Cup games away from home to lower-league opposition are a case of mind over matter. In reality, top flight sides that fall victim to the overly marketed ‘magic of the cup’ are rarely outplayed, but defeat themselves by approaching the ties with the wrong attitude. In the same way that playing a relegation threatened side toward the end of the season is routinely dubbed a potential banana skin due to their lack of anything to lose, the same cautiousness should surround cup ties of a similar nature. Leeds United are not a better team than Tottenham Hotspur; they do not have a better manager, a better squad or a better way of playing football, but when it mattered they had the better attitude and the greater desire to succeed.
I was at the game so didn’t get to see the television coverage, but I’ll be shocked if the cliched phrase that games aren’t won and lost on paper wasn’t uttered at least the once. The team chosen by Andre Villas-Boas had enough about them in theory to beat Leeds fairly comfortably whilst simultaneously controlling the pace of the game, also giving an opportunity to fringe players to make a case for their inclusion in higher profile fixtures. Names such as Defoe and Dawson missing from the team sheet wasn’t cause for much concern before the game, a mere raise of the eyebrow later I remained sold on the aim of team selected; score early, attack quickly and let our retention of possession nullify the threat of the Leeds attack.
Why didn’t we have any urgency going forward? Why did we appear to get worse after conceding rather than regrouping to improve?
However the spirit on display in the stands was worryingly a complete juxtaposition of what was evident on the pitch. If the game was a record the sleeve would tell the owner to spin it at 45rpm, yet some of those dressed as the evil Blackburn appeared to be playing the game at 33. Warnock’s game plan wasn’t at all revolutionary either; Leeds did little more than sit in organised banks of four, kick those in possession and play on the break, but their commitment to the cause put their Premier League counterparts to shame. Tactically speaking, that approach wouldn’t sustain a side across a league season, but it’s almost perfect in a cup run; just ask Roberto Di Matteo. It’s not the first time this has happened to Tottenham against Warnock either, I recall losing to his Sheffield United side away in their most recent appearance in the top flight under very similar circumstances.
But if the team appeared lethargic when the game began, they looked absolutely shellshocked when they fell one behind to Varney’s goal. The entire right hand side of the defence occupied by Naughton and Caulker seemed unnecessarily out of position in the blink of an eye, allowing Varney free reign down the flank and toward goal at a difficult angle. Not for the first time this season, Friedel’s reluctance to leave his line by even more than inch gifted the goalscorer a much larger percentage of the goal to aim at than he should have had, making the finish easier than it would have been should he have been proactive and looked to smother the ball at the attackers feet. Yet a goal down I wasn’t panicked; I expected a reaction, more urgency and class to take hold of the game. I got nothing but more of the same for the rest of the half.
Stood watching a series of pissed Leeds fans miss an open-goal from 15 yards in what was apparently half-time entertainment, I found myself pondering what had gone wrong thus far and trying to work out a way back in to the game. Why didn’t we have any urgency going forward? Why did we appear to get worse after conceding rather than regrouping to improve? Were players looking out of their depth like Sigurdsson and Naughton simply not good enough to wear the shirt full stop? How was Tom Huddlestone playing in slow-motion while the rest of the game passed him by in real time? Does Brad Friedel actually know his area is an 18 yard box and not 3? Has Jan Vertonghen been out playing out in the snow again all week because he still doesn’t look up to scratch from what I’ve seen? Did Clint Dempsey know he was supposed to be playing as a false-nine rather than the false footballer he was currently resembling? Was Aaron Lennon scared to take possession of the ball incase he disappointed his family, who were sat a few rows behind me in the Spurs end? My crisis of confidence however came and went; we were about to make substitutions, show our class and take the second half by the scruff of the neck.
As ‘Marching On Together’ rang out on the tannoy for what seemed the 1000th time the teams trudged out for the second half, zero substitutions having been made. The opening exchanges followed the same pattern as the first half did, Tottenham offering as much penetration as a castrated dog in the final third, wasting what half chances they mustered. In what seemed a fit of deja-vu, Leeds again somehow found themselves behind the majority of the defence, Stephen Caulker looking a shadow of the player he’s been all season as Ross McCormack turned him inside-out before beating a needlessly helpless Friedel. With Caulker blocking the shot the near post, it was clear the left-footed McCormack would strike toward the far-side of the goal, yet Friedel’s limp dive was an untimely reminder of why he’s now more regularly a substitute.
Tottenham’s route back in to the game came from two things happening in tandem that had lacked for the rest of the game; Gareth Bale taking his full-back to the line and getting in a decent final ball, and Clint Dempsey getting an attempt on target. Miraculously, we had hope we didn’t really deserve. With the goal came two substitutions that could have arguably been made at halftime, as Dembele came on to assist Parker in showing composure in the middle and Obika was given a rare appearance to help aid Dempsey up front. The fightback lasted all of 10 minutes in all honesty, Tottenham’s best period coinciding with Leeds worst. Little was created in the way of clear cut chances, in their place however were several infuriating meanders inside from Aaron Lennon resulting in overplayed through balls, and on the occasions he found it within him to beat his full-back, his delivery appeared to revert to a level at which it would have been when he actually played for Leeds.
Leeds United are not a better team than Tottenham Hotspur; they do not have a better manager, a better squad or a better way of playing football, but when it mattered they had the better attitude and the greater desire to succeed.
I spent the last 20 minutes of the game turning back and forth between the game and checking the clock on the scoreboard I was stood underneath, any faint hope for an equaliser slowly diminishing with every passing minute. As my phone began to vibrate at a rate comparable to a females pleasure device in my pocket, Gareth Bale showed his skill pirouetting past his full back and Jonathan Obika spurned the only decent chance for an equaliser by possessing a first-touch about as cultured as the variety of Jimmy Savile chants sung by Tottenham fans toward their Leeds counterparts. Crumbling to peer-pressure from pointing and screaming away fans around him, Brad Friedel reluctantly made his way forward for a late free-kick which came to nothing, a third Leeds goal from their own half in to an open goal cruelly never counting as the final whistle was mercifully finally blown.
I expected a reaction, more urgency and class to take hold of the game. I got nothing but more of the same for the rest of the half.
Nothing new was learnt by today’s deserved defeat, but plenty was reaffirmed; the desperate need for investment up-front, a desire for creative spark coming from midfield in to the final third – an early move for Holtby looking more appealing by the day. My Mum once told me that “s**t happens – it’s how you respond to it and come back from it that defines you”. Had I been delivering the post-match team talk, that’s exactly what I would’ve told them; with Norwich away only 3 days away, we have little time for reflection, and anything less than a drastically improved performance will be nothing short of unacceptable.