1. Eric Dier’s Return
Those whose dispositions are hard and eyes unsmiling will no doubt have noted that after three consecutive wins in a team without Eric Dier, his return to the starting eleven immediately brought an end to the winning sequence. Admittedly – and as fans of Jose will be particularly aware – when it comes to proving anything, Statistics are right up there on the rostrum alongside Lies and Damned Lies. That we failed to win with Dier restored does not automatically make him culpable.
However, the fang-baring critics would no doubt hammer home the fact that young Master Dier can hardly be excused blame simply by citing the age-old defence that It’s-a-team-game-and-all-the-lads-are-in-it-together-so-it’s-collective-responsibility-in-victory-and-defeat-what?
Alas for young Master Dier, when the queue forms for those individually responsible for the goal we conceded, the man himself is slap bang at the front, head bowed and not daring to look either way – as such pretty accurately mimicking his behaviour at the corner from which Palace scored. ‘Dereliction of duty’ just about covers it.
Over in these parts, the objections to Dier’s presence in the team have been pretty well documented, but for those who take one look at the AANP pages and decide they’d be better employed in sawing of their own thumbs than bothering to read it, the gist is that for all his bone-jarring challenges and hard-man persona, the young bean appears to have been designed for stature rather than speed, and therefore seems too often to be a few steps behind the breakneck pace of things; on top of which, for one supposedly comfortable on the ball, his passing strikes me as being as frequently off-boil as on.
The case for the defence would doubtless point to much of his performance yesterday, notably in bailing out the excruciatingly average Davies when trouble began to smoulder on the left side of our defence, and also in taking a few opportunities to stride out of defence and play a forward pass.
Commendable moments indeed, and I suppose it goes to show that life is rarely black and white. Dier has his assets; Dier has his flaws. I nevertheless maintain that he is not of high enough standard, particularly within a team that appears set up to spend up to 70% of a game on the defensive.
(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that when Toby is one side of the centre-back pairing, his partner always looks a notch or two better than when Toby is absent. As with Sanchez in recent weeks so with Dier yesterday. The moral of the story appears to be that Toby is a prized asset whose every wish must be granted and every ailment treated with the utmost concern; and that a top-class partner for the chap would not go amiss.)
2. Another Game, Another Kane Masterclass
Another week, another tour de force from Harry Kane. It’s a quirk of circumstance that if he produced such impressive feats only on an occasional basis they might well be greeted by crowds lining streets, strewing of garlands and a zoom call from the nearest available on-the-ball royal. Instead, precisely because he trots them out so regularly, the general reaction now is simply to shrug, playfully punch someone on the shoulder and declare, “Ah, that Harry Kane, eh? Doing the scarcely believable yet again! And by the way, rain is forecast in the Third Test, wouldn’t you know?”
We take his magnificence for granted because he produces the scarcely believable so regularly. So, ultimately, if the chap is underappreciated, I suppose it’s his own fault.
Yesterday, his goal was made to look pretty straightforward fare, when in fact, of the multiple combinations on offer, the one he adopted was just about the only one that could have brought about a goal. With the entire Palace defence around him and the space of approximately one shoebox in which to operate, he had shifted feet, brought the ball under control and planted a shot at the near post before most of us mere mortals had clocked that he had even taken possession.
On top of which, even those moments in which he drops into midfield to ping an inch-perfect, no-look pass hither or yonder are now becoming something of a weekly occurrence. The chap has somehow turned himself into a combination of both Shearer and Sheringham.
3. A Rush of Excitement When We Concede A Corner
Part of this dubious ‘New Normal’ under Jose, within the hallowed gates of N17, is that the jar marked “Priorities” has been opened, tipped upside down and its contents scattered about the place, so that now one is never really quite sure whether they are coming or going.
It’s a world in which 30% possession is good; semi-permanent residence in or around our own penalty area is to be cheered to the rafters; and a key element of The Grand Plan is quite often simply to bloot the ball 60 yards up the pitch and unleash the hounds in attack.
And an adjunct to this curious state of affairs is that now when we concede a corner, the AANP blood begins to rush around the arteries that much quicker, and the excitement begins to build. This, to repeat, when we concede a corner. When near enough all eleven members of the gang are parked inside our own area and the ball is about to go within spitting distance of our own net.
But such is The Jose Way. Concede a corner, and the opposition merrily send all but two or three of their own mob up the pitch and out of position. Bop the ball away from immediate danger – and the chances of doing so are generally at least in 50-50 territory – and suddenly the tables turn Spurs-wards, because the break is on, and Kane, the three musketeers and any other soul in lilywhite who happens to be captured by the whim are haring up the pitch.
And so, to repeat, when we concede a corner, the AANP eyes light up. Our lot have demonstrated often enough that we can sally along from our area to theirs within about ten seconds and three well-placed passes – and if most of the opposition defence are already up north and well out of position then so much the better.
The principal observation on this peculiar state of affairs (besides from creating a brand of football completely at odds with the Tottenham way) is that it’s a pretty dashed risky game. Now I’m as fond of yelling “Pull” and downing a clay pigeon as the next fellow, but if there is one trait of AANP it is that he knows when and when not to take risks, and as such my dalliance with firearms ends about there. Offer me the clay pigeon and I’m your man; slide a loaded pistol into my hand and murmur about the benefits of Russian Roulette, and I’ll have my polite letter of refusal whipped up within seconds.
Jose, however, seems to thrive on this risk-laden scenario, actively encouraging the opposition to come ever closer to our goal, all with the aim of increasing the chances of a breakneck game of cat-and-mouse when possession is turned over. Its success relies upon the opposition drawing ever nearer to our own goal. The risks were laid pretty bare when Palace used one of their corners to score.
On top of which, on several occasions yesterday, rather than simply clear their lines and be done, our lot played themselves into trouble by dallying on the edge of their own area in search of the perfect pass to set up a counter-attack. One understands the thought-process, but the risks seem huge. As I observed this fandango play out with morbid fascination, the thought did occur that there surely ought to be less risk-laden ways of eking out wins, given the personnel on hand.
It seems almost to discredit the tumultuous nature of the season just endured to declare it over with little more by way of summary than the words, “Sixth; Europa” – and yet, anyone uttering such a truth would be right on the money.
There have, of course, been countless other highs and lows, from Sonny wonder goals to Poch exit-shuffles, but the long and short of it is that Europa it is.
Opinion on this seems somewhat divided. In the Credit column, it is, apparently, a tenth consecutive season of European competition, which, as well as having a pleasing ring about it, also suggests that as a club we are in fairly solid shape, and presumably are spoken of in the high-flying smoking rooms around Europe in terms that are complimentary enough.
Moreover, lest Daniel Levy is casting his eye over these pages, I probably ought to mention that qualification also brings with it £10m, to be stuffed into the back pocket at the earliest convenience. So far, so good, and approving nods all round.
The AANP verdict however, is a little more on the cooler side of things. Whereas every game in the Champions League is sprinkled with some Hollywood sparkle, the earlier stages of the Europa have much about them of the boys’ stag-weekend in some seedy corner of the continent.
Moreover, I cannot shake from my memory the recollection of those seasons in which we did make a decent fist of a Title challenge, only to fall away in the final stages, and be bested by Leicester and Chelsea teams that were free from any European football at all. Not that these things can necessarily be quantified of course, but common sense does suggest that their respective gangs might have been a little fresher towards the latter end of the season for the absence of a constant midweek game in the earlier part. As such, I would quite happily have finished outside the European spots if it meant an improved chance of Top Four qualification next season.
5. Jose’s Talk of Winning The Europa
An additional argument in favour of Europa entry is that it’s an eminently winnable trophy, and indeed this line has been peddled by Our Glorious Leader himself in recent weeks. In fact, he’s been referring to it as a given, stating that if we finish sixth this season we will the Europa next. This did strike me initially as making a fairly sizeable assumption or two, but if he liked to put things that way I saw no reason to stop him.
However, on reflection I found myself growing to admire this take on things. Some might call it arrogance, and it would be a reasonable shout, but Jose comes across as the sort of egg who does not sneeze without carefully planning its timing, audience and calculated effect. When Jose says we will win next season’s Europa, I have a sneaky suspicion that what he is trying to do is gently shove a winning mentality into the heart of the club.
After all, that glorious afternoon of Woodgate’s unknowing header was back in 2008 – we are not a club used to winning trophies. Ours is not a trophy-winning mentality. Eke our way towards a Cup Final and we the fans will dolefully peer around at the other teams left in the competition, and play down our chances – it is a pretty fair bet that the players themselves rarely consider themselves favourites.
So maybe Jose is onto something when he drills into the otherwise vacant loaves of the players that actually this is a trophy that they should be winning. Maybe this is all part of The Plan.