Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Bale Legacy (A Joke That Keeps on Giving)

2012 was a horrible year in footballing terms (although it was a pretty miserable year weather-wise too). For Spurs fans it started impossibly and finished dreadfully. The 2011/12 season began with two straight defeats, Harry Rednapp's revolution had stuttered to a halt. There were problems with Luka Modric's attitude and the midfield maestro was engineering a move to Real Madrid.

By January, Spurs were 3rd and had put some distance between them and the teams challenging for a Champions League place. February saw the arrival of a much better Newcastle team than we currently see playing and any doubts Spurs fans had about the rather underwhelming signing of Louis Saha (on a free from Everton) to reinforce our chances of finishing in the top 3 were blown away as he and Emanuel Adebayor ably assisted by Gareth Bale tore Newcastle several new arseholes - five to be precise.

Match of the Day that night were seriously talking about the team challenging for the title - even perennial Spurs hater Paul Merson accepted that Rednapp's team, already playing beyond their supposed ability could upset the apple cart. Then several things happened - John Terry racially abused Anton Ferdinand and while you could argue that the thuggish EDL-like Chelsea captain's outburst has nothing to do at all with their North London neighbours it was the fallout that did us.

Fabio 'Beaker' Capello quit as England manager. The press installed Harry Rednapp as odds-on favourite to succeed him. There had already been problems between the genial media luvvy and his hard-nosed chairman and when 'Arry was acquitted for tax evasion, it opened the door for a departure from Spurs. Except it didn't pan out the way it should have. Daniel Levy demands something for nothing most times and despite Rednapp being at the end of a contract he had been eager to renegotiate, Levy started talking about compensation. What should have happened was Levy should have let him go for nothing with the proviso that he stayed to oversee Spurs big challenge.

That might not have changed the script. Spurs had a scant squad to rely on and the moment Capello quit and Rednapp didn't rule himself out the team dipped. They ended up turning a 9 point lead into a scramble for 4th place only to see their dream smashed by Chelsea (who finished 6th) winning the Champions League and preventing Spurs from taking the place in a competition it had earned.

Rednapp went. Spurs looked to the man responsible for first half of Chelsea's downfall season - Andre Villas Boas - as the man to rebuild Spurs into a serious challenger. The first thing AVB did was keep Gareth Bale, the second thing was to hand the Welshman a free rein - he had no specific position, he was a roaming attacking midfield-striker and this was the best and worst thing AVB did during his awful tenure at the club.

Bale had a season to remember and single-handedly helped Spurs to a 5th place finish with a record amount of points. The thing was most fans were puzzled - without Bale (through injuries mainly) Spurs were were pretty woeful and that 5th place finish was largely down to the teams under them really under-performing.

Then the inevitable happened. As Real Madrid's unofficial feeder club (we had a 'special' arrangement with them that never seemed to be reciprocated) Levy got a world record fee for the man he knew he was going to sell before the previous season ended. He sent AVB's DoF out to find not just a replacement for Bale but a new team to suited the coach's methods. In came: Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and a bunch of others who all seemed to fit with the ethos that was being adapted. However, the net spend was actually less than had been received and with the TV money, ENIC took a healthy profit to their bank account.

AVB's second season started okay, nothing spectacular but some heavy defeats to Man City and Liverpool prematurely ended his reign. There were lots of reasons given but hostility from fans and the press put too much pressure on the young man. In came Tim Sherwood from the backroom staff - he was instantly disliked, despite helping to improve the team - goals were being scored and the team played with some of the verve fans had been treated to in 2011/12. But he was always a stop gap and arguably wouldn't have kept his job if he'd won something or finished 4th.

With the exception of Eriksen, the Bale money was increasingly looking like a really bad investment. They needed a season to bed in. They needed a coach to play to their strengths. There were more excuses than there were flops.

The inevitable manager merry-go-round resulted in us reverting to the DoF model and we signed Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton - a forward thinking, less dislikeable version of AVB. He was Argentinian - which surprisingly rings good in Spurs' fans minds (Ossie, Ricky, even Tarricco who was rubbish) and he was highly regarded, despite having zero success anywhere and a really bad second season with Espanyol.

MoPo got Eriksen playing so well he became our new Modric. Chadli scored goals and ... um... er... Erik Lamela scored that fantastic rabona in the Europa League and not much else. The Bale replacements didn't come on - Soldado, as good as he was, was incapable of hitting a cow's arse with a banjo while wearing a Spurs shirt and as time dragged on we witnessed Spurs destroy the career of yet another good footballer.

MoPo's first season was a success. He took the team to 5th, but largely because neither Liverpool nor Southampton (MoPo's old club, now playing even better despite half the team and coaching staff having been sold and replaced - thus proving you can bring a bunch of players in and integrate them quickly) could be arsed. Despite only being 6 points behind 4th the gulf had widened, especially now that Man Utd had returned from their year off and Liverpool sold Luis Suarez, their own version of Gareth Bale.

MoPo brought kids in and they looked like good prospects. Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and especially Harry Kane were first choices ahead of all those expensive Bale replacements. However, it didn't disguise the fact that for all the better football they were playing they were still fragile, mentally incapable of taking their game up to a level that makes a top 4 team. The team won or drew games from losing positions so often that it became clear that fitness and determination were much improved, but they also capitulated a number of times and lost or drew games they really shouldn't have. The problems weren't just the top 4 teams, but relegation threatened and mid-table teams; it was like the team went into these games expecting to win and we, as viewers, soon discovered that any team deciding to 'have a go' could disrupt MoPo's system and unsettle the team enough to make them ... not pushovers, but an easy lay (perhaps).

Season over, Spurs still had the same manager and now MoPo had his own scouting guru. Baldini's tenure is drawing to a close and five of the seven Bale replacements have been sold and the club didn't lose its shirt on them either. Spurs also got rid of some more deadwood and now the squad had a lean and youthful feel to it. By June they had already signed another defender - Kevin Wimmer from Austria - a prospect surely as he had a lot of people in front of him to play centre back. Then Toby Alderwiereld, the Belgian utility defender, joined and we also signed Keiron Trippier from Burnley, a reasonably nippy right back to join the growing ranks of right backs at the club. I remember AVB/Baldini seemingly signing a host of defensive midfielders, MoPo has a thing for right backs it seems. Andre DeYedlin seems like he was bought to appease the US market, whether he'll ever play for the team again is a doubt, especially as Kyle Walker appears to have been given a kick up the arse.

On paper the club appears to have a lot of midfield players, but of the 13 listed, one hasn't got a squad number (Aaron Lennon) and five are new academy graduates who have spent a lot of time on loan in lower leagues. Half of those that remain do not appear to be in MoPo's starting XI plans - this includes the mind-boggling Erik Lamela, a man who is one of MoPo's most consistent players - he is consistently rubbish.

The season started and there was a dearth of quality in the ranks and an obvious huge hole up front. With Soldado released from his personal hell and Adebayor without a squad number, the only striker on the books was Harry Kane, who this time last year was almost sent on loan, again.

This MoPo team instigated its high pressing game and at times looked quite comfortable. Man Utd at Old Trafford for the opener was possibly a blessing - Van Gaal's team misfired a lot in his first year and early doors they were a team to get something from - as Swansea found out last year. The opening 20 minutes showed a lot of promise, despite alarm bells ringing all around as Spurs fans scrutinised our squad and saw it wanting. Then they scored against the run of play and it was game over. We never really looked like scoring, even in the last few minutes when they seemed to wake up and realise they still could salvage something.

There were bad reactions from some fans; The Guardian and Independent web sites were littered with doom-sayers and people questioning everything. Calm was called for; it was far too early to be condemning the side. And it was Man Utd, after all.

Stoke arrived with its growing list of ex-Barcelona players and footballers that no one in the Spurs crowd would have turned their nose up at. By half-time Spurs were 2-0 up. They weren't cruising by any stretch of the imagination, but if you get a second goal on the stroke of half-time after soaking up Stoke pressure for ten minutes, you expect to come out in the second half facing a team that half thinks it's already beaten. So, it was no surprise it ended 2-2 and to a chorus of boos from the fickle home crowd.

There have been some glaring 'problems' staring at us. Eric Dier, a hot defending prospect, has been played at right back - he didn't like it - and now as the holding midfielder in what appears to be a sort of rotating 4-1-1-3-1 that transforms into a 3-5-1-1 on the offence. Dier drops back to cover for the roving full backs. Dier isn't a ball player compared to any of the people Spurs sold who could play in that position. In fact they sold their best defensive midfielder when AVB arrived and replaced him with rubbish. Tom Huddlestone might not be a contender now, but he had a season at Hull that got people talking about him playing for England again - Steve Bruce brought the brilliant player we saw when we bought him from Derby.

The fact that there is no recognised striker after Kane seems to be reason people are blaming on the points thrown away against Stoke, but I think (having watched the game) that once Kane and then Mason went, the two most passionate players in our team, on the day, were taken off and that took the fight out of the team and put it on the bench. If the game had been five minutes longer we would have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, again.

The same frailties are there - the ones we complain about every bloody year, the capitulations, the failure to see a game out, the introduction of subs who are to the detriment of the team at that moment rather than slotting in seamlessly. The football is a bit more attractive, but the more cavalier the team get, the greater the chance of the opposition scoring. The team's heads drop if things don't go according to plan and that has been a fault for as long as I've watched this team. The problem is having a plan is great, but you need other, back-up, plans if the one you choose is being turned over. MoPo hasn't got a Plan B that doesn't plunge the team into calamity.

Clinton N'Jie (pronounced Jai - No N) has been brought from Lyon. He's 22 and another hot prospect. He can play on the wings, is fast and can double up as a striker - but it isn't his natural position as his 9 goals for Lyon last season proved - 7 of them were scored when he was played wide right or left. He is very quick, but he fits in with the inverted winger system that MoPo still hasn't realised is utterly predictable and easy to defend. He has youth on his side - but so does Erik Lamela - and yet I wouldn't be at all surprised if he doesn't start for a few weeks, if at all; after all, we've only played one of our new signings so far.

Talk is of buying Saido Berahino from WBA. He is Kane's strike partner for the England U21 team and he scores goals, but in reality this is a guy who wants £100k a week and Kane is on £65k and he's vice captain, I thought this was the press who are driving this story, but apparently we've made a bid for him.

Rumours did have us buying Juventus's Fernando Llorente, except he's 30, no longer first choice at the Old Lady; Spanish and Opta ratings put him way behind Soldado. Charlie Austin appears to be too expensive (and I think he's a step back; not as good as people think and is injury prone) and then there's a desert of nothing. We can't go to some clubs because they want something more in return - if Man Utd sold Hernandez to us, who I believe would do a job, they'd want some kind of deal in place for Hugo Lloris or even Harry Kane. Others wouldn't come to us because the reality of Champions League football grows dimmer with each passing day and will disappear if money isn't spent between now and the end of the window. but that begs the question WHY are we doing business so late again? Why wasn't the manager given the players he needed for pre-season; why does Levy always leave us to play catch up?

Next up is Leicester City, a team who were written off pre-season because of their lack of ambition in hiring Claudio Ranieri and the loss of Estaban Cambiasso - the ageing midfield general Spurs could probably do with. Yet Leicester sit joint top - two wins from two and brimming with confidence. They are at home and will be looking to continue the rich vein of form that saw them easily escape relegation and now look like a genuine top half of the table team (plus they have money - lots of money). What fans would have believed was at least a narrow win has now become a 'let's hope we get a point' and what makes it worse is if Spurs do lose it plunges the team into a confidence crisis, because so many of them are so young.

It was an unbelievably poor start to the season that saw the end of Juande Ramos - he had taken Martin Jol's sturdy and dependable team and turned it into spineless walkovers. This is only MoPo's second second-season club and all the promise he showed in Spain was undone by an unscrupulous chairman; Espanyol flirted with the drop and he was sacked. Had he not had friends on the South Coast, the Southampton job might never have happened. The similarities - on paper - with Espanyol cannot be ignored even if there isn't the tension or lack of patience for him at the moment, but if Leicester turn us over and the in-form Everton continue their impressive run of form against us then we could go into the International break with just one point from a possible 12 and could be 11 points behind the leading pack, who we have aspirations to be among.

MoPo complains about consistency but with that he just joins a club of previous managers who have failed to understand why Spurs are just so ... Spursy. I also think he plays with fire a lot - showing Levy on the pitch that he needs more: playing the kids over the expensive signings; playing Kane and substituting him when there was absolutely no replacement; refusing to work with Lennon or Adebayor (two of the older regime's lads) and making thinly-veiled remarks about the need to recruit while complaining about the transfer window closing almost a month into the season. I heard an alternative take on this, but whether it's clever PR or a genuine bit of covert wheeling and dealing it smacks of experimentation at a time when experiments are for teams that face oblivion.

MoPo's pre-season press conference emphasised the need to finish top 4 and the intention of using the Europa League as a bedding in ground for his younger players. Half of that assertion is already looking forlorn and desperate.

What can happen?

The realist in me knows the decline started in 2012 - I had never seen a Spurs side play like world beaters before and I doubt I will again in my life. That's a sad forecast given that I'm only 53, but there are circumstances that many fans refuse to accept. The new stadium is costing a fortune; FFP means that even if ENIC could throw money at the club we'd struggle to justify it; Levy has been burnt so often in the past, I don't think he trusts the judgement of anyone but himself and naturally (and not a criticism) he needs to think about balancing the books especially when £100 million worth of 'talent' doesn't deliver and the new boss wants shot of them.

I think MoPo is safe for the time being despite the fact that I don't believe Spurs now believe that a top four spot is remotely achievable. They haven't got the quality (nor the depth) to seriously challenge and a top 6 spot would suffice because even if the Europa League is nothing but a burden for the club it does pay its way even if it is totally detrimental to the team's domestic season.

Only a catastrophic run of form would start Levy panicking - such as Juande Ramos had - or a couple of 4 or 5 goal thrashings when the fans who haven't already made up their minds come off the fence and call for the manager's head - which, of course, would just lead to the same thing happening again (and probably again). Whether MoPo is the right man for the job isn't really an issue at the moment (unless they fall apart), what is is keeping the bills down while ensuring that a top half finish is achieved between now and moving into the new stadium and then waiting around for enough money to come in to up the wages bill accordingly.

The Europa League hasn't yet started for Spurs and most fans who still look at us being able to break into the top 4 will be hoping that all those 'extra' players in the first team squad play to leave the first team fresh for the following Sunday's exertions. It depends on the kind of group we're drawn into - as top seeds we should get at least two 'easy' clubs, sides capable of being beaten by a team of academy graduates and squad players. The problems start if MoPo does play the squad players and they fail to make any impression, requiring him to bring in the first team squad to try and qualify for the knockout stages. And what of the striker? Do we really expect Harry Kane to play 60 odd matches this season - with the Euros at the end of it? With no other 'proper' striker on the books, scoring goals against inferior Albanian opposition might become tough.

There's this joke that surfaces whenever Spurs lose to an 'inferior' side. You see it appear on noticeboards and blogs - Spurs in Crisis - and I am beginning to believe that is exactly where the club is at the moment. I think there are question marks beginning to appear over the head coach; I think Levy's patience is getting shorter despite the five year contract and his reluctance to do much in the transfer market isn't because he's scared of spending money, it's because there are no obvious cheap alternatives and spending in excess of £20million is asking for another Roberto Soldado. Worst of all, I think there are all kinds of existential problems within the squad. There is another joke that does the rounds - 'It's only Spurs, lads' suggesting they have no spine, no steel and will capitulate if you hit them hard enough and that assertion isn't there unless there's some truth in it and if there is truth in it then it will get to the players.

I can imagine the captain of a side 2-0 down at half-time to Spurs just casually mentioning to certain Spurs players in the tunnel about their propensity for throwing away leads when they should kill games off and it sows the seed.

I also think the team has bags of confidence but can't hold it when faced by a team that fight for every ball. For a while we looked like we had adapted the ethos of the relegation battlers when they play us - harry them until they break, but faced with resilient opposition confidence turns to self-doubt and 30% of their game is lost. AVB questioned the team's mentality and was castigated for it. MoPo did the same after a couple of pathetic performances last season and this time people nodded sagely. This has made the team targets, even more so than ever before, because every Premier league manager will be saying to their team ten minutes before kick off, "It's just Spurs." He doesn't need to say anything else. Losing 2-0 at half time his message is the same.

Spurs haven't gone a season in the Premier League where they haven't lost at least one game to a team that gets relegated. Martin Jol's famous Lasagne-gate team didn't throw 4th away because of a last day defeat at Upton Park, they lost it by dropping 11 points to teams that were relegated. I have a long enough memory to remember the season where Nottm Forest did the double over Spurs in a season when they finished bottom with just a handful of wins. Capitulating to 'rubbish' teams isn't exclusive to Spurs, but no other team make such a consistent habit of it.

MoPo bemoans a lack of consistency, but he's not looking at it from the right perspective. Spurs are probably the most consistent team outside of the top 4 - they consistently confound. They are consistent at being inconsistent and when they do get some consistency Levy comes along and changes everything again. You cannot deny what this man has done for the club, you also can't deny that there are aspects of his style that infuriate and cause nothing but head scratching and anger. The alternative is Arab or Oligarch and the jury is out whether Spurs' fans really want that.

Simply put, fans who expect top four football are going to have a long season, punctuated by the inevitable defeat of Chelsea or Arsenal to rekindle those beliefs until the following week when Bournemouth or Sunderland turn us over. It's an up and down trip and will remain that way for at least three more years. MoPo is now a caretaker manager, he's running a team that won't be ambitious in the transfer market and will not seriously challenge in the league and it will probably stay that way until we move into the new stadium and start generating more money. This is the reality. Top four will always be just out of our reach, post mortems will point to dropped points, probably at home, to teams who didn't roll over and the same questions, fears and anger will rise again.

Welcome to mediocrity and mid-table safety again. If you can you need to move on or wait for the future to eventually arrive, then you have to give it another three years before you start seeing big changes and if ENIC are still in charge there could be 15 clubs ahead of us, with more spending power, that we need to overhaul. It could be ten years before Spurs fans can realistically think about being top 4 challengers again, but if things don't change in the areas that are obviously problems, it could be another 54 years before they win anything meaningful.

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