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Sheff Utd 1-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Ndombele’s Goal

Oddly enough, nobody has yet asked me to sit down with them and explain the rhyme and reason to the penning of my thoughts on Tottenham games, but were they to do so I would top up their bourbon and explain that sometimes these things are deliberately sculpted chronologically, and sometimes simply dictated by whim – but today it feels like it would be inappropriate to begin anywhere other than with the undoubted highlight of the production, the glorious parabola spawned from the outside of Tanguy Ndombele’s right boot.

Not that we should have been surprise, for fair warning had been sounded in the first half of the level of sorcery that could emanate from the aforementioned limb, when Ndombele had contrived to ping a pass, again with the outer-right clog, curled in between two opponents and around the back of the full-back, into the path of Aurier.

That touch had the punters purring, but the goal was on another level, prompting some pretty wild and joyous exclamations at AANP Towers, and no doubt in other lilywhite-tinged domiciles about the land.

Decorum of course dictates that in such circumstances those labouring behind the scenes are given due recognition. As such a ripple of polite applause is due to young Master Bergwijn, for general shimmying followed by a chipped pass that released the hero of the hour.

But at this point few amongst us, on surveying the scene, would have pulled out a wad of notes from their pocket and with a knowing nod bet handsomely on the next action being a first-time effort into the net. The laws of physics, while not rendering the thing impossible, certainly stacked up against our man. To this amateurish eye the three most salient points in the Debit column seemed to be that i) Ndombele at this point was trotting off in the opposite direction to goal; ii) the ball was mid-air and showing few signs of deviating from this mode of travel; iii) all of the above was taking place on the left of the goal, and as such, on Ndombele’s weaker foot.

Some of the more curmudgeonly amongst us have rather sniffily proposed that what happened next was a man misplacing a pass, nothing better than a hopeful lob of a grenade into a loosely advantageous error. Democracy, of course, permits and indeed encourages the voicing of such wildly erroneous opinions. Here at AANP Towers however, there was not a shred of doubt that Ndombele’s only thought was to attempt the near-impossible, and dink it via that exact arc, and into that exact spot.

I’m not sure any other trajectory could have rendered the goalkeeper quite so impotent (although to be honest, judging by his dramatic but ineffective flap at Kane’s goal, I doubt that such perfection was necessary to best the chap). It was a thing of skill and beauty – and for added aesthetic pleasure the ball entered the net via the foot of the post, as if simply thrilled to be part of the action.

2. Mentality

As it happened, when the entire operation is viewed as a whole, the timing of Ndombele’s goal was arguably of greater importance than the execution.

The mists of time might obscure the fact, but having breezed into a two-goal lead at the break, our heroes surprised absolutely nobody in the second half by easing up on the accelerator, showing less appetite for a ruck and gradually shuffling back towards their own goal. Inevitably, we conceded, and for approximately a minute and a half thereafter all manner of fruity curses escaped the lips, as the usual tortuous narrative looked set to unfold.

However, before there was opportunity for the prophets of doom to clear their throats and really get down to business, Ndombele had executed the world’s greatest toe-poke, and with the two-goal buffer restored we were able to progress to 90 in pretty serene fashion.

I am still inclined to veer between nervous and downright irate as I drink in our heroes’ approach to leading any given match, as there so rarely seems to be what an impartial observer would classify as genuine intent to score again and thereby eliminate all doubt.

Even in the first half, after the customary early goal, it seemed to be perfectly within our gift to stretch United and carve out chances, simply by increasing the intensity of our play by a notch or two. And yet ,rather than be possessed by an almost rabid desire to do precisely that, the mood around the camp seemed to be that actually a one-goal lead was plenty and there was no real imperative to double that.

Admittedly we did not immediately react to taking the early lead by surrendering possession and camping on the edge of our own penalty area, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for that much. Every now and then we upped a gear – and immediately looked threatening. It just seemed odd that we did not therefore adopt this higher-intensity approach for more of the half.

Mercifully, Sheffield United simply weren’t particularly good. None in their ranks were remotely capable of finishes of the quality of either Kane’s or Ndombele’s, nor of the creative spark of the likes of Lookman, Eze, Neto et al in recent weeks.

3. The Midfield Pair

Jose, one gets the impression, was not formed in the womb in the same way as you and I. So, for example, where most presumably enjoy seeing our lot knock the living daylights out of whomever is in our way, Jose seems instead to thrive upon a backs-to-the-wall one-nil.

But more positively, where the mere mortal would note that we’re playing the worst team in the league and tell the usual rabble to do proceed in their usual manner, Our Glorious Leader spotted the myriad benefits of deploying wing-backs to silence their wide threat, and dispensed with the usual defensive extra midfielder, instead using a third centre-back.

And credit where due, the man certainly knows how to pull tactical strings. The formation allowed both Aurier and Reguilon to fill their attacking boots, while still providing ample defensive cover (although Dier might want to buy young Master Rodon a post-match shandy or two, for a couple of timely sprints that doused threatening flames when he had sold himself far too cheaply).

The availability of Aurier and Reguilon meant that there we were rarely short of attacking options – the challenge, as noted above, was more that for patches of the game we did not seem to show the intensity to hammer this home.

Critical to the success of this formation tweak was the impressive shift put in by the central midfield pair. Both Hojbjerg and Ndombele were at the peak of their powers, whether donning their defensive hats and bearing down on opponents, or adding their presence and keeping possession ticking along in more attacking areas.

In fact, our second goal came about from Hojbjerg marrying these two delights, applying pressure in the attacking third and thereby winning possession from United high up the pitch, in a manner last witnessed to similarly fruitful effect against Leeds a couple of weeks ago. Having won possession behind enemy lines, as it were, he then did the sensible thing and shoved it with minimal fuss at first Sonny and then Kane.

There was a glorious simplicity to all this, but it neatly summed up the quiet effectiveness of both him and Ndombele.

And while I suppose any back-slapping should be effected within the context that this was against the lowest placed team in the division, it does make one wonder whether and when the approach might be adopted again. A year ago, few amongst us would have countenanced the notion of Ndombele forming one half of an effective central midfield pair, but there it was in glorious technicolour.

There was a pleasing discipline to his performance too, for while he broke forward to such glorious effect for his goal, by and large his movements were not those of one whose job description reads “Attacking Midfielder”. This was a performance that offered as much in defence as attack.

4. Dele Alli: Now Inferior to Gedson Fernandes

However, another idiosyncrasy of Our Glorious Leader is his seemingly irresistible urge to dish out a public flogging to one of his troops.

It should probably be remembered that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that Dele Alli’s form for a year or so pre-Covid had taken a pretty hefty dip southwards. Nevertheless, in his intermittent cameos over the past couple of months he has done approximately as much as could be expected.

It may surprise visitors to these pages to learn that I am not privy to what goes on in the hallowed confines of the training ground, so I can only speculate as to whether his produce or attitude when wearing a fluorescent bib is so poor as to merit this bizarre expulsion from the squad. However, perusing today’s teamsheet and discovering the absence of a D. Alli, and simultaneous presence of a G. Fernandes, struck me as laying it on a bit thick.

I suppose this may have been a one-off punishment for his pretty cheesed off reaction (via the medium of social media) to not being involved against Leeds, but either way it’s all fairly unpleasant stuff. This is not a third-choice right-back; it is a bean who only a year or two back was one of the brightest young things in world football. Simply to shrug the shoulders and elbow him out, rather than looking for a way to bring out his best, seems pretty rummy stuff – but alas, the odds of him slinking off across the channel appear to shorten by the day.

Spurs 2-0 Brentford: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Mentality

Lilywhites of a certain vintage – by which I broadly mean those who weren’t born yesterday – will doubtless be pretty familiar with our heroes’ traditional capacity to amble up to a fixture of this ilk; note that the opposition are weaker pound-for-pound; as a result consider the matter already decided in their favour before a ball has been kicked; and proceed to make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.

On settling in for the spectacle there was a therefore a decent whiff of trepidation in the air at Chateau AANP. However, love or loathe the chap, it is becoming difficult to deny that Jose has changed the ambience around the place, to the extent that that ingrained pre-match trepidation found itself eyeball-to-eyeball with a competing sentiment that might be qualified as “Cautious Optimism”. The sort of optimism that springs from seeing our lot put Leeds to the sword in pretty clinical fashion on Saturday, or, harking back a few weeks, execute a faultless, ruthless game-plan vs City.

Recent fixtures have obviously illustrated that there are plenty of moving parts that need oiling, but the mood about the place is changing, and rarely could this be better illustrated by the fact that going into a semi-final against an in-form gang from the division below, it seemed as possible that our lot could do a professional job as that they might trip over their own shoelaces in the time-honoured fashion of a Team That Never Dashed Well Wins Trophies.

And reflecting on the game 24 hours later, it was actually about as clinical and professional a project as one could have imagined. Without ever breaking sweat or setting pulse-rates anywhere north of ‘Slow and Steady’, our heroes efficiently breezed through.

There were two notable warning shots fired in our direction – one requiring a block by Serge Aurier of all people, and the other the offside effort. But even taking these into account, we seemed strangely in-control throughout, and capable of motoring up a gear for a few minutes as necessary (witness our second goal).

Sissoko won the individual gong, and one or two others merited polite applause (Ndombele had a blast, and Reguilon’s cross positively begged to be converted), but what really stood out was the highly professional mentality of the collective. Oddly enough there was no complacency in sight, with every cast member’s concentration levels dialled up to the maximum, and tasks being carried out across the pitch with quiet, unspectacular efficiency.

So no drama, precious little excitement and a semi-final negotiated with the minimal fuss and maximum efficiency of a military inspection. By the end of it I felt like one of those women one reads about from a bygone era, whose husbands disappear to war and then reappear several years later, reporting to be one and the same and looking similar enough, but markedly changed in character. This is not the Tottenham I remember, but they are yet strangely attractive.

2. Our Second Goal

As mentioned, for the most part barely a bead of sweat was expended, and nor were many needed. As our first real foray forward brought a goal there didn’t seem any real need or urgency amongst our lot thereafter to do much more than keep Brentford at arm’s length and pop the ball from A to B.

One-nil at half-time seemed reasonable enough, reflecting most judges’ scorecards.

However, it was at around the halfway point that it occurred to me that if “One goal is not enough” were not already an adage, then the panel that decides these things ought to get themselves in gear and make it such, because it was not so much a truth as a deafening anthem of the opening bursts of the second half.

While still leading, in control and far from complacent, our lot remained but one lapse from parity. And after the Brentford offside goal officially sounded the warning gong our heroes promptly took note and dialled up the intensity by the necessary couple of notches.

Thus germinated our second goal, and it was a thing of some beauty. For a start there was much to admire about the weighting of Ndombele’s pass. At various points in the evening esteemed artistes in lilywhite had spotted potential routes to glory and attempted to play the killer pass, but not quite delivered the thing, either pressing too firmly or too lightly on the pedal.

Ndombele, however, hit the sweet spot and Sonny, already well at full pace, could continue his merry, full-paced journey without the slightest adjustment. I can offer no clues as to the reputation of the agent representing Ndombele, but if he negotiated a bonus for assists it was well merited last night.

Sonny at full pace is a difficult beast to overcome, and heaven knows the Brentford lad flapping at his shadow did his best, by hurling every available limb across the turf in an effort to floor him, but Sonny was already long gone.

There then followed the tour de force, and from the comfort of the AANP sofa I particularly enjoyed the subtle manner in which Son delayed his shot just long enough for the Brentford ‘keeper to surrender himself to the lure of gravity. As the ‘keeper began to go ground, Sonny blasted the ball above him. The whole scene could not have been better executed if all parties had been practising their roles for weeks.

3. Hojbjerg’s War-Wound and Lust for Blood

Thereafter there was a collective exhalation and some nifty triangles were put on show, as our ensemble politely ran down the clock.

However, we were nevertheless treated to a further highlight just before the curtain fell, as Hojbjerg received a rather robust interrogation from some bounder who, it turned out, had been schooled in his arts at Other West Ham.

In a population of 7 billion I imagine there are few who wear their battle scars with greater pleasure than Hojbjerg, and he wasted little time in revealing to the world the treats bestowed upon his left shin. Nothing that hasn’t been seen in the rough-and-tumble of amateur 5-a-side, so as long as he’s fit for whenever the Premier League resumes there were no complaints from this quarter, but I was mightily enthused by his reaction when back on his feet. Evidently the Hojbjerg blood had boiled, for he looked every inch the man who had cared no more for the beautiful game, and wanted only to be allowed back into the arena to tear his opponent limb from limb.

Perhaps it is a result of decades of witnessing the term “soft underbelly” personified on the hallowed turf of N17, but seeing a near-demented Hojbjerg utterly consumed by a lust for blood was possibly the most pleasing aspect of the whole evening. Sonny and Kane will break the records, Ndombele will earn the applause – but if we are to win anything this season then I rather fancy Hojbjerg’s bloody-mindedness will be key.

Spurs 3-0 Leeds: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. High Press

After four pretty dispiriting performances and results, I would guess that I was not the only one who would have bitten off a nearby arm for a scrappy one-nil win. It’s therefore little exaggeration to say that to emerge from a tricky-looking tiff, against an in-form mob, with a breezy three-nil was not far off manna from heaven.

So the usual roll of back-slaps and high fives are in order. More specifically, a noticeable improvement in the piece was that our first two goals came about by virtue of the central midfield pair pinching possession in the sort of areas of the pitch that they have dared not tread in recent weeks.

The final third, the attacking third – call it what you will, but generally it has been strictly off-limits to most in lilywhite, with even Messrs Sonny and Kane only making the most fleeting visits over the last month or so.

And yet there, in glorious technicolour, strode first Hojbjerg and then Winks, intercepting misplaced passes just outside the opposition’s own area. Hojbjerg fed Bergwijn, who nobbled himself a fortunate penalty; Winks fed Kane, who slipped in a peach of a pass for Sonny.

Given that their regular posting is around sixty yards further south, as well as the fact that Jose comes across as the sort of cove who would rather chew off his own arm than let one of his underlings stray from a defensive station, one can only surmise that this tentative dip of the toes into the world of higher pressing came about by design rather than accident.

Presumably it was a tactic tailored to the opposition (as Leeds certainly did play an interesting brand of ‘fast-and-loose’ with their distribution from the back), so we should probably not settle back, order popcorn and watch out for the sight of our midfield anchors roaming the final third on a weekly basis. But nevertheless, it was a joy to behold, and, pointedly, brought great reward.

2. Attacking Ambition vs Defensive Safety

So it was all very welcome stuff – and yet…

Having shown a little ambition, and been richly rewarded, I don’t mind committing to paper the fact that I was a mite disappointed to see the ambition-reward approach dispensed with for the final twenty, as our lot sat back and defended for the last quarter of the game. Dismiss me if you will as a misty-eyed romantic of the all-action-no-plot ilk, but I was rather hoping that we would continue in the vein of the previous half hour and keep probing for more.

I suppose if Jose were asked to justify his approach to these things he might do worse than point to today’s opposition. Such was the adoration lavished upon Leeds today by the voices at BT Sport that one might have thought that were running away with the game, but The Book of Facts clearly states that for all their commitment to attack they were still taking a bit of a hammering. (I suspect a few English managers would goggle with incredulity at the adulation received by Bielsa for steering his ship to a 3-0 defeat.)

Pretty pictures count for little if you troop off three down; and conversely, spending 20 minutes casually swatting away all-comers from the edge of your own penalty area is a lot more palatable when three-up.

But be that as it may, the reversion to deep defence for the last quarter of the game did seem a tad over-the-top. For around a third of the game – specifically, the couple of decent chunks either side of half-time – our lot, while not quite purring, were well in the ascendancy. We were giving Leeds a working-over, as I’ve heard it put, and moreover were making a bit of hay while we were at it. Sonny’s goal was a reward for some enterprising play, and while Toby’s was not directly brought about by any slick attacking, the corner from which it emanated was a decent legacy of the creativity with which we streamed forth.

We were making chances, committing men forward and scored enough to wrap up the points nice and early. For around thirty glorious minutes one could forget that the last four games had ever happened.

And then, having established the three-goal ascendancy, there seemed a quite deliberate decision made by all in lilywhite to trot back to their posts and casually repel for the final twenty or thirty minutes. It just seemed a bit much.

Again, I accept that the principle did make a heck of a lot of sense. Few amongst us will need reminding of the horrors that can befall when failing to take due care over a three-goal lead, so just shutting up shop was an absolute dream for the pragmatists. On top of which, Leeds’ over-commitment made them pretty ripe fodder for the counter-attack.

Nevertheless, here at AANP Towers, I’m still inclined to mutter – even as a restorative 3-0 win materialises in front of my eyes – that a lead can be more securely held if we actually have possession of the ball, as was the case after half-time, rather than letting the other lot have a free hit for twenty minutes, sitting quite so deep and inviting them to do their worst. Hugo did not have to make a taxing save; but when we surrender possession the risk is there. A corner here, a deflection there – why not eliminate these possibilities by instead hogging possession ourselves?

3. Winks (and Sissoko)

After the unceremonious happenings at Wolves, in which his radar was not so much a tad wonky as completely malfunctional, young Master Winks may have considered himself a little fortunate to have retained his spot today. Mercifully for all concerned, this was a vastly improved showing.

His energy levels have rarely been in doubt, and he applied himself with the usual zip, quite possible benefiting from improved fitness too. More to the point, his passing seemed more accurate, albeit I have no idea whether the stats would support such wild claims. And on top of all this, the young beagle seemed imbued with a spirit of positivity today, that inclined him to pass forwards as often as not, which has not necessarily always been the case.

I have heard it postulated that whereas Sissoko is the bean one wants alongside Hojbjerg when lining up for a bit of a scrap, in which possession will be surrendered and off-the-ball work-rate is everything, Winks will be the egg of choice on a stage in which we do actually see something of the ball and have a bit more need for creativity.

In fact, one might say this theory was neatly proved today, with eighty-odd minutes of Winks-based front-foot play eventually giving way to ten minutes of Sissoko, at which point the drill was very much to protect what we had and keep Leeds arm’s length from the front door.

Make no mistake, Winks still has room for improvement, but this struck me as one of his better days, and justified his inclusion ahead of Sissoko.

4. Doherty

Having barely registered that Doherty was on the pitch, or has even contributed to the cause at all this season, the chap made his presence felt in the dying embers, funnily off by ensuring his presence was removed.

One can generally argue with second bookings that one or other of the yellows was heavy-handed fare from the resident arbiter of the law (although I’m not sure today anyone has a word of protest), but the AANP counter-argument tends always to be that the player concerned deserves to have his head flushed down a toilet for even giving the referee a decision to make.

And with that in mind, Doherty is deserving of censure, for a challenge of that ilk (in the last minute, with the game won and when already on a yellow card) was strongly indicative of a vacuum between his ears.

Of the seven summer imports, Doherty has made a fairly robust case for being the most underwhelming. Even Joe Hart, for all the on-field jitters he can bring, has, in the AANP book on these things, been a welcome addition if for no other reason than being a vocal presence who holds his teammates accountable, within a squad that traditionally errs on the timid side.

Doherty however, has come across as a chap still letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”, as they say. When opportunity presents for him to be of value in the attacking third – supposedly his forte – he has an air of neither-here-nor-there about him, as if not sure if he should really be so high up the pitch, and when thus stationed seems curiously prone to passing backwards, often errantly, thereby sucking life out of our attacks.

A lot has been made of the adjustment he has had to make from wing-back to full-back, and frankly I think this is indulging him a little. He has enough experience, he should be able to make the necessary tweaks and get cracking.

No, it’s been a disappointing couple of months, with his biggest contribution seemingly the inadvertent improvement he has brought about in Aurier.

All that said, I fully expect him to come good, if not in the latter half of this season then at some point in the next, and if it takes him a year or so to find his feet then he wouldn’t be the first. But in the shorter-term, he has the opportunity to sit out the next game and ponder on his sins.

Wolves 1-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics

The natives, I think it is fair to suggest, are becoming restless.

Alan Smith comes across as one of the more tolerable followers of Other West Ham, being a cove not really given to the hyperbole of the majority of his colleagues on the telly-box, and a choice phrase of his yesterday neatly encapsulated the essence of Jose’s Tactical Mastery, trimmings and all. “The end justifies the means”, he opined, like an owl of the particularly thoughtful variety, and it was hard not to disagree.

No two ways about it, surrendering possession and defending for dear life, for an entire dashed game, saps the spirit and makes the eyes bleed. Watching a player as talented as Harry Kane receive the ball and promptly belt it into the atmosphere, falling to ground in the Wolves half a good fifty yards from anyone in lilywhite, felt like an act of treachery against the traditions of the club. But if it got us to near enough the summit of the table, then a good swathe of the lilywhite hordes would swallow it. Turning a blind eye, and all that. The end justifying the means.

Except that it’s now two defeats and two draws in the last four games. It would take a PR rep at the absolute peak of their powers to spin that rot as ends justifying means.

By the grace of God – and a few humdinging away days early in the season – we somehow remain fifth, and all is not lost. And despite the ghastliness of it all, I am quite open to accepting that against the likes of Man City, and Chelsea away, the tactic of defending at 18 yards and countering is a reasonable approach to life.

But when boasting two of the best strikers in the world, a fellow like Ndombele simply brimming with on-ball quality, some of the more progressive full-backs in the league, a raft of attacking options on the bench, and so on and so forth – to toddle up to a team slap-bang in the middle of the table and treat them with the defence of peak Barcelona is an absolute nonsense.

What the absolute devil would it have cost us to have tried to put together a couple of attacks between minutes 20 and 85 yesterday, in order to increase the lead and protect the three points thusly? I’m not talking about all-out attack with every man and his dog pouring forward and Hugo considering adding his presence in the area for corners; but simply trying to retain possession and work something around the edge of their area, something that might have allowed Kane and Son actually to receive the ball within shooting distance, rather than on or before the halfway line and without a soul ahead of them.

The percentages are stacked against us when trying to defend deep for an entire game, relying as it does not on not making a single mistake (or being on the wrong end of a ricochet or deflection) and being absolutely clinical, with zero room for error, when the one or two counter-attack chances do come our way.

And on a final side-note, for Jose then to face the cameras and declare that the fault lay with the players for not trying to score again was rot of the highest order.

2. Winks

In theory this ought to have been a good opportunity for Winks go peddle his wares. With a back-three behind him and a little less onus on him to spend his day putting out fires, it seemed there might be opportunity for him to dial into the ghost of deep-lying creative midfielders past and produce one or two Luka Modric impressions.

To his credit, Winks did have a stab at picking progressive passes. The criticism regularly bellowed at the lad from the AANP sofa is that he too often goes for backwards or sideways passes when a forward option is perfectly viable, but yesterday one could not fault his intent. He received the ball, he looked up, he passed forwards.

Alas, far too often, that was the extent of his success. Far too often those forward passes missed their mark, and possession was surrendered as a direct result of his input.

It must be a tough gig I suppose, suddenly starting and being under the spotlight after so long on the sidelines, and no doubt he was eager to please, but yesterday things just did not fall into place for him.

At this juncture I would normally be inclined to pat him sympathetically on the head and trot out something along the lines that there will be further opportunities – except that with a bizarrely vindictive man-child like Jose at the helm one never really knows if he will decide that he has had enough of Winks and cast him aside like an unwanted Christmas toy.

3. Ben Davies

The switch to a back-three featuring Ben Davies was an unsubtle nod to the talents of Adama Traore in opposition. Traore, a man whose muscles themselves have muscles, was tormentor-in-chief last time we faced this lot, so one understood Jose assigning to him his own private security detail.

When not pinging them in from long-distance in Carabao Cup Quarter Finals, Ben Davies earns his living by delivering 6 out of 10 performances with metronomic regularity, so I have to admit that his selection up against that Traore lad did have me shooting a nervous glance about me pre kick-off.

And in the first half, perhaps a little unfairly, I was a tad critical of his efforts. He held his position well enough, but it struck me that whenever Traore wished to breeze past him he did; whenever Traore wished to deliver a cross he did. Ben Davies did not neglect his post, but neither did he do much to prevent Traore that a life-size cardboard cut-out of Ben Davies would not also have done.

As mentioned, this was probably a harsh appraisal, particularly coming from one who has not walked a mile in the shoes of Ben Davies – or indeed the shoes of anyone up against Traore.

And in the second half, I have no hesitation in admitting that my cynicism was replaced by healthy admiration. Ben Davies warmed to the task and was not for wilting, no matter how much Traore twisted and turned and shoved and battled. It actually turned into quite the contest, and while he might have needed to have a sit-down and catch his breath afterwards, there can be no doubting that Ben Davies earned his weekly envelope.

Just a shame, then, that he did not quite keep track of his man sufficiently at the corner from which Wolves scored – but while that was a error on his part, I am not about to blame him for the two points lost. If anything, he was possibly our stand-out performer.

4. Ndomble

Another of the more eye-catching performers – a small band, ‘tis true – was Monsieur Ndombele.

As is his way, he rather faded after half-time, and was duly euthanised on the hour, but in the early stages what attacking spark we had originated at his size nines. The body swerves and balance remain things of delight, easy to spot but seemingly near-impossible to stop. But I suspect we were all pleasantly surprised to see that burst of his from well inside our own half to well inside theirs.

There is something about Ndombele’s gait that gives the impression of a man whose lungs are about to breathe their last, and who will at any moment collapse to the ground and commit his soul to his maker. Put bluntly, the chap never looks fit. But I do sometimes wonder if this is an optical illusion. Sometimes drooping shoulders and hangdog expressions will make a professional sportsman look like anything but. Followers of leather-on-willow who are of a certain vintage may remember one Angus Fraser looking similarly exhausted every time he bowled for England.

So it is with Ndombele, and for that reason that sixty-yard burst of his was as surprising as it was pleasing. Even with the ball at his feet, he managed to outpace the chasing pack. A shame (very much the phrase de jour) that he picked the wrong option at the end of it, Reguilon boasting a goalscoring record slightly inferior to that of the other spare man, Harry Kane, but it did provide further evidence to the notion that Ndombele might turn out to be Mousa Dembele with added attacking prowess.

Stoke 1-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Dele

Amidst the non-stop excitement of what was happening on the pitch yesterday, I missed whatever ruckus transpired a yard or two off it, when apparently after Dele was removed from the premises a handful of moody stares and possibly even unsavoury mutterings were exchanged between him and Our Glorious Leader.

Judging by the post-match sermon Jose’s targeting of Dele continues with some gusto, which is his prerogative I suppose, but from my perch up here on the AANP Towers balcony I thought that, far from being the root of all evil, Dele had a pretty good stab at the Man of the Match rosette.

What caught the eye was his willingness to work in finding space to receive the ball. Whenever Hojbjery, Winks, Dier or whomever else was surveying the scene with ball at feet around halfway, invariably it was Dele who was zipping around in search of space and waving an arm or two in request for possession.

One of the hats I wear around these parts is that of an uncle – with, at the latest count, seven nephews and nieces in the brood – and a significant element of this role comprises being badgered fairly relentlessly to partake in board games, hide-and-seek or other such frivolous entertainment. And I was reminded of this relentless badgering yesterday by Dele, given his positive and fairly ceaseless attitude towards availability.

In a game such as this, when the counter-attack is pretty much redundant, and much depends upon finding space between the lines and quick shuffling of the ball, Dele’s movement was, I thought, close to exemplary. (Certainly it struck me that a handsomely-paid Welsh teammate might have taken a leaf or two from his book when it came to energetic beavering.)

And moreover, when it came to topping things off at the other end, Dele was the man making the runs into pockets in and around the area, and generally giving a glimpse or two of the Platt- or Scholes-esque Dele of old. But for a well-judged limb or two from the goalkeeper he might even had had a goal to his name.

Jose’s post-match gripe seemed to revolve around an errant Dele flick leading to Stoke’s goal, in much the same way as a flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon brings down governments in the West. And I’m sure that, ultimately, through a process of cause and effect, one could trace back a series of episodes and identify that this was indeed the case; but to single out the young eel and castigate him thusly – when the entire back-four were on their heels and out of position, and when Serge Aurier was summarily excused of blame for his far worse and more costly mistake at the weekend – smacked of hidden agendas and borderline bullying.

A real shame, because Dele appeared to me to prove his worth as at least a squad member capable of filling the attacking midfield role. Instead, the odds now seem shorter than ever on him linking up with, say, Poch, at PSG, in the coming weeks.

2. Bale

While Dele worked hard and met with scant reward, Gareth Bale meanwhile interrupted his golfing trip with a gentle mooch around the pitch for half a game.

As if to hammer home to Dele how unfair life can be, not only was Bale rewarded for his lack of effort with a goal, but that very goal came about rather symbolically by virtue of him not moving. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do at the time, but I did nevertheless allow myself a chuckle that simply by standing still he was able to get himself into precisely the right place at the right time.

When Bale swanned back into our lives a couple of months ago the consensus was that he was unlikely to possess the electricity of old, but would still offer much in the way of general energy and threat on the move, as well as a thunderous long-range left clog. Christmas, we told ourselves, would see the return of the fully-fit Bale, and until then he would be awarded a period of grace.

Fast-forward to the present day, and with Christmas literally hours away, there is still no sign of Bale breaking a sweat for the club, let alone rediscovering any of his former glories.

He appears to have immunity from Jose, and will presumably be shoved on for half-game cameos in some more of the gentler approaching fixtures, but it is nigh on impossible to see what he is adding. It mattered little yesterday, in what was ultimately a canter, but Bale remains a passenger. In the rather more bustling environment of a Premier League game, his lack of either work-rate or attacking output will make him something of a liability.

At kick-off yesterday, given the quality of the opposition and the length of time he has been back, I had expected to see him move up a gear or two. I do now rather wonder if that gear-change will happen at all.

3. Winks (Compare and Contrast to Hojbjerg)

At the conclusion of yesterday’s proceedings I don’t mind admitting I was pretty startled to discover a wreath being placed around the neck of young Master Winks for his services to the preceding 90 minutes.

Given the lopsided squad dynamics so lovingly hand-crafted by Jose, every game Winks starts (as with Dele) is now a pretty critical moment in his lilywhite career. Yesterday was no exception, and with Stoke set up to defend, the opportunity for Winks to showcase his more progressive talents was neatly handed to him on a plate of fine china and with all the trimmings.

With the stage set and audience hushed it seemed reasonable to expect pretty great things, and as such I was, yet again, a tad underwhelmed. He did little wrong – but at the same time I felt that this was an opportunity to boss things, which simply melted away.

By contrast, I thought that Hojbjerg rather bossily took responsibility, in precisely the manner in which I had hoped Winks might. When the ball was being ferried out from the back Hojbjerg was the one demanding it, and on receiving it his instinct was to look for a forward pass. Winks seemed content to play his sidekick.

Winks had his moments, it is true. The pass for the opening goal was a curious beast – having little angle or flight – and ought really to have been easier to defend than it was, but it did a pretty critical job because that opening goal settled our nerves as much as it deflated their spirits.

Similarly, Winks’ pressure in closing down his man led to the Stoke mistake in possession that brought about our third.

So my observation on Winks is not that he had a poor game; more that on a stage like this he had the opportunity to dominate and control proceedings, and it seemed to me that the chap alongside him did that better.

4. Kane’s Finish

I’m not convinced that it was the wisest move to play Kane for the entirety, given that the games pile on a tad at that time of year, but had he been hooked early we would have been denied the sight of yet another high-class finish.

The delay and dummy before his shot, so perfectly executed, were a joy to behold. The Stoke chappie trying to prevent the thing had the odds stacked against him from the start, but was almost knocked off his feet simply by Kane’s feints.

After which, the conclusion of the project was to lash the ball high into the centre of the net. This approach was adopted to similarly strong effect against Other West Ham a few weeks back, and struck me as a useful additional string to Kane’s finishing bow. Where previously he has tended to aim low and for the near or far corner, he now appears to throw into the mix the option of waiting for the ‘keeper to spread himself low, and then lash the ball above him and into the roof of the net. As ever, we are lucky to have the chap.

Have a merry and blessed Christmas.

Spurs 0-2 Leicester: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Style of Play (Again)

I would normally pity the poor souls who part with their hard-earned wage, and write off an afternoon of their lives, to attend such a ghastly matinee as that, but on this occasion, mercifully, we were at least spared such punishment in the flesh.

Not that the 2D alternative did much to mask the unfolding rot. A peculiarity with The Jose Brand is that it relies absolutely entirely upon results for its success. In fact, its very raison d’être is its results.

The football itself at times borders upon the painful – for there were times in the first half in particular, when still nil-nil, that our heroes seemed to be actively looking to concede possession because the situation did not lend itself to a counter-attack, which rather beggars belief; and when pressed into a more progressive state of mind in the second half, when trailing, the absence of ingenuity was enough to make a grown man weep, or at least fling his hands heavenwards and curse the day.

So results, for sure, are front and centre of this operation, and when we proudly surveyed the land from atop the pile, any grumbles about the aesthetics, or lack thereof, could be merrily waved away. After all, if the open-topped bus could be booked for May ’21 on the back of a six-man defence and a few counter-attacks, I’m not sure too many of us would mind.

Over the last week, however, for one reason or another we have begun to depart increasingly wildly from the script.

Part of the problem with playing so defensively and deep each week is that the odds increase that every minor error can result in fairly seismic fallout. Against Liverpool we saw how a random deflection can upset the defensive ecosystem; today it was first a moment of mind-numbing stupidity; and then an unwelcome ricochet. (One might consider the deflections and ricochets unlucky – but by defending so deep we rather make our own rotten luck, or at the very least invite it a tad.)

The crux of the thing is that while the rewards are high – table-topping and title-challenging, no less – the risks are magnified. Spend three quarters of the game camped on the edge of our own area and there is no coming back from a looping deflection or an Aurier brain-fade. On top of which, up the other end, there is minimal margin for error in front of goal,

And so on days like today, when the result is not produced, we are left instead to pore over the remains of a failed defensive performance, and frankly it looks utterly dreadful. These things will happen, but they cannot happen too often. Thrice in a week is enough.

2. Aurier

As mentioned, the dirge-like output requires everyone in the back-line to perform pretty flawlessly, in order to set up the platform for the counter-attack and three points.

And to his credit, Serge Aurier has spent the last month or two pretty diligently abiding by what must seem to him a pretty radical reinterpretation of his day-job. By and large, the needless lunges and mad decisions have been rinsed from his DNA, and while a wild glint occasionally develops in his eye, it rarely manifests any more on the pitch.

Jose himself would probably have argued that the plan had worked in the first half, as Leicester, for all their sharper play in midfield, had barely tested Lloris.

However, Aurier’s retro moment of mind-boggling stupidity completely upended the Jose Masterplan. What might have been passed off as a solid, if utterly uninspiring, defensive display suddenly became a disastrous first half, as we found ourselves not only having created nothing but also a goal behind.

Difficult to know what to make of Aurier. For sure the blister has previous, but if this is merely an isolated incident then we can potentially sweep it under the carpet and look forward to another half-dozen performances in which he keeps his head down and steers clear of trouble.

On the other hand, I suppose we dare not contemplate that this might be the beginning of a full-blown relapse, and the return of the Aurier of the past couple of seasons, whose every appearance seemed to be marked by at least one completely unnecessary aberration. Time will tell, and he probably has enough goodwill in the bank for now, but I’m not sure many more such moments will be suffered too gladly.

3. The Ndombele-Lo Celso Dream Axis

Odd to say it now, but in the first five minutes or so I actually had pretty high hopes.

Proceedings began with Ndombele sending half the Leicester team into the wrong postcode with a series of his trademarked upper body swerves that are seemingly impossible to resist.

A couple of free-kicks were duly won, and the omens looked pretty positive, pointing as they did towards an afternoon spent on the front foot and giving the Leicester mob a few things to think about in the defensive third.

Moreover, this marked one of (if not the) first blessed union of Messrs Ndombele and Lo Celso in holy midfield partnership. Quite what the tactical implications would be were fairly happily overlooked, because the prospect of these two peddling their silky wares in tandem seemed to override any need for detail. “Just give them the ball and let them dovetail” was the AANP mantra, and when Ndombele began proceedings in that shoulder-swerving manner of his, the omens appeared good.

Alas, thereafter things did not so much go downhill as fall directly off a cliff. Lo Celso’s principal contributions seemed to be lose possession and then slide in to win it back, before rolling around in feigned agony – until he ended up rolling around in bona fide agony.

With Ndombele having drifted to the periphery before himself being hooked, the dream combination ultimately turned into something of a disaster.

One hopes that Jose will not take this as his cue to banish any further of a future Ndombele-Lo Celso axis, simply on the grounds of one heavily undercooked display. Such a pair of talents ought to be able to combine to pretty decent effect, given a little love and tactical direction.

4. Bale (and Dele)

Another day, another mightily underwhelming extended cameo from G. Bale Esq. He did at least have the decency to look occasionally as if he cared today, at one point even breaking into a sweat to challenge for a 50-50. However, for those in the gallery eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the man who just a year or two back was still skinning international defenders and blasting the thing home from distance, this was another afternoon of frustration.

Bale’s introduction did precious little to improve, or in any way change, the dynamic of the game. It is probably reasonable to assume that the fellow is still not quite 100%, but by now one would at least hope to see a glimpse or two of the global superstar of recent times.

Frustratingly, of this there has been not a squeak. Were the name on his shirt anything other than ‘Bale’, it is difficult to imagine that he would be considered a better fit for the current eleven than any of Bergwijn, Lucas, Lamela – or, dare I say it, Dele Alli.

Admittedly there’s been precious little opportunity for Dele, but each time he has been trotted out, he has done so under the microscope, and to his credit has at least tried to contribute. Difficult to judge on the back of ten minutes here and there, but his brief fling against Liverpool at least saw him roll up his sleeves and get on the ball. Not much about which to write home – but not any worse than Bale, and to this untrained eye, probably slightly better.

With games coming every couple of days over Christmas, both will presumably get an opportunity or two. And in a team crying out for some attacking ingenuity, who knows, maybe this time next month one of them will be undroppable?

Liverpool 2-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics (and Associated Risk)

Normally after a sinking of the good ship Hotspur, the mood at AANP Towers is one of pretty doleful lamentation, with the sackcloth and ashes out in force and long, drawn-out sighs only occasionally mingled with a choice curse or ten.

On this occasion, however, amidst the frustrated kicking of inanimate objects and moody grumbles, there is something of a philosophical air. Study your scribe closely enough and you may notice him scratching his chin from time to time, and looking pretty dashed thoughtful as he does it. Because although defeated, and now three points down on the principal cast member in this little drama, the realisation is dawning that our lot really are shaping up for a proper biff at things this season.

We may have lost, and we may have been absolutely dominated in possession (the 96% stat for a five-minute period just before half-time did make me chuckle, as being possibly the most Jose stat ever seen), but the tactics pretty much worked again, right up until the execution of chances. We restricted Liverpool to snatched chances – heart in mouth stuff each time, but still snatched chances, as opposed to clear one-one-ones as Sonny and Bergwijn had – while at t’other end we created enough of the aforementioned one-one-ones to have gone into injury-time with a lead onto which to cling.

We will presumably have to accept that playing this counter-attacking style means, by the law of probabilities, that every now and then we will concede a rather gut-wrenching late goal that shoots the entire game-plan out of the sky. But if we beat City, draw away to Chelsea, beat Other West Ham and find ourselves second at Christmas, then those odds are probably worth a flutter.

What struck me in the first half in particular was that, despite barely springing three passes together at any point in the whole act, we still came within a whisker of being clear through on goal on three separate occasions – before the moment that Sonny actually was clear through on goal.

The Amazon Prime microphone fiends were too busy purring at Liverpool to notice, but twice Kane had the opportunity to play in Son around halfway, and twice his pass was marginally too close to a defender, and cut out on the brink. The fact remained that there was an absolutely huge gap behind the Liverpool centre-backs, and it just needed a tad more guile on the final pass to open up said space, and let Son gambol away like a spring lamb that cannot believe its luck.

On a third occasion we did actually find the space, when Sissoko barrelled his way down the right and found Kane, unmarked and twenty yards out, but alas the main man dithered somewhat and the chance went up in smoke.

Again, not a mention was made of this by any of the paid prophets on the telly-box, but let that not detract from the fact that the game-plan was in full swing – no matter how warped, twisted or negative one regards it. We were repeatedly six inches away from smashing and grabbing.

2. Bergwijn’s Finishing

Of course, this rather dubious approach to ‘To Dare is To Do’ requires as a pretty critical component that when the final pass is eventually pinged with requisite sweetness, the chap haring in on goal then keeps his side of the bargain and finishes the job.

And in the first half, as against Other West Ham and Man City, Sonny kept up his end of the bargain. It feels almost blasphemous to say it now, but once upon a time I questioned the fellow’s finishing. Not so these days. Sonny could not be more clinical if he were laser-guided.

The plan tends to provide one or two chances per game, and Son snaffles them all up. As, typically, does Kane. Last night, however, the two big moments fell to Bergwijn, and the honest chap gave an illustration of why he, Lucas and Lamela sit decidedly below Kane and Son in the hierarchy of attacking sorts at N17.

The Jose plan really provides no room for error – when these counter-attack chances occur, they absolutely must be taken. Bergwijn has generally impressed in recent weeks, oddly enough on account of his defensive contributions – the work-rate, the positional sense, the discipline. Just a dashed shame that when it came to the attacking stuff, of which he has made a career, he twice missed the target.

3. Aurier vs Mane

Elsewhere on the pitch, a pretty eye-catching sub-plot was playing out between Messrs Mane and Aurier.

Aurier, as has been widely feted on these pages in recent weeks, has undergone quite the transformation this season, and now ranks as one a pretty critical cog in the defensive machine.

Admittedly there was one moment in the first half, when the ghost of Aurier past crept up behind his ear and started whispering sweet nothings, resulting in a spectacularly poorly-judged Cruyff turn inside his own area, that almost led to a goal. But that minor aberration aside, the chap wore his sensible hat throughout.

And he needed to, because in Sadio Mane he had a pretty worthy foe. In terms of strength, guile, trickery, positioning and pace, Aurier had to have his wits about him throughout, and to his credit he generally did the necessaries. He was caught out by one sublime turn in the second half, but recovered to wave a useful foot and deflect Mane’s shot onto the bar; otherwise he generally stood his ground.

Just a shame that his final intervention led to the corner from which Liverpool scored, but the young bean could probably mooch off at stumps with his head held high.

4. Ben Davies: Too Dashed Nice

I’m not sure the same can necessarily be said of Ben Davies, who may equally have been christened ‘6 out of 10’. There was nothing egregiously bad about his play, but at the same time his every appearance leaves me thinking he could and should be doing more.

One understood the principle of his selection – a more conservative option than Reguilon, and therefore less likely to be caught upfield and out of position, in a game in which defensive shape was pretty critical. But little things, like hacked clearances when there is time to pick a pass, suggest that there are several notches of improvement for him to achieve.

On top of which, the young egg really needs to take a leaf out of the Hojbjerg book and embrace a much nastier side. In the opening exchanges, when denied a clear corner, Ben Davies simply flung a hand in the air and turned to jog back, epitomising much of the pre-Jose spirit of simply accepting defeat as one of those unfortunate things that happens and should not be questioned.

Far be it for me to espouse that the chap greets a bad refereeing call by going on a murderous rampage and laying waste to all in front of him, but more fire in the belly, more aggression and maybe some of the Lamela-esque sly niggles would not go amiss. It is perhaps indicative of the change of ethos instilled by Jose, that Ben Davies’ meekness now looks a very noticeable weakness.

Palace 1-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sitting Back vs Attacking

So this feels like an iffy one to un-pickle. On the one hand, the Case For The Defence (which I think is a rather smart way of putting it) points to consecutive clean sheets against Man City, Chelsea and Other West Ham, as proof that the defensive approach, while verging on rope-a-dope, brings rewards by the sackful.

On t’other hand, the Case For Attack points to the last ten minutes, when not only did we not have to hold our breath while the thing pinballed around inside our area, but we also made several quite presentable chances. Against a ‘keeper who had not woken up this morning, taken one look out of the window and decided that today would be the day to deliver all of the very best he had to offer, we would probably have had an extra couple of goals.

(I appreciate that the equation is not quite as ‘One-or-Other’ as I have presented, for there were numerous other environmental concerns – Palace themselves easing up on the attacking front after scoring their goal, for example – but consider the above an executive summary.)

There’s no doubt that Jose knows his onions – as will be borne out by the title parade on the High Road next May – and when it comes to proof that the defensive blueprint generally delivers the goods, the evidence of the last three games is pretty incontrovertible stuff.

However, hindsight is the sort of all-seeing beast that tends not to miss a trick, and the back-six-all-defending-for-their-lives gambit can only be excused as long as the results trickle through. Drop two points from a winning position, and you can bet half your worldly possessions that someone of lilywhite leanings will be sharpening a knife or two.

In truth, the frustration at AANP Towers is not so much with the adoption of the defensive mindset as a general tactic, because as last week showed, it can be the perfect plan. The frustration today was that this was a game in which the opening half hour or so, as well as the closing ten, showed that actually we were better off playing on the front foot.

Sometimes, having all the possession is something of a poisoned chalice for our mob, and their sideways-passing inclinations go into overdrive. Today, however, we went about our attacking business with a pretty pleasing sharpness.

Not every incision necessarily cut Palace to ribbons, but everyone at least appeared to have read the memo that the first rule of Attack Club was to shift the ball quickly, and we looked pretty decent for it. The full-backs (more on whom anon) dutifully provided width, those in more central areas buzzed around and chances came along with a neat regularity.

And as we dropped deep and dug in from circa minute 55 to circa minute 80, I did restlessly cast my mind back to the halcyon era of circa minutes 1-30, and wish that we would shuffle about fifty yards up the pitch and conduct proceedings there, both reducing risk of concession and increasing chances of that hallowed two-goal buffer.

All academic now of course, as ‘One-One’ is stencilled large in the Book of Facts, but such are the frustrated post-match moochings around these parts.

2. Reguilon

As alluded to, things started far more cheerily, and not for the first time young Señor
Reguilon made a hefty contribution to that cheer.

The wretched Duo Lingo owl has yet to inform how one rattles off in perfect Spanish “I like the cut of that young man’s jib”, but few phrases would capture more accurately my sentiments towards Reguilon. When in the mood, young Harry Winks has something of 80s cartoon character Scrappy Doo about him, in terms of fearlessly racing into combat with those of vastly greater stature; and Reguilon similarly seems to enjoy nothing more than haring off for a man-to-man duel, no matter the odds.

He spent much of the opening half hour taking on the role of First Available Outlet, busting a gut to reach the wide, open spaces of the left wing, and offering plenty of support to Sonny, as well as displaying that pleasing knack for cutting inside and having a peek at what opportunities lay therein.

In both attitude and ability, the little fellow is fast proving his worth – and if he did not have around his neck that wretched buy-back clause that pretty much guarantees Real will swipe him back again as soon as the title parade is over, I’d suggest that he’s the sort who could reach cult hero status amongst the watching masses of N17.

3. Aurier

Out on the other side, Monsieur Aurier presumably had pretty similar instructions, but went about his employment with a jib that was cut slightly less impressively.

It is a quirk of this season that Aurier has now transformed into a positionally-aware defensive mainstay, but not so long ago the young bean’s chief attribute was his devilishly-whipped crosses. He had plenty of opportunity to give a masterclass in the art today, particularly in the afternoon, but alas, the crosses were a little hit and miss.

Still, simply by virtue of being stationed in the appropriate square yardage he did his job, and the regular switches of play out to his flank helped ensure that we ticked along well in the opening exchanges.

4. Lloris and the Mistake That No-One Seems to Have Mentioned

Ultimately, I suspect there were few grumbles across the lilywhite swathes of the land when we did concede, because most right-minded folk seemed to concur that Palace had earned that much.

Nevertheless, seeing these things happen is always dashed galling, and I’m still yet to deduce whether I dislike more being cut apart in open play or conceding from a set-piece.

And in this instance, while the delivery was of pretty top-notch quality, and various limbs flailed in the eyeline of our resident shot-stopper, I was still mightily unimpressed that Hugo spilled the thing, given that ‘Not spilling things’ is just about the principal headline in his job description. Would he, one is forced to ask oneself, have similarly allowed it to fall to ground had it been a small child rather than a football? One can only assume that the mantra on the Lloris lips as head hits pillow tonight will be “Room for improvement”, or whatever the Duo Lingo owl advises is the Gallic equivalent.

Buy AANP’s Book “Spurs’ Cult Heroes”! Christmas approacheth, and if you’re looking for a stocking-filler for the Spurs fan in your life, you could do worse than AANP’s own book, Spurs’ Cult Heroes, charting the careers of 20 of the most popular players in Tottenham’s history.

Spurs 2-0 Arsenal: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg

As ever, the man of the match award became a secondary detail to the triumph of the collective and their defensive discipline, because once again this was a win fashioned from impeccable tactical set-up and execution.

However, not for the first time, one got the impression that P-E Hojbjerg Esq. is the sort of chap whose first action on emerging from the womb was immediately to look around and win back possession. And then clench his fists on a job successfully completed.

While the collective of Sky Sports bods seemed ready to grab the nearest axe and go on a murderous rampage in bitter moral protest at what they were witnessing, Hojbjerg reacts to Jose-ball like a giddy child let loose in a toy factory. Give him a game-plan of sitting in front of a deep back-four, rolling up his sleeves and doing the grubby stuff, and he tears out onto the pitch and towards the ankles of the nearest opponent before the instructions have been fully delivered.

There will presumably be other fixtures in which the cape is donned by those personnel with rather more subtlety and guile in their play, but during this run of fixtures against title-challengers – and Other West Ham – Hojbjerg might just be the most important cog in the whole machine. In games such as these, in which the stakes are high and the opponents particularly dangerous (or, as today, opponents for whom this is a cup final), the role of Destroyer-in-Chief is critical.

The AANP heart always skips a beat when I see Hojbjerg rolled out for the Thursday-night Europa group drivel, because an injury to this chap would not so much knock the stuffing from us as pummel straight into the rib-cage and yank out the beating heart. Unlikejust about every other position in the pitch, I’m not sure we have anyone in the squad who has remotely the appropriate skillset to deputise.

Back to today, and amidst a whole team of hard-grafting worker bees, Hojbjerg’s was the hard graft and bee-working standard to which the others could look for inspiration, in each of the tackling, intercepting, harassing and uncomplicated passing categories. I’d recommend the chap pours himself a bourbon and puts his feet up, but I rather suspect he unwinds by chewing on some raw glass and finding the nearest bear whom he might wrestle.

2. Aurier

Once upon a time, in a world before bubbles and lockdown, the AANP Dictionary defined Serge Aurier as something along the lines of ‘Bringer of calamity’. For all his undoubted prowess on the front-foot, one could hang one’s hat on some unnecessary dereliction of duty, typically with consequences of the gravity of own goals, penalty concessions or red cards.

It was well-documented stuff, and as such the summer arrival of Matt Doherty was the prompt for a look or two towards the celebratory cigars, as I wondered whether Aurier’s catalogue of errors might be consigned to Thursday nights.

Instead, in a plot-twist that I’m not sure even the keenest mind anticipated, the turnaround in Aurier’s output has had me not so much rubbing my eyes as questioning the very fabric of existence.

While Doherty has taken a little time to find his bearings in lilywhite, if you don’t mind the rather generous euphemism, Aurier has reacted to the presence of competition for his spot – and, presumably, to the instruction of Our Glorious Leader – by transforming into the model of positional and decision-making discipline.

Having Sissoko stationed within eyeballing distance presumably helps, but let nothing detract from the praise that Monsieur Aurier is due. The madcap forays out of position are pretty much a thing of the past now, as are the similarly madcap lunges within the penalty area. The transformation from classroom rebel to responsible prefect might be one of the less glamorous success stories of the ages, but the curious fellow is now nailed on right-back in the meanest and most disciplined defence in the league.

3. Lloris

A spot of context might be necessary on this one, because the casual observer would be well within his rights to query the T’s and C’s of a commendation for our resident shot-stopper on a day on which he had precious few shots to stop.

However, Thursday night’s performance left us wondering if Marine away really was such a straightforward tie, with Joe Hart in particular giving the impression that his benefit to the squad lies in the area of dressing room yelps (or left arm seam) rather than actually getting his paws to the ball.

And when a rumour began to whizz hither and thither that Monsieur Lloris might be forced to sit out today’s bash, the collective gulp fairly echoed around North London, as the two and two were put together with the conclusion that Joe Hart might be entrusted with repelling the ball through the use of his endless bellowing.

Mercifully, the starting line-up revealed no such eventuality, and while Hugo’s first half brief was largely restricted to “Regarder”, matters biffed up a few notches at the start of the second half.

This was probably the period in which Other West Ham were at their most threatening, and had they scored then the dynamic might have taken a ninety-degree turn or two. I therefore gave Lloris a pretty rousing hand for his save from a flicked Lacazette header, not least because it was goalbound and the sort of fare at which Joe Hart has been flapping, but also because Lloris executed that rarest of skills and actually held onto the thing – as opposed to punching or pushing it back into play. This capacity to hold the ball was particularly critical given that it occurred on the goal-line and slap bang in the centre of the goal. Any slippery fingers at that juncture would have spelt almost certain calamity.

And for good measure Lloris was at it again five minutes later, tipping one around his right-hand post. In truth, not the most difficult save of a World Cup winner’s career, but having witness Hart’s bizarre attempt to fore-arm a shot out of harm’s way on Thursday, one does not take such things for granted.

4. Toby’s Block

A brief commendation also for Toby Alderweireld, and his impressively-executed block of a late Aubameyang shot.

The Jose-based set-up meant that such shots, representing as they do a breach of the tight-knit defensive wall, are pretty rare commodities. In general, our lot are so deep that all the action happens in front of them, and any opponent wishing to crack one towards goal has something of an army of white shirts first to negotiate.

However, for some reason, on this occasion Other West Ham stole possession high up the pitch when a few too many of our lot were mooching forward, and for one ghastly minute it looked like Aubameyang had snuck in behind the rear.

It was the sort of situation in which one could imagine Sanchez tripping over his laces, or Dier backing off ad infinitum, or Aurier circa 2019 flying in with studs up. Mercifully, Toby knows his beans, and did the decent thing, going toe for toe until the moment was right, and then extending a well-judged leg to repel the danger. One would like to imagine that on the sidelines, Ledley allowed himself a knowing smile.

5. The Goals

Amidst all the chattering about defensive duties and tactical shape it would be easy to be sucked into our own penalty area and forget the moments that really separated the wheat from chaff; but it would be thoroughly remiss simply to gloss over the fact that both our goals were of the highest order.

Even before Sonny let fly, the build-up stuff casually lobbed around by Kane was pretty special. Simply bringing under control the pass he received was quite a feat, but the vision and weighting of his pass into the left-wing channel, for Sonny to shimmy onto, was the sort of fare that made you feel lucky to be alive. The aesthetics alone of those diagonal passes into a space behind a full-back, are worth parting with hard-earned money to observe.

As for Sonny’s finish – heavens above, how much confidence must flow through that chap’s veins? Let’s be clear, we all saw the yawning gap that existed in the top right of the net, and all briefly imagined that if this were a computer game, or even a training session, one might casually seek to caress the ball with just the right amount of elevation and curl – but nobody in their right mind would actually try that sort of nonsense. And yet…

By comparison, the second goal was a simpler beast, but still a delightfully-executed counter. I feel like I have seen our lot squander far more of these overloads, in which we have more attackers than they defenders, than I have seen us score from them. On this occasion, however, it was played to perfection, with each of Lo Celso and Sonny making the perfect decision and with the perfect weight on their pass.

And again, with his rich appreciation of aesthetics, it was dashed good of Kane to thump the thing off the underside of the bar, for such visual and audio effects are always vastly more satisfying.

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Chelsea 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Rodon’s Debut

Presumably during the upbringing of young J. Rodon Esq. there were one or two wild nights around the campfire, but it is difficult to imagine that his clan would have been much more a-twitter than today, with one of their gang thrust into the spotlight, from the off, and against one of our principal challengers for the end-of-season jug.

Given the much-vaunted success of our summer shopping spree, and the consequent strength in depth across the board, the prospect of enforced changes at N17 have generally been met with a fairly care-free shrug at AANP Towers, as if to suggest that there is no need to panic because the next cab on the rank is a pretty reliable sort.

You get the gist – a Lamela twists a knee and a Lucas bounds into view; a Reguilon stubs a toe and a Ben Davies is wheeled into action. Some reserves are better than others, but in general the fellows on show are of the tried and tested variety. The panic station claxons need not be sounded.

However, when Toby limped off last week a distinct shudder passed down the spine, because if there is one area in which we have a few cracks it is centre-back. None of the current mob are in the “Top Notch” bracket, with Toby himself the best of a middling bunch, and while the passage of time might reveal young Rodon to be one of the game’s all-time greats, one still gulped at the news that his first start in lilywhite would be away to Chelsea.

Naturally, no judgement can be passed after one game – but observations abound.

Evidently AANP was not the only indulging in a nervous gulp or two at the prospect of the Rodon limbs being flexed, for in the opening exchanges the lad himself – understandably enough – gave the impression of one trying hard not to show how nervous he was. A few simple passes went astray, which were duly noted in the debit column; but he displayed an early knack of toddling forward a few paces to intercept usefully, bringing himself into credit.

As was well documented, he used up a couple of lives, to top and tail the game – losing possession in an ill-judged mooch forward early on, resulting in the Chelsea offside goal, and then the weak header that let in Giroud at the death – but frankly such mistakes have been made on multiple occasions by other centre-backs stationed not a million miles away from him.

All told, in dashed difficult circumstances Rodon seemed alert and did not shirk the challenge. While I formally cough up my penny for the thoughts of Japhet Tanganga, this seemed promising enough.

The longer-term test, as ever, will be whether Rodon progresses a level or six, à la Ledley, or fails to eradicate the flaws and improve notably – in which respect he would join a pretty crowded gang, including all sorts from Gardner and Thelwell to Wimmer, Foyth and, dare I say it, Sanchez.

2. Dier

Meanwhile, a few yards to the west, Eric Dier once again dined out on what the tomes will record as a clean sheet, but which left the AANP lips pursed and arms folded, in a manner that sharper minds will recognise as communicating displeasure.

Dier has the advantage of being part of a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Under Jose, the back-four functions practically as one single entity, existing to keep marauders one heck of a distance away from goal and crowding the spaces into which trouble can drop. (I use the term ‘back-four’ pretty loosely, because Sissoko and Hojbjerg see to it that it’s often a back-six, with no shortage of additional helping hands from the attackers.)

No doubt it’s a successful operation, but this seems to owe more to the collective and its organisation levels, than to any outstanding quality from the individuals concerned. And in fact, when it comes to Dier, the quality repeatedly strikes me as a hefty distance away from outstanding.

On two notable second half occasions his passing from in or around his own area was unnecessarily risky and just plain inaccurate, gifting Chelsea possession that turned into half-chances; and his marking of Abraham for one cross was abysmal, featuring as it did Dier not even looking at the ball but watching the striker. That Abraham fell over rather than tapping in will inevitably wipe from many memories the pretty glaring error.

Throw in a couple of mistimed, lurching challenges that left him out of a position, and one may understand why the lips-pursed-arms-folded routine began to kick in at AANP Towers. This is not the stuff of a defensive lynchpin upon whom title-winning teams are built. The compactness and organisation (to which, in fairness, Dier presumably contributes) has given us the meanest defence in the division, but Dier himself instils precious little confidence.

3. Tanguy’s Lovely Touches

With caution making its masterpiece from the opening gong, this stuff was not exactly easy on the eye, but bless him, Tanguy Ndombele is the sort who to whom wriggling out of unwriggleable spots comes pretty naturally, and amidst the tactical proddings his little cameos lit up the place.

Given the current vogue for passing out from the back it’s just as well, because he often receives the ball in rather hairy spots and with opponents homing in on him like vultures. More fool them. Via the blessed combination of quick feet, low centre of gravity, general upper body strength and whatever other tricks he has up his sleeves, no position seems too tight for Ndombele, and like some mesmeric conjurer he’s away.

4. The Final Ball (In The First Half)

In the second half we barely laid a glove on our foes; but the pretty comfortable first half was lit up by the occasional forward foray. Alas, whereas in recent weeks, “Clinical Finishing” has been the mantra of all in lilywhite, this week the final ball was either poorly selected or not quite correctly executed.

Bergwijn’s shot over the bar, or Sonny trying to pass rather than shoot when haring towards the penalty area – these were moments that were impeccably and ruthlessly popped away in previous games, but today, with the radar not quite in full working order, the moments came and went.

I confess I expected them to come and go again in the second half, but with the emphasis on preserving what we had rather than venturing out for the win, the whole thing petered out about as unspectacularly as these can.

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