I probably ought to do the square thing here, and shove in one of those little pre-emptive speeches before I hit the ripe stuff, because although he’s only been hovering about the place five minutes I’ve not wasted an opportunity to stick the knife into poor old Dejan Kulusevski during his Tottenham career to date.
I suppose it shows how much I know, but those very early impressions did not have me clearing some floor-space to dance little jigs of delight. A solid-looking chap, for sure, but it struck me that his muscle and sinews did little to disguise a first touch that contained too much meat when finesse was required. Add to that his single trick, repeated far too often (cutting in on his left) and the AANP verdict was decidedly middling.
Fast forward to around 19.30 GMT on Saturday night however, and such was the change in impression made upon me that I was strongly considering naming my first-born after the chap.
In the first place Kulusevski drew the short-straw on the tactical front. Man City, being of sound mind, naturally took one look at our lot and made it a priority to spend the entire match targeting Emerson Royal and his surrounding landscape. Our Glorious Leader therefore made the eminently sensible call to parachute in some permanent support for Emerson – with the net result was that poor old Kulusevski had to balance life as principal supporting actor every time Sonny and Kane combined with the additional demands of being a full-time auxiliary right-back alongside Emerson.
A testing agenda at the best of times, this particular trial had a few additional bobbish notes thrown in for good measure. For a start, our man was up against the most testing opposition going. Sterling and Gundogan didn’t stop eyeing him throughout for any false moves; while on the other hand the nearest ally in attendance was Emerson, who with the greatest will in the world does tend rather to flit in and out of things when it comes to his defensive duties.
And yet Kulusevski took to the challenge like an absolute trooper. In the defensive quarter, diligence seemed to be the buzzword. Actually, in the D. Q. there were a heck of a lot of buzzwords – “discipline”, “concentration”, “fitness” and so on, and one probably need not grapple with the specifics of the most appropriate word to get the gist: here was a fellow happy to put in a shift.
Surveying the scene in the aftermath, one would probably remark that for all Man City’s beavering down that flank, their success in the neighbourhood was limited. One certainly does not have to cast the mind back too far to recall occasions when our right side was a door flung wide open to welcome in all-comers, but on Saturday night efforts were made from start to finish to impose some sort of order upon the area, and Kulusevski’s sweaty paw-prints were all over it.
But of course the joy of Kulusevski’s performance was that he managed to be two people at once. The dependable workhouse routine having been executed admirably in the defensive third, when we ventured forward he was equally as willing to infest the more exciting areas of the paddock. And if in previous weeks I have ground a disapproving jaw or two, on Saturday night the chap completed a pretty swift redemption.
For a start, his goal was taken with casual air of a man peeling a particularly accommodating banana. This was all the more impressive given that the serene route of an open goal, which Sonny had no doubt envisaged when playing his square pass, had morphed into one of considerably greater challenge by the time the ball actually reached Kulusevski – not least because a City sort had galloped back and stationed himself rather pointedly in the face of our newest hero. It was therefore to Kulusevski’s infinite credit that he remained thoroughly unfazed, even having the presence of mind to nutmeg the City bod.
And at the risk of reading a darned sight too much into some of life’s trivialities, I did also detect on the umpteenth viewing that Kulusevski’s reaction to scoring was in similarly casual vein, comprising little more than a shrug, a yawn and a rather stony-faced expression of boredom whilst being mobbed by chums, as if to suggest that this was the sort of thing he did to pass the time.
On top of which, he then delivered just about our first successful right-wing cross of the season, in creating the winner (and again celebrated by turning back and dolefully walking towards halfway, the strange fellow).
Admittedly the City lad tasked with preventing his cross seemed to lose all interest in the sport and simply nodded him through, but it was still a peach of a cross. A different kettle of fish from Lucas for sure, but in games such as these in which a we require someone with eyes in the back of his head as well as the more traditional arrangement, young Master K could fit the bill.
2. The Defensive Set-Up: Dier
Post-match, there was a pretty sombre air in the Sky Sports studio as the assembled brains moaned about how City’s possession merited more – but I thought this overlooked the more telling stat that our lot piped up with more Shots On Target than their lot. Actually, the most telling stat was in the ‘Goals’ column, but you get the point – for all their possession, City couldn’t actually edge near enough our net to really spit on their hands and get cracking.
Our Glorious Leader obviously takes credit here, for opting for a back-five-plus-Kulusevski approach that ought to be enshrined in a museum as a model of watertightness. Impressively, all six of them seemed to function as one, shuffling north, east, south and west as if bound by shackles across the waist. And here I thought much credit went to the returning Eric Dier.
As has been often remarked around these parts, set Dier off in a foot-race, or tell him to turn around and not be out-sprinted by a forward, and trouble isn’t far off. But in these backs-to-the-walls operations, in which no pace is required and deep defending is the order of the day, the chap pretty much shoots a knowing wink and spends ninety minutes directing operations, emerging at the other end in a deuce of a sweat but triumphant nevertheless.
And so it panned out here. If City’s goals had emanated from the sort of dashing routines demonstrated by our lot, I might have chewed a nervous lip and marked Dier as one for questioning in the aftermath.
But City’s goals were nothing of the sort. The first was a cross equal parts harmless and hopeful, which Lloris treated with the sort of idea that there are times in a goalkeeper’s life when the last thing one should do is catch the bally thing; and the second was one of those penalties which can only be avoided by those blessed with detachable arms. In short, neither City goal came about because of any flaw in the performance of the back-
3. The Defensive Set-Up: Romero
And even more impressive than Dier in the midst of all this gallant security was Senor Romero. Be it blocking, shadowing, tackling or whatever other noble task required, Romero seemed either to come with pre-loaded expertise, or to learn pretty dashed quickly on the job.
When one thinks back to the wild panic with which Davinson Sanchez has treated every involvement with the ball in recent weeks, one’s gaze towards Romero only becomes more admiring. I’m not entirely sure how rapidly he shifts from A to B, but as with Dier, parking up within a back-three and marshalling visitors with an air of authority is the sort of task-list that brings out the best in the man.
On top of which, the young nib is incredibly adept with ball at feet too. In general, upon receipt of the thing near-ish his own goal he resists the urge traditionally embedded into Spurs defenders to view it with horror and stumble over their own feet as all manner of potentially horrific consequences terrorise them.
Instead, Romero treats matters with appropriate sentiment. Set a striker upon him and he’ll crunch the fellow; but simply roll a football to his feet and he’ll control the thing, look around and pick his pass. Sometimes it will be square and harmless, which is as much as one would expect from a centre-back. But the beauty of Romero in possession is that as often as not, he’ll skip the ‘Harmless’ level and plunge straight into ‘Handily Taking Out Several Opponents’.
Re-watch the third goal and you’ll see him twice receive the ball on halfway, and twice sneer at those advocating that the 95th minute away to the champions dictates a safe sideways nudge. Instead, on both occasions he transferred matters 10 yards north, very much with the air of a man keen to turn his present bounty into even greater future riches, and on the second occasion Bentancur – a fellow who, while occasionally taken by surprise by the rigour of things, nevertheless displayed a dreamy touch throughout – spun forward to Kulusevski the sort of glorious, defence-splitting pass of which Winks, for example, would not dream.
This being AANP Towers I obviously cannot let pass our finest display of the season without grumpily dragging into the office at least one of our number for a stern eye and verbal lashing, and on this occasion it’s young Sessegnon.
Mitigating circumstances abound, of course. In recent history the young pill has struggled to make it to the half-hour mark without some calamity striking him. It is therefore unsurprising that when battle commences he does not stride about the place with the confident vim of a man who knows his worth. The lad’s confidence has been hung, drawn, quartered, pelted with rotten fruit and hacked at a bit with an axe for good measure. One sympathises.
Nevertheless, seeing him yet again interact with the football as if it were trying to attack him was a bit thick. I presume that in his lighter moments, away from the noise of the crowd and glare of the cameras, young Sessegnon demonstrates an ability to move from place to place as well as the best of them. No doubt he’s mastered the art of moving one leg, and then the other, and then the first leg again and so on. Heavens, he probably can do all of the above while nurdling a ball along the ground too.
But stick him on the pitch and all that training and muscle memory rather cruelly deserts him, and he seems instead utterly incapable of getting the machinery working. His every touch seemed to bring about a U-turn in the narrative, as possession switched from lilywhite to light blue.
Moreover, one got the impression that his was a career in which he had somehow escaped ever having to compete against an opponent, such was his shock and inability to deal with the buffeting of his fellow man. To say that he was easily muscled off the ball would be to understate things.
Nevertheless, Sessegnon persisted, and deserves credit for sticking to the plan. Defensively he held his position, and given that he had the likes of Foden and De Bruyne lurking in his postcode he did a solid job of at least standing them up and forcing them to look elsewhere.
Moreover, just about the only moment I can remember him retaining possession was in his contribution to the second goal. No particular bells and whistles about it, but he was there and reeled off his lines correctly (in feeding Son), so I’m happy to slather praise upon him for it. Unlike certain others in lilywhite, I remain convinced that he is one who might yet rediscover the glories of his previous lives and prosper.
Naturally one can hardly skirt over proceedings without giving Kane some of the old oil.
The AANP heart, being formed primarily of ice and stone, does little in the way of the forgive-forget routine, so I remain dubious of the fellow’s broader motives – but by golly he brought his A-game on Saturday night.
Those who know me best will know that few things make the AANP heart flutter quite like a well-weighted pass inside a full-back, and the specimen produced by Kane in the build-up to the opener deserves its own special gong at whatever might be the next awards ceremony going.
The vision, direction and weight of the thing was absolutely as ripe as they come. When the grandchildren come clustering around decades hence, and ask for the highlights of my innings, the witnessing of that Kane pass will be the headline.
Nor was it an isolated incident. Kane’s vision and execution throughout oozed class from every pore. There are times when his obsession with midfielding rather grates; but when he starts high, drops 5-10 yards, receives the ball on the half-turn and fizzes a pass onto a postage stamp, one cannot help but cast an admiring eye.
Handily, the fellow also chipped in with a couple of goals. Occurring as they did, almost as afterthoughts, rather hammered home the fact that he was the hub of creativity rather than simply the chap in fancy garb who applies the finishing touch. Nevertheless, both were well taken, his second goal in particular a decent exhibition of the virtues of barrel-chested upper-body strength.
6. Our Goals and the Counter-Attack Myth
A final musing is on the nature of our goals.
It is naturally tempting to suggest that this was opportunistic stuff. The well-rehearsed narrative would have it that our heroes defended for dear life, and then nicked the ball and raced off to score.
The truth makes for a more interesting narrative, at least for those who like to don the spectacles and get a handle on the fine print.
Our first goal came from playing out from a goal-kick; our second from playing out from a goal-kick; Kane’s miss came from playing out from a goal-kick but with the added drama of losing and then regaining possession inside our own half; and the third was the happy ending to a minute-long story of our patient possession. Of nicking-and-countering there was not a whiff. (Well, perhaps a whiff about the Kane miss, when we lost and then regained possession – but not really countering in the classical sense of their entire team camped high up around our area.)
In truth, the telling element of all this is not so much around anything big and clever from our lot, as the rather fat-headed choice from City to station their defenders high up the pitch, leaving vast expanses for Kane’s passing and midfield runners to exploit. Nevertheless, once in possession our heroes knew the drill each time, and there was something of the well-rehearsed about the way in which the ball was swiftly transferred from one protagonist to another. No standing on ceremony here; our lot were quick and punchy.
As mentioned above, even in the third goal, when patient possession was the order of the day, the sudden injection of pace came from a first-time pass from Bentancur, out to Kulusevski on the right. Precious few teams will defend as high, allowing the tactic of Kane-passes-for-midfield-runners to thrive; but the progressive passing from Romero, and first-time pass from Bentancur to set up our third, gave a glimpse of where our creative sparks might lie for future bouts.