Tottenham Hotspur Have Turned From The Bullied To The Bullies
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart brings home a horse. The horse, previously subject to cruelty by being forced to jump from a great height into a tiny paddling pool as part of a touring circus, is about to be taken to a sausage factory when the horse’s owner flees from a hapless Chief Wiggum attempted arrest and leaves Duncan the horse behind. Bart, looking into the sad eyes of the poor horse, convinces his parents to take it home.
To pay for the horse’s running costs Homer and Bart start to race the horse. At the start of its career, it’s the worst race horse in the world, so intimidated that it doesn’t leave the starting gates till the other horses have finished. Then Bart gives it a makeover, gets his beloved mare angry. Duncan turns into ‘Furious D’. And it becomes a winner.
While Tottenham Hotspur this season don’t have the tacky name or wacky looks (despite the attempt’s by Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Emmanuel Adebayor’s hair stylists) of Furious D the fictional racehorse, their progression this season has been similarly immense. The team that was weak, frail and gave up more leads than a weak handed dog owner in the early weeks of the season is now a tough, resilient unit that reels off late goal after late goal in the manner of Taylor Swift reeling off boyfriend after boyfriend. The team so regularly bullied at the start of the season are now the bullies.
In recent weeks Spurs have equalised in the last minute against Manchester United, equalised with less than a quarter of an hour to go against Norwich, scored the winner halfway through the second half against West Bromwich Albion and again with less than a quarter of an hour to go, slotted home another winning goal.
While scoring late goals indicates that a team is not doing a good enough job in the first three quarters of the match, it’s also a sign of toughness and of increasing confidence. Earlier this season, when Spurs coughed up late equalisers to West Brom and Norwich, they were tentative, nervous and panicky. The players lacked confidence, the fans had even less and the last ten minutes of games became an exhibition of reckless defending and opposition teams in Spurs eyes morphing late in games from average footballers into a tag team of superheroes.
The nadir came in the game away to Everton. Spurs were leading 1-0 in the last minute of the game, having been a crossbar’s width away from making it 2-0, when a disastrous miscommunication between centre back Steven Caulker and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris saw Everton equalise. The winner came almost straight from the kick off. Three points became zero points in virtually the time it takes to say it.
That match was a turning point. Spurs are unbeaten in ten games since then, and not only have they won the tough games by the odd goal that you need to win if you are to finish in the top four, but defensively they’re improved immeasurably. Only five goals have been conceded in this unbeaten run, with no team scoring more than once.
This improvement at the back is down to many factors. Lloris, after a dodgy start on and off the pitch, has been a bastion of consistent excellence. His shot stopping is sound, exemplified by his brilliant save against Shola Ameobi in stoppage time yesterday and an astounding stop against Sunderland, a save not meriting the easy rebound that John O’Shea subsequently scored from.
His command of the area and speed off his line is superb. He has fewer shots to save than most goalkeepers, simply because he catches crosses, intercepts through balls and gets the ball in his hands before it reaches the feet of the opposing strikers. On current form there are few, if any goalkeepers in the Premier League better than him. And this is all in spite of a rotating cast of central defenders and full backs around him, the back four because of injury and occasionally baffling selections rarely staying the same from one game to the next.
Along with Lloris’ virtuosity, the pressing of the Spurs midfield has noticeably improved. One of Andre Villas-Boas’s calling cards was that he liked his teams to press heavily, something his Chelsea team was ill equipped to do. Earlier in the season Spurs looked unsure about when to press, when not to, and when leading late in games they would retreat virtually en masse into their penalty area, abandoning attempts to put pressure on the ball. In their win at Old Trafford they spent the entire second half under siege in their own box. It was a minor miracle United only scored twice and didn’t deny Spurs a first win at that ground in 23 years.
Recently, this has improved massively. Now, from the first minute to the last minute, Spurs players press heavily, hunt in packs, deny the opposition space and time on the ball. It displays not only a change to a more positive attitude, but also higher levels of fitness. Clint Dempsey played in Honduras on Wednesday night, only returned to London Friday morning and played for the entire match yesterday, never giving up seemingly lost causes. Seeing Gareth Bale, after a mesmeric display where he scored two fine goals, continuing to press Tim Krul in the Newcastle goal in injury time yesterday will warm the hearts of Spurs fans.
Bale will grab the headlines, and deservedly so. Spurs’ recent struggles with strikers who have been out of form, injured or travelling from Africa to London at the most leisurely of paces has led to them building their team around him more than they did before, and they are reaping rich awards. His free kick which gave his side the lead was a fine one, while the way he finished what turned out to be the winning goal was superbly clinical.
He’s currently Tottenham’s best player, and it’s a mark of how well he’s playing that opposing defences know what he’s going to do, and they still can’t stop it. Opponents can pick a team with the sole premise of stopping Bale, but then run the risk of leaving too much space for the likes of Aaron Lennon and now young starlet Lewis Holtby to exploit. Manchester United exemplified this in the match at White Hart Lane, shutting down Bale but seeing Lennon have a superb 90 minutes against a barely protected Patrice Evra, culminating in his assist for Dempsey’s last gasp equaliser.
With the defence looking increasingly strong, the midfield despite Sandro’s absence continuing to excel, Bale in such devastating form and, having in Villas-Boas, a young manager doing an excellent job with footballers willing to listen to him and take his ideas to heart; Tottenham’s prospects are looking very rosy indeed.