And so it begins again – and in truth receiving a pretty frosty reception in this part of town.
Given our form, injuries and the general way of all things lilywhite pre-apocalypse, I had greeted the abrupt end to proceedings with secret relief, and was all for the expunging of records. “Restore the end-18/19 standings,” was the anthem resounding at AANP Towers, “And if the managerial changes can also be undone, so much the better.”
Alas, such reasonable requests have been ignored. Joseball will be making our eyes bleed again quicker than we can ask “Is a tactic of 35% possession at home and looking to nick something in the final ten really the best way to go about things?”
1. Jose’s Tactics
The Ben Davies Gambit, unveiled to considerable success in Jose’s first game (of 4 at the back when defending and 3 when attacking, resulting in joyous attacking overloads and Good Dele) has proved a hoax. Jose’s true intentions all along appear to have been to retreat 20 years into our own half straight from kick off, and, broadly, hope for the best.
While one sucks up this rot when it’s an injury-hit Champions League night vs Leipzig, the whole routine is rather heavy going when it’s at home to Norwich or some such dross on the lower rungs.
Now admittedly the chap took on a tough gig. CL Finalists we might have been in name, but the mob he inherited needed more than just a lick of paint to get rediscover the old swagger. Key players were past their peak; those who weren’t had been flogged into the ground over the last few seasons; and there was an odd lop-sidedness to the whole mechanism.
So not necessarily the sort of vehicle one would proudly parade in front of envious neighbours – but neither was it the sort of decrepit cast of vagrants and amateurs fit only for ceding possession and playing on the counter-attack. Just about every young bean on the payroll was an international, capable of attracting admiring glances from CL Teams if subjected to the ‘Who Would Buy Them?’ test. Clueless, pootling mid-tablers they were not.
However, Jose has now had a few weeks to mould this lot to his foul preferences. While not exactly a bona fide pre-season it’s probably been the next been thing, so while it is probably a bit much to expect some sort of all-singing, all-dancing, feast of whirring goodness, at the very least one would hope for some defensive solidity and a game-plan slightly more expansive than soak-it-up-and-hope.
2. Injuries No More (Almost)
I still don’t think it fully excused the unique blend of negativity and chaos that stank the place out each week, but the swathe of injuries certainly did knock the stuffing somewhat, pre-Covid.
Merrily that excuse is can now elbowed aside – well, to an extent, as it appears that the boy Lo Celso is made of biscuits and therefore not yet ready for action. This is actually one heck of an elbow to the ribs, as the young egg gave a good impression of the sort around whom a team might be built.
Young Tanganga is also tucked up in bed necking paracetamol, but better news resounds on those other beans who were last seen covered from stern to stem in bandages. Messrs Kane, Son and Sissoko are apparently now injury-free, which is a blessed relief, because without them we increasingly resembled the victims of cinematic ne’er-do-well The Predator once their spines had been ripped from them, they too ending up with a bereft and useless air.
Young Master Bergwijn has also apparently been given an approving nod by some intelligent sort with a stethoscope, which means that Our Glorious Leader will have options a-plenty when the twenty-minute mark rolls along and he decides to make five substitutions at once.
3. Kane And The Need to Hit The Ground Running
The life and works of Harry Kane are generally headline news, so all eyes will presumably be trained in his direction once he lumbers into action, and while his return from injury for these final ten games is a blessing, there is a distinct caution in the air.
For all his assets – and one generally cannot swing a cat without hitting two or three of them – he is generally not the quickest out of the blocks when first settling into things, be it at the start of a new season or on his return from an injury.
Having been bunkered away for something like six months, one fears that it might take him several games to build a full head of steam, and with the games coming thick and fast we rather need him to dispense with the gentle warm-up and go flying straight into battle at full pelt.
Not to over-egg the point but much depends on the honest fellow, so while the empty stadium will not resound to much more than grunts and curses of those playing, you can bet that living rooms across the country will be filled with the muttered prayers of the long-suffering, willing the chap to hit peak form and pronto.
4. An Improved (And Fit) Ndombele?
In theory I suppose one might hone in every member of the squad and wonder what sort of player they will be when emerging back onto the greenery, but Ndombele will make for a particularly fascinating case-study.
Having been feted as up there alongside sliced bread and the wheel when first unveiled, and even now boasting a highlights reel that makes him look pretty unplayable, a full, unedited 90 minutes makes for a slightly more underwhelming spectacle.
One doesn’t like to poke fun, but the lad did seem rather to struggle with the pace of things here in sunny north London, to the extent that it appeared necessary to ration him to one single, solitary sprint per match, after which he could do little more than stagger around the centre circle in exhaustion.
The whispers from on high suggest that improving Ndombele’s fitness became something of a personal crusade for Jose during lockdown. If it bore fruit it will have been time well spent, because one imagines that a fit and active Ndombele could be a thing of beauty, and one heck of an asset to his nearby chums. The fear, of course, is that his allergy to stamina will live with him from cradle to grave, so one holds the breath and rattles off a few more of those living-room prayers.
All told, there is a nameless dread filling the air at AANP Towers, in case you hadn’t picked up as much already. And yet, beneath it all, there lurks that tiny sliver of hope – that actually, we’re still within social distance of the CL places; that the injury crisis is over; that Jose has drilled some tactical sense into even those stupid enough to post pictures of themselves on social media breaking lockdown; that these remaining games might even be a moderate success, and we might yet make the Champions League.