On a warm summer night in Harrison, New Jersey, in an arena which provided the most surreal of settings, the patchwork collection of family members I dragged along and I were treated to a feast of often frustrating, ultimately satisfying and consistently entertaining football which provided a fairly telling preview of what to expect from Tottenham Hotspur next season.
Before I launch into my report for the match proper, I’d like to thank the enormous coalition of New York and London-based Spurs fans who turned up in the away section to create one of the better atmospheres I’ve experienced at any match of football, hands down (and I’ve witnessed Luton Town compete in the semi-final of the Johnson’s Paint Trophy from the home stand, so...). The energy and commitment of the fans (particularly in their consistent and highly amusing abuse of the increasingly harangued New York Red Bulls fan base) was remarkable for a friendly, and was so infectious that by the end of the match even my 54 year-old father, who struggles to demonstrate much enthusiasm for football in general let alone for Tottenham, was on his feet with his hands in the air joining in a chorus of "Oh When The Spurs".
The clapping, stomping and endless ringing choruses were badly needed in a turgid first half where Spurs struggled to click and present a threat to the opposing team. Jan Vertonghen’s hauling down of Tim Cahill for the penalty which opened the scoring was very disappointing and, in my opinion, a reflection of how much him and Dawson initially struggled with the high line style of defense, with both getting lobbed and sprung a number of times throughout the first half. To be fair to both, however, they were let down during the first half by the whole team failing to implement AVB’s preferred style of play, with the whole team often sloppily giving away possession and failing to press the opposition hard. So my first rumination on how the new-look Spurs will operate next season is this: the high line is going to suck a whole lot less when it features in an approach to the game that emphasizes total control of the direction of play. A key aspect of this will be domination of the midfield and, as much as I hate to say it, we were helped towards this end in the second half when the still rusty-looking Tom Huddlestone was hauled off for Jermaine Jenas, whose energy and workrate allowed us to dictate the tempo of the match a little better. The same can be said for Thomas Carroll, who looked confident on the ball and helped to retain the urgency of our passing moves.
A little more insight into how the system can be set up to work best next season can also be derived from a comparison of the games had by David Bentley and the man who replaced him at half-time, Andros Townsend. In the name of fairness I feel I need to say that Bentley showed a surprisingly good workrate during the 45 minutes he played, putting himself about a bit and trying to recycle play from wide positions. The problem, however, which should be glaringly obvious even to total football laymen, is that he can’t look like he fits AVB’s preferred style any less. He has no pace, no ability to make incisive moves into the box, and is completely unable to take on his man- all of our attempts to pressure the defense and penetrate into the box broke down completely when Bentley was involved.
These weaknesses were thrown into even sharper relief by the introduction of Townsend, who really is everything that everyone who’s watched him play this season has said he is. Townsend seems to thrive on using his pace and trickiness to force himself into that ‘acute’, awkward area of the box where a decent cut-across for the striker or a finish becomes child’s play. He had the Red Bulls defense completely at his mercy every time he surged forward and revelled in playing that ‘unsettler’ role that Gareth Bale became iconic for fulfilling in 2010. With an attacking midfielder as proficient as him covering on the left, I really started to wonder whether Bale on the right could become a more than illusory option for us next season.
Bale himself proved as enigmatic as ever having started the game as a striker and shifted out across both wings throughout the course of the second half. I don’t know how obvious it was on the TV, but having had the chance to witness his physicality, I’m starting to see why AVB seems to be eyeing him up a possible emergency forward option. He towered over the Red Bulls centre backs and got a head up to most of the set pieces that were thrown his way, consistently demonstrating a level of strength and determination in the aerial challenge we’ve only glimpsed from him in seasons past. He didn’t look half bad cutting in from the right either, even if he failed to conjure any meaningful efforts from this position during the game. Where exactly Bale settles down next season based on this evidence looks to be one of the more ambiguous and intriguing developments to look forward to.
My final main observation is that, despite what was officially announced, Gylfi Sigurdsson was far and away the man of the match on the night. Pretty much everything dangerous we conjured came from his boots- sitting right in the sweet spot between midfield and the forward, Siggy was our secret weapon for the night, exploiting seemingly benign positions on the pitch to suddenly spring another player free to have a pop on goal or make a surge into the box himself. It seemed like he could land his set pieces on a penny, and his goal was the most sublime finish I’ve seen a player make in a Spurs shirt since Bale’s curling beauty against Man City last season. My advice to you is to get Sigurdsson’s name printed on your new replica kit for this season because he is going to be absolutely huge for us this year.
All in the all, the football on display was entertaining for a friendly match and left me with a positive feeling for next season. Once again, the need for a striker to provide us with an outlet was thrown into sharp relief, and sadly I really don’t think Harry Kane is ready to provide that service for Spurs from what I saw from him on the night, as his indecisiveness and lack of confidence in the face of goal left him unable to build on a few decent half-chances. That issue aside, I do feel this is a side that has a lot of goals in it next season from other quarters, which should garnish what looks to be an exciting, Spursian approach to the game that it looks like we’re adopting. If we can click like we clicked in the second half on a consistent basis, those travelling fans who made my night will have plenty to sing about next season.