In theory the drill for this one should be simple enough - nice and tight at the back, then step aside to let Bale and Lennon blaze merrily away on the counter-attack, and before you can say “Sur ma tête”, mon fils,” we’ll be home for a late-night bourbon.
Or not. Footballers are renowned for many things, but cerebral robustness probably is not one, and it is easy enough to imagine our heroes straying from the script, and that 2-1 cushion going the way of all flesh within minutes. Still, even if they do take the complicated route, the AANP tuppence is firmly placed on qualification, for our lot simply tend not to lose these days.
The Bale Factor
Quite what the devil we will do once young Master Bale has scarpered for pastures more lucrative is too frightful to contemplate at the moment, but to the pleasure of porcrastinators the world over this is a problem for another day. The One-Man Astonishingness Machine is very much a lilywhite tonight, and as such we line up virtually twelve vs eleven. Stick him on the left, stick him through the middle or just leave him on free-kick detail – his garish size nines are sprinkled with magic dust at the moment, and the Lyon brains-trust are presumably scratching their heads in bewilderment at the task awaiting them.
Elsewhere Messrs Dempsey and Adebayor are each purveying their own unique – but rather different – brand of bally infuriating nonsense, as I believe it is known. Dempsey is certainly a willing trier, so God presumably loves him, but AANP is becoming increasingly irritated at the manner in which his laboured multiple-touch technique sucks the lively juices from any useful-looking attack. Adebayor on the other hand, seems to have made a deep and fervent commitment to doing absolutely anything other than straining every sinew for the lilywhite cause. Nothing that cannot be rectified by a breezy Bale-Lennon-Holtby combo, but still enough to drive one to such despair that there is no option but to emit a sincere - and loaded - tut.
More chopping and changing can presumably be expected in defence, and if he is feeling particularly emotional AVB might use Lloris rather than Friedel. Whatever the minutiae, and whether or not I and my lilywhite office-chums eventually locate a drinking-hole in the Vauxhall area showing itv4, one would expect our heroes to muddle through. Bon chance, gents.
Seasoned visitors to the AANP abode will be well aware that in these parts we tend not to commend the team on a jolly well-earned and impressive win against one of the country’s form teams if we can have a grumble instead.
For all the quite stunning bravado of our resident half-man half-deity, our heroes did again lack some of the whoops-poop-twiddly-dee that had been the hallmark of recent years, if you excuse the over-technical jargon. The AVB mission will need time, and our heroes have become bizarrely consistent team these days, but until Bale (or, to give him his dues, Lennon) clears his throat, spits on his hands and takes off on a gallop there is little of that fizzing one-touch stuff to get the pulse racing – or the opposition quivering.
All rather harsh however, for this was one of our finer moments. In years (or even weeks) gone by, a meaty to-do against opponents of this nature would have brought us no more than a point. Look closely at the platform from which Bale burst forth and you will note that it is constructed from the finest mix of lilywhite blood, sweat and tears.
And on a valedictory note – the boy Bale might just have a future in this football malarkey, what?
Has the good ship Hotspur ever enjoyed such a serene voyage? From the moment that angry lad spat and walked this eased into an absolute stroll – one-way traffic throughout the second half, and even though the lead was but one goal there was none of the usual frenzied panic that accompanies the final five minutes. Most odd. Topping, but odd.
He Plays On The Left…
AANP will graciously leave the superlatives to others for now, but chin-stroking a-plenty in these parts after seeing the impact of our handsome young Welshman over the last week, when unleashed and allowed to gallop wherever he jolly well pleased. I suspect there is nary a lilywhite in the land who has not at some point grumbled that Bale plays on the left and on the left he should stay – but by golly when the urge grabs him he certainly knows how to leave a trail of destruction down the centre, what?
The young blighter is capable of spontaneously laying match-winning eggs from any position, but 90-minute match-bossing is a dish best served from the centre, and frankly just about anything at which it was worth tipping one’s cap on Sunday emanated from Bale’s careering frame. On top of which, this whole can of worms rather gets inverted and painted an odd shade of green when one considers our general paucity of strikers. The mind boggles.
A New Man-Crush
But never mind Bale – old news, and the lad will be off in a year or two. The future is Herr Holtby. Those boy-band looks are actually quite irritating to one growing old as grumpily as AANP, but the work-rate of Parker, coupled with the delightful attacking awareness and defence-bisecting first-time passes of some sort of VDV-Sheringham hybrid, most certainly strike the right note. With Dempsey putting every ounce of effort into assuming the Jenas position of Most Infuriating Lilywhite On The Payroll, the arrival of Holtby goes a long way to putting the ‘ahoy-hoy’ in ‘geronimo’, if you know what I mean. A Bale-Holtby-Lennon triumvirate merrily interchanging the night away behind Defoe/Adebayor suddenly turns the evening drink from one of fretful concern to blithe inebriation. And huzzah to that.
Elsewhere On The Pitch
Other points of note were distracting rather than particularly important. The first half West Brom aerial bombardment may have contained about as much subtlety as a spade to the back of the head, but it still had me yearning for Kaboul (and also prompted a bit of wondering around these parts as to what the future might hold for the overly-vowelled Lukaku).
Back in that era when our back-four were still being posed problems – an era referred to in the annals as ‘The First Half’ – there was a suspicion that Messrs Walker and Assou-Ekotto had but one brain cell between them, and were not using it particularly wisely, as they repeatedly made a mess of the offside trap and short passes and basic goal-side marking. No real harm done however.
Naturally enough, the Defoe injury was greeted by the sound of about a million exasperated Spurs fans slapping palms to foreheads and muttering in no particular order the phrases “Transfer window… strikers… injuries… Levy… Bother”. Mercifully, the all-singing, all-dancing virtuoso display from Bale, coupled with the charming start offered by Holtby and Togo’s ANC elimination, suggests that this may be a bullet dodged. All a tad precarious though.
However, all things considered (two away games, striker shortage, Sandro injury) this could reasonably go down as the footballing equivalent of a chap jauntily going about his business, with his lips emitting a cheery whistle no less. Toodle-pip for now.
Naturally enough, murmurs will be murmured and chins stroked about the various merits or otherwise of our heroes going hell for leather at the FA Cup. The opinion that matters most is that of our shrill-voiced leader AVB, and in a far-from-straightforward gambol such as this, team selection will say much of his priorities.
The drum being banged at AANP Towers this weekend is to forget about the children and instead please think of Aaron Lennon. While the handsome young Welshman remains tormentor-in-chief, Lennon has added Sagacity in Decision-Making to the already well-established qualities of Feet Moving At A Blur, Left-Back Left Gasping and Jazz Hands Whirring. However, while Bale is quite the physical specimen these days, I do hold my breath every time Lennon winds up and sprints off, for fear that one of his hamstrings might roll their eyes and just give up on him. For an FA Cup 4th Round tie I would dare to recommend that Lennon and his little legs are spared the rigours of a full 90 minutes, or even a full 45. Give the blighter the day off.
The choices at full-back will be of interest, with Walker below par and Naughton not really in his comfort zone on the left – if he is feeling particularly adventurous might AVB put Benny on the left and Naughton on the right? Hudd, Dempsey and Sigurdsson might also expect some game time, and Friedel will presumably be in goal. It has been mentioned that our heroes have a squad strong enough to field two distinct and quite capable starting XIs, and while choice of strikers in the second XI would be of interest, the gist of it is clear enough. Time for our heroes to give a pointed reminder of aforementioned squad depth.
I suspect glasses were raised and chortles sounded across the country at that particular moment of karma, the dying seconds of Fergie time creating quite the poetic moment. By all means do pause a moment, and indulge in another snigger.
Aside from the general national moment of Schadenfreude, and observing through spectacles of a lilywhite hue, it was jolly encouraging to see our heroes plug away in the second half with a bit more cunning and purpose than in previous matches (and the first half) against massed ranks of deep-lying defenders. Where last week we were soporific and desperately short of ideas, this time we did at least fashion some chances, and show a little variety in our attempts to wriggle our way netwards. Glory be, there was movement around the edge of the area, and sneaky diagonal passes, and Lennon as likely to cut infield as go wide – but most eye-catchingly of all from this vantage point was the sight of Dembele jinking his way through a couple of challenges before feeding Dempsey in the area (for that second half chance saved by De Gea). There followed much chin-stroking at AANP Towers, for there in a microcosm was the idea, occasionally mooted but quickly suppressed like some dissident voice in a totalitarian state, that maybe Dembele could play… whisper it… further forward…?Back in the real world ‘tis unlikely ever to happen, for the AVBmeister appears not to roll thus, but having rolled my eyes so forcefully that the dashed things flew from their sockets and landed in the snow as Dempsey dribbled in the wrong direction for the umpteenth time, before turning back the way he came, running into more traffic, circling a single blade of grass and eventually imploding while United emerged with the ball to counter-attack, I did rather wish that Dembele could be shunted upfield to orchestrate matters in the hole. Instead, the onus on tearing forward from midfield fell upon Scott Parker in the first half, and various cul-de-sacs were duly entered.
Still, the thing ended cheerily enough, and richly deserved it was too. As noted, a tip of the cap to Lennon, the font of most things good today, and the late introduction of the left-footed Benny at left-back had me wondering why he was not selected from the off, but in general our heroes deserve credit for hammering away so insistently in the second half. Just a single point to add to the pile it may be, but in the grand scheme of things this was quite a noteworthy step.
We probably ought to pour ourselves a stiff drink and get used to this. Those of us who like a dash of rip-snort with our morning Weetabix and Brahms took to banging our heads against the nearest wall yesterday, as not for the first time this season there were embarrassed coughs all round as our heroes raided the ideas cabinet and finding it bare. (Before all hell breaks loose on keyboards throughout the land this would probably be a good juncture at which to ring a loud bell with some gusto and hire Brian Blessed to holler “Context good folk, what?” Our brave lilywhites are pootling along at a healthy rate of knots, ripple the net just about every week and are even quietly doing a healthy trade in clean sheets these days. Top Four seems likelier than not, and in the grand scheme of things, AVB and chums are fulfilling their side of their bargain.)
However… the one-touch, pulse-racing stuff of yesteryear ‘tis not, and it bothers the dickens out of me to see them labour so against these defensive opponents. Anyone who has scuttled to their White Hart Lane seat pre kick-off on matchday will have seen that just before they disappear down the tunnel to don their kits our heroes bound around like particularly exuberant lambs playing 5/6-a-side, one-touch stuff – how dashed maddening then that come the game itself they played as if their lives depended upon taking at least two touches, giving opponents time to reorganise and avoiding off-the-ball movement at all costs. Curiously enough, the only moment of first-time ingenuity I can really recall was from Scott Parker of all people, prodding a second half pass into the path of Bale in the area.
QPR understandably enough stuck just about everyone in the west London area behind the ball and inside their area, and also took the depressingly effective step of dropping their full-backs so deep that neither Bale nor Lennon had a bally inch of space into which to run down the flanks. Alas, faced with a hoopy wall as far as the eye could see, our heroes simply did not have the zip or ingenuity to carve out an opening. Oh for a cunning diagonal ten-yard pass in the final third (dare I mention VDV?) or a mischievous scally with dribble-dust in his boots (dare I mention even Taaraabt, or someone of his ilk, to be hauled from the bench for bothersome afternoons such as these?)
And breathe… There ends the rant.
(Actually that’s a lie, for one further target of AANP ire is presumably boarding a plane for the African Cup of Nations. He may not have been overwhelmed by quality service, but Adebayor did not have the air of a man dashing hither and thither as if the need to score for his employers bordered upon obsession.)
The good fight for fourth is being fought pretty well, but the lack of off-the-ball movement and first-time passing will remain a bête noire in this corner of the interweb for many an inebriated evening. Still, AVB presumably does not just wile away his hours mixing cigarettes and alcohol in the wee small hours in order to makes his voice disappear beneath the realms of human detection, but does actually give some thought to such things. It will probably look a jolly sight more attractive next week against United, such are the quirks of the game.
All in all that amounts to a jolly productive spot of yuletide pilfering. One may certainly clear the throat and reel off the usual quibbles – 30-plus shots ought to translate into more than 3 goals; we could conceivably have been pegged back to 2-2, or worse – but all things considered we can safely say that our heroes crushed Reading, saw them driven before us, and heard the lamentation of their women. Precisely the manner in which all new years should begin.Good Times on the Right Flank
Out on t’other flank Master Sigurdsson fought the good fight well enough, and poor old Naughton can hardly be chastised for being right-footed. With Walker still determined to play the whole season without once engaging his grey matter (a mite harsh, but one gets the gist), Naughton may be given an opportunity to show what he can do at right-back before too long, particularly once Benny returns to the fold.
Elsewhere things went swimmingly enough. The Sandro-Dembele axis continues to function as all respectable axes ought, albeit with scales still tipped more toward brute-force than mind-boggling guile. The curious fascination with long-range shooting provided entertainment throughout (oh how Hudd must have itched to partake), and so much fun was had by all and sundry that even Scott Parker took time out from the 1920s to go sniffing for his first lilywhite goal.
The aforementioned quibbles around shot-to-goal-conversion and final-third guile might provide food for transfer-window thought, but 10 points from 12 over crimbo merits a doffed cap and a cheeky splash of red with the evening meal.
A rather queer bucket of nuts, the Christmas fixture list. Umpteen fixtures crammed into about a week, and before you’ve separated your gin-based aperitif from your post-dessert port you find yourself rubbing shoulders with Swansea and West Brom in a mediocre scrambling for Europa places, while Chelski disappear into the distance ensconced in third, with l’Arse hot on their heels. Heavens above, don’t we know that particular feeling a little too well? The run of four winnable festive fixtures got off to an inevitably underwhelming start, and we really need at least two wins from the next three. (Well, not strictly true – I suppose we could lose all of these festive fixtures and then win every ruddy game remaining, and there were would be few complaints – but you get the gist: these three Christmas games are made for winning.)
If there is anything worse than losing 8-0 it is presumably losing to a team that has itself just lost 8-0, and the pessimists amongst us would wager that this game has ‘Villa bounce back’ etched all over it. Never mind the three points – imagine the ignominy. Villa took just about every opportunity to let Chelski score the other day, but while they will presumably have had the basics of ‘For’ and ‘Against’ drummed into them by the great and the good of Brummie-land, but one would expect Bale, Defoe et al be capable of leading them a sufficiently merry dance, particularly if they show any hint of ambition on their own turf, and thereby provide our lot with that most gratefully-received yuletide gift: space into which to gallop on the counter.
‘Tis the season for a strained hamstring or two (with Aaron Lennon the AANP hot tip to start feeling the back of his leggings around the half mark), and I confess to being rather curious about the extent to which AVB believes in squad rotation at this juncture, particularly given his insistence in going all guns blazing at the Europa League. Parker, Sigurdsson and Hudd are presumably fronting the list of rotational candidates, should such a list exist within the Villas-Boas cranium, and one wonders whether young Master Defoe might be told to put his feet up this evening, for one reason and another. Whatever the team selections however, this really ought to be a straightforward three points. (Because that always happens with our lot.)
‘Twas ever thus, against that particular bunch, and AVB can hardly be lambasted for drawing a blank where countless others have done similarly. If anything this was further frustrating proof that this particular Levy-endorsed project is a long-term one, and still at its nascent stages. Teams will set out to defend with their lives at the Lane, Stoke will set out to DESTROY FOOTBALL everywhere, and ‘tis hardly revelatory to note that our heroes rather lack the necessary je ne sais quoi to slice open a defence with a 10-yard diagonal pass so cunning it can conjure up in its right hand the very cravat that surely sat around your neck just a bally second ago.
Stubbly, gravelly of voice and still disgustingly young he may be, but alas, ‘alchemy’ is notably lacking from the AVB CV. The poor blighter did what he could at the outset, for there was sense in the selections of Daws at the back, and both bona fide strikers in attack. That said, Sigurdsson might have been given a bit longer to set off on his customary dash hither and thither (although the poor lamb does seem destined to become master of the near-miss) and young Master Townsend might have been employed to have a fresh-legged scuttle at the Stoke back-eight.
Instead, we were treated to nothing more novel than the swapping of Lennon and Bale for a fruitless half hour, which seems to have become the mid-game masterstroke of choice amongst the Brains Trust. The move always elicits a rather bemused shrug around these parts. Harmless enough I suppose, but there’s the rub – it is indeed generally quite harmless. I suppose it gives the opposing full-backs something new to ponder, and changes the scenery, and maybe benefits an unscrupulous spot-fixing syndicate in some unholy outreach of the globe, but in terms of genuinely blowing up our skirts and leaving bewildered opponents clawing out their own eyes, I struggle to remember it ever having truly noted it in awestruck tones as a game-changer par excellence. But ‘tis just an idle musing, and it might as well be attempted when a game threatens to peter out to 0-0 as early as the opening five minutes. The point remains that the VDV- and Modric-shaped holes have yet to be filled, and creativity lacketh accordingly.
Elsewhere, Vertonghen again had the air of a man with whom you would want to share a tumbler of whiskey to soothe the nerves on a particularly fraught festive afternoon, and Monsieur Lloris has himself another clean sheet, but Dembele and Sandro increasingly looked like they would rather be playing football than Stoke. Understandably enough. However, in the ‘Small Mercies’ column we did at least avoid concession of some criminally undeserved, scrappy set-piece goal, which at various stages of the second half appeared to be all that was missing from the whole, sorry, eye-bleedingly frustrating experience. Still, if we can erase the episode from our collective memories, it turns out that our heroes are in action again in just a day or two, when happier times – or at least grumbles of a different ilk – await.
Merry Christmas one and all, do allow yourselves a moderate celebration.
Pessimistic times at AANP Towers, as yours truly reflects morosely upon the unholy concoction of unconvincing wins and limp defeats. Curiously enough, our resident l’Arse-supporting chum, Hawthy, is in similarly sombre mood going into this one, as apparently that horrible lot from down the road are doing just as topping a job as we are of creating needless problems from thin air. As you can imagine, recent drinking sessions have been real bundles of fun, as we regale each other with prognostications of gloom. The result of this general coterie of despondency is an insistence on both sides that defeat is inevitable. The sharp-eyed amongst you early Saturday morning robins will notice that logic prevents the transpiring of such mutual ignominies – which leads to the inevitable conclusion that this match must end in a 7-7 draw. (Although I’m still willing to wager that we will throw away a winning position as the clock ticks beyond 89).
The general inability of our heroes to bed in this season has of course been hindered no end by injuries to key personnel, and the absences of Dembele and Kaboul in particular will again be keenly felt today of all days, while Parker and BAE also remain out, and the Friday news was that Defoe and Lennon were amongst those having fitness tests. Crivens. AVB may mischievously fire the occasional curve-ball, but it seems safe to assume that the usual suspects will line up to demand the keys, which means that Messieurs Lloris and Defoe will moodily take their places on the bench today. Young Caulker faces the latest in a series of rather sizeable tests of ability and nerve, and Messrs Vertonghen and Walker could jolly well do with bucking up their ideas from last week, but possibly the greatest onus lies on the rather broad shoulders of Sandro and Hudd, to control matters in the middle. I must confess, the AANP heart is hardly indulging in cheery leaps and whoops at the prospect.
Having beaten United away our heroes ought to have grounds for optimism, but on these occasions there really is no knowing what the dickens will transpire. The AANP prediction is simply that there will be goals.