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Spurs news, rants Spurs transfers

Yves Bissouma: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Joyous Tidings

If you happened to notice AANP bounding about the place in particularly bonny, blithe and gay fashion in the last week or so I’d congratulate you on your perceptive nature. Every now and then our lot unveil a new signing that puts no end of buck in the step, and the scrawl of Yves Bissouma across the headed notepaper has done precisely that.

I mentioned in my last tuppence worth, a couple of weeks back, that I’m not generally one to devote my energies to watching opponents, being far too consumed with monitoring the every move of those in lilywhite. As a result, it’s something of an event when an opposing player catches the AANP eye during a Tottenham game, but in this category young Monsieur Bissouma can proudly step up to collect a gong and clear his throat for a victory speech.

The job he did when we travelled to Brighton last season, was quite something to behold. Memory suggests that while some other chappie pinched the last-minute goal that weighted the scoreline in Brighton’s favour, it was Bissouma’s security work in the central areas that won the thing. In particular, I wouldn’t wonder if that rotter Harry Kane greeted Bissouma’s arrival in N17 by bunging him over the head with a brick, such was the job done by the latter on the former in that match. Whenever the ball was shoved in the general radius of Kane, Bissouma was upon him in an instant, sucking the life – and most of our collective creative juices – out of him for the entirety of the gig.

And while admittedly one random shindig in the sun last season is not the sort of stuff upon which one ought to base a fully-fledged opinion, the bespectacled sorts who crunch numbers have rather more weight to throw behind the chap. For a start, the numbers have him down as having made more frequent tackles and interceptions than anyone else in the league last season, which lends a touch more gravity to the argument and has me nodding an admiring head.

Of course, he might still swan into the team and prove a dreary letdown (he wouldn’t be the first in the hallowed corridors of the Lane) but frankly the odds are stacked in his favour. A player who looked in charge of much he surveyed last season, with a couple of years of Premier League experience and, at 25, one would presume a fair amount of oxygen to in his lungs, represents one heck of a deal at £25m.

Indeed, he even popped up with a rather eye-catching solo goal in the Cup fixture at N17 last season; although my spies assure me that such activities are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to Bissouma’s list of bullet points. Nice to know that he’s capable of such things, of course, but the fellow has been designed by Mother Nature for more defensive-minded inputs.

And that’s fine by me. While Bentancur would collect the ball and dreamily pop it along to the better-placed, Hojbjerg last season grafted away but often seemed to be operating on the very last couple of drops of energy wrung from his tissues. The addition therefore of a bona fide midfield enforcer is pretty exciting stuff, particularly given that in our neck of the woods midfielders tend to be the creative sorts who’d rather not waggle too many defensive legs if they can get away with it.

2. How He Fits In

The central options next season therefore appear to read: Bentancur, Bissouman, Skipp and Hojbjerg, the first two of whom will presumably rise, cream-like to the top, but the latter two of whom have respectively the energy and nous to deputise at the drop of any hats and with minimal disruption or – crucially – dip in quality.

One might, of course, quibble, that between this quartet there is still something of a dearth of creative tricks and party-pieces that make the eyes pop and opposition fall apart at the seams, but that’s not really the point. Conte-ball seems to require a central midfield pairing that neutralises all threats and shifts us from back- to front-foot in the blink of an eye, and in both respects Bissouma appears to be precisely the sort of egg about whom exciting montages are spliced together.

(Some might also point that the potential incoming of a certain free-of-charge alumnus in central midfield would add a degree of creativity, and the option for tactical tweaks away from 3-4-3, but that’s a debate for another time.)

3. Our Changing Transfer System

Part of the thrill of all this to-ing and fro-ing is the pretty radical departure it signals from the traditional way of doing things in N17. We’ve been raised (rather cruelly it seems to me) on a diet of tortuous transfer sagas stretching the entirety of the summer, before a last-minute panic to complete deals, and the signing of a couple of unproven bods in their early twenties with potential sell-on value.

Witness the current contrast. Three deals inked and ready to go before the longest day of the year has stretched its legs; each of whom are proven in their positions. This rather than being the sort for whom we wait, with fingers crossed and lips pursed, to see if they’ll fulfil their potential.

Frankly, the good sense of this summer’s dealings thus far, coupled with the no-nonsense way in which players have been identified as the best available to meet the necessary criteria, makes this seem like a game of Football Manager rather than the Way of Things in Hotspur-land.

The immediacy of it all – buying proven players who can waltz straight into the starting line-up and will improve our league position in this coming season, rather than three years hence – is both unusual and jolly entertaining. Frankly, it represents a degree of sensible thinking I had not thought possible with our lot. But then, Conte has seemingly had that effect in all he does about the place. And Grandmaster Levy, rather sensationally, is now backing the honest fellow! Long may the sanity continue!

(Not wanting to gloss over the potential seriousness of the legal case hanging over him, but with no information available it’s near-impossible to opine one way or t’other at present, so the ramblings above are purely football-related)

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Spurs match reports

Norwich 0-5 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Spursy vs Conte

If you’ve stopped by this corner of the interweb you will know well that after the chortling against Woolwich and nail-chomping against Burnley, last week the ingrained pessimism of being a Spurs fan well and truly pulled on its gloves and got down to business, so that by the time Norwich rolled around the feeling was not so much whether we’d blow things but simply in what farcical manner we’d do so.

The AANP wad was staked on a Brighton-esque meandering for 88 minutes followed by concession of a late goal and an all-too late rally, but in truth the possibilities and potential for doom seemed pretty endless. As kick-off approached, that need to avoid defeat took on a pretty ghastly hue. Memories of lasagne and Tyneside batterings set up shop in the mind.

All of which slathers the praise for Our Glorious Leader all the more thickly about the place. Relegated and pretty clueless though Norwich might have been, they were not the main villain here by any stretch. As recently as a few months ago, at the last dregs of the Nuno era, this remained a Spurs vintage drenched in the ability to make a pig’s ear of the most straightforward of tasks.

To see our lot therefore casually brush off all concerns of self-sabotage and disaster, and simply don their professional garb and set about getting the thing done from minute one, jolly relieving though it was, also had me clutching at the nearest stable point, giving the eyes a quick rub and generally questioning my senses.

As mentioned, the concern in this quarter was that we might witness some doppelganger of the Brighton defeat. In this respect, it certainly helped that Norwich were a few miles off the quality of even Brighton. Where Brighton had Bissouma patrolling the central decks and sniffing at Kane’s size nines every opportunity, Norwich simply waved a cheery hand at the midfield and left us to do it, which didn’t half help chivvy things along.

Nevertheless, obliging opponents will only take things so far. The operation still required all on Team Lilywhite to put on serious faces and play the game a bit – and this they did pretty relentlessly, from the off until deep into the second half, at which point the lead was five and even by our standards it seemed a safe bet.

The anthem from the off seemed to be, ‘Prod, probe, and prod and probe again, and make sure you do it briskly and accurately’. Moreover, one got the impression that even with Norwich rolling over and practically begging to have their tummies tickled, Signor Conte would have grabbed by the neck anyone not delivering the goods and bellowed in their faces until matters improved.

And again, taking all this into account, one can only sing the praises of the man, and when done, pick a different key and sing them all over again. The mentality amongst our lot has not so much changed on his watch, as switched one hundred and eighty degrees, and for good measure seen the old mentality burnt to a cinder. There can be little clearer proof of this than the fact that when needing to avoid defeat our lot pointedly trotted out and stuffed the other lot by five.

2. Bentancur and Hojbjerg

I mentioned above that Norwich did not exactly treat the midfield region as some gladiatorial arena in which bloodied limbs were to be strewn and every inch fought for like the dickens. Quite the opposite. They seemed happy to back out of the way and cede that patch of land in its entirety. A curious ploy, and not one teeming with overpowering logic, or indeed effectiveness, but there it was.

Messrs Bentancur and Hojbjerg therefore took one look at the wide open spaces and promptly marched into them unopposed, which seemed reasonable enough. And continuing the theme of reasonable choices, once camp had been set up in midfield, and it became clear that any Norwich bods about the place were providing decorative value only, our midfield pair unfurled their more creative sides. Cautiously at first, understandably enough, but they soon got into the spirit of the thing and embraced the moment.

Hojbjerg in particular seemed to relish the opportunity. When the grass was still wet with morning dew he could be spotted shaking a limb or two in the Norwich area, evidently noting that here was an opportunity to recreate the glory of his attacking cameos at Euro 2020, or 2021, or whatever decorum dictates we call it.

Bentancur followed suit, but in rather more apologetic manner. Where Hojbjerg had been presented with a shooting opportunity from inside the area and greedily lashed at it with every ounce of his being, Bentancur adopted a far more relaxed attitude when Norwich parted at the moorings (via a Hojbjerg pass) and allowed him an eternity to pick his spot from close range.

Such vulgar acts as lashing a shot goalwards with ferocity are obviously beneath Bentancur, who prefers to imbue his contributions with class and elan. Seemingly disgusted at the notion of having to apply the finishing touch himself, he tried instead to invert the entire pitch, somehow dragging the ball backwards for one of the more uncouth sorts to bundle the thing in.

Bentancur was it at again five minutes later, looking almost embarrassed to collect the ball when handed to him on a plate by Tim Krul (who was evidently keen to undo all the good of that one-man barricade he presented against us a few years back), before gracefully chipping the ball towards Kane, in a manner which punished the mistake without twisting the knife and drawing too much attention to it. AANP looked on with approval.

Thereafter Bentancur was content to withdraw to a more behind-the-scenes role, making himself available and collecting on the half-turn, in that dreamy fashion that seems to be the unique gift of a chosen few. Hojbjerg meanwhile continued to have the time of his life, evidently aware that the Norwich midfield is a pretty rare treat and throwing himself forward with gusto.

With Skipp to return and signings presumably incoming it is debatable quite how many more afternoons this particular pair will enjoy in each other’s company, so in common with various others around them, I was rather pleased that proceedings were such that, as against Woolwich a few weeks back, they were able to enjoy themselves and lap up a spot of appreciation from the assorted onlookers.

3. Kulusevski

It would be stretching things to say that this was a mixed bag from young Master Kulusevski, because in truth it was another tour de force. A solid hour of perspiration topped off with a very welcome opener – coming, as it did, early enough to put to bed the nerves – and one heck of a finish in the second half.

That second goal in particular was fashioned from pretty spectacular stuff, beginning as it did with the young bean gently meandering toward the corner flag, before suddenly taking a sharp turn towards the spectacular and curling one of those glorious efforts that start outside the post but then shift-ho midway through its journey.

Nevertheless, awkward though it is, the really eye-catching moment in Kulusevski’s afternoon came a minute or two prior to that, when he produced a deceptive burst of pace and rounded the goalkeeper. At that point it appeared that only the formalities remained, what with the ‘keeper flailing in a different postcode and the net opening its arms in a welcoming embrace.

Bizarrely though, having until this point shown himself to be pretty adept at matters of consequence in the final third, the lad then seemed to lose track of how many feet he had, and things rather went downhill from there. I do wonder whether he was preoccupied with thoughts of enabling Sonny to get on the scoresheet, but whatever his motivations the outcome was pretty disastrous, and what ought to have been a straightforward tap in ended in an unsightly bundle of limbs, with the ball gently bobbing off in another direction.

Mercifully, this particular wrong was promptly righted with his wonder-strike moments later, and ought not to detract not only from another sterling display, but also the fact that his arrival has coincided with a pretty seismic upturn in our fortunes.

4. Sonny’s Golden Touch

Having said all that about various others, the star of the show ought really to be Sonny, and he’s evidently a popular sort, judging by the fanfare and ovation he was being afforded by his on-pitch chums as he edged closer to the Golden Boot. But it’s indicative of how underrated the fellow is that even at AANP Towers he gets shunted quite a long way down the list, behind Bentancur and Hojbjerg dash it.

This is actually quite the injustice. His second goal gave proof – not that any is required these days – that his nose for goal is right up there with the best, and if anything it was quite the curiosity to see his two straightforward second half chances culminate in the successful extension of a goalkeeping limb or two, rather than a net-ripple and celebratory finger-photo-frame-whatnot.

Sonny is evidently the principal beneficiary of Kane’s exploratory lumberings into deeper territory, blessed as he is both with blistering pace (including with ball at feet, which is not to be sniffed at) and, as mentioned, an increasingly ruthless streak in front of goal.

As well as being genuinely world class (by which I suppose I mean he would waltz into just about any team in the world) he also fits the system perfectly. Week after week he delivers the goods, both in front of goal and through his general movement, in and out of possession. And yet the fellow rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as other luminaries of the era – nor, more to the point, does he feature to highly on AANP’s post-match verbal meanderings.

One to bear in mind for the future I suppose, but for now it seems appropriate that he at least received the glory of an individual award recognised beyond the streets of N17.

5. Ben Davies

There has been some talk of summer signings including a new left-sided centre-back, and while upgrades are always welcome it would be a little harsh on poor old Ben Davies, who has fought the good fight with bundles of pluck and gusto this season. The circle of life and all that, and as Davies himself would presumably attest, being an honourable sort of egg, anything for the greater good is to lauded.

However, as I saw the chap doing his darnedest to prod us into life with forward passes from an inside-left-midfield sort of berth, or adopt the correct defensive stance as necessary in his own area, the thought did strike me that this might be something of a swansong.

He’ll almost certainly have a part to play next season, new signings or otherwise, what with fixtures piling up and the unique input provided by virtue of being Chappie With a Left Foot, so this was no tear-stained adieu.

But nevertheless, once the idea popped into my head, it rather stuck there, what? With each flying challenge and surprisingly testing long-range shot I looked at the blighter with a sort of avuncular fondness, noting proudly how far he has come. And while Norwich, to repeat, barely extended an arm, let alone laid a glove, Davies nevertheless spent the afternoon diligently applying all that he has learnt from Conte over the months – the forward dashes, the attacking input, the defensive solidity.

In a way, Davies represented much of our lot in a microcosm, having massively improved and bought into the system, but potentially due to be elbowed aside for someone newer and shinier come 22/23. Being a model pro, however, and given the spirit that Conte seems to have engendered, I suspect that he’ll be fully on board nonetheless.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-0 Arsenal: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sanchez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Professionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Dier

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

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

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

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

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

4. Bentancur and Hojbjerg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurs match reports

Brentford 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Matty Cash (Stay With Me Here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Plan A

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

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

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

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

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

3. Plan B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Eriksen’s Corners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 0-1 Brighton: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Midfield Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Absence of Doherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Hojbjerg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurs match reports

Aston Villa 0-4 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. The First Three Goals

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

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

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

2. The Fourth Goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Lloris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 5-1 Newcastle: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Doherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Romero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Kane

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

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

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

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

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

4. Bentancur

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

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

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

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

5. Conte’s Attacking Substitution

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurs match reports

Man Utd 3-2 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. A Performance That Deserved More

How we didn’t win that one is a bit of a mystery. I feel a bit like a detective who on unlocking the prison cell finds that the chief suspect has vanished into thin air – not so much aggrieved as plain baffled.

United were useless from root to tip, which doesn’t offer much consolation but does heighten the mystery. Ten of their eleven appeared not to know what day it was, what game it was or what sport it was. Of course, this being Spurs none of this is particularly necessary in order to prompt some pretty seismic defensive crises in our ranks, so even though our hosts lacked any strategy, skill or control, it wasn’t much trouble for them to turn to their one good player and swan off with three goals.

More positively, however, in the first half in particular our mob looked like the sort of well-ordered mob who have clear plans in place, seemingly able to march in behind the United defence whenever they pleased. There was no indication of hesitation or struggle in this respect, they simply waltzed towards the United area, attacks springing from a pleasing variety of avenues.

Kulusevski and Doherty seemed well-rehearsed in their routines on the right, never seeming a point at which the United defence in that area were ready to light their cigars and declare the situation contained.

Son, whose activities could be summarised in a narrative accurately titled, “The Unhindered Adventures of an Attacker Running From Deep”, seemed to have struck up a knowing nod and wink with Dier and Romero all evening. The latter pair adopted the admittedly agricultural approach of launching the ball into orbit, to land in the unattended expanse of United’s defensive third, but given that defensive duties were being neglected by everyone in the vicinity this policy made some sense.

I also derived a quiet pleasure from the sight of Messrs Bentancur and Hojbjerg tiptoeing forward to add their weight to our attacking endeavours. While both gave the impression that this was hardly their idea of a fun night out, the very presence of this pair in the final third hammered home the sense that this was not one of those games in which our lot were going to hang around and wait for the walls to crumble around them.

For some reason it petered out a little in the second half, as urgency was dialled down and a more leisurely approach to life adopte. This was pretty maddening stuff, given that we were still chasing the game, and I waved a pretty exasperated arm or two at times, unclear as to why nobody gave them a nudge about current affairs, but there was still enough about our lot to suggest we were good value for a win, let alone a draw.

2. Hojbjerg

This was not really the sort of occasion on which individuals leapt from the pitch to attract comment. However, it struck me that Master Hojbjerg seemed particularly keen to restore the reputation of his family name.

After a meaty start to his lilywhite career, Hojbjerg seems to have drifted along in recent times. He’s always there, and forever shouting and gesticulating, but with each passing week I become less clear what he offers.

His principal role seems to be to step forward from his designated position whenever an opponent has the ball on halfway, and give them a threatening stare, before said opponent shuttles the ball along and Hojbjerg retreats to his post. Nice if you like that sort of thing I suppose, and if that is the entirety of what Conte asks of him then he delivers the goods splendidly, but when I think of the long list of tasks that might be carried out by the modern midfielder, Hojbjerg rather oils into the background.

Yesterday, by contrast, he got stuck in, and I was all for it. As well as flinging himself into the occasional tackle, I was also pleasantly surprised to see him decide that in possession he would occasionally experiment with a more offensive approach.

This is not to suggest that the chap suddenly morphed into a modern-day Gascoigne, but it was still good to see him take a risk or two, rather than produce his usual party-trick of shoving the thing sideways and then bawling at a teammate and giving his hands a good wave.

Absence does still make the heart yearn for young Master Skipp, but this was nevertheless one of Hojbjerg’s better days.

3. Reguilon

This was something of a mixed bag from Senor Reguilon.

Generally happiest when haring up into the final third, Reguilon hardly needed persuading to join in the attacking fun, and the ball he delivered to set up our second was a delight, positively imploring a touch from an onrushing defender or, as it happened, an enthusiastic but incompetent defender. Few things in life thrill AANP like a well-whipped cross, and even if no finishing touch had been administered, and the ball had continued whipping off into the gaping expanse at the other end of the pitch, I would have purred in satisfaction.

Unfortunately, for all his enthusiasm, Reguilon missed his mark as often as he hit. The club mantra for the day seemed to be, “A misplaced pass is still a pass”, and this was a pledge Reguilon took to heart.

Moreover, the young cove was at least partly responsible for the second goal conceded. In his defence, each of Dier and Davies seemed also culpable here, with all of the above hitting upon the ripping idea of dashing upfield to implement the offside trap – but in something of a staggered approach, which you or I could have advised was a bad idea. Collective responsibility might well be the final verdict, but given that he could gaze along the entire line of the defence Reguilon does not escape censure.

4. Doherty

As with Reguilon, so Doherty delivered a performance littered with both the positive and negative.

On the plus side, as remarked above, he seemed to gravitate fairly naturally towards the attacking requirements of his position. And he did not stop there, opting regularly to inject his own interpretation of the role by drifting infield from the touchline to the penalty area. This was no bad thing at all, for while some defenders react to the sight of the opposition net by having their entire life swim before them and blasting the ball to the heavens, Doherty seems to understand the basics of such situations, and is more inclined to drill the thing at the target and force the ‘keeper to deal with the consequences.

However, rather maddeningly, Doherty was also a keen follower of the club rule about misplaced passes. Moreover, as the chap tasked with marking Ronaldo at corners, Doherty can be considered chiefly culpable for the third goal conceded.

Now admittedly there is a mitigating circumstance here, in that this is one of the most challenging tasks in the history of the game. And to his credit, Doherty did not abandon his post. He rose from the ground; he flailed his arms; he did his best to insert his frame between opponent and ball. It just wasn’t good enough, and therefore while giving him a mark for effort I will still fold my arms and refuse to speak to him next time our paths cross.

In truth, the standard on both sides was pretty low, and while United seemed happy to give us the ball and let us do our worst, we ought to have made more of this.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-3 Southampton: Four Tottenham Talking Points

This turned out to be one of those imbroglios so madcap and all-action-no-plot that, come the credits, I could not quite keep track of what emotion I ought to register. I therefore made a quick check of my in-match notes, which revealed the following:

FACT: First half was a one-one hammering.

Comment: Eh? That doesn’t sound right.

FACT: Trust me on this one.

Comment: “One-one” suggests a pretty even state of affairs, what? Perhaps some ebb and flow, but all things being equal-

FACT: ‘Twas an unholy battering.

Comment: Crumbs. I say, I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud, but the phrase still seems to suggest parity.

FACT: This is Tottenham Hotspur. The laws of logic go out the window.

Comment: Fair.

FACT: We did have five good minutes in that first half though.

Comment: Scoring one and missing a pretty clear chance for another? This suggests that at least something about Conte’s counter-attacking format has t’s crossed and i’s dotted.

FACT: Second half we started to edge on top.

Comment: Decent goal to show for it too.

FACT: Indeed.

Comment: Rather.

FACT: But our attempt then to manage the game was utterly ham-fisted

Comment: Evidently. Within five minutes we were losing, dash it.

FACT: Well, quite. We conceded exactly the same goal twice.

Comment: Yes, I noted that. Rather like watching a car-crash in slow motion. You know the feeling – can see it all unfolding, know it’s going to end disastrously, yet can’t tear the eyes from it.

FACT: We equalised in added time!

Comment: Huzzah! That Bergwijn is certainly good for a-

FACT: Disallowed by VAR.

Comment: Curses.

That being cleared up, the talking points rise to the surface, rather like bloated bodies in a pool.

1. The Counter-Attack Strategy

On paper, it could hardly sound more straightforward: let the oppo have the ball, nick it from them, hare up the pitch and strike.

And as my notes above indicated, when our heroes got to the fun part of this plan – namely haring up the pitch and striking – all was lollipops and rainbows. Sonny, Kane and Lucas have rehearsed this scene often enough to know all the moves with their eyes closed. As if to illustrate this, despite having an otherwise muted sort of time of things Lucas burst into life twice, creating a goal each time; while Sonny and Kane’s combo ought to have led to a goal for Reguilon, who had evidently got wind of the fun being had by the front-three and arrived like a steam train to get in on the frivolity.

When his head hit the pillow, Senor Conte may therefore have noted that the ‘attacking’ element of counter-attacking needs little work. It’s cigars and generous bourbons in that part of the world.

The challenge lies in the earlier premise, of letting the oppo have the ball. Harmless enough on paper, the reality was that Southampton ran rings around our lot for the majority of the first half. And not just the innocuous sort of rings that involve shoving the ball east and west without a whiff of penetration.

Southampton seemed to cut through our heroes at will, fashioning chances whenever the hell they fancied it. Now one accepts that such eventualities will unfold over the course of the season. Go up against the billionaires of Man City, or Liverpool or Chelski on one of their better days, and one can expect that sleeves will be rolled up in all quarters, and the dickens of a defensive shift be put in by every crew member.

But to be pulled from pillar to post non-stop, at home, by Southampton, seemed a bit thick. A decent outfit, for sure, and no doubt they’ll be plundered for their riches come the summer – but really not the sort of opponent that should have any self-respecting team hanging on for dear life. Yet come half-time one rather wanted to throw in a sympathetic towel and lead each of our heroes away for a sit-down and a warm glass of milk.

Difficult to pinpoint any single problem, but a couple of them seemed to reside in midfield, and one at right-back, as will be explored below.

Hojbjerg and Winks did not seem to have enough fingers between them to stick in the countless dykes appearing all over the place. By the end of the first half the pair seemed to offer little more than decorative value, their tactic of dangling an occasional limb proving pretty ineffectual in countering Southampton’s relentless switches to the left.

Watching the horror unfold, I did wonder whether a change of personnel might have eased things a tad. Messrs Skipp and, from early sightings, Bentancur both seem a bit more geared towards actually winning the ball, an approach I’d be happy to see at least attempted, in contrast to the Winks-Hojbjerg slant of staring at the opponent from a distance of five yards and hoping nothing dangerous follows.

Alternatively, the thought occurred that a switch to 3-5-2 might have swung things in our favour. One will never know of course, and it would also mean sacrificing Lucas, but in its previous incarnations (Leicester away, Liverpool home) our lot have rustled up a couple of pretty humdinging performances, which makes one chew a bit.

2. Hojbjerg

Well, this is awkward. That is to say, one doesn’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but Hojbjerg does appear to be discreetly shuffling from the queue marked “Solution” to that marked “Problem”.

Tough to stomach, because one rather admires the attitude of the chap – too often our midfield has been manned by blisters who will casually shrug off defeat as one of life’s little irritations, which rather get in the way of a neat pirouette and dainty flick. Hojbjerg, by contrast, comes across as the sort who spends his down-time chewing on glass and glaring at his offspring, an attitude I for one think we need a dashed sort more of in the corridors of N17.

But alas, attitude alone doth not a midfield general make. Watching as Hojbjerg dabbed pass after pass into a curious ether that couldn’t accurately be classified as “Here” or “There” made one clear the throat and shoot an embarrassed look towards the nearest chum, as if to say, “He’s rather off the boil tonight, what?” And frankly, that nearest chum would shoot a look back as much as to suggest, “And not for the first time, I fear”.

On top of his startling abandonment of geography in his passing, Hojbjerg, as mentioned above, became ever less effective as a defensive screen. It all adds up to a chap who currently seems to be in the team based on tattoos and anger alone. He may just need a rest of course, something that does not seem to have been afforded to him since approximately the summer of 2020. Whatever the cause, something seems amiss.

All that said, such things are not entirely black and white. Hojbjerg’s finer recent moments seem to have been performed up in the final third, either in lending his frame to the high-press or bobbing off on a little jaunt into the opposition area. Such a jolly brought about our opening goal last night, which had me scratching the loaf and wondering if we’ve misunderstood him all this time.

3. Emerson Royal

There seems a lot less misunderstanding to be done on the matter of Emerson Royal. Bang average going forward and pretty woeful going back, I can only assume he produces stuff in training that would make Maradona blush, because game after game the young wag peddles some first-rate rot.

I’ll stick him the charitable stuff first: going forward he at least has the right idea. He knows the drill, and obediently charges off up the right flank, which if nothing else will give the fellow on the other side something to think about.

The problems seem to begin once he has the ball at his feet. If there’s a wrong option to choose, Emerson homes in on it like a moth to a flame. Alternatively, if the situation demands he whip in a cross – and let’s face it, in a wing-back’s line of work this is going to be bread-and-butter stuff – the fabric of the universe seems to melt before his eyes, and the peculiar fellow just cannot seem to muster the capacity. If you excuse the physics lesson, nothing about his crosses suggests he knows anything about trajectory or curl.

It’s pretty maddening stuff, as this must surely have been right up there in bold font on the Job Description, yet I struggle to remember a single decent cross he’s swung in. Tellingly, unlike Reguilon on the other side, Emerson gets nowhere near our set-pieces.

(Lest anyone point to his deflected effort vs Brighton at the weekend, I have a stash of rotten fruit waiting to be hurled, for in the first place there was no-one in the area at whom he could have been aiming, and in the second place the eventual arc of the ball owed everything to the deflection and precious little to Emerson’s own input.)

Moreover, defensively Emerson is such a liability that Southampton made no bones about the fact that he and he alone would be the point of all their attacks. Time and again, in the first half in particular, they targeted him, and time and again he melted away in the face of it all.

While the two late goals conceded made for pretty nasty viewing, there could be little surprise about the fact that Emerson was the nearest in the vicinity for the winning goal in particular. (I exonerate him re Southampton’s second, as Kulusevski switched off instead of tracking his man, leaving Emerson in the unenviable position of having two unmarked forwards on his plate.)

The winning goal, however, was a neat illustration of Emereson’s pretty odd approach to defending, involving him attempting to allow the chap a header and banking on his ability to block its path to goal, rather than actually challenging for the dashed thing.

Meanwhile, Matt Doherty stares on listlessly from the sidelines. This is not to suggest that Doherty’s presence would transform operations, but I do wonder quite what depths Emerson has to plumb before being bundled out the back and having the door locked behind him.

4. Romero

Strange to say, having conceded thrice, but at the heart of defence Romero filed away another solid shift. Not flawless – at one point in the first half he was utterly undone by a straightforward long-ball hoicked over his head – but by and large, whatever came into his sphere was mopped up with minimal fuss, and often a few extra servings of meat.

He would benefit from a few more capable souls to his left and right, and indeed in front of him, but defensively, both on terra firma and up in the atmosphere, he seems a pretty handy nib to have on the premises.

Intriguingly, the fellow is also evidently possessed of a pretty eye-catching pass from deep. Given the general absence of creative spark from our central midfield pair, this could prove to be a pretty significant outlet in weeks to come.

Alas, there were simply too many duds in the defensive unit last night, and it is a bit fruity to expect Romero single-handedly to put out every fire going. The latest cameo from Bentancur suggests that there’s a chap who needs fast-tracking into the starting eleven, and the eventual return of Skipp might also add a sharpened elbow or two to the midfield, but after the dominant performance against Brighton at the weekend, this was mightily disappointing stuff.

Tweets hither

Categories
Spurs match reports

Leicester 2-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Midfield Three

A day later it is with a steadier – if throbbing – head that I pore over this one. The first point of note was that the formation – and specifically the use of a midfield three – struck oil.

For clarity, that midfield three read, from west to east:
– Hojbjerg (advancing)
– Winks (sitting)
– Skipp (advancing)

When Leicester had possession, this triumvirate seemed keen not to be any further than about ten yards from one another, presumably under careful instruction rather than simply a gnawing loneliness, and the effect was to narrow the gaps through which Leicester could operate. It was not fool-proof – Leicester did construct two perfectly serviceable goals by penetrating this outer crust – but in general that midfield gang provided a handy first line of defence.

Their real value, however, came in the other direction.

Young Master Skipp is a man of many talents, but I must confess that I had never numbered amongst these any particular capability in the field of galloping forward adventurously into the final third. And yet there he was, in glorious technicolour, trading in every last breath from his lungs in order to avail himself in a rather niche but surprisingly effective inside-right sort of position. It was not so much what he did with the ball that attracted the admiring glance, as the positions he took up in making himself available. Be it for Emerson on the right-hand touchline or Kane dropping deep, Skipp took seriously this role of Main Supporting Actor On The Right, and it contributed strongly to our general dominance.

In a slightly less energetic manner, Hojbjerg chipped in similarly in and around the inside-left channel, and all the while Winks held fort at the base of things (and also took a whole procession of some of the best corners I can remember from our lot).

As one would expect, a Hojbjerg – Winks – Skipp combo was a tad light on effervescent creativity, these particular beans preferring to shuffle things along in orderly fashion rather than scythe apart anyone in opposing colours. And yet nevertheless, first Skipp (in intercepting) and then Winks (in his excellently-weighted assist) put pretty much all the bricks and mortar in place for our first goal; Hojbjerg’s vision carved out our second; and Hojbjerg was at the base of things for our third as well, in intercepting the original Leicester pass.

It has not gone unnoticed that arguably our two finest performances of the fledgling Conte era have come in a 3-5-2 formations (Liverpool at home, lest ye be racking the brain). In this latest instance, the switch to 3-5-2 was forced somewhat by the absence of Sonny, and his return would prompt the ghastly question of whether Lucas ought to be relegated in order to maintain the 3-5-2. For now, however, we might as well just continue the ongoing period of basking, and enjoy the fact that the formation tweak and use of a midfield three worked out in pretty splendid fashion.

2. Doherty

If there were one failing in the first half it was that Emerson Royal was being Emerson Royal. There are worse things he could have been of course, and being Emerson Royal does not automatically make one a hindrance to operations; but nevertheless, it does limit forward-looking options – and by extension this slightly neuters the entire, carefully-constructed mechanism.

In plain English, our formation under Conte depends heavily on the wing-backs to motor into the final third and produce things of value once there. And there appears to be something lurking deep within the core of Emerson Royal that, for now at least, prevents him flinging off the shackles and living the riotous life of a wing-back with unfettered joy and gay brio.

Instead, having adopted the requisite positions north of halfway, Emerson’s life seems to grind to a halt, and those around him often seem to decide it best to carry on with things as if he weren’t actually there at all.

Bizarrely enough, it took the introduction of Matt Doherty of all people, to introduce a few rays of sunshine to the right wing-back position.

My surprise at this development can be readily explained. Doherty is the sort of egg whose lilywhite career to date has been so crushingly underwhelming that I rarely utter his name without the prefix “Poor Old”, or “That Wretched”, or even sometimes a choice of words less family-friendly. Whenever he has popped up on the right, the complexities of a life in football have generally seemed to overwhelm him, with the result that every choice he has made has been the wrong one.

(In an act of generosity I’ll spare him too much comment on those rather ghastly visits he’s had to endure to the left wing, as these are not his fault.)

Yesterday, however, as soon as he took to the field, Doherty seemed to stumble upon some unlikely alchemy for the role of right wing-back, and scarcely able to believe his luck made the decision simply to roll with it for as long as he could.

His very first involvement was a series of one-twos with Kane that seemed to blow the minds of all Leicester folk in the vicinity; and from that moment on he clearly decided that he was on a good thing in charging into the final third, and kept returning to that particular well for more.

Positionally, this was a choice stuffed with goodness. At any given point at which we attacked, it became an accepted truth that Doherty would be motoring up the right, and
one only had to glance the laziest of eyes in that direction to nail down his coordinates.

Crucially, however, in addition simply to being in useful places, Doherty also produced a flurry of half-decent crosses. Some were admittedly plucked out of the sky without too much inconvenience by Schmeichel, and others just missed their mark, but it nevertheless made a pleasant change to see such crosses being delivered at all, aerially and towards the back-post, rather than simply slammed into the first functioning opponent.

And Doherty’s spirit of adventure was ultimately critical in bringing about our equaliser, by dint of creating a sufficient nuisance for the ball to end up obligingly at Bergwijn’s size nines. Admittedly he lost possession and fell to earth at the crucial juncture, but fortune favoured him, and defeat turned into victory.

Might this prove a turning-point for the chap?

3. Kane

I noted in the home leg against Chelsea last week that that rotter Harry Kane appeared to have rediscovered his old swagger, and as if to hammer home the point he actively sought out every opportunity to showcase it last night. In fact, if anything, he rather overdid it at times. By the midway point of the second half one wanted to take him by the hand, give him a calming pat or two and point out that we were all now fully aware of his resurgence, and he really did not need to belt the ball as hard as he could into the stands at every opportunity.

However, the occasional misguided long-range swipe is part of the overall package of a Harry Kane brimming with confidence, as he genuinely seems convinced that he can do anything. While he will never, ever take even a half-threatening free-kick, everything else in his bag of tricks looked mightily impressive yesterday.

The headline acts of course were his goal, executed like the most seasoned assassin, and his pass to for Bergwijn to seal the win, spotted and delivered with huge bundles of aplomb.

However, two moments alone a highlights reel might make, but hardly tell the whole story. And the whole story was loosely along the lines that almost every time he touched the ball he did something useful with it, and that he played a pretty primary role in much that was good about our lot. And when you consider that our lot were on top for at least a good hour of the ninety, it reflects even more impressively on the chap.

His hold-up play, choices of when to drop deep and passes to bring in others for fifteen minutes of fame were all pretty wisely selected and effected. Moreover, in hitting the bar and having one cleared off the line he did almost enough to claim a hat-trick that few could really have begrudged him. Cracking stuff from a man back at the top of his game.

4. Sanchez

One of the oddities of last night was the fact that Davinson Sanchez looked oddly assured for the most part. Admittedly one might point to a needless lunge by the touchline to earn a caution, and the fact that he was wrong-footed for the second Leicester goal, and these would be fair points – the blighter was not faultless.

Nevertheless, having been inadvertently promoted, by virtue of injuries first to Romero and then Dier, from fourth choice centre-back to leader of the pack, a conclusion that nobody in their right mind would ever will into reality, he seems to have shrugged his shoulders, accepted his lot and started to make a decent fist of it.

It might be that he simply looks more impressive given that next to him resides young Tanganga, who while full of promise has looked in recent weeks like a man terrified of his own shadow. But much to my astonishment Sanchez showed authority, strength and pretty good judgement yesterday.

He even occasionally strolled out of defence with the ball at his feet. The enormity of this ought not to be underplayed, for in almost every previous lilywhite appearance he has danced around the ball as if scared that it will suddenly develop legs and attack him.

If I were a betting man I might stick a few bob on the name Sanchez being ridiculed in weeks to come on these very pages, but last night he took on responsibility within that back three, and at the very least that deserves acknowledgement.