The Boys from White Hart Lane
I still feel utterly exhausted from this past season. I pretty much covered everything with the articles that followed each game. I've done my best to avoid War and Peace* and have thrown together some concluding thoughts on our sensational but ultimately heart breaking campaign.
*It's still War and Peace.
I'm looking forward to the summer, a blogging sabbatical and some sun-kissed Canary Island chilling. Before that, there's the little matter of the Euro. Hope we stay in it. At least past the group stages.
Following England hasn't been the same for me since Italia 90 but I will gladly soak up the tension as I prepare for more dejection. Club and country go hand in hand. Before we know it we'll be preparing for 2016/17 and getting twitchy with the usual transfer window nail-biting, waiting on new arrivals to inject more mettle into the team. Screaming when Daniel Levy takes it to the final day again. The cycle never ends.
If you miss the more regular routine of introspections then you can always follow me on Twitter. It's @Spooky23 if you ever fancy some micro-blogging. 140 character limit means you wont need to book out an afternoon to get through something I've written.
2015/16 - A Season in Review
When Mauricio Pochettino was appointed he often citied an ethos the players would need to work towards and believe in. We've heard it all before, right? Except this time our coach has delivered. Getting the players to gradually align to a new age of training and preparation was always going to be a touch turbulent. It's an adjustment period that also suffered from the realities of squad reshaping. Some would fit in, others would shift out. Any sign of weakness and it's a wave goodbye. It's testament to all involved that we've come so far in such a short space of time.
It all harks back to the very first thing Poch fixed; the back-line. It took a while but it's hard to disagree that it's the one area that no longer concerns. He took the rawness of Danny Rose and the often maligned movement of Kyle Walker and turned them both into industrious workhorses. Sheer beauty in their gallop. Wimmer too for his time in the side when Vertonghen was injured, speaks volumes on how regimented the training sessions must be. Players able to drop into the team without any detriment. All of them focused as individuals and as a collective.
There were several tests of resolve and responsibility in the first season and then an ascension in the second. The result? A harmonious jig that all of us can dance to. Everyone believes in each other. There's no culture of comfort, no fragmentation and imbalance. Spurs have got serious after years of disillusion. That's the difference maker. No ego. Or rather no arrogance and carefree attitudes. No sense of entitlement. No room for sentimentality. Almost makes a mockery of everything that came before. No kool-aid, no false Gods. Just unquestionable science.
The deadwood is gone. There's no one left that might cause conflict in the dressing room. Pochettino believes in a certain style of football and how the preparation allows it to mature and progress. Hence the appointment of Paul Mitchell to head recruitment and player acquisition. Spurs no longer dipping in for the marquee signing. Spurs are now functional. Yet in that functionality we've birthed genuine appreciation for the basic building blocks; organisation, mentality, team spirit and not forgetting tactics.
Tactics into Style
Where AVB failed (to get the most out of the players he had), Poch has done the opposite. He's improved our mindset and in doing so has nurtured youth into England internationals. Rose, the perfect illustration of taking someone many of us doubted and turning him into a key player. Not every transfer signing or academy product will succeed. No club is immune to mistakes (Fazio anyone?). But there are now shared expectancies in what we wish to see and what Poch demands. The benchmark has been set. He can take players and improve them if those players are tenacious enough to apply themselves.
Tactically, it was a slow burner. In his first season we suffered because the Poch mantra was still in the early stages of implementation. We couldn't quite work out whether there was substance because the style remained a little underwhelming. Add to it the impatience from the supporters, fuelled by past managerial indiscretions. Especially the super contained passive not so aggressive Villas-Boas tenure which was followed by Tim Sherwood's ultra basic round pegs in round holes football.
Today, Spurs press. We swarm the opposition and work the ball with pace (especially on the counter). We spent most of our time towards the top of the table in terms of ground (kilometres) covered. There's no dicking around. The pressing is disciplined yet has a naturally drilled style to it, seeking to force mistakes by pressuring the player(s) in possession. There's no naivety at play. It's reliant on retaining a good tempo, breaking the equilibrium of our opponents. It works because Poch now has a squad that understands his instructions and are intelligent enough to react to positioning. There's no maddening desperation in how we chase down the ball. It's contained and controlled football, minimising risk and maximising pressure.
With ball at feet, it's about moving with pace. Which is why having grey matter is equally as vital as having agile players. The best form of defence is attack and in our case nullifying the other team in deep areas, hurting their defensive line, gives us the opportunity to punish them. Substance in style.
The fitness spike was momentous in taking us through to almost the very end of a dizzying campaign. It's still debatable whether the suggestion (based on points accumulated) that Poch sides collapse during the run-in of every season is true when context is considered. To suggest there is some deep rooted flaw in his methodology is a knee-jerk. With regards to Tottenham we made ourselves contenders. Add 2/3 players into the mix that can play as part of the first team core and that extra little bit of defining energy across the season could have made the difference (probably, possibly) in those final games. Okay, so maybe there is cause for concern, but only if we don't bolster our depth.
The fact is, come February, we kept on grafting with no sign of a physical implosion. Even with a streamlined squad, we never looked like we'd falter (even if we dipped on rare occasions). This - even with a title push - was a fledgling flight of discovery. Wings clipped at the very end was unfortunate in the midst of what became our sky fall. Yes, those rare occasions arguably cost us. If we played with less zest and intensity when pressing (to reserve energy) we might not have won as many games as we did to find ourselves so involved so late on. Pochettino will need to find the perfect balance.
Supporters have a tendency to gravitate towards the worst case scenario or devalue something that is deserving of accolades. Rather than perceive the collapse as a negative, view it as a conundrum that will produce positives. The problem/error/fault is there because it cost us meaning it's a weak point. For all the progress, over the course of the season, some issues became more prominent than others. I'm gonna go all hippy and just remind everyone how very few weak points we have in comparison to twenty plus years of being buried alive by them. But still, if we want to get better we can't just focus on all that's good.
Key players rested at key stages of the season because we have players that can deputise that are of similar if not identical quality means the standard of our football improves tenfold. Competition for places is never a bad thing. Well rested/fit options means our football retains consistency and momentum. This is all very obvious and perhaps we got stretched too far in the end. We have a very well oiled machine in need of a few extra cogs and the odd one or two that need upgrading. That's not to suggest we've not impressed when rotating. The fullback cover, for example, has worked far better than most expected.
I said this during last season, to those that kept bringing up the Stoke draw and the Newcastle home defeat and one or two other games that for good reason grated on us. Had we been good enough to win those games, to navigate stormy weather and reach dry land, we'd have won the league for the first time since 1961. We didn't win those games, we dropped the points because we weren't good enough to claim them. Growing pains.
The very best thing to happen to Spurs this season was the professionalism - on and off the field. Poch always saying the right things, never saying too much of the wrong things. Never dropping sound-bites for the sake of appeasing fans or the media. Just honest and sometimes passionate thoughts on a good or bad days work. His players often reflected this in interviews pre and post match.
We have leaders that want to win. Players that hate to lose. They refuse to become accustomed to it. In the past it was a given. 'It's only Spurs' Alex Ferguson once famously said. Pretty much what we would say when greeting another powderpuff display. It (sadly) says plenty about just how much of a soft touch we've been for the past 25 years (ignoring some very good seasons tucked in here and there). Pride in the shirt is finally meaningful. The football is finally meaningful.
Other sides, successful ones, might scoff at all this because these are entry level necessities to compete at the top. Well hello then. We've finally made an entrance.
Players of the Season
Toby Alderweireld. Harry Kane. Mousa Dembele. Erik Lamela. Christian Eriksen.
Toby was so good you almost forgot that the Tottenham defence was often a calamitous four piece band that would turn up for a concert without any instruments and then attempt to make music by placing their hand under their armpit and start flapping. We've gone from farting noises to classical music. The definitive missing piece to our quartet is Toby.
Not to compare him to Ledley, but his presence has a similar influence to those around him. Calm and cool and always in control. Hardly put a foot wrong and when he did, much like most things this season (of a negative value) you could count on the one hand. Quietly brilliant.
Harry Kane. Not had a proper rest for two seasons. Starts by giving everyone a head start, by struggling to score, and still wins the Golden Boot. To be honest, several top tier strikers appeared to have a slow start but all eyes on Kane because people love to see someone fail. It momentarily got to him too. You can see it in any footballer, when confidence dips, instinct is lost. Too much time thinking about it, not enough time relying on ye old muscle memory.
Form is temporary and class is Kane. He's one of the most complete centre-forwards I've seen (in my life-time) at Spurs. One that might sit alongside the likes of Lineker, Klinsmann, Sheringham and Berbatov. Scores all types of goals, creates for himself, assists for others. Strong, technical and at times pure poetry in motion, leading from the front like someone destined to wear the captains armband. Drops deep, plays for the team - school boys own stuff. You'd never have believed it when looking back at the young boy who spat on himself at Old Trafford after hoofing the ball out of play. I'm looking forward to third season syndrome.
Mousa finally found the role that allowed him to elevate his talents into the spotlight they deserve. Beastly and such a vital part of the teams core in allowing us to get busy centrally and break into the final third. All those seasons of frustration, holding onto the ball too long, never quite decisive enough when attempting to let it go. And now? You can't get the ball off him. It's like he's taken dynamism and copyrighted it. When he didn't play we suffered. Although nothing like these players in terms of role and position, he's as vital as a Carrick or Modric once was. So is the next player.
Christian Eriksen. The modern day Ghost of WHL. Not for reasons associated with the legendary John White. More so to do with his often under appreciated influence and productivity. 'Makes us tick' has never been a more fitting tagline for the little Dane. In the final third, he creates space and allows others to attack it. He's still a young lad. Sure, consistency is something that can be worked on - but then that's the Holy Grail for most footballers. Eriksen is the brains that allows the brawn to boss and even when he isn't able to dominate or dictate he can still produce a single telling pass that wins all three points.
Yes. Erik Lamela. The £25M flair player not suited for the Premier League that has had to reinvent himself, mostly out of desperation from all involved (the long gone Baldini and our chairman). But he has found a part to play in the team. I've often citied him as the Poch poster-boy for pressing football. If you want evidence, there have been many games in which we've lost some zip in our tempo when he's been subbed off or missing altogether. He is relentlessness when chasing down the ball and it sets the pace for others to match.
Perhaps there are better players to suit this style but juxtaposed from the biting of ankles is the sublime and at times simplistic vision to thread a ball through. 'It's what he's meant to do! It's nothing special' all the haters cry. But he's doing it, isn't he? He's giving us end product or at least assisting it. I still wish he was more of the catalyst than the workman. Spurs might ultimately look beyond him but this season he finally looked comfortable in the Premier League and love him or hate him you can't ignore that when he's not present we miss his subliminal influence.
Dele Alli. From the goal at Crystal Palace to pretty much every other goal and assist he notched up. Fiery, petulant and God damn utterly infectious...he's the type of player that you'd be envious of, whilst watching him play for an opposing side. He's box to box, does a bit of everything. Great touch, control and vision. Yes, he's a little dirty and has to curb his enthusiasm but these are traits that can be controlled and used with effectiveness rather than be a constant detriment to him and the team. He's a kid and he's one that isn't scared to battle. He took the opportunity given to him and then took to the top flight like a duck to water. A gangster duck with deal-with-it shades. Add to it the silk of his skills, the nutmegs, his quite excellent ability to be in the right place at the right time to finish off a killer pass. His timing is exquisite. Young Player of the Year? Damn right.
Eric Dier. Everyone questioned the sanity of our coach when Dier was proclaimed the defensive midfielder of choice. Mainly because of our lack of transfer activity. In he came and oh boy did he lap it up. I think Dier and Poch and in fact the entire metamorphosis of the side is underplayed and diminished by the suggestion this was all some majestic accidental slice of luck. He trusted in Dier and the lad delivered. No nonsense and gritty yet equally composed with and without the ball. Marshalled like a master and one of the most consistent midfielders in England, let alone Spurs. Like Alli, fearless.
Both players are the reason we've fallen back in love with our team. They embody the desire we wish to see reflected in our players from the stands. We can relate to them because the enthusiasm and commitment they display is genuine and not the usual illusionary deflection we've so often accepted in the past.
There were a fair few. Winning at Manchester City and the post-match thumping of chests, Pochettino walking to the away end to preach the faith. The 4-1 at the Lane wasn't too shabby either. Add to it the demolition of Manchester United and earlier in the season, West Ham. The away win at Watford and the one at St Mary's - both massive stepping stones in forging our containment of fear and making others feel it. Stoke away was also stupendous. Nothing really rattled us when we believed it could all still end in glory. The feeling when watching these performances was intense yet wonderfully fitting. Not something you associate with Spurs.
Excusing the 5-1 spanking against Newcastle, aside from the West Ham defeat, Spurs were never outplayed or outclassed all season long. Just out lucked and once or twice, below par. This is fairly amazing if compared to the past couple of decades. Since Redknapp and then in moments with AVB, we've managed to improve in areas that have allowed us to become more competitive. Under Poch, it all came together and produced a title challenge. Capitulations were once upon a time a monthly event. This season we had one. Think on.
The stats. Oh my the stats. I don't care for many of them but goal difference, goals conceded, goals scored...all trademarks of a proper team. One that has structure and purpose and doesn't just rely on pockets of pomp. No more dreaming. Spurs have shape and it's more appealing than Kate Uptons' bum. Well, almost. Just pinch it if you think you're dreaming. Pinch yourself that is. You can keep on dreaming about Kate.
Our ability to bounceback, be it in a game or after a defeat. This is great because it truly illustrates what was once a rare trait is now common place. During a game, there was no mass panic (ignoring you know what). Be it last minute goals or solid responses in the game following a defeat, we got on with it - no apologetic mannerisms, no time to wallow in self-pity.
Identity. This is the big one. We had the quintessential Spurs style under Harry Redknapp. Swashbuckle and swagger. Under Andre Villas-Boas we injected discipline but sadly abused the needle too much and were left lifeless and dead behind the eyes. It was all too deliberate, lacking character and vitality. Under Pochettino, we equally struggled to see what the much citied philosophy would be. It took a season for it to bed in and thanks to the young players and the commanding experienced ones, we've blossomed beautifully. Spurs were often referred to as the very best in the land. A team in the Midlands claimed that accolade in the end but the plaudits can't be dismissed. The band of brother ethos united what was a fragmented fanbase. The Boys from White Hart Lane are back.
The Greatest Moment
When Harry Kane scored his curling scorcher against Arsenal at the Lane I celebrated like I've never celebrated before in my life. A full two minutes later I was still screaming and shouting, spitting 'YES! YES!' over and over again with the occasional 'COME ON!' thrown in. It's quite difficult to describe all the emotions I felt at the precise moment when Spurs made it 2-1. Perhaps a mixture of resurgent belief that nothing would hold this team back. If you're a man of complete practicality and don't delve into the mystical then you'll struggle with what it means to believe in something. That feeling, even if it wasn't against them lot, was an incredible rush and release. The fact it was them, made it orgasmic.
Kane's unmasking as he wheeled away was pure ecstasy. For him on personal note, yet another nail in the coffin of 'second season syndrome'. Everything about it felt deserved and just. For me, all of us - it was everything football means. Everything it's meant to be about. In one single moment.
Most Disappointing Moment
You'd think I'd opt for the 5-1 at St James Park and finishing 3rd instead of what looked like a certain 2nd a month earlier. That having them lot once more finish above us would easily be the massive blight that stains all the hype of our progression. Well, it isn't. I'm over it. As scandalous as it felt at the time I stand by what I said. We gave up after the W.B.A draw. We knew then the season had finished. Everything was defined by chasing the title. You want an echo of glory, that's it right there. Gave it everything, didn't have enough. Tottenham were emotionally, mentally and physically drained when they knew it was done and dusted. Zapped. Our neighbours, having actually bottled it weeks earlier, with little to zero pressure, churned out enough to once more poke ahead.
Yes, it's staggering how deflated the squad was. That we failed to guide our way through it, losing all momentum. Compared to what came before, it was completely out of the ordinary. This still isn't my most disappointing moment.
You have to go a little further back to find the bigger disappointment.
Not holding onto the 2-1 (not making it 3-1) against Arsenal at White Hart Lane. It almost made me forget the 1-1 at the Emirates, another game we deserved to win yet failed to do so. When they equalised at the Lane, then when the final whistle went...that was truly the moment the title dream died. That surge of defiance in the face of expectancy would have been quashed, immeasurably. We could have been unstoppable. Literally, football is a game of inches. Seconds of brilliance shared with momentary lapses and mistakes. I just want to feel the same way I did when that Kane shot sparked the net and then the Lane. That game, in the end, was a bigger steal by the footballing Gods than their seasonal blessing for the team from Woolwich and the final positional standings.
How ironic that the greatest moment is eternally intertwined with the most disappointing. How very Tottenham.
It's the right choice because it's the only viable one. It's hard to take for some but there you go. What's the alternative? Delay the stadium build further? Play games at MK Dons? You can sit around and moan about how long it's taken us to get the NDP going (ignoring the recession and local political minefields) and slag off Daniel Levy. Or you can just consider that it might have taken 10-15 years but the new stadium will be home for the next 100 +.
Dons is a logistical and moral hellmouth. Stadium MK? No thanks. Anyone fancying a bit of that would probably have been championing Stratford back in the day.
The sacrifice in accepting that work has to start earlier is a hard one to take. Sentiment loses because the long term dwarfs the short to allow Spurs to walk as giants again. Let's face it, any option would be an inconvenience. We are leaving White Hart Lane. This next season will be our last. That's some pretty heavy emotions to deal with. I don't blame anyone for feeling conflicted, there's no easy way to handle this.
Wembley allows for a bigger capacity (catering for the 4k missing WHL seats/season ticket holders). It gives an opportunity for more fans to see the games too. Although purely from a footballing perspective, I do worry about the impact it will have in terms of atmosphere. The initial time spent there in the next season might tell us plenty about how it will pan out when we play all our league and cup matches there.
The club, perhaps, might plan to move blocks from the Lane to areas of the stands at Wembley (like-for-like) in an attempt to retain the same core of supporters. I guess there's no chance of the FA spray-painting the seats blue?
Europa League games have hardly been worthy of the Glory Glory tag but we're in the competition everyone wants to be a part of. It's all irrelevant now, wanting to witness CL at the Lane, thanks to UEFA rules impacting access, capacity and rights delivery. You know, regulations. Technicalities that render any hate towards the development and leaving WHL behind for European nights null and void.
As for the bigger pitch (leaving the smallest one behind); is this not what we've wanted for a while? This up and coming season* it's Champions League, the following it's all games. Then back to N17 in time for the 2018/19 season.
*The club have also asked for dispensation to potentially play two league games at Wembley (at the end of the next campaign).
A season and a bit at Wembley > Fortress Stadium MK > Wanting to permanently move to Stratford.
Width. We need more width. Yes our structure is there to support our fullbacks in getting forward. But sometimes we can suffer from being too narrow and not stretching out teams as much as we could with our forward players. We need more options. We work the wings and have players that can go out wide but it's not quite the same thing as having a more natural player do the work. Traditional wingers are not so common these days (wide midfielders being more apt for most). But having a player not too dissimilar to the way Bale played could elevate this team to the next level.
Having a plan B that can interchange with plan A, organically, during the game and not just off the bench. We need to turn all the draws (the ones we dominate) into wins. A player like Son (once he reclaims form/settles) is already a viable game changer in terms of his directness. It gives us something different. We need those extra dimensions. Especially up front, to support Harry Kane.
We also need cover in midfield. That extra DM for support what with Champions League football, is now a requirement. If we lose a Dembele or Dier then the players stepping in have to be of the same ilk of quality. Spurs need to gain strength in key areas. It's the same every season to be fair but the difference this time is that we don't need to make mass changes to personnel. We have to add to the squad to enable us to rotate and do so without surrendering the desire to win. A second string won't have that same level of commitment because of lesser quality and the loss of momentum the first eleven can produce. Like for like swaps mean that momentum doesn't degrade enough to hurt us.
All this is possible, you only have to look at the successful teams that manage to compete for titles and the CL, season in and season out.
Our home form has to be improved on. Away from N17, there is little to bemoan. At the Lane, we need to be far more ruthless. We dropped too many points. Improve ever so slightly and it could be enough next time round. We still haven't quite mastered how to close up shop, not so much with retaining a slender lead but bossing it with a second or third goal. A lot of this is dependent on being able to shift emphasis from one form of attack to another. We've seen it a few times this season where a substitution takes something away from our performance. We want to inject something new but it fails to refresh. Having more forward options will be imperative. Again, a player like Son and his directness can be positive and even arguably leftfield compared to the more pragmatic approach work. Having more width is key to support this. I'm repeating myself. It's all very obvious, right?
With better players joining, the bench will also retain a healthy look and this ties back in with having the options to make a difference - in all competitions. Next season is going to be - on paper - an epic one. Jose is back, this time at Manchester United. All eyes on him and Pep no doubt. I'm already happy that the media will focus on them. The hype train will be a nice distraction. Leicester will be under pressure to repeat what was meant to be impossible. Chelsea will want to reclaim some dignity and so on. We've come to expect the unexpected these-days, so once more, nothing is written in stone. The reaction to coping with the aftermath of surrendering the title chase was in its self a major emotional upheaval but also a critical part of our journey and maturity. We need to use this to fuel our next attempt and make sure we have something left in the tank.
What would be perfect this time is to avoid the slow brooding learning curve that continued from the first season into the last that had us gradually evolve and fulfil the fabled philosophy. Considering that all of us got taught a valuable lesson in trust at the start of last season, I'm not going to get involved in the usual obsessive behaviour in lusting after exotic footballers and the like. Poch, Mitchell and the rest of them will know what we want. Daniel Levy's duty is to back his manager. Never has there been a better opportunity to consolidate. It might still not be enough for us to win the league but it would be criminal to waste the resources we have to not gatecrash again.
No Spurs, no party.