1. Conte’s Tactics
By and large AANP is not one go in for controversial opinions for the hell of it. ‘Live and let live’ is pretty much the anthem around these parts, leaving the stirring of hornets’ nests to those better suited.
So you can take it as a sign of how just deeply I was moved by last night’s rot that I’m willing to stick the neck out and chant an ode or two in opposition to Our Glorious Leader, a chap who’s generally been immune to criticism since donning the robes.
Now this is not to exonerate the eleven-plus on the pitch, who trotted around in half-hearted circles all night to no great effect. (Talking of which, if I hear one more player clear his throat and drone on about having to “learn lessons” and “do better” there’s a good chance that the next you hear of AANP he’ll have been arrested for murder.)
But even allowing for the doleful and half-hearted way in which our heroes went about their business last night, as if it were really a bit thick to ask them to play football for 90 minutes, I thought a decent chunk of the blame should be lobbed in the direction of Signor Conte.
Faced with a perfectly winnable fixture, against a side in a division below us for goodness’ sake, he seemed oddly convinced that Middlesbrough might pull off their masks and reveal themselves to be one of the great footballing superpowers of the modern age. As a result, the strict instruction was that we were to surrender possession, pull everyone back behind the ball and watch nervously, seemingly based on the principle that one never knew when our hosts might suddenly sit up and annihilate us. I suppose there is always that risk in any game of football, but it did seem to be an unnecessarily circumspect outlook.
One understands that in life one must exercise some level-headedness. It would be no good sticking ten forwards on the pitch and instructing them all to hare into the opposition area the whole time. Some common sense is key. And I suppose the A.C. Fan Club might point out that in the first half at least, the tactic could be said to have worked – Boro were kept at arm’s length, while our lot had the occasional sniff on the counter.
But nevertheless, watching on as our entire eleven camped behind the ball and held their breath, while our hosts ineffectively rolled the thing from side to side, I did think that we were laying on the caution a little too heavily. Without wanting to sound too outrageous, I wondered whether we might not adopt a slightly more adventurous spirit, by taking possession ourselves and keeping them penned back for a while.
Conte was having none of it however, and in the second half if anything the situation worsened, as any attacking sentiment remained well down the agenda, but our defence started to creak.
To his credit, Conte did briefly stick in his finger and give things a swish, rearranging from 3-4-3 to 4-4-1-1, for those who like to slap numbers on things. And while this – and specifically young Master Bergwijn – jolted our lot out of their slumbers and reminded them that they were actually allowed to attack, it also seemed to have the effect of removing whatever piece of frayed string was holding our defence together.
The ad hoc back-four struggled not so much with their new arrangement as with the very concepts of space and time. Ben Davies seemed not to realise that he was supposed to shuffle from centre-back to left-back; while in Emerson Royal we have a blister who has spent his entire Tottenham career to date failing to master the basics of defending, so he was not about to right all his wrongs in the blink of an eye last night. Boro waltzed in amongst us whenever they pleased, and their goal felt as inevitable a progression as night following day.
As mentioned, none of those on the pitch (bar perhaps Bergwijn) seemed remotely concerned by the gravity of the episode, and as such they are all culpable here – but the nagging question at the heart of all this remains, viz. why on earth Conte set us up so passively in the first place.
Come the summer there’s a reasonable chance that that rotter Harry Kane will once again toss a toy from his pram and find some roundabout way to let it be known that, rather than stick around the place, he’d prefer to shove a few belongings in a rucksack and take off looking for shiny pots. But after last night’s guff, one element of this jars. It’s this business of Kane wanting to leave so as to win stuff.
On the face of it this is an understandable sentiment for any man of ambition. I have no truck with any fellow who would rather win a Cup Final than lose one. Dashed sensible way of going about things if you ask me.
But when Kane moans about it – or has his entourage leak a story to the press about it, which to be honest strikes me as not really playing the game – I butt in with an irate waggle of the forefinger.
The gist of my objection is that if Kane really wants to win a trophy so badly, then he can bally well go out there and win one. It’s not as if, come the biggest games, we omit him from the team and leave it up to everyone else to decide whether or not a medal will be hung around his neck. He is part of the set-up himself. In fact, he’s not just part of it, these days he’s the building block around which the whole damn set-up is constructed. This means that when it comes to winning trophies, the responsibility lies upon him more than anyone else about the place.
Were you or I to whinge that we wanted trophies, if nothing else everyone could agree that the whole thing is beyond our control. But for Kane, this business is very much within his control. One might say it’s his specialist subject. Winning trophies is precisely the thing he’s paid handsome sums to do.
So next time this pest has his minions issue a decree to the effect that he wants a medal and won’t stop whingeing until he gets one, I’ll direct his attention to the perfectly serviceable opportunity he passed up on last night. Supposedly in the form of his life, and up against a team from the division below, Kane reacted to the occasion by withdrawing into his shell in a manner that would attract admiring glances from nature’s most reticent tortoises, emerging only to stray occasionally offside and moan a bit about the opposition and ref, who will now have a goodish idea of what it feels like to be a Spurs fan reading the back pages in the summer.
A trophy has to be earned – which I suppose one might want to whisper if within earshot of the teachers on Sports Day – and frankly last night Kane missed the cut by some distance. If he therefore pipes up this summer, draped in a sense of entitlement, that he’d rather look elsewhere he’ll have a pretty meaty curse or two filling his ears from this quarter.
As remarked earlier, this was not an occasion on which any of our lot will look back particularly fondly, I imagine. Kane and Son were oddly neutered, while anyone who rocked up in the breezy expectation of Winks and Hojbjerg providing any attacking vim was in for a pretty nasty shock.
In such situations, much depends upon the wing-backs to inject into proceedings some gaiety and spunk. After their triumphs of the weekend it seemed reasonable enough that Messrs Sessegnon and Doherty were again invited to go forth and do wondrous deeds, and in the early knockings it actually appeared that they might have some joy.
Sessegnon seemed game. One could admittedly fill a whole book with the various lessons he still has to learn, but he entered into the spirit of thing willingly enough and at least started the game looking like someone who knew that good things would come to those who pelted over halfway and up into the final third.
And on the right, having weighed up the options of parking himself north of the halfway line or south of it, Doherty seemed similarly convinced that more fun was to be had in attack. While not blessed with the same raw pace as Sessegnon, he nevertheless appeared to enjoy the licence to explore the attacking third.
It was a shame then, that when opportunity did finally present itself, in the form of near-enough an open goal, Doherty went down the ill-advised route of blasting the thing with gusto and violence. It was a poor choice. One could have told him straight away that what the situation demanded was a cool mind and steady hand – or, in this case, foot. Simply rolling the ball towards the target would have sufficed. Doherty instead seemed convince that the solution required rather more emphasis, and almost evacuated the ball from the ground.
This was undoubtedly a setback, but, ever the optimist, I nevertheless reasoned that simply having got himself into such a situation reflected well on the chap. It would be a stretch to say that he and Sessegnon dominated things, but they did at least offer regular attacking outlets. One got the sense, at least at the outset, that their souls were fired by the confidence of recent events.
At that point, it seemed that not only did this pair represent our best hope of ingress on the night, but their advances also carried some symbolic weight. The success of Conte-ball does, after all, depend on the wing-backs, and these two appeared to be catching the gist of things.
Unfortunately, whatever hopes and dreams these two carried in their first half were pretty unceremoniously stamped into oblivion thereafter. Their fortunes collectively fell off a cliff in the second half. Both seemed to drift out of the game in search of amusement elsewhere, and Conte, presumably feeling that one ineffectual wing-back is as good as another, hooked both before the end.
All of which means that the wait for a trophy will now enter a fifteenth year, our inability to string two decent results together remains entrenched and it is a pretty even thing whether our players, managers or we the fans are enjoying this least.