beginning to show genuine glimpses of potential and promise under Mauricio Pochettino. Do you feel connected to the players? Do they make you proud? Don't stress, I'm not about to throw my knickers at them but they are fast turning into a group of lads that I wouldn't mind standing next to in a ruck. They've got my back, I've got theirs. That's the true definition of identity. This is what it feels like to have academy graduates and youthful exuberance than marquee signings. After all these years, Spurs have gone back to basics and I absolutely f***ing love it.
At the start of the season we questioned our inexperience and fragility because we supposedly lacked depth in key areas. Now we're more likely to wax lyrical about how those very same players have matured and defined their role within the team. It's all still tentative if you want to flirt with the negatives. We could still do with consolidating in January and bolstering the squad to protect us from fixture congestion, European rotation and injuries. Negative is after-all simply a state of mind. Mistakes are only there to let you know how much better you can be. Ask that defender turn midfielder of ours and his infamous sleep walking incident during the home match defeat against Newcastle what he thinks of negativity. Ask quick, he's probably drowning it in milk as he destroys it for breakfast.
The biggest win for us so far this season is that there's actual tangible progression in how the team has shaped up and continues to do so. Pochettino's coaching and drilling is finally giving us a clearer style. It's not complete or wholly attractive by any stretch of the imagination but the benchmarks have been set.
This is our coaches favourite go-to word. He says it as often as I say 'identity'. For a while I always thought he was referencing the way we play in terms of pressing the opposition, chasing the ball down immediately when losing it. He probably is but something equally important is how it's applied in practise compared to theory. You can instruct players but that's no guarantee they'll see it out. They might not have the right attributes and awareness - leaving themselves isolated and the team at a disadvantage.
The first stage was working out which players could deliver the instructions. Discipline is key. The coaching concentrates on raising fitness levels which tie into the constant pressing. So you've got two things here that have guided our recruitment drive and selection: Having the ability to take a pass and push the ball on and the physicality to work on and off the ball and as a unit to close down and win it back. I know, I've simplified the tactical elements and ignored the way we transition from defence to attack and then how we defend and counter - but this will be fine tuned throughout the developmentally stage. I'm also a blogger that spends most of my spare time eyeing up a bikini clad Quiet in Metal Gear Solid 5 on the PS4 and reading The Walking Dead comics whilst Poch is an ex-Argentine international and football manager of THFC.
After countless press conferences you can (should be able to) comfortably illustrate to the person sitting next to you what we're about, even if we're not quite functioning at the highest level in every area. Let's remember we're 12 games in (not including cup games). In some ways its fantastic to see a proper physical pomp to the team in such a short amount of time. If you, like me, tend to place last season as an unavoidable experiment of change.
The last time we had a successful side that was not at odds with its style was under Harry Redknapp. Attack, midfield, width and creativity - so much bravado and excellence, even the blind could see it. You knew how it would work and what to expect. Under Andre Villas-Boas, before he lost his way, there was a set methodology in how we retained possession and a continuation of a never say die attitude that has seen us rejuvenate our away form to a top tier standard. AVB struggled with the final third and under Poch it's still a work in progress. However, thanks to the work on streamlining the squad we have experienced players with the correctly conditioned attitude to aid the younger ones and their ascension.
There are no egos or troublemakers. Just players fighting for the team and upholding the philosophy. We are disciples of the aforementioned discipline and it's a necessary evolution. For far too long we have harboured individualism and accepted weak parts to our spine. This time the new build has to retain consistency from back to front and the players have to be fit for purpose. There is no reliance on any particular individual in the way we looked towards a moment of brilliance to save the day. There is a burden on the likes of sole striker Harry Kane and the young heads in midfield. If we are without Christian Eriksen we can suffer from a lack of inventiveness. But whereas before we were completely without a spearhead, we are now more likely to find a way through. Dig deep. We'll be far more accomplished when certain responsibilities are shared and other players offer alternative outlets for in-game progression.
We need to add more tools to the box and sharpen the ones already in there. No trolley dash required, a more calculated and shrewd shopping trip will minimise the risk of being disappointed with a purchase.
The Learning Curve
The inclusion of youth might see us hit the occasional bump in the road. If we get a puncture, we're likely to get our hands dirty repairing it. A little car analogy there. In the past we'd have attempted to hitch a ride with Rutger Hauer.
I can't emphasise the importance of patience. This isn't about not being critical or honest about players or mistakes. This is simply an acceptance that in reality you can't just pick an eleven and then it just clicks every single time. The finish article can not be completely transparent from day one and there is no set rule to how long before we get a preview.
This season it's taken 12 (league) games to get to where we are; a decent looking side with some real potential. It might take another 12 or the entirety of the 38 games or another summers worth of work to push us from project to full launched product. The glue here is stability. We've also got to be able to fall down and pick ourselves up. Those occasional bumps are occupational hazards.
The issue here is that sometimes (every time) Daniel Levy instigates a change that might not be necessary. Forget about Claudio Ranieri, we've got the original tinkerman in our midst. Perhaps with the stadium build, consistency with the existing managerial appointment will be a given as we tighten up our already tight club financial accounts. With the young players in our squad, time is the essential fuel. No flux capacitor (otherwise referred to as a Director of Football), no paradoxical mess. You can't suddenly want to skip the hard graft and jump ahead. You can't create a future without living through every second of the present. Too often we've attempted to do just that and ended up back in the past. I wouldn't worry if it was the 60s but the God damn DeLorean is obsessed with gatecrashing the 90s.
It's taken Poch a season and a bit to get to where we are now. That's no accident. It's simply the process. Whether you wish to dispute this and suggest he could have done more with the players he inherited is your own twisted prerogative, the fact is, most of them have been sold on so he was hardly ever going to build around them. Changing personnel and allowing for his training work to sink in took time along with how it was all implemented in league games, generating momentum, where the main focus is.
Do you want a winning mentality? You're gonna need winners. In the broader sense that equates to silverware but in the foundations of aspiring to that you need players that will give everything, blood guts and skill, and do so by following the pre-match preparation and planning - without question. These are again very simplistic generalisations but whereas before trying to decipher a Spurs team was akin to translating a Dead Sea Scroll, we can now clearly begin to see so much more. The type of players, that mix of youth and experience, an English core, a recognisable style of football with and without the ball, team spirit and togetherness, retaining shape and concentration. Building blocks. We've got rid of the cowboys and have ourselves a master-craftsman.
There's absolutely no argument regarding perfections. We have them. That journey we're on will give us further obstacles to navigate around. This will include the continued development and maturity of the younger players (like Alli, Dier) and refining the raw rough diamond elements of the side. Remember, time is all but a concept. Once upon a time we embraced five year plans and then it become three and most managers nowadays start getting the itch after two. That's if they've survived that long. So much of football has been distorted by expectations and what the media driven message tells us about how to measure success. No longer is it enough to belong or just desire to have your team uphold traditions. Top Four, Champions League...it's unforgiving. Like a black hole, nothing escapes from it.
How long is long when you're waiting for something that is usually impossible to predict its arrival? You can only look towards faith. Common sense will also prevail in the end, even if you hang onto something that looks doomed. Today, why think about how it might not work out when you can think about how f***ing great it can be if it does? You'll enjoy it more if you tease yourself. Anticipation is all consuming. And if it's destined not to work, then at least you haven't spent the entirety of the experience miserable.
Shifting away from existentialism and back to the physics of football...
Inviting pressure by not killing a team off is possibly the most important of challenges as this could provide the breakthrough that changes everything. Slightly melodramatic? Maybe but if you took the games we've already played and re-imagined them by having has score that vital second goal at the right moment it does change the result (or at least the games dynamic at that given moment). Easy thing to do in fantasy but so many of the dropped points is because we allowed the opposing side back into the game and then we struggle to find a way to recapture control.
When we do allow a team to get a foothold, we do often react positively. Not so well if we've lost the lead - but as displayed against Arsenal we survived and produced chances of our own. Something that is missing occasionally is the ability to stick studs on the ball and control the tempo. Dictate. Maybe that forms part of the curve. Players like Dier and Alli will grew stronger but to facilitate this part of the journey, a helping hand would assist. Mousa Dembele could provide the support, especially if the ball sticks to his studs as he marauders forward with murder in his eyes.
From the perspective of Poch, one key area that needs to be highlighted are substitutions. They can sometimes impact us detrimentally. A case of not having the right balance of depth to cover like for like? Possibly yes. It's one of the imperfections, possibly made worse with hindsight. It's fixed by either signing the right players to fit or waiting for the ones we have to fit in. Song struggled when he was subbed on. He was off the pace, because of his recent return and it's not always easy to quickly adapt to a game of such intense pressure. It's over dramatic for sure to blame him in any way but we were weakened by it. This isn't something I can dwell on too much, I wouldn't cite it as a mistake. If our options are limited then we can only hope the incoming player does the job he's been brought on to do. Sometimes it doesn't work out and it's easy to point to it and scream.
How we bounce back from a defeat or poor performance will also add additional traits. Players have bad days, teams switch off and sometimes not even luck can save you. We've been unbeaten for a while in the league and long may it continue. If we hit a rough patch then it's a test of how we cope to find a remedy and recover from it. I won't dwell on this either. I can't until it happens. It might be due to injuries or a goal draught. Cross that bridge, etc etc.
We've had a rough patch already this season. The opening few games, believe it or not, had people questioning Pochettino and panicking about a free-fall. It's not about a defeat or a poor performance. It is, obviously, but in terms of understanding it with complete clarity, we have to look at how we rediscover lost form and also cement the three points and not allow teams to steal one. In our early season patch, it took us time to find a groove and we did so with difficulties we managed (injuries, Kane not scoring, before/after Son). Ninety minutes isn't always best analysed in isolation. A piece of a puzzle means nothing if it's sat on its own.
Mousa and Erik Lamela are both prime examples of how players on the bench and on the brink can find themselves back in the team as linchpins. The success here is in the coaching but also in how both have taken their opportunities and produced the goods to be both influential and effective. Lamela was for so long a misfit, a player with the desire to impress but with very little coordination. Him being almost loaned out possibly suggests this wasn't the planned route for both Pochettino and his fellow Argentine but not everything can transcend from PowerPoint to the field of play. Take Gareth Bale as proof.
With Lamela he's still not quite the flair player we thought we signed but he's doing everything that epitomises the Poch Way. He contributes to the team, be it to the detriment of the £30M 'flair' player we thought we signed. The same with Dembele in that he too was inconsistent with application with how he fit into the team. If there were no injuries to our younger midfielders he might not have been given this chance to shine. Dembele has provided us with power in the final third and equal measures in midfield. When he's on point, he's brilliant with ball at feet. Testament to our coaching again that although we might not get the best out of certain players in terms of individualism, we do get the best out of the system with them in it.
Targets and Plans
The team is displaying characteristics that can be used to push us further forward. The importance here is not to lose sight of our targets and not get carried away. Remember, those feet are firmly on the ground.
Unlike Spurs of old, we don't celebrate score draws at the Emirates like it's a victory. We left despondent. It ties into having a robust mentality, a winning mentality. You have to hate losing. You have to fear to hate to lose. If it doesn't hurt then you can't be that bothered about it. You can't become accustomed to losing either. Much like AVB fixed the issue of conceding late on we always have to see evidence of progression. We have to be adaptable and that has been seen in abundance this season what with the success of Dier and the baptism of Alli. I keep mentioning these two like they're all important. The rest of our squad are equally vital to any success we seek. It's just that Pochettino is proving his worth with the youngsters, much like he did at Southampton. This isn't about throwing a kid into the first team to prove a point. It's methodical and pragmatic. No agenda here other than to make us better.
Christian Eriksen, for example (although he's also young), is a creative player that still has to stick in a Poch shift when it comes to pressing and chasing. A little bit of individualism sacrificed but still finding space in key positions to carve out a chance. Everyone is on board. Well, almost. Andros Townsend had a wobble. Making the grade should not be easy, not after years of relative comfort. Hashtag 'culture of comfort'.
Spurs have to aim for complete adaptability (that includes a Plan B) and strength with what they wish to apply on the pitch. You could go toe to toe with some teams and fair well, with others you seek to hold back something as to not allow them to take advantage of frailties. The modern game has so many fearful to express, hence the long drawn out matches where possession is shared centrally with both teams cancelling each other out. It's probably why many struggle with patience, waiting for the swash-buckle to return. It was easy under Redknapp. We tore teams apart. Then they sat deep and it gradually we became a frustrating battering ram that couldn't always smash through the gates. Attempting to find a way through, even with intricate play, was exhausting.
Spurs will need to be good enough to beat the teams outside the traditional powerhouses of the league along with those that can play a bit of football but rely more on heart and team spirit than quality. We don't have (an abundance of) world class players ourselves so when we come across the title contenders we have to be less advantageous as to limit risk. We've proven this season that we can compete against them. Pound for pound it shouldn't be a contest, but as ever, nothing plays out the way it suggests it will on paper.
As for Plan B, this in altogether another beast of a topic. There's no reason to have a completely different strategy. It's linked with adaptability. At the Lane, most teams sit deep. Away from home, some are cautious but others attack creating space for the counter. If your pressing game is Plan A then depending on the opposition you're going to have to find the rhythm to suit. In the past, under Redknapp, we struggled because teams wised up and parked the bus and we simply pushed wave after wave of attacks into their wall of defence until somehow, from somewhere we claimed a break-through. Same under AVB.
The important factor is that if teams open up, we can attack and we can punish them (the City 4-1 an example of what happens when everything goes well). I personally wouldn't get too hang up over Plan A, B and so on. Take the Arsenal 1-1. In the second half they applied pressure, we contained it for the most part (riding luck along the way) and then took the game by the scruff again until they eventually found a way through. They did so because we sat back onto the ropes for too long and took their jabs until they dished out a low-blow. It happens a lot. We don't clear the ball with conviction and concede because of it.
Being able to change levels of in-game application and mix it up has a lot to do with leadership and reading the game - something Pochettino and his players will have to master. Any limitations will became apparent if we get unstuck with particular styles of football or opposition tactics. Against Arsenal, the lack of conviction towards the end might simply have been tired legs (no excuse but a reality and one that we didn't appear to care for post-match).
I don't care to worry about finishing in the top four. I'm sure the players and the coach are flirting with the idea and to hark back to expectancy, professional footballers want to play in the Champions League as it's peak time. We sometimes mock the obsession with it, I've already attacked it but I'm not going to lie, I was made up when we got into the competition for our single soulful adventure. It was emotional at the time because, God damn, did we try to qualify for it.
The aftermath has been ugly. Everything paled into significance and it has (relatively speaking) been all about breaking back into a qualifying position. But I refuse to settle back into point-watching and fixture list reviewing, in anticipation of it. The position we end up in will be what we deserve. It will be a bonus, for all concerned. It's not silverware but it's good for stature and confidence and it further fuels the ambitions of the players and their more likely to commit to staying rather than looking for an alternative route.
Enjoy the journey and if we get there earlier than expected, make the most of it.
I'll revisit this after the next 12 league games.