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Chelsea 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Rodon’s Debut

Presumably during the upbringing of young J. Rodon Esq. there were one or two wild nights around the campfire, but it is difficult to imagine that his clan would have been much more a-twitter than today, with one of their gang thrust into the spotlight, from the off, and against one of our principal challengers for the end-of-season jug.

Given the much-vaunted success of our summer shopping spree, and the consequent strength in depth across the board, the prospect of enforced changes at N17 have generally been met with a fairly care-free shrug at AANP Towers, as if to suggest that there is no need to panic because the next cab on the rank is a pretty reliable sort.

You get the gist – a Lamela twists a knee and a Lucas bounds into view; a Reguilon stubs a toe and a Ben Davies is wheeled into action. Some reserves are better than others, but in general the fellows on show are of the tried and tested variety. The panic station claxons need not be sounded.

However, when Toby limped off last week a distinct shudder passed down the spine, because if there is one area in which we have a few cracks it is centre-back. None of the current mob are in the “Top Notch” bracket, with Toby himself the best of a middling bunch, and while the passage of time might reveal young Rodon to be one of the game’s all-time greats, one still gulped at the news that his first start in lilywhite would be away to Chelsea.

Naturally, no judgement can be passed after one game – but observations abound.

Evidently AANP was not the only indulging in a nervous gulp or two at the prospect of the Rodon limbs being flexed, for in the opening exchanges the lad himself – understandably enough – gave the impression of one trying hard not to show how nervous he was. A few simple passes went astray, which were duly noted in the debit column; but he displayed an early knack of toddling forward a few paces to intercept usefully, bringing himself into credit.

As was well documented, he used up a couple of lives, to top and tail the game – losing possession in an ill-judged mooch forward early on, resulting in the Chelsea offside goal, and then the weak header that let in Giroud at the death – but frankly such mistakes have been made on multiple occasions by other centre-backs stationed not a million miles away from him.

All told, in dashed difficult circumstances Rodon seemed alert and did not shirk the challenge. While I formally cough up my penny for the thoughts of Japhet Tanganga, this seemed promising enough.

The longer-term test, as ever, will be whether Rodon progresses a level or six, à la Ledley, or fails to eradicate the flaws and improve notably – in which respect he would join a pretty crowded gang, including all sorts from Gardner and Thelwell to Wimmer, Foyth and, dare I say it, Sanchez.

2. Dier

Meanwhile, a few yards to the west, Eric Dier once again dined out on what the tomes will record as a clean sheet, but which left the AANP lips pursed and arms folded, in a manner that sharper minds will recognise as communicating displeasure.

Dier has the advantage of being part of a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Under Jose, the back-four functions practically as one single entity, existing to keep marauders one heck of a distance away from goal and crowding the spaces into which trouble can drop. (I use the term ‘back-four’ pretty loosely, because Sissoko and Hojbjerg see to it that it’s often a back-six, with no shortage of additional helping hands from the attackers.)

No doubt it’s a successful operation, but this seems to owe more to the collective and its organisation levels, than to any outstanding quality from the individuals concerned. And in fact, when it comes to Dier, the quality repeatedly strikes me as a hefty distance away from outstanding.

On two notable second half occasions his passing from in or around his own area was unnecessarily risky and just plain inaccurate, gifting Chelsea possession that turned into half-chances; and his marking of Abraham for one cross was abysmal, featuring as it did Dier not even looking at the ball but watching the striker. That Abraham fell over rather than tapping in will inevitably wipe from many memories the pretty glaring error.

Throw in a couple of mistimed, lurching challenges that left him out of a position, and one may understand why the lips-pursed-arms-folded routine began to kick in at AANP Towers. This is not the stuff of a defensive lynchpin upon whom title-winning teams are built. The compactness and organisation (to which, in fairness, Dier presumably contributes) has given us the meanest defence in the division, but Dier himself instils precious little confidence.

3. Tanguy’s Lovely Touches

With caution making its masterpiece from the opening gong, this stuff was not exactly easy on the eye, but bless him, Tanguy Ndombele is the sort who to whom wriggling out of unwriggleable spots comes pretty naturally, and amidst the tactical proddings his little cameos lit up the place.

Given the current vogue for passing out from the back it’s just as well, because he often receives the ball in rather hairy spots and with opponents homing in on him like vultures. More fool them. Via the blessed combination of quick feet, low centre of gravity, general upper body strength and whatever other tricks he has up his sleeves, no position seems too tight for Ndombele, and like some mesmeric conjurer he’s away.

4. The Final Ball (In The First Half)

In the second half we barely laid a glove on our foes; but the pretty comfortable first half was lit up by the occasional forward foray. Alas, whereas in recent weeks, “Clinical Finishing” has been the mantra of all in lilywhite, this week the final ball was either poorly selected or not quite correctly executed.

Bergwijn’s shot over the bar, or Sonny trying to pass rather than shoot when haring towards the penalty area – these were moments that were impeccably and ruthlessly popped away in previous games, but today, with the radar not quite in full working order, the moments came and went.

I confess I expected them to come and go again in the second half, but with the emphasis on preserving what we had rather than venturing out for the win, the whole thing petered out about as unspectacularly as these can.

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Spurs 2-0 Man City: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics

It says much about the tactical scribblings of Our Glorious Leader that after a match in which all 14 players used can be congratulated for performing to the absolute peak of their powers, the first roses are strewn in the direction of the manager.

But no doubt about it, Jose and The Brains Trust did not leave a stone unturned in this one, with every slightest tactical eventuality seemingly taken care of. Everywhere one looked on the pitch there seemed to be a tactical tweak with Jose’s name scrawled over it, from the switch of Sonny from left to right, to the use of Sissoko as an additional defender in between right-back and centre back, via Hojbjerg’s more central berth and Kane’s deeper role.

I don’t mind admitting that The Angst of Over Three Decades of Spurs Supporting was weighing pretty heavily upon me in the first half, as our tactic became clear. Sitting back and soaking up pressure is one thing, but trying to do so for ninety minutes against a team as nifty on the ball as Man City struck me as a dashed dangerous game to play, and the wildly escalating AANP blood pressure during that first 45 no doubt bore provided sound medical evidence of this truth.

Looking back however, it is a testimony both to Jose’s masterplan and the concentration of troops invovled that City’s only clear shots at goal were two headers from set-pieces – and even then, the first was from quite a distance, on account of the delightful high defensive line now deployed, which cunningly acts as a safety net against our inability to man-mark.

On top of which, every time we touched the ball – which admittedly seemed only to be around once every ten minutes – we looked like scoring. City, for all their pretty patterns in possession, resembled a gang of schoolboys in a playground when it came to defending, all bluster but precious little strategy, and were duly cut to ribbons.

Our opening goal itself was a thing of beauty, each of its constituent parts worthy of some pretty gushing praise; and then the offside effort would have been one of the goals of the season if Kane had not rather unnecessarily strayed forward a moment too soon (one does wonder if that lad will ever cut it at the highest level) – but the gist of the thing was clear enough in the first half, and hammered home in the second, that ours were a menacing mob when attacking.

2. Ndombele (and Lo Celso)

Much has been made, by the chaps paid to opine on these things, of the contribution of Kane to the first goal. And no doubt about it, Kane’s novel ruse of jogging five yards towards the ball pretty much seemed to cause the heads of both City central defenders to explode, leaving a red carpet down which Sonny was able to saunter.

But what went largely overlooked was the contribution of Ndombele (not least by the Sky Sports bod in charge of the pictures, who displayed that modern pandering to the cult of managers’ personalities rather than the actual football, by zooming in on Pep instead of showing the blasted game).

Ndombele’s ability to take several players out of the game simply by swerving his upper body is fast achieving the sort of mesmeric status previously reserved for David Blaine and others of his mind-boggling ilk. It was a trait previously exemplified in lilywhite by Mousa Dembele, and rarely was it better demonstrated, and to better effect, than by Ndombele in assisting Son, when he received the ball facing his own goal, and then took a leaf out of the Kane Book of Making Opposition Heads Explode by ducking in one direction and weaving off in another.

That done, he then drizzled a little icing on top, in the form of a chipped pass weighted with backspin, all of which meant that young Sonny, who rarely needs to be told twice to rev up and motor, barely had to break stride.

While that was arguably Ndombele’s most eye-catching contribution, the impromptu applause which greeted his every touch – and body swerve – thereafter was reflective of the fellow’s remarkable ability to create space where previously there was none, simply by a wiggle of the upper body.

Others around him may have put in more relentless, non-stop running shifts, but Ndombele’s brief was more around positioning, availability and shielding of the ball when collecting it from defensive chums, each of which qualities feature fairly prominently on the Tanguy CV. While this is admittedly a little like praising a sedated polar bear for its sensible conservation of energy, that role of being the first available option when ridding the ball from defence was an important one, and the man did a sterling job.

And then, when the last drop of fuel was wrung from his frame, Lo Celso replaced him with strict instruction to treat the ball with the same paternal care, but with a few additional dollops of energy – as immediately demonstrated by the forty yard sprint for his goal, a feat, one suspects with the greatest goodwill, of which Ndombele would not have been capable.

(As a side note, another stellar performance from P-E Hojbjerg was discreetly gilded with the interception that led to him being fouled – from which free-kick Ndombele swerved and Sonny scored. Easy to miss, but it was further evidence to support the general theory that Hojbjerg’s Every Contribution is Immense.)

3. Aurier: Pleasant Surprises From The Usual Scapegoats, Part 1

Those familiar with the AANP way of things will know that at this juncture, the drill tends to be to add another splash of bourbon and set about lazily chiding Serge Aurier for abandoning his post to dive two-footed into the nearest moving body.

But as if to illustrate through one real-time example quite what a difference Jose can make, Aurier behaved impeccably throughout. I rubbed my eyes, and pinched myself, and poured another splash for luck, but could not doubt the evidence of my eyes: not one reckless challenge, not too many misdirected simple passes, mostly staying on his feet – mostly – and a general positional discipline of which the chap has not once in his career previously shown himself capable.

It was surreal stuff, which seemed to suggest that either the arrival of Doherty has spurred him onto greater heights, or, as seems vastly more probable, he has been kidnapped, cloned and a positionally-aware doppelganger now occupies the space where once Aurier leapt towards calamity.

4. Dier: Pleasant Surprises From The Usual Scapegoats, Part 2

A couple of steps to the left, and Eric Dier seemed similarly determined to avoid his weekly AANP berating. Pundits have been clambering over each other to insist that Dier is now a defensive colossus, seemingly on account of that one (admittedly impressive) twisty, headed, off-the-line clearance a couple of weeks ago – but over in these parts we remain vastly unconvinced of his worth as an elite centre-back.

Make no mistake, Dier will mooch around in the right vicinity, and is relatively vocal, but as I repeat on a weekly basis, he is neither the quickest nib nor the most alert to opposition movement, and his passing as often misses as hits.

Yesterday however, the fellow shirked no responsibility, and made not one false move. It was as close to flawless as such things get. I suspect that defending deep benefits the man, as it removes from the equation any test of his pace (or lack thereof) – as was the case with John Terry, a few years back – but even so, much had to be done positionally, and Dier did not miss a trick. Be it a block, interception or tackle, the lad was not to be beaten.

5. Our Title Parade in May

It would be easy to recline, light a smug cigar and lovingly ramble on about the contributions of all involved, but as there are another six months until we are eventually crowned champions there seems plenty of time to single out each of the individual title-winners before the white and blue ribbons are eventually tied around the thing.

It is such a formality that there seems a pretty strong chance that the league will just be called off now and the silverware packed off to N17 immediately, and few around the country would quibble.

The only things that can possible prevent our title parade – and they are but minor details – are our central defence, and the potential (nay, inevitable) injuries to key personnel.

With regards to centre-backs, the audible twang of Toby’s groin was the only blot on yesterday’s escutcheon. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t trust any of our gaggle of central defenders, but I probably mistrust Toby the least, even if he is not quite the reliable rock of old.

But with Sanchez yet to convince that he can complete 90 minutes without at least one costly aberration, Rodon untried at this level and Tanganga very much categorised as ‘Promising But Flawed’, one does rather bite the lip nervously at the prospect of one of the above manning the gates in our coming fixtures.

Moreover, where Toby has fallen foul of muscle-based woe, you can bet your mortgage that one or two others will follow in due course. And while our squad depth is like nothing previously seen around these parts, long-term injuries to any of Hojbjerg, Kane or Son in particular would considerably weaken the whole.

Rather a shame to speculate on this, as the title would otherwise be ours at a canter, clearly, but into all lives must some rain must fall, as the chap blathered.

Nevertheless, after such a pleasing afternoon’s work as yesterday’s, the only reasonable point of debate now seems to be whether Ledley will be allowed to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

Spurs’ Cult Heroes: Christmas approacheth, and if you’re looking for a stocking-filler for the Spurs fan in your life, you could do worse than AANP’s own book, Spurs’ Cult Heroes, charting the careers of 20 of the most popular players in Tottenham’s history.

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