Here comes the Son
Spurs 0 Ajax 1
Underwhelming. It’s a pretty strange sensation to find yourself subdued during what was arguably our biggest game in recent memory. Me, you and the players. The lot of us, in stasis, with little to take from it. Not that the fans didn’t give. The noise, my word the noise, prematch had more electricity than a peak Nikola Tesla experiment. Then it happened. Nothing happened in fact. Ajax, sexual and positively erect with fluidity and motion, were jaw droppingly good. There was a spell of possession from the club from Amsterdam that had me so paranoid, I believed we were going to be dismantled faster than a tourist smoking strong weed in a cafe by a canal.
Yes, Tottenham are bare bones. I hate having to default to an excuse of this ilk but whilst the likes of Graeme Souness* bangs on about football being all about passion and effort, you can hardly muster enough to combat supreme technicality and its momentum if you don’t possess some of your own.
Whilst Ajax swaggered, we stuttered. Slugs surrounded by salt mountains. Our excuse would be noting the lack of key core players and the impact they have on the ones that were available for selection. It’s admirable that we (Pochettino) is centric to the collective but sometimes it’s simply not enough to think we have it. We have to prove we do. Doing so when there’s obvious gaps and fragmentation in terms of shape and tempo is a self-made obstacle. But it’s simply a flaw, an acceptable one, in a world we’re not meant to be competing in. But are are competing. We need to find a fix to do more than just compete. For now, it’s all about resource management. It’s a hard knock life and our Daddy Warbucks ain’t dipping into his pocket.
A perfect example of how far we’re stretched (trademark that word for THFC exclusivity) is Dele being stuck in the deep oblivion of midfield meaning he isn’t able to influence the game. Not to the expected standard we all know he’s capable of. But then his best position is behind Kane and Kane is currently unavailable.
*Surely physicality and effort is a given and the real difference maker is in the preparation/tactics/style bending of being able to destroy opposing sides...along with the mind set of the players (focus, desire etc)? This Souness debate is much ado about nothing.
If players don't run around a bit and stick in a shift and graft, considering they are paid athletes, then the issue drops back into the mind set of the players (or style of play, discipline, tactical awareness, transitions).
Poch sides often swarmed and pressed and bullied. Fitness levels were high. Without the right standard of key core players we have little chance of matching the tenacious, precise football the likes of Ajax can do effortlessly when they're in control. Remember his early Soton attempts at the press? Happened too at Spurs. It was flawed not because of the effort but because of the personnel.
If it’s all about the players you have for selection and playing to their strengths, well, er…isn’t that also part and parcel of football? If that’s what Souness is referencing then I’m right, and it’s much ado about nothing.
“If you don't match the other team for effort then tactics are irrelevant”
But if both teams match each other then there's 100 variables that can come into play as deciding factors.
In conclusion: Synergy is the glue.
Ajax are in their ascendancy, especially with the way they perform away from home. They’ve had spectacular results. They are young, hungry and fearless. And possibly, thus far, untested when having to protect a lead. Something they will have to do in the second leg. In fact, where this was billed as underdog versus underdog, they can now be comfortably tagged as favourites to get through to the final. Of course, purely based on the mathematics, 1-0 is a dangerous scoreline. 1-0 means we need to score twice no matter what, even if they scored a second. We’re in a position where we know what we have to do and the pressure is not on us. Perhaps ‘comfortably’ is an exaggeration.
Take four or so core players from the Ajax side or in fact any of the remaining semi-finalists and tell me they won’t suffer for it. If they don’t then that simply illustrates the gap between squad depth at this elite level. It proves that Tottenham, for now, are perpetual underdogs. So if we’re missing Kane, Son, Winks, Sissoko (not anymore), Lamela and so on…what chance do we really have to perform at our highest output?
Vertonghen went off injured during the game and the formational switch towards the end of the first half had us take a more solid approach in attempting to get something back. Back three to four helped too. We still didn’t (get back into it in terms of an equaliser) and Ajax hit the woodwork when they reclaimed a little bit of the ball during a late patch in the second half. All this after their blistering start, carving us up like Salt Bae seasoning a steak. But we survived. Sissoko took minutes (after his substitution) to claim himself as the best player in Lilywhite. Alas, the effort was better but the quality of end product wasn’t. For all the desire that we introduced (forty minutes late), we still lacked the extra dimensions that make all the difference (especially with working out how to break down their defence). We simply failed to punish them.
It was still good to see Ajax contained, Spurs on the front foot. Our players looked more focused. Ajax can be got at, no doubt about it. So even with those core players missing, there was something there from Spurs. A possibility. Or was it simply as good as we can get (at this level, with this level of depletion, against this level of opposition?).
Poch and his collective ideology, that it’s about the team and not the individuals, still has the potential to surprise. But it needs adjustment and this time there can be no room for mistakes. Tactical or otherwise.
Son is the adjustment.
This mythical debate where Spurs fans (or pundits) claim that Spurs are more expansive without Kane and with Son leading the charge is misunderstood with the aid of misdirection from statistical data. We simply play to Kane’s strength when he’s in the side. We do the exact same thing with Son. The styles of say a break away attack might give the illusion of differences in dynamism but it’s simply two ways to skin a cat.
What Spurs lacked on Tuesday night was Son. That quick counter, the pace, forcing Ajax players wide and allowing the likes of Eriksen and Dele to invade space centrally. What we got instead was an often laboured approach to find Llorente’s chest whilst our deliveries from wing positions lacked precision (although we did showcase vulnerabilities in their defensive line from set-pieces). If Kane was on the field with Son, I’d say this blog would be in the midst of celebration right now.
Son is that potential game changer. The catalyst.
Having Moussa back in the middle is also imperative to anchoring a sense of enforcement and drive into the final third. But Son, the way he lashes the ball towards goal. His energy levels. It’s everything we lacked in the first game. For everything Ajax did they only left N17 with a single away goal. They’ll have plenty of the ball in their Arena. I’m not in any way making ridiculously arrogant predictions. But as a supporter and one that knows how often Spurs have come back from the death, it would be criminal to give up on the dream. I hope the players have the same mentality as me, you and anyone else that believes in the improbable. It’s only improbable because nobody expected us (or Ajax for the matter) to be in this position at this stage of the competition. Both clubs have stuck two fingers up at the establishment and broken the mould.
The Dutch side are still blatantly the ‘fairy-tale’ the pundits and broadcasters want to see in the final. I get that, their tradition and pedigree is undeniable. I don’t care if we’re not perceived as the fairy-tale. I don’t want their plaudits and adulation. I don’t need their validation or praise.
Spurs have to realise that they are still on the brink of history. That there is now a single football game between us and something unfathomable. But surely it isn’t unfathomable if we’re 90 minutes away from it.
It’s not improbable at all. It’s till very much possible.
Tuesday should have been attacked in the manner it deserved as the biggest game we’ve had for decades. There is no option for the second leg. Either turn up or don’t even pretend to be bothered.
Now for my ridiculously arrogant prediction.
Ajax can still bottle this. Spurs can’t as they’re not in a position of strength.
We’re gonna win in Amsterdam. Because we have to. A 1-0 loss for us isn’t a victory for them. It’s only half-time.