I hesitate to say it goes from bad to worse, because we went into this one on the back of a home defeat to relegation fodder after which one of our number waded in to throttle a ‘fan’. So strictly speaking this was a marked improvement, given that no defeat was recorded and relationships between players and fans appeared to be in perfect harmony.
Nevertheless, it does not require particularly forensic analysis to identify that this was again pretty limp stuff.
1. Ndombele (And Jose’s Treatment Of The Chap)
As is often the case, Our Glorious Leader appeared to have given more thought to his post-match narrative than to righting the multiple wrongs on the pitch, with few left in doubt about the identify of the latest scapegoat de jour.
Monsieur Ndombele was the unlucky punter, suffering the twin ignominies of being hooked at half-time and then given both barrels by Jose at the press conference.
One understands the frustration. When we bought the young egg last summer the trailers advertised a pretty dominating sort, capable of muscling his way onto the ball, weaving past all-comers and then splitting defences as if shelling peas.
And rather gallingly, the evidence has actually hinted that the young man’s locker does indeed contain all of the aforementioned. It’s all just packed away so tightly that he seems to require special dispensation to access it, if you get my drift.
Each appearance will feature a few choice flashes of his talents, as if to tease seasoned watchers into thinking the reincarnation of Mousa Dembele walks amongst us, but it all occurs in such fitful manner that invariably we depart murmuring frustrations at his inability to produce his act on something close to a 24-7 basis.
Yesterday was a particularly egregious example. Ndombele was sound if unspectacular in his passing, and on a couple of occasions attempted that neat trick of wriggling out of pretty confined spaces, but in the area of busting a gut to win possession from the Burnley midfield he was notably absent, and his removal from proceedings, if maybe a tad extreme, was certainly understandable.
The chap’s fitness – or lack thereof – continues to startle, a good six months after he joined, but then these millionaire professional athletes will move in mysterious ways their wonders to perform. And a distinctive feature of the mysterious way in which Ndombele moves is that it all happens at approximately half the speed of the average footballer, and ends with him panting as if upon death’s door, which contributes in no small amount to opposing midfielders cantering away from him at will.
Here at AANP Towers we’re not entirely convinced that Jose’s repeated public castigation of the chap is quite the optimal way to manage him – but one might argue firstly that Jose has a dashed sight more experience in such matters than I; and secondly that it really doesn’t matter what I think because my influence in Jose’s behavioural choices appears strangely limited.
So while Ndombele was being pelted with rotten fruit, his midfield partner of the first half walked away with not a blemish on his record.
I cannot profess to having ever been particularly awestruck by the performances of young O. Skipp Esquire. “Earnest and Nervous” about sums him up in my book, a chap who might consider himself a tad fortunate to be in the first team squad – and conducts himself as if he thinks along identical lines.
I actually thought that his midweek jolly against Norwich was one of his finest in lilywhite. Admittedly the competition in this department is hardly stiff, but we needed a midfielder who might put in a tackle or two and he did his best to oblige (albeit not to the extent that it stopped Norwich looking pretty comfortable in possession against us – a statement that pretty much sums up the state of things). On top of which Skipp is hardly one of life’s great risk-takers when it comes to demanding or using possession, striking me as more Harry Winks than Harry Winks himself.
That was against Norwich; yesterday against Burnley he seemed barely to be involved. In his defence two hours of energy exerted midweek presumably took its toll, on top of which his midfield partner, as mentioned above, was himself hardly a bundle of energy. However, Skipp’s presence yesterday appeared to be for little more than decorative value.
If this were his chance to cement a spot in the team, I suspect his argument might well be that he wasn’t actually there, and few who witnessed proceedings would be able to recall evidence to the contrary.
Jose, however, was having none of it, and exonerated the young pup of all blame. One awaits with curiosity to see whether actions match these words when it comes to future selections.
3. Dele Alli Upfront
An administrative error in each of the last umpteen transfer windows having left us short of a legally qualified striker, and Lucas Moura having been run into the ground in recent weeks, Dele Alli was the poor sap square-pegged into service atop the formation yesterday, and it was hard not to feel for him.
He went about it gamely enough, reasoning that, irrespective of his nominal position he was still Dele Alli and must therefore try to backheel and nutmeg his way through proceedings, and was only a heartbeat away from doing so to goalscoring effect as early as the first minute.
In general however he was limited by simply not having been on the roster when Mother Nature was carving out strikers. Service hardly overflowed, but whenever my best mate Jan did whip in a cross, Dele’s approach to life betrayed that of a man more accustomed to making a late burst into the box rather than being the focal point of attack.
He, Lamela and Bergwijn did their best to one-two their way to glory, but it was all rather narrow and intricate, and in the first half at least, Burnley were not unduly threatened.
4. Second Half Improvement
Mercifully things improved after half-time. Whether this was due to the change in personnel or formation is debatable, and convincing cases could be made for both lines of argument.
The switch to a back four meant that our midfield population increased significantly; the presence of Lo Celso brought a hitherto unseen creative spark.
I dare not ask Eric Dier what he made of being shunted from centre-back to defensive midfield, but he made a good enough fist of it that young Skipp might have been advised to take a shorthand note or two; and if Lucas were aggrieved that his evening off had been rudely interrupted he did not show it, and in fact gave a convincing impression of a domestic dog being allowed a bonus run in the park, bounding around with energy and to pretty decent effect.
In short however, all that was good tended to emanate from Lo Celso, and the others simply followed his lead. The equaliser, on balance, was deserved, and it was just a shame that some encouraging second half attacks did not bear the fruit that seemed possible.
5. Sanchez – Something Of A Shocker
For fairly understandable reasons Our Glorious Leader began with a back three, and indeed a total of five centre backs across the width of the pitch, which rather telegraphed his expectation that we were in for an aerial joust.
One understood the logic, but unfortunately Davinson Sanchez seemed to have identified 7 March 2020 to be as good a date as any other to peddle the very worst he had to offer.
In recent weeks I have actually identified the chap as one of the brighter performers, but yesterday’s was a pretty wild deviation from this contemporary history.
His inability to judge a flighted cross seems ingrained into his DNA, so these moments, while unwelcome, at least did not surprise. However, seeing him outmuscled, dispossessed and tripping over his own feet was as unpleasant as it was unexpected, and although lines of communication generally appeared to have been cut between him and the rest of the defence, Messrs Alderweireld, Dier and Tanganga were at least sufficiently savvy to come flying in with last-ditch interceptions that maintained a level of decency.
6. Random Right-Wing Serge Aurier
With the game in the balance in the final stages, and substitute options limited, Jose stuck out his tongue at all those critics who accuse him of being out of touch with the modern game by not just thinking outside the box but removing himself from the box completely and throwing into the recycling bin, with the introduction of Serge Aurier into a right-wing role.
There is a precedent of sorts in lilywhite, as I recall Danny Rose having occasionally been stationed ahead of, say, Ben Davies, out on the left-wing, but nevertheless I would not be deceiving my public to say that the sight of Aurier galloping into position ahead of Tanganga left me momentarily stunned.
In theory however, such a move made a lot of sense. As we are all now well aware, Aurier’s impeccable sense of calamity makes him quite the liability at right-back; whereas if his compass points north he offers a handy attacking threat, being one of the better purveyors of whipped crosses on the market. Stationing him in a right-wing role for twenty minutes therefore removes the Con while retaining the Pro, so to speak.
And in practice too, as it happened, the move had much to recommend it. Lucas shuffled off into the centre, and Aurier seemed eager to get stuck in, offering decent link-up play, decent pace and one or two of those crosses.
One idly speculates what went through Gedson’s mind as all this unfolded, but the cameo was certainly innovative, and, in a way that unfortunately rather sums up how far we have sunk, was probably one of the highlights of the evening.
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