This turned out to be one of those imbroglios so madcap and all-action-no-plot that, come the credits, I could not quite keep track of what emotion I ought to register. I therefore made a quick check of my in-match notes, which revealed the following:
FACT: First half was a one-one hammering.
Comment: Eh? That doesn’t sound right.
FACT: Trust me on this one.
Comment: “One-one” suggests a pretty even state of affairs, what? Perhaps some ebb and flow, but all things being equal-
FACT: ‘Twas an unholy battering.
Comment: Crumbs. I say, I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud, but the phrase still seems to suggest parity.
FACT: This is Tottenham Hotspur. The laws of logic go out the window.
FACT: We did have five good minutes in that first half though.
Comment: Scoring one and missing a pretty clear chance for another? This suggests that at least something about Conte’s counter-attacking format has t’s crossed and i’s dotted.
FACT: Second half we started to edge on top.
Comment: Decent goal to show for it too.
FACT: But our attempt then to manage the game was utterly ham-fisted
Comment: Evidently. Within five minutes we were losing, dash it.
FACT: Well, quite. We conceded exactly the same goal twice.
Comment: Yes, I noted that. Rather like watching a car-crash in slow motion. You know the feeling – can see it all unfolding, know it’s going to end disastrously, yet can’t tear the eyes from it.
FACT: We equalised in added time!
Comment: Huzzah! That Bergwijn is certainly good for a-
FACT: Disallowed by VAR.
That being cleared up, the talking points rise to the surface, rather like bloated bodies in a pool.
1. The Counter-Attack Strategy
On paper, it could hardly sound more straightforward: let the oppo have the ball, nick it from them, hare up the pitch and strike.
And as my notes above indicated, when our heroes got to the fun part of this plan – namely haring up the pitch and striking – all was lollipops and rainbows. Sonny, Kane and Lucas have rehearsed this scene often enough to know all the moves with their eyes closed. As if to illustrate this, despite having an otherwise muted sort of time of things Lucas burst into life twice, creating a goal each time; while Sonny and Kane’s combo ought to have led to a goal for Reguilon, who had evidently got wind of the fun being had by the front-three and arrived like a steam train to get in on the frivolity.
When his head hit the pillow, Senor Conte may therefore have noted that the ‘attacking’ element of counter-attacking needs little work. It’s cigars and generous bourbons in that part of the world.
The challenge lies in the earlier premise, of letting the oppo have the ball. Harmless enough on paper, the reality was that Southampton ran rings around our lot for the majority of the first half. And not just the innocuous sort of rings that involve shoving the ball east and west without a whiff of penetration.
Southampton seemed to cut through our heroes at will, fashioning chances whenever the hell they fancied it. Now one accepts that such eventualities will unfold over the course of the season. Go up against the billionaires of Man City, or Liverpool or Chelski on one of their better days, and one can expect that sleeves will be rolled up in all quarters, and the dickens of a defensive shift be put in by every crew member.
But to be pulled from pillar to post non-stop, at home, by Southampton, seemed a bit thick. A decent outfit, for sure, and no doubt they’ll be plundered for their riches come the summer – but really not the sort of opponent that should have any self-respecting team hanging on for dear life. Yet come half-time one rather wanted to throw in a sympathetic towel and lead each of our heroes away for a sit-down and a warm glass of milk.
Difficult to pinpoint any single problem, but a couple of them seemed to reside in midfield, and one at right-back, as will be explored below.
Hojbjerg and Winks did not seem to have enough fingers between them to stick in the countless dykes appearing all over the place. By the end of the first half the pair seemed to offer little more than decorative value, their tactic of dangling an occasional limb proving pretty ineffectual in countering Southampton’s relentless switches to the left.
Watching the horror unfold, I did wonder whether a change of personnel might have eased things a tad. Messrs Skipp and, from early sightings, Bentancur both seem a bit more geared towards actually winning the ball, an approach I’d be happy to see at least attempted, in contrast to the Winks-Hojbjerg slant of staring at the opponent from a distance of five yards and hoping nothing dangerous follows.
Alternatively, the thought occurred that a switch to 3-5-2 might have swung things in our favour. One will never know of course, and it would also mean sacrificing Lucas, but in its previous incarnations (Leicester away, Liverpool home) our lot have rustled up a couple of pretty humdinging performances, which makes one chew a bit.
Well, this is awkward. That is to say, one doesn’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but Hojbjerg does appear to be discreetly shuffling from the queue marked “Solution” to that marked “Problem”.
Tough to stomach, because one rather admires the attitude of the chap – too often our midfield has been manned by blisters who will casually shrug off defeat as one of life’s little irritations, which rather get in the way of a neat pirouette and dainty flick. Hojbjerg, by contrast, comes across as the sort who spends his down-time chewing on glass and glaring at his offspring, an attitude I for one think we need a dashed sort more of in the corridors of N17.
But alas, attitude alone doth not a midfield general make. Watching as Hojbjerg dabbed pass after pass into a curious ether that couldn’t accurately be classified as “Here” or “There” made one clear the throat and shoot an embarrassed look towards the nearest chum, as if to say, “He’s rather off the boil tonight, what?” And frankly, that nearest chum would shoot a look back as much as to suggest, “And not for the first time, I fear”.
On top of his startling abandonment of geography in his passing, Hojbjerg, as mentioned above, became ever less effective as a defensive screen. It all adds up to a chap who currently seems to be in the team based on tattoos and anger alone. He may just need a rest of course, something that does not seem to have been afforded to him since approximately the summer of 2020. Whatever the cause, something seems amiss.
All that said, such things are not entirely black and white. Hojbjerg’s finer recent moments seem to have been performed up in the final third, either in lending his frame to the high-press or bobbing off on a little jaunt into the opposition area. Such a jolly brought about our opening goal last night, which had me scratching the loaf and wondering if we’ve misunderstood him all this time.
3. Emerson Royal
There seems a lot less misunderstanding to be done on the matter of Emerson Royal. Bang average going forward and pretty woeful going back, I can only assume he produces stuff in training that would make Maradona blush, because game after game the young wag peddles some first-rate rot.
I’ll stick him the charitable stuff first: going forward he at least has the right idea. He knows the drill, and obediently charges off up the right flank, which if nothing else will give the fellow on the other side something to think about.
The problems seem to begin once he has the ball at his feet. If there’s a wrong option to choose, Emerson homes in on it like a moth to a flame. Alternatively, if the situation demands he whip in a cross – and let’s face it, in a wing-back’s line of work this is going to be bread-and-butter stuff – the fabric of the universe seems to melt before his eyes, and the peculiar fellow just cannot seem to muster the capacity. If you excuse the physics lesson, nothing about his crosses suggests he knows anything about trajectory or curl.
It’s pretty maddening stuff, as this must surely have been right up there in bold font on the Job Description, yet I struggle to remember a single decent cross he’s swung in. Tellingly, unlike Reguilon on the other side, Emerson gets nowhere near our set-pieces.
(Lest anyone point to his deflected effort vs Brighton at the weekend, I have a stash of rotten fruit waiting to be hurled, for in the first place there was no-one in the area at whom he could have been aiming, and in the second place the eventual arc of the ball owed everything to the deflection and precious little to Emerson’s own input.)
Moreover, defensively Emerson is such a liability that Southampton made no bones about the fact that he and he alone would be the point of all their attacks. Time and again, in the first half in particular, they targeted him, and time and again he melted away in the face of it all.
While the two late goals conceded made for pretty nasty viewing, there could be little surprise about the fact that Emerson was the nearest in the vicinity for the winning goal in particular. (I exonerate him re Southampton’s second, as Kulusevski switched off instead of tracking his man, leaving Emerson in the unenviable position of having two unmarked forwards on his plate.)
The winning goal, however, was a neat illustration of Emereson’s pretty odd approach to defending, involving him attempting to allow the chap a header and banking on his ability to block its path to goal, rather than actually challenging for the dashed thing.
Meanwhile, Matt Doherty stares on listlessly from the sidelines. This is not to suggest that Doherty’s presence would transform operations, but I do wonder quite what depths Emerson has to plumb before being bundled out the back and having the door locked behind him.
Strange to say, having conceded thrice, but at the heart of defence Romero filed away another solid shift. Not flawless – at one point in the first half he was utterly undone by a straightforward long-ball hoicked over his head – but by and large, whatever came into his sphere was mopped up with minimal fuss, and often a few extra servings of meat.
He would benefit from a few more capable souls to his left and right, and indeed in front of him, but defensively, both on terra firma and up in the atmosphere, he seems a pretty handy nib to have on the premises.
Intriguingly, the fellow is also evidently possessed of a pretty eye-catching pass from deep. Given the general absence of creative spark from our central midfield pair, this could prove to be a pretty significant outlet in weeks to come.
Alas, there were simply too many duds in the defensive unit last night, and it is a bit fruity to expect Romero single-handedly to put out every fire going. The latest cameo from Bentancur suggests that there’s a chap who needs fast-tracking into the starting eleven, and the eventual return of Skipp might also add a sharpened elbow or two to the midfield, but after the dominant performance against Brighton at the weekend, this was mightily disappointing stuff.