This Week In: English Football – Premiership Run-in Resumes After the International Break

There are just 84 Premiership matches left in this campaign and in the last round of fixtures – played nearly two weeks ago, as there has been a break for World Cup qualifiers – appear to have settled some of the bigger questions surrounding the title race, relegation and European qualification.  Manchester City dropped to 15 points behind United in the quest for the Premiership crown, as they were beaten away at Everton for the fourth consecutive season, while their neighbours enjoyed a narrow 1-0 home victory over Reading.  That defeat leaves the Royals – who have just appointed former Saints boss, Nigel Adkins, as their new manager – 7 points adrift from safety, level with bottom club Queens Park Rangers, whose own mini-good run of form came to an end with a 3-2 defeat against Aston Villa.

But I'm sure McManaman is not "that type of player"
But I’m sure McManaman is not “that type of player”

Wigan boosted their survival hopes by beating Newcastle 2-1, although the victory was marred by a dangerous challenge by Callum McManaman on United defender, Massadio Haidara.  Sir Alex Ferguson refers to this period until the end of the Premiership season as “squeaky bum time” – invoking the tension that is felt by clubs as they attempt to avoid…spoiling their seasons – and for the last couple of years, the Latics have dramatically improved their performances in their final ten fixtures – a trend they will need to continue this season if they are to avoid being relegated from the top flight for the first time in their history, as they currently sit three points below Villa in 17th.  By contrast, Tottenham appear to once again be shitting themselves as their form has suddenly departed them – a 1-0 home loss against Fulham, a team they had beaten in all of their previous six league meetings – was the third defeat in a week for Andre Villas-Boas’s men and they now sit just four points above Arsenal, who beat Swansea 2-0 in South Wales, in the final Champions League qualification spot, with the Gunners having a game in hand.  It is not a question of whether Spurs will now finish below their North London rivals – that has always been inevitable, even if most Tottenham fans are only just beginning to accept it – rather whether their form will dip so badly that they will finish below Everton as well and miss out on European football next season all together. Continue reading

This Week In: English Football – Tottenham’s Collapse Begins and the Away Goals Rule

Buckle up Spurs fans, it's that time of year again
Buckle up Spurs fans, it’s that time of year again

It’s become an annual tradition in the English football calendar, like the F.A Cup Final or pictures of crying fans on the final day of the season who have seen their team relegated – at some point each campaign, usually around the time that the balls change back from yellow to white, Tottenham will have a huge dip in form and will throw away the chance of enjoying a (relatively) successful year.  Sometimes the collapse is delayed, like in the 2005/6 season, when it was not until the final fixture away at West Ham that Spurs lost and allowed themselves to be overtaken in fourth by Arsenal (of course) after many in the squad had reportedly contracted food poisoning.  Last year, the moment when it all started to go wrong can be pinpointed to a specific minute – the 40th of their trip to the Emirates.  Leading 2-0 against the Gunners and ahead of them in the table by 10 points, Spurs had a great opportunity to consolidate their position and ensure that, for the first time since 1995, St. Totteringham’s Day – the point in the season when Tottenham are guaranteed to finish below their rivals – would not be celebrated by Arsenal fans.  Five goals later, momentum swung to the other part of North London and the Lilywhites ended the season in fourth place, missing out on a Champions League berth when Chelsea won the competition in Munich.  It was the type of thing that could only happen to Spurs – indeed when Everton finished fourth in 2004/5 and Liverpool took Europe’s top trophy, UEFA allowed both sides in to give England five representatives the following campaign, but then changed the rules to ensure that did not happen again.

This year’s downfall for Tottenham began at Anfield last Sunday when they were 2-1 up thanks to two goals from the left-footed wizard Gareth Bale Jan Vertonghen, but then handed the match to Liverpool with two reckless, needless back passes – first from Kyle Walker that Hugo Lloris failed to control, giving Stewart Downing an easy finish; then by Jermain Defoe, who put Luis Suarez clear in the area and forced Benoit Assou-Ekotto into a clumsy challenge, allowing Steven Gerrard to seal the three points for the Reds from the spot.  Should they have been able to hold on to their advantage against Liverpool, Spurs would have opened up a 10 point cushion over Arsenal in fifth place – five on Chelsea in fourth – but instead the Gunners can reduce the deficit to four should they win their game in hand and their supporters have started again with the “Mind The Gap” jibe from last season when they usurped us into third place in the table, taunting Spurs fans as they know that they will once do it again this year.  Further evidence of the alternate directions in which the two North London clubs are heading could be found in the midweek European fixtures: Arsenal may have exited the Champions League, but gained confidence from a 2-0 win against Bayern in Munich, coming only the second team to beat them there this campaign; while Tottenham stumbled into the last eight of the Europa League, progressing on the away goals rule after a 4-1 extra time defeat to Internazionale in Milan.  The shockingly poor defending that has led to Spurs conceding seven times in their last two matches is nothing new – it was just as poor in the away victory against West Ham – but part of the problem in those fixtures was the presence of Jake Livermore in the centre of the Tottenham midfield.  The squad is lucky to have a deep selection of quality midfielders to choose from and even with injuries to Sandro, Dembele (who returned in Milan) and Dempsey, there is still Lewis Holtby and Tom Huddlestone who should come in before Livermore, who at his best is a poor man’s Jermaine Jenas (and being a rich person’s version would not be much of a compliment either).  It is selections such as Livermore by Andre Villas-Boas, alongside his continued use of the abysmal William Gallas and aging Brad Friedel – who still makes good saves, but does not dominate his area, nor distribute the ball, as effectively as Hugo Lloris – that are concerning heading into the final two months of the campaign.

This weekend’s fixtures should provide an advantage to Spurs, as Arsenal travel to South Wales to face a Swansea team who won the corresponding match last season and were victorious at the Emirates this campaign, while Tottenham host Fulham, who have just two away successes all season and have lost the last six league meetings between the two sides.  Nevertheless, I can almost guarantee that what will happen is a narrow 1-0 victory for the Gunners, thanks to a strike in the final ten minutes from Santi Cazorla or Theo Walcott, while Spurs will be frustrated by the Cottagers and end up sharing the points in a 0-0/1-1 draw.  Many Tottenham supporters may still hold out hope that this year will be different and the collapse will not happen, but remember – it’s not the despair that gets you, we can handle the despair, it’s the hope. Continue reading

This Week In: English Football – Bale Keeps Scoring and United Out of Europe

Aaron Lennon celebrates his goal - Tottenham's second - in the derby win over Arsenal
Aaron Lennon celebrates his goal – Tottenham’s second – in the derby win over Arsenal

Prior to last weekend’s North-London derby, Tottenham fans expected the game to go one of three ways: either Spurs would dominate the match and overcome their bitter rivals; would be the better team but fail to take their chances and end up dropping points; or Arsenal would take out a season’s worth of frustrations on us and rack up another 5-2 scoreline.  However, none of those scenarios played out, as Andre Villas-Boas’ men were outplayed for the majority of the game, but two goals inside two first half minutes, followed by a strong defensive performance after the visitors had reduced the deficit shortly after the break, gave Spurs a crucial win over Arsenal, lifting them back into third place and seven points above the Gunners.  Tottenham’s two goals were identical: for the first, Gylfi Sigurdsson played a pass through the defence for Gareth Bale to score for the thirteenth time in his last thirteen matches; shortly afterwards, Scott Parker provided the assist for Aaron Lennon, catching out the Arsenal back line in the exact same way.  Despite Per Mertescaker’s header early in the second half, Arsene Wenger’s team were unable to mount a comeback and they have now lost three of their last four Premiership encounters at White Hart Lane, after previously going unbeaten for 11 years on their rival’s turf.

With ten fixtures remaining in the Premiership, the seven point advantage is six more than Spurs had at the same time last season, when they were ultimately pipped to third place by Arsenal and missed out on a Champions League spot when Chelsea won the competition.  However, no Tottenham fan will feel confident of our chances of finishing above our rivals this campaign – as the last seventeen years have conditioned us to expect things to go wrong, regardless of how promising things look.  With away trips to Liverpool (this Sunday), Swansea and Chelsea still to come, alongside a home match against the champions, there are plenty of opportunities for Spurs to slip up and find themselves overtaken in the league.  Nevertheless, something feels different about the club this year – in part because of the presence of Bale, a truly world-class talent whose effect has been maximised by the tactics of Villas-Boas, allowing the Welshman time, space and opportunity to exhibit his skills.  But it is more than just this one player, with Dembele, Lennon, Sigurdsson and Parker alongside Bale, Tottenham have one of the strongest midfield lineups in the country – despite injuries to Clint Dempsey and Sandro – and there also seems to be good fortune on their side.  In yesterday’s Europa League match with Internazionale, Bale – who had opened the scoring with a header moments before – was (correctly) booked for a dive in the penalty area, meaning he will miss next week’s return leg at the San Siro.  At the time, the suspension appeared to be ominous to Spurs’ chances of progressing to the quarter-finals, but the final scoreline of 3-0 means that advancement is virtually confirmed and now the Welshman will have a clean slate heading into the last 8 of the competition.  With all that said, Tottenham are still Tottenham – and the game is still the game – odds are that they will just find a new way to let supporters down and throw away the great position into which they have worked themselves. Continue reading