the fisher "king" column
|Alan Fisher is a long time supporter of
Tottenham Hotspur, who has seen a lot of things in football (although some
he wouldn't mind seeing again !!).
In his column, Alan will take a regular look at how he thinks things are going down the Lane and he welcomes your feedback on his comments.
battle of nerve - 20.07.2008
new beginnings - 13.08.2008
growing older ... but not wiser - 03.09.2008
scraping the bottom - 16.10.2008
yes i think you've seen me before - 13.12.2008
is harry houdini ?? - 23.01.2009
the honduran hassler - 10.04.2009
turning point - 14.06.2009
in spurs we trust - 21.06.2009
previous fisher king articles ...
you can also read alan's thoughts on Tottenham on My Mind
in spurs we trust
Losing a friend is nothing comparable to losing a football match, but sometimes the link is not entirely unconnected
Chris Parker, loving husband, doting father, loyal friend, died recently. A few weeks before his sudden passing, family and close friends gathered in a secluded pub garden to celebrate the christening of his first child. Under a fierce sun, we basked in the warmth of his naÔve delight in the virtues of fatherhood and friendship, a good natured young man marvelling at the discovery of family life as if he were an Elizabethan explorer returning from the New World with tales of strange creatures, heroic deeds and untold riches.
We never really got to know each other Ė heís related on my wifeís side of the family Ė but itís peculiar how much you find out about someone only when theyíve died. Shortly before the funeral, I discovered that Chris was a lifelong Spurs fan. So is his father, and many of his mates. Our snatched conversations had never progressed beyond bland pleasantries and for some inexplicable reason weíd never mentioned football, decidedly odd as I can recall who people support long after I have forgotten their names.
The funeral of a young person bears excruciating poignancy. We mourn with desperate intensity both the tragic loss of life and the passing of hopes and dreams, ours as much as theirs, unfulfilled and laid to rest. Emotions veer crazily between a surreal this-canít-be happening quality and the cold reality in the centre of this Catholic church, a six foot wooden box.
Itís a struggle to engage as the ceremony floats around me like the incense swirling in the breeze. I want to demonstrate respect and sympathy, but Iím an outsider here, a non-believer, so I stick to respectful silence. It works. I know, Iíve practiced hard lately, more practice than I can stand.
The congregation cling to the priestís consoling words, but I find no solace in the notion that somehow this is part of the plan for a better universe, only anger and frustration at a life cut short. Absentmindedly I turn to the final page of the Order of Service. Suddenly the organ strikes up a familiar tune. I join in ĎGlory, Glory Hallelujahí with all my heart, my singing lusty and utterly tuneless. The shameless substitution of ĎSpursí for all references in the chorus to the Lord seals my eternal damnation.
I look around. Iím not the only one. Inhibitions shatter, grown men proud and strong break down. Chrisís spirit is amongst us. We begin to grieve, openly and fully, for the first time. It does us all good.
Afterwards we make introductions with unabashed candour. Men arenít good at sharing feelings but in football we find a means of expression. This maddening, frustrating and wonderful club brought us closer just at the moment when we needed it most. The game creates and sustains lasting relationships. Together in our allegiance and our grief, we could communicate with people who were no longer strangers.
The drink flowed, Chris would have approved. We chatted, laughed and shed a tear.
Chris, I wish we had talked more, but now rest in peace. Football is a healer.
Does one goal make the future of the club ?
In the middle of the icy January of 1984, beleaguered Everton manager Howard Kendall took his struggling Everton team to Oxford for a League Cup tie. Heavily criticised for a lack of success and for wasting precious cash on a series of underperforming stars, defeat meant his job was on the line. Unfashionable Oxford, who had already beaten three Division One teams, led until late in the game when Adrian Heath, one those summer buys, equalised at the death.
Everton went on to the final, narrowly losing to Liverpool, then Kendall took them an FA Cup victory, two Leagues titles and the European Cup Winners Cup. It may sound fanciful to attribute similar significance to Pavyluchenkoís extra time goal away to Burnley, but the parallels are striking. Whilst Redknapp was not as vulnerable as Kendall, before that goal went in he looked ashen and shell-shocked, bereft of ideas as a three goal lead evaporated. More to the point, another insipid, naÔve performance demonstrated this expensive teamís utter unpreparedness for the relegation battle ahead.
The rest is history. Redknapp has been an unqualified success. As Iíve said in a previous column, perhaps the true turning point was the purchase of Willy Palacios. Not only did his reassuringly combative presence in midfield shore up our ailing defence, he galvanised his team-mates and enabled Ďarry to fashion around him a team fit for the particular demands of the Premier League.
Redknapp receives uniformly positive coverage from his media mates but even so to my mind heís still not received quite the praise he is due. Because we had, on paper at least, a squad of decent players and because heís performed previous acts of heroic escapology, his achievement has been rather taken for granted. This is to dramatically undervalue his triumph. We were pitiful at times under Ramos, lacking cohesion, direction and purpose. When radical action was required, Ramos tinkered at the fringes. As he experimented with players out of position, inferior teams exploited our weak organisation and weaker mental attitude.
After the energy of the new manager bounce had dissipated, Harry took time to do a Harry, again as I wrote earlier in the season. It was only then, around the time of the Burnley semi-final, that the true magnitude of the task really hit him. The fact that he was undaunted says much about the man, and that confidence certainly got through to the players.
The essence of his method is to keep things simple. Create a stable back four based on experience and consistency. Minimise rotation in this crucial area. Kingís return as a regular starter was a masterstroke. His anticipation and pace over ten or fifteen yards more than compensated for other doubts about his fitness. A true Tottenham great restored to his rightful place was worth ten coups in the transfer market.
Protect the back four with a busy, energetic and competitive centre midfield. Midfielders must work back all the time. Strikers must do their share of defending too, dropping deeper when we lose the ball. Palacios has been excellent and others like Jenas have followed his example.
Once this sold base has been formed, let players play. Lennon and Modric have done their share of the graft but have also revelled in the freedom to do what they do best, in roles that suit their particular talents.
Finally, Redknapp makes his choice and sticks with it. Giving developing players the freedom to make errors without being vilified is as much a skill for a manager as buying the best in the market or a tricky tactical ploy. Assou-Ekotto, given a run at left back, has been transformed from an effete dandy into an assured, composed defender. Gomes had his chance by default, because we couldnít buy a keeper in the window, but again he has shown first the mental rigor absent under Ramos and then the talent to match. Both played regularly because there were no serious challengers in their position. Both made the very most of the opportunity.
So here am I still picking over the bones of the season gone, when pre-season training starts in just over two weeks time. Without going into detail about the coming year (there are several other good pieces from other contributors), leaving aside the men like Rocha, Gilberto and Boateng, who are effectively departed whatever their player registration documents may state, our existing squad will be highly competitive with the addition of a few well-chosen high quality players.
The biggest problem is up front. Bent has not done enough for me, Pav is better when he has less responsibility and is part of a counter attacking mobile team (like Russia) and Keane has simply been woefully out of form. However, comings and goings will depend primarily on tactics. Harry likes a big man up front, and the single striker is the preferred option in the Premier League at the moment.
Harry will strengthen our midfield too. Thereís the left side problem that seems to be a permanent feature of transfer speculation, but the successful Premier League teams have multi-skilled players, who combine energy with passing skill and positional acumen. Mobility is the key.
At this point in any discussion about Redknapp and the transfer market, it is compulsory for the expression Ďwheeler- dealerí to be inserted. At Spurs he wonít buy and sell just for the sake of it, nor do I believe his comments that we must sell in order to buy. Some money is there already. Next seasonís squad will be a familiar group but equally he will not hesitate to replace good players if he believes he can obtain better. Jenas, Huddlestone, even Bentley will make a valuable contribution next season if they stay, but I suspect they could be part of the funding for replacements. We also need more strength in depth through the squad.
However, at least as important as who he buys is who he keeps. Modric, Palacios, Corluka and BAE must have caught the eye of scouts in Britain and in Europe and there will be no shortage of suitors for Jenas, Huddlestone and Hutton.
At the beginning of the 1989 season, Alex Ferguson made a further heavy investment in players in order to finally lift Manchester United out of the doldrums. By January, struggling United were predicted to lose an away Third Round FA Cup tie at Forest, their eighth match without a win, after which would follow the inevitable dismissal of a manager who had angered both the fans and the press.
United won 1-0 and went on to win the Cup, the first trophy in a since unbroken run of phenomenal success. Pavyluchenkoís goal on a bleak winterís night in Burnley may be more significant than we could ever dream.
the honduran hassler
Will Harold make Wilson his prime minister of midfield terriership ?
Wilson Palacios has come to save us all. Heís only been around for a few months, but already his presence has become so inspiring and reassuring, you wonder how we ever managed without him. His total commitment, hard running and steely edge has not only provided the defensive cover absent for what seems like forever, his spirit has galvanised his team mates. Now they all want to be like our little Willy.
Palacios is much more than a midfield destroyer. Highly mobile, he can vacate his defensive duties secure in the knowledge that his strength and pace enables him to recover his position if we lose the ball. Without the ball, he runs purposefully and economically to cover space or mark the most threatening opponent, anticipating where immediate danger might lie and rushing to snuff out problems before they materialise. He niggles away at opponentsí heels, although lately he appears to have taken tackling lessons from Jamie OíHara. If anything, his value to the team was enhanced by his sending off against Blackburn. He goes off, we go to pieces.
However, notwithstanding his sterling efforts on the field, his most significant contribution is off the pitch. His arrival began the transformation in Harry Redknapp from despair to contentment, and if Harryís happy, then weíre happy. Harryís team building was going nowhere, except perhaps down, and he had run out of ideas until Palacios signed.
Iím not an instinctive admirer of Harry Redknapp. I donít believe the hype and never have. Under that avuncular, Uncle Harry persona that he so assiduously cultivates lies a hard nosed professional who has wasted a fortune at several clubs, some of which ended up in his own pocket (allegedly). However, now heís one of us and Iíll judge him on merit. My recent concern (OK, terror) had nothing to do with the past, it was all about the future. I talked about this in my last piece. After the initial Ďnew manager bounceí subsided, Harry had apparently lost his most precious ability, that of being able to get the best from his players and to create solid, effective teams. Harry wasnít doing a Harry.
His great strength is forming a group of players able to play to their individual strengths and then blend those strengths into a coherent team. This is of course essentially what every good manager does. With Harry, he relies less on tactical sophistication and much more on the players themselves. He finds the right man for each job, rather than tailoring his system around the men at his disposal. This is why players universally praise him. He gives them confidence not just by encouragement and motivation, he also lets them play in familiar positions where they can use their particular skills to the best effect. Few managers can successfully perform this apparently simple task and he deserves full credit for it.
The problem is, Harry in particular relies heavily on having the right players. After initially pandering to the squad and the media, along the lines of, Ďwhat a great bunch of lads etcí, I reckon he looked around and thought, Ďwhat the hell have I let myself in for ?í He had no one able to perform in certain key positions. Around Christmas and New Year, he was looking increasingly desperate; in extra time away to Burnley, he looked bewildered and lost, totally bereft of any ideas as he stood sullenly on the touchline. He had tried every different formation and combination of players, and frankly he did not know what to do next.
Pavlyuchenko saved him that night and the window had opened. Redknapp knew what he wanted. How many of us put Palacios top of our shopping list ? In the top 5 ? Top 10 ? Even top 50 ? I confess that to me he was just another anonymous journeyman. The fee was over the top, but these days what the manager wants, the manager gets. Levy is in no position to say Ďnoí. More than the defensive midfielder we so desperately required, Harry knew exactly what he could and could not do. A good rather than great player, but Redknapp could rely on him. He was a known quality. JJ, Hud or Bentley are more skilful footballers but inconsistent. With Wilson, you know exactly where you stand. Harry had something and someone dependable and predictable: at last he had a foundation upon which the team could rest.
Itís as if Palacios has released all of Redknappís team building and coaching skills. Defenders can now defend because they have proper cover in front of them. Dawson performs as an old fashioned centre half, strong and tall in the box, freed of the worry of his lack of pace being exposed. Ledley doesnít have to worry about stamina, because he too can stay safe and secure behind the midfield shield. JJ can go forward knowing that Palacios will stay back, and not try to be everywhere at once. Lennon can fly down the wing or Modric can be free and creative, because again thereís cover. Each of these players has been freed to do what they do best.
Now we have a settled team. Everyone knows what is expected of them, and some of our recent football has been a real pleasure to watch. Ledley has been magnificent, Keane looks like he has never been away and a special word of praise for Assou Ekotto who has been allowed to develop into a neat footballing left back.
Like Droopy, his double, Harry never looks happy but he always seems to come out on top. And it all started with Wilson Palacios.
is harry houdini ??
... or has his magic run out ?
So what does Harry do? Serious question. Because whilst the behaviour, tactics and motivational skills of every other Premier League manager are minutely dissected by a sceptical and often unforgiving media, Harry escapes such analysis. For Harry is the media darling. His avuncular manner and easy availability ensures a positive press, plus a ready supply of one liners that must be the envy of many a sitcom scriptwriter. He's the archetypal English football man, a dying breed given life in both tabloids and broadsheets. He recently received a special award from journalists, just for being Ďarry, who have chosen not to pursue the bung allegations that have hung over him since his West Ham days. I guess it helps to have your son as the main pundit on Sky.
Here is the first element of the answer to my question. No doubt Harry's character is pretty much as we see it, but he's also shrewd and cunning. His friends in the media largely protect him and, crucially, his players from the searching and highly critical probing typical of contemporary football coverage. There's no crisis at Spurs, according to the media, even though we canít get a win and are at or near the bottom of the league. Harry is working assiduously to bring in new players. His judgement is seldom questioned. He openly attacks his players; no worries, Harry's a proven man-motivator.
So why am I so damned worried about the rest of the season ? Just me then, is it ? Or after the new manager bounce, should I be seriously concerned about a run that has gleaned only five points out of a possible 21 ? That has seen a continuing fundamental flaw in midfield, where players simply cannot run back to cover, never mind implement any tactical manoeuvres of greater complexity. Like attacking, for instance. Where playersí confidence ebbs away before our eyes, match by match. Where we cannot compete in the transfer market if Man City or a better team are interested.
Underneath the favourable image, in the relatively short time he has been at Spurs, his approach with the players has undergone a radical transformation. The Private Eye style front cover of the excellent ĎWhen Saturday Comesí in December pictures a gesticulating Harry. The headline screams ĎTactical Revolution at Tottenhamí, the speech reveals the secret: ĎRun around a lot and kick it in the netí says Harry.
This was not so far from the truth, or at least Harryís version of it. His instructions to Pav before he came on to score an improbable winner against Liverpool: ĎI told the interpreter to tell him to f***ing well run around a bití. Modest and unassuming, he gave full credit to the players for the recovery. He praised them to the hilt, saying he had inherited a squad full of talent. The subs went onto the field only after escaping from Harryís arm round their shoulders. One of the first men he singled out for praise was Jenas.
The players loved him and responded accordingly. Then, the recovery tails off, not significantly yet, but by mid December, Harry's assessment suddenly changes. At the AGM he surprises the chairman with his public request for money for new players. Like I said, shrewd. Levy, caught off guard, has said Harry has total charge of transfer business, so now he can't refuse to stump up the cash.
By the end of December, we have only has 14 or 15 Premiership quality players. Since then, performances remain stagnant. Certain players lack effort and poor organisation has led to fatal defensive lapses. Harry continues to round on his players. His ill-disguised contempt for Bentley's 'illness' against Burnley or the aftermath of Wigan's last minute winner and the dressing room row where it is supposed Jenas (who has barely played for Harry because of injury) bore the full force of his tirade at their lack of bravery. Rumours of players, including JJ again, being frantically offered as makeweights in loan and transfer dealings. Harryís missus could have put away Bentís chance against Portsmouth.
Redknapp is correct to question the motivation and effort that some of his squad put in. I have consistently railed in this column at the inability of players to track back or to maintain possession. You run hard because you want to. Itís not about fitness or ability. However, to return to my question, Harry has to do something about it and this unquestioning view that Harry is always right does not help the team move forward.
Harryís skill is to develop resilient teams based on a strong work ethic and excellent team work. He saved Portsmouth by stringing four big, experienced central defenders across the back. They didnít move forward. In front of them, the midfield ran and tackled all game. He likes skill, but that can flourish only when this platform of strength and solidity has been established.
This is the ability of a very English manager, tailoring the tactics to the needs of the Premier League. Itís what poor mark Hughes is desperately trying to tell his bosses at Man City. Itís also exactly what Tottenham need. To get it, Harry likes to bring in his own men, and herein lies his other great ability: he lets players play. He puts the right man in the right place and tells them to get on with it. Itís why people like to play for him and respond to their utmost. Like I said, itís what Tottenham need.
However, if Harry cannot bring in his own players in the next ten days, what is he going to do ? He seems less able to coach players into his system. Heís had enough time to make inroads at Spurs, and goodness knows he has enough people on the bench to help him achieve that task, but thereís little evidence of major change. Lennon has improved his game but does not cover back sufficiently and if he crosses or shoots accurately, itís a fluke. Bentley splutters: Hughes turned him into an international, but heís done nothing for us. Zokora runs around like mad but remains incapable of sitting and staying in front of the back four, like a good DM should. Huddlestone, a player with great potential, allows the game to pass him by. Bale looks terrified to defend.
In the media, Harry blames his players, and at the risk of repeating myself to a certain extent heís right, of course, although I question the value of doing so in such a consistent, public manner. However, surely he has to take some responsibility upon himself to organise and motivate this team. Openly and regularly castigating his players will not help. Bent, for example, strikes me as someone who needs protection and an arm round the shoulder in order to give him the confidence to play to the best of his ability. Fear simply does not work for everyone. Moreover, if Harry cannot get more players in, he will have to make do with what heís got. Then, presumably he will turn round and say, well, actually lads, I didnít mean it. If I were them, Iíd be confused, and we canít afford any confusion.
Harryís media chums continue to lap up the quotes and accept his assessment that itís the playerís fault. Over time, however, itís clear Harry has totally changed his tune. The new Ďangry Harryí frankly does not seem to be working. To me there is more than a hint of desperation about his recent pronouncements. He has an inkling that he is not getting through to the team, so then, what next? I have faith in our manager, but Iím still worried as I wait to see his Plan B. I just hope heís got one.
I wrote this before the Burnley game on Wednesday, which I thought was a truly appalling performance. The media pounced on Harryís joy and relief. But as extra time continued, Harry looked impassive. During the breaks, he was on the periphery of his team, in stark contrast to Owen Coyle, who was in the midst of his squad with encouraging words for each of them. To me, he had nothing left to say. He will need all his legendary acumen in the market to turn this around.
Comments always welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
yes i think you've seen me before
... a new piece of the jigsaw puzzle was bought, but where will it fit ?
Whilst the media's attention remains firmly focussed on our goalkeeping problems, Harry has another more pressing dilemma to resolve if we are to prosper in the foreseeable future. The much derided Hilarious Gomes provides endless material for analysts and comedians alike, but the real problem is where to play Luka Modric.
Even though he is nowhere near his best, we have seen enough to realise that in our midst we have a huge talent. Here is a true playmaker, skilful, creative and industrious. Without wishing to be sacrilegious, there are comparisons with the great Ardiles in the manner in which he bustles around, low centre of gravity, upper body slightly hunched over the ball. His game is pass and move, not just making himself available for the ball, but actively seeking it. At his best he can govern the shape and pace of the whole game.
Already he is by far our most creative player, at a time when that quality is largely absent from our midfield as it huffs and puffs to little effect. There's so much more to come, surely.
However, although he's not afraid of hard work, there is some way to go before he becomes fully accustomed to the cluttered competitive battleground that is a Premier League midfield. Seeing his former team Dinamo Zagreb at the Lane recently, they too worked hard, but never closed us down the way a Prem team will as a matter of course. In that extra half a yard or fraction of a second on the ball, the game is won or lost. Huddlestone and Zokora looked world beaters that evening. Enough said.
His task is not helped by our continued defensive fragility. We have undoubtedly improved in this respect since Harry arrived but there is still too much space for attackers in front of our back four, and the way we give the ball away under little or no pressure is nothing short of criminal at times. Therefore, in a midfield four he's something of a lightweight, leaving us exposed defensively.
Played on the left his creativity is wasted and again leaves us potentially vulnerable on the flank because he will habitually drift inside. He's ideally suited to a five man midfield, lying further forward but chasing back as necessary. The extra man also allows JJ and Zokora more licence to make forward runs from deeper positions. However, if he is suited to a free role, the team isn't. As well as the defensive frailties, the consequence is only one up front, which leaves us short of firepower.
Overlapping fullbacks is one answer but both Hutton and Bale are severely out of touch. Bale's shortcomings as a defender have sadly been highlighted this season, and Hutton is now injured. The way the excellent Corluka is performing, I doubt if Harry would want to move him.
It remains to be seen if reinforcements in the window can change the limited options available. We sorely need a top quality defensive midfielder, but then again so does everyone. Fewer quality options tend to become available in January. Levy has stated said there is no money but I just do not believe this, even if we are stuffing the piggy bank in readiness for the new stadium. Harry would not have accepted the job so readily without a decent transfer budget.
However, he may be unpleasantly surprised at Levy's parsimonious approach to salaries. At Portsmouth his old ally Peter Storrie was a pushover: their salary to income ratio is allegedly between 80 to 90%, totally unsustainable in the long run, but it lured players who otherwise would have turned up their moisturised noses at Fratton Park's peeling paint and 50s facilities. It was a similar story at West Ham, where the wheeler dealer persona was created, but he left the club in a parlous financial position. At Spurs, our ratio is about 40 to 45%, although Levy may feel he has more flexibility now that Keane has departed, taking with him his alleged 'highest paid player' clause.
Then there is the Man City factor. Desperate for success at any price, their bargaining power could distort the entire market in the January window, especially as they seem to need players in every position. Finally, even the Arse cannot ignore their chronic weaknesses in defence and centre midfield any longer. The finance for the new stadium, and therefore financial stability for the whole club, depends upon the income from Champions League football. They simply cannot do without it.
All this means that buying our way up the table is not necessarily a viable option. Whoever comes in, he will have to make the most of the talent we have, and Luka is the type of player that a manager can build a team around. I suspect Harry will bring in some experience at defensive midfield and maybe look to an experienced campaigner, solid rather than spectacular, to steady things in the short-term and give Modric more freedom from defensive duties.
From recent evidence, it looks like Modric in a five is the way forward, so as well as that pass and move, he needs to find his range with shooting too, because he and we need goals.
Comparisons with Ardiles are unfair, perhaps. Modric is younger and less experienced Ė Ossie came to us as a World Cup winner Ė but to my mind he has the potential to become a world class footballer, and if he fulfils that promise over the next few years then Spurs will succeed too. Iím looking forward to it.
Comments always welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
scraping the bottom
... the only way is up, but who will be left to roll out the barrel if it happens ?
Every now and again I indulge myself in the conceit that people read my columns. Occasionally readers are astonishingly kind and take the time and trouble to write to me about them. I imagine that whatever these mythical regular readers think about the contents, they can at least see that they contain considered, measured comments that are argued through in a fair manner. That's my nature; in football as in life, I'm not one to rush into a judgment, preferring to carefully weigh the options and consider the evidence before coming to a conclusion.
So having mulled things over and sucked a thoughtful tooth before hitting the keys and pressing the send button, Iíd like to sum up the season so far.
Spurs are a shambles. An utter disgrace. Pathetic and inept on the pitch and in the boardroom. Never has the 'don't know what you're doing' chant been more appropriate for anyone wearing a white shirt, sitting in the dugout or in the directors box. A fiasco from top to bottom.
As I write, Spurs fans are trembling at the daunting prospect of facing Stoke. With full and due disrespect, Stoke are a team of giants who are great at set at pieces and chucking the ball into the area, and nothing else. Yet our fear is genuine and justified. This is all too much for us to handle right now. We are bottom of the league because we deserve to be, and this team is in no way prepared to fight its way up the table.
Forget the measured debate. I want to indulge in some finger-pointing. The players are showing a marked lack of appetite for the battle. During games they appear to have left their brains in the dressing room, being unable to play to any pattern or perform the basics. The midfield are particularly culpable, their total failure to provide any protection for the back four rivalled only by their unerring ability to cross a ball straight to a defender or to hurtle blindly into the trap of a cluttered midfield defence laid by Sunderland, Wigan and then Hull. Theyíve all done the same thing, gentlemen, when are you going to get the message ?
Meanwhile, on the bench, Ramosís blank, vacant expression at the end of the last two matches sends a chill down the spine. The master tactician has come up against a problem that possibly he has never faced before in his managerial career: he doesnít know what to do next. Pre-season was a waste of time. Heís had to start again completely. Each match can be seen partly as an experiment, with players being tried in different roles, Bentley being the most obvious and at times bizarre example, and different combinations of players in different formations. 4-5-1 has achieved some flickering momentary success, but basically Ramos has tried everything and we are bottom of the league. No wins, canít score, guaranteed to make one or two cock-ups that will concede a goal. Where to next when youíve tried the lot ? He doesnít know.
The finger pointing stops in one place, however, and one place only ... the directorís box. In the end the manager can only work with what he given. Future club historians may look back at 1st September 2008, the final day of the transfer window, as one of the most significant dates in our modern history. It was the day Daniel Levy gambled away the future of our club.
This past summer was the time that the Ramos Spurs would be built. Instead of strengthening the foundations left by his predecessor, we called in the demolition squad to start afresh. It started well. Good business was done early, ahead of the rest of the Premier League. Modric to the Lane before the rest of Europe saw him in action in the Euros, dos Santos too. However, as it turned out, the crucial moves were the departures, not arrivals. Experienced battle hardened Premier League players like Malbranque, Tainio and Chimbonda were shipped out.
Now at this point, it is reasonable to assume that we had identified transfer targets as replacements; Arshavin being the most prominent. In his excellent article, Nick Drew focuses on Comolli's role in this farce, but the ultimate blame must lie full square on the shoulders of Daniel Levy. He does not decide (at least I hope he doesn't) which players we go for, but he does sign the cheques, and Levy kept his chequebook in his pocket.
No doubt a legend in his own mind, Levy revels in his tough guy poker face image, but the only person he's impressing is himself. He stared down the Russians at Zenit. No doubt they looked at our desperate need for a quality footballer plus the millions in the vault from Keane's sale and they added a couple of million to the original price. So Levy the boardroom hardman narrowed his gaze, looked them straight in the eye, and all they did was look straight back. He waited. And waited. Until the Russians shrugged and walked away from the table.
That worked with, say, Leeds when in their desperation they off loaded Keane and then Lennon in late deals. Consider for a moment the economic and political climate in Russia over the last decade. Zenit is run by oil-rich businessmen who have not so much climbed to the top of the greasy pole as clawed, fought and bullied their way to success in the modern equivalent of a lawless Klondike gold rush as they exploited Russia's new found economic freedom. Levy, successful businessman though he is, cannot compete in a face off with guys like that. Itís like the playground bully taking on the Krays. Levy played hardball and they laughed in his face.
Meanwhile, in Britain and the rest of Europe it's a sellers market. Quality players are in short supply, but our Daniel is not worried, because we have one key asset - cash in the bank. Other rivals like Newcastle, Man City and Everton, clubs looking to make that mythical great leap forward, are cash poor.
The selling clubs want a piece of that cash, so up goes the price. Piecing together the final hectic days of the window from the press and other more reliable sources, it's clear that as the deadline loomed we were frantically trying to buy, well, anyone. Ashton and Owen were serious until the last moment; Heskey and Diarra were also in the frame, plus Arshavin (still) and several Spanish players. Weíre desperate now, so up go the fees and in Ashtonís case a sudden late demand for an agent's early Christmas box, £2m if you believe one account. Levy says no, or leaves it too late. Either way, weíre left with nothing.
The poor schmuck doesn't see it coming. Levy retained his reputation for hard bargaining, but in the process shamefully left the club with a squad as threadbare as my old dad's socks. Two strikers, only one of whom can play in Europe, plus a Man U reserve. I've had six weeks to get used to this, but I still cannot believe that it is true. There are no words.
I believe Ramos was promised a new group of players and was fully consulted as the shopping list was drawn up. Whilst I think this wholesale change is ill-advised, I respect the managerís wishes and would have been happy to let him get on with it. The new players never arrived. Levy's hubris has plunged this club into the biggest crisis since, well actually, since Levy decided to play half a season without a proper manager. Ego and an utterly misplaced sense of his own power and influence has crucified the club.
I feel a profound sense of personal bitterness towards Levy. Over the last few years, Iíve unashamedly retained an optimistic perspective despite all the changes and the Jol debacle, without I hope losing touch with reality. I am not naive. I do not believe the mealy mouthed club PR but taking a considered view of the available evidence, there must have been a plan. Why take the huge risk of dismissing Jol without some faith that Ramos really was the Man. Millions have been made available to build for the future. And yet we have come to this. I had some faith, if not in Levy then certainly in Ramos, and that Levy would provide the players that Ramos wanted and then, by and large, leave him to it.
I feel utterly betrayed. Levy does not deserve a shred of sympathy or understanding. His pathetic leadership has left this club a total laughing stock. We are in a relegation battle with totally the wrong group of players. In the January window, who the hell is going to join us ? Arshavin ? When we are bottom of the league ? No chance. If we escape, then it will be down to the efforts of Ramos and the players, and nothing to do with the board. And when people take the piss, as everyone is right now, what can you say in our defence ? There's nothing, absolutely nothing. Except to agree.
Levy is a fortunate man. He's lucky the fans aren't rioting outside his office. Iíll leave you with the most meaningless phrase in football: Ďtoo good to go down.í
Comments always welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
growing older ... but no wiser
... what do all the latest transfers and money coming into the game mean ?
I'm 52 and I'm not ashamed to say that I love this club as much as I did when I was a boy. And I mean love, not the soppy pink fluffy kind of love, but an all-consuming, everlasting passion that at times is overwhelming and hard to comprehend. It excites the senses and fills both heart and soul. I am never happier than when I am at the Lane as the teams come out, full of anticipation and energy, hope and fear.
As the boy turned into the man, so something of the child remained, a sense of wonder and disbelief that the men before me could perform their miracles. Greaves scampered over the turf, apparently barely touching the ground and effortlessly stroked the ball into the net, Gilzean, seemingly no athlete, round-shouldered and unfit, in fact leapt like a salmon to ease the ball on its way, Mackay fierce and unstoppable, Jennings leaping to hold the ball in huge protective hands. I know they were flesh and blood and subject to the frailties of the human condition, none more so than Greavesy, but for 90 minutes it suited me to believe otherwise.
That passion remains, and the day it disappears is the day I become old, no matter what it may say on my birth certificate. Iím still here but Dimitar Berbatov is gone. I adore the way Berba plays football. His ability, his style, his wit, his charisma. I can honestly say that I never seen a Spurs player who controls a football as well he does. The ball would fall from the sky, propelled by some agricultural hoof, and Berba would stroll into position to lazily caress it to earth. Already the mind was a step or three ahead, eyes darting to find a space or a colleague, the move sketched out like one of those coaching diagrams, Iíll put the ball there, you run into space and Iíll be here in 3 seconds, donít fret.
In the box he might instead hold onto it before a swivel or sway past a hapless defender to get in the shot, or guard it closely with his body until the moment was right, just right, to release it into the care of a team-mate.
Those who deride his lack of effort and so-called moodiness fail to perceive the skill and intelligence at work in his game. Itís speed of thought that matters, not beads of sweat. I sit relatively close to the pitch at the Lane and I am convinced that many of his gestures were of frustration when on occasion his own touch let him down or when colleagues failed to appreciate the attacking opportunities available to the team. I repeat, to the team, because Berba as the epitome of the modern mobile centre forward was as much provider as he was scorer. He loved the glory but knew his role included working wide and shifting defenders out of the way. Too often team-mates would turn away as a move a broke down, slack-jawed in first bewilderment and then realisationÖoh, thatís what I should have doneÖ.
Ironically, arguably his two best performances were as a lone striker, away to Manchester City in the League Cup and home to Bolton, where after we were reduced to ten men he nonchalantly took on the entire defence for 45 minutes and left the field to a standing ovation. When has controlling a high ball ever brought spontaneous gasps from the crowd? When Berba does it.
Berbatov is not without his faults. He is not quite as sharp a taker of chances as he might be and his habit of hanging back rather than belting forward to be in the 6 yard box on the end of crosses reduced his goalscoring tally and probably cost us a few victories. Off the field, he appeared aloof and distant, mistrustful even, although perhaps the truest indication of his character was demonstrated by his active support for the campaign to save several Bulgarian medics unjustly held in Libya.
But itís the way he went about his business that elevated him to stardom. He alternately strolled and swaggered. All was possible, everything was easy and natural. The crowd roared their adulation; he shrugged by way of celebration. A player at ease with his brilliance, he showed that football can be truly beautiful. He could turn a game in a single moment. Whether he did or did not is to miss the point; the thrill as he moved towards the ball came from the possibility that he could do so. In many a turgid, desperate Spurs performance, here was our hero, come to save us all.
Now he's gone, as I knew he would, and the manner of his departure leaves a nasty taste. Charisma becomes arrogance. A fine line at the best of times, and sometime this summer Berba tip-toed over. Iíve known for some time that it was over (I've said in other pieces that this deal was effectively made in May and all that remained to sort was the price) and he's behaved shabbily over the last month. Heroes are ultimately destined to disappoint because they can never reach the heights of expectation, but I still feel a sense of loss. NaÔve and unworldly, but then passion is sometimes.
So a great player has moved on, but the loss is more than that. Itís a recognition that contemporary football has no place for heroes. These days, players come and go, loyal only to their next contract. If they perform to the very best of their ability while they are at Spurs then I have little problem with that, but they are no longer worth the same degree of emotional investment. Thatís what we fans do, itís a fundamental part of being a fan. Greaves, Jennings, Chivers; they came and went, they were flawed but at least they stayed a while in between. They gave to the club and repaid our faith in them. The modern game can be blamed for so much, but for me the worst thing is that there are no more heroes, any more.
... another new season and new personnel.
If the season were friendlies, Spurs would be top of the league. Our performances have raised levels of anticipation to almost unprecedented heights, not just in terms of the excellent results but also for the manner in which they have been achieved. Exciting, flowing, attacking football. The Ramos Way is the Tottenham way.
But competitive matches are a different story. Friendlies are soft and mushy, rather like our defence last year. The single biggest priority for the coming season is organisation and teamwork. We cannot carry on wasting possession, constantly conceding the ball and leaving the back four as unprotected as a lone antelope amidst a pride of lions.
In the Ramos Way, movement is key. The players not in possession must be constantly in motion, one or two to support the man on the ball, others to think a few moves ahead and provide options. Players coming from deep at pace will contribute as many goals as our strikers this season, if not more. Here, the space is more easy to see as the game is ahead of you, and defenders will be wrong-footed with no one to mark.
Possession and patience will be at a premium, giving the ball away criminal. Itís also the best form of defence Ė if the opponents donít have the ball, they canít score. Patience, because we must wait for the right opportunity. The gaps will appear and we have the players to exploit them, but hold onto the ball until the decisive thrust becomes possible. Stretch defences, move the ball from one side to the other. Patience for fans too Ė in this country we are not used to this form of play.
As I write, weíre allegedly still in the market for a defensive midfielder. Whoever it is, he has to be a footballer first and defender second. We donít so much need a defensive midfielder as a midfield that can defend. Players must work back to get goalside as soon as we lose possession. All of them. If the full backs are going forward, as they will do time and again, then only one is in the opponentís half at any one time. So too for the midfielders; one at least must remain withdrawn, but it may not be the same player every time. Rather, it will be the man who at that particular time is in the best position to fulfil that role. A hardman who can tackle and pass is ideal but not essential. In fact, banish the idea of the midfielder enforcer, because if he canít play heís worthless. Put a block or a toe in and the opponent loses the ball. Itís just as effective as the hardest of tackles, more so in fact because there is a greater chance that the tackler remains on their feet to start the attack.
This is why Jenas has been given the extra responsibility of being vice captain because he will feature in this role throughout the season. Not a natural leader or hardman, he can utilise his boundless energy to get up and down the field, one moment making late runs into the box, the next tucking into the defensive shield to afford the centre backs protection, his long leg snaking out to steer the ball to safety. Ramos clearly feels heís the man for the job.
Modric is busy and involved. He works tirelessly, seldom giving long passes but he is the new heart of the team, all movement, stamina and purpose, constantly prompting and exploring potential opportunities. He will be a star, simple as.
At times the fullbacks will blend into the midfield. Here is the width this team needs, whilst their fitness will enable them to perform defensive duties too. Baleís return is arguably the best Ďsigningí of the summer. A young player with the potential to become world class, itís not clear if he will start at left back or left midfield but first and foremost heís a footballer of huge talent. His darting runs into the area will be a feature of our attacking play, so effective and virtually impossible to mark because he arrives late with precision and power. Similarly, Hutton is a fine overlapping full back in the mould of a Hughton or Knowles.
Itís likely that for much of the season our basic set up will be 4-5-1. As lone striker, Bent was as effective in the friendlies as he was in that role for Charlton. He will flourish if given a run of games. The club feel he is our best finisher currently, and he can also hold the ball and run wide, either to receive a pass or pull defenders out of the middle. Berbatov is a huge loss Ė heís still here as I write but as far as Iím concerned heís been gone since May. Iíve praised him to the hilt before, but I canít resist a final word Ė a sumptuous, thrilling talent, a pleasure and privilege to see him play in a white shirt. Expect two replacements.
However, 4-5-1, or indeed any of the other traditional formations, does not do justice to the flexibility and movement that I expect of Ramosí Tottenham. In this country we shy away from tactical sophistication. We describe formations in straight lines, either across the pitch (4-5-1, 4-3-3 etc) or up and down, e.g. full backs making runs up and down the touchline. Ramos will try something more supple and flowing, stable but shape-shifting, like sand dunes in the desert. Tactics are the focus of this article because in assessing our chances this coming year they are more significant than the merits of individual players. All will fit into the new system somehow Ė over the past couple of weeks Ramos has shipped out those without the skill and technical requirements.
So as an alternative way of conceptualising Ramosí Tottenham, consider this quote from the former Milan and Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi:
'All of our players,' he said, 'always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.'
In other words, they were encouraged not to maintain static positions but to make decisions constantly about what to do and where to be, based on these four variables. A midfielder, say, defends when he has to, and attacks when he has to, and attacks or defends in a certain manner, all depending on where his teammates are, where the ball is or might end up in a few moves time, the position of opponents and where the space exists for them to run into (if they have the ball) or for him to occupy (if we have possession).
All of which brings me to the final quality required by members of Ramosí Tottenham Ė intelligence. Players have to comprehend what this means for them and for their colleagues. Itís not about intellectual ability but rather the capacity to thoroughly understand the game and to anticipate, to make things happen and not to sit around waiting for others to act. The inexperience of Dos Santos and Bale may hold them back when their ability is not in question. Huddlestone is a fantastically talented footballer but one who lacks this footballing brain Ė he takes time to assess a situation and then act, only fractions of a second but thatís what makes the difference between good and great. OíHara on the other hand possesses skill but has got the message.
Finally, they must adapt to different formations to suit different opponents. Ramos was quoted this week as saying:
"It's important to have a solution to every kind of problem or argument that comes up,'' Ramos said. "Some games you're going to need to put the emphasis on skill and touch, other games you're going to need your speedy quick players. "There are players I consider to be really quick and physical: Lennon, Bent and also Bale. Over the season, you use each according to what your rivals are doing.''
The squad system will come into its own, although I hope that we do not have a constant rotation; consistency is vital. Perhaps the teamís shape will be the stable factor Ė whoever pulls on the shirt will fit into a similar pattern of play. Another skill the modern player must develop is the ability to play well for a game or two, then come straight in at the same level after a gap.
In the end the midfield must get up and down the pitch, to protect a strong but occasionally vulnerable defence as well as providing and converting chances. Sacchi himself insisted that there should never be more than 25 yards between defenders and strikers when not in possession. Ramos has dramatically upped the skill level and provided a high level of physical fitness, geared not just to running for miles but to performing intensive and repeated lung-busting bursts of pace over 20 or 30 yards. With Bale and Bentley, surely our set-piece delivery will be vastly improved too.
At Spurs we are used to disappointment and false dawns, but this guy Ramos, heís different. Maybe this year, more likely next, I believe the Ramos Tottenham will be a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League and beyond. I canít wait.Comments always welcome, Iíll even write back: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
battle of nerve
... and by crikey, alex ferguson has one.
Spurs are under attack on several fronts. Just as we fans were wishing the days away until the start of a new season that promises so much, at a stroke we now face the future without one of the most potent striking partnerships in the Premier League. Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez openly covet our precious assets. But wait, whoís this coming over the hill? We have a champion to save us in the somewhat unlikely form of Daniel Levy, and while heís about it heís going to clean up the entire transfer system.
Not bad going for a man who has been chairman since 2001 but despite all the upheavals and changes at the club has remained resolutely in the shadows. Levy is clearly no shrinking violet. Anyone with a successful business career has to be an astute, tough operator and his first in economics at Cambridge testifies to the intelligence and diligence that lies beneath his unassuming exterior.
As our chairman, he has never courted publicity, unlike many of his rent-a-quote Premier League rivals, preferring the managers and coaches to be the public face of Tottenham Hotspur. Behind the scenes, secure in his familiar world of business and finance, heís been doing a fine job for us. Our balance sheet is healthy and we have achieved a measure of success on the field without falling into the trap of the over-spending on transfers and salaries that is crippling many other teams. Even during the most cataclysmic event of the last few years, the sacking of Martin Jol, he kept his head down, ironically this being the time when he should have given a clear explanation to the fans as he and the club were being roundly and universally condemned for the manner in which the Dutchman was dismissed.
So itís safe to say that Fridayís statement appears completely out of character. Its incendiary content lambasted at a stroke disloyal players, devious, underhand managers and a corrupt transfer system. He has the cahones to take on head-to-head footballís untouchable, Sir Fergie himself. Early days, but his comments seem to have gone down extremely well. Berbatov and Keane have been the subject of intense vitriol on the Spurs message boards, while fans of other teams have applauded his stance against the public poaching of players under long-term contracts, an issue already very much in the news because of Liverpool (again!) and the Gareth Barry transfer.
Good for him Ė heís making a determined effort to represent the best interests of our club, but letís not be under any illusion as to why he has made this pronouncement. Heís not taking a principled stand to protect our contracted players or the integrity of the club. This is all about football politics and football business, nothing more. Levy is doing what he knows best, heís creating a strong negotiating position and using every trick in the book to make it even more secure. To some extent, heís involved us all.
Levy has been criticised in the past for his lack of negotiating skills. His message is - no longer. Heís taken a long, cold look at the situation and developed a strategy that puts him in the best possible position, both in the immediate future as we negotiate these two transfers and perhaps more significantly for the long-term. To the big clubs he's saying - don't mess. To the players heís saying Ė I will cut you down to size if it suits me and donít you ever forget it.
Reporting ManU and Liverpool to the League is part of football politics. To take the moral high ground is being disingenuous, and everybody in the game knows it. I think Benitez and Fergie have been shabby, but who cares? Levy couldn't give a monkey's about anything Fergie or Benitez say in the media. These deals were mooted way before anything was said publicly.
Neither have the public utterances unsettled our players. Do we really believe that the first Keane heard about Liverpool's interest in him was in the papers? Of course not. This was going on behind the scenes for ages. Levy has never taken any notice of what those managers have said in the press, but cleverly he's using it now to convey a message about the only issue that is truly at stake here i.e. that Levy is a tough guy to negotiate with.
Then thereís the little matter of our past conduct, which is hardly unblemished. Ramos - we tapped him up, pure and simple. Bentley - Blackburn say they have recently received a bid from us. So what was going on over the past 6 weeks, when it is obvious we have been talking to him? Levy - he's been talking to Liverpool and ManU for a while about the transfers. Note his statement says only that no offer has been accepted. Thereís no denial of contact between the clubs. Weíre doing it because everybodyís doing it.
Fergieís threatened to sue. Levyís statement is no off the cuff emotional rant, rather, it is carefully considered with every word weighted and polished and has obviously been checked by a solicitor prior to publication. The chairman does not appear to be giving any interviews; clever, donít risk saying something out of turn that could be used against you in the future, keep it all under total control. So Fergieís talking rubbish, because Fergie is rattled, not something you see every day of the week.
Levy then turns on the players, accusing them of disloyalty, dishonesty and on becoming a Ďnegative influence in a team dressing roomí. Strong stuff, but again the question of their loyalty is completely irrelevant. Berbatov has effectively been gone for weeks now, if not months. Iíve frequently praised his talent to the skies in past columns, I think he is an astonishing player and it has been my privilege to watch him play, but we knew he was off so Iíve mourned his loss already. Keane is a different matter. This came as a total shock: captain, the epitome of effort on the pitch and off it saying all the right things about wanting to stay at the Lane for the rest of his career. Heís been castigated by some for not saying anything about the move, but perhaps he was conducting the deal with in a proper, private manner. Moreover, a reliable source whispers that he was told by the club to say nothing. Telling Keane to keep quiet then slaughtering him in the press - that's hardball.
Levy has hung Keane
and Berba out to dry, and he's using us, the fans, as part of the plan,
because to extract further leverage he's gone public and now fan
pressure comes into play. It's clever stuff - Labour need a good spin
doctor right now and they could learn a lot from him. A strong chairman
will do us a power of good in the future, but I just want to register a
niggling feeling that as a fan I'm being used just a tiny bit here. I
simply donít believe that Robbie has had a secret long term masterplan
to join Liverpool. Keane gave his all for the team in the last two years
and I believe his joy after the League Cup Final was genuine. Keane's
problem is not about effort, it's about technique that is not quite up
to playing at the very highest level, and if nothing else I'm frankly
surprised Benitez is going for him with such determination.
I did, however, feel deeply embarrassed as a Spurs fan after the debacle of Jolís sacking. The image of Levy laughing as the news spread round the ground and as we faced a defeat will live long in the memory. Frankly Levy did nothing to involve us then, but he didnít need us then, did he. Heís learned his lesson from that grubby little piece of our history.
The end result is that
Levy has forged a win-win position beloved by businessmen and
negotiators everywhere. To ManU and Liverpool he says, this is the
price, sign them or shut up. With Berba, Iíd settle at around 28/29m.
For Keane, it's 20m or nothing. Keane's not worth that in my view but if
Liverpool want to pay it, fine.
The players know this is all part of the game. It was not that long ago that Keane was (allegedly) sitting in a Liverpool hotel room one January preparing to sign for Everton because Spurs wanted to sell him. Then we suddenly changed our minds, but his response was to knuckle down and play even better. What price Keane stays and Levy makes a public statement to kiss and make up? Keaneís effort goes through the roof. Like I said, win-win.
As a postscript, this episode will put the shine back on Levyís image tarnished by the public relations disaster that was Jolís sacking. He became a laughing stock; media outlets could not decide if he was being mendacious or stupid, so most settled for both. Win-win-win? Fergieís latest quote is that Spurs are being embarrassing and enigmatically concludes that, Ďyou know what Daniel Levy is like. Heís different.í He is now, so you better watch out, heís playing you at your own game, Fergie, and right now heís on top.
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