Having lost 3-0 at Palace a couple of weeks ago, and then lost 3-0 at home to Chelsea last week, you might have thought that the familiarity of it all would lessen the blow, and that the response at AANP Towers to yet again going 3-0 down this evening would be to welcome the deficit like an old friend, slapping it on the back and inviting it in for a generous whiskey and a chat about the old times. Not so; in fact, the response at AANP Towers was to damn with a good deal of heartiness the act of going three-nil down and all those involved in its construction.
The vague flutter of life in the final ten minutes did little to disguise that this was as rotten a performance as they come, and gazing with horror at the ruins I did feel like one of those FBI chaps on the telly-box who stares at several dismembered bodies wondering where to begin; but luckily the evidence points to no shortage of culprits, and one of the foremost amongst them is Dele.
Last week, after the dismal second half against Chelsea, I wondered aloud what it is that Dele actually does; and this week, after the dismal first half against Woolwich left me wondering what it is that Dele actually does, sharp as a tack I went a step further and started to ask myself whether some sort of theme was emerging.
Much can be said about the tactical set-up, our 4-3-3 strongly avoiding the offering of either one thing (attack) or another (defence), but as Messrs Ndombele, Hojbjerg and Skipp demonstrated at least in fits and starts, even within this ill-fitting system one can still roll up the sleeves and try to make the best of things.
Dele, however, simply disappeared from sight as soon as proceedings were formally launched. The front six in general seemed determined that their ‘press’ was going to be nominal only, with as few drops of perspiration expended towards this exercise as possible, so I probably ought not to single out the chap for blame in that respect. But if a memo had done the rounds at HQ instructing the midfield sorts to contribute to matters in possession, or avail themselves when it seemed we might have an exploratory wander toward goal, Dele evidently was not privy to such communication.
Nor is this the first game in which he’s drifted in and out of existence. This midfield berth does not suit the lad, and while it might fit an occasional media narrative to suggest that he’s been reinvented as a box-to-box midfielder, the AANP response is to groan a particularly exasperated one and urge whomever the hell is responsible for such things either to shove him up in that role supporting Kane, à la the prime years under Poch, or get him out of the team and pick someone else better suited to whatever system it is we’re trying to peddle.
Visitors to social media who are particularly adept at scouring the nooks and crannies might have noted a rare Tweet from the AANP thumbs and forefingers this week, as, continuing that theme of wondering aloud, I put to the world that this Hotspur XI is big enough only for one of Dele or Ndombele; but, crucially, not both.
The rationale being as follows: neither seem to have the required puff in their cheeks or fire in their bellies to knuckle down and put in a solid, non-stop shift of defensive duties.
Now, in a sense, one might ask why the hell should they? And this would be a pretty reasonable retort. After all, one doesn’t ask Hugo to poach goals in the opposition six-yard box. Neither Dele nor Ndombele are the sorts constructed by Mother Nature to spend their days tracking back and winning tackles, so, the argument continues, excuse them from such such rigours as required by a 4-3-3. Both of these are attack-minded souls, so let them attack.
In a sense this is acceptable enough; but it does seem to have the consequence that only one or t’other should be deployed at any given time, as we really don’t have room to let allow one chap after another to be excused from the muckier lines of work. And whichever of these two get the nod really ought to be the attacking fulcrum, the sort of nib through whom all our creative energies through flow.
Frankly, at the moment – and this is a moment now stretching to about a season and a half – Dele is not that attacking fulcrum. As mentioned above, I rather think he ought to be stationed in a supporting role to Kane or not at all.
Ndombele, on the other hand, does like to toss around tantalising hints of being the sort of egg who could make things happen. Oddly, within the disastrous first half, Ndombele somehow managed to engineer the status of ‘Being Fairly Heavily Involved’. These things are relative, of course (his other ten chums being dotted around the place for decorative value only), and contextual (he was involved to the extent that he seemed to attract the ball a fair amount, but make no mistake – all the bright sparks were flying in opposition colours).
Nevertheless, somehow he seemed to be on the ball rather a lot of the ball in the first half. It was all fairly frustrating content, alas, as he simply seemed to poke his head down various cul de sacs before stroking the ball sideways; but at least, unlike Dele, he seemed to be present on the pitch on some physical level. It seemed we were at least graced with someone who was happy enough to take a look at the problem, even if he were slap bang out of workable solutions.
This was certainly not Ndombele’s greatest day, and let’s face it, after two and a bit years I’m not sure how much patience is left in the tank as we wait for his great days to stream forth; but if we are going to pick a fellow in the centre through whom we want attacking operations to be conducted, I would prefer it to be Ndombele than Dele; and given the shortcomings of both on the defensive side of things, I am convinced that we cannot accommodate both (other than against the very weakest sorts).
On a brighter note, young Skipp took the opportunity of his introduction to remind his more esteemed comrades that a touch of commitment and gusto is still allowed.
Hot on the heels of a couple of crunching midweek tackles on Adama Traore of all people, Skipp did not wait too long before delivering what is fast becoming his trademark, full-body sliding challenge. Indeed, this is one of the few games I have witnessed in which one of the highlights has been to see one of our number pick up a caution, but I applauded the young bean for picking up his, if only because it seemed to suggest that at least someone in lilywhite gave the slightest damn about things.
All of which makes Skipp’s omission from the starting line-up a little bit of a head-scratcher. Wisdom after the event, of course, is a rather irritating trait, so I won’t make a production of this – but I doubt I was alone in wondering at kick-off about the strategic value of picking a midfield heavy on Deles, Ndombeles and Hojbjergs, and decidedly light on Skipps. For this game of all games – against that lot, and in front of their fans – it seemed about as uncontroversial a call as they come to have included from the off the one chap whose eyes light up at the thought of flying in amongst the limbs.
One hardly questions Nuno’s tenure as boss, but a third successive hammering suggests that the time in which he earns his weekly envelope is upon us, and his calls to date have been odd. The strategy has changed each week; 4-3-3 seems ill-fitting; and now the choice of personnel – in picking both Dele and Ndombele, and leaving out Skipp – do little to suggest that here is a General whose plans are fully formed and expertly constructed.
As a final, damning indictment upon those who should know better, the other bright spark from within our regiment came from young Gil, a lad who still looks like he ought to be in bed by 8.
Having been kept on a firm leash during his losing-cause-cameo last week, he had a bit more joy in the l-c-c this time around. Admittedly his end-product missed as much as it hit, but he gave his opponent plenty about which to ponder, and generally scuttled around the place with an energy and willing that, one is disappointed to report, looked pretty out of place compared to his moping, half-hearted seniors.
I was particularly impressed with his energy and speed of thought in sliding in to set up Reguilon, for Son’s goal, a touch that went rather under the radar on the telly-box, but which turned out to be a decidedly nifty pass from a pretty unforgiving starting point.
Had the deflected effort from Lucas (another who at least showed a few glimpses of willing) looped in at the death we might have had an entertaining final minute or two; but this was a defeat absolutely deserved, and I don’t mind suggesting that the whole lot of them ought now to be subjected to some form of brutish public humiliation.