1. The Opening Salvo
A funny thing about watching Spurs over the years is that normally when the heart sinks it does so in the blink of any eye, prompted by production of a red card for example, or the sight of a star player pulling up with grimace on face and hand on hamstring. Yesterday, in a bit of a departure from the norm, the light of hope took the full 90 minutes to go out, which, as disappointments go, felt a rather cruel performance by the Fates, the flame finally being extinguished for good in minute 96, with just about the last kick of the game.
As it happened – and as actually always seems to happen these days – the first 15 minutes or so was a pretty triumphant era. Our heroes seemed to boss possession, moving the ball quickly and often between the lines, and doing a handy line in those neat line changes of direction, whereby they look for all the world like they’re about to pass to Teammate A, thereby compelling the opponent to shuffle in that direction to close down the space, before at the last minute passing instead to Teammate B. Simple stuff, but pleasingly effective, and for that dreamy quarter-hour or so I even wondered whether Maddison’s absence would actually be felt at all.
The goal arrived before the dignitaries had finished taking their seats, and while young Master Johnson got to run off and do the knee-slide, various members of the supporting cast deserve much of the credit.
Pedro Porro left his fingerprints all over the move, first popping up in an attacking central midfield sort of spot, to execute a dummy so convincing it seemed to make the Wolves lad opposite question his very existence. And moreover, P.P. was at pains to demonstrate that he is not one simply to complete a task and then sit back and admire his handiwork through a cloud of cigar smoke, for seconds later he could be identified in an inside right type of area, racing on to Kulusevki’s tee-up and delivering a pass that ticked all the box for young Johnson.
As mentioned, in between the good work from Porro and Porro again, the giveth and taketh was done by Kulusevski, and in those opening minutes he gave the impression that he was to be the central character in the afternoon’s entertainment. Our lot were on top in that period, and much of our good work was transported from back to front via his size nines.
He strikes me as one of the more curious beans around, in that he seems to be a pony of the single-trick variety, the sort who would cut inside onto his left foot even if his life depended on sticking to his right. I was therefore as shocked as any other seasoned Kulusevski-watcher to witness him, in the build-up to our goal, produce that delicate back-heeled flick into the path of Porro, in the process sending every nearby Wolves sort off into a different postcode.
By and large, he seemed to be having the better of his particular thrashing out of matters out on the right. As ever, there was a degree of frustration at his eventual outputs, which, since his debut season, have tended to be pretty forgettable, either slammed into the nearest defender or sailing off into the mid-distance, but nevertheless yesterday one got the impression that he was set for great things.
2. Davies and Dier
Alas, after that pretty perky opening spell, our lot seemed to forget their lines somewhat. We didn’t have as much possession for a start, but as I’ve heard it put, under Big Ange our heroes have discovered the knack of controlling games even when not in possession, by virtue of the high-press and whatnot. This quality was sadly lacking yesterday, however. We may have led for 90 minutes, but there was much about our play of an aeroplane pilot who looks over his shoulders to see one wing has burst into flames and the other is disintegrating mid-air. Only the illusion of control, is what I’m getting at.
That we led for so long is largely due to the combined efforts of the defensive sorts, and in particular, the shift put in by of all people Messrs Dier and Davies. To say that this was a pleasant and most unexpected surprise would be to underplay the thing pretty seismically. It is not a stretch to report that feverish nightmares and cold sweats had been the way of things at AANP Towers all week as I contemplated the coming weeks of a central defence, and in particular a high-line, minus the delights of both Messrs Romero and VDV.
Actually, rather sneakily, Dier and Davies largely avoided the nerve-shredding scenario of repeated sprints from halfway against the Wolves forwards by dropping a little deeper than anticipated – presumably a perk of taking to the field with a full complement of eleven.
Even so, any seasoned watcher of these things wouldn’t have had to give it too much thought before opining that the odds were stacked against our new-look central defence. For a start it has been so long since either of them have started one feared they might have forgotten what shape the ball was. Any rustiness would have been understandable, but no less acceptable. I watched on with brow duly furrowed with concern.
And early on I had good reason to throw a few well-chosen curses at Dier, for committing himself to a challenge on around halfway, missing his mark and turning to get back with all the swiftness of foot of a heavily-laden tanker. But I suppose in a way I had some reason to thank Dier for his leaden-footedness, for had he not erred on halfway then the world would not have been able to witness the stirring last-ditch challenge from Davies, scampering across from the left, to thwart an otherwise clear sight of goal for the relevant attacking Wolf.
And having been thrust – a little unwillingly, one suspects – into the defensive spotlight thusly, Davies proceeded to time to a similar level of accuracy just about every other defensive intervention he was called upon to make. The fact that we did not play quite such a shoot-self-in-foot high defensive line no doubt helped, removing from the equation the need for any breakneck pace, but nevertheless if his weary chums had on full-time formed a guard of honour and shoved Davies through it, few would have quibbled. (A dashed shame that the equaliser came from a run that might have registered on his radar a mite sooner, but I’m not sure he can be faulted too onerously for failing to prevent a strike of that oomph.)
Moreover, no doubt inspired by the smart thinking and acting of the chap to his immediate left, Dier gradually took the hint and started to warm to the task, using both head and feet to good effect defensively at various points, as well as demonstrating a clear grasp of the play-out-from-the-back memo slapped about HQ by The Brains Trust.
And had he continued to implement this approach into the 96th minute and beyond we might have tootled off with a point, but in the sort of misstep that he does tend to include in his baggage, he tried to execute an offside trap from twelve yards out in the last action of the game, rather than, say, racing across to block the shot, and the game was duly lost.
One of the other consequences of Monday night’s jamboree was the need to jimmy someone into the Maddison-shaped hole in midfield. While I’d offered up a sacrificial lamb or two in the hope that Bentancur might get the nod, it was presumably decided that the fellow is not quite ripe enough to pick from the start just yet. Instead, in a triumph for fans of the deeply underwhelming, the shirt was thrown at Master Hojbjerg.
And in a nutshell it struck me that if someone were to bottle the essence of Hojbjerg and uncork it at a later date, yesterday’s performance would be what would flow out.
He seemed pretty keen to make clear from the outset to even those of the meanest intelligence that he was very much not a like-for-like replacement for Maddison. As such, progressive passes were at something of a premium, and Hojbjerg instead generally kept things on the unremarkable end of the spectrum, focusing instead on his pointing and shouting.
As the game wore on he did occasionally seem to become inhabited by some intriguing sense of adventure that prompted him to venture forward into the final third as a temporary auxiliary attacker, but not really to any great effect.
Less pleasingly, his penchant remained undimmed for hurling himself to the floor at every given opportunity and campaigning for official intervention, which I suppose is hardly the front-page stuff it used to be but still grates no end around these parts.
Worse than that however, for all his pointing and shouting the chap still has a tendency to neglect his defensive duties when the cry goes up of ‘All hands on deck’. Whether he simply lacks the fitness or considers it beneath him I’m not too sure, but throughout his lilywhite career and again on Saturday, he could be spotted a good ten yards behind the action as Wolves bodies sped forward. (Indeed the winning goal might have been prevented had Hojbjerg carried on tracking back rather than slowing to a stop – although others around him were probably more culpable.)
The return of a presumably chastened Romero in a few weeks will hopefully ease the pain, but for all the good intentions there was a pretty significant absence of thrust about our work. If this really were a glimpse of how the coming couple of months will play out one might want to keep the bourbon handy.