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Spurs 4-0 Burnley: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Dream Front Three: Son and Kane

Admittedly it was six months overdue, which does take the gloss of these joyous occasions, but now that the third member of the trio is just about fully fit this could be considered the official unveiling of The Dream Front Three, and they delivered all the traditional punchlines and crowd-pleasing moments that were legally required of them.

Burnley, it must be said, were pretty accepting of their part in the spectacle, dutifully approaching their roles of Lambs Being Led To Slaughter with all the obedient passivity of a mob of extras who are fully aware that their part in the thing is purely to make the superstars look good. When the Dream Front Three needed to combine for the cameras, Burnley gave them all the space they needed; when the Dream Front Three needed to score, Burnley were at pains not to inconvenience them, at one point even subjecting each other to meaty off-the-ball challenges in order to ensure that the day’s neon-lit narrative was not disturbed.

Tougher tests will therefore await, but this was still rousing stuff.

Sonny, who appears to have adjusted his coordinates to pop up less centrally and more towards the left since the renaissance of Bale, made a welcome return to his sprightly self after a bit of a lull in recent weeks. This geographic shift perhaps lends itself to being Creator rather than Finisher, but Son appeared to have no objection to the modification of his job description, and was at the heart of many of our quicker and more penetrating routines.

Kane, for his part, looked thoroughly irked at the indignity of having seen a goal scored within two minutes against Burnley that did not feature him, and set about doing his damnedest to correct that particular clerical error at the earliest opportunity, lashing in shots until one went in; at which point he calmed down and settled back into life within the collective of The Dream Front Three.

2. The Dream Front Three: Bale

Meanwhile Bale, as threatened in recent weeks against Wolfsberger (twice) and West Ham, bobbed about the place with the swagger of a fellow who is one of the best in the business and is pretty well aware of the fact.

He does still wander along with a look of some disdain for those statistics that litter the modern game around yards run, and sprints sprinted, and jugs of breath inhaled and whatnot; but it matters not when a chap has Special Dispensation Because He Is Bale. While not exactly the tireless blur of legs that, for example, defines Sonny, peak Bale possesses a threat that can destroy teams with a couple of well-judged swings of his left tentacle. These have been in evidence in recent weeks, both in the sweet contact for his goals against Wolfsberger but also in the link-up play when drifting in from the right, and all of the above was evidenced again today.

His opening goal was hardly the most spectacular of his career, but was still a triumph for those who enjoy a well-timed run from deep, executed as if some sort of meta-joke in reference to Dele Alli. More usefully, it set the tone for a pretty idyllic afternoon stroll in the sun, taking the pressure of everyone concerned and giving a licence to The Dream Front Three to do dreamy things.

Bale’s pass for Kane’s goal was pretty indulgent stuff, those sprayed, long-range passes being the reserve of those who consider themselves above the rank-and-file of the Premier League, and his audacity to undertake such a project was indicative of an egg who is thoroughly enjoying life.

‘Tis true, he has looked like he has been enjoying life from the moment he re-signed, but more on account of the barrel of laughs that have kept him entertained while watching on from the bench, judging by the televised evidence of him chuckling away on the sidelines every week. While encouraging to see a man in high spirits, he has done little to contribute to the greater good while wrapped up and sedentary, so there was much to welcome about the sight of him today ambling into the spotlight, demanding the ball and spreading play.

Most eye-catchingly, at one point he also treated us to a throwback of Bale at the Lane, when he knocked the ball past his full-back, took him on in a short sprint and comfortably triumphed. This, combined with the absolutely sumptuous technique in his finishing, generously demonstrated again today for his fourth, is the stuff that really gets the masses chattering in excitement, and these little glimpses of the Bale of old bode well for the remainder of the season.

The interplay between The Dream Front Three at times did make the eyes widen with excitement. Stay fit and continue to play together, and one suspects that their understanding and combinations will only improve, which makes the heart race a bit, what?

3. Lucas

AANP is only too well aware that being the youngest of four siblings can at times be a pretty dispiriting gig, particularly in one’s formative years when nature dictates that you are comfortably the least accomplished of the gang. And when perching on the starting blocks and looking up to behold The Dream Front Three scattered around him, I could therefore sympathise with Lucas Moura, who, while possessed of his own set of handy talents, is nevertheless a man whose own mother would have a tough time putting him on the same lofty pedestal as Kane, Son and Bale.

Lucas, one might argue, ranks more alongside Messrs Bergwijn and Lamela in quality, and appears to be scrapping it out with these two and Dele for the coveted Number 10 role, with Senor Lo Celso presumably at some point also due to pop back into frame and offer his tuppence worth.

One therefore had to be careful not to place too much pressure upon Lucas, or, to put it more bluntly, not to judge him by the same standards of his starrier chums. The poor fellow also had to contend with the fact that AANP has made pretty public in recent weeks a level of dissatisfaction with his output, chiefly centring on his obsessions with dribbling past as many opponents as drift into his eyeline. Disheartening stuff for the man to read each week, no doubt.

Today, however, I thought Lucas made a decent fist of things. His energy was impressive, and probably necessary given that scampering around incessantly is not quite the principal virtue of G. Bale Esquire. Lucas also job-shared with Harry Kane the duty of dropping into midfield to help out the frontline staff who were getting their hands dirty, one of the game’s less glamorous undertakings but a box that no doubt needed ticking.

And I am also a personal fan of the young bean’s penchant for treating every opportunity that falls to him without discrimination, but simply lashing it as hard as his little legs allow, and trusting in God to do the rest. On one occasion today this sent the ball into orbit; on another occasion he thumped it straight at the ‘keeper, when any modicum of deftness would have brought about a goal; but the ‘Close Your Eyes And Hammer It’ approach duly struck oil on his other opportunity, so well done him.

The personal preference in these parts would be for peak Dele to make Number 10 his own, or, if tireless industry is specifically required, Erik Lamela. Indeed, a fit-again Lo Celso would also be above Lucas in the pecking order if I had my way on these things; but there can be few grumbles about either Lucas’ input or output today.

4. Davinson Sanchez

Another of our lot whose persual of these pages in recent weeks will have tested his fortitude is Davinson Sanchez. If being left to chew turf by Gundogan a few weeks ago represented the nadir of Sanchez’ Tottenham career, then his backheeled pass to a teammate in the 79th minute might well have been its zenith. Party tricks aside however, in general, this will go down in The Book of Records as one of his finest displays in lilywhite.

Four-nil though the scoreline might have been – and a pretty fair reflection of affairs at that – this was not a game without incident for the centre-backs. Make no mistake, Sanchez earned his weekly envelope today.

Burnley have generally offered a pretty stern physical and aerial test over the years, and this Sanchez (and Toby) withstood well, all the more so given that Lloris’ attitude of non-interference means that he will stay on his line come hell or high water, and that the centre-backs cannot not expect a damn jot of help from his quarter.

And having been given nightmares by the twists and turns of Gundogan on terra firma a few weeks back, Sanchez also deserves credit for sticking to his guns when similar attempts on his dignity were made today. In the areas of both shepherding and blocking, he seemed to meet all challenges thrown his way, and even at one point displayed his rarely-sighted burst of pace.

Now I’ve heard it said that one swallow does not make a summer, and as I understand it the chap who penned that particular gag was referring specifically to Sanchez and the prospect of him turning in a solid performance, the gist being that a clean sheet against Burnley does not mean Sanchez is guaranteed to be the bedrock upon which a watertight Tottenham defence will be built for years to come. And this seems a reasonable assertion, for there is plenty of evidence in the bank pointing to Sanchez being anything but bedrock as he goes about his duties.

Nevertheless, this was encouraging stuff, both in terms of the practical output and the confidence it will give him. One hopes that he can bash out similar fare against Fulham in midweek, because I think we would all breathe a little easier if the centre-back pairing in N17 began at least to look the part.

West Ham 2-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Dier, Lloris and Tanganga’s Role in the Opener

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the school of thought that has it that the purpose of a defence is to keep opponents as far away as possible from the goods. Something akin to the attitude of a Test batsman refusing to surrender his wicket at any cost, “Over-my-dead-body” pretty much being the anthem of choice.

By contrast, the attitude of our defence seems to be far more easy-going and liberal, seeming to suggest that if you fancy wandering straight into our inner sanctum then come right in and make yourselves at home. This was strongly evident from the off, as Lloris, Dier and Tanganga were politeness personified, not daring to do anything that might impede the serene progress of West Ham towards our holiest of holies.

The cross for the opener was undoubtedly a decent one, but nothing that a firm application of Dier’s forehead would have failed to remedy pretty swiftly, and at this stage I think most right-minded observers anticipated him taking the uncontroversial step of nodding the ball back whence it came and letting the experts get on with things further up the pitch. Dier’s decision therefore to adopt a policy of non-interference made the mind swim a bit, but this curious experiment in passivity having been executed we at least had Monsieur Lloris to fall back on.

Alas, Lloris clings to his goal-line in much the same way as a toddler might cling to a cherished blanket, and although the ball hove into view within the six-yard box, and Lloris, for clarification, was fully entitled to use his hands to affect proceedings as he saw fit, he instead took a leaf out of Dier’s “Wait and See” book. While this says much for his spirit of intellectual curiosity, it didn’t really aid us in the matter at hand.

For his part, the West Ham forward in the middle of this slapstick, Antonio, reacted with all the incredulity one would expect of a man who had heard much of the fabled spirit of generosity amongst the Tottenham defence but still could not quite believe it was happening. He helped himself to two unchallenged attempts at goal from inside six yards, and who could blame him for filling his boots so greedily?

A word in passing also for young Tanganga for his role in all this. With Dier dragged out of position by the front post runner, responsibility for chaperoning Antonio fell upon the shoulders of Tanganga. It was therefore unfortunate to see him look to his elders for inspiration, and do what Dier and Lloris had done before, by staying rooted to his position with resolute passivity, determined not to influence matters but instead to watch them unfold around him. Oh, Japhet.

To his credit Tanganga made an admirable stab at a rather brutal task against Man City last week, when he was asked to keep tabs on the combined might of Sterling and Gundogan, and in general he shown an adequate grasp of the basics to merit some time in the starting line-up, but this was the sort of sizeable clanger it is pretty difficult to laugh off.

2. Sanchez

Elsewhere in the heart of what passes these days for our defence, Davinson Sanchez made one of the smarter decisions of his entire Tottenham career to date by staying well clear of affairs for the opening goal, and entrusting duties to his colleagues.

This was about the only intelligent choice he made all afternoon. He may have avoided anything in the category of ‘Monumentally Catastrophic’, but this is hardly the sign of a job well done. In general there is much about which to shoot concerned glances when observing Sanchez in action, and for anyone wondering to what sort of things I might be referring, the chap kindly provided demonstrations of many of them today, like some grotesque form of Error-Strewn Bingo.

He misjudges the flight of aerial balls; is too easily turned inside out by any opposing attacker who has the temerity to attempt a stepover; is outmuscled too easily; appears pretty petrified of the ball when in possession, typically turning back to the goalkeeper as if afraid that the ball might combust if it moves forward; and at one point was outpaced by Declan Rice. Using the age-old AANP technique of asking who would buy him if he were available, it seems a fair bet that the queue of Champions League-chasing sides would not be stretching around the block – making one ask what the hell is he doing playing for our lot?

When watching two centre-backs struggling to negotiate the absolute basics of space and time, there is a temptation for the absence of others to make the heart grow fonder, and thus I find myself now yearning for a pairing of Toby and Rodon. But realistically, this is unlikely to present much of an improvement either.

Toby’s heart remains willing, but his flesh grows weaker with each passing match; and Rodon’s love of a dramatic sliding challenge rather masks the fact that his positional errors bring about the need for such challenges in the first place.

In short, none of the current bunch are what would you describe as a towering presence at the back, and throw in a goalkeeper whose understanding of his grasp of reality and his place within it is becoming ever shakier, and it’s a heck of a problem. Our defence (and ‘keeper) seem to be worth a two-goal deficit in each game they play.

It is probably a bit much to ask any manager to turn that disjointed and error-strewn rabble into world-beaters, but I had at least hoped on his arrival that Jose might turn our back four into something greater than the sum of their parts. There is precious little indication of this happening, which suggests that the for the foreseeable future the onus will be on the attacking mob to score at least two or three each game simply to give us a chance of a point.

3. Bale and Our Second Half in General

This being Jose’s Tottenham, we waited until two goals down before showing any particular attacking urgency, but when the penny did finally drop we put on a surprisingly compelling show. Given that the combined talents of Kane, Son, Bale, Dele, Lucas and Ndombele were all in attendance one wouldn’t expect much less, but it still made a pleasant change to feel a frisson of excitement as our lot pummelled away at the opposition.

Central to this late rally was Gareth Bale, which is not a phrase I necessarily ever expected to utter again. But there he was, in glorious technicolour, looking as if he cared, and showing an impressive knack for doing mundane things with superstar quality.

His list of merits included link-up play on the right with Doherty (albeit a deployment that was enforced when Plan A, of using Tanganga as a more containing full-back, went up in smoke inside five minutes when we went behind); occasional darts infield; runs behind the defence; and, most stylishly, the deft little flicks and nudges that on paper could be recorded as simply standing in one place and dangling a limb, but in practice amounted to gloriously misleading two or three opponents into setting off in one direction while facing in the opposite direction.

This is to say nothing of the assist for Lucas’ goal (which, by the by, I made approximately the umpteenth example of a goal from a corner since Eriksen left and took his corner deliveries with him) and the volley that grazed the crossbar. Of course, hitting the bar counts for little unless he were aiming for it – and even then it would be a pretty odd objective – but all these elements amounted to the sort of performance that was a notch or two above that of which most of his contemporaries are capable.

It bodes well. No doubt it is tempting to add a grumble that it is about damn time he boded well, having spent the last six months boding anything but, while seeming happy enough to claim his weekly envelope and not giving a fig about how things boded – but for the avoidance of doubt, this was good stuff.

In recent weeks Sonny has been slightly more reticent, as if moved to find a quiet spot out on the left and reflect, undisturbed, upon life; and Kane’s radar today was around six inches away from where it ought to have been at any given moment; but it is now conceivable that all three of these might be about to hit their straps simultaneously, and with Burnley and Fulham looming large on the fixture list, a release of some pent-up frustration would be pretty timely.

4. Lamela

The general upturn in life’s events in the final half hour – in performance at least, if not in outcome – did much to soothe the savage beast that had been unleashed within me at half-time, on learning of the withdrawal of Lamela, a bullet that Lucas rather scandalously dodged.

Lamela, as has been the case on almost every occasion since his return, struck me as the pick of our bunch while in attendance. His little dribble from halfway to a spot well beyond, to set up Kane, struck me as a masterclass in how to run at pace away from would-be antagonists while being spectacularly one-footed and still managing to effect trademark stepovers even though nothing about the circumstances should, by rights, have allowed such a thing.

And in general, he combined his usual urgency with some decision-making that was probably as sensible as the situation allowed. Naturally he also found time for that customary combo of a yellow card for a late challenge aligned with a look of utter incredulity, but there is much to love about an attacker who is so affronted at not having possession that he considers it within his rights to fly into his man with the full force of every available limb in order to win the thing back.

By contrast, and as ever, any good intentions Lucas might have had at kick-off were swiftly drowned beneath his irrepressible urge to be dribbling at any point and in any part of the field, irrespective of whether the situation demanded such an undertaking or otherwise.

We will always have Amsterdam, of course, and there are times when to beat an opponent or two does everyone a service, but watching the chap get his head down and race off mazily into a cul-de-sac I cannot help but feel the I have watched him play the same game for Tottenham about a hundred times.

Of the aforementioned sextet of attacking talent with which we ended the game, Lucas struck me as arguably the weakest link, and in the straight shootout perennially in my head between Lucas and Lamela, the latter is comfortably ahead. I can only assume that Lamela, rather than Lucas, was hooked at the interval because of Lamela’s yellow: but in future weeks I expect to see a front four of Kane, Son, Bale and Lamela.

Wolfsberger 1-4 Tottenham: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Bale

The Gareth Bale Saga, what? With its assorted triumphs and disasters it’s already been a fairly exhausting ride, which seems to have much about it of the seven stages of grief, with each passing game swinging us wildly between hope and despair. For those struggling to keep up, yesterday’s input ranked amongst the more positive variety, and accordingly wild and fanciful expectations have shot through the roof and off into the horizon.

It’s probably best to get the caveats out of the way early. Wolfsberg, or Wolfsberger, or Pellets, or whatever the hell they were called were pretty game going forward, but seemed only to tick the boxes marked ‘Defence’ because they absolutely had to under UEFA regulations, and consequently offered little in the way of resistance once our heroes began motoring.

This was best summed up by the comedy villain sent sliding into a different postcode by Bale immediately preceding his goal. The chap had much about him of ‘Henchman Number 3’ in one of the old Bond films, his purpose seeming solely to appear on screen in order to wave some ineffectual limbs before being obligingly hurled aside by our hero.

There was much to admire about the artistic direction of that particular scene. That combination of Bale’s speed on the run, balance on the turn and then vicious whip on the shot lent itself to some pretty dreamy aesthetics, the sort of thing that could not have looked better if it had been the product of hours of choreography.

But as well as the splendid entertainment of the goal itself, the fact that this was a glimpse of Peak Bale, for the first time since his return, was what really got the masses chattering.

As has been pretty well documented, the chap has underwhelmed in recent months. No need to dwell on the unfortunate particulars, but suffice to say his most significant contributions have been a couple of headers delivered with feet planted pretty solidly on terra firma, as if to indicate his reluctance to exert himself any more than is absolutely necessary.

If one squinted, and added a pretty generous narrative, one could just about discern the occasional glimpse of a man of talent, but in truth these moments were no more spectacular than any of those provided occasionally by the least celebrated squad members. Even Moussa Sissoko or Steven Bergwijn occasionally sidesteps an opponent; to laud Bale for doing likewise once every few games was straw-clutching at its finest.

So to see the chap raise himself to the heights that are the preserve of only a fairly elite group of players certainly got the heart fluttering. Sissoko or Bergwijn do not and cannot and never will score a goal like Bale’s last night. And I don’t mind admitting that I had resigned myself to never seeing such output again from the man himself.

But if, for whatever reason – be it fitness, or confidence, or simply a whim-based shrug of the shoulders in which the young folk seem to delight – Bale has rediscovered something of that alchemist’s touch of yore, suddenly we might have a potent third appendage to the Kane-Sonny axis.

2. Dele

Sunny optimism clearly comes in twos, because just as we all began happily speculating about the longer-term meaning of Bale’s goal and assist (not sure he contributed an awful lot else, mind, but beggars and choosers and all that) we were treated to a few party tricks from young D. Alli Esq., which suggested that here was a man who considered his affairs to be in order.

Dele, as is well known, loves a nutmeg, and I suppose we should guard against getting too carried away on the basis of one such specimen, delicious in its execution though it was.

But for the purposes of a duly diligent reality check it is probably worth nothing that there was a decent stack of other impressive output from the man.

In possession, a lot of the old swagger had returned. This can actually tend to be a source of considerable frustration, as he often seems to derive ideas above his station and refuse to part with the ball as a result, holding onto it far too long and sapping momentum from our attacks. Yesterday, however, the need for urgency seemed impressed upon him, and he generally combined his trademark love of the elaborate with a good appreciation of the need to chivvy things along.

Moreover, off the ball he seemed perfectly happy to make a generous contribution to the collective act of The High Press. Again, worth noting that these were obliging opponents, but it’s the only fare Dele gets these days, so he may as well make the most of it.

With Ndombele now seemingly entrusted to the deeper-lying role, and Lo Celso still poorly, opportunity potentially knocks for Dele in the Number 10 spot, and a couple more eye-catching flourishes in the Europa would do him no harm.

3. Vincius: Offering Value of Sorts

The curious egg that is Carlos Vinicius was given his traditional airing yesterday, and duly continued to leave us all a little undecided as to whether it was best to castigate or sympathise with him.

The answer, of course, lies in between the two extremes. Passing judgement with moderation is something of a forgotten art in these days of non-stop and ubiquitous news coverage, but there might be value in taking this approach with Vinicius and simply appreciating both what he offers and his limitations.

In the Credit column, his mere existence allows us such luxuries as the complete resting of Harry Kane. I distinctly remember tearing out great big clumps of hair in midweek Cup matches of years gone by, at the fact that we were forced to deploy Kane in pretty meaningless matches, simply because we had nobody else in the squad worthy of the description “Striker”. Kane, of course, never dissented – quite the opposite in fact, the eyes of the honest fellow tended to light up when he realised easy goals were to be had – but that’s not the point. Wheel him out for every game and he will eventually break; so having a Vinicius in the squad affords him and Sonny some respite and saved energies for tougher tests.

On top of which, while Vinicius does have his limitations as an all-round centre-forward, it was good to see him show something of the Lineker about him yesterday in poaching his goal. It’s something of a dying art, but one for which AANP reserves a special place in the affections.

That snaffle aside, Vinicius did not offer a great deal, which seems to point to a couple of causal factors. On the one hand he has plenty of room for improvement. He might have been more alert to pounce when Bale had a shot parried, and he might have used the ball more wisely when it did come his way.

But on t’other hand, this is not the sort of creature who will drop deep a la Kane, or spend his afternoons working the channels. Vinicius comes across as the type who would like a few testing balls to whirl around the penalty area, either along the ground or otherwise, and if his chums are not donating to the cause it leaves him pretty unemployed for sizeable chunks.

4. Lloris

I rather reluctantly offer a mention to Monsieur Lloris, primarily because justice demands as much.

In recent games he has dropped such howlers that one wondered if he were doing so deliberately, but more salutary habits were on display yesterday, with the one-handed first half save, from close range, a particular highlight.

So, having jostled to the front of the queue to pelt the chap with rotten fruit over the last couple of games, the AANP Code of Honour has seen to it that I now similarly commend him for his efforts yesterday.

Elsewhere, the combination of Dier’s poor pass and Sissoko’s poor control contributed to another pretty careless penalty, but in general this was a fair result, and given our recent struggles, against both capable and weaker opponents, it was pretty welcome stuff.

Man city 3-0 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Lloris

One does not really like to dwell on the misfortune of others, but it would be remiss not to record in the Book of Events the latest series of errors from our resident gate-keeper.

For the first two goals (and some might make convincing arguments also for the third) he seemed to do the hard part, of stationing himself at the appropriate coordinates and at the appointed time, with relevant limb duly outstretched, in order to make the necessary saves. These boxes having been ticked, all that remained seemed to be for him to complete the job by ensuring that aforementioned outstretched limb completed its principle purpose in life, viz. to prevent the ball entering his net.

Of course at this juncture the operation seemed to collapse in pieces. It is pretty vexing stuff, because shot-stopping has tended to be Lloris’ headline trick. One rarely sees him dashing from his line to claim crosses, and his distribution tends not to win too many awards: but for the past however many years he has at least amassed a decent array of saves. Take this away from him and tongues will wag.

And on the subject of his diminishing shot-stopping powers, I’ve noted a recent tendency of his to fall backwards as he attempts to carry out this particular duty. The second and third goals yesterday, and also the first goal against Everton (Calvert-Lewin’s powerful volley, for those struggling to keep track), each featured our man tumbling back onto his derriere.

Now not having been particularly schooled in the art as a whole I couldn’t offer much expertise on the matter, but it does seem a peculiar quirk. One would have thought a chap aiming to spring into action ought to plant his weight on his toes. This business of falling backwards suggests that the chap is more inclined to rock on his heels.

2. Hojbjerg

Regulars in this part of the world will be well aware that the affection for Hojbjerg all season has been strong. Alas, yesterday he dipped below the expected standards.

Following his errors against Everton in midweek, Hojbjerg was at it again yesterday. Some have suggested that the penalty should not have been awarded, but before examining the case for that particular defence I chide the man for getting himself into that position in the first place. The opponent in questions was Gundogan, who, in order to station himself for the aforementioned drama to unfold, had to amble forward into the area, while a chum was in possession; and at this point Hojbjerg simply watched him skip past.

As derelictions of duty go it was pretty thick stuff, and most unlike the chap. Had he tracked this run with the eagerness of a boy scout I dare say the various legs that then became tangled would have remained in tangle-free state.

Personally I had no beef with the decision itself, as it appeared that Hojbjerg kicked the chap’s standing leg, the principal crime here being one of clumsiness. All in all, as bursts of five-seconds-of-action go, this was one of the more flawed exhibits.

3. Lamela and Lucas

While Hojbjerg has been looked upon fondly all season, a more recent favourite at AANP Towers has been Erik Lamela, primarily for his combination of high energy, skulduggery and useful – if heavily left-footed – creative spark. It was also a rare opportunity for Lucas to do his damnedest, and whether by accident or design the pair of them interchanged their first half roles pretty regularly.

However, as with Hojbjerg, this seemed not to be the sort of performance upon which either man will look back with any particular fondness. It was not so much that they made any specific, game-changing mistakes – there were plenty others queueing up to do that.

Rather, it was the fact that Lamela having begun to display his talents in the final third in recent games, nothing really clicked for the young nib yesterday, and Lucas was similarly wanting. Both were guilty of making the occasional poor decision, when the very limited opportunities arose for us to poke and prod at the City back-line.

City defended well, no doubt, but our game tends to rely on correct choices in the counter-attack, to ensure that the ball whizzes from point A to B, and onto C, with blink-of-an-eye alacrity, and while this pair had fairly regular opportunities to bring the ball over halfway, neither seemed to pick the most effective options having done so.

4. Ndombele and the First Half Formation

By the time the last rites came round City were basically toying with us, but in the first half the front-page news seemed to be that Jose had dispensed with the customary tactic against Man City, of deploying a back-six under strict instruction to venture no further than their own penalty area. Instead, while hardly expansive, our lot seemed willing to poke cautious noses into the swathes of turf that lay further north.

This I welcomed. It made a pleasant change, reduced the chances of conceding and was less painful to watch than might otherwise have been the case. In practice, of course, it mattered little, but the symbolism of the thing was duly recorded here at AANP Towers.

And directly linked to this mildly more progressive outlook was the deployment of Ndombele as one of the two deeper-lying midfield souls. Pre-Christmas, the Mourinho Dirge had been founded upon a deep-lying pairing of Sissoko and Hojbjerg, both of whom seemed pretty well drilled in the art of slotting in betwixt full-back and centre-back at the drop of a hat.

With Ndombele occupying the berth however, it’s a different kettle of fish. He follows the T’s and C’s of defensively midfielding adequately enough, but coursing through his veins is an urge to pick up the ball and drag it with him over halfway and into opposition territory. In short, his deployment in the role changes the dynamic of our play. This scheme was initially pursued against West Brom last week, which, in the politest terms, was a pretty low-risk test of its efficacy. It was then wheeled out for the manic Cup-tie vs Everton, the sheer lunacy of which game made it pretty difficult to gauge its success, although Ndombele’s breaks from deep did add a useful additional dynamic to our play.

However, then to use Ndombele in the deeper role against the juggernaut that is City struck me a a pretty significant act of faith in his abilities.

The experiment went the way of all flesh in the second half, as Sissoko came on and sat deep, while Ndombele shoved forward, before being hooked – but not before this additional piece of symbolism had similarly had its details taken. Amidst the doom and gloom about the place, I do at least look forward to further use of Ndombele as a deep-lying attacking threat, in coming weeks.

5. Bale and Alli

Funnily enough it flew completely under the radar that we finished the game with something of a fantasy line-up, of Kane, Son, Bale and Dele Alli in attack.

I don’t really keep track of these things but I’d imagine it can’t have been that long ago that a decent proportion of the world’s lilywhites would have given their right arms to see that quartet in action simultaneously.

Now obviously when this dream team is assembled within the circumstances of a three-goal deficit in the dying embers of a match, it loses much of its sheen. But if somehow the best can be coaxed out of Dele, and anything remotely near fitness and form out of Bale, we might potentially have a front four that, frankly, would be far beyond anything Jose has ever done to deserve.

I suspect most of us are scratching our heads at Bale’s odd flurry of non-performances so far, but in one fleet-footed dribble past multiple City legs yesterday he gave a brief flash of hope that perhaps his appetite for such things may not have fizzled out completely.

With transfer speculation about Dele now put to bed for at least the next few months it appears that Jose has moodily decided he might as well play the two-time Young Player of the Year, on the off-chance that he has something about him. There is still enough time in the season for he and Bale to hit some loose approximation of form – and should either, or, God-willing, both do so, and with Ndombele prompting things from deep, our attacking options would suddenly abound.

Everton 5-4 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. All Action, No Plot

Cut me open and you’ll find me bleeding lilywhite, and so on and so forth; and every defeat for our lot conjures up that hurtful feeling of being bitten in the leg by a personal friend, and so on and forth; but I have to admit, that having felt like my soul was being dragged from my very being while watching our lot resolutely defend their own penalty area for the last six months, to see the return of all-action-no-plot football last night brought a certain satisfaction.

As I will bleat to anyone within earshot, I would much rather see our lot lose while buccaneering like a whole regiment of particularly well-oiled musketeers, than settling for 28% possession and aimlessly hacking clearance after clearance, before conceding in the final five minutes anyway.

It might not be the opinion that has the masses flooding to the ballot box to formalise their support, but give me an-all-action-no plot display any day of the week.

And make no mistake, this was AANP of the highest order. A team denuded of Harry Kane always prompts a few pursed lips and quizzical glances about the place, but from the off our heroes took to the challenge like a bag of cats freshly released. The football in general was one-touch, which is always one of life’s more positive omens, bringing with it, by definition, a rapid shifting of the central orb from points A to B and back again.

Chances were created and shots taken at a healthy rate from the opening minutes onwards, and while it was an annoyance to see just about all of them disappear straight down the throat of the Everton ‘keeper, each routine seemed to be undertaken in the right spirit. The movement of each of the front four was lively; and both the nominal deep-lying midfielders, Hojbjerg and Ndombele, seemed to treat the opportunities to motor forward with all the relish of a pair of teenagers allowed out to their first party.

In short it was pretty unrecognisable from the defensive fare we’ve had rammed down our throats for so long under Jose, and while the first half hour or so brought only a one-goal lead and around half a dozen missed chances for a second, the entertainment alone was ample compensation for an underwhelming scoreline.

Looking back, but for the five-minute burst of defensive howlers before half-time we may have shaded the thing on balance – not that the book of events records such speculation. I suppose we can draw some mild consolation from the fact that we did not concede due to inviting wave after wave of pressure, or being in ragged defensive shape, but primarily due to forming a neat queue of individuals eager to have their own individual howlers given air-time, with Messrs Hojbjerg and Lloris oddly intent on stretching the boundaries of the calamitous.

Having clawed the thing back twice in normal time, it was pretty galling to see it all disappear in smoke at stumps – but while others may grumble, I was simply glad to have at least been entertained. Rather a 4-5 after extra-time, than an impotent 0-1 utterly devoid of invention.

2. Lamela

I must confess it is not immediately clear to me which particular ghost has elected to inhabit the wiry frame of Erik Lamela in these two and a half games since his latest return from injury, but I like the cut of his spectral jib.

In attitude as much as output, Lamela has been a joy to behold, all energy, urgency and will to win. While his actual stats might not necessarily have been flawless, he was the creative hub regularly enough, and his goal seemed a pretty fair reward for a few hours of good honest graft in the last week or two.

3. Lucas

The offering from Lucas was more of a mixed bag. In the credit column, his attitude was also admirable from the off.

Now I appreciate that this is akin to dishing out a sympathetic pat upon the head of the chubby lad in the class, and awarding him a prize for effort, but this upbeat, energetic take on life was pretty critical. Cast the mind back just a week or two, to the utterly lifeless showings against Chelsea and Brighton, and one realises that we cannot simply take for granted that our lot will career about the place like men possessed.

And while Lucas’ capacity to dribble into cul-de-sacs, and dismiss multiple opportunities to pass because he simply prefers to do it all himself, does drive the casual observer to a state of apoplexy, it was pretty vital that he devoted himself with energy to even these hollow pursuits, for this beavering contributed crucially to the general dynamism of the whole.

4. Out Substitutions and the Loss of Energy and Shape

The value of Lucas’ contribution seemed to become clearer once he was withdrawn. To put it another way, cast the mind back to the latter stages of normal time and the entirety of extra-time, when the subs were thrown on, and our energy disappeared along with our shape.

Where Ndombele had repeatedly dragged the ball from defence to attack for ninety minutes, offering a sixth attacking option that helped maintain a constant threat, Winks replaced him and promptly set about chiselling out one of the worst cameos in recent memory, capping off an array of misplaced passes with the concession of possession that led to the Everton winner.

For all his over-elaboration, Lucas was also missed once hooked, with Dele doing little to affect matters.

Most tellingly, the introduction of Kane seemed to slow down a lot of our attacking play, with the high-energy buzz of the opening hour or so replaced by a slightly more circumspect approach. At three-one down one can hardly quibble with the decision to send on the greatest goalscorer of his generation (and both Sonny’s cross and his diving header, for our fourth, together amounted to a thing of beauty), but the front-foot attacking style with which we had swaggered through the first half certainly sapped away.

5. Lloris

Ultimately though, four goals really ought to have been enough, and probably would have been but for the steady stream of individual clangers that littered the place.

Hojbjerg without doubt has enough credit in the bank to be excused his part in the mess, which comprised principally a heavy touch to allow Everton their first. Little doubt that he also clipped his man for the penalty, but I am inclined to exonerate him on the grounds that this did not appear one of those fouls that had been delivered on the back of hours of planning, our man instead seemingly bumping into the chap, as one tends to do in a crowded spot.

Winks, as mentioned, had a bit of a stinker all round, and played himself into trouble when he really ought to have known better.

But the rotten tomatoes ought really to be reserved for Monsieur Lloris. A lame duck might have done better with at least two of the goals; a World Cup-winning goalkeeper ought to have snaffled them with pretty minimal breaking of sweat.

The first was particularly lamentable stuff, given that the ball came straight at him, and that his chosen course of action was then simply to shovel the ball onwards in its journey, while falling backwards into the net. I suppose one can give him the benefit of the doubt with the second, and the penalty left him with little chance; but for the fourth he again struck me as being a little too keen to wave the white flag.

That fourth, from Richarlison, was at a pretty tight angle for the forward, and while it is not really my place to lecture Lloris, I do wonder if the outcome might have been altered if he had thought to display a little less goal, or maybe stuck out a paw in preventative manner as a means of voiding the attempt. Just a thought.

So it’s all slightly unfortunate that there’s a bitter taste in the mouth now that the dust has settled; but whereas in almost every previous week of the last couple of months the grumbles have lasted long into the night on account of having to sit through utterly dire fare, I take some solace in the fact that at least this, and in particular our play going forward, was entertaining fare.

Spurs 1-3 Liverpool: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg a Lone Ray of Sunshine

While one never really knows what to expect with our lot, generally it seems safest to assume the worst, so when the teamsheet hit the airwaves – with its absence of Alderweirelds, and unnecessarily liberal scattering of right-backs – my profile took on a pretty ashen hue, and remained that way for kick-off and the opening sallies.

At which point it actually gained a pretty healthy tint, because oddly enough our lot began proceedings like they meant business. And not the usual Jose-induced business of retreating into the collective shell and guarding the edge of their own penalty area. Au contraire. The intent on show, if not exactly that of a mob beelining for the opposition goal, was at least that of a mob spitting on its hands and getting down to it.

‘Zip’ was the word that sprung to mind, in those early exchanges. We moved the ball with a swiftness and positivity so rarely seen these days that I eyed it with some suspicion. Equally, when out of possession, for the opening ten minutes or so at least, we raced about the place sniffing out mini-contests in which to embroil ourselves. Zip abounded. It was just a shame about the final eighty minutes.

Central to this pleasingly sprightly preface was, as ever, P-E Hojbjerg Esq. Although every week the commentators seem to talk about his debut against Everton as a reference point, as if that performance caused Covid, the fact is that if Player of the Season rosettes were awarded on the basis of Being Outstanding Whilst All Around You The Walls And Ceiling Are Burning, then Hojbjerg would be Kevin de Bruyne. And again yesterday, he set the tone.

By the end of the piece, at which point the walls and ceilings really had burnt to the ground, Hojbjerg was the only one who could have left the stage with head held high, having been right at it from the opening buzzer. It was hardy his fault that he and Ndombele were outnumbered in the centre – I will chide a player for many things, but not for failing to be two people – and it was good to see him spend much of the opening salvo in conference with Thiago, slap-bang in the meat of the thing (bearing in mind that Thiago is a man who, but a year ago, had the freedom of the stadium as Bayern stuck seven past us).

Hojbjerg did not necessarily boss the game (as mentioned, we were regularly outnumbered in the centre), and, as befits a mortal, he made his fair share of mistakes. Yet he, more than anyone else in lilywhite, seemed to carry out his duties with the determined attitude of a man whose life mission it is to see a thing done. Even when he inadvertently miscontrolled the ball out of play he seemed to do it with a wild frenzy in his eyes.

His goal (one heck of a hit, by the by) and indeed celebration were cut from similarly frenzied cloth. As noted above, by the time the final curtain fell most of our lot had slowed to sulky walks and long given up, but Hojbjerg at least seemed to care.

2. Ndombele Continuing to Mesmerise

While dwelling on the positives – all two of them – it’s satisfying to note that Ndombele’s transformation from timid and clumsy, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter to cape-wearing, superhuman saver-of-the-day is nearing completion.

As demonstrated when he set the cogs in motion for Sonny’s disallowed goal, there are times when the ball is absolutely stuck to his feet and no number of opponents can do the damnedest thing about it. In bobbing from A to B in that move he seemed to take out half the Liverpool team, and it was something of a running theme throughout the first half.

In general his talents were fairly wasted, either receiving the ball too deep or in circumstances too pressurised to do much more than shove it elsewhere like a hot potato, but whenever opportunity presented itself – and frequently when it did not – he was swivelling away from a man in red like a mean uncle toying with a small child.

In fact, after a while it all went to his head, and he started throwing in stepovers and body-swerves when there was really no need, but this could be excused. The fellow appears to be fulfilling his side of the bargain and making good on that potential. Just a shame that he is peddling his wares in a team that almost seems designed to minimise his abundant talent (see also Son, H-M and Kane, H).

3. Jose’s Tactics

Having been one of the principal cast members in the first half, Ndombele barely saw the ball in the second half, as Jose’s rearrangement of deck-chairs looked less the work of a multiple Champions League-winning genius and more the work of AANP desperately trying whatever springs to mind while overseeing another Football Manager failure.

I will go relatively easy on Jose for this, because his tactics, though they often make me want to stab out my own eyes, do regularly seem to bring home the bacon. I’d be willing to bet this season’s Carabao Cup, and possibly Europa, on that.

On this occasion however, Jose tried to be far too clever for his own good, and rather than deriving a few percentage gains here and there, he seemed instead to create an amorphous mess that handed the initiative to an out-of-form and injury-hit Liverpool we’ll rarely have a better chance to beat.

The Doherty Experiment, featuring an out-of-form player playing out of position, failed. Doherty looked all of the above. I suppose it’s not his fault that having spent a lifetime honing his left leg for decorative purposes only he was at a loss when asked to use it as an attacking weapon against the Champions, but frankly we might as well have stuck Bale or Rose (or Tanganga) out there. Or been completely radical and used Toby at centre-back with Davies on the left…

(The thought actually struck me that perhaps Doherty, well advertised as a lifelong Arsenal fan, was executing the perfect con – infiltrating the enemy to destroy it from within. I’ll let that idea ferment.)

The choice of a back-three was similarly dubious in concept and wretched in execution. Young Rodon looks like he might one day become a decent – or even majestic – centre-half, but if a young pup is flying in with mightily impressive sliding tackles it tends to mean he has been caught out of position in the first place. Between he and Aurier we managed to usher in Mane for around half a dozen face-time chats with Hugo, the dam eventually bursting on half-time.

On top of which, the use of a back-three left us undermanned in midfield. Everything about the approach seemed flawed.

In his defence Jose did try to remedy this by switching to a back-four and adding an extra body in midfield, but that extra body happened to be possessed by young Master Winks, who seemed oddly convinced that the road to success lay in passing to Liverpool players at every opportunity.

Jose can probably be excused the blame for that inventive approach to tide-turning, but for ignoring Messrs Bale and Vinicius, and sticking Sonny atop the tree and starving him, he deserves all the eye-rolling and incredulous outstretched hands going. Lamela, of whom I am generally quietly fond, entered the arena and promptly disappeared, and when Bale was tossed on he yet again found it beneath him to sprint.

Meanwhile at the other end, young Rodon took a rather unforgiving physics lesson in front of a worldwide audience of millions, discovering that a bouncing ball on a wet surface doth not a loving bedfellow make; and Lloris, having admirably performed his half of a Chuckle Brothers tribute act with Eric Dier for the first goal, obligingly set up Liverpool for some target practice for their second.

I daresay one of those Renaissance chappies with a palette and one ear might have quite enjoyed depicting on canvass this perfect storm of tactical calamity and individual disaster, but at AANP Towers the reaction was simply to clasp hands to head and wish that Jose would hurry up and win his trophy so that we can get rid of him and start again.

4. McManaman and the Art of Not Kicking In One’s Own Television

The plan on settling down with parchment and quill had been also to muse on Kane’s injury, Sonny’s first half miss, Dier, Bale and so on and so forth. But simply dredging up the memories has rather sapped my will to live, so instead forgive me if I veer off-topic to finish.

Back in the heady summer of 2019, on inviting various chums over to AANP Towers for the Champions League Final, the one stipulation that accompanied this golden ticket was that, whatever their allegiance, attendees must not cheer on the opposition. My rationale being that if I wanted a partisan crowd, I could simply venture to a public house, and enjoy to my heart’s content the thrill of an irritating Liverpool fan nattering incessantly in my ear.

Last night, I rather feel that I was treated to that exact experience. McManaman infuriated throughout. Whether eulogising over often fairly by-the-numbers Liverpool passing (and not treating our lot the same); castigating Sonny for perceived diving (and not treating his lot the same); bleating for the handball to be ignored even when told otherwise by the resident studio ref (and conveniently forgetting the Champions League Final ‘handball’ by Sissoko); or casually admitting that he has not watched much of Spurs (the job for which he is paid, and for which most of us would kill) and asking someone else how Bale has been playing, the fellow drove me to within one swing of a Hojbjerg right foot of kicking in my own television.

Ex-players as pundits is not an issue per se, if they can keep their allegiances neatly compartmentalised, or perhaps offer inside knowledge that the average tax-payer would miss. But employing an ex-player simply to hear him emit joyous, wordless noises when his former team is in action is a bit thick.

It’s an argument I’m happy to wave in the direction of Messrs Jenas and Hoddle too – it naturally grates a little less to hear them refer to our lot as “we”, but I’d be perfectly happy if someone completely neutral were roped in for the gig instead.

So all in all, pretty rotten stuff. One hopes that the players feel sufficiently enraged to dish out an absolute hammering to Brighton on Sunday.

Wolves 1-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics

The natives, I think it is fair to suggest, are becoming restless.

Alan Smith comes across as one of the more tolerable followers of Other West Ham, being a cove not really given to the hyperbole of the majority of his colleagues on the telly-box, and a choice phrase of his yesterday neatly encapsulated the essence of Jose’s Tactical Mastery, trimmings and all. “The end justifies the means”, he opined, like an owl of the particularly thoughtful variety, and it was hard not to disagree.

No two ways about it, surrendering possession and defending for dear life, for an entire dashed game, saps the spirit and makes the eyes bleed. Watching a player as talented as Harry Kane receive the ball and promptly belt it into the atmosphere, falling to ground in the Wolves half a good fifty yards from anyone in lilywhite, felt like an act of treachery against the traditions of the club. But if it got us to near enough the summit of the table, then a good swathe of the lilywhite hordes would swallow it. Turning a blind eye, and all that. The end justifying the means.

Except that it’s now two defeats and two draws in the last four games. It would take a PR rep at the absolute peak of their powers to spin that rot as ends justifying means.

By the grace of God – and a few humdinging away days early in the season – we somehow remain fifth, and all is not lost. And despite the ghastliness of it all, I am quite open to accepting that against the likes of Man City, and Chelsea away, the tactic of defending at 18 yards and countering is a reasonable approach to life.

But when boasting two of the best strikers in the world, a fellow like Ndombele simply brimming with on-ball quality, some of the more progressive full-backs in the league, a raft of attacking options on the bench, and so on and so forth – to toddle up to a team slap-bang in the middle of the table and treat them with the defence of peak Barcelona is an absolute nonsense.

What the absolute devil would it have cost us to have tried to put together a couple of attacks between minutes 20 and 85 yesterday, in order to increase the lead and protect the three points thusly? I’m not talking about all-out attack with every man and his dog pouring forward and Hugo considering adding his presence in the area for corners; but simply trying to retain possession and work something around the edge of their area, something that might have allowed Kane and Son actually to receive the ball within shooting distance, rather than on or before the halfway line and without a soul ahead of them.

The percentages are stacked against us when trying to defend deep for an entire game, relying as it does not on not making a single mistake (or being on the wrong end of a ricochet or deflection) and being absolutely clinical, with zero room for error, when the one or two counter-attack chances do come our way.

And on a final side-note, for Jose then to face the cameras and declare that the fault lay with the players for not trying to score again was rot of the highest order.

2. Winks

In theory this ought to have been a good opportunity for Winks go peddle his wares. With a back-three behind him and a little less onus on him to spend his day putting out fires, it seemed there might be opportunity for him to dial into the ghost of deep-lying creative midfielders past and produce one or two Luka Modric impressions.

To his credit, Winks did have a stab at picking progressive passes. The criticism regularly bellowed at the lad from the AANP sofa is that he too often goes for backwards or sideways passes when a forward option is perfectly viable, but yesterday one could not fault his intent. He received the ball, he looked up, he passed forwards.

Alas, far too often, that was the extent of his success. Far too often those forward passes missed their mark, and possession was surrendered as a direct result of his input.

It must be a tough gig I suppose, suddenly starting and being under the spotlight after so long on the sidelines, and no doubt he was eager to please, but yesterday things just did not fall into place for him.

At this juncture I would normally be inclined to pat him sympathetically on the head and trot out something along the lines that there will be further opportunities – except that with a bizarrely vindictive man-child like Jose at the helm one never really knows if he will decide that he has had enough of Winks and cast him aside like an unwanted Christmas toy.

3. Ben Davies

The switch to a back-three featuring Ben Davies was an unsubtle nod to the talents of Adama Traore in opposition. Traore, a man whose muscles themselves have muscles, was tormentor-in-chief last time we faced this lot, so one understood Jose assigning to him his own private security detail.

When not pinging them in from long-distance in Carabao Cup Quarter Finals, Ben Davies earns his living by delivering 6 out of 10 performances with metronomic regularity, so I have to admit that his selection up against that Traore lad did have me shooting a nervous glance about me pre kick-off.

And in the first half, perhaps a little unfairly, I was a tad critical of his efforts. He held his position well enough, but it struck me that whenever Traore wished to breeze past him he did; whenever Traore wished to deliver a cross he did. Ben Davies did not neglect his post, but neither did he do much to prevent Traore that a life-size cardboard cut-out of Ben Davies would not also have done.

As mentioned, this was probably a harsh appraisal, particularly coming from one who has not walked a mile in the shoes of Ben Davies – or indeed the shoes of anyone up against Traore.

And in the second half, I have no hesitation in admitting that my cynicism was replaced by healthy admiration. Ben Davies warmed to the task and was not for wilting, no matter how much Traore twisted and turned and shoved and battled. It actually turned into quite the contest, and while he might have needed to have a sit-down and catch his breath afterwards, there can be no doubting that Ben Davies earned his weekly envelope.

Just a shame, then, that he did not quite keep track of his man sufficiently at the corner from which Wolves scored – but while that was a error on his part, I am not about to blame him for the two points lost. If anything, he was possibly our stand-out performer.

4. Ndomble

Another of the more eye-catching performers – a small band, ‘tis true – was Monsieur Ndombele.

As is his way, he rather faded after half-time, and was duly euthanised on the hour, but in the early stages what attacking spark we had originated at his size nines. The body swerves and balance remain things of delight, easy to spot but seemingly near-impossible to stop. But I suspect we were all pleasantly surprised to see that burst of his from well inside our own half to well inside theirs.

There is something about Ndombele’s gait that gives the impression of a man whose lungs are about to breathe their last, and who will at any moment collapse to the ground and commit his soul to his maker. Put bluntly, the chap never looks fit. But I do sometimes wonder if this is an optical illusion. Sometimes drooping shoulders and hangdog expressions will make a professional sportsman look like anything but. Followers of leather-on-willow who are of a certain vintage may remember one Angus Fraser looking similarly exhausted every time he bowled for England.

So it is with Ndombele, and for that reason that sixty-yard burst of his was as surprising as it was pleasing. Even with the ball at his feet, he managed to outpace the chasing pack. A shame (very much the phrase de jour) that he picked the wrong option at the end of it, Reguilon boasting a goalscoring record slightly inferior to that of the other spare man, Harry Kane, but it did provide further evidence to the notion that Ndombele might turn out to be Mousa Dembele with added attacking prowess.

Palace 1-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sitting Back vs Attacking

So this feels like an iffy one to un-pickle. On the one hand, the Case For The Defence (which I think is a rather smart way of putting it) points to consecutive clean sheets against Man City, Chelsea and Other West Ham, as proof that the defensive approach, while verging on rope-a-dope, brings rewards by the sackful.

On t’other hand, the Case For Attack points to the last ten minutes, when not only did we not have to hold our breath while the thing pinballed around inside our area, but we also made several quite presentable chances. Against a ‘keeper who had not woken up this morning, taken one look out of the window and decided that today would be the day to deliver all of the very best he had to offer, we would probably have had an extra couple of goals.

(I appreciate that the equation is not quite as ‘One-or-Other’ as I have presented, for there were numerous other environmental concerns – Palace themselves easing up on the attacking front after scoring their goal, for example – but consider the above an executive summary.)

There’s no doubt that Jose knows his onions – as will be borne out by the title parade on the High Road next May – and when it comes to proof that the defensive blueprint generally delivers the goods, the evidence of the last three games is pretty incontrovertible stuff.

However, hindsight is the sort of all-seeing beast that tends not to miss a trick, and the back-six-all-defending-for-their-lives gambit can only be excused as long as the results trickle through. Drop two points from a winning position, and you can bet half your worldly possessions that someone of lilywhite leanings will be sharpening a knife or two.

In truth, the frustration at AANP Towers is not so much with the adoption of the defensive mindset as a general tactic, because as last week showed, it can be the perfect plan. The frustration today was that this was a game in which the opening half hour or so, as well as the closing ten, showed that actually we were better off playing on the front foot.

Sometimes, having all the possession is something of a poisoned chalice for our mob, and their sideways-passing inclinations go into overdrive. Today, however, we went about our attacking business with a pretty pleasing sharpness.

Not every incision necessarily cut Palace to ribbons, but everyone at least appeared to have read the memo that the first rule of Attack Club was to shift the ball quickly, and we looked pretty decent for it. The full-backs (more on whom anon) dutifully provided width, those in more central areas buzzed around and chances came along with a neat regularity.

And as we dropped deep and dug in from circa minute 55 to circa minute 80, I did restlessly cast my mind back to the halcyon era of circa minutes 1-30, and wish that we would shuffle about fifty yards up the pitch and conduct proceedings there, both reducing risk of concession and increasing chances of that hallowed two-goal buffer.

All academic now of course, as ‘One-One’ is stencilled large in the Book of Facts, but such are the frustrated post-match moochings around these parts.

2. Reguilon

As alluded to, things started far more cheerily, and not for the first time young Señor
Reguilon made a hefty contribution to that cheer.

The wretched Duo Lingo owl has yet to inform how one rattles off in perfect Spanish “I like the cut of that young man’s jib”, but few phrases would capture more accurately my sentiments towards Reguilon. When in the mood, young Harry Winks has something of 80s cartoon character Scrappy Doo about him, in terms of fearlessly racing into combat with those of vastly greater stature; and Reguilon similarly seems to enjoy nothing more than haring off for a man-to-man duel, no matter the odds.

He spent much of the opening half hour taking on the role of First Available Outlet, busting a gut to reach the wide, open spaces of the left wing, and offering plenty of support to Sonny, as well as displaying that pleasing knack for cutting inside and having a peek at what opportunities lay therein.

In both attitude and ability, the little fellow is fast proving his worth – and if he did not have around his neck that wretched buy-back clause that pretty much guarantees Real will swipe him back again as soon as the title parade is over, I’d suggest that he’s the sort who could reach cult hero status amongst the watching masses of N17.

3. Aurier

Out on the other side, Monsieur Aurier presumably had pretty similar instructions, but went about his employment with a jib that was cut slightly less impressively.

It is a quirk of this season that Aurier has now transformed into a positionally-aware defensive mainstay, but not so long ago the young bean’s chief attribute was his devilishly-whipped crosses. He had plenty of opportunity to give a masterclass in the art today, particularly in the afternoon, but alas, the crosses were a little hit and miss.

Still, simply by virtue of being stationed in the appropriate square yardage he did his job, and the regular switches of play out to his flank helped ensure that we ticked along well in the opening exchanges.

4. Lloris and the Mistake That No-One Seems to Have Mentioned

Ultimately, I suspect there were few grumbles across the lilywhite swathes of the land when we did concede, because most right-minded folk seemed to concur that Palace had earned that much.

Nevertheless, seeing these things happen is always dashed galling, and I’m still yet to deduce whether I dislike more being cut apart in open play or conceding from a set-piece.

And in this instance, while the delivery was of pretty top-notch quality, and various limbs flailed in the eyeline of our resident shot-stopper, I was still mightily unimpressed that Hugo spilled the thing, given that ‘Not spilling things’ is just about the principal headline in his job description. Would he, one is forced to ask oneself, have similarly allowed it to fall to ground had it been a small child rather than a football? One can only assume that the mantra on the Lloris lips as head hits pillow tonight will be “Room for improvement”, or whatever the Duo Lingo owl advises is the Gallic equivalent.

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Spurs 2-0 Arsenal: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg

As ever, the man of the match award became a secondary detail to the triumph of the collective and their defensive discipline, because once again this was a win fashioned from impeccable tactical set-up and execution.

However, not for the first time, one got the impression that P-E Hojbjerg Esq. is the sort of chap whose first action on emerging from the womb was immediately to look around and win back possession. And then clench his fists on a job successfully completed.

While the collective of Sky Sports bods seemed ready to grab the nearest axe and go on a murderous rampage in bitter moral protest at what they were witnessing, Hojbjerg reacts to Jose-ball like a giddy child let loose in a toy factory. Give him a game-plan of sitting in front of a deep back-four, rolling up his sleeves and doing the grubby stuff, and he tears out onto the pitch and towards the ankles of the nearest opponent before the instructions have been fully delivered.

There will presumably be other fixtures in which the cape is donned by those personnel with rather more subtlety and guile in their play, but during this run of fixtures against title-challengers – and Other West Ham – Hojbjerg might just be the most important cog in the whole machine. In games such as these, in which the stakes are high and the opponents particularly dangerous (or, as today, opponents for whom this is a cup final), the role of Destroyer-in-Chief is critical.

The AANP heart always skips a beat when I see Hojbjerg rolled out for the Thursday-night Europa group drivel, because an injury to this chap would not so much knock the stuffing from us as pummel straight into the rib-cage and yank out the beating heart. Unlikejust about every other position in the pitch, I’m not sure we have anyone in the squad who has remotely the appropriate skillset to deputise.

Back to today, and amidst a whole team of hard-grafting worker bees, Hojbjerg’s was the hard graft and bee-working standard to which the others could look for inspiration, in each of the tackling, intercepting, harassing and uncomplicated passing categories. I’d recommend the chap pours himself a bourbon and puts his feet up, but I rather suspect he unwinds by chewing on some raw glass and finding the nearest bear whom he might wrestle.

2. Aurier

Once upon a time, in a world before bubbles and lockdown, the AANP Dictionary defined Serge Aurier as something along the lines of ‘Bringer of calamity’. For all his undoubted prowess on the front-foot, one could hang one’s hat on some unnecessary dereliction of duty, typically with consequences of the gravity of own goals, penalty concessions or red cards.

It was well-documented stuff, and as such the summer arrival of Matt Doherty was the prompt for a look or two towards the celebratory cigars, as I wondered whether Aurier’s catalogue of errors might be consigned to Thursday nights.

Instead, in a plot-twist that I’m not sure even the keenest mind anticipated, the turnaround in Aurier’s output has had me not so much rubbing my eyes as questioning the very fabric of existence.

While Doherty has taken a little time to find his bearings in lilywhite, if you don’t mind the rather generous euphemism, Aurier has reacted to the presence of competition for his spot – and, presumably, to the instruction of Our Glorious Leader – by transforming into the model of positional and decision-making discipline.

Having Sissoko stationed within eyeballing distance presumably helps, but let nothing detract from the praise that Monsieur Aurier is due. The madcap forays out of position are pretty much a thing of the past now, as are the similarly madcap lunges within the penalty area. The transformation from classroom rebel to responsible prefect might be one of the less glamorous success stories of the ages, but the curious fellow is now nailed on right-back in the meanest and most disciplined defence in the league.

3. Lloris

A spot of context might be necessary on this one, because the casual observer would be well within his rights to query the T’s and C’s of a commendation for our resident shot-stopper on a day on which he had precious few shots to stop.

However, Thursday night’s performance left us wondering if Marine away really was such a straightforward tie, with Joe Hart in particular giving the impression that his benefit to the squad lies in the area of dressing room yelps (or left arm seam) rather than actually getting his paws to the ball.

And when a rumour began to whizz hither and thither that Monsieur Lloris might be forced to sit out today’s bash, the collective gulp fairly echoed around North London, as the two and two were put together with the conclusion that Joe Hart might be entrusted with repelling the ball through the use of his endless bellowing.

Mercifully, the starting line-up revealed no such eventuality, and while Hugo’s first half brief was largely restricted to “Regarder”, matters biffed up a few notches at the start of the second half.

This was probably the period in which Other West Ham were at their most threatening, and had they scored then the dynamic might have taken a ninety-degree turn or two. I therefore gave Lloris a pretty rousing hand for his save from a flicked Lacazette header, not least because it was goalbound and the sort of fare at which Joe Hart has been flapping, but also because Lloris executed that rarest of skills and actually held onto the thing – as opposed to punching or pushing it back into play. This capacity to hold the ball was particularly critical given that it occurred on the goal-line and slap bang in the centre of the goal. Any slippery fingers at that juncture would have spelt almost certain calamity.

And for good measure Lloris was at it again five minutes later, tipping one around his right-hand post. In truth, not the most difficult save of a World Cup winner’s career, but having witness Hart’s bizarre attempt to fore-arm a shot out of harm’s way on Thursday, one does not take such things for granted.

4. Toby’s Block

A brief commendation also for Toby Alderweireld, and his impressively-executed block of a late Aubameyang shot.

The Jose-based set-up meant that such shots, representing as they do a breach of the tight-knit defensive wall, are pretty rare commodities. In general, our lot are so deep that all the action happens in front of them, and any opponent wishing to crack one towards goal has something of an army of white shirts first to negotiate.

However, for some reason, on this occasion Other West Ham stole possession high up the pitch when a few too many of our lot were mooching forward, and for one ghastly minute it looked like Aubameyang had snuck in behind the rear.

It was the sort of situation in which one could imagine Sanchez tripping over his laces, or Dier backing off ad infinitum, or Aurier circa 2019 flying in with studs up. Mercifully, Toby knows his beans, and did the decent thing, going toe for toe until the moment was right, and then extending a well-judged leg to repel the danger. One would like to imagine that on the sidelines, Ledley allowed himself a knowing smile.

5. The Goals

Amidst all the chattering about defensive duties and tactical shape it would be easy to be sucked into our own penalty area and forget the moments that really separated the wheat from chaff; but it would be thoroughly remiss simply to gloss over the fact that both our goals were of the highest order.

Even before Sonny let fly, the build-up stuff casually lobbed around by Kane was pretty special. Simply bringing under control the pass he received was quite a feat, but the vision and weighting of his pass into the left-wing channel, for Sonny to shimmy onto, was the sort of fare that made you feel lucky to be alive. The aesthetics alone of those diagonal passes into a space behind a full-back, are worth parting with hard-earned money to observe.

As for Sonny’s finish – heavens above, how much confidence must flow through that chap’s veins? Let’s be clear, we all saw the yawning gap that existed in the top right of the net, and all briefly imagined that if this were a computer game, or even a training session, one might casually seek to caress the ball with just the right amount of elevation and curl – but nobody in their right mind would actually try that sort of nonsense. And yet…

By comparison, the second goal was a simpler beast, but still a delightfully-executed counter. I feel like I have seen our lot squander far more of these overloads, in which we have more attackers than they defenders, than I have seen us score from them. On this occasion, however, it was played to perfection, with each of Lo Celso and Sonny making the perfect decision and with the perfect weight on their pass.

And again, with his rich appreciation of aesthetics, it was dashed good of Kane to thump the thing off the underside of the bar, for such visual and audio effects are always vastly more satisfying.

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Bournemouth 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Masterplan

Being the trusting sort – the sort who, when a friend says they’re popping out for a minute, will dutifully count to sixty before wondering whether to call the police – I’ve always been inclined to trust that my elders and betters have a pretty panoramic view of things and know exactly what they’re up to.

It would happen under Sven, when, like an obedient dog wagging the tail at its master, I’d ignore the evidence of every previous knockout game in which we clung on to a one-goal lead for dear life before losing on penalties, and assume that this time the chap had learnt from mistakes and hatched a more nuanced plan.

So when Jose breezed through the front door, despite having yowled beforehand that he wasn’t the AANP choice, I sucked up the theory that here was a chap who by hook or by crook – or by downright negativity – ground out results, and duly toddled over to present him with the benefit of the doubt.

Alas, that innocence of youth has now been ground into the dust, and replaced by the sort of cynical and weary scowl generally reserved for Dickensian undertakers who go around startling folk in the shadows. Where previously I would have stuck up for the blighter in charge, match after match, this time I’ve seen enough, and I sneer at the man who claims he hasn’t.

The bods who know about these sort of things define “despair” as “the absence of hope”, and if that’s the case then it exists by the sackload within these four walls. There is nothing to offer a semblance of hope at present. To a man, not one of our lot seem to be playing above themselves; as a team there is no sense of a plan. Regarding the former, it would be a handy bonus if Jose could coax a little individual improvement here or there; but in terms of the latter the chap ought to take full responsibility, and this absence of a plan has seen AANP fly through all seven stages of grief within the space of 90 minutes while observing our heroes impotently flail away.

I now watch our lot out of a sense of duty, rather than any sliver of hope, excitement or enjoyment – and if that isn’t a nadir I don’t know what is.

This season is now a write-off. Much therefore hinges on how well – or otherwise – we begin 20/21.

The hope is that, irrespective of results, we start playing with some flair or, at the very least, some semblance of a strategy (beyond soak up and hope to counter). If Jose has a masterplan, it absolutely has to be unveiled this summer.

Likelier, and presumably the subject of Daniel Levy’s bedtime prayers, is that the turgid style of play remains in situ but results at least improve. This strikes me as the worst of all worlds, as it would mean this bizarre brand of anti-football remains without a cat in hell’s chance of shifting the man at the helm.

The other potential scenario is that even after a pre-season and a signing or two, we start next season peddling this same garbage, and results remain no better than mid-table fare, or worse. If CL qualification next season appears unlikely from the autumn, Paymaster Levy’s trigger finger would presumably itch. By virtue of including the most welcome by-product of the sacking of Jose, this is numero uno on the AANP wishlist, scrawled in block capitals and double-underlined.

2. Lo Celso: Counter-Attacking vs Static

When one can witter away about the manager for so long and still struggle for comment about the game itself, you know it’s been a stinker, and this, yet again, was another contender for “Worst We’ve Witnessed.”

For the second time in a week, Lo Celso, having slightly desperately been heralded over here as the great hope for our future, was given the luxury of a couple of more defensive-minded sorts behind him. As such, he appeared to have a licence to slink forward and do his darnedest – and while the awfulness of recent weeks has tempered excitement levels, there was still a little hope here at AANP Towers that this might be the moment for the lad to puff out his chest and take on the responsibility of string-puller-in-chief.

No such luck. Whatever malaise is infecting our heroes, Lo Celso is not immune, and he pottered around no more or less toothless than anyone around him.

It currently appears that he is at his best when taking the reins as we counter-attack. When everything is a blur of limbs, and everyone is on the gallop towards the opposition goal, Lo Celso sparks into life. He seems to be blessed with the knack of spotting a pretty smart pass whilst on the run, as well as the ability to weight it just so.

By contrast, when the game stodgily meanders, with the opposition in defensive position and our lot endlessly knocking the ball sideways, Lo Celso seems no better informed than anyone else on how to put an end to the dreadful torpor.

3. Important Save From Lloris

The stock of our World Cup-winning captain has just about fallen off a cliff in the last season or two, as needless clanger has followed needless clanger, but yesterday he earned his weekly envelope in pretty smart fashion, on the one occasion on which some quick thinking was required.

It was towards the end of proceedings, when a Bournemouth chappie randomly scampered into our area, his progress completely unimpeded by anyone in light blue. A disastrous finale appeared imminent, but Lloris displayed a hitherto unseen sprinkling of common sense by dashing from his line, spreading himself in the manner of one attempting to frighten a small child and generally doing enough to smother the incoming shot before the attacker had a chance properly to weigh his options and do anything decisive.

It was worth a goal, and having stocked up on rotten tomatoes with which to pelt Lloris for errors in previous weeks, decorum dictates that I tip the cap in his direction for this.

4. Toby and Jan

It might not necessarily be a popular view, but I was far from disappointed to hear that Eric Dier was to be marched off the premises and locked in a dungeon for the next couple of weeks. Weighing the chap’s pros and cons, I find little to recommend his presence amongst the troupe.

His principle asset appears to be that aggressive, no-nonsense outlook he has on life, which typically translates into crunching tackles, the like of which, admittedly, are not usually a feature of Team Lilywhite. However, such challenges are of little value when mistimed, which his seem to be as often as not. Rather than keeping a lid on things they tend to result in free kicks and yellow cards.

Neither is he blessed with blistering pace, and when stationed in central defence, the notion of him being one of life’s natural leaders and organisers is not necessarily supported by the evidence of recent weeks, in which our defence has shown all the organisation of a gaggle of toddlers on a sugar rush.

In contrast to the shambles of recent weeks, for which Dier was not the only culprit but certainly amongst them, yesterday we were treated to the restoration of the Jan-Toby axis, and life at the rear of the team immediately appeared more serene.

Blistering pace they might not boast, but both Belgians know their eggs and position themselves adroitly, and their performances were notable for the general absence of drama throughout. No Dier-esque mistimed challenges, no Sanchez-esque misjudgements of flighted balls. Two appearances by Toby have brought two consecutive clean sheets. All set for Sunday then.

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