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Dinamo Zagreb 3-0 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Attitude

The attitude of the players seems to be the major gripe amongst the masses today, and that particular narrative certainly gets my vote, because from the AANP vantage point last night the attitude of the collective from first whistle to approximately the 115th minute stunk the place out.

And while the countless individuals thrust into the limelight yesterday should all be publicly flogged for their pitiful efforts, I do wonder what the hell Jose is doing to earn his weekly envelope. If the players’ attitudes are rummy, or their confidence low, then the manager is presumably tasked with inspiring the requisite changes in mindset, and sharpish. And if the manager is incapable of drumming into their thick skulls the need to buck up and get the pistons firing, then one might say he is incapable, full stop.

It would not quite be accurate to say our lot picked up where they left off on Sunday, because strictly speaking, on Sunday we perked up considerably once the odds had lengthened to enormous levels (anyone else notice a theme emerging here?) via throwing away a lead, going behind and going down to ten men. At that point the place was choc-full of fire in the belly.

No, more accurately, our heroes picked up pretty much where they started on Sunday, or perhaps a regressed a step or two from that point. The approach last night from the opening toot seemed to be to hope that the game would stagnate into nihilism, actively trying to ensure that nothing happened each minute so that we could hurry along to the final whistle and qualification, preferably without the need to break sweat.

Now strictly speaking, in logical terms, there was much to applaud about this approach. If nothing had happened, we would indeed have qualified. Very clever stuff. If the entire match could have been spent by Winks and Sissoko passing sideways to each other and occasionally backwards to Sanchez, as seemed to be the dedicated aim, then we would indeed have coasted through. In fact, I got the impression that our lot were hoping that the ref would decree that there was no need to play a game at all, and that he might just instruct everyone to sit quietly on the spot for 90 minutes, after which results would be recorded with minimal fuss.

However, while fool-proof in theory, if anyone wanted practical evidence of flaws in the tactical approach of “Let’s hope nothing happens for the entire 90 minutes”, then last night their cup overflowed with the stuff.

The galling thing was that one goal would have neatly ended the contest, and one goal against these willing but limited opponents was eminently achievable. Had our heroes gone up the necessary gears they would almost certainly have fashioned enough chances to kill the thing.

Instead, as per the headline, the attitude stunk the place out. Our mob presented themselves as fully converted to the doctrine that they needed only be present and the game would see itself through to full-time in their favour. No effort was exerted in search of a goal because no need was seen for a goal, and the sound of a million Spurs fans banging their heads against the nearest brick wall back home did nothing to amend this.

2. Jose’s Future

It has been widely suggested that Daniel Levy has sacked numerous coaches for less heinous crimes than the rap sheet currently pinned to Jose. Whether or not this is true, one would imagine that the Paymaster General is now casting his mind back a little nervously to Jose’s assurances on contract-signing day. Where Poch’s appeals for funds were often ignored, Jose was invited to dive into a cartoon bathtub full of money at the first opportunity.

Having been duly backed, we find ourselves outsiders for the top four and peddling some pretty dreadful fare on the pitch; and really at least one of these – results or performances – needs to be in place to justify this whole wretched experience.

In the interests of fairness it should not be overlooked that we have at least started beating the teams at the lower end of the table, as the recent run of victories evidences. Nevertheless, the nagging suspicion remains that, armed with Kane, Bale, Son, Lucas, Dele, Lamela, Ndombele and Reguilon at their disposal, most managers ever to have walked the earth could probably have conjured up a win at home to Burnley.

It is being suggested that a Cup Final win against City would be enough to keep Jose in post, and Levy presumably would concur. After all, the whole point of the Jose exercise seemed to be to bring in some shiny pots. I’m not sure that the t’s and c’s included doing so at the expense of our footballing souls, but if it’s pots that Levy is after, then at least one pot Jose now has an opportunity to snaffle.

The AANP tuppence worth is that this would not be sufficient. Should Jose win the Carabao then let that be a triumphant, if ill-deserved, coda to a pretty ghastly tenure, and let’s have him shoved out the door while bleating about his knack for winning titles wherever he goes.

As suggested above, Jose does not appear capable of coaxing, cajoling, hypnotising or blackmailing the players into playing with the requisite attacking feist. Blessed with arguably three of the most talented attacking footballers of their generation, not to a mention a supporting cast that would be the envy of most teams across Europe, he has fashioned a team that seems convinced the road to glory is paved with a counter-attack every half hour.

The style is only bearable if we are top of – or perhaps challenging for – the league. In this context, winning a trophy (via a bye, a penalty shoot-out and wins against two lower-league opponents) hardly cures all ills.

I spent much of last night trying to avert the bleeding of my eyes by working out whether we are a decent team that is occasionally dreadful, or a dreadful team that is occasionally decent. Neither of these seem good enough for a manager having wads of cash thrust into every available pocket, yet who, eighteen months in, is yet to present a plan for future improvement.

All that said, it is difficult to imagine Levy giving his man the elbow unless we spin down into the bottom half. For unfathomable reasons Levy seems pretty obsessed with Jose, having near-enough stalked the man until he agreed to hop on board. It seems unlikely that he will turn on his back on him now, with the Top Four and a Cup Final win both still within the realms of possibility.

3. Son and Kane’s Futures

But to hell with Jose, what about Sonny and Kane?

I’m no student of body-language, but Kane’s demeanour as he exited the crime-scene last night did not strike me as that of a man bursting with the joys of life and all it has to offer. My spies tell me that the fellow turns 28 this summer, and one would therefore not blame him for using his quieter moments to pause and wonder where the heck his first winners’ medal might come from, and whether any more might follow.

Things would be different if, as were the case in the prime Poch years, the club were elbowing its way into conversations about the top prizes, and appeared to be in with a shout. Kane presumably is not hanging his hat on this particular season being one of triumph, but, one suspects, he would at the very least want to see that the vehicle as a whole is heading off in the direction of success.

Alas, under Jose there is precious little indication of any such thing. The current lot are pretty accurately-seated, being somewhere between sixth and tenth, and with every step forward having pretty promptly been followed by one in the opposite direction.

Kane undoubtedly has affection for the club, and it’s a safe bet that he is well aware of being within a season or two of Jimmy Greaves’ record, but one would hardly be surprised if he announced that he would rather not spend his prime years working up a sweat on Thursday nights in Zagreb. This is not to denigrate Zagreb: I dated a Croat for a while in my youth, and can attest to the fact that the city has its fair share of delights; but regular Champions League involvement is not amongst them. Kane will rightly feel that he needs to be sharing a stage with Lewandowski, Mbappe and Haaland, and the clock is ticking on his career.

While Sonny may be inclined to wait a little longer, I imagine he will have less of an affinity to the club than Kane, and it’s a pretty safe bet that he will be almightily cheesed off if Kane gathers his possessions and pootles out the door.

Nights like last night are happening a little too often; much more of such rot and the whole dashed thing will unravel.

Fulham 0-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Front Four

Not sure how well versed you are on your scripture, but as I recall there’s one wheeze in The Good Book along the lines of Character A bumping into Character B, who – and this is crucial to the plotline – happens to be pregnant, with the punchline that on seeing Character A, it is reported by Character B that “the child in her womb leapt for joy”.

A pretty rummy line, and not something I can personally relate to, having, for various reasons, not experienced a child or indeed a womb myself – but had I been so blessed it is absolutely nailed on that the child would not just have leapt but would have performed an Irish jig at seeing the teamsheet yesterday. The universal reaction amongst all lilywhites of my acquaintance on learning of the starting eleven was one of barely containable excitement, as the star-studded quartet of Kane, Son, Bale and Dele was unleashed.

That said, the gratification was not quite instant, with Fulham inconsiderately deciding to start on the front foot for the first 10 minutes or so, and our lot revealing a pretty sizeable disconnect between defence and attack. However, when things did click it was pretty fruity stuff, and the fact that Fulham were still waltzing into our area a little too easily when in possession simply added to the feel that this whole thing was an Ossie Ardiles ’94 tribute act.

It will be interesting to see how stronger teams cope, but when our front four did purr last night there wasn’t a great deal Fulham could do to stop it. In time one would imagine that their interplay will improve, if the telepathy between Sonny and Kane extends to the other two; and, being an indulgent sort, I’d rather like to see the various band members interchange positions and go a-wandering.

As it was, Sonny obediently stayed out on the left, presumably because Bale had announced that he intended to stick to the right, with Kane varying his longitude if not his latitude. I’m not sure of the extent of the tactical coaching this mob received, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jose simply told them to toddle out there and do as they please, relying on their individual quality to do the necessary. It certainly brought about enough clear first half chances to have more than just the single goal.

In that respect Harry Kane deserves a slap on the wrist and a spell on the naughty step, as he was guilty of the sort of basic errors in front of goal that, had they been committed by Vinicius, would have had us booting him out the door and hurling a suitcase and his passport after him.

2. Dele Alli

The star of the show was probably Dele. While the headlines have been grabbed by his glaring miss that turned into an own goal by the chap next to him, the existential point he made by simply popping up in the area at that moment, with a good sense of dramatic timing, did a lot to justify his inclusion.

In a team so heavily reliant upon Son and Kane for the beginning, middle and end of its goals, Dele’s presence and natural inclinations to tiptoe forward immediately open up new routes to goal, and as such give fresh headaches to opposing defences.

On top of his attacking threat, I feel legally obliged to mention that he also knuckled down to the meat and veg of a midfielder’s role, performing such unglamorous tasks as tracking back, making tackles and helping to dab possession about the place. However, the principal benefits he brought were in the attacking spots, which does make one wonder why the hell Jose saw fit to kick him out of the squad for the first two thirds of the season, but I suppose life is full of such mysteries.

3. Ndombele

Having missed out on parity by a whisker with the last kick of the first half, Fulham decided to try the same approach in the second, with the result that we spent a full 45 minutes clinging on for dear life against a team that for all intents and purposes is from the division beneath us. From the Championship they came, and to the Championship they will return, but this did not stop them relentlessly attacking us and coming within one rulebook absurdity of equalising.

Every time our defence desperately thwacked the ball clear it came back at us, as the concept of hanging onto the thing seemingly lost on those members of the collective who were stationed further north.

The whole nerve-shredding spectacle did make me stop and wonder about the role of Ndombele in these scenarios. No matter how many times and how large the phrase “Defensive Midfielder” is stamped across his frame, it does not alter the fact that here is a chap who looks longingly at his attacking chums on the other side of the halfway line, desperately wanting to remove himself to such sunnier climes.

This seemed to be emphasised by the fact that he raced forward over halfway at every opportunity, not even really caring about the specific destination as long as he could glimpse the sight of the opposition goalposts and take a few gulps of oxygen from the Fulham half.

Which is all well and good, and is the sort of back-up act that makes the dreamy front four even more irresistible; but when he is stationed as one of two chappies sitting in front of the back four, there is something of a statutory requirement that he puts on his defensive hat and offers some protection.

Alas, he didn’t offer much in this department. If anything I noticed Dele’s defensive contributions more than his. This is not so much a criticism of Ndombele himself, more an observation that if we are going to field a stardust-sprinkled front four then we probably do require something a bit more solid behind them.

4. Davinson Sanchez

For the second successive game I was struck by the thoroughly disorienting sensation that Davinson Sanchez was, just about, doing an adequate job of keeping intruders at bay. Much though I would like to, I cannot really bring myself to describe him as a reassuring presence back there, as he does give the impression that calamity is only one opposing stepover away.

However, he stuck to his task yesterday, and by and large emerged in credit with a number of solid interventions and tackles to his name. There were a couple of moments, notably one at the very end of the first half, when it seemed that the ghost of Gundogan had returned, and threatened to leave him writhing on the floor again, but he recovered well and generally did the necessaries.

Ultimately, I thought his night was rather summed up by the disallowed goal: an agricultural clearance (which is better than no clearance at all), combined with a spot of luck, with the net result that the clean sheet remained intact.

In the final analysis it is a bit difficult to get one’s head around things: two consecutive wins is excellent stuff; albeit the opposition have been relegation strugglers; the front four could potentially light up our end to the season; yet our defence remains pretty wobbly at best. Luckily the games come so quickly these days there isn’t much time to dwell on these imponderables.

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.

Spurs 2-0 West Brom: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Lamela

It’s a rummy thing about life, and also a pretty essential cornerstone of democratic civilization, that two souls seeing exactly the same thing will draw vastly different opinions of it. With that in mind I appreciate that the view over here might not necessarily be universally shared, but I rather fancied that Erik Lamela deserves to have the rosette for being Star Performer pinned to his blazer today.

There were actually quite a few contenders, which is a rare treat, but I thought that from the off Lamela did much to set the tone. There may well be occasions on which Lamela adopts a cautious approach to life, taking a back seat and allowing himself a good half hour to get a sense of how events are playing out before getting involved; but this occasion was not one of those occasions. Instead, picking up where he had left off in midweek, he began proceedings with the air of a man pretty determined to get things done pronto.

Whenever a chum had the ball Lamela seemed to be on the move. Where in previous weeks whichever man were in possession would look up to find that all his friends had deserted him, today every time we had the ball – which was most of the time – a quick glance gave evidence of a nearby little blur of white, which on more considered inspection typically transpired to be Lamela scuttling into frame and pleading his case for involvement.

It proved a popular approach, for Lucas was in similarly supportive mood. The net result was a range of options for whomever was in possession, a treat the like of which in recent weeks has seemed a thing of wild fantasy. As a neat consequence there was variety to our attacking play, and chances came along at a pretty healthy lick.

In previous weeks the supporting roles to Son and Kane have been provided by Bergwijn, who is typically preoccupied with marking an opponent, and Ndombele, whose myriad talents could not truthfully be said to number amongst them ‘Limitless Energy’. The contributions of Lamela and Lucas therefore, simply off-the-ball and in providing options, made a massive impact.

It’s almost an afterthought, but when in possession too they performed handily enough, Lucas in particular seeming to delight in the opportunity to indulge in a few playground-esque wriggles around as many opponents as he could draw in.

2. Hojbjerg’s Passing

On the subject of the Star Performer rosette, what I believe in the trade is known as “An Honourable Mention” ought to be made for the ever-impressive P-E Hojbjerg.

So far, so AANP, I hear you mumble; but in the sort of plot-twist that typically happens around p. 195 and is greeted by gasps of disbelief, in this case the plaudits for Hojbjerg are not so much for the role of indefatigable caretaker (although it should be said that his caretaking was of the usual efficient and no-nonsense ilk) but instead for his surprisingly impressive forward-passing range.

This, I confess, took me by surprise. The point of stationing Ndombele in the deep-lying midfield role alongside Hojbjerg seemed to me to have been that the latter would roll up his sleeves and fly through the muck, precisely in order that the former might receive possession and pick out killer passes.

Instead, while Ndombele seemed often to wander off in the directionless manner one sometimes sees traced by snails along the ground – you know the sort, meandering around and back on themselves, with no clear end-point in evidence – Hojbjerg seemed to take it upon himself to combine the rolls of muck-flying and killer-passing. And he did the latter in particular with aplomb.

I recall he had shown in the game away to Man Utd a surprising knack for the weighted pass inside the full-back, a routine looked upon with particular fondness here at AANP Towers, and he was at it here again, sliding in Aurier deliciously in the first half.

Much has been made of the well-spotted and equally well-weighted pass to set up Kane’s opener, but it ought not to be overlooked that immediately prior to that he set the whole routine in motion by playing another ball inside the opposing full-back to pick out Ben Davies, in a mini-acre of space on the left wing. Ben Davies, being Ben Davies, took the blandest option available and wandered infield to little effect before giving the ball back to Hojbjerg, and from there the goal was duly assisted.

However, even Homer occasionally nods, and at one point Hojbjerg made a pig’s ear of things by allowing himself to be caught in possession and a West Brom counter-attack to magic itself out of nothing.

(But as it turned even this was drizzled in stardust, as the resulting passage of play saw West Brom pile men forward, only for our lot to pinch possession and set off on the counter-attack for our second. One is tempted to suggest that Hojbjerg, in his infinite wisdom, deliberately lost possession in order to draw out West Brom for the counter-attack – but this is maybe a little too fanciful.)

3. Kane

Inevitably, where there is a discussion of Star Performer rosettes, one need not wait too long before the distinctive brogue of Harry Kane is making itself heard, and in his understated – and at times, headline-grabbing – manner he was at it again today.

His radar was actually decidedly shonky in the early portions, but that particular wrong was righted in good time, and his equalling of Bobby Smith’s mark as our second highest scorer ever gave a handy moment for reflection on quite how magnificent he is.

However, as is often the case these days, his goal amounts almost to an afterthought, because it was the overall Kane display that got the juices flowing here. The whole game was, of course, a completely different kettle of fish from the Chelsea debacle in midweek, but nevertheless the contrast between Vinicius against Chelsea and Kane today could not have been much starker.

Where Vinicius was honest but limited as a fairly static and ineffective target man, Kane bobbed and weaved about the place, dropping deep as often as he headed to the uppermost point in the formation.

Naturally enough, West Brom were pretty spectacularly out of their depth when it came to handling him, and while they went through all the correct and official motions it was basically to little effect, because these days Kane just does what he wants and there is precious little that most defences can do to contain him.

The chest-off to Lucas for our second goal was a particular highlight, and the interplay with Lamela, Lucas, Son and, slightly oddly, Ben Davies, in the first half in particular, brought a bit of fun back into our football.

4. Jose’s Redeeming Tactics

All things considered I’m not sure this could have been more satisfactory if specifically hand-picked from a catalogue of such things.

Having wasted no opportunity to deliver both barrels at Out Glorious Leader in recent weeks for the style (was there ever a greater misnomer?) he has cultivated to such ghastly effect, it is only fair to give a faint but meaningful nod of the head towards him today for making such tweaks as were necessary, to both personnel and positioning of personnel. Even before kick-off, the teamsheet alone had an uplifting whiff about it.

Aside from the return to arms of Kane, which to the amateur sleuths amongst us wasn’t really as much of a shock as the BT commentator seemed to have it, in selecting his team Jose appeared to have set out with the express intention to win back some of the favour lost at AANP Towers in recent weeks.

Now if you don’t mind, at this point I’ll take a minute to delve into the technicalities, so by all means feel free to disappear elsewhere for a few minutes, and pick up again at the next paragraph. Essentially, by shoving Sissoko out of the picture, dragging Ndombele back into a deeper role alongside Hojbjerg, where once Sissoko had stood, and giving Lamela the freedom of N17 in the more advanced midfield role – where once Ndombele had stood – the whole setup looked infinitely better balanced than in previous weeks.

For whatever reason, and despite possessing many of the necessary attributes for the role, Ndombele is rarely at the peak of his powers when granted the dream role of Number 10. Instead his many talents seem better evidenced when getting stuck into the action from a deeper starting point, and particularly when excused of too many defensive duties, so his delegation in the deeper role today made good sense. Oddly enough, despite the tailor-made platform, his performance ended up being slightly muted, but it mattered little given that the eyes of everyone else on show fairly lit up from the off.

Admittedly one had to take certain accommodating circumstances into account, not least the fact that this was a West Brom team seemingly determined to be even more like Jose’s Tottenham than Jose’s Tottenham, taking every opportunity to sit back and defend their own area until they fell behind. To have set up in the face of this with the usual back-six would have been a bit thick even by Jose’s standards. Nevertheless, we showed precious little attacking intent recently against a similarly lowly Fulham, so the more progressive tweaks in personnel and position were very welcome today – even if the cynic inside me does suspect a return to drearier ways in upcoming fixtures.

Spurs 0-1 Chelsea: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Second Half Improvement (It’s An Admittedly Low Bar…)

I thought it would make a sunny change to start with the positives, and before you raise a suspicious eyebrow and lead me away gently to the nearest padded cell, let me pick out the nuances of that one. The second half struck me as, if not quite a wind of change, then at least a breath of air marginally less stale and rancid than the first half.

Whereas in the first 45, with the possible exception of the ever-frenzied Hojbjerg, our lot barely raised themselves out of a collective sulk, huffily chasing Chelsea players because they absolutely had to, and then moodily booting the ball away whenever it was given to them; in the second half they at least roused themselves to amble forward into attacking positions, as if suddenly introduced to the concept of being allowed to score goals, and being quite taken by it.

Admittedly we were still a few miles short of looking like we might win, or even draw, but the tentative dipping of toes into the world of ambitious football seemed a massive step up from the first half (and from what feels like about a hundred preceding games), in which the plan from the starter’s gun has been to retreat into our penalty area with a bizarre paranoia and refuse to come out.

To sum up things, at one point in the second half, having committed approximately half of the team forward into attack, we lost possession around the halfway line and (I think) Kovacic picked up the ball and simply sauntered, unopposed, all the way to the edge of our penalty area, with not a lilywhite shirt anywhere near him. At which point he promptly had a nosebleed and bunted the ball harmlessly out of play; but the point is that this is the sort of goal I’d much rather concede. I’d much prefer that we get caught short because we have committed too many bodies forward, and end up with literally nobody between halfway and our own penalty area to make a challenge, than the usual goals we concede, of dragging ten men back to the edge of our own area and spending 80 minutes desperately trying to clear our lines and catch our breath before the next wave hits.

That was how we conceded to Fulham, and Leeds, and Palace, and Liverpool, to name but four. In each of those cases there was a gloomy inevitability to the whole sorry mess; and moreover it was soul-destroying to watch. At least in yesterday’s second half, albeit still rather tactically clueless and light on creativity, we applied some pressure and there seemed a hint that some sort of goalmouth threat might brew.

And that’s where things have got to at AANP Towers – success is now measured not by how many goals we score, or how few we concede, but whether the goals we do concede are less dreary than previously.

2. Lamela

Next in the long line of two positives was the extended cameo from everyone’s favourite Master of the Dark Arts, Erik Lamela. That he comfortably became our man of the match despite playing around half an hour speaks volumes about the competition, but it was still an eye-catching bop.

The young mutt’s capacity to scuttle around incessantly like a wind-up toy unleashed has never been in doubt. Indeed, cynics might suggest it ranks alongside Dark Arts as one of his greatest talents. And, naturally, it was on show yesterday, his relentless energy looking ever relentlesser when contrasted to the moping, static teammates around him.

But in a pleasing and unexpected development, Lamela’s buzzing turned out not to be pointless. In fact, every time he buzzed, he seemed to do so with the express intent of demanding the ball – which might not sound like rocket-science, but in a world in which the mantra on everyone’s lips seemed to be, “I know you have the ball and are looking for a passing option, but I’m quite happy standing in my own spot and minding my own business, so you can look around for the next option, Miladdio,” Lamela’s eagerness to be at the hub of things made him seem like a veritable Maradona circa ‘86.

It occurred to me while watching him do his damnedest to breathe life into the collective lilywhite corpse that if Gareth Bale had at any point since his return put in a shift of that ilk the adulation would be wild and long.

Whether or not Lamela has done enough to merit a place in the starting line-up probably depends on what the voices in Jose’s head are whispering, for the current drill seems to be to ask Bergwijn to carry out all manner of defensive duties (which, to his credit, he tends to do pretty well). The concept of Bergwijn as a bona fide attacking threat seems to have become ever more foreign. If it is attacking brio that is required, then Lamela might well be the man – but when does ask oneself when Jose has ever required attacking brio.

3. Vinicius

The fact that Jose picked Bale in the last game and Vinicius in this, points squarely at him having little faith in either, but that can probably be logged away in the rather lengthy file marked ‘Jose: Questionable Choices’.

This was Vinicius’ big opportunity, if being starved of the ball or any company, and given three burly minders for the duration, can legally be described as a ‘big opportunity’. If ever a game were going to remind a man that life at Spurs is not all training ground japes and hat-tricks against Marine then this was that game.

Much of his first half was spent watching Chelsea bods knock the ball away from him, and when we occasionally lobbed it up towards him I was disappointed to note that the rather elegant touches of a refined support striker occasionally evidenced in the Europa League had rather cruelly deserted him, he instead resembling a brick wall as the damn thing simply bounced harmlessly off him.

His big first-half opportunity came, inevitably, when we countered, and he found himself at the hub of things, with Son advancing at pace to his left. However, when the crucial moment arrived he seemed unsure whether he had too many feet, or perhaps too few feet; and by the time he had finished counting his feet the moment had passed and the ball had been spirited away.

This was pretty much the extent of his involvement until the dying embers of the second half. In true Jose style, having trailed for an hour, our heroes waited until the 87th minute to swing a cross into the area. And it was a pretty decent cross too, replete with whip, pace and all the trimmings.

While not exactly a tap-in, this certainly seemed a presentable chance for one standing in excess of six foot, of sound mind and body and who had spent a lifetime being drilled in the necessary art. Alas, where Vinicius needed to summon the spirit of Harry Kane, he was possessed instead by the ghosts of Soldado, Janssen, Postiga and Llorente, and planted the header six inches west of the desired sweet spot.

A shame, because as the studio bods pointed out, taking his one chance in a game like that would have excused 89 other minutes of anonymity, whilst also doing wonders for his confidence.

As it happens, the miss seemed to confirm that here is a promising sort of bean, who may in time develop into a competent all-round forward, but who at present is far from being the solution to the Harry Kane-shaped hole. Of course, the quirk of science that means he is not the exact genetic replica of Harry Kane is not his fault, but it nevertheless leaves us no nearer to filling the aforementioned hole.

4. Dier

Vinicius being relatively wet behind the ears (and there is something about him that gives the impression of a small boy born into a body about eight sizes too large for him) he can probably be excused the worst of the rotten fruit being pelted in the direction of our heroes. Elsewhere, and all over the pitch, there seemed to be worse offenders.

Principal amongst these, and not for the first time by my reckoning, was Eric Dier. Dier is a curiosity, being a central defender without any pace, and whose decision-making and passing can veer from Pretty Good to Pretty Dreadful, with both extremes typically on show in any given game. He seems designed, appropriately enough, for a Jose style of play, that requires a line of six defenders to stay in the same spot and block all shots and crosses that enter their immediate radius. Feed him according to this diet, and he looks a happy man.

True to form, on occasions yesterday he dribbled or distributed the ball out of defence with some elegance. However, he could have played the entire game like Franz Beckebauer and it would not have excused the absolute mind-boggling stupidity of his foul for the penalty, conceded, incredibly, at the third attempt, and while lying on the ground for heaven’s sake.

Nor was it the first penalty he has rather needlessly conceded since the Covid interruption, and as if to hammer home quite what a vacuum exists between his ears he then blasted a half-volley towards the head of Lloris in the second half.

Admittedly we are hardly replete with reliable defensive alternatives, but with gate-keepers like Dier patrolling the rear one is tempted to conclude that the safest thing would be to keep the ball as far away from our defence as possible – an idea it seems unlikely that Jose will adopt.

5. Jose’s Future

As an afterthought, and in common with many of lilywhite persuasion, I have wondered quite what the future holds for Jose. Not in terms of whether he’ll live out his years on a vineyard in Portugal, you understand, but more the immediate future, and specifically his employment at N17.

Having worked so hard to secure him, I presume that Levy will be more patient with him than, for example, the tax-payers of AANP Towers. (Some have mooted that the prospect of paying off his contract will dissuade Levy from sacking him: I suspect not, on the grounds that this has hardly stopped Levy before.)

The drill was very much to win trophies, so there is a good chance that winning the Carabao would buy Jose more time – and if there is one thing it is possible to imagine Jose doing, better than almost anyone else, it is masterminding victory in a one-off, winner-takes-all match.

However, keep losing league games and the Carabao will not save him. I suspect only a Europa win would, should league form continue to nosedive.

I suspect the style of play does not particularly bother Levy either, particularly without any fans around to give polite reminders of the mood amongst the masses.

This is fairly exasperating, because it is the style more than anything else that is causing my own, personal, current flap. I am the odd sort of egg who thinks that if we are going to lose anyway, (and at present we usually do), then we might as well lose while having a dashed good go, rather than camping in our own area and showing zero attacking spark. Which is why I was mildly comforted by the second half last night: while still pretty dire, it at least had us committing men forward. Jose’s defensive style was only palatable as long as it brought results and had us challenging for the title. At present, we might as well set out with Ossie’s 5-0-5 and at least go down in a blaze of glory. We certainly have the personnel to play more entertainingly.

And finally, I wonder where this leaves Harry Kane, and indeed Sonny. It seems criminal for a manager to have two of the best forwards in the world, in the prime of their careers, and design a system that gives them mere scraps. Irrespective of the style of play, if results continue and we finish mid-table, I do fear that Kane, and Son, might consider that their final years are better spent elsewhere.

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.

Sheff Utd 1-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Ndombele’s Goal

Oddly enough, nobody has yet asked me to sit down with them and explain the rhyme and reason to the penning of my thoughts on Tottenham games, but were they to do so I would top up their bourbon and explain that sometimes these things are deliberately sculpted chronologically, and sometimes simply dictated by whim – but today it feels like it would be inappropriate to begin anywhere other than with the undoubted highlight of the production, the glorious parabola spawned from the outside of Tanguy Ndombele’s right boot.

Not that we should have been surprise, for fair warning had been sounded in the first half of the level of sorcery that could emanate from the aforementioned limb, when Ndombele had contrived to ping a pass, again with the outer-right clog, curled in between two opponents and around the back of the full-back, into the path of Aurier.

That touch had the punters purring, but the goal was on another level, prompting some pretty wild and joyous exclamations at AANP Towers, and no doubt in other lilywhite-tinged domiciles about the land.

Decorum of course dictates that in such circumstances those labouring behind the scenes are given due recognition. As such a ripple of polite applause is due to young Master Bergwijn, for general shimmying followed by a chipped pass that released the hero of the hour.

But at this point few amongst us, on surveying the scene, would have pulled out a wad of notes from their pocket and with a knowing nod bet handsomely on the next action being a first-time effort into the net. The laws of physics, while not rendering the thing impossible, certainly stacked up against our man. To this amateurish eye the three most salient points in the Debit column seemed to be that i) Ndombele at this point was trotting off in the opposite direction to goal; ii) the ball was mid-air and showing few signs of deviating from this mode of travel; iii) all of the above was taking place on the left of the goal, and as such, on Ndombele’s weaker foot.

Some of the more curmudgeonly amongst us have rather sniffily proposed that what happened next was a man misplacing a pass, nothing better than a hopeful lob of a grenade into a loosely advantageous error. Democracy, of course, permits and indeed encourages the voicing of such wildly erroneous opinions. Here at AANP Towers however, there was not a shred of doubt that Ndombele’s only thought was to attempt the near-impossible, and dink it via that exact arc, and into that exact spot.

I’m not sure any other trajectory could have rendered the goalkeeper quite so impotent (although to be honest, judging by his dramatic but ineffective flap at Kane’s goal, I doubt that such perfection was necessary to best the chap). It was a thing of skill and beauty – and for added aesthetic pleasure the ball entered the net via the foot of the post, as if simply thrilled to be part of the action.

2. Mentality

As it happened, when the entire operation is viewed as a whole, the timing of Ndombele’s goal was arguably of greater importance than the execution.

The mists of time might obscure the fact, but having breezed into a two-goal lead at the break, our heroes surprised absolutely nobody in the second half by easing up on the accelerator, showing less appetite for a ruck and gradually shuffling back towards their own goal. Inevitably, we conceded, and for approximately a minute and a half thereafter all manner of fruity curses escaped the lips, as the usual tortuous narrative looked set to unfold.

However, before there was opportunity for the prophets of doom to clear their throats and really get down to business, Ndombele had executed the world’s greatest toe-poke, and with the two-goal buffer restored we were able to progress to 90 in pretty serene fashion.

I am still inclined to veer between nervous and downright irate as I drink in our heroes’ approach to leading any given match, as there so rarely seems to be what an impartial observer would classify as genuine intent to score again and thereby eliminate all doubt.

Even in the first half, after the customary early goal, it seemed to be perfectly within our gift to stretch United and carve out chances, simply by increasing the intensity of our play by a notch or two. And yet ,rather than be possessed by an almost rabid desire to do precisely that, the mood around the camp seemed to be that actually a one-goal lead was plenty and there was no real imperative to double that.

Admittedly we did not immediately react to taking the early lead by surrendering possession and camping on the edge of our own penalty area, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for that much. Every now and then we upped a gear – and immediately looked threatening. It just seemed odd that we did not therefore adopt this higher-intensity approach for more of the half.

Mercifully, Sheffield United simply weren’t particularly good. None in their ranks were remotely capable of finishes of the quality of either Kane’s or Ndombele’s, nor of the creative spark of the likes of Lookman, Eze, Neto et al in recent weeks.

3. The Midfield Pair

Jose, one gets the impression, was not formed in the womb in the same way as you and I. So, for example, where most presumably enjoy seeing our lot knock the living daylights out of whomever is in our way, Jose seems instead to thrive upon a backs-to-the-wall one-nil.

But more positively, where the mere mortal would note that we’re playing the worst team in the league and tell the usual rabble to do proceed in their usual manner, Our Glorious Leader spotted the myriad benefits of deploying wing-backs to silence their wide threat, and dispensed with the usual defensive extra midfielder, instead using a third centre-back.

And credit where due, the man certainly knows how to pull tactical strings. The formation allowed both Aurier and Reguilon to fill their attacking boots, while still providing ample defensive cover (although Dier might want to buy young Master Rodon a post-match shandy or two, for a couple of timely sprints that doused threatening flames when he had sold himself far too cheaply).

The availability of Aurier and Reguilon meant that there we were rarely short of attacking options – the challenge, as noted above, was more that for patches of the game we did not seem to show the intensity to hammer this home.

Critical to the success of this formation tweak was the impressive shift put in by the central midfield pair. Both Hojbjerg and Ndombele were at the peak of their powers, whether donning their defensive hats and bearing down on opponents, or adding their presence and keeping possession ticking along in more attacking areas.

In fact, our second goal came about from Hojbjerg marrying these two delights, applying pressure in the attacking third and thereby winning possession from United high up the pitch, in a manner last witnessed to similarly fruitful effect against Leeds a couple of weeks ago. Having won possession behind enemy lines, as it were, he then did the sensible thing and shoved it with minimal fuss at first Sonny and then Kane.

There was a glorious simplicity to all this, but it neatly summed up the quiet effectiveness of both him and Ndombele.

And while I suppose any back-slapping should be effected within the context that this was against the lowest placed team in the division, it does make one wonder whether and when the approach might be adopted again. A year ago, few amongst us would have countenanced the notion of Ndombele forming one half of an effective central midfield pair, but there it was in glorious technicolour.

There was a pleasing discipline to his performance too, for while he broke forward to such glorious effect for his goal, by and large his movements were not those of one whose job description reads “Attacking Midfielder”. This was a performance that offered as much in defence as attack.

4. Dele Alli: Now Inferior to Gedson Fernandeshttp://www.allactionnoplot.com/wp-admin/profile.php

However, another idiosyncrasy of Our Glorious Leader is his seemingly irresistible urge to dish out a public flogging to one of his troops.

It should probably be remembered that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that Dele Alli’s form for a year or so pre-Covid had taken a pretty hefty dip southwards. Nevertheless, in his intermittent cameos over the past couple of months he has done approximately as much as could be expected.

It may surprise visitors to these pages to learn that I am not privy to what goes on in the hallowed confines of the training ground, so I can only speculate as to whether his produce or attitude when wearing a fluorescent bib is so poor as to merit this bizarre expulsion from the squad. However, perusing today’s teamsheet and discovering the absence of a D. Alli, and simultaneous presence of a G. Fernandes, struck me as laying it on a bit thick.

I suppose this may have been a one-off punishment for his pretty cheesed off reaction (via the medium of social media) to not being involved against Leeds, but either way it’s all fairly unpleasant stuff. This is not a third-choice right-back; it is a bean who only a year or two back was one of the brightest young things in world football. Simply to shrug the shoulders and elbow him out, rather than looking for a way to bring out his best, seems pretty rummy stuff – but alas, the odds of him slinking off across the channel appear to shorten by the day.

Spurs 2-0 Brentford: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Mentality

Lilywhites of a certain vintage – by which I broadly mean those who weren’t born yesterday – will doubtless be pretty familiar with our heroes’ traditional capacity to amble up to a fixture of this ilk; note that the opposition are weaker pound-for-pound; as a result consider the matter already decided in their favour before a ball has been kicked; and proceed to make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.

On settling in for the spectacle there was a therefore a decent whiff of trepidation in the air at Chateau AANP. However, love or loathe the chap, it is becoming difficult to deny that Jose has changed the ambience around the place, to the extent that that ingrained pre-match trepidation found itself eyeball-to-eyeball with a competing sentiment that might be qualified as “Cautious Optimism”. The sort of optimism that springs from seeing our lot put Leeds to the sword in pretty clinical fashion on Saturday, or, harking back a few weeks, execute a faultless, ruthless game-plan vs City.

Recent fixtures have obviously illustrated that there are plenty of moving parts that need oiling, but the mood about the place is changing, and rarely could this be better illustrated by the fact that going into a semi-final against an in-form gang from the division below, it seemed as possible that our lot could do a professional job as that they might trip over their own shoelaces in the time-honoured fashion of a Team That Never Dashed Well Wins Trophies.

And reflecting on the game 24 hours later, it was actually about as clinical and professional a project as one could have imagined. Without ever breaking sweat or setting pulse-rates anywhere north of ‘Slow and Steady’, our heroes efficiently breezed through.

There were two notable warning shots fired in our direction – one requiring a block by Serge Aurier of all people, and the other the offside effort. But even taking these into account, we seemed strangely in-control throughout, and capable of motoring up a gear for a few minutes as necessary (witness our second goal).

Sissoko won the individual gong, and one or two others merited polite applause (Ndombele had a blast, and Reguilon’s cross positively begged to be converted), but what really stood out was the highly professional mentality of the collective. Oddly enough there was no complacency in sight, with every cast member’s concentration levels dialled up to the maximum, and tasks being carried out across the pitch with quiet, unspectacular efficiency.

So no drama, precious little excitement and a semi-final negotiated with the minimal fuss and maximum efficiency of a military inspection. By the end of it I felt like one of those women one reads about from a bygone era, whose husbands disappear to war and then reappear several years later, reporting to be one and the same and looking similar enough, but markedly changed in character. This is not the Tottenham I remember, but they are yet strangely attractive.

2. Our Second Goal

As mentioned, for the most part barely a bead of sweat was expended, and nor were many needed. As our first real foray forward brought a goal there didn’t seem any real need or urgency amongst our lot thereafter to do much more than keep Brentford at arm’s length and pop the ball from A to B.

One-nil at half-time seemed reasonable enough, reflecting most judges’ scorecards.

However, it was at around the halfway point that it occurred to me that if “One goal is not enough” were not already an adage, then the panel that decides these things ought to get themselves in gear and make it such, because it was not so much a truth as a deafening anthem of the opening bursts of the second half.

While still leading, in control and far from complacent, our lot remained but one lapse from parity. And after the Brentford offside goal officially sounded the warning gong our heroes promptly took note and dialled up the intensity by the necessary couple of notches.

Thus germinated our second goal, and it was a thing of some beauty. For a start there was much to admire about the weighting of Ndombele’s pass. At various points in the evening esteemed artistes in lilywhite had spotted potential routes to glory and attempted to play the killer pass, but not quite delivered the thing, either pressing too firmly or too lightly on the pedal.

Ndombele, however, hit the sweet spot and Sonny, already well at full pace, could continue his merry, full-paced journey without the slightest adjustment. I can offer no clues as to the reputation of the agent representing Ndombele, but if he negotiated a bonus for assists it was well merited last night.

Sonny at full pace is a difficult beast to overcome, and heaven knows the Brentford lad flapping at his shadow did his best, by hurling every available limb across the turf in an effort to floor him, but Sonny was already long gone.

There then followed the tour de force, and from the comfort of the AANP sofa I particularly enjoyed the subtle manner in which Son delayed his shot just long enough for the Brentford ‘keeper to surrender himself to the lure of gravity. As the ‘keeper began to go ground, Sonny blasted the ball above him. The whole scene could not have been better executed if all parties had been practising their roles for weeks.

3. Hojbjerg’s War-Wound and Lust for Blood

Thereafter there was a collective exhalation and some nifty triangles were put on show, as our ensemble politely ran down the clock.

However, we were nevertheless treated to a further highlight just before the curtain fell, as Hojbjerg received a rather robust interrogation from some bounder who, it turned out, had been schooled in his arts at Other West Ham.

In a population of 7 billion I imagine there are few who wear their battle scars with greater pleasure than Hojbjerg, and he wasted little time in revealing to the world the treats bestowed upon his left shin. Nothing that hasn’t been seen in the rough-and-tumble of amateur 5-a-side, so as long as he’s fit for whenever the Premier League resumes there were no complaints from this quarter, but I was mightily enthused by his reaction when back on his feet. Evidently the Hojbjerg blood had boiled, for he looked every inch the man who had cared no more for the beautiful game, and wanted only to be allowed back into the arena to tear his opponent limb from limb.

Perhaps it is a result of decades of witnessing the term “soft underbelly” personified on the hallowed turf of N17, but seeing a near-demented Hojbjerg utterly consumed by a lust for blood was possibly the most pleasing aspect of the whole evening. Sonny and Kane will break the records, Ndombele will earn the applause – but if we are to win anything this season then I rather fancy Hojbjerg’s bloody-mindedness will be key.

Spurs 3-0 Leeds: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. High Press

After four pretty dispiriting performances and results, I would guess that I was not the only one who would have bitten off a nearby arm for a scrappy one-nil win. It’s therefore little exaggeration to say that to emerge from a tricky-looking tiff, against an in-form mob, with a breezy three-nil was not far off manna from heaven.

So the usual roll of back-slaps and high fives are in order. More specifically, a noticeable improvement in the piece was that our first two goals came about by virtue of the central midfield pair pinching possession in the sort of areas of the pitch that they have dared not tread in recent weeks.

The final third, the attacking third – call it what you will, but generally it has been strictly off-limits to most in lilywhite, with even Messrs Sonny and Kane only making the most fleeting visits over the last month or so.

And yet there, in glorious technicolour, strode first Hojbjerg and then Winks, intercepting misplaced passes just outside the opposition’s own area. Hojbjerg fed Bergwijn, who nobbled himself a fortunate penalty; Winks fed Kane, who slipped in a peach of a pass for Sonny.

Given that their regular posting is around sixty yards further south, as well as the fact that Jose comes across as the sort of cove who would rather chew off his own arm than let one of his underlings stray from a defensive station, one can only surmise that this tentative dip of the toes into the world of higher pressing came about by design rather than accident.

Presumably it was a tactic tailored to the opposition (as Leeds certainly did play an interesting brand of ‘fast-and-loose’ with their distribution from the back), so we should probably not settle back, order popcorn and watch out for the sight of our midfield anchors roaming the final third on a weekly basis. But nevertheless, it was a joy to behold, and, pointedly, brought great reward.

2. Attacking Ambition vs Defensive Safety

So it was all very welcome stuff – and yet…

Having shown a little ambition, and been richly rewarded, I don’t mind committing to paper the fact that I was a mite disappointed to see the ambition-reward approach dispensed with for the final twenty, as our lot sat back and defended for the last quarter of the game. Dismiss me if you will as a misty-eyed romantic of the all-action-no-plot ilk, but I was rather hoping that we would continue in the vein of the previous half hour and keep probing for more.

I suppose if Jose were asked to justify his approach to these things he might do worse than point to today’s opposition. Such was the adoration lavished upon Leeds today by the voices at BT Sport that one might have thought that were running away with the game, but The Book of Facts clearly states that for all their commitment to attack they were still taking a bit of a hammering. (I suspect a few English managers would goggle with incredulity at the adulation received by Bielsa for steering his ship to a 3-0 defeat.)

Pretty pictures count for little if you troop off three down; and conversely, spending 20 minutes casually swatting away all-comers from the edge of your own penalty area is a lot more palatable when three-up.

But be that as it may, the reversion to deep defence for the last quarter of the game did seem a tad over-the-top. For around a third of the game – specifically, the couple of decent chunks either side of half-time – our lot, while not quite purring, were well in the ascendancy. We were giving Leeds a working-over, as I’ve heard it put, and moreover were making a bit of hay while we were at it. Sonny’s goal was a reward for some enterprising play, and while Toby’s was not directly brought about by any slick attacking, the corner from which it emanated was a decent legacy of the creativity with which we streamed forth.

We were making chances, committing men forward and scored enough to wrap up the points nice and early. For around thirty glorious minutes one could forget that the last four games had ever happened.

And then, having established the three-goal ascendancy, there seemed a quite deliberate decision made by all in lilywhite to trot back to their posts and casually repel for the final twenty or thirty minutes. It just seemed a bit much.

Again, I accept that the principle did make a heck of a lot of sense. Few amongst us will need reminding of the horrors that can befall when failing to take due care over a three-goal lead, so just shutting up shop was an absolute dream for the pragmatists. On top of which, Leeds’ over-commitment made them pretty ripe fodder for the counter-attack.

Nevertheless, here at AANP Towers, I’m still inclined to mutter – even as a restorative 3-0 win materialises in front of my eyes – that a lead can be more securely held if we actually have possession of the ball, as was the case after half-time, rather than letting the other lot have a free hit for twenty minutes, sitting quite so deep and inviting them to do their worst. Hugo did not have to make a taxing save; but when we surrender possession the risk is there. A corner here, a deflection there – why not eliminate these possibilities by instead hogging possession ourselves?

3. Winks (and Sissoko)

After the unceremonious happenings at Wolves, in which his radar was not so much a tad wonky as completely malfunctional, young Master Winks may have considered himself a little fortunate to have retained his spot today. Mercifully for all concerned, this was a vastly improved showing.

His energy levels have rarely been in doubt, and he applied himself with the usual zip, quite possible benefiting from improved fitness too. More to the point, his passing seemed more accurate, albeit I have no idea whether the stats would support such wild claims. And on top of all this, the young beagle seemed imbued with a spirit of positivity today, that inclined him to pass forwards as often as not, which has not necessarily always been the case.

I have heard it postulated that whereas Sissoko is the bean one wants alongside Hojbjerg when lining up for a bit of a scrap, in which possession will be surrendered and off-the-ball work-rate is everything, Winks will be the egg of choice on a stage in which we do actually see something of the ball and have a bit more need for creativity.

In fact, one might say this theory was neatly proved today, with eighty-odd minutes of Winks-based front-foot play eventually giving way to ten minutes of Sissoko, at which point the drill was very much to protect what we had and keep Leeds arm’s length from the front door.

Make no mistake, Winks still has room for improvement, but this struck me as one of his better days, and justified his inclusion ahead of Sissoko.

4. Doherty

Having barely registered that Doherty was on the pitch, or has even contributed to the cause at all this season, the chap made his presence felt in the dying embers, funnily off by ensuring his presence was removed.

One can generally argue with second bookings that one or other of the yellows was heavy-handed fare from the resident arbiter of the law (although I’m not sure today anyone has a word of protest), but the AANP counter-argument tends always to be that the player concerned deserves to have his head flushed down a toilet for even giving the referee a decision to make.

And with that in mind, Doherty is deserving of censure, for a challenge of that ilk (in the last minute, with the game won and when already on a yellow card) was strongly indicative of a vacuum between his ears.

Of the seven summer imports, Doherty has made a fairly robust case for being the most underwhelming. Even Joe Hart, for all the on-field jitters he can bring, has, in the AANP book on these things, been a welcome addition if for no other reason than being a vocal presence who holds his teammates accountable, within a squad that traditionally errs on the timid side.

Doherty however, has come across as a chap still letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”, as they say. When opportunity presents for him to be of value in the attacking third – supposedly his forte – he has an air of neither-here-nor-there about him, as if not sure if he should really be so high up the pitch, and when thus stationed seems curiously prone to passing backwards, often errantly, thereby sucking life out of our attacks.

A lot has been made of the adjustment he has had to make from wing-back to full-back, and frankly I think this is indulging him a little. He has enough experience, he should be able to make the necessary tweaks and get cracking.

No, it’s been a disappointing couple of months, with his biggest contribution seemingly the inadvertent improvement he has brought about in Aurier.

All that said, I fully expect him to come good, if not in the latter half of this season then at some point in the next, and if it takes him a year or so to find his feet then he wouldn’t be the first. But in the shorter-term, he has the opportunity to sit out the next game and ponder on his sins.

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.

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