the stomach punch

It’s been a long few days since the final whistle echoed from Mike Dean’s whistle at the Emirates last Sunday, and yet the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach has yet to subside. As a Tottenham supporter, I feel like the much-hyped North London Derby was a patented Bill Simmons’ “stomach punch” result.

Tottenham's Brad Friedel and Ledley King
by the look of their body language, both brad and ledley know how i feel.

Those readers familiar with ESPN writer Bill Simmons will know exactly what feeling I’m talking about… but for those you still in the dark, take this quick detour to catch up to speed.

Losing so badly to your biggest rival is always going to be a painful experience, but the manner in which Spurs fell to the Gooners and the banter/circumstances/hype that surrounded the match pre-kick off combined to make watching this loss the football equivalent of swallowing a medieval flail painful. We entered the match as favorites, sprung out to an early lead, and crashed spectacularly by allowing five unanswered goals. Out classed, out hustled, and out thought: it was an ass kicking of the highest order.

However, if I’m really attempting to use Simmon’s Levels of Losing system to describe how the 5-3 shalacking felt to a Spurs supporter, I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly a “Stomach Punch” match by definition, despite it feeling like I took one the gut. But just because it isn’t that level of a loss, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t actually be classified into several of Bill’s other categories in that column. Actually, the loss was so freaking comprehensive that simply placing it into a single level of losing doesn’t really do it justice. Let’s examine how and why this match disparagingly fits into so many categories in detail.

Level X: The Monkey Wrench
A match where either a) the manager of your team made an idiotic game decision or b) a referee robbed your team of impending victory.

Like any typical fan, the first scapegoat I targeted after a loss of this magnitude was the referee. And being completely honest, Mike Dean had a nightmare out there. And though I’d love to blame him for the Spurs’ woes, it’s important to remember that his nightmare was in both directions. His inconsistency affected both sides of the battle, and he really set a negative tone for the match by letting it get very chippy, very early. It was almost like he had been looking forward to dealing out a deck’s worth of cards, and invited it by allowing rough play from the opening whistle.

However, I’m not dense enough to think it was his fault Spurs lost so dramatically. Nor do I think his decisions swayed the outcome in the slightest. No, the root cause for this loss falls squarely on the shoulders of Tottenham’s own manager-in-demand, Harry Redknapp.

I can see the logic in why Harry opted for the same starting line-up that featured in the 5-1 demolishing of Newcastle two weeks before. But in trotting out a traditional 4-4-2 formation this past Sunday, you had to wonder if ‘Arry even remembered who we were playing. This wasn’t the depleted Newcastle side that we faced the week before — who were missing two of their normal back four (the Taylors) and their two most mercurial midfielders (Tiote and Cabaye) — but instead a balanced Arsenal 4-3-3 with a world-class striker at its apex.

My mother could have told you that the Woolrich were going to play through the middle with the extra man, and they were always going to dominate possession with only two men in the Spurs midfield. The numerical disadvantage itself was at least partially at fault for Parker’s sending off. Outnumbered, Scotty was trying to do it all on his own and, as a result, made some badly timed, lunging tackles.

Tottenham's Louis Saha
why harry chose to take off saha, who had been working twice as hard as adebayor, still confounds me.

The gaffer recognized his folly by the half, and he had the team revert to the 4-3-3 that’s brought them so much success this year… but the choices Redknapp went with to make that happen probably were only half right. Kranjčar made way for the extra central midfielder we so vitally needed in Sandro, but then van der Vaart came on for Saha to help aid possession. The problem with that was two-fold.

First, Saha wasn’t the striker that needed to come off. Adebayor was embarrassingly worthless, having reverted back to the unmotivated and lazy bastard we all hated during his stints at Arsenal and City. His work ethic was pitiful, he was constantly fishing for calls, and was generally out of position for the entirety of the match. Saha might not have the same potential in his old-man legs any longer, but at least he was using them.

Secondly, Lennon should have come in instead of Rafa. While I get the idea of bringing on the Dutchman to help wrestle away a bit of the possession, I think stretching the Arsenal defense with speed on both flanks would have been more effective than trying to beat Arsenal at the possession game they hold so central to their cause. Instead, he left Bale to wander the middle of the park like an Alzheimer’s patient and put Rafa right in the same space to do the same thing.

On the whole, it was if Harry had no clue how to approach the match. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say with the way he screwed the pooch with the match tactics, I’d think he was trying dissuade the FA from offering him for the England job. After that match, maybe I’d rather he goes anyway.

The interesting thing about the game falling into “The Monkey Wrench” category is how a good chunk of the referee qualification actually came from the Gunner faithful, who were still moaning about Dean’s decisions even after they won. The most common complaints included his awarding Gareth Bale a 33rd minute penalty for a supposed dive, and Arsenal not being awarded for two early penalties of their own for a handball on Parker and a foul on Gibbs. First off, all of those were actually correct decisions. Both Gibbs (right leg) and Szczesny (left leg) caught Bale ever-so-slightly for the penalty call, the Parker handball was unintentional and would have been extremely harsh to give, and Gibbs literally collapsed into his defender when he realized he was about to lose the ball. Secondly, quit bitching… you won, by a hefty margin. There were even a few overly enthusiastic claims that Dean was caught celebrating Tottenham’s second goal… again, from fans whose team won the damn match.

Level IX: The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking
Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”… you just want it to end, and it won’t end. … but you can’t look away. It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a ninety minute torture session.

Arsenal's Theo Walcott
if someone would have told me before the match that walcott would have a brace in the NLD, i would have laughed in their face.

Now I’m sure a load of you are screaming, “But Tottenham were up 2-0 inside of 35 minutes!” But that’s just looking at the scoreline, which told very little of the events unfolding on the field. Yes, Arsenal’s defense was horrendous in the opening half… but so was Tottenham’s. No Spurs fan in their right mind saw that opening and thought to themselves, “We’ve got this one in the bag.” I also don’t think there’s a single one of us out there that would say that this match wasn’t a full-fledged butt-kicking either.

Despite the early success with two goals, Spurs remained overly reliant on the direct route in hoofing it up to Ade/Saha. When it became apparent that this method no longer worked and Harry changed to the wider formation Tottenham should have started with in the first place, they still tried to hoof it up to a guy that wasn’t even working for the ball. Instead of bringing on Lennon and pushing Bale back out to the wing to provide a dual threat, they left him isolated, out of position in the middle. By the time they attempted to play a more possession-oriented, wider game, Arsenal had run away with the match.

It was horrible watching it go down, knowing there was nothing the boys could even do to flip the result. I would literally rather be water-boarded than be forced to watch the last 48 minutes of that match again.

Level II: The Goose/Maverick Tailspin
Cruising happily through the regular season, a potential top four team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. 

This potential end result currently haunts my nightmares. Could this match have been the tipping point for entire season? Sure, it’s a very gloomy outlook on the effects of the match, but it’s not as if these types of collapses haven’t happened before.

Going into the match, Spurs held a relatively massive 10-point lead over their hated neighbors, a figure that could have ballooned to an insane 13 points if they had won. We had definitely been the better side up to this point in the season — at least on a consistency front — and look assured of a Champions League spot next season. Arsenal seemed ripe for the picking, fresh off of a blowout in Milan (who we scraped by last year) and a particularly poor performance against Sunderland in the FA Cup. To me, it was clear that the Tottenham players all thought they thought they could walk in and mop the floor with the Gunners… in their own kitchen, no less.

After the loss though, we’re now sitting a worryingly narrow seven points above the Gunners. With United lying in wait next weekend — and Parker suspended for his idiotic red card — that gap could easily be whittled to four points if the Arse can manage a win away to a buoyed Liverpool. If we do suffer defeat at Old Trafford too, it could be a difficult task to resuscitate our mojo for the home stretch of the season. And if we struggle to recapture that early season form, we could find ourselves slipping into a dogfight with the rivals we once felt so comfortably ahead of in the race for the Champions League.

———————————————————————

Many of my fellow Yiddos are calling for calm in this “crisis”, and rightly so. There’s a lot of season left to play out, and at least Spurs do have a margin — albeit a narrower one — to help fend off competition for European places. Both Chelsea and Arsenal have a tough schedule ahead of them too, so there’s plenty of chances for them both to drop points.

But I’m still going to sound the alarm simply because that’s what I do best. And we probably deserved the loss as karmic retribution for old ‘Arry letting Adebayor take a penalty in front of the Arsenal crowd.

Long story short, losing to Arsenal scares me. And though it’s been bad having their uppity fans rub the loss in our faces, it would be even worse if they ended up in the higher position at the close of the season. We handed our closest rivals a big boost, hopefully it won’t come back to punch us in the stomach again in May.

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