I guess you could call me a harsh critic of Coventry. It’s not like that’s been particularly difficult over the last few seasons, as the club’s fallen down tables and divisions in a truly heinous manner. And yes – I may occasionally question things that appear to many as insignificant or even irrelevant, when I ought to simply be content with enjoying a win.
So, on the face of it, a 3-0 defeat and very genuine thumping in the opening 45 minutes would normally render me catatonic with rage, or more likely, shame. We were annihilated 6-1 earlier in the season by Arsenal, which was probably one of my lowest points as a fan, as it taught me that we weren’t only a small club in the context of the footballing hierarchy, but had become a far smaller club culturally than I was prepared to accept.
Why then, after another one of those defeats on Saturday, do I feel quite so accepting of how things went? Let me run through the match, and do my best to explain.
At this point I would advise grabbing yourself a cup of tea, and possibly even one of those pink wafer biscuit that nobody knows the name of. There’s plenty to look at.
Gulf in class
Firstly, let’s be clear about this – the first half was embarrassingly one-sided. The gulf in class – technically, tactically and physically – was vast. We may have sat off them too much, but their speed and strength of play was brutal in any case, and their anticipation of every mistake was constant. They toyed with our obvious fear and made the gap between the sides look like five divisions, not two.
What caught us most by surprise however was just how better they were than Arsenal. The obvious comparison we all made beforehand was between these two north London clubs, and even during the game we had a go at undermining Spurs’ dominance by reference the 6-1 pounding we’d taken at the Emirates. It got a few laughs, but that was little more than pantomime – and we knew it.
Against Arsenal, we were poor while they were clinical. The pace of the game was frantic too, and players like Walcott and Chamberlain showed they’re very much superior to anything we’re used to. But as a team, the gulf wasn’t quite so obvious. Yes, they scored six, but the goals came through our own lack of self-belief. As with most teams at that level, they took advantage and made us look silly. But it took them 45 minutes to really assert themselves and the final scoreline was wholly avoidable.
Things were much different on Saturday. Spurs hit us like a freight train from the kick-off. We made a sequence of three passes just twice in the opening 7 or 8 minutes, and our touch showed every sign of a team that was desperately struggling to come to terms with the speed of game with which Tottenham were enforcing.
Of course there was an element of illusion about it, so even when our players were given time on the ball, they were so entranced by Tottenham’s speed, there was often panic when in reality, no panic was there.
Conversely, the opposition had plenty of space to hold onto the ball and became intensely deliberate in their distribution. This wasn’t a performance that we’ve become used to in our previous meetings with top league opponents, most notably Manchester United and Blackburn. The keen pressing simply wasn’t there. We took those moments to catch our breath, while going through the motions of tracking the ball along their back line.
It was rabbits in headlights – for the fans as much as the players. For me, talk of an upset was well off the cards once they’d taken the lead, even though it wasn’t the goals where the dominance lay.
We’ve all seen those games where teams destroy their opponents only to concede something sloppy. But you never got that feeling about Saturday. Bale was imperious, Scott Parker was metronomic, and even Gylfi Sigurdsson – who while a fine player, holds a relatively humble background – was scarily mobile.
The goals themselves were all soft. We were punch drunk and were left reeling from the high-paced attacks, rendering us statuesque at set-pieces in particular.
The opener was a case-in-point as the team stood bemused as Bale flicked on a free-kick for Dempsey to stroke home without a Sky Blue player able to influence the situation at all.
Spurs had to wait a little while for the second, but when it came it felt equally as tame, with Bale drifting beyond Jordan Clarke to slide the ball into the goal at the far post. It wasn’t a simple finish by any means, but it’s one of those balls you allow to run by you in League One. Not on this stage though, and Bale could not believe his luck.
It was funny – for all the high-class flicks, tricks, runs and shots that were on show, the goals came through good old fashioned quick reactions and dependable technique. Oh, and soppy defending.
Dempsey grabbed what proved to be the final goal of the game on 37 minutes as the ball plonked onto his head from another corner, and he somehow managed to loop his header beyond a goalkeeper, Jordan Clarke, and a leaping Carl Baker on the line. The goal seemed to surprise Dempsey, but not the Sky Blue Army behind the goal – all resilience seemed to have gone from the team, and with Spurs in such a forthright mood, our minds began to wander from 1987 repetition, towards avoiding another tonking.
It was a first half from hell. Of all the players, Richard Wood was really the only one who seemed genuinely comfortable in his skin as a professional footballer. He went about his duties in the same manner he always does, and while the majority around him were shaking, he was sweeping up what he could along the back line.
Come the second half, things could have gone one of two ways. We’d either settle into the game and recognise that even with a faster pace, there were still opportunities to keep the ball.
Or we’d continue in the same manner and receive a righteous spank.
And this is where the pragmatism of my evaluation starts to kick in. In the opening period, we were shocking, because Spurs were so good, they caused that shock. Our play was frantic and frenetic, and even the players we assumed could cope with this – namely Bailey, Jenning and Moussa – stuttered. Our three central players came under intense observation as they were charged with imposing themselves against some of the top midfielders in the country, whilst also finding a way of developing meaningful attacks.
It came as no surprise that these were the players who were eventually replaced over the course of the match. But in reality, what could they do?
When you come to these games, your biggest hope is that the opposition have a dodgy day. It’s always possible, and if they’d messed up a few passes in the opening ten minutes, and we’d strung a few decent passes together, the dynamics of the game could have been a little different. The majority of players entertain doubt on a football pitch – place the seed of concern in their mind, and he’ll think twice about running at you, trying that pass, or attempting that flick. Yes, he’s no doubt capable of executing it, but if doubt prevents him and he makes a hesitant decision, that’s a portion of your battle won.
We caught Spurs on a day where they realised immediately that they were considerably better than us, and they capitalised. It was a lesson for our players as they were forced to scrap and fight for balls and unopposed passes that’d be regulation at our level. Our tentative manner from the start cost us, but what we can take from the game is the experience of playing such a gifted team. We won’t face anyone close to that standard again this season.
It’s a simplistic deduction, but going into Thursday’s game having played the likes of Gareth Bale and Adebayor, the drop in quality has to feel drastic. There’s surely an opportunity to use this to our advantage.
We can also take heart and a lot of credit for how we composed ourselves in the second half, and showed great levels of concentration to keep the score down to 3; adaptability to come to terms with the strength and pace of those Spurs players; but also creativity as we started to cause the Tottenham defence some issues of our own.
Assou-Ekotto and Dawson were the two who we can be encouraged by our approach against. These are top Premiership players, but we regularly worried them, and forced mistakes and moments of uncertainty.
Other positives have to be the impact and influence on the game of the subs. Conor Thomas was clearly a stand-out performer in his 30 minute cameo. He has great attributes, but I’d grown hesitant about his readiness for the first team following a tricky introduction last season. Come the end, it appeared he may have lost some self-belief.
Yesterday, he arrived on the pitch, head held high with a totally different air about him. He was making tackles again, alert to the the game around him and showing great maturity in possession. He looked fully comfortable in the company of some top players, and what was absolutely key for me – he looked like he really enjoyed himself and was eager to make a difference. This culminated in him setting up a goal for Gary McSheffrey that was chalked off for offside.
Another arrival on the pitch later on in the game was John Fleck for Steven Jennings, who started to have a nightmare for the ten minutes prior to his removal. You’re probably aware that I’m a big fan of Jennings, but he may need to work doubly-hard to retain his place in the team following a couple of below-par recent performances by his standards.
Fleck however, impressed once more. What was most striking was the position he took up. We were all sold this vision of him being a floating attacker and have focused on his inclusion being dependent on that position being available. He’s proving that assumption wrong.
He took up what some of you may thinks as the Paul Scholes position. While not as defensively minded as you’d expect for that area, and absolutely no reckless tackling, he actually produced a performance akin to the ideology of the ridiculed “quarterback” role.
What John Fleck does – and it’s something I don’t think we’ve been able to fully appreciate yet – is gain a very unique and creative picture of the game. Unfortunately, he’s not a very imposing figure and has often found himself bullied in the crowded attacking third, while also lacking the pace to enjoy life as a genuine winger.
But give him time to take a look up, and the man can really spot a pass. And we’re not talking effortless 40 yard passes to Jordan Clarke in yards of space; we’re talking intricate balls in behind full-backs, or disguised reverse numbers against the movement of the defence, as we saw for the disallowed goal.
He too looked like he really enjoyed the opportunity to test himself at White Hart Lane, and was at home on the pitch. Following his last three appearances in the middle, he’s doing all he can to be considered for inclusion. It may take an adjustment to our strategy and the way we seek to gain solidity in the middle of the park – but if Robins is a man who makes decisions based on form, this is one he’s going to have to seriously consider.
I realise that’s quite a hefty assessment of events from the weekend and up to now I haven’t really justified in any clear manner exactly why I’m not too downbeat. But at its core, it was a really useful learning experience for the players to expose themselves against some of the very best – it’s only going to improve them as they return to the gritty life of League One.
It was also a great experience for me as a fan, because sometimes I get carried away with demanding high standards, and make little adjustment between what I see from the Premiership sides, and what is on offer up at the Ricoh. It was important for me to see both aspects on the same pitch together, as it allowed me to finally make that very direct comparison. What was even more crucial was being up against a team on top of its game rather than an Arsenal side who were making plenty of mistakes, but were gifted goals. All I took from that match was how completely avoidable the hammering was.
This saw us approach an extremely tough test, and exposed us to a range of in-game scenarios against some of the best around. Sure, Spurs slowed the pace down a little in the second half, but their shape and concentration remained the same. We gradually grew more and more into things and still needed to be fully attentive just to ensure it didn’t go beyond 3-0.
It remained a test throughout, and I needed to see that. We’re not a Premiership club anymore, and as hard as it is to accept a reduced level of quality for a fan with aspirations like mine, it’s actually far clearer to me whereabouts we are in the grand scheme of things now. We had to work our socks off just to stay afloat in that game, but we stuck to it, and even showed some of our own quality at times as things wore on.
Yes, we were given a footballing lesson, but it’s something that’ll be far more beneficial to the team than the hammering they took against a sub-par Arsenal back at the beginning of Robins’ reign. From that, we learned absolutely nothing, aside from the realisation that even our own fans think we’re shit.
Fortunately that no longer seems to be the case, and I’m positive we can respond well.