1. A Performance That Deserved More
How we didn’t win that one is a bit of a mystery. I feel a bit like a detective who on unlocking the prison cell finds that the chief suspect has vanished into thin air – not so much aggrieved as plain baffled.
United were useless from root to tip, which doesn’t offer much consolation but does heighten the mystery. Ten of their eleven appeared not to know what day it was, what game it was or what sport it was. Of course, this being Spurs none of this is particularly necessary in order to prompt some pretty seismic defensive crises in our ranks, so even though our hosts lacked any strategy, skill or control, it wasn’t much trouble for them to turn to their one good player and swan off with three goals.
More positively, however, in the first half in particular our mob looked like the sort of well-ordered mob who have clear plans in place, seemingly able to march in behind the United defence whenever they pleased. There was no indication of hesitation or struggle in this respect, they simply waltzed towards the United area, attacks springing from a pleasing variety of avenues.
Kulusevski and Doherty seemed well-rehearsed in their routines on the right, never seeming a point at which the United defence in that area were ready to light their cigars and declare the situation contained.
Son, whose activities could be summarised in a narrative accurately titled, “The Unhindered Adventures of an Attacker Running From Deep”, seemed to have struck up a knowing nod and wink with Dier and Romero all evening. The latter pair adopted the admittedly agricultural approach of launching the ball into orbit, to land in the unattended expanse of United’s defensive third, but given that defensive duties were being neglected by everyone in the vicinity this policy made some sense.
I also derived a quiet pleasure from the sight of Messrs Bentancur and Hojbjerg tiptoeing forward to add their weight to our attacking endeavours. While both gave the impression that this was hardly their idea of a fun night out, the very presence of this pair in the final third hammered home the sense that this was not one of those games in which our lot were going to hang around and wait for the walls to crumble around them.
For some reason it petered out a little in the second half, as urgency was dialled down and a more leisurely approach to life adopte. This was pretty maddening stuff, given that we were still chasing the game, and I waved a pretty exasperated arm or two at times, unclear as to why nobody gave them a nudge about current affairs, but there was still enough about our lot to suggest we were good value for a win, let alone a draw.
This was not really the sort of occasion on which individuals leapt from the pitch to attract comment. However, it struck me that Master Hojbjerg seemed particularly keen to restore the reputation of his family name.
After a meaty start to his lilywhite career, Hojbjerg seems to have drifted along in recent times. He’s always there, and forever shouting and gesticulating, but with each passing week I become less clear what he offers.
His principal role seems to be to step forward from his designated position whenever an opponent has the ball on halfway, and give them a threatening stare, before said opponent shuttles the ball along and Hojbjerg retreats to his post. Nice if you like that sort of thing I suppose, and if that is the entirety of what Conte asks of him then he delivers the goods splendidly, but when I think of the long list of tasks that might be carried out by the modern midfielder, Hojbjerg rather oils into the background.
Yesterday, by contrast, he got stuck in, and I was all for it. As well as flinging himself into the occasional tackle, I was also pleasantly surprised to see him decide that in possession he would occasionally experiment with a more offensive approach.
This is not to suggest that the chap suddenly morphed into a modern-day Gascoigne, but it was still good to see him take a risk or two, rather than produce his usual party-trick of shoving the thing sideways and then bawling at a teammate and giving his hands a good wave.
Absence does still make the heart yearn for young Master Skipp, but this was nevertheless one of Hojbjerg’s better days.
This was something of a mixed bag from Senor Reguilon.
Generally happiest when haring up into the final third, Reguilon hardly needed persuading to join in the attacking fun, and the ball he delivered to set up our second was a delight, positively imploring a touch from an onrushing defender or, as it happened, an enthusiastic but incompetent defender. Few things in life thrill AANP like a well-whipped cross, and even if no finishing touch had been administered, and the ball had continued whipping off into the gaping expanse at the other end of the pitch, I would have purred in satisfaction.
Unfortunately, for all his enthusiasm, Reguilon missed his mark as often as he hit. The club mantra for the day seemed to be, “A misplaced pass is still a pass”, and this was a pledge Reguilon took to heart.
Moreover, the young cove was at least partly responsible for the second goal conceded. In his defence, each of Dier and Davies seemed also culpable here, with all of the above hitting upon the ripping idea of dashing upfield to implement the offside trap – but in something of a staggered approach, which you or I could have advised was a bad idea. Collective responsibility might well be the final verdict, but given that he could gaze along the entire line of the defence Reguilon does not escape censure.
As with Reguilon, so Doherty delivered a performance littered with both the positive and negative.
On the plus side, as remarked above, he seemed to gravitate fairly naturally towards the attacking requirements of his position. And he did not stop there, opting regularly to inject his own interpretation of the role by drifting infield from the touchline to the penalty area. This was no bad thing at all, for while some defenders react to the sight of the opposition net by having their entire life swim before them and blasting the ball to the heavens, Doherty seems to understand the basics of such situations, and is more inclined to drill the thing at the target and force the ‘keeper to deal with the consequences.
However, rather maddeningly, Doherty was also a keen follower of the club rule about misplaced passes. Moreover, as the chap tasked with marking Ronaldo at corners, Doherty can be considered chiefly culpable for the third goal conceded.
Now admittedly there is a mitigating circumstance here, in that this is one of the most challenging tasks in the history of the game. And to his credit, Doherty did not abandon his post. He rose from the ground; he flailed his arms; he did his best to insert his frame between opponent and ball. It just wasn’t good enough, and therefore while giving him a mark for effort I will still fold my arms and refuse to speak to him next time our paths cross.
In truth, the standard on both sides was pretty low, and while United seemed happy to give us the ball and let us do our worst, we ought to have made more of this.