All Action, No Plot

Tottenham Hotspur – latest news, opinion, reports, previews, transfers, gossip, rants… from one bewildered fan
"AANP - nobody knows what it means, but it's provocative."

Sheff Utd 1-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Ndombele’s Goal

Oddly enough, nobody has yet asked me to sit down with them and explain the rhyme and reason to the penning of my thoughts on Tottenham games, but were they to do so I would top up their bourbon and explain that sometimes these things are deliberately sculpted chronologically, and sometimes simply dictated by whim – but today it feels like it would be inappropriate to begin anywhere other than with the undoubted highlight of the production, the glorious parabola spawned from the outside of Tanguy Ndombele’s right boot.

Not that we should have been surprise, for fair warning had been sounded in the first half of the level of sorcery that could emanate from the aforementioned limb, when Ndombele had contrived to ping a pass, again with the outer-right clog, curled in between two opponents and around the back of the full-back, into the path of Aurier.

That touch had the punters purring, but the goal was on another level, prompting some pretty wild and joyous exclamations at AANP Towers, and no doubt in other lilywhite-tinged domiciles about the land.

Decorum of course dictates that in such circumstances those labouring behind the scenes are given due recognition. As such a ripple of polite applause is due to young Master Bergwijn, for general shimmying followed by a chipped pass that released the hero of the hour.

But at this point few amongst us, on surveying the scene, would have pulled out a wad of notes from their pocket and with a knowing nod bet handsomely on the next action being a first-time effort into the net. The laws of physics, while not rendering the thing impossible, certainly stacked up against our man. To this amateurish eye the three most salient points in the Debit column seemed to be that i) Ndombele at this point was trotting off in the opposite direction to goal; ii) the ball was mid-air and showing few signs of deviating from this mode of travel; iii) all of the above was taking place on the left of the goal, and as such, on Ndombele’s weaker foot.

Some of the more curmudgeonly amongst us have rather sniffily proposed that what happened next was a man misplacing a pass, nothing better than a hopeful lob of a grenade into a loosely advantageous error. Democracy, of course, permits and indeed encourages the voicing of such wildly erroneous opinions. Here at AANP Towers however, there was not a shred of doubt that Ndombele’s only thought was to attempt the near-impossible, and dink it via that exact arc, and into that exact spot.

I’m not sure any other trajectory could have rendered the goalkeeper quite so impotent (although to be honest, judging by his dramatic but ineffective flap at Kane’s goal, I doubt that such perfection was necessary to best the chap). It was a thing of skill and beauty – and for added aesthetic pleasure the ball entered the net via the foot of the post, as if simply thrilled to be part of the action.

2. Mentality

As it happened, when the entire operation is viewed as a whole, the timing of Ndombele’s goal was arguably of greater importance than the execution.

The mists of time might obscure the fact, but having breezed into a two-goal lead at the break, our heroes surprised absolutely nobody in the second half by easing up on the accelerator, showing less appetite for a ruck and gradually shuffling back towards their own goal. Inevitably, we conceded, and for approximately a minute and a half thereafter all manner of fruity curses escaped the lips, as the usual tortuous narrative looked set to unfold.

However, before there was opportunity for the prophets of doom to clear their throats and really get down to business, Ndombele had executed the world’s greatest toe-poke, and with the two-goal buffer restored we were able to progress to 90 in pretty serene fashion.

I am still inclined to veer between nervous and downright irate as I drink in our heroes’ approach to leading any given match, as there so rarely seems to be what an impartial observer would classify as genuine intent to score again and thereby eliminate all doubt.

Even in the first half, after the customary early goal, it seemed to be perfectly within our gift to stretch United and carve out chances, simply by increasing the intensity of our play by a notch or two. And yet ,rather than be possessed by an almost rabid desire to do precisely that, the mood around the camp seemed to be that actually a one-goal lead was plenty and there was no real imperative to double that.

Admittedly we did not immediately react to taking the early lead by surrendering possession and camping on the edge of our own penalty area, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for that much. Every now and then we upped a gear – and immediately looked threatening. It just seemed odd that we did not therefore adopt this higher-intensity approach for more of the half.

Mercifully, Sheffield United simply weren’t particularly good. None in their ranks were remotely capable of finishes of the quality of either Kane’s or Ndombele’s, nor of the creative spark of the likes of Lookman, Eze, Neto et al in recent weeks.

3. The Midfield Pair

Jose, one gets the impression, was not formed in the womb in the same way as you and I. So, for example, where most presumably enjoy seeing our lot knock the living daylights out of whomever is in our way, Jose seems instead to thrive upon a backs-to-the-wall one-nil.

But more positively, where the mere mortal would note that we’re playing the worst team in the league and tell the usual rabble to do proceed in their usual manner, Our Glorious Leader spotted the myriad benefits of deploying wing-backs to silence their wide threat, and dispensed with the usual defensive extra midfielder, instead using a third centre-back.

And credit where due, the man certainly knows how to pull tactical strings. The formation allowed both Aurier and Reguilon to fill their attacking boots, while still providing ample defensive cover (although Dier might want to buy young Master Rodon a post-match shandy or two, for a couple of timely sprints that doused threatening flames when he had sold himself far too cheaply).

The availability of Aurier and Reguilon meant that there we were rarely short of attacking options – the challenge, as noted above, was more that for patches of the game we did not seem to show the intensity to hammer this home.

Critical to the success of this formation tweak was the impressive shift put in by the central midfield pair. Both Hojbjerg and Ndombele were at the peak of their powers, whether donning their defensive hats and bearing down on opponents, or adding their presence and keeping possession ticking along in more attacking areas.

In fact, our second goal came about from Hojbjerg marrying these two delights, applying pressure in the attacking third and thereby winning possession from United high up the pitch, in a manner last witnessed to similarly fruitful effect against Leeds a couple of weeks ago. Having won possession behind enemy lines, as it were, he then did the sensible thing and shoved it with minimal fuss at first Sonny and then Kane.

There was a glorious simplicity to all this, but it neatly summed up the quiet effectiveness of both him and Ndombele.

And while I suppose any back-slapping should be effected within the context that this was against the lowest placed team in the division, it does make one wonder whether and when the approach might be adopted again. A year ago, few amongst us would have countenanced the notion of Ndombele forming one half of an effective central midfield pair, but there it was in glorious technicolour.

There was a pleasing discipline to his performance too, for while he broke forward to such glorious effect for his goal, by and large his movements were not those of one whose job description reads “Attacking Midfielder”. This was a performance that offered as much in defence as attack.

4. Dele Alli: Now Inferior to Gedson Fernandes

However, another idiosyncrasy of Our Glorious Leader is his seemingly irresistible urge to dish out a public flogging to one of his troops.

It should probably be remembered that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that Dele Alli’s form for a year or so pre-Covid had taken a pretty hefty dip southwards. Nevertheless, in his intermittent cameos over the past couple of months he has done approximately as much as could be expected.

It may surprise visitors to these pages to learn that I am not privy to what goes on in the hallowed confines of the training ground, so I can only speculate as to whether his produce or attitude when wearing a fluorescent bib is so poor as to merit this bizarre expulsion from the squad. However, perusing today’s teamsheet and discovering the absence of a D. Alli, and simultaneous presence of a G. Fernandes, struck me as laying it on a bit thick.

I suppose this may have been a one-off punishment for his pretty cheesed off reaction (via the medium of social media) to not being involved against Leeds, but either way it’s all fairly unpleasant stuff. This is not a third-choice right-back; it is a bean who only a year or two back was one of the brightest young things in world football. Simply to shrug the shoulders and elbow him out, rather than looking for a way to bring out his best, seems pretty rummy stuff – but alas, the odds of him slinking off across the channel appear to shorten by the day.

Spurs 2-0 Brentford: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Mentality

Lilywhites of a certain vintage – by which I broadly mean those who weren’t born yesterday – will doubtless be pretty familiar with our heroes’ traditional capacity to amble up to a fixture of this ilk; note that the opposition are weaker pound-for-pound; as a result consider the matter already decided in their favour before a ball has been kicked; and proceed to make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.

On settling in for the spectacle there was a therefore a decent whiff of trepidation in the air at Chateau AANP. However, love or loathe the chap, it is becoming difficult to deny that Jose has changed the ambience around the place, to the extent that that ingrained pre-match trepidation found itself eyeball-to-eyeball with a competing sentiment that might be qualified as “Cautious Optimism”. The sort of optimism that springs from seeing our lot put Leeds to the sword in pretty clinical fashion on Saturday, or, harking back a few weeks, execute a faultless, ruthless game-plan vs City.

Recent fixtures have obviously illustrated that there are plenty of moving parts that need oiling, but the mood about the place is changing, and rarely could this be better illustrated by the fact that going into a semi-final against an in-form gang from the division below, it seemed as possible that our lot could do a professional job as that they might trip over their own shoelaces in the time-honoured fashion of a Team That Never Dashed Well Wins Trophies.

And reflecting on the game 24 hours later, it was actually about as clinical and professional a project as one could have imagined. Without ever breaking sweat or setting pulse-rates anywhere north of ‘Slow and Steady’, our heroes efficiently breezed through.

There were two notable warning shots fired in our direction – one requiring a block by Serge Aurier of all people, and the other the offside effort. But even taking these into account, we seemed strangely in-control throughout, and capable of motoring up a gear for a few minutes as necessary (witness our second goal).

Sissoko won the individual gong, and one or two others merited polite applause (Ndombele had a blast, and Reguilon’s cross positively begged to be converted), but what really stood out was the highly professional mentality of the collective. Oddly enough there was no complacency in sight, with every cast member’s concentration levels dialled up to the maximum, and tasks being carried out across the pitch with quiet, unspectacular efficiency.

So no drama, precious little excitement and a semi-final negotiated with the minimal fuss and maximum efficiency of a military inspection. By the end of it I felt like one of those women one reads about from a bygone era, whose husbands disappear to war and then reappear several years later, reporting to be one and the same and looking similar enough, but markedly changed in character. This is not the Tottenham I remember, but they are yet strangely attractive.

2. Our Second Goal

As mentioned, for the most part barely a bead of sweat was expended, and nor were many needed. As our first real foray forward brought a goal there didn’t seem any real need or urgency amongst our lot thereafter to do much more than keep Brentford at arm’s length and pop the ball from A to B.

One-nil at half-time seemed reasonable enough, reflecting most judges’ scorecards.

However, it was at around the halfway point that it occurred to me that if “One goal is not enough” were not already an adage, then the panel that decides these things ought to get themselves in gear and make it such, because it was not so much a truth as a deafening anthem of the opening bursts of the second half.

While still leading, in control and far from complacent, our lot remained but one lapse from parity. And after the Brentford offside goal officially sounded the warning gong our heroes promptly took note and dialled up the intensity by the necessary couple of notches.

Thus germinated our second goal, and it was a thing of some beauty. For a start there was much to admire about the weighting of Ndombele’s pass. At various points in the evening esteemed artistes in lilywhite had spotted potential routes to glory and attempted to play the killer pass, but not quite delivered the thing, either pressing too firmly or too lightly on the pedal.

Ndombele, however, hit the sweet spot and Sonny, already well at full pace, could continue his merry, full-paced journey without the slightest adjustment. I can offer no clues as to the reputation of the agent representing Ndombele, but if he negotiated a bonus for assists it was well merited last night.

Sonny at full pace is a difficult beast to overcome, and heaven knows the Brentford lad flapping at his shadow did his best, by hurling every available limb across the turf in an effort to floor him, but Sonny was already long gone.

There then followed the tour de force, and from the comfort of the AANP sofa I particularly enjoyed the subtle manner in which Son delayed his shot just long enough for the Brentford ‘keeper to surrender himself to the lure of gravity. As the ‘keeper began to go ground, Sonny blasted the ball above him. The whole scene could not have been better executed if all parties had been practising their roles for weeks.

3. Hojbjerg’s War-Wound and Lust for Blood

Thereafter there was a collective exhalation and some nifty triangles were put on show, as our ensemble politely ran down the clock.

However, we were nevertheless treated to a further highlight just before the curtain fell, as Hojbjerg received a rather robust interrogation from some bounder who, it turned out, had been schooled in his arts at Other West Ham.

In a population of 7 billion I imagine there are few who wear their battle scars with greater pleasure than Hojbjerg, and he wasted little time in revealing to the world the treats bestowed upon his left shin. Nothing that hasn’t been seen in the rough-and-tumble of amateur 5-a-side, so as long as he’s fit for whenever the Premier League resumes there were no complaints from this quarter, but I was mightily enthused by his reaction when back on his feet. Evidently the Hojbjerg blood had boiled, for he looked every inch the man who had cared no more for the beautiful game, and wanted only to be allowed back into the arena to tear his opponent limb from limb.

Perhaps it is a result of decades of witnessing the term “soft underbelly” personified on the hallowed turf of N17, but seeing a near-demented Hojbjerg utterly consumed by a lust for blood was possibly the most pleasing aspect of the whole evening. Sonny and Kane will break the records, Ndombele will earn the applause – but if we are to win anything this season then I rather fancy Hojbjerg’s bloody-mindedness will be key.

Spurs 3-0 Leeds: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. High Press

After four pretty dispiriting performances and results, I would guess that I was not the only one who would have bitten off a nearby arm for a scrappy one-nil win. It’s therefore little exaggeration to say that to emerge from a tricky-looking tiff, against an in-form mob, with a breezy three-nil was not far off manna from heaven.

So the usual roll of back-slaps and high fives are in order. More specifically, a noticeable improvement in the piece was that our first two goals came about by virtue of the central midfield pair pinching possession in the sort of areas of the pitch that they have dared not tread in recent weeks.

The final third, the attacking third – call it what you will, but generally it has been strictly off-limits to most in lilywhite, with even Messrs Sonny and Kane only making the most fleeting visits over the last month or so.

And yet there, in glorious technicolour, strode first Hojbjerg and then Winks, intercepting misplaced passes just outside the opposition’s own area. Hojbjerg fed Bergwijn, who nobbled himself a fortunate penalty; Winks fed Kane, who slipped in a peach of a pass for Sonny.

Given that their regular posting is around sixty yards further south, as well as the fact that Jose comes across as the sort of cove who would rather chew off his own arm than let one of his underlings stray from a defensive station, one can only surmise that this tentative dip of the toes into the world of higher pressing came about by design rather than accident.

Presumably it was a tactic tailored to the opposition (as Leeds certainly did play an interesting brand of ‘fast-and-loose’ with their distribution from the back), so we should probably not settle back, order popcorn and watch out for the sight of our midfield anchors roaming the final third on a weekly basis. But nevertheless, it was a joy to behold, and, pointedly, brought great reward.

2. Attacking Ambition vs Defensive Safety

So it was all very welcome stuff – and yet…

Having shown a little ambition, and been richly rewarded, I don’t mind committing to paper the fact that I was a mite disappointed to see the ambition-reward approach dispensed with for the final twenty, as our lot sat back and defended for the last quarter of the game. Dismiss me if you will as a misty-eyed romantic of the all-action-no-plot ilk, but I was rather hoping that we would continue in the vein of the previous half hour and keep probing for more.

I suppose if Jose were asked to justify his approach to these things he might do worse than point to today’s opposition. Such was the adoration lavished upon Leeds today by the voices at BT Sport that one might have thought that were running away with the game, but The Book of Facts clearly states that for all their commitment to attack they were still taking a bit of a hammering. (I suspect a few English managers would goggle with incredulity at the adulation received by Bielsa for steering his ship to a 3-0 defeat.)

Pretty pictures count for little if you troop off three down; and conversely, spending 20 minutes casually swatting away all-comers from the edge of your own penalty area is a lot more palatable when three-up.

But be that as it may, the reversion to deep defence for the last quarter of the game did seem a tad over-the-top. For around a third of the game – specifically, the couple of decent chunks either side of half-time – our lot, while not quite purring, were well in the ascendancy. We were giving Leeds a working-over, as I’ve heard it put, and moreover were making a bit of hay while we were at it. Sonny’s goal was a reward for some enterprising play, and while Toby’s was not directly brought about by any slick attacking, the corner from which it emanated was a decent legacy of the creativity with which we streamed forth.

We were making chances, committing men forward and scored enough to wrap up the points nice and early. For around thirty glorious minutes one could forget that the last four games had ever happened.

And then, having established the three-goal ascendancy, there seemed a quite deliberate decision made by all in lilywhite to trot back to their posts and casually repel for the final twenty or thirty minutes. It just seemed a bit much.

Again, I accept that the principle did make a heck of a lot of sense. Few amongst us will need reminding of the horrors that can befall when failing to take due care over a three-goal lead, so just shutting up shop was an absolute dream for the pragmatists. On top of which, Leeds’ over-commitment made them pretty ripe fodder for the counter-attack.

Nevertheless, here at AANP Towers, I’m still inclined to mutter – even as a restorative 3-0 win materialises in front of my eyes – that a lead can be more securely held if we actually have possession of the ball, as was the case after half-time, rather than letting the other lot have a free hit for twenty minutes, sitting quite so deep and inviting them to do their worst. Hugo did not have to make a taxing save; but when we surrender possession the risk is there. A corner here, a deflection there – why not eliminate these possibilities by instead hogging possession ourselves?

3. Winks (and Sissoko)

After the unceremonious happenings at Wolves, in which his radar was not so much a tad wonky as completely malfunctional, young Master Winks may have considered himself a little fortunate to have retained his spot today. Mercifully for all concerned, this was a vastly improved showing.

His energy levels have rarely been in doubt, and he applied himself with the usual zip, quite possible benefiting from improved fitness too. More to the point, his passing seemed more accurate, albeit I have no idea whether the stats would support such wild claims. And on top of all this, the young beagle seemed imbued with a spirit of positivity today, that inclined him to pass forwards as often as not, which has not necessarily always been the case.

I have heard it postulated that whereas Sissoko is the bean one wants alongside Hojbjerg when lining up for a bit of a scrap, in which possession will be surrendered and off-the-ball work-rate is everything, Winks will be the egg of choice on a stage in which we do actually see something of the ball and have a bit more need for creativity.

In fact, one might say this theory was neatly proved today, with eighty-odd minutes of Winks-based front-foot play eventually giving way to ten minutes of Sissoko, at which point the drill was very much to protect what we had and keep Leeds arm’s length from the front door.

Make no mistake, Winks still has room for improvement, but this struck me as one of his better days, and justified his inclusion ahead of Sissoko.

4. Doherty

Having barely registered that Doherty was on the pitch, or has even contributed to the cause at all this season, the chap made his presence felt in the dying embers, funnily off by ensuring his presence was removed.

One can generally argue with second bookings that one or other of the yellows was heavy-handed fare from the resident arbiter of the law (although I’m not sure today anyone has a word of protest), but the AANP counter-argument tends always to be that the player concerned deserves to have his head flushed down a toilet for even giving the referee a decision to make.

And with that in mind, Doherty is deserving of censure, for a challenge of that ilk (in the last minute, with the game won and when already on a yellow card) was strongly indicative of a vacuum between his ears.

Of the seven summer imports, Doherty has made a fairly robust case for being the most underwhelming. Even Joe Hart, for all the on-field jitters he can bring, has, in the AANP book on these things, been a welcome addition if for no other reason than being a vocal presence who holds his teammates accountable, within a squad that traditionally errs on the timid side.

Doherty however, has come across as a chap still letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”, as they say. When opportunity presents for him to be of value in the attacking third – supposedly his forte – he has an air of neither-here-nor-there about him, as if not sure if he should really be so high up the pitch, and when thus stationed seems curiously prone to passing backwards, often errantly, thereby sucking life out of our attacks.

A lot has been made of the adjustment he has had to make from wing-back to full-back, and frankly I think this is indulging him a little. He has enough experience, he should be able to make the necessary tweaks and get cracking.

No, it’s been a disappointing couple of months, with his biggest contribution seemingly the inadvertent improvement he has brought about in Aurier.

All that said, I fully expect him to come good, if not in the latter half of this season then at some point in the next, and if it takes him a year or so to find his feet then he wouldn’t be the first. But in the shorter-term, he has the opportunity to sit out the next game and ponder on his sins.

All Action, No Plot © 2021. Theme Squared created by Rodrigo Ghedin.