1. ‘Squad Depth’ and What It Actually Means
Generally in my relentlessly advancing years there’s not much that moves me to the state of excitable animation. The 90s output of either The Prodigy or Arnold Schwarzenegger; a well-weighted pass played by literally anyone inside the opposing full-back; and a decent bourbon – this would probably fill that list in its entirety.
Recently, however, a further addition was made, when someone sent me an image of the current Spurs squad by position, featuring at least two pretty decent, international players in each spot. It would be deceiving my public to say that I salivated, but the thought certainly occurred that if ever there were a time to rub one’s hands in glee then that was it.
Much has been made of the strength in depth of the current Hotspur vintage, as enabled by the oddly generous spirit of giving that overcame the resident purse-string holder this summer. And quite rightly too, as the view here at AANP Towers is that as long as the defence can find a way to muddle through each week then we might all be able to head over to N17 next May for one heck of a shin-dig.
However, ‘Squad Depth’ is a potentially misleading term. What it suggests in this corner of the interweb is that should a couple of players pick up knocks – or worse, be absented for longer periods – then fully functional and relatively able reserves can seamlessly slot in, and the general equilibrium of the whole operation remains unsullied. Life goes on; day follows night; and where once a Lo Celso picked the midfield passes now a Ndombele does so.
What such squad depth does not do is give licence to The Brains Trust to change all eleven (or near enough) in one crazed swoop, and hope that nobody notices. The England team has done this often enough to teach anyone with a smidge of good sense that swapping out more than half of the regulars for a bunch of capable substitutes simply will not pass without a dip in quality. The individuals involved might all be good enough, but the spine of the team is gone, and instead there stands on the greenery a bunch of fellows who presumably have never once played together en masse.
Changing maybe four of the line-up ought generally to be manageable, whilst retaining the core of the team. But sticking with Lloris and hoping that a jumble of the rest of them will cope is a bit like holding onto the Ace, throwing the rest of the cards into the air and expecting them to fall in order.
The complete absence of first half fluency was therefore lamentable but fairly unsurprising. A new back-four, a new midfield three and a new front three predictably enough all looked around for someone else to take the lead.
Which is not to excuse them from blame – the lack of movement from those not in possession was fairly criminal stuff, and presumably most of them will at some point in the coming days have their heads flushed down a nearby toilet as a pointed reminder that a professional footballer ought to run until his lungs burst.
But nevertheless, I’m not sure what miracle Jose was expecting, having fielded a brand new eleven.
2. The Ongoing Struggles of Young Master Dele
Fair to say that Dele Towers will have witnessed happier times. The young squirt is clearly not Jose’s preferred tipple, which must be tough enough on a chap who not so long was being feted as The Next Big Deal.
But as if to really twist the knife, whenever he does get a start these days, the planets do anything but align, he scrabbles around for his best form and the it’s a safe bet that by half-time he’ll be invited to model some of the exciting THFC bench-warming garb.
Dele’s performance tonight sat somewhere between Terrible and Brilliant. In truth it was pretty typical Dele fare. Some nice touches and a few attempted cute passes were interspersed with him dwelling on the ball longer than necessary and flinging his arms in the time-honoured fashion of a toddler who can tantrum like the best of them. Personally I thought his work-rate was acceptable enough, and he was a little hard done by to be hooked at half-time; but such is life.
Part of the problem is that he does tend to swan around the place with the air of one who would like the team to be built around him. Dele, one sometimes suspects, would like to be the superstar flair player, or if not The Main Man then dashed well first amongst The Supporting Cast. And once upon a time that was indeed the case, with Dele the foil to Kane’s leading light.
At present, alas, he is being required simply to roll up his sleeves and put in a shift like the rest of the plebs. This does not appear a role for which Nature has fashioned him.
One wonders how long the impasse will last – or at least one would if this were a transfer window, but it isn’t, and presumably a few more opportunities for redemption await in the Europa.
3. Ben Davies, AANP’s Nemesis
Few things get the juices flowing like a pantomime villain, and as such I sometimes wonder if Ben Davies was put on this earth purely to give yours truly someone at whom to vent after five minutes of gently simmering discontent.
In truth he’s a pretty honest trooper – but when the reasonable fan has half an eye on title celebrations next May, then ‘Honest Trooper’ does not cut it.
As a full-back his crosses typically hit the first man (think back to the delicious Reguilon cross for Kane vs West Ham, and imagine how many attempts it would have taken Davies), and as a centre-back he seems best when in amongst a three.
It ought not to have mattered tonight, but just as the simmering discontent began to make itself felt, there was Davies to clatter over his own feet and pretty much usher in Antwerp with a route to goal.
Alas, we are hardly blessed with talent in the centre-back area at present, and if anything will halt the title parade next May it’s that particular berth. However, having incurred the AANP wrath from his general lack of threat as a bona fide left-back, I need hardly describe how the passions were stoked by his faux pas tonight.
4. Bale’s Lack of Fitness
Another game, and another underwhelming showing from our resident Galactico.
As ever, one is reluctant to chide Bale for the crime of being dreadfully undercooked, but it is difficult to tell how effective he might be at full-blast when he shows reluctance to break sweat, as is currently the case.
Bale currently ambles around the place with the air of one paranoid his muscles might snap if he approaches anything near a sprint – which may well indeed be exactly his mindset. And if that is indeed the case then there’s not much anyone can do but fling him into the pit on Thursday nights and hope that the cylinders begin to fire before too long.
It didn’t help the cause tonight however, not least given that, as articulated above ad nauseam, he was one amongst a group of relative strangers all looking to each other for inspiration. Moreover, one got the impression that young Lo Celso was in a similar boat of being a little wary of stretching the limbs as far as they would go, being also freshly returned from injury.
The net result was a team that looked like they were carrying one or two passengers, which certainly stuck a few spanners in the works.
On top of which, it remains nigh on impossible to gauge what sort of Gareth Bale we find ourselves in possession of. He is still capable of lung-busting gallops? Is his sole purpose in life now to lamp the ball at goal from thirty yards? There is no way of knowing at present.
5. Oddly Reticent Full-Backs
No doubt that the game was lost in that oddly neutered first half. The glut of half-time substitutions nearly had the desired effect in terms of result, and certainly bucked up things performance-wise, with Messrs Sonny, Lamela and Hojbjerg each offering the levels of energy one has come to expect.
It was notable in that second half that Monsieur Aurier in particular was suddenly struck by the whim to attack down the flank. Quite why he didn’t do so in the first half was a rummy one to me, with Reguilon on the other flank similarly shy on the matter.
A failing in that first half was the narrowness of our lot, alongside the absence of movement and general lethargy about the place. But a key component of Jose’s Spurs has generally been the willingness of the full-backs to push forward, allowing the forwards to shuffle infield, and generally sprinkling the place with options.
As noted, Aurier did so in the second half, but it was all lacking in the first. Maybe it was due to the slow tempo of the build-up play, maybe not, who knows? It was not the only failing, and certainly not the only reason we lost – but as with all the shortcomings, it left the interested observer with a sense of irritation.