1. Mason, Jose and Attacking Football
There are presumably countless pros and cons to Ryan Mason’s managerial style, but one in particular seems to distinguish him, namely that quality of not being Jose Mourinho. And proof of this, lest it were needed, seemed to be evidenced an hour before kick-off yesterday when the teamsheets trickled through, to reveal a team notably bereft of defensive shackles.
Hugo was present and correct, ‘tis true, as were a couple of token centre-backs. But, with the opposition being already-relegated Sheffield United, the acid test seemed to be how the remaining sets of limbs might be scattered about the place. And where Jose would typically have opted for two of those sorts created by nature to sit deep in midfield and block, plus wingers selected on account of their work-rate in helping out the full-backs, Mason to his credit concluded that what the circumstances demanded were seven pairs of attacking legs, all stationed north of the halfway line.
Thus we were treated to the most refreshing sight of Hojbjerg given lone sentry duty, while Lo Celso was instructed to roll out his best Luka Modric impression, sitting deep but with a licence to create. Dele was given the honour of the Number 10 (Ndombele seemingly the odd man out in this reshuffle), behind Bale, Son and Kane, with both full-backs heartily encouraged to bound into the final third and make merry as they pleased.
In truth, I thought we lacked a little of the non-stop intensity that one expects from the off, but with that much attacking quality on show, and particularly when up against a team as dreadful as Sheffield United, it hardly mattered.
Now in the interests of fairness it is worth pointing out that under Jose, when not sitting deep and throwing away leads our lot did carve out an occasional tendency to make hay by the bundle, and score three, four or more of an afternoon.
However, two elements of our play seemed to distinguish this lot from the Jose Vintage. Exhibit A was the countless number of times that a lilywhite shirt won back possession high up the pitch. This routine was aided to a degree by the fact that United’s project to find new and exciting ways to be dreadful included an endless stream of rubbish clearances straight to our players, but nevertheless most of our number distinguished themselves by nipping in, stealing the ball from United toes and, still nipping, shoving it forward for our next attack.
And Exhibit B was the fact that having gone a goal up our lot did not then batten down every available hatch and retreat to within twenty yards of their own goal for the remainder of the game, inviting pressure. With attacking inclinations they had begun proceedings, and with attacking inclinations they remained.
We’ll never know how Jose would have set up for this particular game, and in the coming weeks we’ll know a bit more about how Mason plans to set up against more obdurate mobs; but this felt like a pretty breezy antidote to a lot of the rot that Jose had been peddling in our back garden.
2. Dele Alli
Few things summed up the Jose era quite like the pointless shunning of Dele Alli, and on his restoration yesterday I thought he made a decent stab of things.
Now on relaying this sentiment to my Spurs-supporting chum Dave yesterday, I seemed to provoke unfettered apoplexy, so this communication probably merits particular care. For clarity, when I suggest that Dele made a decent stab of things I am not intimating that I considered his performance to constitute some sort of messianic hybrid of Pele, Hoddle and Messi rolled into one.
It was more that I thought he did not shirk the challenge but seemed to wander about the grounds demanding the ball, and when he received it generally seemed willing to snuffle around looking for useful things he might do with it. Some worked well, some worked less well, but for a man who has been starved of football for a year or so it was good to see him essentially getting the hang of things again.
In the debit column I did think he might have made more forward bursts, especially with Kane peddling that tiresome drop-deep act of his once again. Opportunity knocked for Dele to surge into the area a little more frequently than he did. Furthermore, the mildly exasperating tendency remains for him to hang on the ball for far longer than is necessary, and I suppose if he is to be reintegrated we will need to re-learn to take that particular rough with the smooth.
But in general he seemed happy to muck in with the rest of them. Watching him I was reminded of how Eriksen would often shimmer out of existence for great patches of games; there did not seem to be any of that with Dele. He might have been more effective, but he at least was always willing to be involved.
Moreover, it seemed to escape the attention of the commentators at least that he played a deliciously-weighted ball inside the full-back to release Aurier in setting up the third goal. The man who assists the assist rarely wins many plaudits (it seems only right at this point once again to name-check Luka Modric) but Dele’s pass here was as skilful as it was important.
And for good measure he won his challenge in setting up the assist for the fourth goal too. Not the sort of stuff that attracted neon lights, but a pretty handy return to the fold nonetheless.
Understandably enough those neon lights were hogged by Gareth Bale. It is an odd quirk of football that a man who scores a hat-trick must be placed upon a pedestal that decrees him to have had a magnificent time of things, irrespective of whether or not he actually played well aside from his three moments. Their general contribution can be middling, their work-rate low or passing accuracy off, but score three goals and all other ills are forgiven and it’s a nine out of ten at the very least.
And yesterday I thought Bale pottered about the place well enough, without dominating proceedings. That is to say, it was not the case that every time he received the ball he had his opponent on toast, nor that he spent the evening terrorising all who stood before him. In fact, for the opening half hour I though he and Aurier, in keeping with the collective, were a little lackadaisical.
But then this seems to be Bale’s way, at least in his second coming. He potters around, probing at his man in fairly humdrum fashion, until suddenly he unleashes a flash of absolute genius that results in a goal. If you want someone to dictate the game and run amok non-stop then look elsewhere; but if you need a game-changing moment, then shove this man to the front of the queue and stick a crown on his head and mitre in his hand.
All three of his goals were expertly taken yesterday, and each seemed to indicate a chap suddenly springing from third gear to first in the blink of an eye. Must be a dashed nuisance to defend against.
I was particularly enamoured of his second. The gallop at full pelt the entire length of the pitch had a pleasing aesthetic quality to it, and the finish, both in wrong-footing the ‘keeper and in lashing it into the top corner, was ripe old stuff.
This was undoubtedly one of the better days in the Aurier catalogue – but then we all knew that here was a chap born to do his best work going forward.
With United limited to one shot at goal throughout, Aurier’s defensive responsibilities were at an absolute minimum, and he took full advantage, seeming rather to enjoy himself by the end of things. All the more impressive if, as seemed to be the case, he was fasting until midway through the second half.
Sterner tests will await – and in fact I’m not sure he’ll ever have an easier time of things – but credit where due, the onus was on him, and Senor Reguilon on the left, to provide the attacking overloads on the flanks, and both took to the task with gusto. Curiously enough, neither seemed wedded to the touchline, both taking every opportunity to head infield as appropriate, but the ends seemed to justify the means.
As I suspect is the case with many Spurs fans, I’ve been compiling the list of those I’d like to stay and those I’d like gone in whatever brave new world transpires, and Aurier sits firmly on the latter list; but when we’re on the front-foot and defensive responsibilities can largely be glossed over, the chap certainly has his merits.