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Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-0 Arsenal: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sanchez

If there’s one thing AANP enjoys more than plucking one of the more unheralded players to laser in on as the first talking point, it’s finding sticks with which to beat poor old Davinson Sanchez. There’s a neat symmetry therefore in opening with a spot of praise for Senor D. S., after a game in which the chap swanned along more or less under the radar.

The marvellous pre-match atmosphere was punctured somewhat by yowls of anguish when the teamsheet was posted to reveal Sanchez where Romero ought to have stood. This was with good reason. Most of sound mind could rattle of the truths that not only is Romero comfortably a more dependable sort of bod in defence – crunching of tackle, intelligent of positioning, and so forth – but he also has turned into a pretty critical cog in our attacking machinery by dint of his ability to pick a forward pass from deep within the bowels of the back-line.

By contrast, Sanchez’s defensive attempts seem to come under as much pressure from factors such as gravity and control of his own limbs as opposing attackers; on top of which, while in possession, the list of options in his head seems to read:

  • Panic;
  • Send panicked pass backwards;
  • Blast panicked clearance into the atmosphere

As such, the reasons for concern were strong and manifold. The mood at AANP Towers, for a start, flipped from cautious optimism to “Death where is thy sting” in about the time it takes to read a teamsheet.

And those pre-match yowls were being repeated with some added vigour in the opening seconds of the match, when Sanchez received the ball and promptly wobbled through all three of his options. The omens were not good.

Worse still, the Woolwich rotter up against him – Martinelli – seemed to get whiff of the fact that here was a startled rabbit in headlights, and made a very public decision to get his head down and run at him every time he received the ball, no doubt reasoning that he was onto a good thing so why not.

Mercifully, the Martinelli threat was up in smoke once Woolwich went down to ten and reshaped themselves. Even so, the few threats they posed thereafter, Sanchez rose to sufficiently well. Be it on the ground or up in the air, he seemed on board with the basics of his role, and carried out sentry duty in his specific area pretty well.

As impressively, despite obviously being new to the centre-back troupe, he held his position well. Over the last couple of months, Dier, Romero and Davies have seemed particularly well drilled in the curious art of lining up alongside each other as if bound in position by taut rope, and in this respect Sanchez slotted in admirably.

He won’t have many gentler days, particularly in this fixture, but given the pre-match alarm prompted by his selection, the curious egg deserves a congratulatory fist-bump, or whatever it is the youth do these days.

Moreover, just when I was exhaling some of the 45 minutes’ worth of breath being held at the prospect of Sanchez being called into action, at the start of the second half he then went and played one of the best passes of the game in the build-up to our third.

Naturally it went under the radar, but his roll of the ball into Kane in the area was slyly spotted in the first instance, given that the onus at that point was on safe sideways passes and space was at something of a premium, and perfectly weighted in the second instance. From then on Kane and Son took charge – Kane using his strength, Sonny applying the finish – but that it all emanated from the size nine of Davinson Sanchez was impressive indeed.

2. Professionalism

All that said, one would hardly reflect on this game as one in which victory was obtained principally by the efforts of Sanchez. Rather, this was a triumph of lilywhite professionalism.

I suppose some might stop me right there, and counter that our lot didn’t really have to do much more than check in on time, as Woolwich needed little encouragement to go about the place imploding in comical fashion at every opportunity. And I would not be able to deny that this were an argument of some substance.  

Nevertheless, it was mightily encouraging that once up a goal and a man, our lot scented blood and dispensed with the traditional niceties of a genial host. The sentiment seemed to be that if our visitors wanted to fire off rounds into their own feet that was their prerogative, but we were not about to pause and extend the hand of friendship. Instead, much like those cyborg assassins sent from the future that one occasionally sees at the picture house, those in employment at N17 went about their business without any thought of bargaining or reasoning, and without feeling any pity, remorse or fear.

As the inexperienced young coves in the opposition ranks sought to impose themselves through the medium of one rash and hot-headed decision after another, our lot suddenly bore the hallmarks of a troupe who have seen a few things in their time, and now approach such matters a lot more wisely.

Where Holding, for the other lot, approached the occasion like some wild and ill-considered skirmish in the playground, with little consideration of the bigger picture, and went to extreme lengths to ensure he’d be sent off at the earliest opportunity, those in lilywhite added plenty of crunch and clatter to things, but without straying into the more sordid realms.

Even the moments of ill-discipline seemed to have about them an air of knowing professionalism. When Davies lost control of the limbs and allowed Nketiah to sneak in front of him, he wasted little time in entrapping the fellow’s ankle between his own two legs and refusing to release. A yellow card duly followed, but an infinitely worse threat – of Nketiah bearing down on goal unchallenged – had been halted. This was no rash swipe; it was a calculated breach of the regulations for the greater good.

The urge to press high up the pitch seemed stronger than usual once the red card had been shown, and in general there was a sense that here was a Spurs team deciding collectively that their moment had arrived and they were dashed well going to make the most of it.

The second goal seemed to emanate as much from grinding down Woolwich as from Bentancur’s leap and Kane’s finishing instincts. All of which made a most pleasing change, bearing evidence of the sort of gritty ruthlessness one wouldn’t normally associate with our mob. As ever, credit can liberally showered upon Our Glorious Leader, the fingerprints of whom could clearly be seen all over this.

Even in the second half, when my primitive instincts urged our lot to fly forward every time they touched the ball and shoot from all angles, I could still appreciate that the gentle and inoffensive popping of the ball this way and that was serving a purpose. The game was won, our goal difference was already superior – there was no need to do anything other than gently and inoffensively pop the ball.

3. Dier

As mentioned above, Sanchez filled the Romero-shaped hole adequately enough, but I thought Eric Dier met with this particular disaster particularly well. Not only did he have to contend with the loss of a reliable sort of egg to his right, and take on a spot of baby-sitting, the absence of Romero also deprived us of a usual outlet for distribution, heaping a few extra handfuls of responsibility upon Dier to do the forward-prompting from defence.

And this was not a responsibility he shirked. Admittedly he did not exactly morph into a modern-day Hoddle when the ball was at his feet, but he took to heart the responsibilities that come with being a defender at the heart of Conte-ball, and sought to distribute the thing usefully each time.

This was sometimes simply a sideways pass to Sanchez – about which Dier seemed a lot more sanguine than AANP, who greeted each of these occasions with a sharp intake of breath and fevered hand over the eyes – but as often it was a more constructive attempt. Notably this included the chip forwards towards Sonny that led to Holding being gripped by the idea that raising a shoulder to the face would swing the pendulum decisively his way.

While I’m not sure too much credit can be laid at Dier’s door for that particular incident – Holding, frankly, was the gift that didn’t stop giving, and might have been fun to observe for another hour – the point is that Dier was happy to try playing the ball out from the back, and in the absence of Romero this was pretty critical to our set-up.

Indeed, when the head hit the pillow and I began contemplating the infinite last night, the thought did strike me that the national head honcho could do worse than bring Dier back into the fold, particularly when one observes the regularity with which Harry Maguire makes a pig’s ear of unthreatening situations at the heart of any given defence in which he is placed.

4. Bentancur and Hojbjerg

And once supremacy was achieved, and the mission parameter switched from establishing a lead to protecting it, Messrs Hojbjerg and Bentancur cleared their throats and spent the remainder of the evening gently directing operations.

In fact, well before this, I was particularly enamoured of the manner in which Hojbjerg had gone about his business. Woolwich had signalled from kick-off that they felt this was a game that would be won by means of sly elbows and crafty kicks as much as anything else, so it was handy to have in the ranks a fellow like Hojbjerg who, one feels, strains at the leash to launch into a full-blooded challenge on someone from the moment his eyes open in the morning.

Moreover, Hojbjerg’s partiality to a forward gallop has also been in evidence in recent weeks. Admittedly one tries to erase from the memory his late input into matters in the opposing penalty area vs Liverpool last weekend, but in general the sight of him eagerly chugging up into the final third is a welcome one, and his contributions, whilst maybe lacking a little finesse, tend to be useful enough.

But it was in maintaining control of things once the game was won that both he and Bentancur excelled last night. Bentancur in particular has the happy ability to grasp the geography of the place in advance of receiving the ball, which, married to a pretty silky first touch, allows him to improvise changes in direction and whatnot according to any challenges that may fly his way at short notice.

It all contributed to what was essentially a half-hour victory parade at the end of the game last night, as this pair kept careful watch of possession and Woolwich, sensing the thing was up, waved a white handkerchief and looked on glumly.

Alas, I suspect that a week on Sunday we will still be left shrugging the shoulders and settling for fifth, and I suppose life does give one such crosses to bear – but no doubt about it, yesterday’s was as emphatic a win as they come, and if nothing else it will leave the grin etched across the map for a goodish while yet.

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Spurs match reports

Liverpool 1-1 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sessegnon

I would be deceiving my public if I were to claim to have studied meticulously the every sprint and shimmy of Ryan Sessegnon in his Fulham days, but as the news on the airwaves back then seemed to communicate with some confidence that he was essentially a left-footed reincarnation of Pele, I was happy to wave him on-board when his transfer to N17 had its I’s dotted and T’s crossed.

No doubt he had some rotten luck in the months since then, with various sinews pinging and limbs crumbling. The net effect of which has been that whereas a regular run of games might have turned him into a passable imitator of peak Danny Rose, he has instead gone about his business with the nervous air of a man entirely unfamiliar with the script and desperately hoping that nobody will notice.

My principal concern with Sessegnon is that he treats the football as if it is some other-worldly object of obscurity, unsure quite how to interact with it, and emphatically incapable of keeping the thing under his spell. And for much of yesterday – with one notable exception – this truth appeared to be very much intact.

That moment in which he almost headed an own-goal neatly encapsulated his ongoing struggles with the thing. While by no means a straightforward scenario – the ball was airborne, an attacker lurked – it was neither a situation of the gravest conceivable peril. There were a couple of options available, the most obvious of which seemed to be to nod the ball out of play, dust the hands of the situation and regroup for the next scene.

Sessegnon, however, treating the object as a dodecahedron rather than a sphere, contrived to lob a header into the most dangerous area possible – a yard from goal, into the path of Salah and very nearly over the extended frame of Lloris.

Our goalkeeper did the decent thing on that occasion (and indeed every occasion on which called into action), but the episode was indicative of a broader malaise. Sessegnon’s touch was generally a cue for all in lilywhite to about-turn and resume defensive positions, as the ball bobbled away from him much as it would if lobbed gently against a brick wall. The Sessegnon of Fulham vintage might have been a veritable deity with ball at feet, but our version appears to wrestle with deep-rooted, ball-based trauma.

However, yesterday was not really the occasion for any in our ranks to dazzle with elegant touch and soft caresses in possession. A large part of Sessegnon’s remit was in simply adopting the appropriate stance, depending on how the situation was unfolding centre-stage. So if Liverpool were hammering at our door, as they spent much of the game doing, our man dutifully shuffled out to a spot about five yards west of Ben Davies, and doggedly biffed away at which red-clad stooge tried to slink past.

This, to his credit, he did well. I was particularly taken by the manner in which, on the occasion on which he made a pig’s ear of things and allowed Salah a clear run on goal, more sordid urges consumed him. Rather than adopting the more socially-acceptable modes of defending, involving such noble arts as the clean tackle or well-timed block, he simply wrapped his arms around the chap’s waist and pulled at him with him all his might, earning a pretty racy yellow card in the process.

Moreover, on those rare occasions on which attacking opportunities poked their heads above the surface, Sessegnon joined in the fun with impressive gusto. As ever, his touch generally brought an end to things, but his very presence, augmenting our three-pronged forward line with his appearances as an auxiliary left-winger, were of immense value. The game-plan may have been built upon nerveless defending, but it equally required a counter-attacking threat in which at least one wing-back supplemented things.

And never was this more evident than in our goal, when first Sessegnon provided the extra body in the area, and then, on receiving the ball, finally managed to tame the thing and deliver it with truth and purity, on a plate for Sonny. If Sessegnon were to hit one accurate pass in the whole game it had to be that pass, and he did so like a champion. All other ills and mishaps were instantly forgiven.

2. Emerson Royal

Seasoned drinkers at the AANP Tavern will be familiar with the residents’ arched eyebrows and seedy glares whenever the name of Emerson Royal passes the lips. However, those same drinkers are reasonable folk of sound judgement, so when Senor Royal puts in a performance worthy of praise, applause will ring out, and thus did it transpire yesterday.

His crossing remains pretty mysteriously abject, but this was not an evening on which to lament his wrongs. Defensively, as with each of his chums, Royal did not put too many feet wrong – which might not sound like much, but given the relentless nature of Liverpool’s probing when in possession and pressing when out, was a solid day’s work.

Indeed, Royal’s task was exacerbated by the fact that he had in opposition to him Luis Diaz, the sort of chappie who makes your standard eel seem a relatively docile and compliant customer. Warm applause is due also to Kulusevski for taking the hint and stationing himself as first reserve in the right-back environs, but Royal barely put a foot wrong defensively. Moreover, he also aided matters by playing the ball out from defence with a composure of which I would not have thought him to possess.

As has been pointed out to me with some truth, the fellow is a right-back rather than a wing-back, so to chide him for his inability to cross is to do him something of a disservice. Yesterday his role was primarily defensive and he fulfilled it. Going forward he showed plenty of willing, albeit again failing to make the great balefuls of hay one would have hoped for from his multiple crossing opportunities.

He did produce a rather unorthodox contribution to our goal however. He had the presence of mind to spot Kane in a rare unmanned patch of greenery, and while his approach to conveying the ball to Kane was not necessarily wreathed in beauty – involving as it did a vertical punt into the heavens – it achieved its end, and a priceless goal swiftly followed.

3. The Centre-Backs

But I speak of Messrs R.S. and E.R. by way of preamble only. The real stars of the defensive show were the three centre-backs, each of whom took to the task as if the future of humanity depended upon it.

(This in itself is something of a revelation, being pretty much the last thing I’d have expected of a Spurs team after my four and a bit decades of eyeballing, and credit here is presumably due to Our Glorious Leader.)

Romero admittedly took a slightly risky approach to the concept of safety and security. His array of passes from near his own goalline was certainly brave, and all things considered I tip my cap to the man for consistently attempting to start attacks from deep, rather than simply dabbing it back to the ‘keeper and scrambling out of the limelight.

Nevertheless, the heart did shoot up through the throat and straight into the mouth each time Romero dabbled in this art yesterday, and he might be advised to take into account such factors as quality of opposition when next struck by the urge.

Defensively, however, he was his usual reliable self, adopting good positions, making good choices, hurling limbs into the path of shots and generally carrying himself with the air of one who treats defence as a way of life rather than simply a day-job.

Dier and Davies were similarly motivated throughout, and it was telling that Liverpool scored only through a deflection and created little else of note to moisten the forehead of Monsieur Lloris.

And from that perspective one might fling a frustrated palm or two skyward and bemoan two dropped points. Certainly if the Hojbjerg compass had been whirring and clicking correctly we might have snatched a winner at the death, and at various points in both halves a little more care in our counter-attacking pay might have secured a rich harvest.

There can be no disputing that Liverpool dominated possession and set the tempo for most of the game however, and while we successfully blunted just about every idea they came up with, a draw seemed about right. On it crawls, therefore, setting the stage nicely for Thursday and the Woolwich.

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Spurs match reports

Brentford 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Matty Cash (Stay With Me Here)

When Mother Nature was fashioning right wing-backs I fancy she sneaked off for a few minutes away from prying eyes, to surreptitiously create a red herring in amongst the quality stock, because Emerson Royal may have his talents (a debatable point, come to think of it) but wing-backery is not one of them. In fact, I’m still not convinced that this man is actually a professional footballer, in terms of the fine print and T’s and C’s. And yet history will record that this utter charlatan thrice appeared for Barcelona, which if nothing else goes to show what sorcery a cunning football agent is capable of.

To the surprise of no-one Emerson was at it again on Saturday, charging into cul-de-sacs like a toddler thrilling at a new game, and taking every available opportunity to make a pig’s ear of things when in possession.

There’s a broken record resounding with the four walls of AANP Towers, which continually belts out the refrain that for Conte’s system to work it blasted well needs a pair of pretty inspired wing-backs. Until Christian Eriksen returns we’re certainly not going to set any pulses racing in central midfield, where Messrs Hojbjerg and Bentancur are unfailingly polite and diligent, but respond with rather blank looks and the offer of a sideways pass when asked to create something. As such, the burden of expectation falls on those patrolling the flanks.

And this is where that pest Matty Cash lumbers into view, because until he took it upon himself to fling his entire body-weight at the knee of Matt Doherty a few weeks back, our lot could go about their 9-to-5 with at least one semi-decent wing-back in the ranks. Doherty seemed to have read the manual and got the gist of where to be and when. Even though, curiously, crossing the thing was never too high on his To-Do list, he still had enough good sense to plant himself in helpful attacking spots about the place.

Emerson, by contrast, is cursed with an inability to contribute helpfully to attacking matters – which to be honest, quite likely stems from his underlying inability to contribute helpfully to footballing matters more generally.

So when attempts to weave pretty meticulous routes straight down the centre came to naught, hopeful looks were cast towards the flanks for a spot of timely inspiration, only for those looks to fall upon Emerson Royal and become infused with a few shades of anguish.

Nor did the other flank bring a more productive harvest, being populated by young Sessegnon, who appears still petrified of his own shadow. All of which leaves me cursing with a great deal of spirit that damned Matty Cash (and, for good measure, Steven Gerrard, still hoovering up the goodwill around the place from his playing career to get away with such uncouth tactics as a manager). The Woolwich would do well to reward both with a handsome chunk of the winnings should they make the CL spot, because the absence of Doherty, while not the sole factor, has caused the whole operation to sag a bit.

2. Plan A

As alluded to above, the well of central midfield invention, if not quite bone dry, was certainly not threatening to spill over at the sides on Saturday.

That said, I’m not one to slap on the sackcloth and ashes and start bleating that our heroes simply moped about the place without caring a hang for matters of the turf. That was their domain last weekend vs Brighton. On Saturday vs Brentford, investment was at least made in the concept of prising out a chance.

The flanks were pretty derelict, arid territories, but our lot did have a couple of stabs at that business of quick, one-touching passing straight through the middle. And a chief inspector of such things might note that these endeavours met with some success. On a couple of occasions we successfully transferred the orb from circa. centre circle to circa. oppo penalty area with minimal oppo interference.

The problem was that by the time we hit oppo p.a. the whole operation ground to a halt, as we discovered that Brentford had populated the place with about fifty of their finest, and every possible avenue for entry was sealed off.

And that was pretty much the beginning, middle and end of Plan A. There was simply no way through via the centre, and our wing-backs were too dashed gormless to conjure up anything out east or out west.

3. Plan B

With Plan A thus fizzling out pretty much upon take-off, one could not impress enough upon our heroes the importance of a sturdy and viable Plan B, the sort that would force the Brentford mob to reconsider their lot in life and conjure up chances from new and exciting angles.

Unfortunately, while the theory of Plan B was sound, the reality of Plan B hit upon a pretty sizeable flaw, of the existential variety, in that it didn’t actually exist.

It’s difficult to say where the blame lies for this. Certainly the obvious direction for the accusatory finger to point is that of Our Glorious Leader, he being the nib tasked with devising such ruses. Conte appears very much a creature of tactical habit, wedded not only to his wing-backed 3-4-3, but also to pretty much an identical XI every week, if availability allows.

However, having played two games without registering a shot on target one might reasonably suggest that opponents are starting to get the hang of The Conte Way and, worse, finding ways to neuter it. And this, surely, is where the Big Cheese earns his monthly envelope, shrugging his shoulders at the unfortunate fate of Plan A and unveiling with a flourish some dastardly Plan B – and, ideally, also Plans C, D and E for good measure, if he is really in the mood.

Instead, Conte seems at as much of a loss as the rest of us, if the 3-4-3 and identical XI aren’t delivering the goods.

Now strictly speaking, if recording these musings under oath I would be in a bit of a spot, because this is a mild untruth. Cast your mind back to the rip-snorting draw with Liverpool back in December, and Conte lined up our heroes in a 5-3-2, to pretty decent effect when one takes all things into account.

These days however, Conte’s gambling blood doesn’t really extend much beyond flinging on Lucas for a ten-minute scamper and possibly Bergwijn in the dying embers of added time, neither of which really tear up the manual and indicate a wild and daring inversion of tactics.

Aside from Conte, I suppose one might direct a chastising poke of the ribs towards the actual players themselves, they being the souls in most direct command of proceedings. One never really feels comfortable attributing to footballers the capacity of enlightened thought and ingenuity, so it is perhaps asking a bit much of them to fix the tactical machinery mid-game. However, while it would be nice to see, unfortunately beyond Kane dropping into his little holes the market for such in-game player spontaneity is pretty much closed.

The alarming thing is that with only a handful of games left and precious little scope for further dropped points, we need a few viable alternatives and pronto. Actually, the alarming thing is the failure to hit a bally shot on target in two games, but you appreciate the forward-looking concern too.

4. Eriksen’s Corners

Of course, all such miseries and concerns rather faded away when one drank in the sight of Christian Eriksen treading the boards again, and long may he continue to do so.

His touch remains in pretty decent working order, and I noted with interest that the data bods awarded him the rosette for Most Distance Covered, which is the sort of stat that will do no harm to the Returning To Spurs rumours.

Back in his lilywhite days, my main gripe with the chap was that he tended to deliver his wizardry in fits and starts, flitting around the periphery of the match for much of it, rather than wading around knee-deep in the stuff from first whistle to last, as a man of his talent ought. Whether he is therefore the solution to our ills is debatable – although his advocates would make the pretty reasonable point that with him pottering around the midfield it is unlikely that we would go two games without a shot on target.

But aside from all that, what really caught the eye was the sight of him pinging corners and free-kicks about the place like a chap who’d been blessed with such ability since childhood.

Much has been made of the fact that three first-half corners were delivered pretty much on a sixpence to Toney at the far post. Anyone within earshot of AANP as these sailed over would have recoiled at the coarse and earthy language being gaily splashed around the place, such was my disgust at the complete abandonment of marking duties displayed by Sonny on these occasions, he evidently not being the sort for any of that enlightened thought or ingenuity I mentioned earlier (or even the plain common sense to spot the same thing happening and act upon it at the third time of asking).

However, the more charitable pundits about the place chose instead to focus their energies upon a spot of good old-fashioned sycophancy at Eriksen and his set-piece delivery, and I must admit that I did give it an eye. It was all the more remarkable to me, however, because one of the abiding memories of the chap’s final season in N17 was his bizarre inability to deliver a decent set-piece. It was quite the curiosity that so many of his corners would skim along the turf and straight to the first defender, incurring some early variations of that coarse and earthy language.

On Saturday, however, set-piece delivery appeared, once again, to have become his speciality, and it dashed well near enough sank us, leading to two rattles of the frame and one off-the-line clearance.

So much for Eriksen, and good luck to the honest fellow. As for our lot, one heck of an upturn is needed, and pronto, because this thing is slipping away. Strictly speaking it does remain in our hands – win all remaining fixtures, including the North London derby, and fourth is ours – but for any of the above to materialise, on-pitch matters need some pretty immediate and effective surgery.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 0-1 Brighton: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Midfield Distribution

After games such as this one can pretty much close the eyes and point a moody finger in any direction, and one will hit upon a failing. And on Saturday one such failing was the complete absence of interest in attacking play from those dozing away in central midfield.  

What struck me as particularly galling was that the business of playing the ball from defence to attack was not one of those disasters beset in problems from start to finish. It was not one of those tragedies in which the knowledgeable onlooker can spot from a mile away that the whole scheme is destined for failure as soon as it begins. At various points during the game, the beginning of our play-ball-from-defence-to-attack strategy was actually pretty neat and tidy stuff.

For a start, any sniff of danger from what masqueraded as the Brighton high-press around our area was swatted away pretty dismissively. The control of possession demonstrated by Hugo, the three centre-backs and any kindly wing-back who happened to be passing by, was of sufficient quality to sidestep any hint of trouble around our own net. Manoeuvring the ball from A to B – with A being the feet of Hugo and B the feet of anyone else in lilywhite – was an operation for which our lot demonstrated all the requisite levels of competence.

So far, so good. Our lack of a single shot on target could not be pinned upon any perceived difficulties in emerging unscathed from our own penalty area.

At this point, however, the plan started spouting leaks. The challenge seemed to be not so much the risk of losing possession in our own defensive third, as much as the conundrum of how to do anything meaningful with it, at the same point on the map.

In recent weeks, Hojbjerg and, in particular, Bentancur and Kane, have attracted their fair share of awe-struck gazes through the ability casually to flick a ball first-time around the corner, and into space up the flanks for one of the attacking cohort to gallop after. As well as being the sort of scenic stuff one could bring a picnic to watch, such first-time flicks have had the pragmatic advantage of turning the narratives completely on their head, leaving opposition defenders galloping back towards their own goal and pulled apart in all sorts of directions.

And yet on Saturday, of those first-time flicks there was no sign. Instead, both Bentancur and Hojbjerg (Kane having been muzzled by that Bissouma fellow, who I’m sure would look fetching in white upper garments come August) seemed entirely preoccupied with the notion that if anything good were to come of things it would have to have its genesis in a first-time backwards pass. No matter the coordinates, or time of day, or any other consideration of external circumstance: first-time backwards passes had been adopted as the panacea for all ills, and any other consideration was tossed aside.

Now I’m all for the practice of one passing the way they are facing. If anything, I consider it a somewhat neglected art. At the appropriate time and in the appropriate place, few things in life can top a swift nudge of the ball backwards by a fellow who has his back to goal and senses opponents hunting him down. Done in suitable conditions, it can be precisely what the doctor ordered, throwing opponents off the scent and ensuring quick movement of the ball.

But note well the preamble: “in suitable conditions’; “the appropriate time”; and “appropriate place”. All key components, and yet merrily ignored by our heroes, who seemed to think that the backwards-pass routine was such a good yarn they should thrust it into the heart of whatever was happening, irrespective of whether the circumstances required it or not.

While the occasional backward pass can be a ripping little gag, doing it every dashed time one receives the ball starts to make the regulars raise an eyebrow and wonder if all is well at HQ.

While I appreciate that it is difficult to flick around a corner when everyone in lilywhite is static and all Brighton-folk are already in position and set, there were nevertheless opportunities to start attacks, when Brighton had committed numbers up the pitch. On such occasions, some effort had gone into bypassing the Brighton press, and finally the ball was funnelled up to Bentancur and Hojbjerg (and occasionally Son), with the stage set for them to ping the ball into the spaces ahead for attacking sorts to run onto – and instead they simply bunged the thing back into defence again, and everyone in Brighton colours re-took their sentry positions.

It was as if they considered that a quick shove of the ball back towards goal were some sort of triumph in itself, and once completed they could consider their jobs done for the day.

I suppose there are multiple contributory factors here, but from the AANP viewpoint our lot seemed to be missing one heck of a trick. Instead of zipping up the pitch, all in lilywhite ponderously rolled the ball around the halfway line, and by the time last orders were called it was little wonder that we had not managed a single shot on target.

2. The Absence of Doherty

I once heard a pretty ripping gag about chickens and eggs, the nub of which was to speculate as to which arrived on the scene first, which, when you stop to consider it, starts to make the mind swim a bit. I was reminded of this when trying to fathom the root of our problems on Saturday, because on the one hand, as documented above, our midfield mob appeared in no mood to set in motion anything of attacking promise – but on the other hand I did wonder if this might be because the supporting cast were neglecting their duties.

In recent weeks, Master Doherty has carried himself full of buck and vim, taking every opportunity to chip in with his tuppence worth on the right flank, and indeed infield from said flank. He, and whichever less talented equivalent has been patrolling the left flank, have been key components of our attacking apparatus. The front three have hogged headlines and statistics, but the two wing-backs have quietly been going about the place adding meat to things.

The absence of Doherty has now coincided with a game in which we have failed to strike a bally shot on target, which might sound like a spot of AANP amateur dramatics, but, rather disturbingly, is a statement of fact. And the point I’m driving at is to speculate as to whether the two are in some way causally linked.

Certainly, Doherty’s replacement, Emerson Royal, seemed in customary fashion to offer all the on-pitch value of a mannequin, making himself visible without contributing anything of the slightest value. However, it should be noted that on the other flank Senor Reguilon was similarly impotent – and frankly neither did any of the front three display the necessary wit or intelligence to escape the beady Brighton eyes upon them and enjoy a spot of freedom in the attacking third.

So to castigate Emerson in this instance might be a touch rough. Doherty, for all we know, might similarly have laboured pointlessly.

But nevertheless, I rather considered that if the central midfield consists of Hojbjerg and Bentancur – a couple of lads with plenty going for them, but not the fellows you’d back to create twenty goals a season – then your wing-backs are going to deliver some pretty special stuff going forward. And this was precisely the sort of prime fare that Doherty had been spewing forth until having his knee rearranged last week.

To suggest that Doherty has become the most important player in our setup would be laying it on rather too thick, but he was starting to look a pretty important sort of bean in the whole mechanism. One can only hope that Saturday’s ills were indicative of a wider – and isolated – malaise, rather than due to the absence of Doherty and Doherty alone.

3. Hojbjerg

Possibly not the sort of suggestion that will have the paying public hoisting me on their shoulders and sending down the ticker-tape, but in the absence of anyone else dangling a remarkable foot, I thought that P-E H Esq. at least had the decency to suggest he cared about things.

As ventured above, his tendency always to biff the ball back to Romero or Dier upon receipt had me banging the head against whichever wall fancied it, but as the game wore on and most of our lot stubbornly refused to give a damn, I did at least admire the fact that he did not simply slump his shoulders and slink off into the shadows.

In the final knockings, he and he alone could be seen diving into tackles, and, despite the above character assassination built entirely upon his insistence on passing backwards, he did eventually get the gist of things and try to carry the ball forwards once or twice as close of play beckoned.

Hojbjerg is actually a curious egg in that it becomes harder with each passing week fully to grasp what he does. There is a danger that he might simply turn into this season’s Joe Hart, viz. a man of limited playing talent whose principal role seems to be to shout at people. He does not possess either energy, passing ability, tackling ability, dribbling ability or any other ability – bar shouting at people – that really catches the eye, and as such there is a sense that he is merely keeping a seat warm for young Master Skipp.

And yet he fits rather neatly within the Conte system, by virtue of knowing how both to patrol in front of the back-three and ward off foes, and how to collect the ball from the back-three and shovel it along, albeit usually unadventurously. (He does occasionally demonstrate an appetite for an effective forward pass, but these are generally filed under ‘Exception’ rather than ‘Rule’.)

However, given that everyone around him was determined simply to mope about the place until they could scuttle off down the tunnel, Hojbjerg can, if he fancies, treat himself to the AANP going for the day, by dint of his perspiration rather than inspiration. And that rather sad state of affairs neatly captures the whole performance.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 5-1 Newcastle: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Doherty

Having spent the last couple of years drooping his frame and acting like the whole football lark is a new one on him, in the last few weeks Matt Doherty has ripped off the mask to reveal that all along he was actually one of the better right wing-backs around.

It therefore seemed pretty cruel to react to the absence of Reguilon and Sessegnon by shoving him in at left wing-back. I mean, really. He’s only just found his feet, and now we jab a finger at him and say, “But can you do it on the left-hand side?”

On top of which, the re-jig meant that Emerson Royal and his mobile clown show was the custodian on the right. Moving our one decent wing-back to an alien position, in order to accommodate an infinitely less competent wing-back, seemed rather knuckle-headed thinking to me. As our heroes lined up at kick-off, I chewed a pretty nervous lip.

As it turned out, the one Johnnie completely unflustered by all this behind-the-scenes complexity was Doherty himself. These days it seems he wakes up each morning convinced he’s some distant relative of Pele, and not giving too many damns which flank he’s asked to patrol.

It actually works to Doherty’s advantage that he’s not really one for whipping in crosses all day and night. As far as Doherty is concerned, a wing-back’s job is to make himself available at various points up the flank, and indeed further infield, popping short passes to chums who fizz around nearby.

‘Interplay’ seems to be the anthem on Doherty’s lips, with ‘Whipped Crosses’ coming a long way down his list. And this being the case, it doesn’t really matter if he’s on his weaker foot, because even the weakest limb going will not stop a man adopting useful positions and dabbing handy five-yard passes that keep attacks healthily ticking along.

Our opening goal (the Ben Davies header) was a case in point. Naturally, much has been made of Sonny’s whipped cross for that goal, but rewind a good minute or so, and the corner was earned after Sonny went on the gallop from circa halfway to circa the six-yard box; and (stay with me here) rewind a further ten seconds or so and, crucially, this gallop would not have happened but for a perfectly-weighted, first-time, half-volleyed cushioned pass from Doherty.

For context, immediately prior to this, Romero and Lloris had been rolling the ball left and right to no real purpose, before the latter punted it upfield in the general direction of Doherty. Until then our entire game had been characterised by the absence of quick, forward-thinking distribution. Doherty’s first-time pass to Son admittedly did not look like much at the time, but I’d suggest that it was precisely the sort of injection of urgency we’d been begging for.

Admittedly I suppose we could keep on rewinding indefinitely, and count our lucky stars that the game kicked off at all, but having kept a pretty beady eye on Doherty and his left-sided escapades I clocked this one with approval.

As if to hammer home the point that being right-footed is neither here nor there if you tick all the other left wing-back boxes, Doherty then popped up with a goal at the far post, which is the sort of good habit to be encouraged in any wing-back, and even followed it up with some jiggery-pokery to set up Emerson to clown-shoe in our third.

2. Romero

Young Master Romero continues to raise his performance level drastically with each game, which by my reckoning means that he should become the best defender in the history of the game by approximately Easter Sunday.

When the match was long won, a four-goal lead established that even our lot couldn’t have messed up, I derived some entertainment from watching that Saint Maximin fellow scuttle away and perform step-overs and whatnot, looking for all the world like he possessed eight legs rather than the designated two. It generally required three in lilywhite to crowd him out on such occasions – except, however, when Romero sized him up.

There was a marvellous thrill in watching Romero trot over, cut through the bluster and fly into a challenge that pretty emphatically took ownership of the ball, whilst also uprooting young S-M and sending him a few feet into the atmosphere.

Simply to close the chapter on that violent note would, however, be to do Romero a grave injustice. The rattling challenges constitute only approximately 50% of the sketch. As has been noted with awe in recent weeks, part of the fellow’s magnetism lies in the fact that he also uses the ball with such good sense.

Romero tends to look for something fresh and spring-like when delivering a pass, as if to send the ball on its way with a message that he isn’t simply idling away the hours but genuinely believes that that act might be the start of something magnificent.

Which is not to suggest that every pass he plays scythes open the opposition: that is more the domain of rotter-in-chief, Harry Kane. Much of the time Romero’s passes are pretty gentle beasts – but they seem to me to have two critical points of delight.

Firstly, they are almost always forward, looking to advance the play by shifting the narrative from Defence to Midfield. Only in extreme circumstances does Romero go in for the rather negative business of bunging it back to the goalkeeper.  And secondly, they are generally very specific in nature, plastered all over with the name and whereabouts of the recipient, as opposed to simply being hoicked up the line with a fair amount of meat, for an unholy scrap to ensue between opposing members of the supporting cast.

It says much about the chap that when the ball rests at his size nines, rather than letting my eyes glaze over and contemplating the infinite, I crane the neck with a goodish amount of fevered anticipation.

3. Kane

I’m not sure whether Kane determines such things by poring over the data or simply tossing a coin, but this was evidently a day on which he decided that he would be Creator rather than Finisher, and after going through the motions a bit in the first half – like everyone else in lilywhite – he duly rolled up his sleeves and became unplayable thereafter.

I did wonder quite what the Newcastle tactical bods did with their time in the lead-up to this game, because Kane’s ability to drop deep and spray the ball wherever he damn well pleases is hardly an innovation. But as often as not when he picked up the ball around halfway, the Newcastle mob seemed to think he could be left to his own devices without causing any damage, seemingly oblivious to his ability to pick out teammates from just about anywhere on the pitch.

As ever there was some dreamy stuff, and the only shame was that he couldn’t be on the other end of his own passes. But I suppose that would be asking rather a lot, even for him, so we had to make do with him having the absolute time of his life in that withdrawn sort of role, orchestrating things like nobody’s business. In fact, by the end of proceedings he was starting to deliver no-look flicks and pings, which really are the hallmark of a chappie in his absolute prime.

Moreover, those around him started to pick up the rhythm of the thing too, realising that if Kane were in possession around them then they had better upgrade their own personal outputs. Thus it happened that Kulusevski started his dashes before Kane had even received the ball, and Emerson Royal – who in truth, rarely takes much convincing that he is a far better player than he actually is – began unleashing back-heeled passes and whatnot whenever his path crossed with Kane.

Of course, being a rotter, it is unclear quite how much longer Kane will remain a member of this particular parish, but while we’ve got him we might as well marvel at him.

4. Bentancur

Far fewer column inches will be devoted to young Master Bentancur. This strikes me as something of an injustice, for if column inches were to be dished out for artistry alone then Bentancur ought to have entire volumes written about him, as he both glides around the place and then typically picks a dickens of a useful forward pass, to chivvy things along and have the attackers snapping to it.

Even in that slightly moribund first half, when our heroes seemed to think that every pass required a detailed dossier of pros and cons before execution, Bentancur had the presence of mind to give the dashed thing swiftly, a hint rather lost on his colleagues.

This might not have been a day on which Bentancur’s passing brought obvious rewards – in terms of leading to goals and near-misses and the like – but with an egg like him taking possession of the thing in the middle third, life feels a lot less worrisome than it otherwise might.  

While Hojbjerg alongside him had one of his better days, I nevertheless remain impatient for the return of Skipp, and the unleashing of a double-act that promises to blow up the skirts of all onlookers. I rather fancy that Skipp’s energy would complement Bentancur’s smooth amblings around the place, and the overall effect would be ultimately to overwhelm all-comers.

5. Conte’s Attacking Substitution

On a final note, I was mightily impressed with Our Glorious Leader’s decision, in the final knockings, to replace Emerson with Bergwijn, and switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 (terms I use loosely, given the fluidity of it all, but you get the gist). I was jolly surprised too, for the record, but mightily impressed nonetheless.

Lest we overlook the context, this change was made when we were already 4-1 up, so hardly the sort of situation that called for flinging on an extra attacking body. If anything, I would have expected the rather dispiriting if understandable sight of Davinson Sanchez tripping over his feet and into the fray, stage right, while Sonny or someone similarly attack-minded made the long walk around the perimeter.

Quite what the rationale was I cannot be sure, Conte still opting not to single out AANP for a quick tactical chat about this and that after the curtain falls. However, if the thinking was to press the foot on the accelerator and up the goal difference while opportunity knocked, then I think I might have to hastily rewrite the will and bequeath everything I own to this genius of a man.

It has long been a frustration of mine that when dishing out a hammering, and faced with an opponent desperately wanting to exit the premises and disappear up the motorway, rather than taking full advantage and peppering them with attack after remorseless attack as the clock winds down, our lot will too often stroke the ball around between themselves, as if content that their work is done. The concept of making a bit more hay while the sun is blazing down like the dickens appears lost on them.

All of which made the Emerson-Off-Bergwijn-On gambit yesterday even more pleasing. And you can probably picture AANP’s delight when the thing brought near-instant rewards, with Bergwijn bobbing along for his customary goal. As well as the entertainment value of dishing out a good thrashing, these things may also have some practical value come mid-May when the points are totted up. It was only a month ago that our goal difference was ten or so worse than the other lot; now we’re ahead by a nose. Long may the needless attacking substitutions continue.

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Spurs match reports

Middlesbrough 1-0 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Conte’s Tactics

By and large AANP is not one go in for controversial opinions for the hell of it. ‘Live and let live’ is pretty much the anthem around these parts, leaving the stirring of hornets’ nests to those better suited.

So you can take it as a sign of how just deeply I was moved by last night’s rot that I’m willing to stick the neck out and chant an ode or two in opposition to Our Glorious Leader, a chap who’s generally been immune to criticism since donning the robes.

Now this is not to exonerate the eleven-plus on the pitch, who trotted around in half-hearted circles all night to no great effect. (Talking of which, if I hear one more player clear his throat and drone on about having to “learn lessons” and “do better” there’s a good chance that the next you hear of AANP he’ll have been arrested for murder.)

But even allowing for the doleful and half-hearted way in which our heroes went about their business last night, as if it were really a bit thick to ask them to play football for 90 minutes, I thought a decent chunk of the blame should be lobbed in the direction of Signor Conte.

Faced with a perfectly winnable fixture, against a side in a division below us for goodness’ sake, he seemed oddly convinced that Middlesbrough might pull off their masks and reveal themselves to be one of the great footballing superpowers of the modern age. As a result, the strict instruction was that we were to surrender possession, pull everyone back behind the ball and watch nervously, seemingly based on the principle that one never knew when our hosts might suddenly sit up and annihilate us. I suppose there is always that risk in any game of football, but it did seem to be an unnecessarily circumspect outlook.

One understands that in life one must exercise some level-headedness. It would be no good sticking ten forwards on the pitch and instructing them all to hare into the opposition area the whole time. Some common sense is key. And I suppose the A.C. Fan Club might point out that in the first half at least, the tactic could be said to have worked – Boro were kept at arm’s length, while our lot had the occasional sniff on the counter.

But nevertheless, watching on as our entire eleven camped behind the ball and held their breath, while our hosts ineffectively rolled the thing from side to side, I did think that we were laying on the caution a little too heavily. Without wanting to sound too outrageous, I wondered whether we might not adopt a slightly more adventurous spirit, by taking possession ourselves and keeping them penned back for a while.

Conte was having none of it however, and in the second half if anything the situation worsened, as any attacking sentiment remained well down the agenda, but our defence started to creak.

To his credit, Conte did briefly stick in his finger and give things a swish, rearranging from 3-4-3 to 4-4-1-1, for those who like to slap numbers on things. And while this – and specifically young Master Bergwijn – jolted our lot out of their slumbers and reminded them that they were actually allowed to attack, it also seemed to have the effect of removing whatever piece of frayed string was holding our defence together.

The ad hoc back-four struggled not so much with their new arrangement as with the very concepts of space and time. Ben Davies seemed not to realise that he was supposed to shuffle from centre-back to left-back; while  in Emerson Royal we have a blister who has spent his entire Tottenham career to date failing to master the basics of defending, so he was not about to right all his wrongs in the blink of an eye last night. Boro waltzed in amongst us whenever they pleased, and their goal felt as inevitable a progression as night following day.

As mentioned, none of those on the pitch (bar perhaps Bergwijn) seemed remotely concerned by the gravity of the episode, and as such they are all culpable here – but the nagging question at the heart of all this remains, viz. why on earth Conte set us up so passively in the first place.

2. Kane

Come the summer there’s a reasonable chance that that rotter Harry Kane will once again toss a toy from his pram and find some roundabout way to let it be known that, rather than stick around the place, he’d prefer to shove a few belongings in a rucksack and take off looking for shiny pots. But after last night’s guff, one element of this jars. It’s this business of Kane wanting to leave so as to win stuff.

On the face of it this is an understandable sentiment for any man of ambition. I have no truck with any fellow who would rather win a Cup Final than lose one. Dashed sensible way of going about things if you ask me.

But when Kane moans about it – or has his entourage leak a story to the press about it, which to be honest strikes me as not really playing the game – I butt in with an irate waggle of the forefinger.

The gist of my objection is that if Kane really wants to win a trophy so badly, then he can bally well go out there and win one. It’s not as if, come the biggest games, we omit him from the team and leave it up to everyone else to decide whether or not a medal will be hung around his neck. He is part of the set-up himself. In fact, he’s not just part of it, these days he’s the building block around which the whole damn set-up is constructed. This means that when it comes to winning trophies, the responsibility lies upon him more than anyone else about the place.

Were you or I to whinge that we wanted trophies, if nothing else everyone could agree that the whole thing is beyond our control. But for Kane, this business is very much within his control. One might say it’s his specialist subject. Winning trophies is precisely the thing he’s paid handsome sums to do.

So next time this pest has his minions issue a decree to the effect that he wants a medal and won’t stop whingeing until he gets one, I’ll direct his attention to the perfectly serviceable opportunity he passed up on last night. Supposedly in the form of his life, and up against a team from the division below, Kane reacted to the occasion by withdrawing into his shell in a manner that would attract admiring glances from nature’s most reticent tortoises, emerging only to stray occasionally offside and moan a bit about the opposition and ref, who will now have a goodish idea of what it feels like to be a Spurs fan reading the back pages in the summer.

A trophy has to be earned – which I suppose one might want to whisper if within earshot of the teachers on Sports Day – and frankly last night Kane missed the cut by some distance. If he therefore pipes up this summer, draped in a sense of entitlement, that he’d rather look elsewhere he’ll have a pretty meaty curse or two filling his ears from this quarter.

 3. Wing-Backs

As remarked earlier, this was not an occasion on which any of our lot will look back particularly fondly, I imagine. Kane and Son were oddly neutered, while anyone who rocked up in the breezy expectation of Winks and Hojbjerg providing any attacking vim was in for a pretty nasty shock.

In such situations, much depends upon the wing-backs to inject into proceedings some gaiety and spunk. After their triumphs of the weekend it seemed reasonable enough that Messrs Sessegnon and Doherty were again invited to go forth and do wondrous deeds, and in the early knockings it actually appeared that they might have some joy.

Sessegnon seemed game. One could admittedly fill a whole book with the various lessons he still has to learn, but he entered into the spirit of thing willingly enough and at least started the game looking like someone who knew that good things would come to those who pelted over halfway and up into the final third.

And on the right, having weighed up the options of parking himself north of the halfway line or south of it, Doherty seemed similarly convinced that more fun was to be had in attack. While not blessed with the same raw pace as Sessegnon, he nevertheless appeared to enjoy the licence to explore the attacking third.

It was a shame then, that when opportunity did finally present itself, in the form of near-enough an open goal, Doherty went down the ill-advised route of blasting the thing with gusto and violence. It was a poor choice. One could have told him straight away that what the situation demanded was a cool mind and steady hand – or, in this case, foot. Simply rolling the ball towards the target would have sufficed. Doherty instead seemed convince that the solution required rather more emphasis, and almost evacuated the ball from the ground.


This was undoubtedly a setback, but, ever the optimist, I nevertheless reasoned that simply having got himself into such a situation reflected well on the chap. It would be a stretch to say that he and Sessegnon dominated things, but they did at least offer regular attacking outlets. One got the sense, at least at the outset, that their souls were fired by the confidence of recent events.  

At that point, it seemed that not only did this pair represent our best hope of ingress on the night, but their advances also carried some symbolic weight. The success of Conte-ball does, after all, depend on the wing-backs, and these two appeared to be catching the gist of things.

Unfortunately, whatever hopes and dreams these two carried in their first half were pretty unceremoniously stamped into oblivion thereafter. Their fortunes collectively fell off a cliff in the second half. Both seemed to drift out of the game in search of amusement elsewhere, and Conte, presumably feeling that one ineffectual wing-back is as good as another, hooked both before the end.

All of which means that the wait for a trophy will now enter a fifteenth year, our inability to string two decent results together remains entrenched and it is a pretty even thing whether our players, managers or we the fans are enjoying this least.

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Spurs match reports

Burnley 1-0 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Classic Spurs

First things first: of course, none of what played out last night will have come as any surprise to anyone who’s ever put more than five minutes of their life into supporting Spurs.

Having put heart and soul into beating the league leaders – who’d only lost twice all season – on the Saturday, it was the most natural progression in the world for exactly the same Spurs eleven then to splutter like a dying engine three days later against a side near enough bottom, who’d only won twice all season, dash it. Barely a Tottenham fan of my acquaintance registered even a flicker of surprise at the sequence of events.

It had a grim but absolutely irresistible inevitability about it. Anything else would have been like those stories you hear of a butterfly flapping its wings in Germany and inadvertently setting off a volcano in Peru as a result. Upset the status quo and before you know it things are spiralling. For Spurs not to have lurched from glorious on Saturday to impotent last night would have set off some pretty catastrophic natural disaster elsewhere.

And not only was it inevitable we would lose, it was inevitable we would lose in precisely that fashion too. Being hounded in possession, toothless going forward and, of course, conceding a pretty avoidable header from a pretty unnecessary free-kick. All against the backdrop of rain that fancied laying it on thick for a night, and a gigantic Burnley striker off whom each of our lot bounced in turn.

The goal itself was one of those routines at which we might have had 57 centre-backs stationed in the area and still somehow have failed to prevent the critical header. It is difficult to close one’s eyes and imagine a world in which we do not concede precisely this goal to a team in the relegation zone.

Naturally, Monsieur Lloris took one look at the ball drifting into the six-yard box at eminently catchable height and made a swift and emphatic decision not to get involved, the whole concept of moving from his line being one which he has for around ten years now considered well beyond his remit.  

So, whereas the defeat against Southampton had me tearing clumps of hair from the scalp, and the nonsense against Wolves had me thumping the loaf against the nearest brick wall, last night’s elicited little more than a shrug absolutely loaded to the brim with resigned acceptance.

2. Conte’s Reaction

As mentioned, for those of us who make a habit of watching Spurs, this was all pretty familiar stuff. Not exactly the fare that sends us home with a cheery whistle on our lips, but at least we’ve all long known what we’re letting ourselves in for.

For poor old Antonio Conte however, this evidently landed pretty heavily. One does not need to have framed diplomas on the wall to know that he was taking it thick. It’s easy to forget when you’ve been watching our lot week in and week out for a lifetime, but sudden exposure to the madness of Tottenham Hotspur can be pretty damaging stuff, and a real-time example of it was playing out in the post-match sparring last night.

Now I’ve never actually seen a man still alive after having had his soul removed, but from the haunted, vacant look in his eyes I’d be willing to lay a few bob that such a fate had befallen Signor Conte last night. While on the one hand I wanted to lay a consoling hand on his shoulder, at the same time it seemed wiser to tiptoe quietly away and let whatever demons were tormenting him have five minutes, to see which way things would go.

And that was before he’d even opened his mouth. If his look, of a man well and truly broken by Spurs, were not already enough to have us  wondering if there were a professional on hand equipped to deal with this sort of thing, the words he came out with dashed well had us all dropping what we were doing and sprinting to our panic stations.

Obviously at the time this was the sort of stuff that had us goggling a bit, for although some of his speech patterns lacked perfect coherence, it did not require the keenest intelligence to pick up that here was a chap unhappy with his lot in life. More specifically, Conte seemed to be wondering out loud if the role of Master and Commander of the Good Ship Hotspur were really worth the monthly envelopes.

But sometimes the thing to do in life is take a step back, and just see how things land. Obviously, this is a mantra one would preferred our defence and goalkeeper not to have adopted around minute 71 last night, but drinking in Conte’s pearls of wisdom in front of the cameras each week, I start to get the sense that here’s a lad who might benefit from the deep-breath-and-count-to-ten approach.

So now, twenty-four hours on, I suspect that he’s probably surveying the world around him in more considered fashion. Maybe he looks back on last night with a certain sheepishness; maybe he doesn’t. But while various sub-plots might bubble away behind closed doors, any notion of him thrusting hands into pockets and mooching off, never to return, can, for now, probably be considered unlikely. I suspect we might all just have to get used to his airing of unedited, real-time sentiments – and he to the infuriating world of managing our lot.

3. On-Pitch Impotence

As to matters on the pitch, aside from the goal conceded the whole bally thing just had one gnawing at one’s arm in frustration. It was that sort of performance.

Taking things in their proper order, in the first half we struggled to keep heads above water. The worry here is two-fold, because for a start a side second from bottom ought not to be strangling the life out of us; and secondly this is hardly an isolated occurrence.

One can point to the weather, and the fact that Burnley had just won with a clean sheet days earlier, and the alignment of planets and so on and so forth – but really, there’s no excuse. This is a side that went into their appointment nineteenth in the league, and at this stage of the season that can hardly be laughed off as one of those unfortunate misunderstandings.

And as mentioned, in recent weeks several teams have hit upon the notion that if they just press our midfield sorts in turn, then soon enough the whole damn edifice will come crumbling down.

Bentancur has dropped the occasional hint that he is the type of bird who doesn’t mind where or how he receives the ball – it’s all the same to him, he’ll just bring the thing under his spell, drop a shoulder or two and roll it onwards without ceremony.

The rest of the midfield mob, however, view opposition pressure as one of those evils in life from which there is no escape and against which there is no cure. Hojbjerg, Winks and too many of our defenders appear all to malfunction if an opponent scuttles in too close by. Possession may be retained, but if so it is not done with any degree of comfort or control – and frankly half the time possession simply isn’t retained.

And in a way this general unease amongst our midfield when in contact with the ball wouldn’t really matter so much if our wing-backs could be relied upon as dependable sources of inspiration.

But Sessegnon continues to stare at his feet as if only recently bequeathed to him, and Royal remains impeccable in all areas of his work apart from attacking and defending. It was notable that the best right-sided cross of the night came when that rotter Harry Kane took it upon himself to demonstrate that as well as half a dozen other positions he may also be our best right wing-back.

With four defeats in five, a midfield that cannot create, wing-backs who cannot cross and a manager who appears one defensive clanger away from a complete breakdown, one might suggest that the outlook is not entirely sunshine and blue skies. Our next opponents, Leeds, have just shipped six, which I suppose some might view as a positive – but it is probably in the best interests of the club if someone has a word in Conte’s ear about how that particular narrative tends to pan out.

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Spurs match reports

Man City 2-3 Spurs: Six Tottenham Talking Points

1. Kulusevski

I probably ought to do the square thing here, and shove in one of those little pre-emptive speeches before I hit the ripe stuff, because although he’s only been hovering about the place five minutes I’ve not wasted an opportunity to stick the knife into poor old Dejan Kulusevski during his Tottenham career to date.

I suppose it shows how much I know, but those very early impressions did not have me clearing some floor-space to dance little jigs of delight. A solid-looking chap, for sure, but it struck me that his muscle and sinews did little to disguise a first touch that contained too much meat when finesse was required. Add to that his single trick, repeated far too often (cutting in on his left) and the AANP verdict was decidedly middling.

Fast forward to around 19.30 GMT on Saturday night however, and such was the change in impression made upon me that I was strongly considering naming my first-born after the chap.

In the first place Kulusevski drew the short-straw on the tactical front. Man City, being of sound mind, naturally took one look at our lot and made it a priority to spend the entire match targeting Emerson Royal and his surrounding landscape. Our Glorious Leader therefore made the eminently sensible call to parachute in some permanent support for Emerson – with the net result was that poor old Kulusevski had to balance life as principal supporting actor every time Sonny and Kane combined with the additional demands of being a full-time auxiliary right-back alongside Emerson.

A testing agenda at the best of times, this particular trial had a few additional bobbish notes thrown in for good measure. For a start, our man was up against the most testing opposition going. Sterling and Gundogan didn’t stop eyeing him throughout for any false moves; while on the other hand the nearest ally in attendance was Emerson, who with the greatest will in the world does tend rather to flit in and out of things when it comes to his defensive duties.

And yet Kulusevski took to the challenge like an absolute trooper. In the defensive quarter, diligence seemed to be the buzzword. Actually, in the D. Q. there were a heck of a lot of buzzwords – “discipline”, “concentration”, “fitness” and so on, and one probably need not grapple with the specifics of the most appropriate word to get the gist: here was a fellow happy to put in a shift.

Surveying the scene in the aftermath, one would probably remark that for all Man City’s beavering down that flank, their success in the neighbourhood was limited. One certainly does not have to cast the mind back too far to recall occasions when our right side was a door flung wide open to welcome in all-comers, but on Saturday night efforts were made from start to finish to impose some sort of order upon the area, and Kulusevski’s sweaty paw-prints were all over it.


But of course the joy of Kulusevski’s performance was that he managed to be two people at once. The dependable workhouse routine having been executed admirably in the defensive third, when we ventured forward he was equally as willing to infest the more exciting areas of the paddock. And if in previous weeks I have ground a disapproving jaw or two, on Saturday night the chap completed a pretty swift redemption.

For a start, his goal was taken with casual air of a man peeling a particularly accommodating banana. This was all the more impressive given that the serene route of an open goal, which Sonny had no doubt envisaged when playing his square pass, had morphed into one of considerably greater challenge by the time the ball actually reached Kulusevski – not least because a City sort had galloped back and stationed himself rather pointedly in the face of our newest hero. It was therefore to Kulusevski’s infinite credit that he remained thoroughly unfazed, even having the presence of mind to nutmeg the City bod.

And at the risk of reading a darned sight too much into some of life’s trivialities, I did also detect on the umpteenth viewing that Kulusevski’s reaction to scoring was in similarly casual vein, comprising little more than a shrug, a yawn and a rather stony-faced expression of boredom whilst being mobbed by chums, as if to suggest that this was the sort of thing he did to pass the time.

On top of which, he then delivered just about our first successful right-wing cross of the season, in creating the winner (and again celebrated by turning back and dolefully walking towards halfway, the strange fellow).

Admittedly the City lad tasked with preventing his cross seemed to lose all interest in the sport and simply nodded him through, but it was still a peach of a cross. A different kettle of fish from Lucas for sure, but in games such as these in which a we require someone with eyes in the back of his head as well as the more traditional arrangement, young Master K could fit the bill.

2. The Defensive Set-Up: Dier

Post-match, there was a pretty sombre air in the Sky Sports studio as the assembled brains moaned about how City’s possession merited more – but I thought this overlooked the more telling stat that our lot piped up with more Shots On Target than their lot. Actually, the most telling stat was in the ‘Goals’ column, but you get the point – for all their possession, City couldn’t actually edge near enough our net to really spit on their hands and get cracking.

Our Glorious Leader obviously takes credit here, for opting for a back-five-plus-Kulusevski approach that ought to be enshrined in a museum as a model of watertightness. Impressively, all six of them seemed to function as one, shuffling north, east, south and west as if bound by shackles across the waist. And here I thought much credit went to the returning Eric Dier.

As has been often remarked around these parts, set Dier off in a foot-race, or tell him to turn around and not be out-sprinted by a forward, and trouble isn’t far off. But in these backs-to-the-walls operations, in which no pace is required and deep defending is the order of the day, the chap pretty much shoots a knowing wink and spends ninety minutes directing operations, emerging at the other end in a deuce of a sweat but triumphant nevertheless.

And so it panned out here. If City’s goals had emanated from the sort of dashing routines demonstrated by our lot, I might have chewed a nervous lip and marked Dier as one for questioning in the aftermath.

But City’s goals were nothing of the sort. The first was a cross equal parts harmless and hopeful, which Lloris treated with the sort of idea that there are times in a goalkeeper’s life when the last thing one should do is catch the bally thing; and the second was one of those penalties which can only be avoided by those blessed with detachable arms. In short, neither City goal came about because of any flaw in the performance of the back-five six.

3. The Defensive Set-Up: Romero

And even more impressive than Dier in the midst of all this gallant security was Senor Romero. Be it blocking, shadowing, tackling or whatever other noble task required, Romero seemed either to come with pre-loaded expertise, or to learn pretty dashed quickly on the job.

When one thinks back to the wild panic with which Davinson Sanchez has treated every involvement with the ball in recent weeks, one’s gaze towards Romero only becomes more admiring. I’m not entirely sure how rapidly he shifts from A to B, but as with Dier, parking up within a back-three and marshalling visitors with an air of authority is the sort of task-list that brings out the best in the man.

On top of which, the young nib is incredibly adept with ball at feet too. In general, upon receipt of the thing near-ish his own goal he resists the urge traditionally embedded into Spurs defenders to view it with horror and stumble over their own feet as all manner of potentially horrific consequences terrorise them.

Instead, Romero treats matters with appropriate sentiment. Set a striker upon him and he’ll crunch the fellow; but simply roll a football to his feet and he’ll control the thing, look around and pick his pass. Sometimes it will be square and harmless, which is as much as one would expect from a centre-back. But the beauty of Romero in possession is that as often as not, he’ll skip the ‘Harmless’ level and plunge straight into ‘Handily Taking Out Several Opponents’.

Re-watch the third goal and you’ll see him twice receive the ball on halfway, and twice sneer at those advocating that the 95th minute away to the champions dictates a safe sideways nudge. Instead, on both occasions he transferred matters 10 yards north, very much with the air of a man keen to turn his present bounty into even greater future riches, and on the second occasion Bentancur – a fellow who, while occasionally taken by surprise by the rigour of things, nevertheless displayed a dreamy touch throughout – spun forward to Kulusevski the sort of glorious, defence-splitting pass of which Winks, for example, would not dream.

4. Sessegnon

This being AANP Towers I obviously cannot let pass our finest display of the season without grumpily dragging into the office at least one of our number for a stern eye and verbal lashing, and on this occasion it’s young Sessegnon.

Mitigating circumstances abound, of course. In recent history the young pill has struggled to make it to the half-hour mark without some calamity striking him. It is therefore unsurprising that when battle commences he does not stride about the place with the confident vim of a man who knows his worth. The lad’s confidence has been hung, drawn, quartered, pelted with rotten fruit and hacked at a bit with an axe for good measure. One sympathises.

Nevertheless, seeing him yet again interact with the football as if it were trying to attack him was a bit thick. I presume that in his lighter moments, away from the noise of the crowd and glare of the cameras, young Sessegnon demonstrates an ability to move from place to place as well as the best of them. No doubt he’s mastered the art of moving one leg, and then the other, and then the first leg again and so on. Heavens, he probably can do all of the above while nurdling a ball along the ground too.

But stick him on the pitch and all that training and muscle memory rather cruelly deserts him, and he seems instead utterly incapable of getting the machinery working. His every touch seemed to bring about a U-turn in the narrative, as possession switched from lilywhite to light blue.

Moreover, one got the impression that his was a career in which he had somehow escaped ever having to compete against an opponent, such was his shock and inability to deal with the buffeting of his fellow man. To say that he was easily muscled off the ball would be to understate things.

Nevertheless, Sessegnon persisted, and deserves credit for sticking to the plan. Defensively he held his position, and given that he had the likes of Foden and De Bruyne lurking in his postcode he did a solid job of at least standing them up and forcing them to look elsewhere.

Moreover, just about the only moment I can remember him retaining possession was in his contribution to the second goal. No particular bells and whistles about it, but he was there and reeled off his lines correctly (in feeding Son), so I’m happy to slather praise upon him for it. Unlike certain others in lilywhite, I remain convinced that he is one who might yet rediscover the glories of his previous lives and prosper.

5. Kane

Naturally one can hardly skirt over proceedings without giving Kane some of the old oil.

The AANP heart, being formed primarily of ice and stone, does little in the way of the forgive-forget routine, so I remain dubious of the fellow’s broader motives – but by golly he brought his A-game on Saturday night.

Those who know me best will know that few things make the AANP heart flutter quite like a well-weighted pass inside a full-back, and the specimen produced by Kane in the build-up to the opener deserves its own special gong at whatever might be the next awards ceremony going.

The vision, direction and weight of the thing was absolutely as ripe as they come. When the grandchildren come clustering around decades hence, and ask for the highlights of my innings, the witnessing of that Kane pass will be the headline.

Nor was it an isolated incident. Kane’s vision and execution throughout oozed class from every pore. There are times when his obsession with midfielding rather grates; but when he starts high, drops 5-10 yards, receives the ball on the half-turn and fizzes a pass onto a postage stamp, one cannot help but cast an admiring eye.

Handily, the fellow also chipped in with a couple of goals. Occurring as they did, almost as afterthoughts, rather hammered home the fact that he was the hub of creativity rather than simply the chap in fancy garb who applies the finishing touch. Nevertheless, both were well taken, his second goal in particular a decent exhibition of the virtues of barrel-chested upper-body strength.

6. Our Goals and the Counter-Attack Myth

A final musing is on the nature of our goals.

It is naturally tempting to suggest that this was opportunistic stuff. The well-rehearsed narrative would have it that our heroes defended for dear life, and then nicked the ball and raced off to score.

The truth makes for a more interesting narrative, at least for those who like to don the spectacles and get a handle on the fine print.

Our first goal came from playing out from a goal-kick; our second from playing out from a goal-kick; Kane’s miss came from playing out from a goal-kick but with the added drama of losing and then regaining possession inside our own half; and the third was the happy ending to a minute-long story of our patient possession. Of nicking-and-countering there was not a whiff. (Well, perhaps a whiff about the Kane miss, when we lost and then regained possession – but not really countering in the classical sense of their entire team camped high up around our area.)

In truth, the telling element of all this is not so much around anything big and clever from our lot, as the rather fat-headed choice from City to station their defenders high up the pitch, leaving vast expanses for Kane’s passing and midfield runners to exploit. Nevertheless, once in possession our heroes knew the drill each time, and there was something of the well-rehearsed about the way in which the ball was swiftly transferred from one protagonist to another. No standing on ceremony here; our lot were quick and punchy.

As mentioned above, even in the third goal, when patient possession was the order of the day, the sudden injection of pace came from a first-time pass from Bentancur, out to Kulusevski on the right. Precious few teams will defend as high, allowing the tactic of Kane-passes-for-midfield-runners to thrive; but the progressive passing from Romero, and first-time pass from Bentancur to set up our third, gave a glimpse of where our creative sparks might lie for future bouts.

Categories
Spurs match reports

Spurs 0-2 Wolves: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Lloris and Davies Setting the Tone

After the midweek debacle, what we all needed – apart from perhaps a bracing drink and a holiday in sunnier climes – was for the more experienced souls amongst our number to march to the centre of the stage and begin proceedings by announcing in no uncertain terms that this was an afternoon for clear thinking and sensible decision-making.

Unfortunately, as seems to happen around these parts, somewhere between the changing room and the pitch such wholesome principles were discarded as far too bland, replaced by motives far more eye-catching, if dubious. By the time the game kicked off our lot seemed convinced that this was the day for playing fast and loose with the finer points of the sport, and simply went about the place lobbing in whatever madcap scheme struck them, with zero consideration for consequences.

Monsieur Lloris, the sort of oeuf on whom one would normally bet a healthy chunk of the mortgage on doing the sensible thing, set the tone with their opener, by deciding that today was as good as any to dispense with the safety-first approach to goalkeeping.  

This is not to excuse from blame those around him of course, for just about everyone (bar perhaps Kane) lent their full support to the drive not only to usher Wolves in at their leisure, but to do so in the manner that gave best expression to visual comedy. So when the first Wolves chappie steadied himself to shoot goalwards in the build-up to their opener, rather than wave a deterring limb at him, those in lilywhite simply stood aside and urged him on.

To his credit Lloris at least had the decency to leap hither and thither repelling the initial attempts, safe in the knowledge that none of his teammates were inclined to interrupt with any preventative measures. But when the opportunity finally presented itself for him simply to catch the ball gently lobbed towards him, he unveiled the sort of needless mid-air flap that seemed better suited to interpretative dance than the rigours of penalty area necessaries.


Not content with gifting Wolves their opener thusly, Lloris then took it upon himself to set in train the slapstick sequence for their second. He picked the most unlikely method to do so too, as if to demonstrate that here within the confines of N17, no situation, no matter how harmless and child-proof, is exempt from buffoonery. His method of choice was to take the simple five-yard pass and turn it into a construction fraught with danger, utterly wrong-footing Ben Davies by thumping it towards the by-line, a radical alternative to the conventional approach of rolling gently it to his feet.

Davies, by this point, needed no further invitation to muscle in on the slapstick. He was, after all, fresh from losing a battle with his own feet against Southampton, which had resulted in him collapsing in a heap when the easier option was to effect a clearance, thereby allowing our midweek visitors their first goal.

Today therefore, for him simply to resume where he had left off was the work of a moment. As options abounded for quelling the danger – conceding a corner, finding row z, hoicking the thing towards the heavens – Davies cunningly whipped the ball back into play and straight at a Wolves sort.

And inspired by the lunacy of these esteemed figures, those all around them in our back-line scrambled to get in on the act, skidding on the surface and bungling their clearances until a Wolves bod almost apologetically put an end to the routine by dabbing the ball home.

That our visitors did not score a third was something of a curiosity, and not for lack of further cluelessness amongst the principals in lilywhite. While I thought Romero could again be excused from too much blame, alongside him young Sanchez continued to make a drama out of any of the most mundane situations imaginable; while the midfield pair seemed to make a joint, executive decision that they would keep their interference to a minimum and leave the defence to sort out their own troubles.

2. The Early Substitution

Having seen his plan for settling into the match in calm and sensible fashion merrily torn to shreds by his troops, Our Glorious Leader understandably enough went for the nuclear option, and after twenty-five minutes simply closed his eyes and stuck a finger blindly at a different formation on his iPad.

I must confess to emitting a sigh of some disappointment at this. Admittedly a sigh of disappointment was a pretty different response from the disbelieving curses that had been flowing freely in the preceding moments, but nevertheless, trusting sort that I am, at kick-off I had rather been looking forward to seeing this line-up.

For a start I had welcomed the opportunity to watch Doherty fill the size nines of Emerson Royal, but more on that below.

Bentancur for Hojbjerg was also a selection that met with approval. Bentancur had spent the first ten seconds or so of his league debut midweek convincing us that he was our best signing ever, when he followed one nifty drag-back with a mightily impressive forty-yard diagonal.

As such I was determined to greet his every touch with the sort of parental pride you find in a lioness gazing adoringly upon a cherished cub. And to his credit, he does have pretty slick technique, which he was quite happily to showcase as being superior to most of those around him. A handy sort of egg then, but a midfield enforcer – of the ilk we rather crave – he is not. Nor is he two people, and while he can hardly be blamed for this, it proved nevertheless a drawback in the early stages, as he and Winks were comfortably outnumbered in the centre.

Conte’s attempt to remedy this numerical conundrum was to hook poor old Sessegnon, shove Kulusevski into midfield and rearrange the deck-chairs into a 4-3-3.

Sessegnon has achieved impressive feat of having me feel both sympathy and exasperation in perfect concurrence. On the one hand, I get the impression that if a piano were to fall from the sky, the fates would conspire for Sessegnon to set off on a stroll in the exact spot it hit the earth, such is the sort of luck he attracts.

On the other hand, he currently tiptoes around the place looking like a lad who has never laced a pair of boots before, and is aware that he is about to be found out. He can hardly be singled out for blame for his twenty minutes today – Lloris and Davies were worse – but of the high-flying youngster signed a few moons back there is currently not a whiff.

As mentioned, Sessegnon’s removal brought Kulusevski bounding into frame. He seems a harmless sort of fellow, and adds some squad depth, which was evidently an itch that Conte wanted scratching. But if the question is whether we have brought in someone who can improve our First XI, Kulusevski seems at first glance not to be the answer. However, at that price, and in that window, I suspect we all already knew that.

3. Doherty

As mentioned, being the wide-eyed, gullible sort, I had greeted with enthusiasm the news that Doherty was to be entrusted with RWB duties. Admittedly this reaction was principally based upon the manner in which Emerson Royal’s performances in that position have sucked so much of my very being from my soul. Nevertheless, if pressed I could also point to Doherty’s second half against Leicester a few weeks back as a pointer that the chap might know his way about the right flank.

Alas, to say that Doherty did nor really cover himself in glory is to understate things. Remarkably, he managed to achieve the feat of looking like a poor version of Emerson (stay with me here). While Emerson does little more defensively than stand and wave as opponents waltz past him, and while history has yet to record him delivering a cross worthy of the name, he does at least have the decency to run into appropriate attacking positions when we are on the front-foot. Things may fall to pieces swiftly afterwards, but he gets that much right. Today, as well as being defensively average, Doherty could not even muster the courage to station himself in the final third.

There is a mitigating circumstance I suppose, for the switch to a back-four meant that Doherty’s wing-back slot faded out of existence, and he became a more conventional right-back. Charitably, one might suggest that we would need to see Doherty given a full 90 minutes at wing-back – and more than once – to get a sense of whether he has either the interest or grey cells for the role.

But today, even before the tactical switch neutered him, he seemed pretty reluctant to set foot over halfway, and oddly overwhelmed by events every time he touched the ball. This is not to cast him as the villain of the piece – most around him were similarly impotent. It was just rather a let-down. Conte-ball does, after all, depend rather heavily on a pair of wing-backs who bristle with life and brio.

4. Winks

Young Winks is a peculiar fish. One cannot fault his willing. Even the most casual and uninterested observer would be struck by his determination to do things right and, rather tellingly, make amends for the mistake he has just executed. He has much about him of the over-excited puppy, simply pleased to be there.

But by golly he makes a lot of mistakes. We should be grateful, I suppose, that in his present incarnation, under Conte, Winks v3.0 is pretty open to the notion of The Forward Pass, for so long a manoeuvre shrouded in mystery to him. And I ought therefore to cut him some slack when he gives away possession in the name of attempting something progressive – for I have not forgotten the days of yowling at him at least to try going forward, rather than forever spinning southwards.

But at the same time, for a chap who built his reputation upon passing of the neat-and-tidy variety he does seem to fudge a lot of that bread-and-butter stuff. On top of which, one can add “Caught In Possession” and “Failing To Close Down Shots” to his rap-sheet.

I do wonder whether a lot of the individual errors in midfield would be removed by adopting a midfield three, as vs Leicester and Liverpool in recent weeks, but that might be a debate for a different day. On the other hand, one might argue with some justification that we did indeed have a midfield three today, and a fat lot of good it did us. Either way, the suspicion lingers that that midfield area needs more than just cosmetic surgery.

Categories
Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-3 Southampton: Four Tottenham Talking Points

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.

Comment: Fair.

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: Indeed.

Comment: Rather.

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.

Comment: Curses.

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.

2. Hojbjerg

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.

4. Romero

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.

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