“You let 'em know, We never had it so good” - The Wonder Stuff, “Swell”Thursday Night
What strange magic is this?
This was West Ham, in Europe, with multiple changes, playing at half pace and winning comfortably. I watched this from my sick bed, waiting for a COVID test result, and I’m not sure my heart rate got above resting. These are curious times indeed, that we can watch our team proceed serenely through a challenging qualification and barely break a sweat.
For thirty minutes here we didn’t have things our own way, although we dominated possession. Genk looked organised defensively and compacted space quite nicely. Our passing was neat enough but there wasn’t a huge amount of incisiveness. Going back the other way, Junya Ito, Genk’s Japanese winger was catching the eye going forward, and leaving acres of space behind him. Nikola Vlasic cleverly spotted this, drifted inside as we attacked and left vast swathes of greenery for Aaron Cresswell to advance into. And thus the dance began.
We survived a tight offside for a disallowed goal for the visitors, and then a decent chance for rumoured transfer target Paul Onuachu who headed wide as Alphonse Areola came off his line with all the certainty of three penguins on each other’s shoulders and dressed up in a raincoat. It interesting that despite the clean sheets, Moyes still thinks the Frenchman is not ready. I’ll admit that there is currently a little something too frenetic about him for my liking.
Embed from Getty ImagesPinch me, I’m dreaming
Meanwhile, on the left Cresswell and Ito were having a competition to see who could most badly expose the other. In the end, I think our boy won, as all our attacks seemed to come down that side with at least one good chance for Jarrod Bowen going begging. The breakthrough, when it came, was indeed a Cresswell corner which was attacked by Craig Dawson in the style of Wile E. Coyote slamming into a fake tunnel, leading to a disappointingly tame header that looped over a stranded keeper and in to the net.
This happened in added time in the first half, and was then followed by a second similar set piece goal from Issa Diop, and then a breakaway third from Bowen within a minute. With an hour gone and the game put to bed, it seemed an ideal time to make all available substitutions. Instead Declan Rice and Cresswell departed on 67 minutes, and then Bowen hung around until the 87th minute. In a touching homage to the recently departed Mike Ashley, Tomas Soucek played the whole game because having plastic surgery isn’t a good enough reason for a minute off work.
I have nothing more perceptive to add about this game. We won comfortably when things looked uncomfortable for a while. Our manager is exceptionally good at his job. We are living in some sort of alternate reality and at this point I’m not really all that interested in being woken up by Keanu Reeves.
I dunno, read the Rapid Wien report if you really want some actual insight.
“You must suffer and cry for a longer time”
-The Smiths, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”
-The Smiths, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”
To the big one.
Spurs games are unbearably tense. These are games played in a blender, with the ball whisked from side to side, deflected, mis-controlled and lost, while the general air of tension leads to games high on drama and often low on quality. This wasn’t to be much different. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game featuring so many high quality players making so many low quality contributions.
My immediate feeling upon the conclusion of the match was that we had nicked this one. A salutary lesson perhaps, in the way our eyes can betray us. That we had played below our recent standard was undeniably true. That we created the better chances was also true. My disappointment at what we didn’t do clouded my judgement over what we actually did. xG has its flaws but it is certainly helpful in clarifying where the big chances fell. And by and large they fell to us.
But let’s start at the beginning. Spurs had rested their entire first team in midweek in preparation for this game, but started slower. The play was scrappy but we began on the front foot and generated quick chances for Pablo Fornals and Soucek. After weathering that early storm, however, it soon became clear that Spurs were doing something quite interesting tactically. The hallmark of the Wolves team created by Nuno Espirito Santo was his deployment of a back three and wing backs. I don’t think he can do that at Spurs given their dearth of good midfielders, but they replicated it to a degree here. Oliver Skipp continually dropped off into the left sided centre back area, and with Sergio Reguilon pushing high up the pitch in the style of a wing back, Spurs were repeatedly able to attack our right side with relative ease.
Both Harry Kane and Heung Min Son drifted out that way, and sought to get the latter in behind with diagonal runs and cross field passes. Elsewhere, Tanguy Ndombele was doing a decent job of sitting on Rice – a vastly underrated progresser of the ball – and for the first time in a while we looked a bit bereft. That’s not to say we didn’t have chances, as Antonio twice bullied Cristian Romero in a Hulk v Loki fashion, but we didn’t fashion much from these.
Harry Kane arrives in a minute and asks for him to be booked
Our best opportunity of a tight first half fell to Soucek, who headed wide from close range, while the visitors saw Son and Kane denied by Lukasz Fabianski. The Pole was excellent, overall, showing once again that if your positioning is good enough you can make the art of making saves look easy.
The real issue for us at the break was that our front three weren’t creating the kind of havoc they usually do. Bowen was occupied by Reguilon, Fornals was misfiring and Said Benrahma was also on the pitch in some capacity. I know this, because I rewatched the match when I got in, and despite all evidence to the contrary I am forced to accept that he actually did play in this game. I have nothing further to say on this point, M’lud except to say that we seemed to fix that Skipp issue in the second half by getting the Algerian to do some defensive pressing, so that was good.
Things in the stadium had reached a kind of nervous thrum, however, low and omnipresent like the sound of an aeroplane as you’re trying to sleep on a long distance flight. Things even got so bad that Andriy Yarmolenko got a round of applause as he jogged along the sideline for his warm up, knackering himself out.
In truth, I didn’t think we were looking all that likely until Romero lit the flame. After his first half struggles with Antonio, the Argentine had gone ultra aggressive in his defending, and largely it had worked. I don’t really know why we didn’t try and isolate Antonio with Eric Dier – a scenario I see in my dreams – but either way we had gone into a brief period of footballing doldrums. Then, Romero kicked Fornals, leaned over him and goaded him and suddenly the place was agitated and the players picked up. That kind of stuff earns you a brief bit of notoriety on the terraces and long term opprobrium in your own dressing room.
Suddenly, Fornals was everywhere, Rice the dominant player on the pitch and it didn’t seem all that surprising when a Cresswell corner was poked in by Antonio, as he was marked by a leaden footed Kane. I haven’t mentioned the England captain very much, largely because he was fairly unremarkable. He appears to be lugging something about on his back, be it a grand piano or a fairly heavy price tag but he looks a pale shadow of the player who would once have terrified us on a day like this.
It is true that he still cannot be gifted even a half chance, and his long range passing remains laser like, but he reminded me here of nothing so much as late era Alan Shearer. Deadly, but dulled. In fact there appear to be only two things that can currently convince Kane to break into a jog – a half chance, or the chance to get an opposition player booked. Beyond that it’s Easter Island statue time and some longing glances towards Manchester.
It was tempting to look at this game today and think that by far the most influence Kane exerted was into pressuring the referee into a couple of yellow cards. I don’t doubt he will still get lots of goals but those ankle injuries and all those high intensity games at a young age appear to have taken their toll. They may regret turning down those transfer bids yet.
At the other end of the spectrum was Rice. Today I thought was his best game in an already stellar season. In truth, apart from Mo Salah, I don’t know who else could be considered for the best player in the league thus far this season. His second half display here made me wonder how Rice stands in comparison to Billy Bonds. I never saw the great man play in the flesh, but I’ve read up and watched the video and I’m not sure that Bonds ever developed his game in the all round way that Rice has. There was a moment in the second half when four Spurs players surrounded him and ferried him toward the left touchline. One deft turn and a burst of pace later and he was on the edge of their box. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay him is that he seems to be merging some Brooking with his Bonds.
Once ahead, we never actually looked like conceding, even if nails were chewed down to the quick and the tension was pouring into the atmosphere like sewage into the North Sea. Our back four were splendid, to a man, and Spurs actually took their last shot at goal in the 43rd minute. Despite Nuno’s bizarre claims that they were the better team, I wonder if they will look back on this game with a sense of regret. Watching them, and trying to be disinterested, I felt their build up and movement was bordering on turgid. Slow, meandering possession that seemed to generally rely on the ball somehow ending up at the feet of one their good players, in a good position, but with no obvious plan as to how that was going to happen.
Such was their fixation on denying us the ability to break, they rarely committed enough players to their attacks, and seem determined to waste Ndombele altogether. This was perhaps the first truly non-useless central midfield that Spurs have brought here for a few years and they were still pretty underwhelming. The only truly coordinated aspect to their play was the way that they got four men round the referee after every 50:50 decision. And people say that Jose Mourinho doesn’t leave legacies behind him.
But enough about them. What of us? Well, this was another of those wins that was truly hard fought. These are the points that push you into Europe and make your seasons go from mediocre to something better. On another day this could have gone the other way – a day on which Spurs had some efforts on goal, for example – but those days are becoming increasingly rare. I still don’t understand the desire to leave the starting eleven on for so long, but Moyes was matched in his inertia today by Nuno, who decided he’d seen enough with five minutes to go and then made a series of substitutions that he seemingly interpreted from fortune cookies.
It felt like a day for Lanzini or Vlasic to come on and retain possession, but such quibbles can keep for later. Instead, let us savour the magic of a week of three wins – away at Everton, at home to Genk and at home to Spurs, no less. No goals conceded, and up to fourth in the table. It’s telling that our golden period is still not remotely comparable to that experienced by Spurs just a few years ago, but that speaks more to where we started than where we are going. Savour these moments, savour these players and savour these coaches. This is the glorious now.
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