“I hope you’re right. I really do.”
Thus spake surly space lady Ripley, in the Muppets-based whodunit Aliens, when informed by a cocksure chum that everything would turn out just tickety-boo (shortly before things actually went rather awry, when one examines things objectively). Her sentiment of mingled hope, trust and wariness might well be mumbled at the gleaming bonce of Master Levy, for as non sequiturs go this is one of the ilk to have me howling with frustration. Just a few weeks ago we were still contenders for the Top Four, and even now on Christmas Eve we are but four points off said land of milk and honey, but this whole bizarre episode seems to have achieved such a recalculating of aims and ambitions that Top Six is now seemingly the accepted target. What the dickens sort of masterplan is that?
Our all-seeing chairman may well deserve a stern word for letting the guillotine drop without giving much thought about how to dispose of disembodied heads. Ridding the Lane of AVB was not necessarily a bad call, given the style of play we had been sucked into, but it served little purpose if nobody adequate were lined up. Presumably the 18-month contract will be terminated six months in, with the accompanying Levy death-stare, should our heroes fail to progress to the heady heights of sixth by the season’s end, or should someone with but a modicum of experience become available, but it seems a strange approach to shrug shoulders, close eyes, jab a finger onto a 2002 squad poster and accordingly entrust a season and a half to Sherwood. Few top-half teams would appoint Tim Sherwood as Master of their Universe, so it frustrates the bally juices out of me that we have done so.
If ever there were a time to be a fly on a wall, it was during negotiations yesterday, notwithstanding the potentially fatal effects of cold weather upon the poor blighters’ life-cycles. If I understand correctly Sherwood seems to have talked himself into an 18-month deal on the basis of one home defeat to West Ham, one madcap victory against a Southampton team whose defence and goalkeeper seemed to be playing the wrong sport, and through use of the bluff that he wanted it long-term or not at all. All of which suggests to me that Sherwood is one of the greatest orators of our time. Should the walls come crashing down on this curious little experiment then a career as FBI negotiator-in-chief blinking well ought to beckon.
Thus concludes the diatribe however. Time to back the chap, and hope that things turn out better for us than for Ripley and her chums (spoiler alert – they didn’t make the Top Four, if you follow my gist). If the Southampton selection were a gamble based on the fact that he knew not whether it were his last game, his new longer-term contract might encourage him to indulge in a tad more circumspection, in the form of a more recognised holding midfielder. Playing two in attack has already born fruit, the squad is certainly strong enough to rub shoulders with the great and good, and with a festive fixture-list that could be more foreboding we are but one string of wins away from a media meltdown about 2014 in fact being a lilywhite year.
Now that’s the spirit. Having attracted the opprobrium of AANP pre kick-off for the unpardonable crime of simply being Tim Sherwood, the young bean has earned himself a commemorative bust on the mantelpiece (in truth it will more likely be a sketch of a stick-man left on the window-sill – but the sentiment remains pure) for scrawling the most hilariously gung-ho teamsheet since Ardiles got a little carried away.
It certainly does not merit him the gig full-time, and better teams will absolutely tear us limb from limb if we continue down this route, but in ludicrously entertaining contrast to weeks gone by this was marvellous fun to behold, not least because a plethora of bona fide goalscoring opportunities were created, as our heroes tripped over themselves to get in on the penalty area fun.
There were various pleasing aspects to Sherwood’s reckless decision to gambol down the all action no plot route, including the rapidity with which the ball progressed from point A to point B, facilitated by some pretty nifty one-touch stuff. Eriksen can revel in the glory of a gold star for his part in this, although it comes with the proviso that he can do yet more to dictate things, and I was also pleasantly surprised by Chadli’s contribution when he toddled on.
As well as the most welcome instruction to attack whenever in possession, the game-plan also seemed to involve hunting in packs high up the pitch when not in possession, which had its perks no doubt, but also brought about some disconcerting wobbles when Southampton counter-attacked and, our midfield looked on from about 20 yards behind the play. Still, such are the Ts and Cs of living by the sword, and as if to emphasise the point our glorious leader sneered at the very concept of trying to protect the lead by trading Soldado for Defoe with five minutes remaining. Marvellous stuff.
Other points of note
Goodness knows how Monsieur Lloris felt when he saw the teamsheet proclaiming that the entire defensive responsibility of the afternoon pretty much hinged upon Dawson and Chiriches, but Daws, to his credit, kept it simple this week, generally deploying the no-nonsense approach. Chiriches increasingly comes across as a gullible sort of imp, regularly selling himself by flying hook, line and sinker in one direction at the faintest dip of a shoulder from an opposition forward, but this can probably be expected of one’s fourth choice centre-back. The new chappie Bentaleb seemed suspiciously confident about life, and the joys of two up-front were once again displayed for all to see, but the highlight of the afternoon may well have been the look of something between bewilderment and disdain etched across the face of the ref as Adebayor jigged away his little celebration. While I would not trust Sherwood to run the rule every week, it was absolutely rip-roaring fun.
Here at AANP Towers we are honourable men. When Dogtanian waved farewell to the folks and left for pastures new, the upper lip did no more than quiver. When baited by rival fans in the office every dashed Monday, reminding me of my idle gloats the preceding Friday and collecting their winnings, while the boss wanders by and reminds me that the pretence of working is more effective when the computer is actually switched on and why must I look at him in such a gormless way, I treat the defeat with stoic resolve, determining to make an even larger wager the following week because that will teach them all. And thus do I unashamedly admit that when the burly security chaps marched up to AVB, grabbed him mid-sentence, frog-marched him out of the premises and unceremoniously dumped him onto the High Road, I did little more than shrug, reasoning that that might well have been the right course of action, and licking my lips at the prospect of our imminent upturn in fortunes.
Alas, the upturn has not quite materialised. In fact, the grand plan of sacking one chappie, lassoing another, more capable chappie, depositing him into the leather chair and watching the marvellousness unfurl has hit an early but quite critical snag. Suddenly, the realisation dawns that Master Levy might not necessarily have the entire strategy mapped out. In fact, it is not particularly clear that the plan even extended to the hiring of a new bean at all, but that he laboured under the misapprehension that firing AVB would in its entirety signal a glorious conclusion of affairs - because quite where he goes next, or even what sort of blighter is brought in next, does not yet seem obvious. That Tim Sherwood may or may not be at the helm for days, weeks, months or even – horror or horrors – permanently is about as underwhelming as an action film in which the pillars are tumbling down and the hero ambling up stage left to save the day actually turns out to be merely Ben Affleck.
Nothing personal against Sherwood of course (or Affleck for that matter), but one suspects that the opportunities for success might not necessarily be maximised by leaving the office intern in charge of the entire A to Z of things for a few weeks, even if the aforementioned does do a sterling job of booking meeting rooms and whatnot. However, this is what we have for the immediate future, and having deployed a bright and breezy 4-4-2 for the first home adventure, Sherwood now has to decide how to go about things away from home, against a Southampton team who seem to be sufficiently well versed in the intricacies of the game. Who knows, Levy might also be using the opportunity to cast a furtive eye over Saints own grand fromage, Mr Pochettino.
Injury to Townsend threatens to derail things somewhat, particularly if the Sherwood gospel preaches touchline-hugging wingers, but the squad boasts enough attacking types, so one of Sigurdsson, Lamela or Chadli will presumably be unleashed. A more defensive-minded chap in the holding role might also be advisable, after Dembele was deployed in that spot midweek, while in defence it will presumably once again be a case of using anyone fit enough to hobble over the line.
It would be a dashed shame if our whole season were to lose momentum because of a yuletide wobble, but such a circumstance lurks menacingly around the corner. The talent is there, and under AVB our away form was generally positive enough, but our very recent history does little to engender expectations of unparalleled success. One can but hope.
As revolutions go this was one of the more muted ilk, defeat at home to West Ham being unlikely to go down in history as the moment that inspired the worldwide lilywhite renaissance.
The Encouraging Start
Things actually started brightly enough, with a swash here and a buckle there. The starting line-up drew a few nods of approval, with the selection of two strikers for a home game against weak opponents representing the sort of tactical masterstroke that seemed to elude the previous incumbent. Defoe might not be everyone’s brand of cognac but he buzzes around in lively manner, and will create shooting opportunities for himself from range if they are not being fed to him on a plate. In general they all seemed to bustle around with intent, and with Dembele nominally occupying the ‘holding’ role it was unsurprisingly an attack-minded troupe that took the game to West Ham for the first twenty minutes or so.
The two wingers seemed happy enough on their natural flanks, and while Sigurdsson probably needed to boss things a little more bossily, the general gist of things was acceptable enough. One-touch football was still conspicuously absent, but these things do not unmuddle themselves overnight, so it appeared that things were rolling satisfactorily enough towards their conclusion when Adebayor did his thing. (A rip-roaring finish it was too, and good to see the goal come about as the product of having two up-front – one peeling wide and the other haring down the centre).
The Decidedly Less Encouraging Finish
That however, will probably be spoken of fondly in the Sherwood household for generations hence as the zenith of his managerial career at the Lane – mercifully –because our heroes failed rather spectacularly to read West Ham a story and tuck them in thereafter. Sam Allardyce deployed all the tactical subtlety and nous for which he has become so fabled by repeatedly launching the ball skywards, for his strikers to win headers and runners to pop shots, a tactic which led to the thoroughly unpleasant sensation at AANP Towers of wishing Dawson were around, to deal with aerial barrage. Instead, we had perfunctory Capoue, and Chiriches, who looks suspiciously like a man who has been taking his lessons in no-nonsense defensive solidity from Benny Assou-Ekotto.
Had our heroes had enough verve and creativity to pen West Ham deep within their own half and batter away at them, the whole issue of dealing with knock-downs from long-balls would not have been pertinent, as they would all have been sixty yards away, but it is a fairly moot point now.
I had rather expected that our heroes would fairly naturally bounce back fromt he weekend various crises and tear West Ham apart, as had threatened to happen in that opening spell. Instead, there is an ominous sense that we might tumble into a festive freefall. Quite the revolution.
AVB: An Epitaph
Here at AANP Towers we like to see a good, clean contest, with batsmen walking as soon as the finger goes up and a man nobly stepping aside when some bright young bounder on a horse bends his cannon and makes off with his wife. In such circumstances we cannot help but stiffen the lip at the demise of a manager just three shakes of a lamb’s tail into a season.
That said, not a tear will be shed around these parts. The £100 million pound mob were peddling a style so bereft of life that by yesterday evening it had eaten away approximately 78% of my very soul, which was a far from ideal state of affairs. On top of which, every band of rag-tags and hoodlums (hoodla?) with body-art on their arms was swanning up and knocking our lot to kingdom come. Given the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine a murmur of discontent from anybody involved.
So AVB is now swimming with chums of a piscine persuasion, and with that particular king dead we might as well toddle on to the next point on the agenda – the gentlemen whose services may imminently be volunteered.
He has such lovely hair. But coiffeur aside, this suggestion generally meets with a wary eye and murmurs of warning - understandably so, as Hoddle made rather a pickle of things last time out, and has since drifted into the ether of TV studio mumblings. However, if we want our Tottenham back the blighter knows our style inside out. His sterling work with England in ’97 and ’98 merits a ticked box, and while he did admittedly benefit then from a cracking group of players the 2013 vintage at the Lane seem a similarly fruity bunch.
AANP Rating: Gives the impression of a man who knows his after-dinner port.
Blessed with similarly lovely hair, and also a chappie whose playing career suggests he knew a thing or two about the finer points in life. Laudrup may be a little green behind the ears in this managerial tomfoolery – and history suggests that leaving a fresh-faced type in charge of our troops is not necessarily a guarantee of success – but he has his Swansea mob playing football the right way, has some experience in England and a nice shiny pot at home to impress the slew of nubile young women who possibly trail after him.
AANP Rating: Young enough to have his way with the fairer sex, sufficiently debonair to light a cigar afterwards
Crumbs. I dare not say a bad word about this chap lest he track me down, and disintegrate my insides purely through the medium of an inscrutable stare. That said, I’m not a huge fan of the old bean. It all seemed a bit dour and funless when he managed England to humiliation, and if the last few weeks has taught me anything it is that humiliation without any fun is the worst sort of humiliation. Let’s at least get humiliated in a blaze of glory, what? However, disciplinarian that he is he might be inclined to pick one strategy and stick to it, which would be progress of sorts. None of this Capoue-up-front nonsense.
AANP Rating: The sort of blighter to sink a few neat whiskies and eyeball his guests if they do not do the same.
He once turned and looked at me after he scored. We had a moment. Striker to striker. One for the dreamy idealists I think, as this would equate to a romantic swoon in managerial form, but with fairly limited substance behind it in terms of club management. He seemed to have a rip-roaring time managing Germany to the brink of glory on home turf in 2006, and I have no idea how he is getting on with the States, but he has just nabbed himself a four-year contract. All things considered this seems like the dreamy gamble that, right now, will not amuse Levy.
AANP Rating: Likely to be the one dancing atop a table, gin-based cocktail in hand. Which is not really cricket.
Might be worth a knowing nod through a smoky haze and a charged glass. Hiddink kept his head down and the muck off his shoes while sipping from the poisoned chalice at Stamford Bridge, only losing once (to our lot, bizarrely enough), and yanking the FA Cup en route, before being shoved out. The CV is sparkly enough, and my spies tell me he is currently loafing around at home doing crosswords at present.
AANP Rating: Picks the appropriate vintage for each dish in a five-course meal.
The unfortunate truth is presumably that, despite the rigorous scientific compendium upon which these findings are based, Levy is likely to make his own call on this one, hard-nosed renegade that he is. So be it. If nothing else, chewing over the identity of the new man at the helm will give us all something to do while the young folk are spilling over the dancefloors at this week’s Christmas parties.
Heavens above. To ship six goals away at Man City could be explained away with some embarrassed looks, statistics and mumbled interviews – but five goals at home, to a Liverpool side who have some way to go to emulate the European champs of yesteryear, rather makes one pause for thought and sip the evening bourbon with a little more concern than normal.
One trying to shake a stick at the plethora of mishaps, mistakes and moments of buffoonery will need a jolly large stick, but using the infallible AVB method of shrugging, closing my eyes and randomly pointing my finger, I point ye gentlefolk firstly towards the high defensive line.
Or, more accurately, the yawning gap it creates in between back-four and goalkeeper, into which Liverpool and their merry band of runners tore with gay abandon. A couple of one-touch passes, some of them – shock horror – going backwards first in order to move forwards, and our befuddled heroes were ripped to shreds. To shove poor old Daws bang into the middle of a system that relies so heavily upon pace seems suspiciously to contravene the UN charter on Human Rights, and sure enough, in the midst of the bedlam our intrepid leader earned his yellow card for hurtling into a centre-circle challenge as a crafty forward slipped the ball beyond him.
It is a measure of quite how bad things were that the more obvious candidate for withdrawal was young Master Naughton, who was sent spinning this way and that, evoking memories of that afternoon last season when Walcott tormented him to within an inch of his life as we conceded five at the Emirates. A theme begins to emerge, what?
The midfield deserve a jolly hefty couple of clips round the ears too. Paulinho generously found the time to squeeze in a couple of wild shanks into the upper tier and moments of halting our own speedy counter-attacks with that old ‘put-my-foot-on-the-ball-and-turn-backwards’ gambit, before getting sent off. Holtby buzzed around with some intent, to his credit, but as ever the whole thing was painfully pedestrian going forward (a term I use lightly), while the back-four, the goalkeeper and the seismic gap between them were afforded precious little protection.
Suspicion grows that locked away in the safe at Chadli Towers are some compromising photos of AVB, explaining the Belgian’s weekly selection, while the cunning plan to starve Lennon of the ball again failed to break down the Liverpool defence.
All things considered, quite the muddle, and with precious little in the way of game-plan or consistency of team selection, our glorious leader might be forgiven for shifting his feet uneasily and sporting the look of a toddler discovered with one hand in the biscuit tin. One rather hopes we won’t have to go through this nonsense every month.
They may only have been the dregs of the English and Russian leagues respectively, but three consecutive wins have done enough to secure nods of mild satisfaction where once there were howls of anguish, so we can go into this one with sentiments bordering on cautious optimism. Moreover, the gods of fate seem to have nonchalantly tossed us a couple of extra scraps, and thus we find that the red mob will toddle up to the front gates sans Messrs Gerrard and Sturridge. Admittedly seeing Dawson go toe-to-toe with Suarez will be a little like having a member of the undead spend 90 minutes pulling a single entrail from our gut, but beyond that particular mismatch we ought to have a decent chance.
AVB would presumably not have dreamed of this a couple of weeks ago, but he actually has a few positive selection dilemmas to chew over today. To claim that we have an embarrassment of riches in attack is perhaps stretching the point, but after Defoe applied himself with some rigour and effect vs Sunderland and Fulham, we then had Soldado stumbling upon the secret formula for alchemy in midweek, albeit against fairly dreadful opposition. There are some who would still love to see the two of them pitted alongside each other and told to go out there and make merry, but presumably it will be one or t’other this afternoon.
In defence there seems to be a fairly definite hierarchy, so selection will simply depend upon who is fit, but the five across the midfield/attack again pose a few positive problems. AVB seems in recent weeks to have settled upon a selection strategy that involves writing names on paper, throwing them in the air and picking the ones that land nearest to him, but Messrs Lennon, Townsend and Holtby have all done the footballing equivalent of jumping up and down in front of him yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” while Sigurdsson seems a reliable sort of egg, and Lamela’s pass for the second goal on Thursday was drop-dead gorgeous. Nice to see the lad Eriksen back on his feet as well, and ahead of all of these in the queue is Master Paulinho, who has been the furthest man forward in recent weeks.
In the grand scheme of things three points would naturally help chivvy us along to where we want to be, but to take them at the expense of one our rivals – and particularly one boasting quite such smug office colleagues as this lot – would be a most desirable conclusion of affairs.
Six points in four days – but perhaps more importantly, a performance that in parts had us clearing our throats and purring. For around 25 glorious minutes we were treated to a glimpse of how the world might look if the wolf really does lie down with the lamb, famine and disease are shoved under the carpet and Spurs get their act together. That spell after half-time bordered on the marvellous, with play concentrated around the edge of the Sunderland area and – glory be – one-touch passes indulged in like newly-opened Christmas presents that the players could not get enough of. It was slick and quick, left Sunderland chasing shadows and brought about a couple of actual, real-life, close-range chances.
Holtby in particular seemed to skip around the place with healthy quantities of joy and élan in his soul, with able support from Dembele and Lennon. I still do not quite follow the finer points of the Select Chadli masterplan, particularly when young Townsend is huddled in the shadows stage left, but this is not the time to quibble – several small steps have been taken in the right direction, and I intend to celebrate by heading off to the Galleria to play arcade games with a flame-haired chum.
Having given this particular drum a hefty thump in our preview, here at AANP Towers we also mightily pleased to see young Defoe unleashed again, and while he did rather deviate from the script by scuffing the best chance \we have created all season, there was still enough movement and enthusiasm to work the Sunderland back-four into a sweat and ping a few efforts netwards, which seemed a fairly generous improvement on the Soldadoings of the season to date.
The potentially critical absences of Messrs Vertonghen and Chiriches were minimised, with Capoue making a decent fist of things at centre-back and Naughton generally steering clear of any of those ill-advised moments of buffoonery that occasionally seem to inter themselves into the minds of any full-back named Kyle that we have ever employed. The last line of defence had another wobbly one however, Monsieur Lloris enthusiastically peddling the latest in his line of circus japes to riotous applause from the opposition fans but more furious chin-stroking from all of lilywhite persuasion. One hopes that this is but a passing fad, as seems to be so common with the young folk these days.
Dawson: A Tribute. Of Sorts.
Not for the first time, a nervous final 15 or so could have been avoided if our earlier domination had been seamlessly translated into goals, but our heroes tend not to roll thusly, and a couple of scrambles duly transpired (and let there be no doubt we rode our luck with Sandro handball – one to remember when the gods of luck scorn us in the months to come).
However, within that final 15 we found ourselves indebted on a couple of occasions to our intrepid captain. For all his failings – most of which are magnified within the high defensive line we deploy – Master Dawson does love a spot of full-blooded last ditchery, presumably because when charging down a shot six yards out there is limited scope for his lack of pace to be exposed. Credit where due, he led the defensive line with aplomb, and three snaffled points there were.
It seems you can’t sneeze these days without another Spurs fixture hurtling towards you. This presumably gives Messrs Levy, Baldini and Villas-Boas a degree of smug satisfaction, because even if the XI on the pitch each game can do no more than trundle the ball sideways and backwards, on paper at least we do have a squad eminently capable of coping with two games per week.
Daws Out, Defoe In
That said, there appears to be minimal rhyme or reason to AVB’s tinkering – Lamela starting vs City and not in the squad vs United, Defoe ‘rested’ against Tromso and not selected vs United to name but two. Still, like my four year-old nephew with a new box of Lego, this gives the young bean something different with which to play each week, so good luck to him. However, if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion from the comfort of my sofa, and with the benefit of zero professional experience behind me, it would be to relegate Master Daws to his rightful position in the club shop, where he can perch on a ledge and revel in the glory of being club mascot, without ever having to worry about his lack of pace and turning-speed of a cruise-liner. Monsieur Kaboul may not exactly have covered himself in glory during the Etihad mauling, but he jolly well did cover himself in glory during the 2011-12 season, and it is difficult to imagine him doing any worse than the ill-judged, mistimed, lumberings of our esteemed captain.
In fact, while I have the floor I might as well take an almighty liberty and make a second suggestion, namely that the name ‘Defoe’ be scrawled in crayon across the teamsheet for the next three or four games. Just for sport you see, to see if he can do more in three or four games than Soldad’oh has done all season. I admittedly do wear Defoe-tinted spectacles most of my days, but it nevertheless struck me that he was more of a nuisance in his 90 minutes vs Sunderland than the Spaniard has been in the last month or two. And many is the claim that Defoe does not pass enough, but I spotted a couple of decent enough contributions vs Fulham (notably the one to set up Paulinho’s chance) – but more than that, I would rather a greedy blighter who troubles the ‘keeper a couple of times per game than a moody chunterer who registers nary a shot in anger.
Other Selection Bits and Bobs
Heaven help us, Vertonghen is out. This may mean Naughton thrust into that particular corner, but the preferable alternative at AANP Towers would be the discreet plopping into gainful employment of Kaboul. Dembele is a doubt as well apparently, a mild shame after his sterling performance against United, but we seem relatively well stocked in central areas, with Capoue back and Paulinho now apparently destined for a long and prosperous life in the hole.
Lovely though it has been to see four (four!) goals that were not penalties in the last seven days, none of them owed much to the fluidity and cunning of our build-up play, each of them having composed primarily of hearty thwacks from distance, so a problem still needs to be solved. Alas, Sunderland are stumbling through a pseudo-revival under Poyet, but the bottom team they remain, so this really has to be another three-point haul.
Time might consider itself the great healer, but it is about to find itself shoved out of the way in pretty unceremonious manner, because no sooner have our intrepid heroes shipped six goals in one fell swoop than they find themselves farmed off to Antarctica, or that frozen planet in the Star Wars film, or wherever the dickens this lot play their trade. This, of course, is because the Europa League waits for no man, and as sure as eggs is eggs we find ourselves now on the cusp of the greatness that is qualification for The Next Bit Of This Slightly Tortuous Saga.
Qualification has already been successfully navigated by our superstars, and a couple of well-timed nods and winks will apparently guarantee us top spot in the group, and whatever riches that entails. However there is nevertheless an entertaining undercurrent to this distraction, because AVB has a coin to toss. Tradition dictates that he rest just about everybody involved last Sunday, with a view to keeping them fresh for another thrashing this Sunday – but given the debacle and all its trimmings one wonders whether he might be tempted to drag last Sunday’s lot back out for more. Not as punishment you understand, but as an opportunity to right some of the myriad wrongs. Certainly the likes of Paulinho, Lamela and Dawson to name but three have a few lashings of professional pride to restore, so our glorious leader might consider shoving them back out onto the greenery, and asking them as he does so to show a bit of decency and buck up a few notches.
Alternatively, this might be an opportunity for a spot of formation tinkering. Four months too late admittedly, but an opportunity nonetheless. Glenn Hoddle seemed to have caused a bit of a stir amongst Spurs-supporting chums of my acquaintance, by suggesting just prior to the City game that we dabble in a 5-2-1-2/3-4-1-2 looking number, with wing-backs and a lone chappie in the hole (although it looks a tad light on width and creativity to me, so goodness knows what our umpteen wingers would do with themselves while it played out). Perhaps a little more navigable for our addled minds might be an old-fashioned 4-4-2, as briefly and lamentably dabbled in at the start of the second half against City.
Whatever the decision, it all points towards a team selection with the potential to get the juices flowing. The game itself jolly well ought to be a formality, what?