One imagines Japhet Tanganga must have felt as pleased as punch to find out pre kick-off that he was officially Next Cab On Centre-Back Rank, but alas any such bobbish sentiment went up in smoke pretty much as soon as the curtain went up.
Anybody who can make Davinson Sanchez look like a calming presence alongside him is evidently having the deuce of a time of things, and poor old Tanganga went about mangling just about every situation he stumbled upon.
In truth, that early pass of his in the general direction of Emerson Royal was hardly the worst one will ever see committed to turf. Admittedly it might have benefitted from a few extra m.p.h. behind it, and the delivery was certainly more “General Vicinity” than “Specified Postcode”. As passes go, however, I imagine young Japhet must have thought he’d done a decent job of things with that effort.
Unfortunately, this was not one of those occasions on which it was sufficient to get the general gist correct and let Mother Nature sort out the rest. Before he could let out an, “Oh crumbs,” the Chelsea lot were already whizzing the ball back at him, and they were pretty merciless about it.
And if Tanganga were hoping for a hiding place, or a quiet twenty minutes or so, he’d evidently misread the agenda for the evening. Chelsea seemed to take a rather cruel delight in repeatedly thrusting the young buck into the spotlight to field all sorts of new and challenging trials, so I’m not sure there were too many raised eyebrows when he erred again.
But by golly, even to us Spurs fans, well-versed as we are in defensive bobbins and calamity, the second goal was pretty thick stuff. Again, I actually had some sympathy for Tanganga, who with a degree of justification would have felt that he was ticking all the right boxes as he got his head to the cross. “Top work, old boy”, he no doubt whispered to himself as he soared to meet it, “another trial safely negotiated”.
And at that stage one understood his argument. It would be stretching things to say that all was well with the world, given that we had barely touched the ball the whole game, but the immediate danger appeared to have been averted, and Tanganga’s reputation, while hardly restored to former health, had at least avoided any further blemish.
However, this being a Spurs defence, the threat of buffoonery lingers strongly and permanently about the place. If I felt a dollop of sympathy for Tanganga there was a double serving for poor old Ben Davies, who must have felt that he was being dragged into the farce for no good reason and completely against his will. He would presumably argue that he was simply adopting the appropriate position and avoiding any unnecessary interference, when suddenly his torso became front and centre of activity, and in the blink of an eye he had an own goal to his name.
2. That First Half
Although Chelsea did not exactly pound relentlessly at the door during that first half – one does not really remember Monsieur Lloris being pressed into too much action – they were, by just about any other metric, absolutely all over us.
While Tanganga was the undoubted poster-boy of the unfolding horror, it struck me that the formation was as much to blame. When Chelsea had possession – which was virtually the entirety of the half – our wing-backs hastily edited their job titles and headed south to create a back-five. And in theory I suppose this made sense. What better way, one might have pondered beforehand, to keep things secure than to pack the defence?
But it’s a funny thing about life, that when one comes to putting into practice a seemingly faultless plan, the whole bally thing just comes apart at every conceivable hinge, leaving all involved looking rather silly. And so it transpired for our heroes. For a start, Chelsea did not have enough forwards to go around, with the result that for much of the time various members of our back-five were marking empty spaces rather than players, and no doubt shooting quizzical looks at one another.
Moreover, this routine of the wing-backs dropping deep also had the unholy consequence of leaving poor old Skipp and Hojbjerg utterly swamped in midfield. Chelsea hit upon the bright idea of pinging the ball about in whizzy, one-touch fashion, and the net result was one of the most one-sided 45 minutes in living memory.
3. Our Wing-Backs
I noticed a rather brutal gag doing the rounds following our game against Watford, namely that our opponents thought so little of Emerson Royal’s ability to cross the ball that they were happy to afford him the freedom of Vicarage Road all afternoon, safe in the knowledge that his deliveries would end up everywhere but the sweet spots inside the penalty area.
Frankly Claudio Ranieri seems a bit too nice to hatch a scheme quite so dastardly, but whatever the truth of the rumour it gets my vote. Emerson’s virtue is that he willingly gallops into the appropriate forward position, as such distracting defenders and offering a friendly face to whichever of our mob is in possession; his vice is that his actual attacking output is at best average, and often a few degrees lower.
However, with a midfield consisting of Skipp and Hojbjerg – honest sorts, but barely a creative bone between them – the onus within our system is very much upon the wing-backs to provide an endless stream of goods for those up top to devour.
This largely failed against Watford because of the quality of the output; last night it failed because any threat from Emerson was snuffed out before he ever sorted out his feet in the final third.
Meanwhile out on the left, the ploy was doomed each time at the moment of inception by dint of Matt Doherty’s allergy to his left foot. Whenever we broke on his side and gaps started appearing in the Chelsea defence, Doherty, understandably but infuriatingly, cut back inside onto his right, removing in that single motion all momentum we had.
(Given Royal’s general impotence on the right, I do wonder whether Doherty’s service might be employed in that particular residence; but this is a debate for another day).
The tactical switch in the second half – to a back-four ahead of which everyone else was loosely jumbled together and allowed to wander wherever they wanted, in the style of a children’s playgroup – at least gave us more bodies in midfield. More to the point, all in lilywhite received the memo that simply watching as Chelsea ran rings around us would not cut it, and things duly bucked up a bit. One would hardly make our lot favourites for the second leg, but score the next goal in the tie and that ill-conceived hope might spring into life again.