1. Eleven Strangers
It might come as some surprise to those who have witnessed AANP rise in incandescence to yell a thousand foul-mouthed curses at our lot over the years, but I actually give the players a lot of slack when, as tonight, they are tossed in as an eleven for the first time, each having never played with the other ten previously (and, on the evidence of tonight, possibly not having met before).
In fact, several Spurs-supporting chums of mine received a message immediately prior to kick-off to precisely this effect. The gist of my thinking at around 17.30 BST was that while these were eleven relatively talented individuals, it rarely works to throw any eleven together for the first time (and that’s the crucial bit – it was their first time). Were this lot to play as a collective for five or six consecutive weeks they might develop into a heck of a unit, because goodness knows there are enough amongst them skilled at keepy-uppies and whatnot. But assemble them like the sort of ragtag group of mercenaries one sees thrown together by fate in mindless Hollywood action fare, and the bar for their first outing will be set low.
So, when Lo Celso, Gil and Scarlett tried a zippy little exchange of passes towards the end of the first half that ended with the ball rather apologetically rolling into an empty space in the Vitesse area, the reaction at AANP Towers was forgiving. The conciliatory hand gesture could be interpreted by those who know me best as meaning “Fret ye not, oh lilywhite heroes, you are forgiven, for AANP understands that razor-sharp interplay takes time to develop.”
One might therefore assume that vengeance points towards Our Glorious Leader, for having cobbled together the aforementioned group of mercenaries. But even here, the mood at AANP Towers is one of understanding and magnanimity. Now AANP is the last person to advocate such dastardly fare as match-fixing, but the arithmetic suggests that if ever there were a good time to rest an entire eleven ahead of a visit to the least bad West Ham team in decades, this was probably that time. For even with the defeat tonight, we are three points behind Rennes, with three games left to play – including Rennes themselves at home. Do the necessaries back at base, and this Europa gubbins ought to take care of itself.
In short, some sympathy for the players for being handed a tough gig; and at the same time few complaints about the team selection.
2. Lazy Attitudes
However, if anyone in lilywhite – or wild elderberry or whatever the heck that that oddity is – thinks that the unfamiliar starting XI grants them immunity from criticism they can unpack another think and sharpish.
No matter what the circumstances, the players on stage ought as a minimum to have run themselves into the ground and have needed to have been carried off by the time the credits rolled.
Instead, we were treated to such sights as Lo Celso losing possession and slowing to a walk, exerting only the energy necessary to fling his arms up skyward. Possession will be lost, alas, such things are inevitable and I’m not about to chide an attacker for attempting a spot of creativity that does not materialise; but for heaven’s sake, then to react by simply giving up and expecting others to retrieve the situation is dastardly conduct, and if I had my way I’d subject the chap to a couple of lashes across the back, without right of appeal.
I single out Lo Celso merely because that particular incident sticks in the mind’s eye, but he was hardly alone. As Glenn put it on the tellybox afterwards, none of that rabble treated this bash like a Cup Final (I paraphrase), when as professionals representing our club, they ought.
Picking on another of the guilty parties, young Gil is one whose effort generally is pretty admirable, but he was chiefly to blame for allowing the chappie who scored the freedom of the D in which to arrange his volley.
And so on. One after another of our number seemed oddly lackadaisical, until, inevitably, we fell behind, at which juncture it was, of course, fresh injections of urgency all round.
Again, at the risk of labouring the point – attacking interplay that doesn’t quite strike oil is forgivable, given that these fellows are not necessarily used to each other’s games; but failure to strain every sinew is not.
3. Back-Up Players
Nor, to my eyes, was this only a failing of attitude. It also struck me that a number of supposedly talented players – seasoned internationals and whatnot – were putting in some pretty solid impressions of a bunch of bang-average performers.
If any of the midfield three were under orders to march in and dictate the game from start to finish, they did a pretty good job of disguising the fact from human observation. Lo Celso did show some bright ideas going forward (more on him below) but Dele and Winks were too peripheral in possession, and none of these three really provided the necessary protection for the back-four whenever the time came to lower the shields.
All of which was bad enough on the day, but given that this was a chance (and, indeed, the latest chance) for all eleven to prove to the Brains Trust that they are worthy of the First Choice XI, it was pretty alarming fodder from all concerned. Heaven forbid, but after seeing Winks, Dele and Lo Celso gradually lose the plot against the might of Vitesse, the old bean does perspire a tad at the thought of either Hojbjerg or, heaven forbid, young Skipp (currently on 4 yellow cards, lest we forget) being rendered unfit for public service in the coming games vs West Ham and Man Utd.
Similarly, upfront, while young Scarlett did not want for effort, he looked every inch a 17 year-old playing against seasoned pros. To chide him for this would be a bit like moaning at the sun for setting each evening. In short, it’s hardly his fault. But should a piano fall from the sky and onto the head of Kane it will put us in one heck of a pickle; and should any errant keys from the rapidly disintegrating piano fly off into the surroundings and poke young Sonny in the eye, I dread to speculate as to the players from whom our next goals might emanate.
It’s a big old squad, but judging by tonight’s fare, those first reserves do not fill to the gills with confidence.
4. Lo Celso
As alluded to, Lo Celso occasionally threatened to break into something resembling a pretty handy performance, which makes his eventual output all the more frustrating.
It can probably at least be said in his defence that what little quality we did produce going forward seemed at some point to pass through his size nines en route. In particular, the Gil shot that hit the bar was teed up by Senor GLC, and I’m pretty sure that when Bergwijn fluffed his lines halfway through the second half, Lo Celso’s were one of those pair of hooves that passed the parcel over halfway.
However, on the whole, without wanting to put too fine a point on it, not much that he tried actually worked. Passes seemed not quite to find their man; attempted dribbles seemed to result in him being tackled; and the whole thing was neatly seemed up right at the death when we packed their area with bodies only for his delivery to sale harmlessly into the stands. In a curious way, his performance reminded me of the early years of Lucas Moura in lilywhite, when he would flatter to deceive before running into a dead end and losing both his bearings and the ball.
Now when Lo Celso played against Mura a few weeks back, he again seemed a shadow of his potential self, when really the stage was set for him to run the show. Things only really changed when the big guns entered the fray – with Lucas, Sonny and Kane around him, Lo Celso played the Number 10 role like a man born to do so.
The nagging frustration is that he seems to need, as a matter of absolute necessity, great players around him to play at his best. Must this be the case, particularly against fairly middling opponents? No doubt having better players to each of the north, east and west will make the day-job a lot easier for anyone; but Lo Celso ought to be good enough still to run shows like tonight’s without needing the assistance of some of the best in the world around him.
On the bright side, as mentioned above, tonight’s result ought not to harm our chances of ultimately winning this dashed trophy; and ought also to enhance our chances vs West Ham on Sunday. It’s rather soured the evening here at AANP Towers though, make no mistake.
Hither for tweets.