Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Pochettino's dramatic change of message

No amount of talk about training-ground summits or crunch meetings can hide the fact for me that Tottenham have dramatically changed the rhetoric. 

Before the Liverpool game Mauricio Pochettino was claiming his players “dream they can be important here and lift trophies". As far as his ambitions went: “A few trophies, that would be perfect."

Even after the 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, Poch turned his attentions to Europe, insisting: “The mentality must be to win the Europa League."

Two bad results later, the FA Cup victory at Fulham brought an entirely new direction. Pochettino said: “It's too early to start to speak about whether we will win some trophies. Now we’re not allowed to speak about the FA Cup - we can see the draw but after that moment we must forget and focus on Thursday and Gent."

Hold on. Not allowed to speak about the FA Cup? After losing at Anfield, Eric Dier was telling the press you can “Never say never" about the title, let alone the Cup.

Quickly and decisively Pochettino has changed the message - from titles, trophies and ambitions to focus and the next game. He is now describing the Europa League second leg with Gent as “another final". 

You just wonder if the Argentine, 44, has realised that - with all the buzz around Tottenham’s big future, impressive setup and new stadium, everyone might just have been getting a bit ahead of themselves.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of belief and all the tub-thumping looks great in black and white, as long as you can back it up on the pitch. 

When the air of invincibility created by an unbeaten run gets washed away with a defeat, the empty promises of silverware and even dynasties do little except pile on the pressure. 

It had seemed almost as if the manager was happy to apply as much heat as possible to his young squad, maybe priming them to work under the spotlight. He has even compared youth prospect Marcus Edwards, 18, to Lionel Messi to make clear the level of his expectation.

But it does not really work like that. 

Nearly every title-winning manager in the history of press conferences has used the "one game at a time" line to lower the intensity and lighten the load on his players. 

Claudio Ranieri was a master of it last season. Leicester were five, six, seven points clear at the top and he still refused to concentrate on the title race - instead reluctantly admitting that the Foxes may just be in line for a top-four spot. 

Even this season, Antonio Conte is adamant that Chelsea are in a six-way fight for the title despite being 12 points ahead of sixth-placed Manchester United. 

You can almost pinpoint the moment Tottenham made the decision to talk up their ambitions. It was the 2-1 win at Manchester City last season, after which Poch declared the fans should be willing to dream.

Since then we have become pretty much self-proclaimed title-challengers, collapsing last season under the weight of our own expectation in a haze of rally cries in the press and pictures of lions on social media. It was all a bit of fun but it was definitely a distraction. 

You can understand that Pochettino wants to instil the mindset that challenging at the top is the club’s minimum requirement. But that mindset can only come with the knowledge that you have what it takes to get through the rough patches, the big games and the cup finals. 

This team does not currently have that and no amount of talking about it will change it. The only thing that will is focusing on the next game. And winning it.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Liverpool v Tottenham: the aftermath

Scanning the forums and social media on Saturday night you would have thought Tottenham had been relegated. 

Talk was of a "weak mentality", worrying trends and even our "worst performance ever". Well, I don't buy into it.

If there is any worrying trend it is the section of fans that will never ever be pleased whatever happens at the club, and they are only too happy to whinge and whine at the first sign of trouble. 

I'm not saying the performance at Liverpool was acceptable, it wasn't. Certainly not if our aims and aspirations are as high as the club will have us think. 

There was certainly a lot of valid criticism from well-respected quarters of our support after the match. 

What I'm saying is that we are still second, you don't become a bad team overnight and sometimes people just get things wrong.

So our away record against top six clubs is not littered with wins - but look at the same record for other clubs in that group and it's really not that different. 

The reason the top six are the top six is because they are all top teams that do not give much away at home. 

It seems that just because the press pointed out our record ahead of yesterday's 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, it was presumed that now was the time we have to win at Anfield.

Liverpool plainly had more desire than us and they won both the tactical and pressing battle. 

But it's no massive issue. Liverpool are an excellent football team who, after a shock run of crappy results, absolutely had to win that football match.

They also whipped the locals into a baying frenzy by banning The Sun from their stadium 24 hours earlier. It got the fans back on side and sent out a huge rallying cry of "don't f*** with us". 

Spurs probably didn't account for that and they should have done. Anfield is a difficult atmosphere for visiting players even when at its most subdued, let alone its most raucous. 

Mauricio Pochettino knows they got it wrong. He came out and made some big admissions. He questioned the players' mentality, he insisted the club needs to learn - and you know he includes himself in that. 

Poch is determined to take this club right to the top and, yes, losing to Liverpool proves we're not there yet. 

Is that really a surprise? We're nowhere near. It's not as if we are within sight of a day when we steamroller everyone in sight. Few clubs ever reach that situation and even then it never lasts. But it seems for some fans that is the minimum expectation.

Eric Dier said in midweek that there were no superstars at Tottenham because the gaffer wouldn't have it. But in all honesty, it is also because there literally are no superstars here yet.

Harry Kane and Dele Alli have the potential to reach that level but there is a long way to go and that, realistically, goes for the club as a whole. 

We have had an amazing start on this journey but, however disappointing it might be to admit, we are punching above our weight and maybe the reality check will do us all some good.

As far as the game goes, the first goal saw Toby Alderweireld charge into midfield for a challenge he really couldn't afford to lose - but lose it he did - and the second saw Dier get picked off dawdling on a ball that should have long gone out wide.

They were bad decisions that cost us two goals in three minutes and knocked the stuffing out of us. Simple as that. 

Those saying Pochettino did not react tactically to the threat of two-goal Sadio Mane are wrong. Shifting Mousa Dembele across the midfield rendered the Senegal forward effectively useless in the second half, when he had threatened to tear us to shreds. 

It didn't make nice viewing, listening, reading or whatever but it is hardly worth the witch-hunt conducted by many in the aftermath.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Tottenham's Dele Alli ready to push on

Dele Alli was rightly praised for his low-key reaction when Victor Valdes shoved him in the face but, as far as Tottenham are concerned, that's not the half of it. 

Pundits, journos and fans all hailed the 20-year-old for refusing to lash out at the Middlesbrough keeper, completing his journey from "hot-headed kid" to "level-headed young man".

But to laud Dele so highly just for behaving in the right manner loses sight of something far more important to Spurs and, hopefully, to English football.

The midfielder's performance against Middlesbrough capped a few months that demonstrate his understanding of the game is developing every bit as quickly as his temperament.

Quite how the Middlesbrough keeper escaped a ban for such a blatant show of tactical aggression is difficult to comprehend. 

An elder statesman of the game with bags of experience, former Barcelona and Manchester United keeper Valdes, 35, knew exactly what he was doing by taking aim at the player he will have seen as most likely to retaliate.

But it all plays into the rhetoric of just how ready Dele Alli is to push on.

We already knew about the explosive finishing, the eye for a pass and his ability to do something out of the ordinary.

But add to that Dele's awareness, desire to find dangerous space - with and without the ball - as well as his willingness to drop deep for possession, he is now beginning to control the whole flow of a game.

For long periods last season the midfielder had looked a bit of a time bomb. Precocious but precarious. Undeniably talented but always skirting a fine line that ultimately led to suspension when he met West Brom and Claudio Yacob. 

In all likelihood, it is not the last we have seen of his dangerous flip side because, as is so often pointed out, iron out that “naughtiness" (as Mauricio Pochettino calls it) and you invariably lose some of the genius. 

But in recent weeks Dele has been nothing short of a joy to watch and it is having a positive effect on everyone around him - team-mates and fans.

Against Aston Villa he came off the bench and was a shot in the arm to a young team struggling to find a breakthrough. Coming off the back of two headed goals in the 2-0 win over Chelsea, you half expected him to go looking for glory himself. 

But instead he just served to up the ante immediately, boosting the support, bringing in players who needed a touch and playing a key role in Ben Davies' opener.

Against Middlesbrough we may have struggled to get over the line - ultimately needing a penalty to win the match 1-0 - but anyone who watched it will confirm that Dele Alli was outstanding. 

First, early on, he nicked the ball deep from Boro's midfield, surging forward to set up Heung-Min Son in acres of space. And before the break he teamed up with Christian Eriksen to run onto a seemingly impossible through ball and nearly finish at the near post. 

If I'm banging on about it, it's simply because there is a lot to say. And it is easy to forget that Dele, still just 20, is only in his second season at White Hart Lane and fourth as a senior pro. 

Have a look back through the YouTube videos - the skills, the deft touches and the way he tends to shift the ball past one opponent before nicking it out the way of another - and and you'll watch him in a different light the next time around. 

His quick feet, the driving runs, the positive attitude. This is a guy who runs with his head up - like we were all taught at school, but nobody could really master - taking in everything. 

He also does the business when really needed - just look at his comeback-inspiring goals against Wycombe and Manchester City.

At times he has the spontaneity of Gazza, the excitement of Gareth Bale, or the professor-like wisdom of Dimitar Berbatov. Oddly he still manages to bring something different to all of the above. 

At Spurs we are privileged to have seen those guys at close quarters, week-in week-out, however brief it was. But at the moment, Dele Alli looks like he has all the ingredients to eclipse all three.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The latest building block in Pochettino's Tottenham empire

Character. That was the buzz word when Tottenham's season fell apart at the end of last season. Well, now it's back at the forefront of the Spurs vocabulary but for entirely different reasons. 

In May, we were questioned for failing to end our 26-year Stamford Bridge hoodoo and for letting Arsenal nip ahead of us once again on the final day.

This season the big fear was that, despite Spurs' new-found reputation as the stylish troubadours of English football, those nagging old habits might continue to die hard. 

But with Saturday's thrashing of West Brom - a team we had not beaten at home since 2012 - it seems this squad are facing up to the shortfalls of the previous campaign and hitting them head on. 

Not just hitting them, but bludgeoning them. 

Southampton, Chelsea, West Brom. Each week seems like a new opportunity to right the wrongs of last spring and each week these guys are coming up trumps.

Records are mounting, hoodoos are lifting and, truth be told, I really don't know what to do with myself.

That's six wins on the bounce in the league that have seen 19 goals scored, just three conceded.

Of course, as we all know, these runs do not last forever and don't necessarily tell us much. Looking back to October 2011, Shola Ameobi's last-gasp equaliser for Newcastle slaps an ugly D (for draw) right in the middle of what would have been a massive ten-game winning run. Still, by the end of that season we were only fourth.

You just get the feeling these players are learning from mistakes and developing that "character" needed to really challenge.

Dele Alli missed last season's run-in after lashing out at Claudio Yacob, you could have forgiven him for wanting revenge when we faced the Baggies this time round. Instead he got his own back with a stand-out performance and a terrific assist to lay on Harry Kane's hat-trick finish.

Mousa Dembele lost his head against Chelsea in the Battle of the Bridge, gouging Diego Costa's eye (who wouldn't?), but this time round he kept his thumbnails to himself and even stayed out of the ref's book.

Heung-Min Son came close to leaving over summer after struggling to settle during his first year - but having got his head down he has now already matched last season's tally of eight goals.

Throughout the squad individuals are winning personal battles and showing progress in matters that maybe let them down last season. And you have to give the manager credit for that. 

Mauricio Pochettino showed his own character in encouraging a squad to bounce back from May's capitulation in the run-in.

Although he hardly nursed his players through the tough times. He did quite the opposite, in fact, laying the players wide open to criticism and challenging them to prove their worth.

In August he revealed he was "ready to kill" them for losing 5-1 to Newcastle on the final day. Poch has never been scared to reignite the title talk and in September he even compared 18-year-old (then 17) Marcus Edwards to Lionel Messi.

Pochettino is only too happy to apply the pressure to these players because he needs to know they can take it. He is building a squad that has to win home games regularly at Wembley next season, and must hit the ground running in a brand new 60,000 seater stadium. 

The gaffer is eyeing the top and he is not messing about. You only have to look at Ryan Mason and more latterly Tom Carroll to see that, while Pochettino is determined to show faith in young homegrown players, but he will also admit when it isn't working and move forward.

His patience clearly does have limits. Hopefully his character does not.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Spurs' biggest attendance proves their biggest problem at Wembley

Walking away from Wembley Stadium on Wednesday night, I felt I was beginning to understand the challenges Tottenham face in making the national stadium feel like home.

Controlling the game on a bigger pitch, keeping 85,000 home fans on side, not letting Arsenal's experience play on our minds etc.

But it turns out I was yet to encounter the biggest obstacle of all. Getting home. 

On the way down the ramp towards Olympic Way, big steps turned to little steps, then to pigeon steps, until finally we ground to a halt.

I looked up from texting my missus - finally enjoying some signal - to see I was near the back of a 40,000-plus queue for Wembley Park tube.

Suddenly I was not going to be home in the hour and a half I thought. And I began to sympathise with those supporters flocking towards the exits before full-time.

Initially, when fans started filing out on 85 minutes, after Harry Kane missed a gilt-edged chance to level the score, I was fuming. How can the players be expected to fight tooth and nail for one vital goal while the place is emptying out? Not real fans, I thought.

Now, faced with a sea of stationary heads, I understood. Wembley is a totally different beast. I had stayed to applaud the players because I had paid for a ticket and I think it's the right think to do win, lose or draw. Or I do usually. 

But it took me an hour and 40 minutes between full-time and getting on a tube at 11.10pm. I was going to South London, others I spoke to were going to Brighton, Coventry and Ipswich. I have no idea if they got home. 

Still, I have since read untold numbers of comments on Twitter where people have hammered those who left early… “pathethic", “disloyal”, “plastic fans”. Hurtful comments have progressed to arguments, others have waded in, and gradually you see chasms emerge between the differing factions in a crowd of 85,000. 

This is not the way to settle in at Wembley. Yes, if you have no care other than the club you support, it is right to stay until the end and stick by the team regardless - but accept other people’s situations.

When you have other priorities waiting, relying, on you - kids, pets, sick relatives, an early start for work or even a car parked somewhere you don't entirely trust - then waiting an extra 90 minutes paints the situation in a new light. 

Especially when the spectacle you came for was only 90 minutes anyway. 

From what I gather there were a few casualties in the queue but on the whole the authorities did a great job moving fans safely towards the tube station, it just takes a long time to clear that many people, so the situation is not going to change dramatically in the coming weeks.

And that means fans, real fans, who have their own priorities in life and have probably thought long and hard about making a difficult decision, will still be leaving before the final whistle. Next time round, with people knowing the travel situation, you may find that thousands more even look to make a sharp getaway.

But faced with the choice of people leaving early, or not being there at all, I would far prefer they came to support Tottenham Hotspur for 85 minutes, making sure this incredible arena is full at the start and the atmosphere electric for as long as possible.

Wembley might not have brought the right result but the experience as a whole was unforgettable. Walking up the gangway steps into a packed house of 85,000 roaring on your club is a privilege that very few get to enjoy - but petty squabbles, backbiting and turning on each other is a surefire way to spoil it. 

Of course, if there is a lesson the players themselves can take from this, it’s to take their chances and make sure the game is won long before people’s minds turn to getting home.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Euro 2016 final is clash of the sub-plots

The final of Euro 2016 will be a clash of the sub-plots - one a personal quest for ultimate glory, the other a seemingly unstoppable tide of public emotion.

France has been through a hell of a lot these past 18 months as terrorist atrocities have plunged the nation into doubt and insecurity. 

Just the fact the finals even went ahead, in the wake of November's horrific attacks, is a victory for human spirit over evil and fear.

You wondered at one stage how on earth the authorities could possibly ensure the safety of the millions of fans, players, tourists arriving for the tournament. 

Now France's story takes them back to the Stade de France on Sunday - where eight months ago the sound of two blasts sent football to the bottom of the priority list and chilled everyone inside to the core.

It is not right to go into the details - too many have lost those close to them to even do them justice.

Winning the European Championships will not make up for anything, it will not heal anything and it will not change anything. 

But it will put a smile back on the faces of a people who need it, and a people who have been so inspirational in the face of adversity that, frankly, they deserve it.

Standing between France and their third major title in 18 years are latter-stage regulars Portugal and one-man hall of fame Cristiano Ronaldo.

The skipper is the very embodiment of the notion of "self". Ronaldo courts the limelight, driven by glory, fuelled by records and guzzling up individual honours like a blue whale on plankton.

Yet there is still a hole in Ronaldo's trophy cabinet for international silverware.

His tears as hosts Portugal lost to Greece in their 2004 final left us thinking, "Well, his time will come." 

But after coming third in 2012 - losing a semi-final to eventual champions Spain - and reaching the semis in the 2006 World Cup - it was starting to look like Ronaldo's time on the international stage would never come.

Especially when his missed penalty against Austria left Portugal staring at a first-round Euro 2016 exit last month, only to eventually sneak through as a best third-place team.

It was plain and simple for all of us to see, Portugal were not good enough.

The steely determination of their usually ice-cool captain looked like it was beginning to give way to personal desperation but vitally they kept plugging away. 

Ronaldo has featured in Portugal's run to the final but has not been key. Unlike the opening games, they are no longer looking for him as their only outlet, with new starlet Renato Sanches coming to the fore.

Still, his desire is there for all to see. In the battle of the Galacticos against Gareth Bale's Wales in the semi-final, he just had to come out on top - he never would have forgiven himself.

And his header, which floored the gallant Dragons just after the break - a majestic leap and bullet connection high into the net - was proof that when Ronaldo wants something enough he can pretty much summon superhuman powers to do it.

After all, you don't score 260 goals for Real Madrid without having a ruthless streak and without being somewhat selfish.

But is Ronaldo's icy exterior beginning to thaw? After the semi-final, he described himself as "humble".

Not many would agree but you do get the feeling that he wants to be liked as well as looked at. 

And if the cold-blooded goal-scoring machine does stop to think about the backdrop against which France have arrived at the final, then it will certainly test his resolve. 

Overcoming the hearts and minds of a nation, even a continent, is surely Ronaldo's biggest challenge yet. 

Although failing might just prove that he is human once and for all.

Follow @Taxi_For_Maicon on Twitter

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Bale and Wales give Euro 2016 some much-needed sparkle

Each night the Eiffel Tower wows fans with spectacular light shows to round off the evening - now Wales have illuminated Euro 2016 all on their own. 

The famous landmark has been beaming out the colours of the day's big winners but, on the pitch at least, the latter stages of the tournament were in desperate need of some magic. 

That is until Chris Coleman's Dragons delivered not just an upset but an earthquake of continental proportions.

It is impressive enough a feat that this competition even went ahead, given the security fears and the likelihood of terrorism. 

The protection of the public - bar a few unsavoury hooligan incidents in the opening week - had been the overriding success story in France.

But Wales have changed all that and brought the spotlight firmly back to footballing matters. 

Against a backdrop of Iceland's win over England and Northern Ireland's shock progression to the knockouts, The little home nation have now ensured Euro 2016 will be remembered as the year of the underdog. 

Everyone howled and derided the decision to expand the tournament to 24 teams for this summer.

Critics claimed that it diluted the quality of a competition already dragged down by its qualifying process, which at times feels like wading through treacle.  But the success of a host of minnows has proved that you do not need a team full of superstars to succeed at international level.

Team? Yes. Superstars? No. 

Wales may have Gareth Bale but that was heavily outweighed against a Belgium squad chock full of world-class talent and ranked No 2 in the world.

Still, they stood toe to toe and came out on top. Well on top. 

Swansea's Ashley Williams dragged them level before Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes won it. 

Both of them plied their trade in the Championship last season but you never would have guessed it given the quality of their goals. 

Wales' motto for the whole tournament has been "Together, stronger" and the manner of the 3-1 victory over Belgium not only proved they are far more than a one-man team, but that Coleman's side are real contenders for this tournament.

They are upwardly mobile and by the time the festivities in France are over they may have shed their underdog tag altogether.

Wednesday's semi-final against Portugal now has a glamorous sub-plot: Gareth Bale v Cristiano Ronaldo.

In the battle of the Galacticos the two protagonists could not be more different.

Laid-back, light-hearted Bale, a unifying force in a team now oozing with confidence and scared of nobody.

Versus the intense and brooding Ronaldo: looking evermore gaunt and desperate, driven to distraction knowing this tournament might be his last-chance saloon for international silverware. 

Regardless of the ins and outs, it shows how far Wales have come in a few weeks. From Battle of Britain to world-renowned glamour tie, second only in stature to Ronaldo v Messi.

Wales fans will argue that matchup would pale into insignificance put next to their boys reaching the Paris final on July 10.

Few would now bet against their colours lighting up the Eiffel Tower again next Sunday.