1) An exercise in sloth and cowardice
Strewth, where to start dissecting this? Shall we start by getting the excuses out of the way?
This, as we’ll get to later, is an astonishing Tottenham side, and we caught them on the wrong day, when they were on a remorseless, relentless wave of destruction. Stoke are tired, several players are either injured or at least not 100% fit, and when there’s nothing left to play for it’s hard to keep your focus, especially against a hungry young team chasing a first title for 55 years.
Ok, that’s enough head burying. This was an(other) atrocious Stoke performance in which once a-bloody-gain every flaw and failing that has afflicted us was taken to the Nth degree. Yes, the team is on the beach, but that is no excuse. We have finished each of the last two seasons strongly, we still have a chance to achieve our best league finish for 40 years, and the XI we put out, bar the goalkeeper and full backs, was pretty much the best one available to us.
Yet again Stoke’s defence resembled a bad slapstick show, Chucklevision without the moustaches and Rotherham accents. Again the attacking play was unimaginative and our forwards static, devoid of variation. Again the team showed no stomach for a fight, responding to adversity with footballing catatonia. That a pundit as one-eyed and agenda driven as Danny Higginbotham now looks like a prophet is the biggest indictment of all. All the ‘no leaders, no fight’ stuff has been 100% correct over the last three weeks. At times it appeared as if Tottenham were 20 men taking on a six aside team; they were everywhere, while we never seemed to have bodies where we needed them. It was a performance reminiscent of Steve McClaren’s Newcastle; a collective of talented individuals who looked like they had their minds on something else entirely, be it Euro 2016, their summer holidays, or the Eurovision Song Contest.
The final, flaming nail was driven into the Fortress Britannia myth. It wasn’t wet, it wasn’t even especially windy, but by Christ it was miserable.
There was little inclination that the team selected would crumple so readily. A reaction was needed after the previous Sunday’s thumping at Anfield, and this lot looked like they might provide one. The false nine had proven effective against strong, attacking sides, and it returned here, the in-form Bojan the latest to take his turn as the nominal ‘striker’. Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri together started for the first time in four games. Ryan Shawcross made his first home appearance since January, and Shay Given was sensibly brought in at the expense of Jakob Haugaard. The crowd was up for it too, belting out odes to the likes of Philipp Wollscheid on kick off and tearing into Danny Rose over his theatrics a couple of seasons ago.
Spurs meant business from the outset though, and it became clear we were in for a tough time of things. Given was called into action after only four minutes to save from Harry Kane with his legs. But the affable Biggles-alike will not be denied at the moment, and it was chocs away just five minutes later; he rescued a hoofed miskick into the channels, knocked the ball back inside to Delle Alli, who left Whelan choking on his dust before again finding Kane, who totally confused Wollscheid before curling a smart effort round Given and inside the far post.
Stoke had been zombified, with loose passes out from the back, poor first touches from Whelan, Imbula and, shockingly, even Arnie, and constant forays down blind alleys. Every free kick we won saw us bizarrely look to take it quickly and then immediately pass it back to our centre halves.
Around the 20-minute mark however, we woke up. The golden triangle, previous thoroughly well-shackled by Dier, Vertonghen and Alderweireld, started to find a bit of space. Our full backs gave us width and bombed forward. A clever chipped cross to the back stick from Geoff Cameron almost found the lurking Bojan. Arnautovic dug out a shot that forced Lloris to palm away, before Shaqiri’s dinked cross was headed just wide by the same player. This was more like it. It was also as good as it got.
Slowly but surely Spurs rediscovered their range. Mousa Dembele powered a shot just over. They opened us up brilliantly with one-touch play, a sensational Alli backheel finding Christian Eriksen, who thundered against the bar when he should have hit the target. Come half time, we were hanging on.
Still, we made a surprisingly positive start to the second half, even if the shoehorning wide of Bojan to accommodate Joselu did marginalise the wee magician. We forced a couple of corners and Afellay flashed decent shot just wide. Spurs though, gradually tightened the noose. Alli shot just over, Given was again called to make a good save from Lamela, and then a superb ball over the top from Eriksen caught our defence completely flat-footed and Alli calmly slotted in the second.
As happened last week after Liverpool’s third, Stoke dissolved at this point. Alli would have had another as a typically smooth Spurs move resulted in him going clear and rounding Given, but instead he busted out a tribute to Ronnie Rosenthal and hit the woodwork with an open goal, slamming his shot into the post. Luckily, unlike Jack Woltz in The Godfather, men in Spurs’ position could afford to look ridiculous, as they were soon three goals to the good, careless play from Imbula kicking off a counter that resulted in Lamela squaring for a Kane tap in.
Quick, slick and irresistible, the visitors were swaggering now, their wide players and full backs terrorising us at will. The outstanding Eriksen’s cross found Alli on his own and despite his horror miss, the young England star took it first time and buried a volley to make it four. It might have got even more depressing for Stoke, already extremely lucky not to have conceded six or seven by that stage. Instead, the scoring mercifully stopped. There was just time for a Charlie Adam cameo, presumably to give the already giddy Spurs fans their own pantomime villain to boo, and leave the rest of us to guess which sport it was he was actually trying to play.
There was a time when Stoke would offer a searching scrutiny of a team’s title credentials. Not tonight, Josephine. The Potters were incredibly obliging hosts, careless and by the second half gutless, with a number of individuals ceasing to run or try long before the end. It’s seemed for most of the Hughes era that we’re the addition of one or two players away from being a real force in this league. At times however, it seems like we’re the loss of one or two key players away from being in some real trouble.
The season has fizzled alarmingly and it’s the management team’s job to do something about it, rather than glossing over a third embarrassment in two and a half games. There is a lot of work to be done – not just in the summer, but starting now.
2) Howlers all round for the centre backs
It was a night when nobody in red and white emerged with any credit. Bottom of the pile though, were the centre backs, who were just as bad as it gets. True, they were up against some serious quality, but that hasn’t fazed them in the past, and so many of their mistakes were unforced and avoidable.
Philipp Wollscheid has surpassed expectations massively this season and has had some outstanding games. At his best he is composed, reads the game brilliantly and uses the ball well.
However, a criticism that won’t go away is that he seems to have one big lapse per game that leads to at least a scoring chance for the opposition. Sometimes we get away with it (Southampton away) and sometimes we don’t (Palace at home, Everton at home). And for all his ability, that’s why it’s hard to see him as anything other than a placeholder for a new, commanding first-choice centre back. Rather than answering definitively the question of who partners Ryan Shawcross, he has in effect proven himself a Marc Wilson upgrade. An assured defender 95% of the time let down by the 5% when he malfunctions.
Against Spurs however, he was just dreadful from pretty much start to finish. From the time Kane completely lost him for the opener he was panicky, leaving huge gaps and no match for the visitors’ high-speed, high-octane attacking. Even his supposed strengths became weaknesses. His use of the ball was frequently appalling. At least twice he shanked the ball into touch under no pressure whatsoever, even once actually going so far as to hold his hand up and accept responsibility for his mistake. When that happens, you know things are bad.
More worrying was the performance of the captain, who had perhaps his worst game for the club. Shawcross looked sluggish and immobile throughout, easy pickings for the quick, tricky raptors of the Tottenham front line. He was caught ball watching as early as the fourth minute when he allowed Kane through on goal. Alli made a mug of him all night, effortlessly taking him out of the picture with one backheel in the first half to set up Eriksen, then profiting when he got woefully done positionally by Eriken’s ball for the second goal.
Has he been rushed back? Should he have been given the rest of the season off to recuperate properly? Mark Hughes will know better than us, but it’s tempting to think an extended break would do him the world of good.
The constant enforced chopping and changing of the back four has clearly, for the second straight season, had a deleterious effect on our defending. Yet it’s also true that the high line we persist with isn’t doing us any favours. It’s designed to get us building from the back, but exactly how often has that worked this season, given we’re one of the lowest scoring teams in the league? Would we really score fewer without it? I doubt it.
If there is a rebuilding job on the cards, it has to start with the defence.
3) Imbula needs to curb his Forrest Gump tendencies
Giannelli Imbula made an explosive start to life in English football, bossing games at Bournemouth and Chelsea and scoring an absolute belter into the bargain. He was never going to maintain that insane level – if he could he’d be, at worst, at Barcelona, and at best one of the Avengers.
He was always likely to plateau while remaining our midfield lynchpin, one of the players the team is built around, and the player our best moves invariably start with.
Away from home that pretty much remains the case. At the Brit so far though it’s been a different story. Teams have been wise to his influence, reduced his capacity to gambol forward with the ball by swarming round him, and he’s been relatively easy to snuff out.
There have been other problems too; he offers no support whatsoever to Glenn Whelan when we’re on the back foot, serving to put even more pressure onto our already creaking back line. Imbula might not be a holding midfielder, but as one of the deeper two, he has to take on more defensive responsibility than he has done so far. That has long been considered a weakness in his game, admitted by the player himself when he was at Marseilles. It is up to him – and our coaching staff – to work on that.
My chief bugbear so far however has stemmed from his greatest ability. Though he is excellent at bringing the ball forward, frequently completing more dribbles than any other player, he seems to think that playing the easy ball is beneath him. Time and again he will either hold onto the ball too long, ensuring we miss our opening, or simply run headlong into an onrushing hive of opponents, losing possession in the process. It’s reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s American football career, with bemused spectators having to physically hold up signs telling him to stop running because the man himself has no idea.
Lay it off now and again eh Giannelli?
Steven Nzonzi has probably been deified enough for one season and he wasn’t amazing at tracking back either. He did offer considerably more help in that regard than his successor has thus far however, and he did recognise the value of playing a nice, simple pass to a creative player to get us moving.
In some ways it’s an unfair comparison, as Nzonzi came to us a seasoned Premier League campaigner after a few seasons at Blackburn, whereas the pace and intensity of the English game is new to Imbula. He looks like he has the potential to eclipse last year’s player of the season and be a real star in this league. The last few weeks though have served as a reminder that he is not the finished article yet.
4) The Shaqiri question
It was not clear if the withdrawal of Xherdan Shaqiri at half time was enforced due to injury, tactical or motivational. Whatever the reason, the fact is that Shaqiri had once again been singularly ineffective.
In fairness, Pochettino appeared to be the latest manager to earmark him as the dangerman, and there were rarely less than three Tottenham defenders around him whenever he got the ball.
However, he has to expect that. His reputation precedes him. And we just haven’t seen enough of him to see what all the fuss is about.
There have been several false dawns. Our introduction to the ‘flaschengeist’ at Goodison Park in December. His role in the destruction of Manchester City a few weeks before that. Even as recently as March, his performances at Bournemouth and Chelsea suggested we were about to see the ‘real Shaqiri’. But it never lasts. Signed to be the main man, he has instead been a supporting player, comfortably the least influential of the celebrated BMX trio.
There is mitigation of course; the lack of a pre-season, lack of regular football, the dodgy hamstrings, the need to acclimatise. But he has to shoulder some of the blame. He appears reluctant to take on his man and when he does, it’s only ever the same trick – the elastico. He has no defensive side to his game whatsoever, and a wide man in the Premier League simply has to do at least some tracking back. His delivery from set pieces has been desperately disappointing on the whole.
The suspicion remains that we are not using him correctly. He is marginalised on the wing, all too easy to mark out of games. Nor is he the rapid outlet on the flank that our counter-attacking style demands. He is painfully left footed, and being on the right forces him to constantly check back inside.
He is a player of subtler gifts, all about the eye for the clever pass, and a role behind the striker, or as a false nine (the role he plays as Switzerland’s talisman) might suit him much better. The problem is that we appear to be collecting players who fit that description. Did we give any thought to how he would fit in before we signed him? Or were we just obsessed with a ‘marquee name’?
It could be time to call time on the inverted winger strategy. Having two is contributing to our predictability in the final third. What we could use, as well as having a Moses-type speed demon, is a goal-getter in the Odemwingie vein who is comfortable out wide but gets into dangerous positions as well. There’s an argument that most of our best performances of the Hughes era have come with this set up – Walters played on the right in the batterings of Spurs and Liverpool this time last year; Odemwingie’s goals came from that position the season before that, most notably in our 4-1 smashing of Villa at Villa Park.
It’s probably unfair to question Shaqiri’s role – next season may see him burst into life – but rightly or wrongly one of the questions heading into 2016-17 will be whether our best XI has him in it.
5) This is an extraordinary Spurs team
It has to be said that Spurs were simply sensational. Whereas other chasers – and almost certainly Spurs sides of yore – would have bottled this with the pressure on and Leicester winning the day before, Mauricio Pochettino’s ruthless team cranked things up a notch and destroyed us. You wonder if this is a turning point in the title race; The Foxes face two games without their top scorer, while Spurs are closing in and getting better and better.
Even more pleasing is that their success is founded on an English core. Harry Kane has proven he is far from a one season wonder and is a clever, gifted centre forward, far more than a mere poacher. He scores all kinds of goals and his movement makes space for team mates too. Eric Dier’s transition from utility defender to midfield destroyer appears to have solved the national team’s holding midfielder problem at a stroke. The improvement of marauding full backs Walker and Rose has been astonishing. And Delle Alli is perhaps the story of the season, a player tipped as one for the future after playing in League One last season, he has become perhaps the best attacking midfielder in the country, with energy, bite and goals.
Suddenly, the future of English football looks a lot brighter, and we have an Argentine to thank for it. Funny old game.
Beyond the English lads, Erik Lamela is finally justifying his club record transfer fee; Toby Alderweireld is the best centre back in the league; and Mousa Dembele has gone from being on his way out of the club to the heartbeat of midfield, dictating from deep put knowing when to put his foot in as well.
Their pressing game is a joy to watch, unless you’re the ones being humiliated by it. They swarmed around us from start to finish, never letting up, their fitness levels putting ours to shame. The speed at which they countered was frightening, and they left us for dead and found space effortlessly. It was like that episode of Harry Enfield where the present day Liverpool take on Herbert Chapman’s 1936 Arsenal. Tottenham could have been whizzing round on hoverboards; we might as well have taken the field in baggy shorts and played with a laced ball.
Last season Pochettino clearly hadn’t done his homework, picking the tallest team at his disposal and talking about physicality and long balls while we outfootballed them from start to finish. This time round he was better prepared. He had Kane constantly drop deep on Whelan to make sure we never got any traction, closed down the wide players quickly, and that was all it took. Stoke, again, failed to react to this and continued to stubbornly proceed with a game plan that was actively damaging them.
Still, all there was to do was marvel at the visitors’ performance, and Alli, who’d scored twice, should have scored twice more and made Kane’s first goal, was rightly applauded off by the home crowd. This appalled some Stokies later, but does football really have to be about hate and bile all the time? I don’t think so, but that’s just me.
Whether they win the league this season or not, this is a side that will be remembered and talked about for years to come. The Premier League can feel toxic and wearisome quite a lot of the time. Poch’s men are the poster boys for what’s right with the English game.