No Mousa, No Party
Spurs 1 Liverpool 1
Positive stance first. Things can only improve, right?
From a Spurs perspective, the game was a limp affair. A consequence of not having the dynamism of Mousa Dembele, marshalling the ball out of midfield with genuine tempo-owning presence. In addition, three games in, Pochettino's men still look like they're in recovery. Post-traumatic stress evident with our lack of confident free-flowing movement. Fluidity and zip completely MIA replaced with custard like clumsiness with key players drowning in desperation to be reintroduced to that old flame form.
Sluggish > Swagger
Three games and regardless of the usual 'we need to sign X amount of players or we're doomed' rhetoric, Tottenham are not functioning because of what we don't have...but rather because of what we do have. And what we do have isn't quite working the way it's meant to.
We are weighed down.
It's akin to your brain shutting muscles and nerves so that you don't kick out in your sleep but then find yourself with heavy legs in the world of your subconscious - unable to run and not understanding why. It's not quite a nightmare but you can't quite figure out if any of it is real.
We do need to sign X amount of players so that we retain a sense of competitiveness and avoid a culture of comfort. The rhetoric is unavoidable.
So why the fragile mindset?
In terms of the games narrative, for most of it we didn't look comfortable. Liverpool were not necessarily great or vastly superior. They were, however, on point with their shape and their quick passing. Tidy transitional play, from midfield or the counter. They were precise and matched skill with graft. You could see exactly what their style was and the ease with executing it.
Spurs were not necessarily awful in comparison (definitely awful when compared to the best football we know we can produce). Passive with and without the ball. The visitors should have done better once or twice and perhaps didn't quite step up enough to bully us into complete submission. I guess somewhere within the first half performance (along with luck) was a little bit of instinctive resilience that came alive just about enough in the second half.
We started with two defensive midfielders in the middle again. Poch was forced to make a change that he probably welcomed when Kyle Walker left the pitch ill. He shifted Eric Dier to right-back and stuck on Vincent Janssen. Strategically, it was a little messy, but with so many key players in a state of sleep-walk it's hard to critique. Liverpool bossed it. Vorm saved us and enjoyed the role of sweeper-keeper, storming out to stop potentially tricky attacks. Rose pushed forward, Mane pushed Rose and the space that invited him in.
There was penalty shouts at both ends (erratic officiating) before one was given. Vertonghen involved with unnecessary pulling and tugging in the box whilst Matip obstructed Janssen down the other end. The ref finally deciding to dish out some punishment to Erik Lamela for running behind the player and tapping the boot to bring him down. 1-0 before the break and the word lethargic was dancing around my head, along with a few other soundbites.
No momentum, no real buzz. No width with Walker off (I'm sure the change wasn't really that welcomed by Poch) and very little inspiration.
In the second half, we slowly perked up after Liverpool pressured early on. It could have been / should have been 2-0. The assist from Lallana deemed offside. A pivotal decision. And escape that led to a soft launch awakening from our lot.
Good move, a Dier cut back, Eriksen firing over when he really should have composed himself.
A Lamela free-kick, touched over.
A nearside Toby header, saved.
Sixty-five minutes and Spurs resembled a collection of players role-playing how a team might endeavour to create goal scoring chances.
A sweeping move ended with a disappointing ball - a common occurrence with Kane and Lamela sharing the unwanted accolade of being a little rubbish with weight of pass, several times during the game.
Then came the breakthrough.
Toby with a sweet find to the feet of Dier. Eric crossing for Lamela who fought his way to getting a headed touch. Rose taking delivery of the ball and slicing it in.
The home faithful cheerful and loud. Spurs still not sharp but at least with far greater intent and urgency. When you get a foothold in midfield for long enough, you can start to dictate and see more of the ball in dangerous areas. You begin to force it rather than be reactive to what the opposition bring towards you. Even with the broken balance, it's fortunate we can still dig deep and find a way through.
Klopp's team still had opportunities. One particular counter neutralised by the rock that is Toby. In the end, I was happy because there wasn't that much to be happy about. So I might as well take some joy in the point won. I could have been a lot worse.
We should be beating the likes of Liverpool, they will say. That's a fair comment. This game, if played ten games from now, would have given a far better appraisal of both teams and what they might be capable of domestically. Liverpool play with counter-pressing but can't quite keep up the pace for the full ninety. Although much like us last season, if they took advantage when in possession - they'd kill the game off. They're still developing and have plenty of imperfections (the one at left-back helping us with the equaliser). We on the other hand simply need to rediscover our groove - as a collective and individually.
It's still early and we're slow brooding and off the pace.
Others have started well but the standard and quality of being tested is arguably not a discussion point at this fledgling time. You might say these are the kind of dropped points that make the difference but they're not. Once you're in a position to contend - and then you drop points - that's the defining moments that can truly impact. Spurs are nowhere near their best but are still resolute and spirited. There's no denying it, we need more options from the bench and to fight for first team places. No one can pretend otherwise. We need pace, something from the wing and we need an expressive unpredictable element that can ignite a spark. That could end up being one and the same thing.
However, it's important to note that these early games are a testament to what a potential future might look like if we lack those extra options and have players missing and out of form. If you're the person that says we're still hungover from last season and the EURO's - you'd be right. The loss of Mousa proves how fragile our backbone is if others fail to step up. And we have several candidates that haven't provided us with the required leadership in his absence.
Christian Eriksen is devoid of big game influence. Harry Kane is in new territory and mostly out out of position. This isn't similar to last season even though he was probably as tired as he looks now. Last season Kane was getting into goal scoring positions. He was lively but scuffed efforts and thought too much about what he was going to do rather than just doing it. He currently looks like the summer England version of Kane. Numb. His passing was stupendously bad. He's not actually been that poor (in the two games prior). He's worked hard and been selfless, industrious - but he's not spearheading. He's not leading the front line, creating for himself and others. He's not the Kane versus Arsenal at the Lane. But Kane never is Kane in the month of August.
I still struggle to critique with depth because I genuinely don't have enough evidence to suggest we have long term problems at hand. But I guess for the sake of this blog and balance, it's healthy to flirt with the worst case scenarios. It's easy to take one game out of context or all three (in carefully selected fragmented parts) and construct opinions based on how we appear to be under prepared. Or that suddenly all the players that smashed their way through last season have defaulted to average status forever and ever.
If there is no improvement in the next three games then you have to wonder why the hungover persists to linger and fester. At that point, good or bad, all the games played will give us a completely different context and perspective. At the moment, there isn't enough on either side of the argument to have you pulled towards one side with a defining conclusion.
All those traits and that incredible mentality forged last time round hasn't just evaporated into the ether.
However, we all want to see a little teaser that equates to some of the heroics we know we're capable of. If that does coincide with the return of Dembele, then so be it. We're still going to need a plan b. Eriksen, Kane and Dele too need to man up and get a grip. Daniel Levy and Poch could provide further support with fleshing out the squad so that we retain some freshness and alternate arcs to this continuing story. Poch is now the manager and not the coach which hopefully means the responsibility of selling and buying players is under his complete control. The pressure is real.
Mousa was for so long maligned like Eriksen. You couldn't quite work out his importance until he was missing from the starting line up. Yet you were never sure what he did to warrant himself as integral. He didn't always shine and was often indecisive and tactically wasted by any given coach. He'd stand there with his toolbox but never open it.
Poch unleashed his full potential.
Eriksen was also an outsider, not quite fitting the teams structure when the Argentine arrived but he redefined himself as our quiet assassin. But he's yet to completely conquer consistency. He's yet to control games like a Modric, week in and week out. Although you don't always have to boss a game in its entirety or do so with complete visual effect to influence and win all three points. As previously stated, Eriksen is like a ninja that kills it but blink and you might miss the murder. There are several parallels between him and Mousa in terms of their personal progression and the importance of their application. There's also a balance they offer when together that's a requirement for the blueprint to work. Without their combined presence there are design flaws when attempting to replicate the patterns of play they excel in.
If you care to look back at the end of last season and this ones slumbering start you could call it our least productive patch of form for a very long time. We have to snap out of it because if you did want to be critical you could say that we have to reclaim the swagger we had when we beat Stoke 4-0 away; Bullish and brilliant and with an exquisite killer instinct. Gold standard football. We need to first produce this to correct many of the ills that had us faltering on occasions last campaign (the home defeats the bane of them all). That's the template for success and the template that if applied three or four times at the Lane last season and on our travels against some of our 'rivals' - it would have been enough to win us the league.
This time round we might need that ilk of form just to keep up, meaning we have another level to reach if we want something more. Spurs at our best has to be Spurs week in, week out. That next level is the next step we have to take to improve on the weaknesses in our game. That's one hefty ethic to apply and achieve.
Transfer deadline is almost upon us. Unwanted players (Chadli now joining Bentaleb and Yedlin on the way out) are being sold or loaned whilst incoming ones are stuck in stasis. Georges-Kévin N'koudou is probably done and dusted but the club are waiting so they have something to announce on the last day. Nacer going to WBA means we're left with only two from the not so magnificent seven. The emphasis for the present appears to be on youth to fill the rest of the bench. After the international break, it's Stoke away, the first true test. We could do with some of that golden bullish and brilliant.
Tottenham is a three quarters complete jigsaw puzzle with missing parts that's been partially scrambled. It wont take long to piece back together but it still needs those missing edges to complete the picture.