Cock of the North – Spurs and Hartlepool thoughts

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The more observant amongst you have probably spotted that I’ve not said anything about the Spurs result, and barely anything about the Hartlepool game that preceded it.  That’s 50% down to me being busy, 20% down to that “I’ve got ages, there’s a fortnight before we play again” feeling that comes with every international break and 30% one swallow not making a summer.  It would be way too easy for me to jump up and down, pointing fingers and telling people I told you so, but (apart from it not being the sort of thing I’d do to start off with) following a victory over a third division side with a nicking of points for our first top flight in the capital could mean just as much as the initial two defeats did when it comes to the final reckoning.

The Hartlepool game was neither here nor there when it came to it.  You’d have expected Latics to win it and they did.  Well, you’d have expected them to win in unless you were a journalist, a Sky pundit, the man on the street or a Latics fan for that matter.  About the only people who weren’t expecting a “giant killing” were probably the Pools fans, and even they must have had a sneaky feeling they could pull something off.  The hounds were baying for blood whether it be in our cheeks or from the sacrifice of the manager.

In the end everyone went home happy, a professional turn out from a changed, but still strong team meant those Latics fans who wanted to could breathe a sigh of relief and those who didn’t could rely on the fact that we didn’t dominate throughout.  The media had free reign on whether to congratulate, commiserate or just point to the fact that Hartlepool had their chances and *could* have equalised before the final two goals put things out of their reach. 

If they could manage that then Spurs were surely in for a bagful on the Saturday, right?  Well, I wouldn’t go all that far, but it’s true to say that the only real cause for confidence from the league cup game was the sort that comes from seeing your keeper make a couple of saves.

That’s not to be critical of Chris Kirkland but his recent form (this season and last) could best be described as wretched and being one of the good guys of the game can’t excuse poor performances.  The question of whether Bobby would have the guts to drop the man that had worn his captain’s armband for the previous two league games was made irrelevant with captain Kirk picking up a niggle during the week (insert your own Repetitive Strain Injury joke here).

How much significance did that change have?  Would it be lazy to point to the clean sheet iced with a couple of top class saves?  Can you ever put everything in the performance of the man between the sticks? 

Every game has it’s key moments that decide the outcome.  The early goal that Latics never recovered from against Blackpool, N’Zogbia’s slip to let Cole in against Chelsea and Diame’s lazy control that turned a run of the mill defeat into a rout in the same game.  At Spurs the game changer came in the first half when Defoe managed to get between our centre halves and get plenty behind his shot on the turn.  It’s impossible to run a mental replay without seeing the ball hit the back of the net and Latics respond with yet another collapse. 

But Sky+ still shows al Habsi’s save (I’ve checked) and although there was more to the overall performance, that was the difference between losing or not, right there.

As important as that one moment might have been, it was nothing without the 93 minutes either side of it.  Latics deliberately set out to nullify Spurs’ threat down the wings with Boyce and Stam doubling up on the right and Diame spending a good deal of time helping Figueroa out down the left.  It worked as Lennon and Bale were largely anonymous. 

Certainly Latics looked more solid than they have thus far this season but surely they’d suffer going forward?  It’s a tough comparison, as Latics struggle to create chances for so many reasons, but they didn’t look particularly better or worse in attack than you’d expect in a game against a champions league side.  It was a bit of a grind at times and for the third game on the bounce, Boselli had the thankless task of turning his fox in the box skills to leading the line, but, thanks to some forced errors, Latics had their chances and could have been in front early on, Boselli in particular spurning a gifted chance that you’d be expecting a £6m man to tuck away.

Still this performance was more about containment and through a mixture of keeping possession and absorbing pressure Latics kept Spurs at arms length until it all went off in a fairly crazy period with about 15 minutes to go.  As Spurs got desperate they left themselves open at the back and let Latics in for a series of breaks. 

Alcarez’s chance will go down as miss of the season, once we’ve recovered from seeing a centrehalf running 80 yards up field in the closing stages of a game where we’re supposed to be keeping things tight, Gomez was unlucky to be asked to get on the end of a cross that was a little too high (he doesn’t strike you as the diving header type, does he?) and then Rodallega put away the least likely of the three chances.  Goalkeeper should have got it?  We’re not in the business of worrying about such things, it was deserved and you’d have to be really blinkered to say otherwise.

The catalyst for this spell was arguably the replacement of Gomez, the Spaniard did ok, but the change freed Rodallega from his role on the left and allowed him to cause trouble where he saw fit.  Plenty will jump on this as the answer to our attacking woes but the most key aspect of the change was the timing, just as Spurs were pushing forward and leaving their central defence isolated.  I’m fairly sure that Hugo would have been left as equally frustrated had he started in the centre and maybe without the energy to make the most of the space afforded to him later on.

Whilst this game may show the way to a tighter, more resilient Latics, the situation with Rodallega shows that it’s not as cut and dried as playing two right backs and sticking him up front.  The tactics, as much as the personnel were key in getting the right result.  The Boyce/Stam partnership was important but essentially there’s no reason that N’Zogbia couldn’t provide the same level of cover.  I wouldn’t expect to see the same team against Sunderland, but who knows maybe it would be better to keep a more defensive approach until things have settled down a bit more.

The weirdest thing about the Spurs result was watching the headlines roll in like this was the biggest victory of Latics time in the Premier League.  My initial reaction was “Spurs away, surely not?” until, on about my fourth match review.  It occurred to me that Tottenham landed themselves in the top four last season and that effectively this was the same as beating Liverpool at Anfield in other recent seasons.  So reasons to celebrate then?  Nah, let’s wait until we’ve a couple of wins under our belt before we start telling people that we told them so.

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