Defeat maybe, but there was at least a smidgeon of honour about this one, rather like a chappie still swinging away even as his limbs get hacked off and arrows pierce him at every juncture. After the bizarre Champions League capitulation that boasted all the spine of a gloomy jellyfish, here was at least a whiff of fight.
Making Dominance Count
Rarely had the pre kick-off mood at AANP Towers been more sombre than yesterday, as I trooped to the viewing chamber with all the joie de vivre of a chappie during the French Revolution who has been reliably informed that a brand new guillotine has been rolled into place complete with extra sharp blade.
A Chelsea mob who had won around 800 games in a row, not conceding a goal in any of them, up against a lilywhite team that has looked decidedly iffy all season, and missing key personnel to boot. The omens were not good.
But lo and whatnot, our heroes started off at an absolute rate of knots. Chelsea heels were snapped at, pockets of space were darted into, and while the Chelsea mob were lazily trying to swat us away like flies we made a couple of early thrusts for the jugular, striking oil around ten minutes in. It did not stop there. To describe it as “one-way stuff” would admittedly be rather stretching the bounds of credulity, but our lot definitely held the aces during the first 45, and any jury worth its salt would have voted for 0-1 at the break as a minimum.
But there’s the rub, dash it all. Against Man City we were in the ascendancy, and we jolly well made hay while we could, sackloads of the stuff. On that occasion we turned early dominance into a 2-0 lead, and it did the trick. Here, as we snatched at chances and marginally misplaced the final ball, that 1-0 lead looked a mite wobbly – and on the stroke of half-time the whole bally thing wibbled back down to earth and that was that.
It struck me that if you peeled back the layers, the key factor in all that first half dominance, was Dembele. Like the young imp of nursery rhyme fame, when good Dembele is very good, and when bad he rather drifts into the periphery of things. Yesterday, without being at the peak of his powers, he pulled out that party trick of his on several occasions, of picking up the ball somewhere deep, and loping forward with it 20 yards. Simple, but marvellously effective.
Admittedly he drifted a long way off the boil as the game progressed, and was duly hooked off, but with Wanyama feisty in the tackle alongside him, our midfield core appeared to have matters fairly well sussed.
Nice of Christian Eriksen to treat us to a rare glimpse of his A-game, now generally adorning the side of milk cartons having not been seen since elsewhere since spring. The chap struck his goal like an exocet missile, and evidently realising the good that could come of such things he made a grab for the bit, carefully clasped it between his teeth and took the fight to Chelsea for much of the first half. Such were his efforts that his immaculate hair even started to fall out of place, and Chelsea had the dickens of a time trying to contain us.
Alas, the point remained that we simply did not make the most of these good times, and the stuffing was duly knocked out of us – and back into Chelsea – by that equaliser.
Wimmer at Left-Back
There was still plenty of the race left to run after half-time of course, but the whole bally thing had a different look about it, no doubt. Chelsea came back after the break with a spring in their collective step, and our makeshift back-four were subjected to quite the interrogation.
Oddly enough, I have never once made the wrong call with the benefit of hindsight, so I can confirm 24 hours after the event that Wimmer at left-back did not work. (In truth, Wimmer has not worked for much of this season, but that’s a different kettle of fish).
At kick-off however, the rationale was understandable. Up against Costa, and without the sweet, reassuring presence of Toby, a centre-back pairing of Dier and Wimmer had ‘TROUBLE’ daubed all over it in that giant graffiti font that one sees rather bafflingly in the most awkward spots along railway tracks.
It is difficult to imagine the conflab around this selection having taken more than around a millisecond or two, and thusly Vertonghen trotted out at centre-back, which left little option (though Kieran Trippier may beg to differ) than Wimmer at left-back. The same left-back slot that was rather woefully neglected as Moses was granted the freedom of the penalty area as he slammed in Chelsea’s second.
The Glass Half-Full Perspective
Apparently we are by and large at the same points tally as this time last season, which suggests that the thing is not dead, buried and having lilies strewn over it just yet – but last season was largely redeemed by a couple of winning streaks that seemed to stretch on for months. Something similar would be frightfully welcome this time around, and if we can perform like the first half yesterday, whilst cannily wriggling our way out of any further European commitments, the thing might just start to take shape…
Shameless Plug Alert – AANP’s own book, Spurs’ Cult Heroes, continues to retail at Amazon and Waterstones, hint hint
1. Three at the Back
Arched eyebrows all round at kick-off, as the meanest defence of all 92 clubs in England swivelled from its traditional back-four to a terrifically trendy and fashionable three-man troupe. Eagle-eyed as ever, AANP was onto it like a flash, and did the only logical thing there is to do in such radical times – I made a list of Pros and Cons.
Pros: In the absence of Toby in midweek, all common sense made a dash for the nearest exit, and the entire back-four took to playing like a team of mechanical wind-up toys that were left to cart around in any direction they pleased, with ball control and retention purely optional. Life could not go on in that Toby-less state, particularly against hot opposition, so the change to a back-three gave a rather meaty extra layer of protection.
Cons: Granted. Not much of a Con there really, what?
Pros: Moreover, every time one of the back-three stepped forward into midfield, the Arsenal mob looked like they had been hit across the money-maker with a sledgehammer. ‘Discombobulated’ does not quite do it – they simply could not comprehend what was happening.
Cons: Until about the 20 minute mark, when they worked it out and started piling into us.
Pros: You speak sooth. However, the use of a back-three also allowed our full-backs to fulfil lifelong ambitions, and bomb forward like bona fide wing-backs. It was a switch they embraced like a caterpillars discovering wings on their back of all dashed things, and fluttering off with all manner of gaiety. At one point Kyle Walker even went on a crossfield dribble that ended up in the inside left position.
Cons: The opposition got wind of this, and ended up going 2 vs 1 down the wings when they attacked. Admittedly it might have been the role of Wanyama to help out in such circumstances, but the point remains – with the wing-backs bombing on, we were a tad vulnerable down the flanks.
And so on. One gets the gist – there were positives, negatives and all manner of things in between, but mercifully the whole gambit did not backfire, and off we toodled with a fairly hard-earned point.
2. Dembele’s Attacking Ability
After Dembele’s slightly rummy cameo on Wednesday night, I am not afraid to admit that I gave the chin and its elegant whiskers quite the concerned rub. Mercifully today, lions can once again lie with lambs, and sickly orphans smile through their tears, because the young behemoth is clearly back on track and inflicting damage once more, and the world seems that much righter.
It has been a rarely sighted beast this season so far, but the combination of downright elegant slaloming with mind-boggling upper body strength was enough to make even the most hardened old bean purr in appreciation. I am all for zipping the ball hither, thither and yonder in an effort to move things from A (back at base) to B (somewhere in the region of the final third), but all that pretty passing can be neatly sidestepped when a ball-carrier of the ilk of Dembele gets it into his head that by golly, if he just charges forward like a man possessed – albeit bearing an almightily languid gait – then no force on heaven or earth stands much chance of dispossessing him. As if by magic, Dembele has the unique capacity to single-handedly shift the action thirty yards forward and have the opposition back-pedalling and panicking as if their lives depend on it.
And lo, as a passing archangel might have commented, when Dembele was possessed with the idea of the Forward Surge all the way into the opposition area, the result was as gratifying as one might expect. An errant opposition leg here, a referee’s toot there – and we had ourselves a penalty.
All of which does beg the question of why the blighter does not do exactly that each time he touches the ball? Or at least once per game. Instead of haggling over an extra million in transfer fees here and there, could Daniel Levy not write into Dembele’s contract that each game he plays he is legally obliged to carry the ball into the opposition area, at least once per half?
3. Kane and Janssen.
Marvellous to see Kane back, and biffing around like he knew what the job entailed. That first half header was almost glorious; he rather missed out on the winning lottery ticket in both the first half (Son cross) and second half (sliding in at close range); but by and large the chap seemed to know his apples from pears, and everyone around him seemed far happier with life knowing that he was up there and making a fist of things.
Then Janssen entered the fray, and we rather started to settle for a point. I suspect the entire lilywhite population of Christendom absolutely wills the chap to get it right, but things simply do not work out for him. The sensational volley hit his standing leg; the cheeky nudge was pulled up as a foul; and while his earnestness and endeavour deserve firm handshakes, this is most decidedly not yet his time. Next week, maybe but not right now.
4. Son & Eriksen – Too Polite By Half
It would be remiss to describe the Pochettino vintage as a soft-touch, and that squidgy underbelly so cherished by Spurs teams of yore is more or less a thing of history – but by golly one or two of our heroes need toughening up.
Son has racked up goodwill by the sackload in recent weeks, and well deserved it is too. But the Pavlovian response I mutter each time his name is mentioned is “Too dashed lightweight”. Not a fan of a chappie who smiles when he has just made a mistake on the football pitch either, but that is a chunter for another day.
But heavens above, pulling out of a 50-50 challenge with a goalkeeper who is approximately eight miles outside his area, and with the net beckoning invitingly behind him like some sultry temptress of the night – it was too much. All manner of invective thundered from the AANP lips, the air turned purple and a passing thunderstorm backed away in terror. Give that man a damn good thrashing, because that was game, set and match, right there - and he jumped out of the challenge like a neutered puppy. Dashed sickening to witness.
(I find Eriksen a rather soft sort of bean as well, hence the sub-heading).
All told however, that was a hard-earned and decent point. Admittedly this run of seventy-six consecutive draws is becoming a mite tedious, but in this instance, and with several key figures out injured (plus one comedy figure suspended) it can be officially marked down as “Satisfying Enough”, and positives duly drawn.
Shameless Plug Alert – AANP’s own book, Spurs’ Cult Heroes, continues to retail at Amazon and Waterstones, hint hint