Right, well, here we go then.....
Monday evening, and I had to try very hard to motivate myself to write this. Strange. Ever so strange given the excitement and optimism leading up to opening day. Ah, yeah..... hang on..... we've been here before haven't we? Optimism unbounded..... new signings..... a fresh start..... And what do we get? Another bloody opening day defeat!
Two years in a row now I've made the long journey to the north east on opening day. Two years in a row now I've come away disappointed, the team empty handed.
Easy to see, then, why motivation seemingly escaped me for a time today! Let's soldier on though, so like I said..... here we go.....
It was a bloody early start. 05:30 alarm call, train to Southampton, train to Waterloo, Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus, Victoria line to Kings Cross, train to Darlington, train to Middlesbrough. All told, about 330 miles over a period of near enough eight hours. Man that is a long trip! European trips are less arduous than that! No doubt there are others out there who had it even worse. Some poor bloke I overheard had travelled from Plymouth!
Still, arriving bright and early at Kings Cross, if somewhat bleary-eyed, we stocked up with the morning paper, a bit of scram for the train, and, of course, beer! There were a few Spurs fans milling around but not that many. They'd probably opted for slightly earlier trains and I hoped that the fact the game had gone to general sale wasn't going to mean we'd have vast empty swathes in the away end. As it turned out we didn't, but it certainly didn't look like a sellout either.
Having polished off pretty much all the beer en route to Darlington we waited for our connection and on the platform a display of some real hardcore support. Check this out.....
Pretty impressive I think you'll agree!
Anyway, I digress. We got to Middlesbrough pretty much on time and headed to the stadium. Not the nicest place in the world, and I was very surprised at how empty it looked and felt. Not a patch on Sunderland last season which felt much more like opening day with the hustle and bustle of football supporters. Ah well, no matter, we weren't going to let that put us off!
As the players warmed-up I still hadn't realised what the starting eleven was and there some surprised awaiting us there. But, I thought I'd make more of an effort this season to post some more photos - ropey as they inevitably will be given how crap the camera is on my mobile, but starting as I mean to go on, here's one of the boys warming-up ahead of kick-off.
Now, it wasn't until the players emerged for kick-off that we realised no King, no Bale, no Hutton (OK, we expected that one), and no Berbatov. The latter, of course, led to great speculation. Left out of the starting eleven? Surely the most certain sign yet that we are preparing for life without him? I won't add any more to that speculation. There's been plenty on here and in the media over the weeks, and no doubt there will continue to be in the next few days, so let's just leave it at that - for now at least. There will probably be reference to it later in this report!
We also got our first view of the new man between the sticks. Of course, we'd seen him twice last season in the tie against Eindhoven, but nice to see him pull on our colours in a proper game at last.
So, almost ready for kick-off, and it was a shade disappointing to see the many empty seats in the 'Boro stands. Come on! This was opening day. What were they playing at? Not to say we had sold our entire allocation by any means, but home game first up..... tsk tsk!
So, 3pm approached, the whistle went, and away we went!
For the first twenty-five minutes we utterly dominated possession. In fact, not only did we dominate possession we also dominated control of the pitch. Its all very well saying you've had all the ball, but if all you do is knock it across the back four with the odd pass to the midfield and back, you're not going to get very far! We dominated possession and we dominated the pitch. Not with the attacking prowess and directness that we wanted to see in terms of going forward, but it was difficult to reconcile the fact that we were the away team.
Sadly, it didn't last. It couldn't have really unless we'd made it count. For the remainder of the half 'Boro started to see more of the ball and when they did break, they broke quickly, progressing up the pitch much faster than we had managed to do when we'd dominated early on.
Admittedly there seemed little threat. It wasn't like we were having to make last ditch saving tackles, or seeing Gomes tip the ball over and 'round, but as the half wore on it was evident that the more likely scorer - if there was going to be one - would be the home side. So much so in fact that they did end up with the ball in the back of the net. I thought the ref got it right. It looked like a push to me, but I gather 'Boro felt somewhat aggrieved.
So, half time, no score. Worryingly, despite the long periods of Spurs domination, very little to show for it either. Lovely statistics for the Carling Opta index I'm sure, but 0-0..... not where we wanted to be.
I'll reserve the summary of my thoughts for the moment because the second half followed a very similar pattern - minus our domination! As it got underway any hopes we'd had of seeing more urgency faded as the tempo we had maintained in the first half - a gradual and deliberate one - continued. Very nice, but if it lacks incisiveness, its not going to get you very far! At half-time Berbatov was one of the many Spurs players on the pitch warming up, but he cut a lonely figure, isolated, and doing a bit of running on his own, no Spurs players nearby to knock the ball to and from.
Clearly this was a view shared on the touchline as the decision was taken to introduce Bale and Berbatov replaced Lennon and Gio respectively with near enough half an hour to go. Lennon, frankly, no loss on the day. He did very little. His often maligned delivery couldn't be maligned this time out as there was little scope for it! Gio..... a decent start. There is a spark there. He's not afraid of taking control of the ball and trying to create. On Saturday though those chances were too few and far between, and he was just too lightweight. On opening day you can just about get away with it. As you get into the business end of the season, with opposition defenders bulked-up and ready to boss you..... he'll need to learn to deal with that very quickly.
Berbatov's introduction was met with a - predominantly - positive reaction amongst the travelling Spurs contingent. Yes, there were boos, but they were generally in the minority. It was understandable, but his introduction, and that of Bale, coincided with our best spell of sustained pressure that looked like it may lead to us taking the lead.
With Bale pushing forward up the left all of a sudden we had a real outlet on that flank. Something that had been lacking with both Bentley (who started there), and Lennon (who switched wings). Most of our best stuff came from that side. Although I wouldn't suggest you get too carried away. Our best stuff wasn't really that good!
We came close twice. First a nice move and neat interchange between Berbatov and Jenas in a confined space in the box that led to 'Boro's keeper Jones smothering at point blank. Then not long after - and, I think, with the scores still level - Bent going close having controlled neatly and side-steppped, only to fire wide. Better than his effort earlier where his touch had been too heavy and possession had been lost all too easily on the edge of the box!
Sadly, it was 'Boro who took the lead, and probably deservedly. A corner, poorly cleared. A short from a tightish angle, tipped onto the bar and David Wheater in position on the line to tap home. First goal of the season conceded..... a familiar story..... set piece.
With twenty minutes to go though, still plenty of time to get something out of the game. O'Hara was introduced to replace BAE (yeah, I'm going to start calling him that now!), and could've levelled when hesitancy at the back for 'Boro almost let O'Hara in. The keeper managed to get there and O'Hara ended up sprawled out having collided with him and post.
With time ticking away there was a bit of desperation, but the equaliser didn't come and of all people..... of all people!..... Mido scored what turned out to be the winning goal. He probably didn't know a great deal about it. A ball fired in with some force and he stretched, half sprawled out on the floor, got a touch and diverted it in. Two-nil. No chance of any comeback.
We did get a consolation, but even then it came from an own goal. Admittedly, a decent delivery into the danger area, but not much to cheer.
So, another opening day defeat. Another trip to the north east with nothing much to show for it.
The summary that I promised then? Well, here it is.....
Basically this was a performance nowhere near good enough. Nowhere near. With the level of talent supposedly arrayed in the Spurs squad a lot more should be expected, and rightly so. This level of performance, this result, may just about be excused should we beat Sunderland on Saturday, and beat them comfortably, but based on what we saw, that could be a big ask.
I'm not getting carried away. There are thirty-seven games still to go and plenty of points will be picked up and dropped between now and the end of the season, but dropping all three in a game you want to be winning to establish your credentials..... not a good start.
The player-by-player assessment then.....
Gomes - looked fine. Didn't have a huge amount to do, but generally looked like he'd inspire more confidence than we've seen in recent seasons. His throwing is pretty amazing for distance and accuracy, but it was evident he was frustrated a couple of times at the lack of options presented quickly to get things moving forward.
BAE - a reasonable performance going forward and clearly has an ability to swing the ball in on the overlap, but he's a defender, and question marks still exist. He still seems to drop too far back off the man he's marking.
Zokora - will try and try and try. You can't really fault him on his effort, but at right back?! Against Stewart Downing..... we were asking for trouble.
Woody - solid and little more to be said than that, other than I gather this is the first time he's lost to an old club!
Dawson - inconsistent. Very difficult to assess. He made three of four bad mistakes, including not closing down nearly quickly enough, nor hard enough for their second. Also made some excellent challenges that avoided further goalscoring opportunities. Clearly benefits from playing alongside King!
Jenas - have a guess..... yep - inconsistent, but more negative than positive. Didn't manage to make any particularly threatening runs, missed some tackles. Improvement requried.
Modric - very talented. Clear for all to see. No doubt about it, he has the ability to marshall the midfield. Question is how quickly he will adapt to the English game (looked fine for speed and strength on Saturday actually), and how quickly he can fit into the system Ramos wants to play. Probably a bigger question mark over the latter - not necessarily about Modric, but about the system itself! More on that in a bit.
Lennon - offered almost nothing. Sadly lacking performance.
Bentley - where on Earth was his famed delivery?! Yeah, he put the ball in the danger area for our goal, and managed to swing the ball in from the flanks better than we've seen for many years - probably since Ginola - but he rarely found a Spurs player on the end or anywhere near. Perhaps the question mark therefore is over our ability to get in positions to support him, but his dead ball delivery from corners also left a lot to be desired. Plenty more expected from him.
Gio - already noted in the main report.
Bent - completely lost all that form he seemed to show in pre-season. We really didn't give him the opportunity to lead the line because our delivery into him was almost non-existent. There were maybe two chances that we created for him. One where he touched the ball on too far and lost possession on the edge of the 'Boro box. The other where he created some space on the edge of the box and had a decent pop but sent it wide.
Berbatov - you'll never believe it, he could easily have been accused of lack of effort. But do you know what? On Saturday a Berbatov playing at less than 50% of what he's capable of still added significant attacking prowess to our front line.
Bale - excellent. Delivery was spot on and he was always willing to advance, take the ball and try his luck.
O'Hara - not enough involvement to make any assessment.
So, on the topic of tactics..... we got it wrong. Let's just hold our hands up and admit to that. A starting line-up with Zokora at right back, Bale and Berbatov sitting on the bench, Bentley starting on the left..... it was all wrong. Our delivery from the flanks was shocking. Only marginally better than we'd seen last season. OK, so Bentley managed to deliver into the danger area more consistently, but it was nothing particularly dangerous!
We also seemed to totally lack any pace when we attacked. The pace was moderate and deliberate. Nice for keeping possession, but contrast it with 'Boro. When one of our attacks broke down, they advanced quickly - and by that I don't mean they lumped it forward - and as a result they looked more threatening. With the supposed fluidity in our midfield we should be looking to exploit some faster progress up the pitch.
In terms of creating decent chances we also failed to get up in support of our front line. OK, in support of Bent. While Gio was playing just off him and had a go at providing decent support, the midfield never really managed to get up in support and the gap in the last third of the pitch between our most advanced of the Modric-Jenas pairing and Bent-Gio up front was too great.
Most critically however, we totally lacked incision in attack. Totally. Bent, on his own, cannot create in the way that Berbatov playing up front on his own can. In fairness, even if the two had swapped I'm not sure we'd have profited that much because we didn't even seem to get the the ball that far forward quickly enough, but it was clear that Berbatov's introduction contributed significantly to a sharpened threat.
He is a quality, quality player, and while it would be wrong to say that our best moments came entirely from him - Bale contributed much too - his ability was sorely missed. Should he happen to leave that hole is a very, very big one to fill. Bigger than I'd thought prior to Saturday, largely because this supposedly fluid, attacking, highly capable midfield failed to deliver.
For Tottenham then, plenty of work to do.
The journey home was a long one. Delays here and there and the disappointment of a poor start to the campaign.
When we got back to London I paid tribute to Mido with a kebab smothered in chilli sauce. Best part of the day.