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Spurs match reports

Spurs 6-2 Leicester: Four Tottenham Talking Points

While decency would normally dictate that I apologise for tardiness, between Vegas, Denver and some unspecified spot over the Atlantic, AANP can barely remember its own name, let alone the date and time.

1. Defensive Rotation

Discovering that the rarely-heard Drury was on comms for the screening of this match in Vegas was quite the pre-match mood-enhancer and morning-after pick-me-up; but alas, the good news ended there as a quick scan of the cast members indicated a Romero-shaped hole, awkwardly occupied by the various uncontrollable limbs of Davinson Sanchez.

Of course, being a man of chivalry and values, I let Sanchez proceed with perfect objectivity, and he duly took about two minutes to confirm, to what I now understand to be a global audience, that he is, in fact, a chump of the highest order. Everything about his diving, sliding, obvious and unnecessary foul was utterly clot-headed, and nor is it the first time he’s produced such mind-boggling idiocy at the earliest possible juncture (that time we hammered Man Utd away springs to mind, Sanchez similarly gifting away a penalty in the opening exchanges).

One understands that the fixture schedule requires a spot of management of the more important dramatis personae, what with World Cups, Champions Leagues, Carabao Cups and bread-and-butter League games every three days from now until around 2038. And if an A-lister like Romero can’t be allowed to put the feet up and catch the breath in a home fixture against the bottom team, then one might reasonably ask when the devil can he?

And all of this makes perfect sense, until one throws Sanchez into the equation, as first back-up. Now his legions of fans will no doubt point to the fact that prior to Saturday night we hadn’t conceded in an absolute age with him on sentry duty. On top of which, aside from the ridiculous early penalty he actually carried out his tasks dutifully enough – but that’s not really the point is it? What good is a defender trotting around doing the basics if he’s already stuffed up and given away a goal for nothing in the opening exchanges?

The debate will presumably loop around pointlessly until he is eventually sold, so best just accept it for now. Such was our lack of control that Conte saw fit to hook the blighter and interrupt Romero’s night off, calling upon him to keep the door bolted for the final twenty or so.

On the other side of defence, Lenglet oiled around reasonably enough in lieu of the indisposed Davies, with a straightforward interception here and a (usually, though not universally) accurate forward pass there. He might not sweep the board at the awards ceremonies for outstanding individual contributions come May, but he ticks enough boxes to give us two solid left-sided options.

The spots that furrow the brow are the other centre-back positions. Sanchez and Tanganga do not really instil confidence, even when flanked by more competent souls. Worse, opponents are exchanging knowing looks and beginning to target Sanchez. Somehow, we must muddle through.

2. Wing-Backs

However, if the centre-back rotation gambit was fraught with risk, the latest wing-back experiment had about it an air that was bonny, bright and gay.

A few muted voices had half-heartedly wondered aloud in recent weeks, on the back of Emerson’s obvious limitations, whether Perisic might be deployed on the right, but I’m not sure anyone really believed it would actually happen. And yet there it was, in glorious technicolour, from the off.

And it worked pretty well, at least going forward. Perisic was as game as ever going forward, his compass evidently still in full working order despite the switch from West to East. The restored Kulusevski marked his return to the fold by haring off down the right at every opportunity, and taking the full-back with him, while young Sessegnon was not about to miss out on the fun, signalling his intentions with a few early crosses from the left.

This was all well and good, but a fairly crucial component of its success was that we were in possession. And as time continued its irresistible march, and we rather surrendered the initiative (more on that below), the defensive frailties of our wing-backs rather awkwardly rose to prominence.

Not that I blame Perisic. Here is a man who made his name on the front-foot, and if he’s anything like AANP he has untold lung capacity for the forward charge, but needs a bit of a blow when it comes to the defensive side of things. As with Sporting in midweek, so against Leicester on Saturday, he seemed to be beaten a little too easily in the mano a mano items, and with Sanchez behind him the brow began to furrow with a decent amount of nervousness.

Similarly, Sessegnon gave a full display of his fallibilities, not for the first time being fairly straightforwardly beaten in the air in the build-up to the second goal, in a manner that suggested he offers decorative value only when it comes to aerial combat.

So for all the early promise and excitement of Perisic-right and Sessegnon-left, Conte then switched the pair, and ultimately resorted to Emerson, presumably in the name of tightening the locks a smidge.

The whole sequence did again make me wonder what the hell Matt Doherty has to do these days to get a game, while Djed Spence may also be stroking a thoughtful chin, but the Perisic-Sess experiment, while showing a few rays of promise, was not quite the unmitigated success for which I’d hoped.

3. Central Midfield

In those early exchanges our lot seemed mercifully undeterred by the early deficit, and I thought were fairly good value for the 2-1 first half lead, at least in possession. Alas, as the pattern evolved to that rot about sitting deep and looking to counter, Leicester began to get to grips with life – which really is utter muck if you think about it. This lot were bottom, conceding goals for fun – and yet there they were, controlling possession for five-minute chunks, in our own back yard!

Well, you can imagine the harrumphing emanating from this corner of Vegas, and the dashed thing is this is hardly the first time we’ve seen our midfield lose control of things. I don’t really blame either of Messrs Bentancur or Hojbjerg, as the problem seems to be quantity rather than quality. Any team with three in midfield simply has more available legs in the area.

The point of the 3-4-3 seems to be to ensure that we have plenty of men manning the back-door at any given point, but even within this packed environment Leicester did not have to break too much sweat to bop their way around us.

Helpfully, Leicester were simply not very good, so while we let them offer far more threat than decency ought to allow a team at the bottom of the table, there was rarely a point at which I felt we would not outscore them. However, any semblance of control of the dashed thing only really emerged once Bissouma was introduced and we switched to a three-man midfield.

Conte has made Bissouma kick his heels a tad, for reasons of fitness or tactical education or some such rot apparently, but the fellow was on the button once introduced on Saturday, happy to treat the masses to his fabled array of interceptions and tackles.

Various pundits will hone in on a chap who scores and mark them out as a standout performer, irrespective of anything else contributed or lacking during the course of the 90, and I’m a tad wary of doing the same with young Master Bentancur. His goal was certainly a triumph for high pressing and general alertness, and I’m pretty sure he contributed crucially to one of Sonny’s goals through another sprightly tackle. All told, however, he seemed to me to swan through life in his usual neat, tidy and effective way.

The challenge he faces each week is, as mentioned above, that that central midfield pair is too often outnumbered. All of which does make one wonder whether there might be scope for Bissouma to be added more permanently, and a switch to 5-3-2 to be effected (I’ve heard it mentioned that Kulusevski could occupy the right wing-back slot for such a move).  Such jiggery-pokery might also allow Bentancur to shove forward ten yards or so, and allow the creative juices to flow a little more freely. The Brains Trust, no doubt, have all options under consideration.

4. Sonny

Only right to give the chap a mention I suppose. Personally I’d have preferred him to make less of a song and dance about it all – stiff upper lip and all that – but a man has his feelings I suppose, and the whole business of getting dropped and then scoring from all angles would presumably have been a lot to digest in one afternoon.

Aside from the drama that surrounded the honest fellow, I was most taken by the gumption he displayed in striking the shot for his first goal. By the time of his third the narrative was well established – Leicester were falling to pieces, and Sonny’s redemption arc was well into its third act.

But when he collected the ball and set off towards goal at 3-2, he was still a man who had been dropped, was without a goal, hadn’t smiled since May and appeared to have forgotten which foot was which. Given this context, for him then to bend one from approximately a mile out, and shape it from outside the post to within, with whip and height and all sorts, was remarkable stuff indeed.

His confidence having been at a low ebb, one would have bottled up a sigh and forgiven him for shuffling off with the ball towards some cul-de-sac near the corner flag. And had he swiped at the ball and got his geometrics wrong, the groans would have been audible down the High Road. To eject himself from his rut, and in such fashion as that first goal, was a triumph. (As was the sweet, sweet strike for his second, while we’re on the topic.)

I suppose one might glance at the scoreline and label this a triumph for defensive rotation, but given that Hugo had to make three or four pretty spectacular leaps about the place this felt anything but comfortable until the final fifteen or so. It’s a remarkable thing to engineer an unconvincing 6-2 win, but there we are. I must confess to looking ahead to the game away to Woolwich with a fair amount of dread, given the way our lot have struggled to exercise control over any opponent so far this season. As such I might quietly start a campaign for a three-man midfield, in the hope that it grows into quite the din by 1 October. For now, however, despite being oddly off the boil, we remain comfortably ensconced in the top four.

Tweets hither

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Spurs match reports

Sporting 2-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

With apologies for tardiness – gallivanting the States, timings a bit off

1. Emerson Royal

Fans of E. Royal Esquire – and there must be some, by the law of averages and whatnot – might want to avert their eyes at this point, or go for a spot of shut-eye or something. The signs are ominous for him after all: after a late and pretty thorough collapse, in which the man himself was in the vicinity for both goals conceded, and also bungled the best of the chances we created at t’other end, for him then to be first on the list of Talking Points, in a rag with a bit of a history of sticking the knife into him, suggests that the following is not going to be garlands around his neck and rapturous applause.

He actually contributed one of our better first half moments, digging out a cross from the by-line that flashed past around five rather panicked Sporting dignitaries and right across the face of the goal, dash it, with not a single natty sky-blue uniform in sight.

So to shower the fellow only with oaths and criticism would be unfair. In the first half in particular it was pretty much a Standard Emerson Royal Production out on the right – little to recommend it, but nothing too egregiously wrong either.

But part of the problem is that Conte-ball requires a heck of a lot more than a Standard Emerson Royal Production on the right. Conte-ball relies greatly upon the wing-backs to do much of the heavy-lifting going forward.

Out on the left Master Perisic had the right idea, in theory at least. Forward he bobbed, and when he slung in his crosses they were creations of some quality, ticking various useful boxes like ‘Trajectory’, ‘Pace’, ‘Direction’ et cetera. It has been some time since the good ship Hotspur has boasted a fellow capable of such inviting delivery from out wide, and while, all told, this was not his finest hour (in particular, when we were out of possession the Sporting nibs seemed to tiptoe past him at will) one at least saw some benefits to his presence.

Emerson, on the other hand, yet again demonstrated some willing to attack without ever really researching the detail of what this would entail. Quite why the hell Matt Doherty has remained persona non grata this season, particularly after warming to the role at the end of last season, beats the dickens out of me, but there we go. Emerson it is.

And Emerson it was who thrice failed to deliver his lines when the Sporting back-line did its Red Sea thing and allowed him to swan right through to goal. Not necessarily the easiest chances in history, for sure, but I’d have given a limb or two for any of those chances to have fallen to one of the front-three (well, on current form perhaps not Sonny, eh?)

That said, I suspect we would all have settled for a point as the clock ticked over to 90. Now to lay the blame squarely at Emerson’s door for that opener really would be a bit thick. For a start it was a peach of a delivery, definitely in the realm of ‘Mighty Difficult to Defend’. Moreover, the post mortem suggests that the Sporting fellow who did the deed was the man-marking responsibility of that rotter Harry Kane.

Nevertheless, Emerson ended up closest to the action at the key juncture, and had he attacked the ball with the conviction of a man whose very life depended upon getting to it first he would have cleared the thing with plenty left in the account.

One nil was bad enough, but if Emerson’s failings in the first goal could arguably be excused, he really ought to be given a good public thrashing for his role in the second.

Senor Romero does not escape blame here either, making a pretty ham-fisted attempt – and I use the term pretty dashed loosely – at preventing the laddie getting his shot off, and not for the first time in recent weeks.

But it was Royal whose input really made the lip curl in utter disgust. He simply let the chap waltz straight past him, for heaven’s sake. Through his legs, forsooth! Shoulders slumped, pace down, energy barely registering, looking for all the world like he was simply off for an amble in the other direction.

Should he be delivering such high quality in the other 89 minutes of this and every other match as to make himself undroppable I would probably wave him along after a sharp click or two of the tongue (as I essentially do with Messrs Kane and Romero). But Emerson is anything but undroppable. Hook the bounder, fit Doherty for the necessary costume and let’s at least benefit from the latter’s attacking contributions.

2. Lloris

Heaven knows it was a thump and a half to the solar plexus to lose the bally thing thusly, but if there were one amongst our number who would have been excused an even heftier curse or two it was probably poor old Monsieur Lloris.

The poor sap appeared to have saved us a point with his flying leap at what had appeared to be the death, tipping around the post at full stretch one of those curling efforts whose trajectory seemed to scream ‘Bottom Corner’. Coming as it did in minute 89 it seemed a reasonable move to thank the chap for rescuing a draw, before simply bunging away the corner and awaiting the final whistle.

A dashed waste then, to see the resulting corner fly straight back into the net so earnestly protected just moments before, but sometimes life takes these opportunities to illustrate that if it is not one damned thing it will be another.

Had things petered out goallessly I fancy that Lloris would have been a solid bet for the Outstanding Performer gong, at least from our lot. When Sporting counter-attacked for the first time, way back in the in the early knockings, Lloris was on hand to do the full-stretch thing; and when Edwards dusted off his quite sensational Maradona impression it was again left to Lloris’ reflexes to keep the net undisturbed. He, if no-one else, seemed to merit a point.

3. The Son – Richarlison – Kulusevski Love Triangle

Conte has long established himself as one who knows his beans, so there will be precious little criticism of his preferred methods of skinning cats from this quarter, but I nevertheless allowed myself a raised eyebrow when the team news filtered in. Having banged on about the need for squad depth at various points since his N17 coronation, it is a tad rummy to see him so wedded to near enough the same XI, and galling when both performance and result fall flat.

Most eye-catching was this business of again selecting Kulusevski as the odd man out, while Sonny again started. This is of course a point under the heading of ‘Form’ rather than ‘Class’, and I’m not sure any one of sound mind doubts that Sonny will tearing strips out of opposing defences soon enough (indeed, his contribution in getting the Marseille monsieur sent off last week should not be forgotten in a hurry).

But frankly the fellow is off the boil, while Kulusevski has noticeably upped the overall performance level as soon as ushered in, no matter what the role he is asked to fulfil.

Richarlison, like Kulusevski, seems a pill who is on an upward form trajectory, similarly providing a series of headaches to opponents. The understanding of and partnership with Kane could do with a little finessing – witness the mistimed runs for one-on-ones that were flagged offside – but in general the fellow is worth his place.

Now I must hold up a paw or two and confess that I’m not quite sure who plays on which side if Sonny is removed and the equation becomes Richarlison-Kane-Kulusevski, and it might be that there is a significant impediment to this set-up. Frankly, however, I’m inclined to think that such an issue ought to be surmountable for these three. Grown men and all that.

Who knows what plans Our Glorious Leader had had in place for the postponed City game, and what plans he has in place for the upcoming Leicester game – but for the time being at least, it would seem uncontroversial to pluck Sonny from the frontline and utilise Kulusevski.  

4. It’s Been Coming

A bitter pill and all that, and I’d guarded pretty zealously the concept of picking up points while playing badly – but now that we’ve lost, and the dust is settling, I do scratch the bean and wonder if this might be a useful prompt. Encourage the assorted cast members to buck up their ideas, if you know what I mean?

While we sit prettily enough in the Premier League table, and have had a couple of tricky fixtures, I’m not sure we’ve played particularly well for more than half an hour in any game so far this season.

The trend had actually been to start each game with a dreadful, dirge-like apathy, so in that respect at least one improvement was made yesterday – our lot started each half full of beans, pressing high and generally trying to impose themselves. But yet again, it was rather fleeting stuff, and on balance we looked as likely to concede as to score.

As mentioned above, I’m pretty reluctant to chide Conte, so it is in a spirit of well-meaning altruism that I suggest a couple of changes, to either or both of personnel or playing style. If wing-backs or central midfielders need rearranging then rearrange like the dickens; if a more creative centre would deliver the eggs then inject creativity like the stuff is going out of fashion. Either way, this particular mob has a lot more talent than has been displayed in the last couple of months.

Frankly, the AANP dollar is still on qualification from the CL Group Stage and a Top Four finish, but we might as well try to make it a little easier for ourselves, what?

Another of those polite AANP requests: if any of you fine folk know of Vegas venues that show Premier League games, do be a frightful sport and wing over the details, would you? Much obliged.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-1 Fulham: Three Tottenham Talking Points

Parish Notice No. 1

In my experience, if you’ve dropped something of a howler it’s best to stiffen the upper lip and be out with it. Honesty the best policy and all that. And in that spirit it seems only right to look my public square in the eye and disclose – to gasps from the gallery, no doubt – that life being what it is, I didn’t get to see one minute of live action yesterday. Missed the whole thing. A heck of a shame if the reported 23 shots (and 10 on target) are anything to go by, but these things will happen.

The sum of it is that if you want an account of Actual Events then you’d be best off draining your glass and heading for the nearest exit. No grudges will be held on this side.

If, however, you are in the mood for what might be known as The Christian Eriksen Approach to Talking Points, in which only those moments that made the highlights packages are subject to consideration, while the rest is given Orwellian treatment and simply wiped from history, then by all means stick around.

1. Richarlison

For various reasons, most of the AANP column inches on Richarlison last week centred on the more mischievous side to his nature. No particular harm done, and all the sort of valid stuff that would stand up to legal scrutiny, but if ever there were a couple of highlights packages to make a man buck and up and think, “What ho! There’s a heck of a lot more to this blighter than I realised!” they were the highlights packages from yesterday’s game.

I suppose there must have been a few missteps here and there over the course of the full 90, but the overriding sense from the snippets was of a fellow pouring his heart and soul into the mission – and chalking up a fair number in the ‘Reap’ column as well as the ‘Sow’ column, if you follow my drift.

The headline stuff was the volley that gave a slap in the face to the goalpost, and the disallowed goal. That volley certainly grabbed the attention. Equal parts vicious and pretty, the thing was struck about as sweetly as physics will allow, but was all the more impressive for actually being a heck of a difficult shot to control. Sometimes the ball sits up perfectly – at just the right height, with few foreign objects in the way, and with all of nature giving the sense that it is cheering the fellow on and doing its best to create accommodating circumstances.

This was not one of those occasions. Instead, the ball was rather shoved down his gullet by Sonny – not to apportion any blame to the latter, it just happened that the pull-back was delivered with a bit too much meaning for Richarlison to wade onto it in leisurely fashion.

On top of which, it also sailed through the N17 atmosphere at a height that did not really lend itself to a first-time strike. A little elevation can be a wonderful thing; but this pass was at the sort of waist-height level that can have even the most decisive sort of nib flitting between his options, with “Shoot the dashed thing,” nestling somewhere between “Open the body and cushion to a chum,” and “Use the thigh, that’s why thy maker gave it to thee,” on the list of potential actions to be undertaken.

The lad therefore deserves all the more credit for contorting his body into all manner of right angles, looking like several limbs had been dislocated by the time he actually made contact – but as indicated above, what sweet contact it was. Rather than ballooning it off into orbit he actually angled the ball downwards, and it was a frightful shame that such technique ended up being a mere footnote. All the more unfortunate that Fulham promptly went up the other end and scored, but life does hand us these crosses to bear, what?

The poor imp’s luck did not deviate from ‘Rotten’ when his goal was chalked off (but his yellow card wasn’t, forsooth). No quibbling the decision, but given that every moment deemed highlight-worthy seemed to include Richarlison elbowing his way front and centre it did again seem a shame that he had no personal glory in which to revel.

And this is very much the point – Richarlison did not simply seem to pop up for his two near misses and flit back out of existence. He seemed involved in the genesis of every decent attacking moment, and even more impressively, appeared frequently to muck in with the plebs to chase back and press. The caveat remains that thirty minutes of highlights do not a fair appreciation provide, but nevertheless he seemed to produce a lot of positive output.

2. Romero

The problem, of course, with highlights, is that the valued contributions in possession of such apostles of the cause as Bentancur, Romero and, by all accounts, young Monsieur Lenglet, are rather scrubbed from the annals, so that one needs to rely on word of mouth rather than the evidence of the eyes to verify such things.

Instead, the principal involvement highlighted of the returning Romero did not cover the fellow in glory. This is a shame, because his absence has been keenly felt in previous games, both in terms of one might term the ‘day job’, of blocking, heading, repelling and whatnot, but also in terms of his ability on the ball. In his absence, distribution from the right side of defence has regressed to the most crude and basic of equations. Reliable sources inform me that this particular metric was upped like nobody’s business with Romero back in the fold yesterday, which is most welcome, even not having been able to bear witness to it myself.

What I did see, alas, was Romero do little more than dangle a foot in the face of impending danger, for the Fulham goal. Nor was it a decisive foot, one hewn of granite and polished over the course of a thousand red-blooded challenges. This was a pretty lazy and perfunctory foot, waggled in the general direction of danger as if to acknowledge danger in the vicinity, and formally register an attempt to prevent further harm, but containing little in the way of real meaning.

I rather fancy that this is not the first time Romero has simply stuck out a leg, while momentum is taking him off elsewhere and his bearings are generally nowhere to be seen. The fellow is hardly riddled with flaws of course, so one doesn’t look to hammer him too much for the occasional wobble, but still. This is his bread and butter. All things considered he did not make things as difficult for the Fulham cove as one might have expected.

An irritated tut in the direction of Dier too, who might have done more to close down the angle. As with Romero, the disclaimer applies that one doesn’t like to scrutinise the little things too heavily, but it just seemed a pretty soft one to concede.

Let none of this detract, however, from the more important communiqué, viz. that Romero is once again of rude health – and with CL and genetically-engineered goal-monsters fast approaching this is a most welcome tiding.

3. Lloris

The other fellow whose selected involvements caught the AANP eye was our resident last line of defence.

In ten years, the feeling still nags that Monsieur Lloris is accepted happily enough but not necessarily adored by the natives of N17. Be that as it may but his shot-stopping has generally been a forte, and as if to hammer home this point he pulled off a couple of saves that may have had much about them of the theatrical, but were nevertheless prime morsels.

Both were the products of deflections, and as such simultaneously added the complication of changing coordinates while subtracting the obstacle typically presented in such moments by good old-fashioned velocity.

For symmetry’s sake, one involved Lloris springing off a gauche, and the other a droite. I suppose he would have looked a bit of an ass if he had let the first one beat him, once he had adjusted to the re-directing of the thing, as it was pretty serviceable stuff, but still – a flying leap and full body extension was needed, and a f. l. a. f. b. e. he delivered, with solid delivery and a couple of accompanying rolls afterwards, just to make sure everyone knew about it.

So far so good, but the second save was the one that really gave HR the nudge that here was a man well worth his monthly envelope. For a start, it came at a time when it looked rather cruelly like we might exit the piece with only one point, for Fulham’s late rally was in full flight and the scoreline reduced to 2-1. Context mattered at this point, and Lloris did his bit.

But also, I thought it was one heck of a save in itself, aside from any context. Had he stopped to check the egg-timer Lloris may have noted with some alarm that time was not his ally at this point, because even with the deflection the ball was motoring along at a fair whack. And because of the deflection, a decent amount of back-pedalling was required and pronto, on top of which an even fuller body extension was summoned at the last.

One only has to cast the mind back to the deeply scarring Italia ’90 semi-final (AANP? Holding onto old football wounds far too long? Never!) to know that a goalkeeper’s back-pedalling is not a manoeuvre easily executed, so while the thirty-year psychological trauma might have been awakened deep within me, mercifully our lot at least escaped with the win. (Or evidently had done several hours earlier, when the game actually occurred.) Bravo, Monsieur Lloris.

Parish Notice No. 2:
AANP will be mingling with the locals of Denver Colorado by the end of the week (and Vegas the week after), so if you’re of lilywhite persuasion and of those parts do please drop me a line or tweet me a tweet, as viewing venues will be needed


Categories
Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-0 Wolves: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Perisic

The nomination of I. Perisic Esq. from the gun was welcomed pretty heartily here at AANP Towers, where we’ve taken every opportunity to pen admiring odes and poems and whatnot about the chap, and this week even went as far as to bring him into the fantasy team.

Alas, the distinct absence of fizz about the place in the first half extended to the Croat. Quite why our lot simply don’t bother spitting on their hands and getting down to business during minutes 1-45 is beyond me. Thrice in three games it’s happened this season, to say nothing of some similar guff last season, but there it is.

As well as the strange impotence in open play, the Brains Trust had also opted to pop Sonny on corners rather than Perisic, and while the whole thing worked a dream in the second half, during that opening 45 there was some prime chuntering emanating from these parts. As if to make the point that he considered this set-piece-taking hierarchy an oversight, Perisic proceeded to whip in a peach of a cross from absolutely nowhere right at the end of the half, when seemingly penned into a corner and facing the wrong way, resulting in a Kane header that but for the grace of God and extended goalkeeping limb would have hit the top corner.

Of course one decent cross doth not a wing-back masterclass make, and it was only in the second half that Perisic really put a wriggle on and started making hay down the left. It was impressive stuff. Evidently no slouch over fifteen yards, Perisic stacked the odds further in his favour in every going sprint by stationing himself as high up the pitch as decency allowed, meaning that when our lot hit the final third he had morphed into every inch the bona fide winger.

On top of which, the chap threw in stepovers and feints and all sorts, the type of jiggery-pokery that looks all the more impressive after a wing-back diet of Emerson, Doherty and Sessegnon for the last year, and it all tended to finish off with some devilish delivery.

The near-post flick for Kane’s goal was another tick in the box, but it was his output with ball at feet and engines revved that really caught the eye. I would not go as far as to say Perisic’s second half contribution changed the game, because levels were upped in just about all attacking spots after half-time, but it was cracking stuff to drink in.

2. Kulusevski

Dejan Kulusevski was another whose presence barely registered in the first half, only to whip off the mask and give the punters their money worth in the second. The chap had clearly been at the spinach during the half-time pause-for-thought, because the figure that re-emerged was the Kulusevski of old, all strangely unstoppable running and delicious delivery.

I am not and probably never will be the sort who advocates statues for players, but if anyone fancies plotting on a spreadsheet the prefect arc of Kulusevski’s curling crosses I’ll happily frame the thing, hang it on a wall and narrate its back-story to all who pass through the place. The cross that Kane headed against the bar was a thing of considerable beauty, the sort of pass I’d happily watch endlessly whistle through the air.

But as much as his delivery it was the general energy with which Kulusevski approached life in the second half that made itself felt. He took to the pitch seemingly intent on putting his head down and running, at every opportunity, and the attitude bore multiple fruits.

For a start it served to jolt into life those around him, so that it wasn’t too long before the pitch was abuzz with lilywhites haring off into attacking spaces.

And moreover, Kulusevki’s running seemed to cause Wolves a dickens of a problem every time. As a minimum their emergency panel evidently deemed it prudent to assign two men to him each time he went off on the charge, and on at least one occasion he earned a yellow card for one of them who had evidently had enough of chasing the chap’s shadow around the place.

With Sonny again oddly muted throughout, and Emerson’s attacking produce some way short of the standards set by Perisic, it was as well that Kulusevski bucked up his ideas in the second half.

3. Sanchez

I suppose you might say it’s not really cricket to spy a fellow’s name on the teamsheet and resolve from the off to subject him to the beady eye throughout, in search of any hint of error – but show me the name “Sanchez, D” in Arial 12 and the first thing I’ll do is train the monocle on the chap, pitchfork at the ready.

If one were in philosophical mood one might consider the absence of Romero for the next few games to be oddly just, given that he escaped a red card and three-match ban by what you might describe as a hair’s breadth last time out. So here we were, Romero-less, which meant that we were Sanchez-ful, and as befitting the occasion there was a sharp intake of breath every time the Colombian went near the ball.  

And I was not the only one showing my appreciation when the young prune’s first involvement proved to be as punchy as it was crucial, some Wolves laddie haring off towards the right-hand side of the area, with circumstances somehow dictating that Sanchez was the last line of defence between him and the whites of Lloris’ eyes.

Now if Sanchez has demonstrated one thing in his time at N17 it’s that he is not one for the subtle interception. Not for him a delicate toe stretched at just the optimum moment, to nick the ball from an opponent’s foot. When Davinson Sanchez intervenes he does so with meaning, pouring heart and soul into the act. In fact, to “heart” and “soul” in the above description you can generally add “body” too. There is no changing direction or arresting momentum. A Davinson Sanchez block is very much a one-way ticket.

And so it came to pass that in this particular incident Sanchez executed a block by flinging his entire self, feet first, in the way of the ball. It makes for a peculiar look, this giant of a man skidding along the turf on his rear, both legs sticking out in front of him like an oversized child on a water-slide. And if any attacker were to do their research they’d know that one straightforward drag-back would leave Sanchez sliding away into a different postcode, the path to goal no longer obscured.

However, the manoeuvre proved immensely effective, which is the point of the thing, and as with so many of Wolves’ attacks in and around the area, the whole episode was snuffed out before Lloris was summoned to action.

Having started his afternoon thusly, I had hoped that Sanchez might use his early success as a prompt for calmness of mind and further success, but for the remainder of the first half at least it was a slightly mixed bag. No crisis befell, but nor did I feel much assurance when play drifted into his orbit.

Whatever his attributes as a defender, when opportunity presents itself to act decisively he still seems instead gripped by nerves, as if weighing up the best and worst of all possible worlds and finding himself irresistibly drawn towards the latter. This was illustrated around halfway through the first half, when he engaged in some back-and-forth in the right-back neck of the woods, and ended the exchange on the floor and decidedly second best, requiring Emerson to tidy up the mess.

Still, no lasting damage was done, and in the second half activity in Sanchez Avenue was a lot quieter, largely due to the general dialling up of quality from out lot in other areas. With fewer mano-a-mano battles the honest fellow was largely tasked with holding his shape within the back three, and the time passed largely without incident.

His distribution was, understandably enough, some way short of the standards of Romero, but as eye-of-the-needle passing has never been the primary purpose of a Davinson Sanchez I am generally prepared to turn a blind eye as long as nothing too calamitous emanates from his size nines. And apart from a few aimless hoicks into the mid-distance he generally had the good sense to keep things simple, dabbing the ball off to Dier inside him or Emerson outside.

If one could pick a fixture into which to fling the chap, ‘Wolves (H)’ would be near the top of most lists, given that they consider winning to be beneath them, and tend to set about their business without a striker worthy of the name. A similarly kind fixture list in the coming weeks means that we should muddle through the absence of Romero – and consequent inclusion of Sanchez – without too much further incident. The chap cannot be faulted for effort and, as evidenced by that early block, he has a grasp of the basics, but the pulse will certainly ease down a tad when Romero returns.

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Chelsea 2-2 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Second-Quickest to Everything, Dash It

As happens maybe every five years or so before a crunch game, I actually approached this one in a spirit of quiet optimism. The summer transfers, the pre-season hard work, Chelsea not quite looking themselves – it would be a stretch to say I foresaw us steamrolling them, but word definitely got about the place over the weekend that AANP thought we would edge this one.

I should have known better of course. Four decades of watching our lot should have taught me that if nothing else, just when it seems that things are looking up, we would find some way to make a pig’s ear of things.

The preferred method yesterday of gamming up the entire operation was to approach the thing from about five minutes in with a spirit of half-paced drowsiness. Our lot seemed convinced that they would have this thing won if only the other lot would leave them alone for a dashed minute or two. Each time anyone in lilywhite received the ball, the immediate reaction appeared to be to celebrate the fact by pausing, taking another touch, dwelling on it for a goodish bit, taking an additional touch, having a look around and then setting about the business of deciding what to do next.

I suppose one might kindly say that the theory behind this was reasonable enough, as one likes to get things just right in life, but in a bash against one of the best teams out there this was never going to wash. Chelsea rotters were swarming around our heroes as soon ball hit lilywhite boot. The above sequence never progressed beyond “pausing”. If it had not dawned upon our lot beforehand that matters were going to be conducted at breakneck pace in all areas of the pitch, it ought to have become clear once the game started and our every touch saw blue shirts harass the dickens out of us.

I’m not sure any of our number escapes censure for this, which is pretty troubling stuff. Kane had one of those days, which occasionally happens, when he drops deep in search of the thing, but finds the opposition are wise to the ruse, and have designated someone to shadow him like Mary’s bally lamb, nicking the ball from him before it even reaches him (I seem to recall Bissouma doing this to him last season).

Sonny’s every involvement had much about it of Hudson’s last stand in Aliens, as he was generally crowded out and made to disappear from view before he knew what had hit him.

Even Kulusevski, who for six months has been carving out quite a career for himself as A Chap Who Always Finds A Way, now found himself muzzled at every turn. Indeed, so rotten was Kulusevski’s day that he ended up as one of the principal villains in the second goal conceded, being shoved to the floor when in possession and left to wave a few forlorn arms in protest – a sure sign of guilt – as Chelsea got on with things and scored.

The introduction of Richarlison and tweak of shape helped to ease things a bit – more on that below – but a fifteen-minute uplift in matters was not simply going to paper over the cracks of the previous hour as if all had been bonny and gay throughout. AANP does not easily forget. If anything, AANP stews in his juices and reproaches bitterly all in lilywhite long after it is appropriate to continue doing so.

As such I remain deeply troubled by the general approach of being second-quickest to just about every exchange that happened on the pitch until that point. Whether it was a tactical flaw brought about by the stationing of Chelsea’s midfield bodies, or technical flaws on the part of each of our own mob, or indeed attitudinal flaws on the part of each of our own m., or some unholy combination of the above, it was not something that we ought to peddle, and we were pretty fortunate to escape with a point.

2. Richarlison

I read in some post-match critique or other that Richarlison only touched the ball seven times, a revelation which, if true, is quite the shot in the arm for those who like to trumpet the merits of quality over quantity.

It did not require the keenest intelligence to note that things bucked up a bit when he entered the fray and went stomping about the place. I suppose this upturn in fortunes could be attributed in part to the change in shape that he brought with him – giving the Chelsea defence an extra body to keep their beady eyes upon (a factor that almost brought home immediate bacon when Koulibaly was caught wondering whether to shadow the newly-arrived Richarlison or stick to his position, and ended up dithering for long enough to allow Kane to march in on goal unmarshalled, for the chance that was dragged wide).

Equally, the upturn in fortunes could be attributed to Richarlison himself. Seven touches he may only have had – and I’m dashed if I can remember any of them to be honest – but he took to the challenge of changing the game like a man who had spent the preceding hour itching to get involved in the various scraps unfolding on the pitch.

He bounded about the place with an energy I’m not sure any of his colleagues had displayed, and generally gave the impression of a chap who, rather than fling up his arms every time he received a barge to the upper half, instead positively sought out such stuff as precisely the kind of bally-hoo for which he was designed. This felt like the exact stage and scenario for which he was brought to the club.

3. The Second Equaliser

That said, the congratulatory back-slaps and whoops were rendered pretty hollow within minutes, as Chelsea reacted to conceding the first equaliser by rearranging their own pieces on the board, upping the intensity and scoring again.

(A cursory note on the general din surrounding our first goal, while on the subject – Bentacur touched the ball, and the goalkeeper could see the ball.)

Come the 96th and final minute, things were bubbling nicely, with Senor Romero no doubt fortunate that the eye in the sky did not take a dimmer view of his latest approach to settling differences. It was understandable enough that he felt the urge to tug the chap’s sensational mane – had I shared a pitch with Cucurella I’d have given it a friendly pull every time I passed him, for sporting a coiffure that voluminous in any sporting arena should not come without consequence – but using the ridiculous hairpiece as a lever by which to yank him to the ground was ill thought-through on Romero’s part.

Nevertheless, there was deep satisfaction to be gained from the antics of Romero and Richarlison in general. Dastardly stuff of course, and one would never publicly advocate this sort of thing, but behind closed doors all manner of knowing winks are exchanged, and rightly so. One assumes that somewhere in Spain, Erik Lamela nodded approvingly before shrugging his shoulders in a gesture of wide-eyed innocence. Moreover, as Thiago Silva will remind us from last season, this is a fixture in which one simply has to accept the referee’s call and stiffen the upper lip.

Back to our second equaliser, and there was much to digest. Let the quality of Perisic’s deliveries in that final minute not be overlooked in the first place, for goodness knows we have seen our fair share of terrible corners over the years (in fact, Master P’s first effort of the match was something of a shocker, but one forgives and forgets).

The timing of the thing also merits a moment’s consideration. Scoring a late equaliser of course always comes drenched in lashings of smug satisfaction and schadenfreude, but for our lot to beaver away until the end reflects rather well on the mindset of those involved – all the more so on a day on which any slump in shoulders would probably have seen Chelsea wrap the thing up.

But most eye-catching from my viewpoint was the fact that as the corner came in it was greeted by a veritable parade of Tottenham bodies. Kane of course took the credit, but had he decided against jumping for the thing his absence would not have been lamented, for Richarlison was right behind him in the queue. I noted that Richarlison was strangely unattended by anyone in blue, which seemed one heck of an oversight given the situation but also thoroughly at odds with the approach Chelsea had taken the whole game.

Not that I quibbled, of course, and in fact, even had Kane not been there I doubt Richarlison would have been able to indulge, because at the crucial moment we were additionally treated to the sight of Lucas Moura absolutely hurling himself at the ball, having taken a running leap at the thing.

Again, there was not a resisting defender in sight, which was rather rummy – but I was simply thrilled to see three of our number so emphatically intent on winning the ball and bagging the goal. Having been second best in so much of what had gone before, and seemingly unmoved to attempt to remedy it, the sight of three of them doing their damnedest to barge to the front of the queue for the equaliser was satisfying stuff. Had every challenge been greeted with such bloody-minded gusto the whole thing might have turned a different shade, but this was good enough.

This was a rare occasion on which even in the face of seeming defeat I rather enjoyed the thing as a spectacle, which just goes to show. The rapidly escalating mutual dislike between the two managers – which, of course, no-one likes to see – was the sort of stuff everyone loves to see, and added a pleasing garnish to the general spectacle. And having thought beforehand that this would serve as a useful gauge of our progress (and having, as mentioned, registered some optimism about our chances) the reality-check, that work remains in order to overhaul this lot, was useful; while at the same time fighting back to nab a point in the face of defeat, away to a Top Four side, sent us off home in cheery enough mood.

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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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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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Aston Villa 0-4 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. The First Three Goals

A casual observer might reasonably expect the opening lines here to be on Goal 1, principally in the interests of chronology; but also to purr a goodish deal about Sonny’s ping, via, perhaps, a carefree chortle about the geographic wildness of Kane’s initial effort.

Alternatively, the same observer would presumably understand if I opened with Goal 2, on account of its dashed handy timing, arriving as it did at the opportune moment to quell a Villa beast still violent and snorting from its first half excursions; as well as a complimentary word or two on the upper-body dimensions of Kane that had Villa defenders bouncing off him; and the dead-eyed finish by Kulusevski, delivered like Midas in the Hollywood days when the going was still good for him.

Or indeed passers-by might anticipate me starting with Goal 3, dwelling in particular upon the surreptitious glance Kane gave, before receiving ball to his dome and chivvying it along with just the appropriate amount of pace and direction, with credits in the small print to Romero for the sort of pass that is well above the pay-grade of the average centre-back, and Sonny for taking a leaf out of the Kulusevski book of making potentially tricky finishes look no bother at all.

2. The Fourth Goal

But I’ll kick things off instead with Goal 4, mainly because it was one of those rare beasts whose every constituent element was a thing of such beauty that by the time its finale rolled around you were practically begging for someone to do the decent thing and stick the ball in the net.  

Astonishingly, the opening line was belted out by Emerson Royal, who had spent the entirety of the first half accommodating his opponents, either by casually letting them drift past him without objection or giving the ball straight to them whenever he happened upon it. I was therefore as taken aback as the next man to see him contribute so proficiently to Goal 4.  

His role in the project began with a rare outbreak of good sense, in getting first to the ball down by his own corner flag and then playing a one-two with Kulusevski, before shovelling on to Hojbjerg and God-speeding him along. This had the dual benefits of emerging from the aforementioned corner – something of a cul-de-sac at the time – and transferring our collective weight from back-foot to front.

Kulusevski for his part threw in a ballerina’s pirouette that had not one but two Villa sorts grasping at thin air and needing a brief sit-down to clear their heads. Fast-forward along some solid keep-it-simpling from Hojbjerg and Kane, and the ball was out with Sonny on the right, who, faced with ever-decreasing options, rolled the ball through the legs of the latest Villa defender queueing up for a spot of ignominy.

At this point Kulusevski took up the reigns again, but simply to report this is a bit like saying “Kong took on Godzilla”, a statement which might accurately capture the identity of the protagonists but actually omits much of the eye-catching nature of the moment. For Kulusevski, for the benefit of latecomers, was the bod who helped Emerson get the ball rolling five seconds earlier down by his own corner flag – and yet here he was, sprinting ahead of Sonny as the most advanced man in the attack, in what could be considered an absolute triumph for the fitness staff.

Kulusevski then took the opportunity to leave on his rear yet another embarrassed defender, the air by this time becoming thick with them, before looking up to pick his pass. And it was at this point that, as mentioned above, one dropped to one’s knees and positively pleaded with someone of Hotspur persuasion to deliver a fitting finale.

As such it was good work on the part of the creative souls who script such things that Son should pop up to complete his hat-trick, en route repeating his earlier gag involving the inside of the post, for added aesthetic value.

3. Lloris

It should not be overlooked that such perfectly-choreographed happy endings would have been a lot less rampant if a few first half moments had fluttered to earth only slightly differently.

Villa having established straight off the bat that the contest was to be undertaken using bar-room brawl rules, augmented their output in more palatable fashion by the deployment of Coutinho in an array of pockets seemingly beyond the remit of any our heroes. The net result was a half composed entirely of a procession of Villa chances, coming so thick and fast that at times it appeared that several were happening simultaneously.

No doubt there are some vastly knowledgeable eggs out there who could take one look at that first half and diagnose precisely the causes of our difficulties. Here at AANP Towers however, we simply watched in horror, occasionally damning the lineage of all those involved, as possession was repeatedly lobbed back to Villa to encourage them to try again.

Naturally we could only peddle such rot for so long without someone making a useful intervention, so it was as well that Monsieur Lloris was keeping up with current affairs.

Now I don’t want to stretch things by suggesting that this one of those days on which he leapt around doing the impossible, extending the appropriate paw to angles that defied physics or faster than the naked eye could detect, or any other such eye-popping stuff. Lloris had a good game, but not one of those that has one querying whether some deity has taken possession of his frame.

There certainly were some decent interruptions on his part, notably the one from the young nib Ramsey, which seemed to require that our man extended his mitts upwards with all the express pace of someone rising towards the heavens after sitting on an upturned drawing pin.

By and large, however, Lloris occupied his time making saves the like of which one would expect from a fellow who has collected a World Cup doing such things. Villa sorts thumped the ball well within his orbit; he extended his frame and thumped the ball off in another direction. Why goalkeepers these days scorn the act of catching shots is rather beyond me, but the point is that he made a string of decent saves without which we’d have been in some bother.

He also plucked a couple of crosses from the heavens, which might not sound much but spared us some pretty awkward moments in toe-poke territory. In general, Lloris is a fellow who eyes with suspicion any plot of land more than two or three yards from his own goal line, and while this can, on occasion, prove quite the shortcoming, yesterday it turned out to be rather a handy quirk, as various of the crosses requiring attention seemed to have a flight path of near enough the goal-line.

And between Lloris’ first half necessaries, and the flawless whirring of our attacking cogs, this, like last week against Newcastle, evolved from something of a first-half struggle into an absolute second half canter. What with Woolwich’s comical implosions and our goal difference going through the roof, the whole business has become rather good fun again.

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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.

Categories
Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-1 West Ham: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Bentancur

If young Bentancur had taken to the pitch wedged behind the steering wheel of a Rolls Royce I’m not sure anyone would have noticed, because he absolutely purred around the place today. I have quite the soft spot for those coves who can trap a ball on the half-turn and then switch angles and whir off on a completely new adventure, while – and here’s the rub – completing the entire project in one single movement. They give the impression of ticking about eight different tasks off the To-Do list in one swipe, generally uncluttering life.

Bentancur seemed hell-bent on making this his signature move today, and I was all for it. The ability to receive the ball in midfield while opponents converge has typically been the sort of duty greeted by our lot with the distant, petrified stare of a team of astronauts being told that the oxygen tank has been ruptured beyond repair. Panic settles in, and the best they can do is shovel the ball backwards and hope that such hellish conditions never occur again.

Bentancur, by contrast, swans around the place as if receive-ball-whilst-opponents-converge was a game he played on a daily basis when still being bounced on his mother’s knee. Time and again he received the ball half-facing his own goal, tamed the thing, swivelled into more appropriate alignment and then weighed up his options and picked a corker of a next step, all as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If West Ham rotters heaved on him he simply dipped a shoulder or two and sent them flying off into different postcodes.

It was masterful stuff, and meant that playing out from the back was not just some frantic escape route, but actually a stepping stone towards new and exciting attacks.

In previous weeks I have stuck something of an asterisk against Bentancur’s name, noting that for all his obvious dreamy goodness in possession, he was not always cognizant of the fact that there were eleven hulking brutes in opposition, doing their damnedest to tread on his toes and whatnot. He would occasionally dwell on the ball and react with some shock to being bustled off it, as if such things were not part of the T’s and C’s.

This wrong, if it could be described as such, appeared to have been righted yesterday. I kept a close on the fellow, initially to chastise him for any repeat of this offence, but swiftly because my eyes were simply drawn towards him in admiration.

If any lessons had needed learning about the pace of the game in these parts they had evidently been digested with gusto. The chap makes our team tick – perhaps not in the stats-obsessed manner of a Kane, but in a manner pretty critical to the entire apparatus.

2. Romero (and Passing Out of Defence)

If Bentancur were the critical link between defence and Kane attack, then we still needed to ferry the ball from defence to Bentancur in the first place, in order for the whole system to sound its bells and whistles.

And in the days not too long behind us, the responsibility for such missions lay at the trembling size nines of Davinson Sanchez, and occasionally young Master Tanganga. The latter, most neturals would assert, was sufficiently able to sort out his right foot from his left to be able to pick out a lilywhite shirt if pressed to do so; the former danced around the thing as if scared it would burst into flames, at best toe-poking it back to Lloris and wobbling back towards his own goal. The zenith of our passing ability with these sorts patrolling the back-line tended to be a solid biff towards the nearest wing-back.

All of which makes the presence of Romero at the right of the back-three an absolute blessing from on high. For a start, he welcomes the ball like an old friend with whom he has shared many a fond adventure. Rather than recoil in fear at its presence, and swing a leg at it like an axe-murderer getting down to business, Romero happily skips around with it by his side, much like small children used to cavort with their dogs in Enid Blyton books.

On top of which, as well as the obvious option of feeding Doherty wide on the right, Romero as often as not has both the presence of mind and the ice-cool nerve to look further infield for the next available point of contact.

I don’t mind admitting that, at first this, business of bisecting a couple of opposing midfielders in order to pick out Bentancur had the AANP heart skipping one or two pretty critical beats, and leaping up the throat and into the mouth. But the more I watched Romero deliver such passes – diagonally, fifteen yards forward and taking out a couple of opponents to reach Bentancur – the more I felt a quiet thrill.

There is a risk associated with the manoeuvre for sure, because any inaccuracy in direction or weight – or indeed Bentancur (or Hojbjerg or whomever) simply taking his eye off the thing – would result in conceding possession in a pretty frightful area.

But, as happens with these things, greater risk brings a greater reward. Bypass a couple of West Ham players en route from Romero to Bentancur, and suddenly our lot are within two shakes of a lamb’s tail of haring off towards the opposition area.

All of which is to say nothing of Romero’s actual defending, which was either top-notch or an isolated mistake swiftly followed by a top-notch recovery.

The above also overlooks the fact that Messrs Dier and Davies were also both willing and able to toe the company line in this respect. It’s pretty critical to the Conte m.o. that the defenders play the ball out from the back without succumbing to the urge to belt it over the horizon, and these three grow more comfortable by the week.

3. Kane’s Passing

Of course Harry Kane, being a rotter or some ilk, did not give a damn about all this fine spadework being applied in the background, and instead went about the place determined that if there were a headline going he was going to grab it.

In this regard Kane has fashioned for himself the particular advantage of being adept in two areas, namely those of creating and finishing chances. One might say he both maketh and taketh. If one cylinder is not firing for whatever reason, there’s a pretty strong chance the other will be; and thus did it transpire yesterday. His finishing was strangely awry, but it barely mattered, as he created all three of our goals and had a generous hand in the Sonny chance that hit the post too.

Kane’s pass for the opener was what you might call a triumph for hard work, involving as it did putting his head down, puffing his chest out, going for a run and then squaring the ball.  It was not a presentation dripping with aesthetics and finery, having much about it of the sweat-stained 80s playground footballer; but when the great minds thrash things out afterwards they’ll conclude it did the job.

This sort of stuff was pretty unusual fare from Kane, whose days of bursting past defenders seem to have long gone. He was on more familiar ground with his pass for our second, bunging in vision and weighting, and generally doing as much one could reasonably ask in such circumstances. Sonny still had to gallop forward and lash the thing, but the pass from Kane (and to him, from Bentancur) had the effect of cutting to ribbons much of the resistance around the place.

The assist for the third can probably be glossed over, owing more to the dull stupidity of the defenders around him, curiously drawn towards him and leaving Son to roam as he pleased ahead of them.

But for all these interventions, I was actually a little underwhelmed by Kane’s attempts to spray the ball around. The quarterback act is ripping stuff when it works, but he seemed to make three or four attempts in the second half – from an inside-right sort of spot around halfway, trying to pick out Son or Reguilon who were little more than specks in the distance on the left – and generally fouled up the mechanics, pinging the ball straight to the covering centre-back instead.

This is not to suggest that he should give up on the practice, or any such rot. On the contrary, I rather admire his gumption, and am all for a little risk-taking when on the attack. It just seemed to me that while he clocked his assists merrily enough, his attempts at the big, sweeping, crossfield numbers fell rather flat on each occasion he tried them yesterday. He can consider himself rather lucky that he found time to cram in three other assists, cunningly deflecting attention from his failings elsewhere.

(With apologies for going off-radar after the Brighton win – Covid rather knocks the stuffing out)