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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-2 Wolves: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson

One did not have to be one of those medieval soothsayer types, who apparently were pretty sharp in matters of spotting what was about to happen, to feel a bit of the old dread creeping up when Big Ange gruffled the news that both of Messrs Porro and Udogie would spend their Saturday afternoon being patched up in some infirmary tent rather than fighting the good fight on-pitch.

No huge surprises in the identity of their replacements, Emerson on one side and Ben Davies t’other, and while their earnestness was never going to be in doubt, that wasn’t really ever going to be the point, what?

There was a general lack of the sharpened tooth about our play from starter’s gun to finish line yesterday, incidences of rapier-like passing that cut to ribbons the opposition being so few that one could count them on the fingers of one hand. Now of course it would be a bit much to lay all the blame for this at the doors of Emerson and Davies, and our endeavours might well have been similarly fruitless with Porro and Udogie at the roaming-full-back wheel, not least because the second half was pretty much a non-stop session of trying to pick a way through a back-ten in and around their own area.

But nevertheless. Particularly in the first half, when the game was a tad more open but our passing from deep-to-advanced was pretty uninspired, I did stare off into the distance and do a spot of yearning.

Emerson, being the sort of egg so curious that he merits his own unique category of one, could conceivably have offered a bit of attacking spark, if all his lights were on. While he is probably not one for a 40-yard Porro-esque pass onto a sixpence, I had hoped we might see him carry the ball forward and infield, and give the Wolves lot something about which to confer.

Unfortunately, with Emerson one has to take the bonkers with the smooth, and he gave a few early indications that this was to be one of his more exasperating innings. For a start there were a few horribly misplace passes, which I suppose can happen to anyone, but when emanating from the size nines of Emerson do tend to suggest that he is off on another planet. Confidence – or rather lack thereof – never having been an issue with this mad young bean, rather than rein it in a bit he simply carried on trying no-look passes and whatnot.

However, the moment that really made me tut and stew was when, having been lazily caught in possession and deposited upon his derriere, rather than bounce straight back up, hellbent on correcting his error, he remained in his seat and took to waving his arms for an imaginary foul. Wolves, meanwhile, simply got on with it, shoved their way into our area and almost scored, dash it.

Obviously I use the pen-wielder’s licence to colour the lad’s entire performance as unequivocally disastrous, when the truth is probably that he made plenty of quiet, positive contributions, but in the first half in particular too many of his inputs led to a skyward fling of the AANP hands, and a muttered imprecation as its soundtrack. In a first half badly lacking cohesion and threat, Emerson made a handy poster-boy for our troubles.

2. Ben Davies

Ben Davies, to give credit where due, was actually pretty solid defensively and expansive offensively. If there is a criticism of him – apart from the wild misdirection of that late header, which ought to have CPR-d the result – it is that he is not Destiny Udogie, which seems a rather cruel sort of mud to sling at a fellow. I mean, not much that one can do about being born as one person and not as another, what?

As mentioned, he did things well enough. The sort of willing chappie destined always to be in the ‘Supporting Cast’ category, he won a few early defensive arguments against his opposing winger, and also made regular visits to the Wolves final third. Truth be told, he was as effective an attacking spoke as anyone else, and if I could have toddled around the changing-room post-match and canvassed a few opinions, I suspect that Sonny, Maddison and Richarlison would have spoken kindly enough of his contributions.

But in a game in which we sorely lacked a bit of the old thrust, I did note that the most incisive first half passes into the final third came from Messrs VDV on the left and Romero on the right. A spot of Udogie from deep would have gone down well.

3. Kulusevski

The half-time mood was pretty dark at AANP Towers. There was no shortage of subjects of ire, and not really enough time to have the deep and meaningful rant that each of them deserved, but one point on which I (and a chum or two) were pretty clear was that the current iteration of Kulusevski was pretty seriously undercooked.

Naturally he then took 46 seconds to ram my words down my throat with a bit of meaning, dancing around defenders in that curious way of his that seems to defy physics (my eyes probably deceived, but I’m pretty convinced that at one point he ran literally through a Wolves defender – which I accept contradicts much of what we know of modern science, but there we go).

So bucketfuls of credit where due, it was a fabulously executed goal. However, I maintain that it was also quite the anomaly. Kulusevski’s outputs in general this season seem to have been pretty muted. Of the unstoppable buccaneer of Spring 2022 there is little sign these days. In his defence, none of the fifteen outfield players used yesterday had much attacking success, so I’m happy to slather some context about the place, but with Kulusevski these diminished returns have been evident for some time.

This business of constantly cutting back onto his left foot strikes me as constituting a hefty chunk of the problem. Funnily enough it does still catch the occasional opponent by surprise, but this isn’t much good given that it also tends to suck a decent gulp of momentum from the attacking move. Defenders who might a smidgeon earlier have been out of position and rushing back to their posts, with sirens for both panic and confusion sounding in their ears, are granted time to pack out the place and steady their feet. The diem passes frustratingly un-carpe’d.

Moreover, having completed the whole business of cutting back onto his left, Kulusevski very rarely then makes good on his pledge and does anything meaningful with the ball thereafter. When he first joined, a couple of years back, one lost count of the number of times he cut back and curled the ball either into the far corner or into the path of an onrushing forward sort. Whereas these days he just bunts the thing into the first opposing body and it bounces away, or else loops a shot high and wide.

Much of Kulusevski’s value has traditionally derived from his deceptive burst of pace carrying the ball from halfway onwards, which is fair enough, and a trait still occasionally in evidence against more adventurous teams playing higher up the pitch; but on the whole, and certainly on occasions like yesterday, when up against a deep-lying defence, there’s not much scope for such frivolity.

Towards the end of yesterday’s proceedings, when Our Glorious Leader adopted the Football Manager approach of shoving as many attackers onto the pitch as the rules allowed, we were treated to a brief glimpse of Kulusevski in a more central role, which, from my armchair, seems to suit him a little better. Again, however, there protrudes a spanner in the works, as with Maddison back one would not expect to see too much of Kulusevski at number 10.

As with Emerson, one could hardly lump all our woes into one neat pile at the door of Kulusevski and wait for him to solve everything, but it’s another of those charming little knots that Postcoglou et al will need to unravel.

4. Van de Ven and Vicario

On a positive note, both Van de Ven and Vicario were in pretty spiffing form yesterday, so that was a little treat for the gathered masses.

Rather a shame that it was all to no avail, but VDV’s recovery pace continues to make the eyes pop from the head, and will presumably receive greater acclaim on future dates, when deployed in a winning cause. It was not so evident in the second half, when the pattern of things shifted considerably, but in the first half every time Wolves got behind our high-line – the difficulty of which was right up there alongside taking sweets from babies – one could breathe easily in the knowledge that a locomotive in human form would pretty swiftly be arriving from across the pitch to hoover up the mess.

Vicario, similarly, took the opportunity to showcase his most eye-catching stuff. Point-blank save in each half were worth goals, and I have a feeling he had another chalked off by an offside flag, but it was enough to communicate the gist: here was a man in rare old form.

Moreover, given that so much hot air is now expelled on the topic of what goalkeepers do with their feet, there was a charmingly old-fashioned thrill in seeing our man stick out a reflexive paw a couple of time to execute some point-blank saves.

That said, both goals conceded were pretty maddening. The first in particular prompted a rather weary groan, an unmarked header from a corner of all things being the sort of offence that ought to have the lot of them docked a month’s wages and locked in dank cells. As for the second, it was pretty clearly scripted stuff by our opponents, which in turn reflects poorly on our Brains Trust. Much to ponder in the next couple of weeks.

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Spurs match reports

Brighton 4-2 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Attacking

It has been bleated at AANP a goodish amount – and I suppose with some justification – that I have a tendency to treat our heroes as a mother tiger would a favoured cub. That is, I can apparently land on the side of being a tad more generous towards them than their behaviour necessarily merits. Glossing over their mistakes, goes the claim, and rather over-egging things when it comes to dishing out the complimentary word.

And those who watched our lot magic a 4-0 deficit out of thin air last night might well waggle an exasperated finger at me and claim I’m letting them off too lightly yet again when I suggest that in possession at least, we generally crossed t’s and dotted i’s in required fashion, at least until we hit the Brighton penalty area.

But 4-0 or not, I remained pretty impressed with the speed and simplicity with which our lot peddled their usual routine of shifting the ball from south to north, lickety-split. Not quite ten out of ten for build-up, admittedly, but a general thumbs-up nevertheless.

The problem – in the first half in particular – was that once the build-up was taken care of and it came to spitting on their hands and seeing the thing through to completion, all concerned became rather bogged down in detail. The concept of just walloping the thing towards goal once within 20 yards or so was evidently a foreign one. An obsession seemed to have gripped all members of the troupe for passing the thing to death, and then squeezing out an additional pass or two for luck.

A fair amount of hot air was expelled at AANP Towers in yowling at Son and Richarlison in particular – but by no means exclusively – to yank on the dashed trigger at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep trying to thread their way to within spitting distance of the net.

I’m all for the style of play in general, which is off the scale in comparison to the dross of Conte, Nuno and Jose, but as Our Glorious Leader himself gruffled a few weeks ago, it’s not such great football if it fizzles out in a forest of opposition legs before topping up the Goals Scored column because we’ve overdone the build-up.

There was an improvement of sorts in the second half, notably in the umpteen efforts to play in Richarlison for a pop at goal. I suppose one has to wag a disapproving finger at the chap for straying a few inches offside each time, but I was at least heartened by his principle of having an immediate swing at goal rather than pirouetting away and searching for yet another needless pass.

And I was also encouraged by young Veliz, who made the most of a rare twenty-minute opportunity to show the watching world that he’s not one for procrastination when it comes to penalty area scraps. Sling him the ball in any sort of contortion of limbs, and his mantra seemed to be that he would untangle his feet, use the absolute minimum number of touches to work an opportunity and dig out a shot – typically all in a single, efficient movement. It brought him one goal, one shot saved at close-range and a delicious lay-off that nobody else in pinkish brown seemed to care about, but I was also for the young bimbo’s approach to life.

2. Defending

Oh that life in N17 comprised simply one attack after another. Irritatingly, these easy-on-the-eye moments are rather rudely punctured by the other mob scything through us pretty much at will whenever they have possession.

The ease with which opponents get at us is rather difficult to ignore. Even in the Van de Ven-Romero era, one was nagged by the sentiment that while that pair would do a fine job of extinguishing fires before they blazed out of control, they were still being called into action with alarming frequency. The issue is all the more concerning in their absence.

Not really being the most tactically-minded I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to uncovering the root cause of this unholy mess, but it I have been struck a few times by the fact that anyone wanting to get at us from the wings can simply waltz straight through with minimal interference from security personnel. I’m not sure if this is a result of Messrs Porro and Udogie galloping forward at every opportunity and therefore being ill-prepared for defensive duties, or whether the full-backs are deliberately instructed to tuck in fairly narrowly, giving opponents the freedom of the flanks. Be it one of those or some other genesis, the conclusion each time seems to be that if anyone on around the halfway line fancies a mooch around our penalty area a visit can be arranged tout de suite.

One might dig up extenuating circumstances for the various goals last night. The Kulusevski foul for the first penalty was as knuckle-headed as they come and not the sort of input for which one can really prepare; and the long-range goal from the corner, although strictly the sort of effort that decency should ensure is closed down before any harm can arise, was nevertheless something of a freak effort.

But the Lo Celso foul for the second penalty came about because he had let his man drift the wrong side of him in the penalty area; while the opening goal sprouted from the Joao Pedro being granted the freedom to jig his way past no fewer than five of our lot, none of whom seemed inclined to sharpen the elbows and take a spot of initiative.

On top of which, Vicario was called upon for a point-blank save from Welbeck, and Brighton hit the post on two other occasions. I continue to offer a mitigating shrug to Emerson and Davies, both of whom are evidently trying their damnedest in foreign climes at centre-back – but neither are fit for purpose in the role.

Put another way, our back-four seems to be populated in its entirety by a squadron of chappies who are all pretty competent on the ball, but, rather crucially, none of whom seem actually to be much good at defending. While I continue to be thoroughly entertained each week by the 90-minute mystery of whether we can simply outscore the other lot, the porous nature of our back-line does hinder the objective somewhat.

I suppose the other point that’s worth a spot of air-time is that the entire collective is now clearly quite frazzled. Ange-ball, though an absolute delight to behold, does seem to require each individual concerned to do the work of several men on a bi-weekly basis, one minute donning their attacking hat and hurtling into the penalty area, the next minute – or sometimes the very same minute – replacing that attacking hat with its defensive equivalent, and tearing back towards the criminally undermanned rear. Little wonder that the pose de jour appears to be being bent double, hands on knees, great gulps of O2 being glugged at every opportunity. Those January reinforcements cannot come fast enough.

3. Hojbjerg

Regular drinkers at this particular inn will no doubt see the headline ‘Hojbjerg’ and brace themselves for a spot of unrestrained AANP vitriol, the chap’s tendency to pass backwards with religious fervour, pausing only to wave his arms pointlessly at those around him, having rather made the forehead veins throb over recent years.

But in a pretty spectacular plot-twist, I come to praise Hojbjerb, not to bury him. I thought he made a pretty good fist of things last night. Limitations apply, of course. Any praise for Hojbjerg must be asterisked with the acknowledgement that he has nothing about him of the Mousa Dembele or Luka Modric, and as such ought not to be judged by such lofty standards. Instead, Hojbjerg picked up where young Oliver Skipp had left off at the weekend, and where Skipp insisted on biffing the ball straight back to whomever had given it to him with relentless monotony, Hojbjerg had at least enough sense of adventure to collect the ball on the half-turn, and look to pop it to someone in a more advanced spot.

He also threw in a couple of forward runs and picked a couple of forward passes into the path of the wingers, and in general gave the impression of a man not wedded to passing backwards upon pain of death, but instead approaching life with the more care-free attitude that dictates that if an opportunity for forward-thinking creativity opens he’ll shove in his chips. I approved.

And amidst these occasional dipping of toes into attacking waters, Hojbjerg also appeared to understand with perfect clarity that his primary purpose was to supplement the rearguard. Thus it transpired that when Brighton ambled into our territory, Hojbjerg was typically present, inserting himself either between or ahead of Emerson and Davies, and trying to stick a few fingers in dikes as the situation required.

The moral of the story remains that the squad is in pretty desperate need of upgrades, but nevertheless, an honourable shift from Hojbjerg, better fare than he has been in the habit of trotting out, and very nearly crowned with a late goal that would have set up the most mind-boggling finish.

4. The Late Flurry

And what a dashed shame that that mind-boggling finish did not materialise, Hojbjerg’s injury-time tuppence worth coming back off the post rather than bouncing in, but I suppose hitting the frame of the goal isn’t really the point of the exercise. Christmas, as Hans Gruber neatly put it, is a time for miracles, but even by the most extreme, all-action-no-plot standards of our lot at their most madcap, a comeback from 4-0 down at the 80-minute mark would have been a bit much to swallow. Instead we had to settle for the curious coda that was our exhausted mob finding from nowhere a second wind that brought two late goals and several other presentable chances.

The sudden sense of urgency was an odd one to drink in. There remained a bit of a tendency to elaborate unnecessarily in and around the Brighton 6-yard box, when all in lilywhite were screeching at our heroes just to take a shot, old habits dying hard I suppose. But by and large, dithering was kept to a minimum and we gave the Brighton goal a bit of a peppering.

The caveat here is that Brighton, as one would at 4-0 up, had signed the thing off as a done deal, withdrawing personnel and fiddling with their formation. Nevertheless, it was heartening to see our lot pick them apart through various different approaches in that finale.

Oddly enough, the late flurry seemed to owe more to the collective than to any particular individuals. For all his honest beavering and body-feints, I’m not sure that Bryan Gil delivered one useful cross. Lo Celso conceded one penalty, came pretty close to conceding another and provided little more useful value during his cameo. But by virtue of popping around some slick one-twos, and whipping in a couple of handy crosses, the chances flowed fairly steadily in the closing stages.

As mentioned, young Veliz made the most of a pretty nondescript hand, and Sonny also perked up a bit in those closing stages. And, perhaps because they were unencumbered by the rigours of defending, Messrs Udogie and Porro made themselves useful in the attacking third. It all amounted to a strange old game, in which our lot weren’t particularly impressive, defended dreadfully at times, generally got bogged down whenever within shooting distance and yet still would have been good value for three or four goals. Give it a year or so and our lot will be quite the proposition, but for now it’s head-scratching stuff.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-1 Everton: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson at Left-Back

Destiny Udogie’s chequered history having caught up with him, we found ourselves in the awkward position of requiring Emerson Royal to fill in at left-back-cum-midfield yesterday. On this matter three outstanding points immediately arrested the attention and refused to let go, viz:

  1. Emerson is right-footed
  2. Emerson has not dabbled much in the inverted-full-back role
  3. Emerson is as mad as a bag of cats

No shortage of reasons, then, to give the lower lip a nervous chew, and it is with a cheek burnished with shame that I report to having had the knives sharpened well ahead of time, in anticipation of the worst.

As it happened, what actually transpired was a performance so steady and reliable that, come the closing credits I toyed long and hard with the notion of feting Emerson with the prestigious Nod of the Head awarded for being the game’s outstanding contributor. Admittedly this was largely earned by default, our heroes having clocked a round of individual performances so middling that Emerson’s rose to the top by virtue of being amongst the least flawed, but nevertheless – some credit to the lad for overcoming each of the 3 challenges highlighted above.

Without necessarily contributing anything eye-catching and game-changing, I thought that Emerson got right just about everything at which he tried his hand yesterday. Positionally, he seemed up-to-speed from the off, knowing where to go and whose shoulder to lurk behind, when to give the arms a frantic wave and when to keep a low profile. He availed himself to Davies, Skipp et al when we were in possession, and kept a diligent eye on affairs in his jurisdiction when we were defending.

That said, he dithered away like nobody’s business and needed a sizeable dollop of luck with the disallowed Everton goal. Too complacent for my liking, and who knows how things might have panned out had that one been allowed to stand, what?

Equally, however, at one point in the first half he almost had a moment of glory, finding space for Sonny to set him loose up the left flank and curling a most inviting pass – with that rarely-spotted left appendage, no less – into the path of an incoming Brennan Johnson that, but for a rather wild finish, would have put us three up and afforded all concerned a much gentler snooze of an afternoon.

That was about as glamorous as it got for him but, given the anxiety with which I had anticipated Emerson taking the inverted left-back reins ever since Udogie’s yellow card last week, the young nib’s largely error-free shift was received with quiet but fervent prayers of gratitude.

 2. Skipp

The prospect of 90-plus minutes’ worth of out-of-position Emersoning was not the only element causing a few worry-lines to form on the AANP map pre-kick-off yesterday. Skipp for Bissouma is nobody’s idea of a fair trade, even allowing for the latter’s dreary dip in form, but there we were yesterday – and there we will remain for the foreseeable, given that Bissouma is currently being detained at His Majesty’s pleasure before flying off for that blasted AFCON next month.

Skipp at least came armed with a spot of positional experience, having occupied defensive midfield spots pretty much ever since he first learned to walk, but his presence there from the off still gripped me with an unspeakable fear. Stick Skipp in a Sean Dyche team and one would emerge pretty satisfied; ask the honest fellow to spend his afternoon Ange-balling and it’s a little difficult to know quite how events will unfold.

Understandably enough, once the whistle sounded Skipp just rolled up his sleeves and gave the impression of not giving too many damns about Ange-ball, Sean Dyche or anyone else. He just rattled through the catalogue in order to locate the most Oliver Skipp performance he could find, and delivered that with all the trimmings.

It was perfectly sufficient. Whenever our centre-backs were in possession he immediately scampered to within five yards of them, yelping to be allowed to play. They rolled the ball to him, he immediately rolled it back whence it had come and the sequence was able to begin again.

Those of us who have watched with quiet satisfaction as Bissouma, or indeed Bentancur or whomever, have received the ball from the centre-backs on the half-turn, and with one quick shoulder-dip been away from their marker and on the front-foot, had to moderate our expectations pretty quickly. This was Oliver Skipp’s world, and fancy shoulder-dips or changes of direction were pretty strictly outlawed. Skipp would dab the ball straight back to whomever passed it to him, and no more.

He served his purpose well enough. With Porro, Emerson, Romero and Davies on hand to do more of the heavy-lifting, in terms of picking the more incisive passes from deep, it was basically enough for Skipp simply to occupy appropriate areas and create space for others. He also beavered away earnestly enough when we were out of possession, holding a protective central position and occasionally taking it upon himself to snap at a pair of Everton ankles if the mood took him. There were occasional mistakes and fouls, but on the whole he did what was required.

As a temporary solution, filling in every now and then when an A-lister is unexpectedly withdrawn, I’ll shrug the shoulders and mutter that he’ll do I suppose, and prepare to scrawl a 6 out of 10 against his name. I can’t really say that the prospect of him scuttling about the starting XI for another month fills me to the gills with joy, but unless the January window brings a Connor Gallagher or some such, we may well be stuck with him.

3. Sonny

I mentioned that it was an odd sort of showing all round, with various cast members appearing a little off-colour, and few summed up this peculiar state of affairs better than our on-field lieutenant.

Sonny did of course pop away the crucial goal, and as such excuses a multitude of other sins across the other 95 or so minutes. That his goal was an odd, scruffy sort of job is neither here nor there – basking in the satisfaction of fourth spot the morning after, few amongst us will grumble that the second goal lacked a bit in the aesthetic stakes. ‘Shove the damn thing into the net’ has been a fairly critical instruction in the last couple of months, and not one that our heroes have necessarily adopted too gaily, so if Sonny wants to bobble the thing through a crowd in order to score his goals that’s fine by AANP. Bobble away through as many crowds as you like, is pretty much the approving response over here.

But his headline contribution having been thus secured, I thought that Son spent the rest of his afternoon mangling his lines in all manner of ways. Just a temporary blip of course, and his absence will be lamented with some pretty meaningful wailing and gnashing of teeth when he flies off for that blasted Asian Cup next month. But still. This was not his finest hour and a half.

If he were on the run with the ball, he found a bizarre series of ways to extinguish the threat himself, be it losing control of his own feet, treading on the ball or slightly forgetting who and where he was, and scuttling off on his own towards the edge of the playing surface while an Everton man collected the ball and trotted off with it in the opposite direction.

There was also a series of opportunities to feed a nearby chum who would have been in on goal, which Sonny curiously kept miscalculating, poking the ball out of play or straight to a defender or some other such oddly-judged ideas that didn’t quite hit the spot.

Anyway, there was no want of effort on his part, and the honest fellow is allowed an off-day – particularly as he got the most important part right, in front of goal – and moreover, even if his end-product was generally all over the place, he clearly kept the Everton mob on their toes throughout just by virtue of being Son and all the energy that entails.

4. A Mixed Bag

When the employer invites AANP to tick the boxes in one of those psychometric tests, invariably the findings are that I am one of those souls who likes things neatly squared off. Spades are called spades. Everyone knows where they stand. And it is in such a spirit that I generally like to assess the outputs of our heroes in lilywhite. A thumbs-up for a job well done; a thumbs-down when they’ve stunk the place out; and not too much time wasted sugar-coating things in the middle.

All of which leaves me in a bit of a spot about yesterday’s goings-on. It was a strange old showing from our lot, when one steps back and thinks about it. On the bright side, I could count probably a good half a dozen instances of Ange-ball at its finest. “Ping, ping, ping,” would be a pretty accurate way to describe those moments, when the stars aligned, everyone gave everyone else a knowing nod and in the blink of an eye the ball was being whizzed from our area to theirs.

The first goal was an example of the above, even if strictly speaking the whizzing took the ball from the middle third to their area. There was the usual flurry of one-touchery, a lovely spot of body-feinting thrown in by young Sarr (the one bean I thought might beat Emerson to the Nod of the Head when all votes were counted) and a finish that oozed confidence from Richarlison.

Even the second goal, for all the rougher edges about its coup de grâce, had a pleasing look about its build-up. But in general, our heroes seemed to be off the boil as often as they were on it.

Passes were misplaced as if there were an internal competition to which everyone had pretty feverishly dedicated themselves; and a lot of the time those in lilywhite simply lost possession. It was pretty rummy to behold, but on several occasions some well-meaning sort in lilywhite would have possession, without too much imminent danger presenting itself other than an Everton bounder surreptitiously edging into view – and before you knew it possession had swapped hands. The Everton bounder now had possession, our hero was forlornly nibbling at his ankles and the entire cast had to reconfigure and don their defensive hats again.

These days one does not see to much of the straightforward, honest tackle – interceptions and blocks being all the rage – but yesterday it seemed that every couple of minutes we were losing possession because an Everton sort had simply wandered over, and without having to put in too much thought or effort, positioned himself between ball and lilywhite and made off with the dashed thing.

We brought no end of problems upon ourselves towards the end of the first half, the whole business of playing out from the back being executed with pretty scant regard for the delicacies that such an operation requires, with the result that Everton time and again were presented with the ball some twenty yards from goal and invited to amuse themselves as they saw fit.

And towards the end of things, that blasted Danjuma was made to like a bit too much like Pele for my liking. A handy chap in the final third we can all agree, having been treated to his cameos at close quarters last season, but for him thrice in ten minutes to befuddle our defensive mob and blast a shot at goal seemed a bit thick. Porro, Dier and Skipp seemed to find the lad unplayable, which was alarming, and quite what strain of sorcery Vicario has signed up for is anyone’s guess, but he seems to have had other-worldly intervention on his side in his last couple of matches, and it’s no stretch to say we’ve been centimetres from conceding – and missing out on two points yesterday.

All told, it was a hard-earned win – against a team slap bang in the middle of a hot streak, and with our usual slew of absentees. The general sloppiness in our play suggests more than anything that our heroes could do with a few days off, with some massages and scented candles and whatnot, but to be four points off the top having had such a rotten old November reflects well.

Merry Christmas, on we trot to Brighton.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-2 Villa: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Bentancur and the Midfield Three

Ordinarily if one were to be ambushed on a Sunday lunchtime with the news that 100% of your first-choice midfield were to be unavailable, one might be excused for choking on a roast potato and offering a few choice lamentations. The absence of Maddison alone, after all, would be sorely felt at any time of year; an additional suspension for Bissouma would pose an almighty conundrum; but throw into that a muscle strain or some such rot for Sarr, and if every last drop of hope drained from the soul it would be a pretty understandable reaction.

This, however, was not really ordinary circumstance. For even as the AANP mind registered that young Sarr was indeed being added to the list of those unfit for public consumption, any dregs of despair were being swept away with a goodish amount of excitement, as the penny dropped that the new-look midfield triumvirate would comprise one each of Bentancur, Lo Celso and Kulusevski.

For a start, there is a pretty reasonable train of thought that, nine-month ACL-induced absence or not, Bentancur should really be part of the first-choice midfield anyway. Lo Celso I suppose, in this context, is a slightly more controversial type of chestnut, having officially been part of the N17 furniture for a goodish number of years now, yet having blown up so few skirts that you can count them on the fingers of one hand. But nevertheless, on a good day – or, put another way, in an Argentina shirt – he’s a pretty talented sort of bimbo, and one for whom AANP harbours secret admiration. And as for Kulusevski, the chap has a pretty deep reservoir of goodwill into which he can dip, so if Our Glorious Leader saw fit to shunt him into a Number 10 sort of role, the pre-match thinking process went, then that was good enough for me.

But more than the individual choices, the intriguing aspect of this was the collective, if you get my drift. Selecting all three of the undersigned to constitute a midfield in its entirety was not the move of a manager concerned about extra-thick layers of security to protect the midfield. In fact it was about as far removed from E-TLs of S as one could get. ‘Hojbjerg be damned’, seemed to be the attitude of The Brains Trust ahead of this one. Big Ange was shoving his every last chip at the Dreamy Attacking Build-Up option – and as you might expect, AANP was all in favour of such wild and romantic recklessness.

And frankly, it very nearly worked too. As one would expect of a laddie who is half-mortal, half footballing deity, Bentancur purred about the place, pretty quickly finding his range and beginning to settle into a routine of through-balls of the ‘Simple-Yet-Devastating’ variety, most of which really deserved better than the forward collective tripping over their shoelaces when within sight of goal.

Cunningly stationed at the base of midfield, and as such disguised as a defensive sort who is pretty clueless when it comes to his attacking eggs, Bentancur was duly granted a goodish amount of space in possession, and looked to me to be settling into quite the groove as a deep-lying creative sort. Moreover, his presence a few yards south seemed to inspire the happier sides of Lo Celso’s personality to emerge, and he began picking neat diagonals into the area. Between the two of them, the absence of Maddison could more or less be shrugged off; while further north, young Kulusevski in the Number 10 role gave the look of a man for whom this was not his first time.

While not quite the perfect 26 or so minutes of football, our attacking verve was still pretty impressive, the gist of the conversation being far more one-way than AANP had dared to expect against a direct rival. Indeed, but for the knuckle-headed antics of those in front of goal we might have been two or three up in that period.

Alas, poor old Bentancur then hobbled off, courtesy of the latest crippling swipe from Matty Cash Boo (he, you may recall, having been responsible for ending Matt Doherty’s season a couple of years back, just as the chap was finding his feet in the RWB role for us).

Thereafter, Hojbjerg came on to give one of the most Hojbjerg performances imaginable – diligently winning the ball high up the pitch before pinging a cross under no pressure straight into the arms of the goalkeeper – and the attacking flair on show decreased a gentle notch.

I actually thought we continued to make a decent fist of things going forward, until Villa took the lead and the dynamic of the thing was rather turned on its head (they being happy to defend a lot deeper at that point). It would be tempting to take one look at the outcome and emphatically stamp the words ‘Never Again’ across a midfield of Bentancur-Lo Celso-Kulusevski, but such was the early dominance that going forward I’d happily type in their names and press ‘Enter’.

The problem, rather obviously, was that it offered fairly minimal protection for those at the rear, and Villa did not exactly have to devise the most intricate plans to bypass our security levels – but these days the plan simply seems to keep attacking and hope we’ve got enough goals in the locker come the final curtain.

2. Porro

Pedro Porro is a bean who generally goes under the AANP radar, right up until the moment that he pops up in the opposition area. I’m not really sure why that is to be honest, as one can’t lob a brick these days without it hitting someone desperate to lecture you on the virtues of the fellow. Still, I maintain that if you’re actively trying to avoid noticing Porro he’s a pretty easy chap to fail to notice.

Yesterday, however, was a pretty momentous day at Casa Porro, as I had decided to give him the beady eye throughout. ‘See what all the fuss is about,’ was about the sum of my thinking there.

And ‘Pleasantly surprised’, was about the sum of my findings. It will come as no surprise to seasoned PP-watchers, or indeed to most lilywhites who have kept even half an eye on us so far this season, but young Porro is pretty dashed effective in the inverted full-back spot. It’s his passing from deep that really arrests the attention. AANP is a particular fan of those weighted passes inside an opposing defender, and Porro, perhaps knowing his audience, delivered a slew of these. Our first half dominance owed about as much to his positioning and creative juices as to any of the designated midfield three.

Which is not to say that he was without blemish. Towards the end of the first half his attempt to sing the gospel of Ange-Ball got rather stuck in his throat, as he was caught dithering in possession right outside our own penalty area. When Emerson Royal is the man bailing you out, you know you’ve made a bit of a hash of things.

In the final half hour or so I actually forgot that pre-match remit to which I had wedded myself on pain of death – the one about watching PP’s every move like a hawk – so I couldn’t really tell you much about what he did or failed to do, other than one overhit free-kick, but I suppose by that point I’d seen enough. Porro is a pretty important cog in the machine, and not just when galloping off into the final third, and all the more credit to him for re-inventing himself for this role, having arrived on these shores as something quite different.

3. Gil

It was a big day for the lesser-spotted Bryan Gil, another alumnus of that Lo Celso school of chappies who can look pretty impressive as long as they’ve rolled out of the right side of the bed. Alas, it’s fair to say that this wasn’t his finest hour. To suggest that he stank the place out would be over-egging it, but my pre-teen niece, casting eyes upon him for the first time, did not hang about in passing her judgement that he was utterly without merit and undeserving of his place in the team. One understood her train of thought.

I actually thought that, when not suddenly stopping attacks in order to drag the ball back and pass behind him, Gil made himself a nuisance. Put another way, he kept his opposing defender on his toes. If the opposing defender (Konsa?) had wanted to bed in for a gentle snooze he was in the wrong neck of the woods, for Gil was not lacking in eagerness to collect the ball and have a dart.

The problem was that having done all his scurrying, he didn’t really have an exciting conclusion with which to round off his stories. He delivered one gorgeous-looking cross that was an inch or two too high for Sonny, but that aside seemed repeatedly to choose the wrong option when it came to The Big Moment.

Not that he was alone in this, for, as alluded to above, none of the forward line exactly covered themselves in glory, each tripping over themselves to demonstrate different ways in which to bungle the simplest of chances.

Being rather a fan of young Gil, I rather hope that this is not his only opportunity under Big Ange. One mal-coordinated swallow doth not necessarily a dreary summer make, and I seem to recall about this time last year he began to impress when given a run of games under Conte (before rather oddly being shoved out the door and off on loan). He is clearly well down the pecking order, and the returns of Sarr and Bissouma will presumably see a rejig, but seeing as much of that aforementioned pecking order has been obliterated by injuries, opportunity ought still to knock for a few weeks yet.

4. The Centre Backs

It feels rather harsh to criticise Davies and Emerson for not being outstanding centre-backs. A bit like criticising a couple of horses for not being great whales. Not really their fault, what? Not really the roles for which their maker made them.

Still, there they were, and there it was. Whenever Villa ran at them on the counter, Davies and Emerson offered token resistance only. This was rather emphatically demonstrated in the early disallowed goal (Watkins header, immediately after our opener, in case you’re struggling to categorise all the offsides and VAR). A fairly perfunctory cross was swung in from a wide area – perfectly fine, decent pace and trajectory – but the mind-boggling, and pretty alarming element of all this was the wide old acreage in which Watkins was allowed to potter around. Squint the eyes and one might have made out Emerson on the far side, a sizeable distance away from Davies on the near side. And wandering between them like an abandoned stray was Watkins.

It didn’t help, of course, that our midfield were of the all-action-no-plot school, and therefore gave precious few cares about such issues as defensive cover. As and when Villa wanted, they strolled straight through the centre and had a pretty free run at our centre-backs.

Nevertheless, when called into action, Davies and Emerson gave it their all but were pretty worryingly out of their depth. The second goal again illustrated all of the above. Hojbjerg and I think Lo Celso did a good job of statically watching as the ball was passed around them and towards goal, and when it reached the edge of the area Davies and Emerson gave the air of men desperately trying to recall what was printed in the training manual as Watkins sauntered between them and did his thing.

Not really their faults, to emphasise, and I understood the decision to use those two instead of Dier, given that much of the game was to be spent playing a high line and sprinting backwards; but the return of Romero cannot come soon enough, and the need for another top-notch centre-back to join the gang is pretty stark.

RIP Terry Venables, nothing but the fondest memories

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Spurs match reports

Palace 1-2 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1.  Davies vs Royal at Left-Back

Squad depth – or lack thereof – seems as likely as anything else to unstrap the safety harness and eject us from the vehicle this season. It’s hardly cold sweats in the middle of the night territory just yet, but the thought of pretty much any two or three of the choice XI (bar poor old Richarlison, perhaps) being simultaneously absented from a performance does make one widen the eyes and murmur, “Golly.”

And given this context I’ve been rather grateful to those gods responsible for these things for dealing us but a single absentee each week, allowing us just to dip a tentative toe into the ‘Strength In Reserve’ waters rather than having to plunge in fully and immerse the whole frame. Last week Bissouma was missing; this week Bissouma was back, and Udogie was missing.

In the sort of move that would baffle AANP’s better half, Our Glorious Leader therefore made an entirely rationale decision, and opted for Ben Davies – but any fans of like-for-like performance-matching might have been advised to prepare for a bit of a letdown. Where Udogie gives the term “Left-Back” the loosest possible interpretation, and bounds off to see what’s happening in midfield and attack and so forth, Davies’ approach is what you might call a tad more traditional.

Giving the air of a schoolboy who always did as told, Davies obediently trotted off to the left side of our defence, and made safe upkeep of this territory his priority. Which is not to say he didn’t partake in Ange-Ball and its liberal use of full-backs in attacking areas, but somehow when he ventured up the field he seemed to do so in a slightly robotic manner. If Richarlison received the ball on the left touchline and in advance of halfway, Davies took this as his cue, and dutifully trotted about 20 yards in advance of the action, and waved his arms around as instructed.

Now one could argue that this was precisely what was required, and in precisely the right circumstances – yet somehow this very precision was the problem. Much of the joy of Udogie’s performances is that one never knows quite what the hell he’ll do next, or where for that matter, whereas one could set one’s clock by Ben Davies.

On top of which, I’m not entirely convinced that Davies even had the conventional, defensive duties of a left-back entirely under control. Ayew and various others seemed to cause a spot of consternation down that particular flank, and with such limited outputs in either northerly or southerly directions, one understood the half-time move to trade in a Davies, B. for a Royal, E.

Emerson, whose lilywhite career has already waxed and waned like nobody’s business, is now finding himself having to make a fist of things as a reserve inverted left-back. And while on paper this might sound a bit thick for a born and bred right-back, it’s a role so madcap that it suited rather well a chap quite clearly missing a few key screw upstairs. Emerson swiftly beetled off into a deep-lying central midfield sort of role – alongside Porro, naturally – and the slightly chaotic nature of Ange-Ball’s formations was restored.

2. Richarlison vs Brennan Johnson

As ever, it was a tough old gig for Richarlison, who could not look more like a square peg struggling with a round hole if he were composed entirely of right angles and straight lines. As ever, there was no faulting his effort. Worker ants of the tireless variety could take a few tips from the lad, as he closed down Palace defenders, tracked back after their more attacking bimbos and patiently tried to outwit his man when actually in possession.

He might even have set up a first half goal, and quite brilliantly too, stretching all available sinews to head delicately back into play a ball that seemed to be sailing pretty serenely off into the stands – only for Maddison to lash the resulting gift off into the gods.

But while the various members of the backroom staff will no doubt be lining up to slap his back and commend him on his effort, the slightly awkward truth is that he’s not really delivering much in the way of an attacking harvest.

It’s probably worth reiterating his value in assisting our high press, for this seems to have brought about a decent percentage of the goals we’ve scored in recent weeks – and I can think of one recently-departed member of this parish who, for all his goalscoring, didn’t have the puff to chase down the opposition defence non-stop over the course of a full 90.

But alas. When it came to key passes, tantalising crosses or shots on target, the cup could hardly be said to floweth over. There have been a few inviting passes into dangerous areas during Richarlison’s stint on the left, and a fair number of shots from in and around the area, of varying degrees of inaccuracy. All ten-out-of-ten-for-effort sort of stuff, but it’s not really only effort we’re after, what?

Enter Brennan Johnson, who within about two shakes of a lamb’s tail had played a pretty critical part in a goal, first in rather inventive use of the forehead to control a cross and pass to a chum in the same motion; and then in dashing to the by-line to set up Sonny for a tap-in.

Better minds than mine will pore over the tactical minutiae that distinguished Richarlison’s performance from Johnson’s, but, put bluntly, we just seem to have a bit more attacking threat with the latter buzzing around on the left. One for Our Glorious Leader to ponder in the coming days.

3. Neil Ruddock and Des Walker

Back in the summer of 1993, a pre-teen AANP could be heard excitedly nattering away to anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, that the gossip pages of 90 Minutes and Shoot and whatnot suggested that the lightning quick feet of Des Walker would imminently be speeding around the hallowed turf of White Hart Lane. This would have been pretty sensational stuff on its own, but the prospect of the jet-heeled Walker partnering with resident centre-back Neil Ruddock, a chap whose dispute-settling style might generously be termed ‘firm’, had the youthful AANP pretty giddy with excitement.

Alas, in confirmation of what had gone before, and a dashed certain omen of what was to come, Spurs rather broke my heart, by not only failing to bring Walker to our shores, but also parting with Ruddock that same summer.

The intervening thirty years spent watching our heroes have occasionally been somewhat trying – in fact, at times, particularly during the 90s, it felt like the life has rather drained from my core while watching our lot – but finally it feels that that promise of pace and power at the heart of our defence is being realised. Van de Ven and Romero are quickly morphing into a pretty sensational combo.

Both are about as comfortable in possession as central defenders come these days, which I’m not sure is the sort of accusation that could ever have been levelled at either of Messrs N.R. or D.W. But it is the glorious marriage of Romero’s clattering tackles – light on nonsense, heavy on force – and VDV’s swiftness of travel between points A and B that gives the impression that we have stumbled upon something special here.

Both were, in their own ways, in fine old fettle on Friday night. When Palace did breach the rear – which they did a mite too often in the first half – it seemed to be despite rather than because of our centre-backs, and indeed, Romero and VDV could as often as not be spotted planting a well-timed intervening clog in the way of things, to abate incoming trouble.

The earlier concern, about the potential absence of critical bodies, applies more to Romero and VDV than most, and another Top Four-standard centre-back will almost certainly be needed at some point between now and May. For the time being however, we might as well just enjoy the rare delights of a solid centre-back pairing.

4. Slow-Slow-Fast

My old man, AANP Senior, had the honour of being a regular at the Lane during our Double-winning season no less, so was presumably as excitable as the rest of us in his prime; but now, in his 91st year, he casts the beady eye in rather less forgiving manner. And when Messrs Romero and Vicario spent sizeable chunks of the second half dwelling on the ball under no pressure, before shrugging their shoulders and rolling it between each other, a certain cantankerous gruffling emanated from the aged relative. He was not amused.

Which was a shame, because I thought it was an absolute blast. Palace, understandably enough, had had a game-plan at nil-nil, to sit back and allow our goalkeeper and defenders all the possession they wanted, safe in the knowledge that no harm would come of it. But once our lot were one-nil up, it took a while for Palace to compute that their cause was not helped by simply sitting back and allowing Romero and Vicario to light cigars and natter away amongst themselves.

Eventually therefore, our hosts rather reluctantly committed a body or two towards the ball, and our heroes duly picked them off with aplomb. On several occasions, as soon as a Palace forward inched towards Romero or Vicario, one or other of this pair expertly bisected approximately half their team with a sudden forward pass into midfield.

This in itself provided a healthy dollop of aesthetic reward, but the fun didn’t stop there, as those receiving the thing in midfield were clearly well up on current events, and fully aware of the next stage of the plan. Whether it was Hojbjerg, Porro, Maddison or Sarr, the midfield johnnie receiving the ball would ping it wide, first-time and on the half-turn, and before you could say “This slow-slow-quick approach allows our lot to cut through Palace like a knife through butter, what?”, our heroes were in on goal.

This impeccable choreography was rarely better displayed than in our second goal, that slow-slow-quick approach being at the very core of the move. Romero dwelt and dwelt before neatly picking out Hojbjerg, and he swiftly conveyed the thing to Sarr, who crowned what I thought was a man-of-the-match performance with a glorious cross-field switch, from an innocuous right-back position over to Brennan Johnson in a more threatening left-wing spot. Johnson, as alluded to earlier, used his head to good effect, and a couple of classic Ange-Ball one-touch passes later Sonny was tapping in from point-blank range.

The move, in its entirety from back to front, was an absolute masterpiece, and while the television bods seemed to underplay it a tad, the fact that even AANP Senior was moved to mutter a pithy word or two of semi-satisfaction more accurately reflected its quality.

The late goal – which could be pinned pretty squarely on the otherwise decent Porro – was a reminder to our lot not to settle in for their nap before time is up, but this on balance was another deserved win, leaving only the question of whether Bentancur and Gil will make enough appearances this season to collect their League-winners’ medals in May.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-0 Man Utd: Six Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sarr

Not to be uncharitable to Oliver Skipp – as honest a bean as ever trod the hallowed turf – but when tasked with recalling his contribution to last week’s affair I drew a blank for an uncomfortably long time, before a single word floated to mind: ‘nondescript’.  

The news that young Master Sarr had inherited his berth for this one was therefore met with a raised eyebrow of intrigue in this neck of the woods. Certainly, the mood around these (and, as I understand, many other) parts had been that while Bissouma and Maddison were doing all their respective necessaries, and with flying colours, a job opening was presenting itself for the final part of that midfield triumvirate. Mid-game (last weekend) there had been a few understandable yelps for Lo Celso; give it a few months and the knees will weaken considerably when Bentancur bobs back into view; but I was as curious as the next fellow to see what Sarr might bring.

And to his credit, the young egg brought a decent-sized sackful of the good stuff. Admittedly in the first half hour or so he seemed to be peddling an Oliver Skipp impression – working hard but to little great effect – but for this he could be excused, as Bissouma aside, not too many in lilywhite were having the game of their lives.

Thereafter, however, seemingly struck by the realisation that this stage was actually a pretty good fit for him, he began belting out a few greatest hits. Tackles were won (and as often as not with a spot of additional biff, for meaning), and crisp passes were passed, which meant that he fitted right in with the happy campers all sides of him. That aforementioned triumvirate had a pretty balanced look to it, which might sound like a rather dreary physics experiment but is actually intended as a compliment of the highest order. To Bissouma’s all-action defence-to-attack dribbling, and Maddison’s creativity, one could add decent wedges of energy and intelligence from Sarr.

On top of which he made a difficult finish look pea-shellingly easy. Having already dipped into that well of energy and intelligence to Platt/Scholes/Dele his way into the penalty area at just the right moment, he then managed to keep under control a ball that was both bobbling and moving away from him. Lashed into the net it might have been, but as he swung back the appropriate limb in preparation for his shot, the AANP mortgage was on the ball sailing off into the gods.

Big Ange still seems to be in Test Mode when it comes to identifying the right fit for the starting eleven, but P-M Sarr’s struck me as one heck of an audition for the coming 36 games.

2. Bissouma

As mentioned, however, it was Bissouma and Maddison who again elevated the thing.

Some may have cleared the throat with a spot of indignation at the comparisons to Mousa Dembele being tossed about the place when it comes to Yves Bissouma, but if a fellow is going to collect the ball from his own defenders and then glide past an endless stream of opposing midfielders with little more than a spot of upper-body misdirection, then what else is there to do but draw precisely such comparisons?

A common lament echoing around the walls of AANP Towers last season was that none amongst our midfield number seemed either confident or capable of collecting the ball under pressure, much less shielding it and turning with it and finding nearby chums and whatnot. Close the eyes, and it is not too difficult to conjure up an image of a Skipp, Hojbjerg, Winks or whomever facing their own goal and being bundled out of possession, ensuing catastrophe not far behind.

Bissouma, however, is a different and vastly preferable kettle of fish. Whether receiving the ball just inside his own area or just outside the opposition’s, he seems to exhibit a pretty minimal level of concern either way, and just gets on with the business of dipping a shoulder and easing his way around swinging opposition limbs. It is an absolute joy to behold. Presumably there will come times when this approach backfires and Bissouma comes to look something of a chump, but frankly he is already amassing a decent wodge of credit in the bank.

The newly-signed misfit of last season is unrecognisable. If he really were unable to master Conte’s tactics, then I rather scorn the tactics and the man who oversaw them, because Bissouma has twice in a week looked comfortably the best player on the pitch.

3. Maddison


And Maddison was not far behind him. At times in the first half, and then regularly in the second, he seemed to delight in first demanding the ball and then strutting around with the thing once it had been sent his way.

Nor was it just for show. Be it a pass or a dribble, Maddison seemed pretty adept at picking an option that caused a fair amount of consternation – or blind panic – amongst the United bods. He may not have scored or created a goal today, but his contribution was considerable, not least in that glorious period after half-time when our heroes really had the other lot against the ropes and gave them a good old-fashioned pummelling.

I particularly enjoyed seeing Maddison share a midfield with one Christian Eriksen, the last creative spark to bound about the place. A regular grumble about the latter was that he was a bit too polite about things when in lilywhite, happy to let others grab the mic as it were, while he sidled off into the background.

By contrast, Maddison seems always to be popping up about the place demanding to be involved. I suppose strictly speaking his official position is on the left-ish side of the centre, but the net result seems to be that if the ball is in play then he is merrily bobbing towards it, happy to take on the responsibility of pulling a few of the key strings.

4. Porro

Not that it was all a bed of roses in midfield. As well as Sarr, the other tweak from last week’s line-up was Porro for Emerson, in that right-back-cum-who-the-hell-knows role. It was not Master P.P.’s finest hour and a half. That whole collect-the-ball-on-the-half-turn-outside-one’s-own-area gambit may look a whizz when Yves Bissouma casually unveils it, but Porro’s attempts were rather more on the ham-fisted side of things. Whether it was lack of technique, lack of awareness or lack of eyes in the back of his head, it soon became evident that popping the ball to Porro outside our area was a manoeuvre absolutely dripping in risk.

In truth I felt rather sorry for the young nib. I mean, there he was brought to these shores under the beady eye of one chappie, who then exploded in rage and biffed off, to be replaced by another chappie with vastly different ideas about the way of things. Because lest we forget, Porro was beginning to demonstrate himself to be one of the better wing-backs about the place. Play a vaguely conventional system, and ask him to bomb up the right flank, and he’s your man. Be it crosses, cute passes or pretty lethal finishing, his final third armoury was well-stocked.

And instead, he’s now being asked to tuck inside and spend a goodish amount of time pretending to be three-fifths of a defensive midfielder. As with Emerson last week, he seems to be a fairly capable square peg being asked to rearrange the features in order to squeeze into a round hole. Porro, like Emerson, is pretty decent at what he does best, but this system seems to ask him to do something rather different.

5. Vicario

A successful afternoon’s work for young Signor Vicario. Opinions ranged a bit last week – I was rather taken by his calmness on the ball; others seemed to resent being driven to the brink of coronary failure by it – but this time around we can probably agree that, like or loathe the approach, he did not put too many feet wrong.

His presence certainly adds a pretty natty line of operation to our defensive setup. Whereas in the days of Lloris, on seeing our lot attempt to play out from the back the anthem on the AANP lips was typically some variant of “Just clear the bally thing, dash it,” nowadays I watch on with a curiosity bordering on admiration.

Vicario seems awfully comfortable in possession. Heck, I rather fancy that if necessary he could do a better job than Porro in that spot just outside the penalty area. Well maybe not, but you get the gist. Picking a pass from within the six-yard box seems to be just another unspectacular part of the day-job for the fellow. This brave new era will certainly take a bit of getting used to, but having a goalkeeper as available for a spot of keep-ball as any of the outfield mob certainly makes things a few notches easier.

Vicario also had a handful of saves to make, many of which were straight down his gullet, but one or two of which involved a spot of the old spring-heeled action. And again, say what you want about the aesthetics of it all, but he did precisely what was required in each instance. For all the leaping around in the latter stages, I personally thought that his low block in the early moments, when dashing off his line to face Rashford, was the pick of the bunch.

Still too early to opine wisely either way, but this at least was reassuring stuff.

6. Ange-Ball

So another day, and another triumph for Ange-Ball. Not just in terms of the result, but very much in terms of the performance too. As with last week, and the various pre-season jaunts, this was something that brought the joy back to watching our lot.

The usual caveats apply – we might have been well behind before we really got the hang of the thing; the whizzy football was produced in fits and starts; Richarlison still seems to be playing the wrong sport – but this was often marvellous stuff to take in.

Worth bearing in mind too that we are, in patches, purring away after only about six or seven weeks of the new regime. The draw last week was against a side that has had a settled and organised way of doing things for a season; the win today against a Top Four team whose manager has been in situ for over a year. Frankly, the thought of where our lot might be after a year of Ange makes me rather giddy.

Oddly enough, one of the moments that really left its mark over in this corner of the interweb came from the size nines of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, a chap who has generally been shovelled well off into the background since Our Glorious Leader came rumbling into view (to the extent that this might have been his final appearance in lilywhite, Atletico-infused rumours doing the rounds).

In the dying embers, Hojbjerg, having been brought on to wise-old-head the game to its conclusion, popped up in a right-back sort of spot – and I mean a conventional right-back spot, rather than the new-fangled midfield-ish one. From out of nowhere, Hojbjerg produced a rather thrilling turn to leave his man groping at thin air, and for a moment he seemed to be away. The pitch opened up ahead of him; momentum suddenly shifted onto the front-foot; that opponent was still groping away in the wrong direction. Opportunity knocked.

But Hojbjerg, being Hojbjerg, responded to this new and exciting possibility by picking the option that I suppose made him so undroppable under Jose and Conte, and put his foot on the ball before spinning around and passing the damn thing backwards. And one understands – the game was almost won and the lead well established, so playing it safe would bring its reward.

But the whole episode jarred rather, precisely because it was so out of keeping with the 180 minutes of Ange-Ball we have witnessed to date. This current Tottenham vintage turns its man and doesn’t look back, but puts its head down and races forward, or at the very least pings off a pass in a northerly direction for some well-intentioned colleague to do the racing forward instead. Watching Hojbjerg default to safety-first seemed to ram home the fact that he was one of the last of the old era, while all around him were Bissoumas and Maddisons and the like, for whom receiving the ball was basically a prompt to go wandering off on the attack.

All a rather long-winded way of saying that this newly-adopted style is absolutely ripping stuff, nascent and rough around the edges though it might be, and I for one cannot wait for the next instalment.  

Categories
Spurs match reports

Brentford 2-2 Spurs: Seven Tottenham Talking Points

1. Vicario

Beginning geographically, and our newest custodian actually began his lilywhite career by making a solid pig’s ear of things, with a pass firmly planted off into the stands. Thereafter, however, Vicario certainly gave the impression of being well fitted by Nature for life with the ball at his feet. In fact, at times he came across as one of those chappies in a 5-a-side team who takes their stint in goal only because they absolutely have to, but is far happier outfield and will make the point by regularly straying out of their area to join in the keep-ball.

And in that respect I thought he ticked along nicely. Easy to forget, but in recent years we’ve been treated to the sight of Lloris’ brain appearing to melt every time he had to deal with the ball at his feet. Vicario by contrast was pretty laid-back about ball-on-turf matters.

I must admit that the sight of him casually stroking the ball to a chum on our penalty spot quickened the old pulse a dashed sight more than is ideal on a Sunday afternoon, but he seemed to consider it all a bit of a non-event and just kept doing it. And since nobody around him demurred, and given that it was also entirely in keeping with the broader Ange-ball approach, I fairly quickly became a fully paid-up signatory.

In other respects there were limited grounds for wild and premature over-reactions. He had no chance with either goal; claimed the occasional cross; and pootled off on one ill-advised little wander late one, which on another day might have resulted in another penalty. But by and large he kept his head down and amused himself by milking every opportunity to play the ball with his feet.

2. Van de Ven and Udogie On the Left

A nervous eyebrow was raised pre-match at the sight of both of Messrs VDV ^Udogie stationed across the left side of our back four. Not to cast aspersions on their characters or abilities of course, or to question the impeccable judgement of our newest grand fromage, but still. Throwing in one fellow for his first taste of life in a Spurs defence does prompt the sharp intake of breath and silent prayer – and, frankly, carries the risk of traumatising the young nib in question – but one generally reassures oneself by looking along the line at more experienced bods east and west.

To have two such new faces stationed at the back suggested that Ange either brimmed with confidence in the abilities of both, or was happy to play pretty fast and loose with our back-line.

Mercifully, it proved a pretty inspired call. Van de Ven came across as one of those chaps who knew where and when a crisis might brew and his services be required, and conscientiously galloped off to the appropriate coordinates on schedule. He was pretty unfortunate to pop the ball into his own net, but that deflection aside his touch looked pretty assured, and the fabled burst of pace was in good working order throughout.

Young Master Udogie was even more impressive. I’m glad that he rather than I was asked to bob about the place as an ‘inverted full-back’, because the concept makes my head swim a goodish bit, but he seemed pretty up-to-speed with the T’s and C’s of the deal. It seemed a nifty concept, allowing for an extra body in attack, and Udogie did it well; but crucially also had the good sense to keep an eye on his defensive duties at all times. He is evidently the sort of johnnie who takes the defensive stuff pretty seriously too, as witnessed by some robust thou-shalt-not-pass stuff at various points in the second half in particular.

When one realises that the main defensive lapses had their genesis on our right side, one appreciates all the more the efforts of VDV and Udogie, the contrast between this pair on the left and the Emerson-Sanchez axis on the right being noticeable.

3. Bissouma

Possibly foremost amongst a healthy selection of positives were the works and deeds throughout of one Yves Bissouma. After some pretty underwhelming stuff from him last season, this felt a lot more like the laddie about whom we all raved and back-slapped last summer when he first pitched up at the door.

In fact, this actually surpassed what I had been expecting of him last season. To my shame, I had him down as pretty much Destroyer of Opposing Bright Ideas, and little else. Mark my surprise, then, when I realised as today’s frolics unfolded, that the fellow is actually also an impish master of the Fleet-Footed Skip Around Attempted Opposing Challenges. Put another way, I assumed Bissouma’s trademark would be his tackling; I was ill-prepared for adeptness also in the field of dribbling.

And yet, with a dip of the shoulder and a spot of close control, he could often be spotted weaving his way forward past a challenge or two before handing the mic over to a nearby chum to clear their throat and hammer out a line of their own. I’ll whisper it, and qualify it as dreadfully early to say such things, but it even reminded me of the way one Mousa Dembele would transfer matters from his own half to the opposition’s, leaving bystanders to do little more than flap at him.

With Maddison (more on whom below) alongside – or, rather – further forward to receive Bissouma’s produce, the midfield actually began to glisten a bit, a million miles from the drudgery of last year. Give everyone a bit of time to get used to the new way of things, and then throw in Bentancur in a few months, and this really could be mouth-watering stuff.

4. Maddison

Maddison was another who attracted the approving nod from this quarter. It’s no particular exaggeration to suggest that he is the first creative midfielder we’ve had in our ranks since Eriksen oiled off, but whereas a bête noire of mine about the latter was that he would too often drift on the periphery of matters, Maddison seemed possessed of just the right level of confidence-bordering-on-arrogance to elbow his way into the centre of things and demand possession at every given opportunity.

And once given possession, he peddled a dashed handy line in making things tick. Not all his attempted tricksy diagonals and cute reverse passes necessarily came off, but he tried them throughout, and fed into the overall narrative of our lot as a team with a bit of zip and creativity about us.

He also has a most becoming habit of collecting the ball on the half-turn and leaving a flailing opponent in his rear-view mirror. The progressive shuffle from Bissouma around halfway, to Maddison inside the opponents’ half, and then on again towards Richarlison or Kulusevski or whomever, was pleasing to observe.

On top of which, that free-kick delivery for our opener was as much a joy to behold as it was no doubt fiendishly difficult to defend. Another most useful string to the bow.

5. The Rest of the Midfield (Bundling in Emerson, Son and Kulusevski Here, As Well As Skipp)

However, while Bissouma and Maddison caught the eye, I feel I would be wilfully deceiving to suggest that Skipp reached similar heights. He was certainly there, in the flesh, no doubt about it, and presumably statistics abound to suggest that he completed passes and covered a few miles, but I do struggle to remember contributing much to the overall jamboree. This may be a good thing, I suppose, in a ‘ticking things over’ sort of way. But nevertheless, as he departed the scene, the words ‘Hojbjerg Tribute Act’ rather cruelly sprang to mind.

The other questionable element in midfield was Emerson Royal. I use the term ‘midfield’ a little loosely, but you get my drift – part of the new whizzy set-up evidently involves the right-back shuffling into a deep-lying central midfield sort of area, and one understands the logic. Credit to the chap also, for daring to take a shot, a strategy that most of his chums seemed to regard often with suspicion and at times a deep-rooted aversion.

But nevertheless, if we are to stick an extra body in midfield, I would vote in future for someone a bit cannier on the ball than Emerson. Put bluntly, Trent he is not.

Moreover, for all the modern tweaking to his roles and responsibilities, Emerson’s job title remains ‘Right-Back’, and in this respect he was far from flawless, not least in allowing the equaliser (and very nearly a third on the stroke of half-time).

And one further, slightly deleterious consequence of the new-fangled formation is that it struck me as slightly limiting the contributions of Messrs Son and Kulusevski. I suppose they might just have had subdued days, or not quite grasped the intricacies of their respective roles, but both seemed a little marooned out wide, and either reluctant to or forbidden from venturing into more central areas. One about which our newest Glorious Leader can give the chin a few further strokes, perhaps.  

6. Richarlison

A brief note on poor old Richarlison, who will no doubt be eternally damned by some for the crime of not being Harry Kane.

I suspect even his most ardent fans would admit that his afternoon’s work was fairly unspectacular stuff. He had perhaps two chances, neither of which were entirely straightforward, and neither of which he made the most of. In truth it seemed to me that for all their willing and endeavour, those around him did not quite know how best to service the chap, and, as a result, for all his huff and puff there was little chance of him blowing anything down in a hurry.

A slightly more developed understanding between Richarlison and the other 10 will presumably evolve in time – and this hits upon a point I was yammering on about to anyone who would listen pre-match, viz. that his dubious stats from Season 22/23 were based on intermittent appearances and rarely in the Number 9 role. To suggest that his limited output last season is down to plain ineptitude would rather overstate things a bit too dramatically.  Given the opportunity this season for a run of matches, in the central striking role he occupies for Brazil, I would have thought there is a good chance he’ll start popping away his opportunities.

Moreover, as my Spurs-supporting chum Dave pointed out, Richarlison’s out-of-possession strengths, specifically in leading the high press, adds an element to our play that we didn’t necessarily have with the last chap leading the line. Specifically, he conjectured that part of the reason we had so much possession and looked the likelier winners, in the second half in particular, was that Richarlison’s beavering meant Brentford’s centre-backs rarely had sufficient time to play the ball out.

7. Ange-Ball

AANP’s pre-match prediction had been “4-3, to whom I’m not sure,” and if that were a tad fanciful I was pretty satisfied nevertheless with what I witnessed. There’s the obvious caveat that we didn’t actually win the bally thing, and to emerge with a draw despite having dominated a lot of possession hardly screams a successful day out; but that I grudgingly accept a draw away to a proven and settled Brentford side already seems an improvement on last season’s (and indeed the previous seasons’) drudgery.

For a start, this was vastly more fun to watch than the previous seasons’ fare. Whichever member of our gang was in possession today was pretty intent on finding a short pass as a matter of urgency. While this led to a few comical exchanges of multiple short-distance one-twos, overall the effect was most pleasing upon the eye. Unlike in previous seasons, those in our colours seemed pretty clear on the game-plan.

Understanding between those on the pitch will presumably take some time to develop, but whereas in previous seasons the poor blighter in possession would often give his arms a flap and spend a good five seconds searching for an option before spinning around and blooting the dashed thing south, today the default was to venture north, and passing options abounded.

There are, naturally, plenty of areas for improvement – as mentioned earlier we were rather shot-shy; Sonny and Kulusevski seem a tad forlorn; right-back remains a slightly squiffy issue; and so on – but here at AANP Towers this certainly felt like a pretty sizeable breath of fresh air, and a marked change from and improvement upon what had gone before.  

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-0 Palace: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Change in Shape and Personnel: Porro

After a couple of weeks that have been heavy on action and light on plot, our latest Glorious Leader did the honourable thing and picked the option marked “Do Something – Anything – Differently”. Which translated into the hooking of Messrs Perisic, Dier and Kulusevski; and a line-up that, while still seeming pretty lopsided, was at least lopsided in a new and interesting way.

The change in formation struck me as one of those jobbies in which in possession the gang adopts Format A, but out of possession they revert as one to Format B, if you follow. So at various points Emerson was tucking in as a third centre-back, while at others he seemed to be surreptitiously shuffling off towards the flank to adopt a more conventionally right-back pose. In fact, it appeared at certain times as if our heroes were going about their business in a 4-4-2, which rather took me back to my salad days in the 80s. A pleasing riposte to false nines and that sort of thing, what?

Back to the general mass of humanity on our right side, and the reappearance of resident eccentric, Emerson Royal, was quite the pleasant surprise. For a start, he displayed a hitherto unknown sense of inconspicuousness in returning to the fold completely under the radar. I’d pretty much written the fellow off for the season, and rather forgotten about him in truth, what with one damn thing and another at N17.

But there he was, in that unspecified, hybrid defensive role on the right, crossing all t’s and dotting all i’s in the manner one would expect of arguably our greatest ever player. However, if the reception he received from the paying masses was rosy, I suspect it paled into insignificance next to that he received from Pedro Porro.  Poor old P.P.’s eyes may light up when charging into the final third, but if he’s shown us one thing over the last couple of months it’s that he couldn’t look less comfortable in his defensive duties if he slung a sandwich board about his frame bearing the legend “I Just Want To Be A Winger”, and continued wearing it while trying to defend.

With Emerson babysitting him however, it was a different story. Porro was able to shove most of his eggs into the attacking basket, and on balance one would say he ended up with a few more pluses than minuses to his name.

He slung in enough crosses that sooner or later he was bound to strike oil with one of them, duly doing so to create our goal; but as well as his general output I was pretty satisfied to see him scuttling into view, stage right, with every attack. Again, the goal was a decent example of that, Porro getting his head down and hurtling over halfway out on the right, even as the attack was still having its genesis somewhere nearer the left flank – all of which preliminaries meant that when Kane lobbed the ball off towards the right of the area, the young frijole seemed to have approximately a quarter of the stadium at his mercy to do as he pleased.  

2. The Change in Shape and Personnel: Dier (and Romero and Lenglet)

The other principal consequence of the rejig was the removal of Eric Dier from any area in which his slightest involvement might spark the usual disaster. It is, of course, a little difficult to judge the success of someone’s absence. One could, in theory, emit a joyful whoop at the fact that Dier was not in situ to dither on the ball or play a chum into trouble or mistime a lunge or get dragged out of position or get outpaced; but this seems a little hollow. Rather like celebrating the fact that a piano hasn’t fallen on one’s head – good news, of course, in anyone’s book, but more the sort of thing one curses when it does  happen, rather than celebrating when it doesn’t.

More usefully, the absence of Dier seemed to have a calming effect upon Romero, who, since returning to the day-job with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck, has given the impression of turning up for work every day since absolutely sozzled in celebration.

Yesterday, however, with the absence of a calamitous defender on one side of him, and the presence of a capable defender on the other, Romero appeared pretty steady on his feet. Of wild lunges and cavalier shimmies forward, there were none. He still found time to pick another lovely 50-yard pass or two – hang your head in shame, Sonny – but it was the principal business, of keeping things under lock and key at the back, that were of concern, and he seemed focused enough.

I’m not sure how much credit Monsieur Lenglet should be given for this. I’m never really sure how much credit Monsieur Lenglet should be given in general. He seems to be one of those chappies who has loosely the right sort of idea, and can also contribute a bit bringing the ball forward, which helps; but who will just shrug the shoulders and let out a sad gallic sigh if an opponent gets the wrong side of him, accepting his fate as irreversible, which nettles a bit.

Be that as it may, not being Eric Dier seemed to work in his favour yesterday, as did the fact that alongside him (I’m shuffling right-to-left here) he had Ben Davies in Cautious Mode, both full-backs for the day clearly having been drilled on the importance of being as boring as possible, for the greater good. Anyway, the nub of it was that Lenglet-and-Romero more or less worked, as a central pairing, at least when up against Palace at home and with Fraser Forster’s enormous frame behind them.

3. Ryan Mason

A triumph for Ryan Mason, then, a bean about whom I can’t really make up the mind, three games into his second stint.

That he cares about the club, with all the loveable idiocy of you, I or any other long-suffering fan, is beyond doubt. Cut Mason open and he bleeds lilywhite. Thrust a microphone in his face immediately after the final whistle, and within ten seconds he’ll forget the rules of diplomacy that the PR mob have spoon-fed him, and instead launch into some pretty impassioned stuff, his voice rising an octave, which is really the tell-tale sign that it’s all coming from the heart. After the public sabotage of Conte and Jose, this sort of thing is welcome stuff. This sort of thing makes me want to clasp his hand with firmness and meaning, and there’s not much stronger sentiment than that.

The players are apparently fond of the chap too, or at least happy enough to do his bidding and enquire how high when he yips ‘Jump’. Again, after a couple of years’ worth of managers taking every opportunity to advertise to the world how inept the players are, this seems a pretty useful commodity.

Tactically, I find him a bit harder to fathom. The changes made yesterday seemed to do the trick, at least suggesting a spot of welcome clarity at the back, as well time well spent behind closed doors. It’s hardly his fault that there is not a creative midfielder to be found at the club; and his adjustment to a back-four featuring bona fide full-backs, while seemingly about as common sensical as it gets, was much needed (and yet, bizarrely, completely beyond the grasp of those who trod the path before).

I also rather like the spirit with which he approaches in-game tweaks and substitutions, as if struck by a realisation, which again had completely eluded his predecessors, that by virtue of his role he possesses the capacity to move the pawns about a bit and thereby effect change in real-time. The famous Dier-related adjustment against Man City was apparently his bright idea; and he can take a sizeable chunk of the credit for second half comebacks against both Man Utd and Liverpool, improvements of sorts being evident after his tuppence worth at half-time.

But nevertheless, I have my doubts in this regard. Improved though we may have been after half-time in the aforementioned matches, they were still his troops, under his orders, who fell behind in the first place. (One sympathises here, admittedly, for he was dealt an abysmal hand; but one cannot really have it both ways – credit for the comeback goes hand-in-hand with chiding for the deficit.)

Nor does young Mason exactly come across as particularly Churchillian in manner. Fun though it is to see a genuine fan taking charge of things, for all his being a likeable young soul I struggle to imagine him either stirring fire in bellies or plotting tactical works of genius. Not his fault, of course, that he’s a contemporary (or junior) of half them, but still. Gravitas and nous do not really seem to be his selling points.

The big caveat here, of course, is that this judgement is based purely on the evidence of what Mason presents to the public in press conferences and interviews and whatnot – and here I may well do him quite the injustice. The impression he gives in front of the camera is that of a passionate fan, rather than one of the game’s great thinkers; behind closed doors there may well lurk a far more astute mind (indeed, the murmurs one hears from behind the scenes suggest as much), and one heck of a communicator too.


For now, at least, his presence at the helm makes a goodish amount of sense. Whatever the problems at the club, they were not of his making. If he can inspire our lot simply to care as much as he does, politely demote those worth demotion (irrespective of reputation) and continue to instil the same level of organisation and clarity that was evident on Saturday, then it will be a job pretty well done.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-0 West Ham: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson Royal, Cult Hero

Over in the West Wing of AANP Towers, I once idled away a few months writing a full-on tome about our lot. I mention this not to drum up sales (although if you will insist then step right this way) but because the title of the thing – Spurs’ Cult Heroes – hove to mind yesterday as I watched Emerson Royal complete his stunning character arc from hopeless incompetent whose every involvement brought howls of rage, to dashing conqueror, whose every touch cheer was cheered to the rafters.

The definition of a ‘Cult Hero’ is pretty loose (one man’s Tony Parks penalty save is another man’s 866 Steve Perryman appearances, if you get the gist), but most seem to agree that there is a distinct category carved out for those maverick sorts, who by virtue of, amongst other things, a) being slightly batty, and b) committing every fibre of their being to the cause, are taken to heart by the adoring masses. Throw in a villain-to-hero redemption arc and it all becomes pretty irresistible stuff. Watching in awe as Emerson went into overdrive yesterday, I was forced to admit that his had suddenly become a pretty strong nomination for Cult Hero.

Emerson did not have to spend much time dusting down his defensive frock yesterday, given that West Ham did not really take any interest in crossing the halfway line. If a winger had to be tracked and his cross stifled, Emerson tracked and stifled obediently, but this was hardly a day on which the “Back” part of the “Wing-Back” role featured too heavily. (Which is mildly ironic, as the defensive lark seems to be his forte, he being arguably more naturally sculpted to be a full-back than a wing-back.)

As with his ten chums, any letters sent to his loved ones about the first half would have made for pretty brief reading. ‘Huff’, ‘Puff’ and ‘Some laboured passing’ pretty much covered the contributions from all in lilywhite in minutes 1 to 45.

But it was in the second half that Emerson really burst into life, starting with his goal. It should come as no surprise to anyone by now that he insists on augmenting our counter-attacks by nominating himself as makeshift centre-forward. I suspect that where once Kane, Sonny and chums may have tried to talk him down, they now simply give the shoulders a shrug and let him do his thing, finding life easier that way.

And thus it happened that with Hojbjerg looking to unleash his inner Modric, and Richarlison and Kane mooching about in deeper territory, Davies and Emerson arrived at the identical conclusion of “Well, why the hell not?” and effortlessly morphed into an oddly lethal strike pairing.

Having made all that effort to get into prime goalscoring territory, Emerson was not about to let the opportunity slip, and rolled the ball home with the debonair style of a fellow who’s done such things a good 267 times previously.

I suppose conventional wisdom would have had it that at this point, with those bizarre sprints into the centre-forward spot having brought him his goal, Emerson might have considered it a fine day’s work and gently eased off into the background, feeling rather pleased with himself and content to wind down the clock. But Emerson is not conventional. These maverick cult hero sorts rarely are. He instead regarded that goal as the springboard for The Emerson Royal Show, and played the remainder of the game as if determined that his every following touch would make the highlights reel. Thus we were treated to no-look passes, thumping slide tackles and the general sense of a man having the absolute night of his life. He is – and I cannot stress this enough – a most extraordinary young bean.

2. Ben Davies, Wing-Back

Ever since young Sessegnon was bundled off to A&E I’ve given the chin a thoughtful stroke or two when puzzling over who might give Perisic a breather on the left, but for some reason the concept of Ben Davies wing-backing it never really dawned on me. No explanation for it, but my mind always veered off into Emerson Royal country. Strange the way the mind works, what?

Anyway, Ben Davies did well enough in the role yesterday to suggest that he might be a viable alternative to Perisic. (In fact, given Perisic’s rather bonkers cameo, which involved two needlessly aggressive hacks at opponents, plus a pitiful attempt to defend his own area that contained little in the way of tackling and much in the way of tumbling over his own collapsible limbs, I wonder if Davies at LWB might become a more permanent option simply by default.)

The TV bod gave Ben Davies the MOTM bauble last night, which seemed to me to stretch the concept a tad, but I followed the point – namely that he did all that might reasonably be asked of a fellow, and without too many alarms.

As with Emerson on the right, there was little in the way of defensive employment, so most of his energies were devoted to invading the opposition half and giving the arms a manic wave, so as to attract the attention of whomever happened upon possession at that point.

All this was well and good, and evidently blew the minds of the Sky Sports detectives, but I was vastly more concerned about the outputs Davies conjured up, once in receipt of the ball. Now here, I fancy I do the fellow a dastardly turn, for in gauging his abilities up the left flank I cannot help but compare his crossing to that of Perisic. And for all Perisic’s flaws when it comes to aggressive hacks and collapsible limbs, it is widely acknowledged that his crosses are of a most devilish vintage.

Davies, by contrast, and in common with everything about him, delivers crosses that do everything stated in the Instruction Manual, while offering precious little to make the jaw drop and eyes bulge. Davies’ crossing was acceptable enough. His short passing was acceptable enough. His tackles were acceptable enough. All of which was comfortably good enough to sink West Ham, but none of which arrested the attention and drew me towards the fellow as the game’s outstanding performer. Still, one man’s meat and all that, what?

And moreover, at the critical juncture, Davies rattled off his lines to perfection, galloping in from the flank to take Hojbjerg’s pass in his stride, effecting a handy swerve infield to wrongfoot no fewer than three West Ham fiends and then rolling the ball into the path of Emerson, for the opener.


3. Hojbjerg’s Pass

Talking of which, amidst all the rattle and hum about Emerson’s one-eighty, and Davies’ supposed match-winning innings, I’m inclined to stamp an indignant foot and demand that all in attendance stop prattling and do a bit of homage to that pass from Hojbjerg, which set everything in motion in the first place.

Now it is true that until and beyond that point this all felt like standard Hojbjerg stuff. He pottered around and looked increasingly irate, as he usually does, but one could not really put a hand on the Bible and swear to the Almighty that one chap and one chap only was dominating this particular midfield and that chap’s name was Hojbjerg.

He did enough – so no doubt Ben Davies was goggling away at him in awe – but at nil-nil, he, like most others, was plodding along a bit.

Until he suddenly unleashed from nowhere one of the best passes of the season. I suppose one could point out that the was generously gifted all the time in the world by the West Ham mob, as well as the freedom of pretty much the centre circle – but still. At the time at which he hit ‘Send’, Ben Davies was but a twinkle in the eye, stationed on the left touchline, and literally half the West Ham team were blocking the smooth delivery from starting point to destination.

None of this mattered a jot to Hojbjerg, who directed and weighted the ball to absolute perfection, allowing Davies to seize upon it without breaking stride. It was the sort of creative brainwave for which our heroes had been absolutely howling, at least in the first half, and while things were bucking up a bit in the second, this was nevertheless game-changing stuff.

While saluting Hojbjerg for his moment of inspiration, the whole joyous episode did make me wonder – if this talent for spotting and pinging a pass from the gods is something of which is the rightful, legal proprietor, might the fine fellow not attempt one or two of these each game?

4. The Penalty Shout

It doesn’t matter now, of course, and I daresay some amongst you might give the head a sad shake and wonder where it all went wrong with AANP – but I can’t get over this gubbins about the penalty in the first half.

Or rather, the non-penalty. Of course, the AANP lineage strictly forbids that the appointed arbiter of proceedings be questioned: the ref’s word is law, and shall be respected as such, without exception.

And I suppose that should be the end of it really. Yet when I see dastardly goings-on inside the penalty area gaily waved away, when they would almost certainly attract a stern eyebrow and wagging finger anywhere else on the pitch, I do tend to dissolve into a fit of apoplexy and let a few of the fruitier elements of Anglo-Saxon fire from my mouth like shots from a gun.

The official line is, apparently, some perfect drivel along the lines that if a fellow is having trouble with gravity and taking a dive to the dirt, then he has absolute carte blanche to scoop up the ball in his hands and bestow upon it loving caresses, until such time as he has restored his balance. At which point, presumably the suspension of the game’s laws ends, and we play football once again.

Utter rot, of course. I mean, the ruling itself has an element of sense about it – if a grown man has somersaulted into the atmosphere and is about to land on his nose, one permits him to eject a paw in order to preserve his decency – but the West Ham blighter was in no such predicament, and Solomon himself could not convince me otherwise. The W.H.B. wobbled a bit, shot out an arm to give the ball a friendly pat and then restored his apparatus perfectly comfortably. As above, anywhere else on the pitch and there is not a referee alive who would have passed on the opportunity to make his whistle heard.

Still, as stated, one simply accepts these calls with good grace. Mercifully it mattered little anyway, and, as I saw it writ elsewhere last night, remarkably we are now in the Top Four despite seeming to have lost just about every game we’ve played this season. Long live that Stellini chap, what?

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-0 Man City: Six Tottenham Talking Points

1. Conte-Ball: Defending

I suppose the more smug amongst us would claim, on the basis of recent history in this fixture, to have seen this coming (although I’ve always thought there’s a certain wonkiness to such reasoning, namely that the results and personnel and whatnot from years gone by ought not to have anything to do with getting one’s hand dirty in the here and now).

Anyway, the point here is that if some of the smarter coves had pencilled in “1-0” beforehand then good for them, but I’m not sure any man, woman or child on the planet would have foreseen us accompanying that 1-0 scoreline with a masterclass of this ilk.

‘Masterclass’ was the term I used above, and I’ll fling it around a bit more now. From the off it was apparent that City were going to grab the ball and hang on to it for most of the evening. And frankly, not an eyelid was batted at that. I think we’ve all seen enough of this mob to know that that’s how they set about in life, and of itself it doesn’t really cause that much damage. One just learns to work around it, and our lot certainly seemed to take it all in their stride. Collective shrugs and diligent positioning seemed about the sum of it from our heroes, with everyone knowing their lines and the whole thing panning out as if it had been rehearsed this way for months.

When City oozed up towards our area, our back five generally did sensible things, which started off as a relief and quickly became a rather satisfying watch – doubling up on Grealish and Mahrez, blocking off shots, that sort of thing. It helped that Pep pulled his usual party-trick of wildly over-thinking matters rather than simply shoving the best midfielder around behind one of the best forwards around and letting them go wild; but that wasn’t really our concern. If City were adamant that feeding Haaland was only to be a last resort then that was their prerogative. The crucial thread from a lilywhite perspective was that as and when required, our back-five kept the other lot at arm’s length.

Nor was this set-up the sole preserve of the designated defenders. As City scratched their heads and popped possession around in the middle of the court, our attacking triumvirate obediently trotted off to their designated targets, allowing Bentancur and Hojbjerg to dash around putting out fires in midfield. It was all so well organised that one could well imagine Signor Conte lighting a most satisfied cigar, if such things were not – presumably – frowned upon in the healthcare centres of Turin.

2. Conte-Ball: Attacking

However, defending against City is but one part of the challenge, and a relatively straightforward one at that. The broader picture was more complex. The whole thing was like one of those GCSE Maths equations from back in the day, containing all sorts of garbled messages within various sets of brackets, and just when you’re patting yourself on the back for deciphering the contents of one set of brackets, you look up and realise there’s about fifteen others to come. So it can be with playing Man City. Setting up to defend against them is all well and good, but after about five minutes of that I did find that the ghost of Jose Mourinho was sidling up to me and quietly enquiring whether I could stomach it for a full 90 minutes.

Mercifully, Conte’s masterclass extended well beyond the perimeter of our own penalty area. There was also a plan for the opposing penalty area, and extraordinarily, the critical component of this was Eric Dier, of all people.

The gist of the thing was as follows. With City rolling the ball around their own playpen, casual to the gills, our front three shoved up in the faces of their back three. This was a steady start, thrusting the main characters into the foreground as it were. But it was the supporting cast who caught the eye, because Eric Dier then mooched forward from his position slap bang in the heart of defence, and stationed himself slap bang in the heart of midfield.

If one were a little petty and childlike about such things, one might gently clear the throat and refer to having banged on for weeks about the need to shove another body in midfield; but that is hardly germane. What was critical here was that Dier’s temporary foray into midfield meant that Hojbjerg and Bentancur had licence to press further forward. And the upshot of all this small print was that when our esteemed hosts shuffled the thing from A to B without due care and attention, Hojbjerg was on hand to snaffle the life out of the poor mite in possession, setting up Kane for his moment. Cue more cigar smoke billowing around the hospital wards of Turin.

The other element of the plan was arguably the most fun part, comprising as it did our heroes racing up the pitch on the counter-attack every five minutes, against a bizarrely undermanned opposing defence. In the first half this tactic kept things interesting, albeit the winnings never really extended beyond the occasional corner.

But in the second half, by golly it looked like every time we cleared the ball we would, within about three and a half seconds, be up the other end and clean through on goal. Of course, at one-nil, one always gives the fingernails a good going over, but nevertheless it was actually pretty riotous fun.

I had never quite followed the whirs and clicks of those “Expected Goals” statistics, but I think the point of them is to reflect that, in a game like yesterday’s, for all their possession City didn’t really look like scoring (even the shot that hit the post seemed to do so rather apologetically); while our lot could conceivably have had three or four in that second half. Possession be damned, this was a triumph for Expected Goals and cigar smoke.

3. Emerson Royal

And as if cantering to a pretty serene and composed victory against the Champions wasn’t already peculiar enough, the poster boy for the whole thing was none other than Emerson Royal.

I have heard it said that the rationale in shoving overboard Messrs Spence and Doherty while treating Emerson to pats on the head and tummy-tickles was that while the former pair are moulded in the same gung-ho shape as Pedro Porro, Emerson is a more defensive sort of breed, and therefore increases the options in the squad. This actually makes a decent wad of sense, but for anyone struggling to follow the thread, yesterday’s match offered a handy visual illustration of the key points.

There will doubtless be games in the coming weeks in which teams opt for the more conservative approach and sit back waiting to see what we’re about. In such instances, the more attacking wing-backs – those from the same conveyor belt as Pedro Porro – will doubtless be called upon for attacking input. Yesterday, however, was a day for clear-headed defensive thinking, and to his credit Emerson plugged away at his task like the dickens.

And it was quite some task, make no mistake. He was up against renowned trickster and professional ruffian Jack Grealish, a fellow as adept at beating a man as he is at tumbling over that same man’s outstretched lower limbs.

It was one heck of a contest. Emerson may have miscalculated the coordinates once or twice, but nine times out of ten he seemed to get the better of Grealish, at least depositing the ball beyond the boundaries of the pitch to let all colleagues to his left catch their breath and reset.

And while Emerson may have displayed hitherto unseen powers of long-term concentration in his defensive duties, he was still happy to throw off the shackles and jump on board whatever attack we stitched together. Indeed, in the second half, as Sonny, Kulusevski and Kane went through the gears and over halfway, Emerson could be seen regularly steaming up and straight through the centre like some demented Olympic sprinter, not necessarily waving his arms and pulling faces but quite possibly yelling “Give it to meeee!” as he motored into the heart of City’s holiest of holies. Quite batty, that chap.

4. Hojbjerg

The consensus seems to be that Emerson was the pick of a pretty impressive bunch, but P.E.H. was hoving into view in his wing mirror at a rate of knots. In fact, Hojbjerg seemed to appear pretty quickly in the wing mirrors of all present, having one of those games in which you looked in one direction and saw him ploughing over a couple of challenges, then looked in a completely different direction and saw him chasing down a City bod.

A lot of the fellow’s work tends to be undertaken in the shadows. Sounds a bit murky admittedly, but I mean his job often involves adopting an appropriate position and stance of readiness, and as such forcing whichever opponent to think twice about whatever perfidy was lined up. The chap aborts, and Hojbjerg, without appearing to do much, has averted a spot of danger.

Yesterday, however, felt a bit like that moment when the anonymous vigilante pops up from out of the shadows, removes his mask and gives cheery waves to all around him, drinking in a spot of applause for good measure. As well as covering a decent amount of mileage in shadowing runners and blocking off passing angles, Hojbjerg also waded knee-deep into the thick of things, and could regularly be spotted breaking up attacks and emerging from a melee of limbs with something of a limp, but the ball, nevertheless, ensconced in his care (his role in the goal being a case in point).

A word similar merit too, to Bentancur, whose ability to receive the ball in a pretty perilous range of circumstances, but calmly manoeuvre a course to safety like the best of them, is now rolled out so regularly I rather start to take it for granted.

5. Sonny

And while on the subject of brief words of commendation being sprinkled like confetti about the place because why not, I’ll reach over and give Sonny a playful punch on the upper arm.

I appreciate that some in the gallery might, at this point, think things are getting a little out of hand, and furtively shove the decanter to a spot beyond my immediate grasp. But while Sonny might not have been solid pillar upon which the whole jolly ruckus was built, he made his own little contributions here and there in our counter-attacks; and, more pertinently gave another glimpse or two that Form may be returning to her throne.

Last week saw the welcome return of Sonny’s Shooting Boots – lower league opposition or not, it was a relief to see the chap strike a ball with the sweet timing of a cover drive at Lord’s. And yesterday, I felt like a further box was ticked in his rehabilitation, as on several occasions he collected the ball and set off on a gallop.

Nothing particularly memorable there, you might think. But consider the context, of his inability all season to take three steps without stumbling like a chap having the dickens of a time remembering which leg is which, and the sight of him tearing through the wide open spaces yesterday made the the juices flow and pulse quicken.

There was a spot of end-product thrown in too, the loveable bounder picking a couple of sensible short passes to his left and right at the conclusion of his jollies, where previously in such circumstances he had seemed to get a little lost in a cloud of options and bounce straight into opponents. Not quite vintage Sonny just yet, but the evidence suggests it’s on its way.

6. Kane

The final word, however, belongs to Harry Kane. In truth, the first and middle words ought to as well but I’m sure he won’t mind. His finish was actually one of the less sensational variety, although it still boasted the impressive quality of being his first kick of the ball in the match.

But this was a day to salute the fellow’s longevity. As he himself noted afterwards, the years have rather whistled by – eleven of them now, since the Shamrock Rovers affair – but to rack up 267 goals in that time is really the sort of stat that makes you pause, compute and then widen the eyes and say “Golly”.

When I consider the hours my old man, AANP Senior, has spent rattling off the exploits of Jimmy Greaves as the stuff of legend, it is easy to take for granted quite what a privilege it is to witness Kane go about his relentless business each week. Kane will be spoken of in the way Greaves was, and while there is no real knowing what the blazes will happen to English football in the coming decades, it seems rather a stretch to imagine some other johnnie buzzing along and rattling off 268 or however many more. A privilege to have him about the place. Bravo, sir