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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-2 Wolves: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson

One did not have to be one of those medieval soothsayer types, who apparently were pretty sharp in matters of spotting what was about to happen, to feel a bit of the old dread creeping up when Big Ange gruffled the news that both of Messrs Porro and Udogie would spend their Saturday afternoon being patched up in some infirmary tent rather than fighting the good fight on-pitch.

No huge surprises in the identity of their replacements, Emerson on one side and Ben Davies t’other, and while their earnestness was never going to be in doubt, that wasn’t really ever going to be the point, what?

There was a general lack of the sharpened tooth about our play from starter’s gun to finish line yesterday, incidences of rapier-like passing that cut to ribbons the opposition being so few that one could count them on the fingers of one hand. Now of course it would be a bit much to lay all the blame for this at the doors of Emerson and Davies, and our endeavours might well have been similarly fruitless with Porro and Udogie at the roaming-full-back wheel, not least because the second half was pretty much a non-stop session of trying to pick a way through a back-ten in and around their own area.

But nevertheless. Particularly in the first half, when the game was a tad more open but our passing from deep-to-advanced was pretty uninspired, I did stare off into the distance and do a spot of yearning.

Emerson, being the sort of egg so curious that he merits his own unique category of one, could conceivably have offered a bit of attacking spark, if all his lights were on. While he is probably not one for a 40-yard Porro-esque pass onto a sixpence, I had hoped we might see him carry the ball forward and infield, and give the Wolves lot something about which to confer.

Unfortunately, with Emerson one has to take the bonkers with the smooth, and he gave a few early indications that this was to be one of his more exasperating innings. For a start there were a few horribly misplace passes, which I suppose can happen to anyone, but when emanating from the size nines of Emerson do tend to suggest that he is off on another planet. Confidence – or rather lack thereof – never having been an issue with this mad young bean, rather than rein it in a bit he simply carried on trying no-look passes and whatnot.

However, the moment that really made me tut and stew was when, having been lazily caught in possession and deposited upon his derriere, rather than bounce straight back up, hellbent on correcting his error, he remained in his seat and took to waving his arms for an imaginary foul. Wolves, meanwhile, simply got on with it, shoved their way into our area and almost scored, dash it.

Obviously I use the pen-wielder’s licence to colour the lad’s entire performance as unequivocally disastrous, when the truth is probably that he made plenty of quiet, positive contributions, but in the first half in particular too many of his inputs led to a skyward fling of the AANP hands, and a muttered imprecation as its soundtrack. In a first half badly lacking cohesion and threat, Emerson made a handy poster-boy for our troubles.

2. Ben Davies

Ben Davies, to give credit where due, was actually pretty solid defensively and expansive offensively. If there is a criticism of him – apart from the wild misdirection of that late header, which ought to have CPR-d the result – it is that he is not Destiny Udogie, which seems a rather cruel sort of mud to sling at a fellow. I mean, not much that one can do about being born as one person and not as another, what?

As mentioned, he did things well enough. The sort of willing chappie destined always to be in the ‘Supporting Cast’ category, he won a few early defensive arguments against his opposing winger, and also made regular visits to the Wolves final third. Truth be told, he was as effective an attacking spoke as anyone else, and if I could have toddled around the changing-room post-match and canvassed a few opinions, I suspect that Sonny, Maddison and Richarlison would have spoken kindly enough of his contributions.

But in a game in which we sorely lacked a bit of the old thrust, I did note that the most incisive first half passes into the final third came from Messrs VDV on the left and Romero on the right. A spot of Udogie from deep would have gone down well.

3. Kulusevski

The half-time mood was pretty dark at AANP Towers. There was no shortage of subjects of ire, and not really enough time to have the deep and meaningful rant that each of them deserved, but one point on which I (and a chum or two) were pretty clear was that the current iteration of Kulusevski was pretty seriously undercooked.

Naturally he then took 46 seconds to ram my words down my throat with a bit of meaning, dancing around defenders in that curious way of his that seems to defy physics (my eyes probably deceived, but I’m pretty convinced that at one point he ran literally through a Wolves defender – which I accept contradicts much of what we know of modern science, but there we go).

So bucketfuls of credit where due, it was a fabulously executed goal. However, I maintain that it was also quite the anomaly. Kulusevski’s outputs in general this season seem to have been pretty muted. Of the unstoppable buccaneer of Spring 2022 there is little sign these days. In his defence, none of the fifteen outfield players used yesterday had much attacking success, so I’m happy to slather some context about the place, but with Kulusevski these diminished returns have been evident for some time.

This business of constantly cutting back onto his left foot strikes me as constituting a hefty chunk of the problem. Funnily enough it does still catch the occasional opponent by surprise, but this isn’t much good given that it also tends to suck a decent gulp of momentum from the attacking move. Defenders who might a smidgeon earlier have been out of position and rushing back to their posts, with sirens for both panic and confusion sounding in their ears, are granted time to pack out the place and steady their feet. The diem passes frustratingly un-carpe’d.

Moreover, having completed the whole business of cutting back onto his left, Kulusevski very rarely then makes good on his pledge and does anything meaningful with the ball thereafter. When he first joined, a couple of years back, one lost count of the number of times he cut back and curled the ball either into the far corner or into the path of an onrushing forward sort. Whereas these days he just bunts the thing into the first opposing body and it bounces away, or else loops a shot high and wide.

Much of Kulusevski’s value has traditionally derived from his deceptive burst of pace carrying the ball from halfway onwards, which is fair enough, and a trait still occasionally in evidence against more adventurous teams playing higher up the pitch; but on the whole, and certainly on occasions like yesterday, when up against a deep-lying defence, there’s not much scope for such frivolity.

Towards the end of yesterday’s proceedings, when Our Glorious Leader adopted the Football Manager approach of shoving as many attackers onto the pitch as the rules allowed, we were treated to a brief glimpse of Kulusevski in a more central role, which, from my armchair, seems to suit him a little better. Again, however, there protrudes a spanner in the works, as with Maddison back one would not expect to see too much of Kulusevski at number 10.

As with Emerson, one could hardly lump all our woes into one neat pile at the door of Kulusevski and wait for him to solve everything, but it’s another of those charming little knots that Postcoglou et al will need to unravel.

4. Van de Ven and Vicario

On a positive note, both Van de Ven and Vicario were in pretty spiffing form yesterday, so that was a little treat for the gathered masses.

Rather a shame that it was all to no avail, but VDV’s recovery pace continues to make the eyes pop from the head, and will presumably receive greater acclaim on future dates, when deployed in a winning cause. It was not so evident in the second half, when the pattern of things shifted considerably, but in the first half every time Wolves got behind our high-line – the difficulty of which was right up there alongside taking sweets from babies – one could breathe easily in the knowledge that a locomotive in human form would pretty swiftly be arriving from across the pitch to hoover up the mess.

Vicario, similarly, took the opportunity to showcase his most eye-catching stuff. Point-blank save in each half were worth goals, and I have a feeling he had another chalked off by an offside flag, but it was enough to communicate the gist: here was a man in rare old form.

Moreover, given that so much hot air is now expelled on the topic of what goalkeepers do with their feet, there was a charmingly old-fashioned thrill in seeing our man stick out a reflexive paw a couple of time to execute some point-blank saves.

That said, both goals conceded were pretty maddening. The first in particular prompted a rather weary groan, an unmarked header from a corner of all things being the sort of offence that ought to have the lot of them docked a month’s wages and locked in dank cells. As for the second, it was pretty clearly scripted stuff by our opponents, which in turn reflects poorly on our Brains Trust. Much to ponder in the next couple of weeks.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-2 Brentford: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Udogie

Not unusually for our lot this was a performance high on action and low on plot, the chaotic whole perhaps best represented by the various triumphs and misadventures of Destiny Udogie.

Taking things on a scale of Ripping to Ghastly, Udogie’s attacking inputs were productive and bountiful. There was more to it than just his goals: in the opening fifteen minutes or so, when we looked a good bet for the usual early salvo, Udogie was one of those at the forefront of the intricate pass-and-move stuff being furiously marketed.

Naturally, however, his role in our goals attracts the eye, and for both our first and third he was front and centre, albeit slightly off to the left.

Having laboured for so much of the first half against a deep-set and heavily fortified Brentford defence, I’m not quite sure how it came to pass in the first ten minutes of the second half that we kept catching them out of position, undermanned and generally disorganised and tripping over one another, but there we were. Gift-horses and all that.

And given this situation Udogie set about them with the relish of one who had elbowed his way to the front of the queue and could barely wait to be let loose. Udogie on the charge really is one of the finer sights in nature, a terrific combination of pace, technique, awareness, muscle and other wholesome stuff. When the call goes out for volunteers to stop the man in his tracks I can assure you that AANP would keep his head down and surreptitiously shuffle off into the background, and the Brentford mob similarly seemed not really to relish the fight.

For both our first and third goals, the marvellous specimen collected the ball around halfway and motored off towards the penalty area. For the first, having got this far and popped the thing off to Werner, he did not ease off with the air of one content with his night’s work and ready for a spot of refreshment, but treated the job as very much half-done and carried on sprinting. No doubt he benefited from a spot of bright and breezy fortune at that point – Brentford legs converging and the ball rebounding pretty kindly for him – but when one exhibits so many of the critical traits of an unstoppable force of nature, I tend to think that one earns a spot of luck.

And then, being one of those eggs who lives by the principle that if a thing works once it might as well be milked for a few more helpings of the good stuff, seven minutes later he set off on the charge again, sticking to the same geographical route – halfway line, left off centre – and opting to release the ball at pretty much the same moment.

At this point he did deviate from the blueprint, but it proved a strong choice, opting not to pass left to Werner but instead threading a pretty precise little number into Maddison in the penalty area, where further riches were to follow.

So three cheers for Udogie when gripped by the urge to make merry in the Brentford half; but by golly he did leave a trail of catastrophe behind him. In the first place the Brentford opener had at its genesis his misdirected pass on halfway. Under no pressure and with pretty much the entire cast list to aim at, it was careless in the extreme, what the racket-wielding folk refer to as an unforced error.

There is a sense in which that mistake for the first was considerably worse than that for the second, as the first was the sort you’d file under ‘Poor Play’, while the second seemed more along the lines of ‘Failing to Spot A Camouflaged Opponent’, which let’s face it, is one of the more unique categories around and not the sort of eventuality for which one trains.

Anyway, fail to spot him he did, and what ought to have been a bit of a cakewalk turned into the classic Nervous Final 20 At The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. All’s well that ends well of course, and young Signor Udogie remains a particular favourite around these parts, but the urge to load up, take careful aim and fire into our own feet remains bizarrely strong around the on-field practitioners of N17.

2. The Defence in General

Udogie may have stolen the limelight when it came to knuckle-headed decisions, but watching Brentford repeatedly stroll unaccompanied through our half of the pitch and right up into our penalty area, in the first half, did reiterate that nagging sensation at AANP Towers that something might not be quite right with our defence.

As individuals, each of VDV, Romero, Porro and Udogie are top-notch, bursting at the seams with all manner of qualities. However, shove them together and instruct them to Angeball for an hour and a half, and they pretty swiftly degenerate into a quartet of drunks unclear what sport they are playing.

I suppose part of the challenge is Our Glorious Leader’s instructions, which seem to be along the lines that when one of the quartet is in possession, at least two of the others ought to leave their designated posts and go find some space elsewhere. To call this laden with risk is to understate the thing. It only takes one casually misplaced pass, a la Udogie last night and the opposition is away, with half a pitch to gallop into unopposed.

Brentford had clearly not just received the memo but had put in a fair amount of time studying it and turning it into a complete thesis, and as a result pressed our back-four at every opportunity. In turn, our back-four, diligently sticking to the values of Angeball, kept dicing with death – trying to pirouette around the opponent and so forth – achieving a success rate of approximately 50%.

As well as this business of losing possession on halfway and sprinting back to try saving the day in the nick of time, I also noted the pretty dubious behaviour of Cristian Romero in Brentford’s first goal. Having done the hard work of keeping pace with – and indeed gaining some ground on – Toney, rather than finish the job by steaming across and executing some form of meaty block, Romero opted to hold his line and give Toney a free hit at goal, which seemed unnecessarily generous.

In Romero’s defence, I understood the rationale – he presumably wanting to prevent a square pass to the onrushing Maupay, and banking on VDV’s pace take care of Toney. Nevertheless, it did strike me that he slathered on the business of backing off a bit too heavily. The key to the manoeuvre ought to have been subtlety, in edging towards Toney whilst keeping a watchful eye on Maupay, thereby keeping Toney in two minds. Instead, he might as well have hired one of those planes to fly over the stadium with a banner proclaiming that he was going to back right off Toney and block the pass, so if Toney wanted to get his shot off then the floor was his. I did not approve.

And my mood darkened further after Vicario saved the shot, as Romero simply slackened the shoulders and downed tools, evidently of the opinion that he had played his part in the scene, and the leftovers could be taken care of by those around him. It was quite the dereliction of duty, and an odd one coming from a chappie who does not seem himself unless flying full-blooded into some challenge or other, but off he clocked and Maupay seized the moment.

The curious lapses from Romero and Udogie can, I suppose, be excused as human error; but this business of being caught on halfway and then duking it out in a sprint to goal is rather more structural. It appears that we are stuck with it, however, as just one of those consequences of Angeball, the only remedy for which is simply to keep scoring more than the other lot, which should be a wheeze.

3. Werner

Fair to say it’s been a slightly underwhelming start to life in lilywhite for Herr Werner. He seems enthusiastic enough, and is obviously blessed with the ability to motor from A to B at a fair old lick, but once he’s got himself into a dangerous position he seems not quite to know what do next (or, in the case of shooting, how to do it). The general impression is of one whose northernmost tip simply cannot keep up with his southernmost base, those whirring little legs outpacing his brain each time.  

The vexing trend continued in the first half yesterday. Presumably under instruction, both he and Kulusevski tucked inside, to relatively narrow positions, which seemed right up Brentford’s street, and in general he seemed to pick wrong options.

However, life improved considerably in the second half. In the build-up to our first goal he pulled his usual trick of racing off into the distance in a puff of smoke, but where previously he has stuttered, and paused, and had a bit of a think, and then a bit of an overthink, this time he was a bit more committed in his conclusion, cutting back, sidestepping a couple of defenders and feeding young Udogie.

This seemed to do the chap a world of good. When released again a minute or so later he took it as his cue to deliver his finest moment yet in our colours, racing off again as is his preference, but then eschewing the usual option of slowing things down to pick through his options, and instead firing the ball across goal with a note pinned to it on which was scrawled the invitation ‘Tap me into the empty net, bitte’. Young Master Johnson duly licked his lips in the centre.

That particular sequence earned Werner a spontaneous ovation from AANP Towers. The obsession with inverted wingers, forever cutting inside to deliver their produce, has its value no doubt, but given that Werner’s pace will generally position him a yard ahead of his man, it does madden me somewhat that he repeatedly sacrifices that yard in order to cut back onto his right foot. There was no such rot last night for the second goal – once Werner was away, he evidenced a show of faith in his lesser-spotted left foot and it worked out splendidly for all concerned.

As with Kulusevski when stationed on the right, I yearn for him to display a bit more confidence in his weaker foot – and I do scratch the head and wonder how an elite-level player can get by in life with such reluctance to use it – but last night’s rich harvest ought to give him a spot of the old oil on this front.

And as a valedictory note, marvellous to observe that the resurgence of Richarlison continues apace, his goal arguably the least emphatic contribution of a night that included a decent repertoire of hold-up and link-up play.

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Spurs match reports

Man Utd 2-2 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Defence

Of course the return of Romero and VDV meant that the beady eye was on the Back Four from the off, eagerly watching the pair of them to check that all parts were in working order and good as new. However, events of the first half in particular rather shifted the gaze away from the central two, specifically about ten yards to their right, where time and again – and not for the first time this season – Pedro Porro achieved the remarkable feat of somehow appearing outnumbered in one-on-one situations.

This business of our back four defending narrowly, and allowing the opposition left wingers as much space as they fancy, keeps AANP up into the wee small hours with a mightily concerned frown. One understands that Ange-ball generally requires Porro to be loitering well in advance of the centre-backs when we’re in possession – meaning that when we lose the thing and our counter-attacked, he is generally a few yards out of position. One understands that opponents have cottoned on, and will generally look to shove a forward into this vacant space with the instruction ‘Make hay’ scrawled across their notepad.

So I suppose we’ll just have to bite the bullet to an extent, and accept that unless we surreptitiously stick a twelfth player out in the right-back area, we’ll be a tad vulnerable over there. But still. Once Porro is being sized up by an opposing attacker, I’d have thought it would make some sense to shove a reinforcement or two towards him. To the credit of whomever it concerns, this was duly done in the second half, Romero evidently regarding as a matter of urgency the need to toddle over and a bit of background muscle to Porro’s exchanges with Rashford or whomever.

But by then the damage had been done. Twice, in fact. Any opposing attacker with a trick or two in his box seems to stand a 50-50 chance of besting Porro and doing a spot of damage, and the Rashford eyes lit up in that first half. An isolated Porro, while not exactly a lamb to the slaughter, was certainly a lamb giving a nervous gulp or two.

Mightily annoying it was too, because but for those counter-attacks honed in on their left/our right, I didn’t think United had much about them. And for avoidance of misunderstanding, Porro’s delivery at times has the innocent onlooker absolutely purring, so this is by no means a call for punitive action against the solid young bean.

Back to VDV and Romero, and their mere presence did much to soothe what has been a pretty jittery AANP over the last couple of months. Romero missed few opportunities to put an end to a fledgling United attack with a well-timed and hefty size nine; VDV showed few signs of having forgotten how to ease from Trot to Sprint in the blink of an eye – it was good to have the pair back.

That said, neither were necessarily faultless. If one were to quibble they might ask whether Romero could have done more to prevent the first goal; and he also, as one would expect, took his opportunity to crunch the life out of a United sort near halfway. As for VDV, at one point in the first half he seemed consumed by the desire to dribble past a United forward right outside our own area, disappearing into quite the hole and requiring a spot of dustpan-and-brushing from a passing Bentancur.

But by and large the pair were watchful in defence and at times outstanding in possession – not least in the fabulous pass straight through the middle from Romero to Skipp, that set in motion our second. Nice to see live evidence too that the lad Dragusin is not one whose drink you would want to spill. All muscle and brawn, that lad.

2. The Midfield

It rather slipped under the AANP radar quite how light we were in midfield, but when the cast-list was announced the colour did rather drain from the face on seeing the names ‘Hojbjerg’ and ‘Skipp’ etched in alongside ‘Bentancur’.

The sagging of spirits was briefly paused in the opening exchanges, however, to be replaced by a pretty surprised raise of the eyebrow, as I tried to digest the sight of young Skipp seemingly being the furthest forward of the trio. Someone had to do it I suppose, and Skipp is nothing if not willing.

His was a fairly standard Skipp performance, which I thought was neatly encapsulated by his role in our second goal – oozing with the energy to receive Romero’s pass and set off over halfway, before almost gumming up the operation by sending his own pass the wrong side of Werner.

Now in Skipp’s defence he did ping one of the most scrumptious passes of the season towards the end of the first half, absolutely lashing a first-time volley from right of centre out towards the left wing, for an approving chum to race onto without breaking stride. AANP raised a glass to that one. But such a moment of quality was better filed under ‘Exception’ rather than ‘Norm’.

Bentancur, of course, purred his way through the entirety, as one would expect. At one point I heard the fellow on the telly-box describe him as “Knitting things together”, which I thought put it rather well.

And he took his goal mightily impressively too. Fool that I am, I had already flung the hands heavenward in agony at what I thought was a missed opportunity when he opted to take a second forward touch in the United six yard box rather than shooting there and then. I should have known better. Bentancur was in supreme control, and emphasised the fact by using his third touch to pointedly lash the thing into the roof of the net.

The third of the midfield triumvirate was Hojbjerg, who tends usually to hover between ‘Good’ and ‘Needs Improvement’ on the scale of these things. I thought he started pretty well, and AANP accordingly settled down for one of his better days. Aided, as anyone would be, by the presence of Bentancur alongside him, he seemed to use the ball sensibly enough; but towards the latter stages I though he slightly forgot the point of the exercise and began littering the place with misplaced passes and whatnot.

Aside from the individual offerings, there was a rather gaping hole when it came to a spot of creative spark from midfield, but I suppose if you take a perfectly strong squad and rip from it the three prime suspects in the field of Making Things Happen From The Centre, then one has to expect a decent helping of sideways passing and head-scratching.

3. Werner

In general one got the impression that our heroes were the better team, as evidenced by some lovely fluid passing from the rear-guard mob to the attacking mob, but there persisted throughout the nagging feeling that in matters of final third quality, the well was a little dry.

Young Johnson has spent the last few months doing all the hard work before making a solid mess of the final output, and lest anyone had needed reminding of this tendency he took every opportunity to demonstrate it again today. Now it should not be forgotten that he has chipped in with various critical passes creating goals in recent weeks, as well as taking a few licks of paint from the woodwork, but it’s reasonable to assert that the heart fills with hope rather than expectation when he revs up and hurtles down the right.

Senor Gil similarly is not the sort of huevo from whom one expects too much in the way of end-product. Not for want of trying, of course, but the more one watches Gil and Johnson’s attempted crosses miss their mark, the more one checks the Asian Cup fixture list.

Into this curious mix emerged Werner. And actually, he did just about everything one had anticipated of him, in both the credit and debit columns. From the off he showed himself to be the sort who will quite happily race to close down an opponent if it means that the reward manifests a stage or two later, in a turnover of possession further down the line.

Occasionally, we got a glimpse of the pace that apparently elevates him to cover 100 metres in 11 seconds, a stat that made me goggle a fair amount. And of course, his shots zoomed around in every direction but the net, which was entirely as advertised.

But he ran the good race, neatly setting up Bentancur for his goal and in general giving the impression that he knows the drill. As appropriate he ran at his man, or went on the outside, or cut inside, or just let wiser counsels prevail and allocated to a nearby chum. All perfectly acceptable stuff, and as his fitness goes up the requisite number of notches, and the mysteries of Ange-ball are further unravelled to him, one would anticipate that his usefulness will similarly shoot up the scale.

Historically, a point at Old Trafford would be a prompt for some meaningful handshakes all round, but make no mistake, this one leaves AANP grumping like the dickens for the rest of the evening. Our lot were marginally better in the first half and comfortably so in the second, which by maths means we should have won the thing by approximately 1.5 goals. Two points have slipped away, and I won’t hear any arguments to the contrary.

That said, with players missing, players returning and players debuting, on top of which we twice fell behind (away from home), the troops ought to be commended rather than censured for this one. Deep inside the corridors of power I can imagine that the sentiment of choice is, “Muddle through and stay in touch with the top spots until everyone returns.” This is no catastrophe, just a slight shame.

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Spurs match reports

Brighton 4-2 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Attacking

It has been bleated at AANP a goodish amount – and I suppose with some justification – that I have a tendency to treat our heroes as a mother tiger would a favoured cub. That is, I can apparently land on the side of being a tad more generous towards them than their behaviour necessarily merits. Glossing over their mistakes, goes the claim, and rather over-egging things when it comes to dishing out the complimentary word.

And those who watched our lot magic a 4-0 deficit out of thin air last night might well waggle an exasperated finger at me and claim I’m letting them off too lightly yet again when I suggest that in possession at least, we generally crossed t’s and dotted i’s in required fashion, at least until we hit the Brighton penalty area.

But 4-0 or not, I remained pretty impressed with the speed and simplicity with which our lot peddled their usual routine of shifting the ball from south to north, lickety-split. Not quite ten out of ten for build-up, admittedly, but a general thumbs-up nevertheless.

The problem – in the first half in particular – was that once the build-up was taken care of and it came to spitting on their hands and seeing the thing through to completion, all concerned became rather bogged down in detail. The concept of just walloping the thing towards goal once within 20 yards or so was evidently a foreign one. An obsession seemed to have gripped all members of the troupe for passing the thing to death, and then squeezing out an additional pass or two for luck.

A fair amount of hot air was expelled at AANP Towers in yowling at Son and Richarlison in particular – but by no means exclusively – to yank on the dashed trigger at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep trying to thread their way to within spitting distance of the net.

I’m all for the style of play in general, which is off the scale in comparison to the dross of Conte, Nuno and Jose, but as Our Glorious Leader himself gruffled a few weeks ago, it’s not such great football if it fizzles out in a forest of opposition legs before topping up the Goals Scored column because we’ve overdone the build-up.

There was an improvement of sorts in the second half, notably in the umpteen efforts to play in Richarlison for a pop at goal. I suppose one has to wag a disapproving finger at the chap for straying a few inches offside each time, but I was at least heartened by his principle of having an immediate swing at goal rather than pirouetting away and searching for yet another needless pass.

And I was also encouraged by young Veliz, who made the most of a rare twenty-minute opportunity to show the watching world that he’s not one for procrastination when it comes to penalty area scraps. Sling him the ball in any sort of contortion of limbs, and his mantra seemed to be that he would untangle his feet, use the absolute minimum number of touches to work an opportunity and dig out a shot – typically all in a single, efficient movement. It brought him one goal, one shot saved at close-range and a delicious lay-off that nobody else in pinkish brown seemed to care about, but I was also for the young bimbo’s approach to life.

2. Defending

Oh that life in N17 comprised simply one attack after another. Irritatingly, these easy-on-the-eye moments are rather rudely punctured by the other mob scything through us pretty much at will whenever they have possession.

The ease with which opponents get at us is rather difficult to ignore. Even in the Van de Ven-Romero era, one was nagged by the sentiment that while that pair would do a fine job of extinguishing fires before they blazed out of control, they were still being called into action with alarming frequency. The issue is all the more concerning in their absence.

Not really being the most tactically-minded I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to uncovering the root cause of this unholy mess, but it I have been struck a few times by the fact that anyone wanting to get at us from the wings can simply waltz straight through with minimal interference from security personnel. I’m not sure if this is a result of Messrs Porro and Udogie galloping forward at every opportunity and therefore being ill-prepared for defensive duties, or whether the full-backs are deliberately instructed to tuck in fairly narrowly, giving opponents the freedom of the flanks. Be it one of those or some other genesis, the conclusion each time seems to be that if anyone on around the halfway line fancies a mooch around our penalty area a visit can be arranged tout de suite.

One might dig up extenuating circumstances for the various goals last night. The Kulusevski foul for the first penalty was as knuckle-headed as they come and not the sort of input for which one can really prepare; and the long-range goal from the corner, although strictly the sort of effort that decency should ensure is closed down before any harm can arise, was nevertheless something of a freak effort.

But the Lo Celso foul for the second penalty came about because he had let his man drift the wrong side of him in the penalty area; while the opening goal sprouted from the Joao Pedro being granted the freedom to jig his way past no fewer than five of our lot, none of whom seemed inclined to sharpen the elbows and take a spot of initiative.

On top of which, Vicario was called upon for a point-blank save from Welbeck, and Brighton hit the post on two other occasions. I continue to offer a mitigating shrug to Emerson and Davies, both of whom are evidently trying their damnedest in foreign climes at centre-back – but neither are fit for purpose in the role.

Put another way, our back-four seems to be populated in its entirety by a squadron of chappies who are all pretty competent on the ball, but, rather crucially, none of whom seem actually to be much good at defending. While I continue to be thoroughly entertained each week by the 90-minute mystery of whether we can simply outscore the other lot, the porous nature of our back-line does hinder the objective somewhat.

I suppose the other point that’s worth a spot of air-time is that the entire collective is now clearly quite frazzled. Ange-ball, though an absolute delight to behold, does seem to require each individual concerned to do the work of several men on a bi-weekly basis, one minute donning their attacking hat and hurtling into the penalty area, the next minute – or sometimes the very same minute – replacing that attacking hat with its defensive equivalent, and tearing back towards the criminally undermanned rear. Little wonder that the pose de jour appears to be being bent double, hands on knees, great gulps of O2 being glugged at every opportunity. Those January reinforcements cannot come fast enough.

3. Hojbjerg

Regular drinkers at this particular inn will no doubt see the headline ‘Hojbjerg’ and brace themselves for a spot of unrestrained AANP vitriol, the chap’s tendency to pass backwards with religious fervour, pausing only to wave his arms pointlessly at those around him, having rather made the forehead veins throb over recent years.

But in a pretty spectacular plot-twist, I come to praise Hojbjerb, not to bury him. I thought he made a pretty good fist of things last night. Limitations apply, of course. Any praise for Hojbjerg must be asterisked with the acknowledgement that he has nothing about him of the Mousa Dembele or Luka Modric, and as such ought not to be judged by such lofty standards. Instead, Hojbjerg picked up where young Oliver Skipp had left off at the weekend, and where Skipp insisted on biffing the ball straight back to whomever had given it to him with relentless monotony, Hojbjerg had at least enough sense of adventure to collect the ball on the half-turn, and look to pop it to someone in a more advanced spot.

He also threw in a couple of forward runs and picked a couple of forward passes into the path of the wingers, and in general gave the impression of a man not wedded to passing backwards upon pain of death, but instead approaching life with the more care-free attitude that dictates that if an opportunity for forward-thinking creativity opens he’ll shove in his chips. I approved.

And amidst these occasional dipping of toes into attacking waters, Hojbjerg also appeared to understand with perfect clarity that his primary purpose was to supplement the rearguard. Thus it transpired that when Brighton ambled into our territory, Hojbjerg was typically present, inserting himself either between or ahead of Emerson and Davies, and trying to stick a few fingers in dikes as the situation required.

The moral of the story remains that the squad is in pretty desperate need of upgrades, but nevertheless, an honourable shift from Hojbjerg, better fare than he has been in the habit of trotting out, and very nearly crowned with a late goal that would have set up the most mind-boggling finish.

4. The Late Flurry

And what a dashed shame that that mind-boggling finish did not materialise, Hojbjerg’s injury-time tuppence worth coming back off the post rather than bouncing in, but I suppose hitting the frame of the goal isn’t really the point of the exercise. Christmas, as Hans Gruber neatly put it, is a time for miracles, but even by the most extreme, all-action-no-plot standards of our lot at their most madcap, a comeback from 4-0 down at the 80-minute mark would have been a bit much to swallow. Instead we had to settle for the curious coda that was our exhausted mob finding from nowhere a second wind that brought two late goals and several other presentable chances.

The sudden sense of urgency was an odd one to drink in. There remained a bit of a tendency to elaborate unnecessarily in and around the Brighton 6-yard box, when all in lilywhite were screeching at our heroes just to take a shot, old habits dying hard I suppose. But by and large, dithering was kept to a minimum and we gave the Brighton goal a bit of a peppering.

The caveat here is that Brighton, as one would at 4-0 up, had signed the thing off as a done deal, withdrawing personnel and fiddling with their formation. Nevertheless, it was heartening to see our lot pick them apart through various different approaches in that finale.

Oddly enough, the late flurry seemed to owe more to the collective than to any particular individuals. For all his honest beavering and body-feints, I’m not sure that Bryan Gil delivered one useful cross. Lo Celso conceded one penalty, came pretty close to conceding another and provided little more useful value during his cameo. But by virtue of popping around some slick one-twos, and whipping in a couple of handy crosses, the chances flowed fairly steadily in the closing stages.

As mentioned, young Veliz made the most of a pretty nondescript hand, and Sonny also perked up a bit in those closing stages. And, perhaps because they were unencumbered by the rigours of defending, Messrs Udogie and Porro made themselves useful in the attacking third. It all amounted to a strange old game, in which our lot weren’t particularly impressive, defended dreadfully at times, generally got bogged down whenever within shooting distance and yet still would have been good value for three or four goals. Give it a year or so and our lot will be quite the proposition, but for now it’s head-scratching stuff.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-1 Everton: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson at Left-Back

Destiny Udogie’s chequered history having caught up with him, we found ourselves in the awkward position of requiring Emerson Royal to fill in at left-back-cum-midfield yesterday. On this matter three outstanding points immediately arrested the attention and refused to let go, viz:

  1. Emerson is right-footed
  2. Emerson has not dabbled much in the inverted-full-back role
  3. Emerson is as mad as a bag of cats

No shortage of reasons, then, to give the lower lip a nervous chew, and it is with a cheek burnished with shame that I report to having had the knives sharpened well ahead of time, in anticipation of the worst.

As it happened, what actually transpired was a performance so steady and reliable that, come the closing credits I toyed long and hard with the notion of feting Emerson with the prestigious Nod of the Head awarded for being the game’s outstanding contributor. Admittedly this was largely earned by default, our heroes having clocked a round of individual performances so middling that Emerson’s rose to the top by virtue of being amongst the least flawed, but nevertheless – some credit to the lad for overcoming each of the 3 challenges highlighted above.

Without necessarily contributing anything eye-catching and game-changing, I thought that Emerson got right just about everything at which he tried his hand yesterday. Positionally, he seemed up-to-speed from the off, knowing where to go and whose shoulder to lurk behind, when to give the arms a frantic wave and when to keep a low profile. He availed himself to Davies, Skipp et al when we were in possession, and kept a diligent eye on affairs in his jurisdiction when we were defending.

That said, he dithered away like nobody’s business and needed a sizeable dollop of luck with the disallowed Everton goal. Too complacent for my liking, and who knows how things might have panned out had that one been allowed to stand, what?

Equally, however, at one point in the first half he almost had a moment of glory, finding space for Sonny to set him loose up the left flank and curling a most inviting pass – with that rarely-spotted left appendage, no less – into the path of an incoming Brennan Johnson that, but for a rather wild finish, would have put us three up and afforded all concerned a much gentler snooze of an afternoon.

That was about as glamorous as it got for him but, given the anxiety with which I had anticipated Emerson taking the inverted left-back reins ever since Udogie’s yellow card last week, the young nib’s largely error-free shift was received with quiet but fervent prayers of gratitude.

 2. Skipp

The prospect of 90-plus minutes’ worth of out-of-position Emersoning was not the only element causing a few worry-lines to form on the AANP map pre-kick-off yesterday. Skipp for Bissouma is nobody’s idea of a fair trade, even allowing for the latter’s dreary dip in form, but there we were yesterday – and there we will remain for the foreseeable, given that Bissouma is currently being detained at His Majesty’s pleasure before flying off for that blasted AFCON next month.

Skipp at least came armed with a spot of positional experience, having occupied defensive midfield spots pretty much ever since he first learned to walk, but his presence there from the off still gripped me with an unspeakable fear. Stick Skipp in a Sean Dyche team and one would emerge pretty satisfied; ask the honest fellow to spend his afternoon Ange-balling and it’s a little difficult to know quite how events will unfold.

Understandably enough, once the whistle sounded Skipp just rolled up his sleeves and gave the impression of not giving too many damns about Ange-ball, Sean Dyche or anyone else. He just rattled through the catalogue in order to locate the most Oliver Skipp performance he could find, and delivered that with all the trimmings.

It was perfectly sufficient. Whenever our centre-backs were in possession he immediately scampered to within five yards of them, yelping to be allowed to play. They rolled the ball to him, he immediately rolled it back whence it had come and the sequence was able to begin again.

Those of us who have watched with quiet satisfaction as Bissouma, or indeed Bentancur or whomever, have received the ball from the centre-backs on the half-turn, and with one quick shoulder-dip been away from their marker and on the front-foot, had to moderate our expectations pretty quickly. This was Oliver Skipp’s world, and fancy shoulder-dips or changes of direction were pretty strictly outlawed. Skipp would dab the ball straight back to whomever passed it to him, and no more.

He served his purpose well enough. With Porro, Emerson, Romero and Davies on hand to do more of the heavy-lifting, in terms of picking the more incisive passes from deep, it was basically enough for Skipp simply to occupy appropriate areas and create space for others. He also beavered away earnestly enough when we were out of possession, holding a protective central position and occasionally taking it upon himself to snap at a pair of Everton ankles if the mood took him. There were occasional mistakes and fouls, but on the whole he did what was required.

As a temporary solution, filling in every now and then when an A-lister is unexpectedly withdrawn, I’ll shrug the shoulders and mutter that he’ll do I suppose, and prepare to scrawl a 6 out of 10 against his name. I can’t really say that the prospect of him scuttling about the starting XI for another month fills me to the gills with joy, but unless the January window brings a Connor Gallagher or some such, we may well be stuck with him.

3. Sonny

I mentioned that it was an odd sort of showing all round, with various cast members appearing a little off-colour, and few summed up this peculiar state of affairs better than our on-field lieutenant.

Sonny did of course pop away the crucial goal, and as such excuses a multitude of other sins across the other 95 or so minutes. That his goal was an odd, scruffy sort of job is neither here nor there – basking in the satisfaction of fourth spot the morning after, few amongst us will grumble that the second goal lacked a bit in the aesthetic stakes. ‘Shove the damn thing into the net’ has been a fairly critical instruction in the last couple of months, and not one that our heroes have necessarily adopted too gaily, so if Sonny wants to bobble the thing through a crowd in order to score his goals that’s fine by AANP. Bobble away through as many crowds as you like, is pretty much the approving response over here.

But his headline contribution having been thus secured, I thought that Son spent the rest of his afternoon mangling his lines in all manner of ways. Just a temporary blip of course, and his absence will be lamented with some pretty meaningful wailing and gnashing of teeth when he flies off for that blasted Asian Cup next month. But still. This was not his finest hour and a half.

If he were on the run with the ball, he found a bizarre series of ways to extinguish the threat himself, be it losing control of his own feet, treading on the ball or slightly forgetting who and where he was, and scuttling off on his own towards the edge of the playing surface while an Everton man collected the ball and trotted off with it in the opposite direction.

There was also a series of opportunities to feed a nearby chum who would have been in on goal, which Sonny curiously kept miscalculating, poking the ball out of play or straight to a defender or some other such oddly-judged ideas that didn’t quite hit the spot.

Anyway, there was no want of effort on his part, and the honest fellow is allowed an off-day – particularly as he got the most important part right, in front of goal – and moreover, even if his end-product was generally all over the place, he clearly kept the Everton mob on their toes throughout just by virtue of being Son and all the energy that entails.

4. A Mixed Bag

When the employer invites AANP to tick the boxes in one of those psychometric tests, invariably the findings are that I am one of those souls who likes things neatly squared off. Spades are called spades. Everyone knows where they stand. And it is in such a spirit that I generally like to assess the outputs of our heroes in lilywhite. A thumbs-up for a job well done; a thumbs-down when they’ve stunk the place out; and not too much time wasted sugar-coating things in the middle.

All of which leaves me in a bit of a spot about yesterday’s goings-on. It was a strange old showing from our lot, when one steps back and thinks about it. On the bright side, I could count probably a good half a dozen instances of Ange-ball at its finest. “Ping, ping, ping,” would be a pretty accurate way to describe those moments, when the stars aligned, everyone gave everyone else a knowing nod and in the blink of an eye the ball was being whizzed from our area to theirs.

The first goal was an example of the above, even if strictly speaking the whizzing took the ball from the middle third to their area. There was the usual flurry of one-touchery, a lovely spot of body-feinting thrown in by young Sarr (the one bean I thought might beat Emerson to the Nod of the Head when all votes were counted) and a finish that oozed confidence from Richarlison.

Even the second goal, for all the rougher edges about its coup de grâce, had a pleasing look about its build-up. But in general, our heroes seemed to be off the boil as often as they were on it.

Passes were misplaced as if there were an internal competition to which everyone had pretty feverishly dedicated themselves; and a lot of the time those in lilywhite simply lost possession. It was pretty rummy to behold, but on several occasions some well-meaning sort in lilywhite would have possession, without too much imminent danger presenting itself other than an Everton bounder surreptitiously edging into view – and before you knew it possession had swapped hands. The Everton bounder now had possession, our hero was forlornly nibbling at his ankles and the entire cast had to reconfigure and don their defensive hats again.

These days one does not see to much of the straightforward, honest tackle – interceptions and blocks being all the rage – but yesterday it seemed that every couple of minutes we were losing possession because an Everton sort had simply wandered over, and without having to put in too much thought or effort, positioned himself between ball and lilywhite and made off with the dashed thing.

We brought no end of problems upon ourselves towards the end of the first half, the whole business of playing out from the back being executed with pretty scant regard for the delicacies that such an operation requires, with the result that Everton time and again were presented with the ball some twenty yards from goal and invited to amuse themselves as they saw fit.

And towards the end of things, that blasted Danjuma was made to like a bit too much like Pele for my liking. A handy chap in the final third we can all agree, having been treated to his cameos at close quarters last season, but for him thrice in ten minutes to befuddle our defensive mob and blast a shot at goal seemed a bit thick. Porro, Dier and Skipp seemed to find the lad unplayable, which was alarming, and quite what strain of sorcery Vicario has signed up for is anyone’s guess, but he seems to have had other-worldly intervention on his side in his last couple of matches, and it’s no stretch to say we’ve been centimetres from conceding – and missing out on two points yesterday.

All told, it was a hard-earned win – against a team slap bang in the middle of a hot streak, and with our usual slew of absentees. The general sloppiness in our play suggests more than anything that our heroes could do with a few days off, with some massages and scented candles and whatnot, but to be four points off the top having had such a rotten old November reflects well.

Merry Christmas, on we trot to Brighton.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 4-1 Newcastle: Six Tottenham Talking Points

1. Kulusevski Central

It would be over-stretching things to suggest that AANP is like a broken clock in stumbling upon a notion of some virtue twice a day, but, like a broken calendar, bang on the money once a year sounds about right – and having bleated away about the virtues of Kulusevski through the centre rather than on the wing, in the aftermath of the West Ham defeat, I was pretty pleased to see the pieces duly rearranged today.

Not that Kulusevski was necessarily the standout performer today. In fact, I’d shove him at least halfway done the list. Which is not to say he did much wrong, far from it, but various colleagues around him seemed to tick the ‘Above and Beyond’ box more obviously, and things ought to be done in right and proper way.

But having Kulusevski through the midfield seemed both to reduce the more vexing elements of his game (viz. the propensity, come hell or high water, to drag the ball back onto his left foot as if under contractual obligation) and also to lend a useful platform to some of his more amenable personality traits. These might be said to include but not be limited to: the thoughtful burst into the penalty area as delivery arrives from wider spots; the licence occasionally to bob up on the left; the application of what strikes me as pretty considerable body-weight forcefully into any of the opposing back-four dallying on the ball; and the generally wholesome practice of racing towards goal from a central berth whilst simultaneously weighing up options right and left.

In short, the shackles seem removed when he plays as a Number 10. Quite what reconfiguration occurs when Maddison returns is anyone’s guess, but if there’s a society for the Repositioning of Kulusevski From The Right To The Centre then they can count on my signature and enthusiastic attendance at fundraisers and whatnot. Keep him there, I say, or at least resist the urge to move him right again when Maddison returns.

2. Sonny on the Left

Of course, much like a butterfly flapping its wings out in the Amazon, one cannot yank Kulusevski from the right and re-position him centrally without all manner of implications rippling away across N17, so there would no doubt have been a few arrows scrawled across the pre-match whiteboard .

The fallout involved the remarkable sight of a right-footed player on the right wing, as Brennan Johnson won that particular raffle; which in turn necessitated a change in personnel on the left. One can well imagine Our Glorious Leader scanning the changing room, spying young Bryan Gil, and without even pausing to think just getting right on again with his scanning.

Sonny got the nod, and wasted precious little time in slotting back into the old uniform. Whether it was a first-time flick into the path of a chum while dropping deep, or a stepover-laced dribble into the penalty area topped off with some pretty inviting end-product, Son brought a healthy dose of A-game to just about everything he did out on the left.

And it was worth remembering, as he set about creating both first half goals in near-identical fashion, that the opposing right-back with whom he toyed was none other than the fondly-remembered Master Trippier, a chap who doesn’t surrender his territory too lightly.

Whilst the risk of deploying Sonny on the left was that it left things uncertain in the central striking role, the decision seemed a pretty smart one if only for the nuisance he made of himself throughout. For all their willing, it is difficult to imagine that Gil or Johnson might have brought home quite such riches; while Richarlison is more of a striker itching to move infield than any sort of left winger. This was pretty electric stuff from Son, who fully merited his late goal.

3. Richarlison

That Amazonian butterfly clearly put in quite the shift, for the after-effects did not end with Sonny’s move to the left. That, of course, left an awkward conversation to be had behind closed doors, given that Richarlison has spent the last couple of years since his arrival diligently pinging his shots everywhere but the nearest net, pausing only to occasionally trip over his own shoelaces.

And when a couple of missed half-chances in the opening 5 minutes brought that all-too-familiar Brazilian scowl, I did scuttle over to the nearest wall against which I might bang the old head a few times. The early signs were that this was a production I’d seen once or twice before.

Mercifully, however, after a conflab of twenty minutes or so, the gods evidently gave it a shrug and granted Richarlison a spot of respite. His first goal might not have been the purest strike of the weekend, but I doubt there’s a lilywhite in the land who gave too many hoots about that. If Richarlison has any sense of decency he’ll spot Sonny a slap-up meal at an over-priced restaurant in the coming days, for his captain did a spiffing job in moulding the opportunity that, if not quite unmissable, was certainly in not-too-much-work-required territory.

And in this day of the tedious knee-slide celebration I always consider that I can spot a man who really enjoys his goal, if he leaps into the thinner part of the atmosphere and swipes a clasped fist. Richarlison certainly enjoyed the moment.

Evidently, it takes more than one poacher’s goal to shed the alter ego and adopt a new persona completely, and the Richarlison of old swiftly returned when a presentable airborne opportunity ricocheted his way shortly afterwards, the man flinging himself at the thing a moment too late, as has been his wont for about two years now.

I also fancy he enjoyed another splash of luck with his second (footing another bill at one of London’s premier eating spots by the by, in gratitude to Pedro Porro), as his first touch when in on goal was not necessarily ideal. But to his credit, having taken a presentable chance and complicated it, he then redeemed himself in the blink of an eye, taking what had therefore become a complicated chance and despatching it, with minimal further fuss. One scratched the head a bit, but a joyous outcome is not to be sniffed at; and importantly R9 is a fellow the quality of whose next deed seems to depend significantly upon the quality of his previous deed – so this all bodes pretty well.

And as a sidenote, even before he was gaily tucking away his goals, I noted with great satisfaction that Richarlison could frequently be observed to commit his full body and I suspect a decent part of his soul to the act of tracking back and winning possession from the Newcastle mob. A well-executed slide tackle is always appreciated, and Richarlison delivered at least three of them. The young bean’s commitment to the cause has never faltered; that his radar began working again today was all the more pleasing.

4. Udogie and Porro

I mentioned above that there were a good few names above Kulusevski when it came to the matter of Star Performer, and both of Udogie and Porro would feature in such a list.

Udogie, I consider, rather owed us a stand-out performance, given that his entirely unnecessary two-footed lunge against Chelsea seemed to spark off the calamitous sequence that we have only just arrested. Admittedly he cannot be blamed for the injuries, and he actually got away with the lunge, but not being one to let the truth get in the way of a decent narrative I continued to murmur, “And well he should,” during the early minutes, in which he seemed to have assumed the role of String-Puller-In-Chief.

And by golly he was in fine old fettle. Even though it happens every week that he simply ambles up the field and presents himself as some sort of free-spirited attacking egg, I did nevertheless gawk a bit at the positions he adopted and the array of neat, sly passes he dished out.

Good of him to chip in with a goal too, and it says much about his role in the team that the sight of him tapping in from six yards did not raise too many positional eyebrows. This, it appears, is just what he does.

I hesitate to scribble, “And opposite Udogie,” when describing young Porro, because it is similarly difficult to pin down the latter, but he was also in attendance, and also having quite the night. The diagonal into the path of Richarlison for our third probably takes the spot on the mantlepiece for his most eye-catching contribution (and with perfect timing too, Newcastle at that stage having given it 15 minutes of honest toil, and threatening to make a game of things).

But in general, and as against West Ham, Porro combined intelligent positions with effective contributions, whether popping up in midfield to chivvy things along, or getting his head down in the final third to try to help finish things off.

5. Sarr: Outstanding

But from the AANP vantage point young Sarr took the gong today. For much of the game our heroes gave the impression of having a numerical advantage over the other lot, swarming them and not giving them the time to collect their thoughts and admire the sights when they were in possession;, and triangling the dickens out of them when we were in possession, regularly appearing to have an extra man at whichever point on the pitch the action was unfolding. And as often as not that extra man appeared to be Sarr.

I don’t know what sort of diet he goes in for but I wouldn’t mind finding out and dabbling, because the chap seemed not to stop running throughout. Which, logically enough I suppose, had the consequence that he seemed always to be involved. He was strongly in the market for tackles, interceptions, passes and then, in common with most of our heroes in those rather fun-filled final 20 minutes or so, shoulder-dips and dribbles out of tight spots. It was one of the more complete central midfield performances amongst our lot in recent times.

It also had the pleasing side-effect of making Bissouma look a bit more like his former self, and making me reflect, in idler moments, at quite what a difference there was between a team built upon Sarr and one built upon Hojbjerg.

6. Davies, Romero and the Defence

The individual performances helped no end, but it also made a world of difference that the now standard Dominant First Half was augmented by not one but two goals. To the list of teams comprehensively outplayed we can add Newcastle, but whereas in 4 of the previous 5 games we have had but a one-goal lead to show for some lovely build-up play and almost playground-esque possession, this time the world felt a much happier place when the cast trooped off at half-time two goals to the good.

There was still ample time to stuff up various further opportunities, and one does drop to the knees and implore the forward mob to take a tad more care in the final third and make sure of things, but it was a definite improvement.

And yet it might well have been to no avail, because at nil-nil we continued to look pretty open and inviting at the rear. It might be a consequence of full-backs being allowed to go wandering off, or it might be something else entirely, but whereas when our defence is arranged in a low block I feel that matters are relatively well contained, when we are caught in possession on halfway and the opposition counter, the whole thing does tend to unfold with a pretty alarming inevitability. Put another way, teams do not really have to work too hard to fashion clear-cut chances against our lot. Nab the ball on halfway and they’re as good as in.

And with that in mind I might take a few suggestions from Richarlison and splash out myself on one of those expensive meals, this time for Ben Davies, in commemoration of what was actually a scarcely believable intervention in the first half to keep Newcastle at bay. Pretty easy to let the mists of time do their thing and forget it ever happened, but when a Newcastle type on their left scuttled unopposed from halfway to our area, his square pass seemed to have doom scrawled all over it.

Davies flung himself at it full length, in what appeared to be an admirable but futile gesture. At best, I mused while wincing in expectation of the inevitable, this will be an own-goal. The laws of physics seemed to allow for little else, given that Davies was extending himself at full stretch and in the wrong direction.

Quite how he therefore managed to avoid poking the ball into this own net having made contact with it, was a conundrum of the highest order. That he additionally managed to do just enough to divert the thing sufficiently that the waiting Newcastle forward behind him then missed the target, was quite remarkable.

Mercifully, having figured out, at least for one night, how to apply finishing touches to all the gorgeous build-up play, it didn’t matter too much that we remain pretty open at the back sans Van de Ven. It helps that for the most part, Davies and Romero know their eggs when it comes to the sort of defending that isn’t just a flat foot-race from halfway.

But had Romero been sent off for his bizarre late lunge, the AANP teeth would have been ground with a fury rarely previously witnessed. The game was won, our heroes were bedded in and well into their stroke-the-ball-about routine, when out of nowhere Romero took it upon himself to wait for the ball to depart the scene and then leave his studs upon the lower leg/above-the-foot region of some Newcastle sort. Irrespective of any sort of provocation – and frankly there didn’t appear to be much – it was about as knuckle-headed as they come, particularly as the young fool has only just reappeared after the previous three-month ban. Egads.

Still, we got away with that, and more broadly, delivered the sort of walloping that we’ve been threatening in at least 4 of the previous 5 games (or at least first halves). Continue to execute three or four of the numerous chances created each week, and we ought to be pretty well set when Maddison and VDV return; but irrespective of that, the mood is lightened for the week.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 1-2 West Ham: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Almightily Dashed Annoying

West Ham, to their credit, were physically present. There were definitely eleven of them on the pitch, so well done them; but beyond responding ‘Aye’ when the register was taken I didn’t think they contributed much else of note. They were skin-of-their-teething it throughout the first half, and only perked up in the second when, through no merit on their part – or particular fault on ours – the ball pinballed off two our number this way and that, before obligingly rolling slap bang into the path of one of their bounders so lost in his own thoughts in the six-yard box that at first he appeared not even to notice his luck. Irritatingly, not only did the penny drop, but the run of the ball was such as to make it pretty difficult to not score. To report that a fruity oath escaped the AANP lips is understating it.

After which, West Ham perked up a bit and flung every available limb about in pursuit of the defensive cause, but still looked decidedly useless in attack. More than once the thought struck me that a better team would have picked us off on the counter, but their lot swung rather hopelessly when approaching goal. Even so, it was a bit much for the boy Udogie to present them their second quite so obligingly. ‘At least make them work for it, dear boy,’ was the family-friendly interpretation of the AANP response to that one (whilst noting that again, in keeping with West Ham’s woeful attacking, they still almost managed to gum up the thing).

The point of all of the above is that, as I saw neatly put elsewhere, this was a game that we lost, rather than one that our visitors won. Blasted annoying it is too, far more so than any of the previous, recent losses. This is to an extent on account of the ridiculous luck around the first goal conceded; the moment of knuckle-headedness about the second; and also the luck involved in that second, in that the shot that hit the post could, theoretically, have bounced off in any bally direction instead of beelining – yet again – so neatly into the path of a West Ham sort as to render it impossible not to score.

Anyway, whilst all of the above has meant I have spent most of my Friday aiming angry kicks at small animals and errant children, it also represents the latest failing of our heroes to hammer home the advantage during a first half hot-streak. As ever, AANP remains fully supportive of the swift one-touch passing and whizzy movement of all concerned in the final third, and that it meant West Ham barely touched the thing in the first half was a positive; but dash it all, at some point one of the regiment really needs to clear his throat and do the decisive thing. Top off all the pretty patterns by planting the ball in the net, is what I’m getting at. And if our lot would even go so far as to score three or four times while the iron is hot, then it would be fine with me.

Oddly enough, the most prolific we’ve been in recent weeks was against Man City, in which we spent at least half the gig penned in and clinging on. On that occasion, in front of goal it seemed to be all dead-eyed accuracy and shots targeted so perfectly as to go in off the woodwork. That game apart, one has had the sense that we could have played for several hours without doing the necessaries.

Richarlison’s second half header rather captured the state of things – full marks for build-up, and no lack of effort from the chap taking the shot, but directing the ball an inch or two wide of the post just isn’t the point of the exercise.  

2. Kulusevski On The Right

In terms of personnel, the selection of Hojbjerg, to keep an eye on the back-door, ahead of Gil and his more forward-thinking outlook, while understandable to a degree (Gil having offered little of note last time out), seemed to hinder things a tad.

For a start, Hojbjerg does always give the impression of being a sort for whom creative forward nudges do not come naturally. Station him in front of a defence rooted in and around its own penalty area, and Hojbjerg springs to life; but ask him to pop a casual pass that slices open the opposing back-four and one can sense his agitation. It is not his comfort zone. In that first half he seemed to slow down rather than stimulate our attacking play. If anything he would have been a better fit in the colours of the other lot.

Moreover, his presence, alongside Sarr and Bissouma, meant that Kulusevski was back out on the right, after his brief recent stint in a more central role. Now one understands that Kulusevski brings benefits out on the right. When receiving the ball from defence in particular, and shuttling over the halfway line – a general sequence of events that could be stamped with the headline, “The Middle Third” – there are few better.

But when it comes to the final third, and the opposition penalty area, the narrative tends to begin with him cutting back onto his left foot, and end with the ball either sailing off for a goal-kick or being drilled straight into the nearest defender. It struck me that he came away with a much more impressive haul of goodies when able to go flying into the area from a more central position, wearing a lanyard on which was printed ‘Finisher’ rather than ‘Provider’.

In fact, in the opening minute last night, he evidently had not yet found his allocated seat and popped up as what you might call a left-sided striker, slipped in by Son and very nearly poking in from close range.

While, as mentioned, I understand the benefits he brings on the right, particularly in chipping in his tuppence worth in build-up play, I’d nevertheless raise a hand in support of a motion that had Johnson wide right and Kulusevski given a bit more freedom to poke his nose into affairs from the centre.

3. Porro

It has been suggested in some quarters that our heroes ran out of puff in the second half, after their efforts of the first half – which were undoubtedly worthy of the half-time nod of approval, but irritatingly limited in output.

I’m not so sure about that ‘ran out of puff’ theory myself. Perhaps; but then, on the other hand, perhaps not. Difficult for an eye as untrained as mine to gauge the energy levels of all the dramatis personae when I was so busy trying to stop the veins bursting from my forehead in exasperation at those goals conceded.

But whether it was a dip in energy, or a reinvigorated opposing defence, our heroes seemed less able to get into the West Ham box in the second half than the first. The one fellow who did seem still to have some ideas about him, even as the clock ticked down, was young Porro.

It may or may not be coincidence that he is also the one remaining, natural crosser of the ball in the ranks, but whether it was from crosses out wide or little darts and short passes further infield, he gave the impression of being convinced throughout that there remained life in the old dog.

I do actually wonder what Our Glorious Leader made of his second half crosses from wide. On the one hand they were of a pretty high standard – pacy, head-height and generally doing all that the inviting cross should. On the other hand, Ange is very obviously a ringmaster who demands that operations are carried out in a certain way, and the slinging of crosses towards a queue of waiting foreheads stretches the definition of Ange-Ball to its very limit.

For what it’s worth it struck me as a useful tactic, not only because of the threat it posed, but also in forcing the West Ham mob to pause and give a spot of reflection to their general configuration. Variety, I thought, forehead vein still throbbing, was not the worst idea.

Either way, while it came to naught, one can probably slap a gold star next to the name of Porro, P. (as that of Romero, C., from my vantage point). Mercifully, the next shinding rolls along double-quick, which ought to soften the rather foul mood about the place – providing, of course, we translate the inevitable early dominance into a whole shedload of goals.

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Spurs match reports

Wolves 2-1 Spurs: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Opening Salvo

A funny thing about watching Spurs over the years is that normally when the heart sinks it does so in the blink of any eye, prompted by production of a red card for example, or the sight of a star player pulling up with grimace on face and hand on hamstring. Yesterday, in a bit of a departure from the norm, the light of hope took the full 90 minutes to go out, which, as disappointments go, felt a rather cruel performance by the Fates, the flame finally being extinguished for good in minute 96, with just about the last kick of the game.

As it happened – and as actually always seems to happen these days – the first 15 minutes or so was a pretty triumphant era. Our heroes seemed to boss possession, moving the ball quickly and often between the lines, and doing a handy line in those neat line changes of direction, whereby they look for all the world like they’re about to pass to Teammate A, thereby compelling the opponent to shuffle in that direction to close down the space, before at the last minute passing instead to Teammate B. Simple stuff, but pleasingly effective, and for that dreamy quarter-hour or so I even wondered whether Maddison’s absence would actually be felt at all.

The goal arrived before the dignitaries had finished taking their seats, and while young Master Johnson got to run off and do the knee-slide, various members of the supporting cast deserve much of the credit.

Pedro Porro left his fingerprints all over the move, first popping up in an attacking central midfield sort of spot, to execute a dummy so convincing it seemed to make the Wolves lad opposite question his very existence. And moreover, P.P. was at pains to demonstrate that he is not one simply to complete a task and then sit back and admire his handiwork through a cloud of cigar smoke, for seconds later he could be identified in an inside right type of area, racing on to Kulusevki’s tee-up and delivering a pass that ticked all the box for young Johnson.

As mentioned, in between the good work from Porro and Porro again, the giveth and taketh was done by Kulusevski, and in those opening minutes he gave the impression that he was to be the central character in the afternoon’s entertainment. Our lot were on top in that period, and much of our good work was transported from back to front via his size nines.

He strikes me as one of the more curious beans around, in that he seems to be a pony of the single-trick variety, the sort who would cut inside onto his left foot even if his life depended on sticking to his right. I was therefore as shocked as any other seasoned Kulusevski-watcher to witness him, in the build-up to our goal, produce that delicate back-heeled flick into the path of Porro, in the process sending every nearby Wolves sort off into a different postcode.   

By and large, he seemed to be having the better of his particular thrashing out of matters out on the right. As ever, there was a degree of frustration at his eventual outputs, which, since his debut season, have tended to be pretty forgettable, either slammed into the nearest defender or sailing off into the mid-distance, but nevertheless yesterday one got the impression that he was set for great things.

2. Davies and Dier

Alas, after that pretty perky opening spell, our lot seemed to forget their lines somewhat. We didn’t have as much possession for a start, but as I’ve heard it put, under Big Ange our heroes have discovered the knack of controlling games even when not in possession, by virtue of the high-press and whatnot. This quality was sadly lacking yesterday, however. We may have led for 90 minutes, but there was much about our play of an aeroplane pilot who looks over his shoulders to see one wing has burst into flames and the other is disintegrating mid-air. Only the illusion of control, is what I’m getting at.

That we led for so long is largely due to the combined efforts of the defensive sorts, and in particular, the shift put in by of all people Messrs Dier and Davies. To say that this was a pleasant and most unexpected surprise would be to underplay the thing pretty seismically. It is not a stretch to report that feverish nightmares and cold sweats had been the way of things at AANP Towers all week as I contemplated the coming weeks of a central defence, and in particular a high-line, minus the delights of both Messrs Romero and VDV.  

Actually, rather sneakily, Dier and Davies largely avoided the nerve-shredding scenario of repeated sprints from halfway against the Wolves forwards by dropping a little deeper than anticipated – presumably a perk of taking to the field with a full complement of eleven.

Even so, any seasoned watcher of these things wouldn’t have had to give it too much thought before opining that the odds were stacked against our new-look central defence. For a start it has been so long since either of them have started one feared they might have forgotten what shape the ball was. Any rustiness would have been understandable, but no less acceptable. I watched on with brow duly furrowed with concern.

And early on I had good reason to throw a few well-chosen curses at Dier, for committing himself to a challenge on around halfway, missing his mark and turning to get back with all the swiftness of foot of a heavily-laden tanker. But I suppose in a way I had some reason to thank Dier for his leaden-footedness, for had he not erred on halfway then the world would not have been able to witness the stirring last-ditch challenge from Davies, scampering across from the left, to thwart an otherwise clear sight of goal for the relevant attacking Wolf.

And having been thrust – a little unwillingly, one suspects – into the defensive spotlight thusly, Davies proceeded to time to a similar level of accuracy just about every other defensive intervention he was called upon to make. The fact that we did not play quite such a shoot-self-in-foot high defensive line no doubt helped, removing from the equation the need for any breakneck pace, but nevertheless if his weary chums had on full-time formed a guard of honour and shoved Davies through it, few would have quibbled. (A dashed shame that the equaliser came from a run that might have registered on his radar a mite sooner, but I’m not sure he can be faulted too onerously for failing to prevent a strike of that oomph.)

Moreover, no doubt inspired by the smart thinking and acting of the chap to his immediate left, Dier gradually took the hint and started to warm to the task, using both head and feet to good effect defensively at various points, as well as demonstrating a clear grasp of the play-out-from-the-back memo slapped about HQ by The Brains Trust.

And had he continued to implement this approach into the 96th minute and beyond we might have tootled off with a point, but in the sort of misstep that he does tend to include in his baggage, he tried to execute an offside trap from twelve yards out in the last action of the game, rather than, say, racing across to block the shot, and the game was duly lost.

3. Hojbjerg

One of the other consequences of Monday night’s jamboree was the need to jimmy someone into the Maddison-shaped hole in midfield. While I’d offered up a sacrificial lamb or two in the hope that Bentancur might get the nod, it was presumably decided that the fellow is not quite ripe enough to pick from the start just yet. Instead, in a triumph for fans of the deeply underwhelming, the shirt was thrown at Master Hojbjerg.

And in a nutshell it struck me that if someone were to bottle the essence of Hojbjerg and uncork it at a later date, yesterday’s performance would be what would flow out.

He seemed pretty keen to make clear from the outset to even those of the meanest intelligence that he was very much not a like-for-like replacement for Maddison. As such, progressive passes were at something of a premium, and Hojbjerg instead generally kept things on the unremarkable end of the spectrum, focusing instead on his pointing and shouting.

As the game wore on he did occasionally seem to become inhabited by some intriguing sense of adventure that prompted him to venture forward into the final third as a temporary auxiliary attacker, but not really to any great effect.

Less pleasingly, his penchant remained undimmed for hurling himself to the floor at every given opportunity and campaigning for official intervention, which I suppose is hardly the front-page stuff it used to be but still grates no end around these parts.

Worse than that however, for all his pointing and shouting the chap still has a tendency to neglect his defensive duties when the cry goes up of ‘All hands on deck’. Whether he simply lacks the fitness or considers it beneath him I’m not too sure, but throughout his lilywhite career and again on Saturday, he could be spotted a good ten yards behind the action as Wolves bodies sped forward. (Indeed the winning goal might have been prevented had Hojbjerg carried on tracking back rather than slowing to a stop – although others around him were probably more culpable.)

The return of a presumably chastened Romero in a few weeks will hopefully ease the pain, but for all the good intentions there was a pretty significant absence of thrust about our work. If this really were a glimpse of how the coming couple of months will play out one might want to keep the bourbon handy.

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Spurs match reports

Palace 1-2 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1.  Davies vs Royal at Left-Back

Squad depth – or lack thereof – seems as likely as anything else to unstrap the safety harness and eject us from the vehicle this season. It’s hardly cold sweats in the middle of the night territory just yet, but the thought of pretty much any two or three of the choice XI (bar poor old Richarlison, perhaps) being simultaneously absented from a performance does make one widen the eyes and murmur, “Golly.”

And given this context I’ve been rather grateful to those gods responsible for these things for dealing us but a single absentee each week, allowing us just to dip a tentative toe into the ‘Strength In Reserve’ waters rather than having to plunge in fully and immerse the whole frame. Last week Bissouma was missing; this week Bissouma was back, and Udogie was missing.

In the sort of move that would baffle AANP’s better half, Our Glorious Leader therefore made an entirely rationale decision, and opted for Ben Davies – but any fans of like-for-like performance-matching might have been advised to prepare for a bit of a letdown. Where Udogie gives the term “Left-Back” the loosest possible interpretation, and bounds off to see what’s happening in midfield and attack and so forth, Davies’ approach is what you might call a tad more traditional.

Giving the air of a schoolboy who always did as told, Davies obediently trotted off to the left side of our defence, and made safe upkeep of this territory his priority. Which is not to say he didn’t partake in Ange-Ball and its liberal use of full-backs in attacking areas, but somehow when he ventured up the field he seemed to do so in a slightly robotic manner. If Richarlison received the ball on the left touchline and in advance of halfway, Davies took this as his cue, and dutifully trotted about 20 yards in advance of the action, and waved his arms around as instructed.

Now one could argue that this was precisely what was required, and in precisely the right circumstances – yet somehow this very precision was the problem. Much of the joy of Udogie’s performances is that one never knows quite what the hell he’ll do next, or where for that matter, whereas one could set one’s clock by Ben Davies.

On top of which, I’m not entirely convinced that Davies even had the conventional, defensive duties of a left-back entirely under control. Ayew and various others seemed to cause a spot of consternation down that particular flank, and with such limited outputs in either northerly or southerly directions, one understood the half-time move to trade in a Davies, B. for a Royal, E.

Emerson, whose lilywhite career has already waxed and waned like nobody’s business, is now finding himself having to make a fist of things as a reserve inverted left-back. And while on paper this might sound a bit thick for a born and bred right-back, it’s a role so madcap that it suited rather well a chap quite clearly missing a few key screw upstairs. Emerson swiftly beetled off into a deep-lying central midfield sort of role – alongside Porro, naturally – and the slightly chaotic nature of Ange-Ball’s formations was restored.

2. Richarlison vs Brennan Johnson

As ever, it was a tough old gig for Richarlison, who could not look more like a square peg struggling with a round hole if he were composed entirely of right angles and straight lines. As ever, there was no faulting his effort. Worker ants of the tireless variety could take a few tips from the lad, as he closed down Palace defenders, tracked back after their more attacking bimbos and patiently tried to outwit his man when actually in possession.

He might even have set up a first half goal, and quite brilliantly too, stretching all available sinews to head delicately back into play a ball that seemed to be sailing pretty serenely off into the stands – only for Maddison to lash the resulting gift off into the gods.

But while the various members of the backroom staff will no doubt be lining up to slap his back and commend him on his effort, the slightly awkward truth is that he’s not really delivering much in the way of an attacking harvest.

It’s probably worth reiterating his value in assisting our high press, for this seems to have brought about a decent percentage of the goals we’ve scored in recent weeks – and I can think of one recently-departed member of this parish who, for all his goalscoring, didn’t have the puff to chase down the opposition defence non-stop over the course of a full 90.

But alas. When it came to key passes, tantalising crosses or shots on target, the cup could hardly be said to floweth over. There have been a few inviting passes into dangerous areas during Richarlison’s stint on the left, and a fair number of shots from in and around the area, of varying degrees of inaccuracy. All ten-out-of-ten-for-effort sort of stuff, but it’s not really only effort we’re after, what?

Enter Brennan Johnson, who within about two shakes of a lamb’s tail had played a pretty critical part in a goal, first in rather inventive use of the forehead to control a cross and pass to a chum in the same motion; and then in dashing to the by-line to set up Sonny for a tap-in.

Better minds than mine will pore over the tactical minutiae that distinguished Richarlison’s performance from Johnson’s, but, put bluntly, we just seem to have a bit more attacking threat with the latter buzzing around on the left. One for Our Glorious Leader to ponder in the coming days.

3. Neil Ruddock and Des Walker

Back in the summer of 1993, a pre-teen AANP could be heard excitedly nattering away to anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, that the gossip pages of 90 Minutes and Shoot and whatnot suggested that the lightning quick feet of Des Walker would imminently be speeding around the hallowed turf of White Hart Lane. This would have been pretty sensational stuff on its own, but the prospect of the jet-heeled Walker partnering with resident centre-back Neil Ruddock, a chap whose dispute-settling style might generously be termed ‘firm’, had the youthful AANP pretty giddy with excitement.

Alas, in confirmation of what had gone before, and a dashed certain omen of what was to come, Spurs rather broke my heart, by not only failing to bring Walker to our shores, but also parting with Ruddock that same summer.

The intervening thirty years spent watching our heroes have occasionally been somewhat trying – in fact, at times, particularly during the 90s, it felt like the life has rather drained from my core while watching our lot – but finally it feels that that promise of pace and power at the heart of our defence is being realised. Van de Ven and Romero are quickly morphing into a pretty sensational combo.

Both are about as comfortable in possession as central defenders come these days, which I’m not sure is the sort of accusation that could ever have been levelled at either of Messrs N.R. or D.W. But it is the glorious marriage of Romero’s clattering tackles – light on nonsense, heavy on force – and VDV’s swiftness of travel between points A and B that gives the impression that we have stumbled upon something special here.

Both were, in their own ways, in fine old fettle on Friday night. When Palace did breach the rear – which they did a mite too often in the first half – it seemed to be despite rather than because of our centre-backs, and indeed, Romero and VDV could as often as not be spotted planting a well-timed intervening clog in the way of things, to abate incoming trouble.

The earlier concern, about the potential absence of critical bodies, applies more to Romero and VDV than most, and another Top Four-standard centre-back will almost certainly be needed at some point between now and May. For the time being however, we might as well just enjoy the rare delights of a solid centre-back pairing.

4. Slow-Slow-Fast

My old man, AANP Senior, had the honour of being a regular at the Lane during our Double-winning season no less, so was presumably as excitable as the rest of us in his prime; but now, in his 91st year, he casts the beady eye in rather less forgiving manner. And when Messrs Romero and Vicario spent sizeable chunks of the second half dwelling on the ball under no pressure, before shrugging their shoulders and rolling it between each other, a certain cantankerous gruffling emanated from the aged relative. He was not amused.

Which was a shame, because I thought it was an absolute blast. Palace, understandably enough, had had a game-plan at nil-nil, to sit back and allow our goalkeeper and defenders all the possession they wanted, safe in the knowledge that no harm would come of it. But once our lot were one-nil up, it took a while for Palace to compute that their cause was not helped by simply sitting back and allowing Romero and Vicario to light cigars and natter away amongst themselves.

Eventually therefore, our hosts rather reluctantly committed a body or two towards the ball, and our heroes duly picked them off with aplomb. On several occasions, as soon as a Palace forward inched towards Romero or Vicario, one or other of this pair expertly bisected approximately half their team with a sudden forward pass into midfield.

This in itself provided a healthy dollop of aesthetic reward, but the fun didn’t stop there, as those receiving the thing in midfield were clearly well up on current events, and fully aware of the next stage of the plan. Whether it was Hojbjerg, Porro, Maddison or Sarr, the midfield johnnie receiving the ball would ping it wide, first-time and on the half-turn, and before you could say “This slow-slow-quick approach allows our lot to cut through Palace like a knife through butter, what?”, our heroes were in on goal.

This impeccable choreography was rarely better displayed than in our second goal, that slow-slow-quick approach being at the very core of the move. Romero dwelt and dwelt before neatly picking out Hojbjerg, and he swiftly conveyed the thing to Sarr, who crowned what I thought was a man-of-the-match performance with a glorious cross-field switch, from an innocuous right-back position over to Brennan Johnson in a more threatening left-wing spot. Johnson, as alluded to earlier, used his head to good effect, and a couple of classic Ange-Ball one-touch passes later Sonny was tapping in from point-blank range.

The move, in its entirety from back to front, was an absolute masterpiece, and while the television bods seemed to underplay it a tad, the fact that even AANP Senior was moved to mutter a pithy word or two of semi-satisfaction more accurately reflected its quality.

The late goal – which could be pinned pretty squarely on the otherwise decent Porro – was a reminder to our lot not to settle in for their nap before time is up, but this on balance was another deserved win, leaving only the question of whether Bentancur and Gil will make enough appearances this season to collect their League-winners’ medals in May.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 2-0 Fulham: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg

Evidence of the last couple of months suggests that, even though obliged to change his preferred XI by the rules and regulations, Ange did so only with the greatest reluctance, and likely a decent slab of harrumphing. But there we were, Bissouma’s previous follies meaning that Hojbjerg received a promotion, and at AANP Towers we rubbed an ever-so-slightly nervous chin before the curtain went up.

Anyone expecting Hojbjerg simply to get his head down and mimic the every shoulder-drop and forward burst of Bissouma would, of course, have been misreading the situation pretty drastically. Messrs P-E.H. and Y.B. are radically different beasts. Mercifully, however, if one could have drawn up a list beforehand of the preferred fixtures in which to replace the buzz and drive of Bissouma with the stasis and arm-flapping of Hojbjerg, I think a home date with Fulham might well have been pretty high up the list.

And frankly, it proved as gentle a stroll as hoped. In fact, in those opening ten minutes it appeared that we might not need Hojbjerg at all. As against Luton last time out, we had much of the runaway train about our work in last night’s opening scenes, running rings around our opponents and without too much need for the deeper-lying folk. This seemed to owe much to our pressing (which was mightily impressive throughout, strangling the life out of Fulham in their own half, bringing about both goals and generally compensating for a fair amount of sloppiness in the second half).

Back to Hojbjerg, and to his credit he did the various odd-jobs asked of him with pretty minimal fuss. The setup seemed to require him to fill in around various unglamorous locations towards the rear, but Hojbjerg being one of those curious eggs whose take on life is that the grubbier the task the better, this turned out to be a pretty convenient marriage. Fulham tried to clear to halfway, and Hojbjerg stepped up to snuffle it out; our heroes were forced to poke the ball backwards for a moment, and Hojbjerg availed himself to receive and re-distribute; and for good measure, when we threatened to become irresponsibly blasé about a one-goal lead, Hojbjerg was there to win possession high up the pitch and set up Sonny to set up Maddison for our second.

On the debit side, he did pick up an unnecessary and slightly odd booking, for opting to lunge at a Fulham body, changing his mind about matters fairly swiftly but finding that the laws of physics prevented him from effecting any alteration, and having simply to skid irresistibly about ten yards along the turf until he ploughed into his man; but then on the credit side he also played one of the passes of the season, about midway through the first half, reversing matters from left to right in a Harry Kane sort of way; so all told it was a perfectly acceptable night’s work.

Not a performance to win him any awards, nor to earn him a starting spot when Bissouma returns; but he did not look miles off the pace nor appear visibly out of sync when stepping into a unit that has been tightly-knit without him for 8 games, so he probably merits a nod of acknowledgement.   

2. Udogie

Never mind the miracles Big Ange has worked for our lot – his decision to hook young Master Udogie before we hit the 60-minute mark has left a pretty sickly hue over my fantasy team, so I’ll be demanding a full explanation at our next tete-a-tete.

I don’t know about you, but Udogie – or rather the positions and instructions Udogie is given – make my mind boggle like nobody’s business. It’s one of those awkward situations in which the more one tries to understand the thing the more complicated it all seems to become.

What I’m getting at is where the devil does he actually play? Convention would dictate ‘left-back’; the achingly fashionable amongst us call it ‘inverted full-back’; but watching the match unfold he seemed to decide that it was open season anywhere on the left, and if he had to slap a hand on the Bible and absolutely swear under oath he’d announce that an attacking midfield role, ever-so-slightly left of centre, was the spot for him. And since everyone around him was too polite or too consumed with their own affairs to correct him, there he stayed.

In the interests of accuracy, I probably ought to acknowledge that when we were out of possession he did trot back to an old-fashion left-back spot. In general, however, I cast a beady eye, spotted him a-wandering and duly scratched my head.

Anyway, whatever the hell you want to call his role, he did it pretty well, at least in an attacking sense. Maddison, as ever, was the brains of the operation, but I derived a fair amount of enjoyment in seeing Fulham simply unable to cope with the mere presence of Udogie as an additional forward body, adding to the numbers and generally making a nuisance of himself in between Richarlison and Son.

Out on the other side, Porro seemed more inclined to obey the rules of convention and hover within spitting distance of the touchline, generally limiting himself to one or two visits to the opposition area; but Udogie appears constantly to be one well-timed burst away from being our second striker.

As is often the case with these things, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when Udogie was removed I thought we missed him somewhat. Emerson Royal, being a barmy sort, gave his own, rather madcap interpretation of the role, and with the entire collective being not quite at the races in the second half, the quality dipped notably.

So while I don’t pretend to understand his precise purpose, with each game I enjoy more and more the input from young Udogie, and hope that his early retirement last night was merely precautionary.

3. Romero

Not for the first time, some occasionally breathtaking football did not quite produce the rich harvest one would have hoped, and with only one first half goal to show for our efforts, those in the rear needed to pay a dashed sight more attention than one would have thought necessary.

At this point one could easily have gazed into the mid-distance, painted vivid images in the mind’s eye of Van de Ven neatly defusing bombs and extinguishing fires – and perfectly weighting passes that led directly to our opener, come to think of it – and purred appropriately at the chap for his highly impressive Jan Vertonghen Tribute Act.

But instead the AANP eye was drawn more towards the other side of central defence, where young Romero was busily plotting a flawless course through the night. Whenever Fulham broke down our right – and it seemed to happen far too often for my liking, considering the one-sided nature of proceedings – we seemed rather taken by surprise, as if such an eventuality simply hadn’t figured in all the pre-match planning. It was all a little too easy for Fulham to use that route to get within shooting distance. Where Senor Porro was in all this I’m not too sure, but happily the 2023/24 version of Cristian Romero has such matters well in hand.

On several occasions Romero popped up in precisely the spot in which trouble appeared about to befall, and for good measure, rather than simply blooting the ball to kingdom come, he typically had the presence of mind to make good use of it, either with a calming pass sideways, or, occasionally, with a gallop up the pitch.

As the game wore on and all in lilywhite cared less and less, Romero was called upon to do more than just intercept loose balls in his own area, increasingly being called upon to sprint back towards his own goal and put a lid on any looming trouble.

Much has been made of the calmer and wiser Romero, who this season thinks before hacking to pieces an opponent, but even with this new thoughtful head atop his shoulders, he still took every opportunity to put a bit of meaning into his tackles, going to ground and caring little if he upset the surrounding furniture.

As mentioned, Van de Ven did everything asked of him on the left, but I did particularly enjoy Romero’s bad-cop routine on the right.

4. Vicario

I trust that when Signor Vicario dived beneath the duvet and started totting up sheep last night, he was able to reflect on a pretty satisfactory day’s work for the employer. So far this season the young bean has attracted plaudits as much for his contributions to penalty area keep-ball as anything else, but last night he was called upon on a couple of occasions to lend a hand in the more traditional sense, and he did so in mightily impressive fashion.

It was the first half save that really caught the eye. A full-length extension, to a headed effort that for all the world looked already to be nestling in the net, was not to be sniffed at. Moreover, this came when the score was still 0-0, and when, although our lot were dominant, it was not yet clear that Fulham would be quite as bad as they were. It was worth a goal, and young Master V. ought to be serenaded appropriately for his efforts.

He had to make a couple more sharp-ish stops towards the end of things too, at that point at which a pact seemed to have been agreed by all concerned that 2-0 it would be, yet Fulham sneakily tried to score anyway. These later saves were a dash more straightforward, the ball being leathered pretty much straight at his frame, but I can think of former members of the parish who might have made a pig’s ear of them. They needed saving; and save them Vicario did.

Ironically enough, for one whose major contribution to date has been his confidence and capability with ball at feet, Vicario actually dropped something of a clanger in precisely that field in the first half, gifting possession to some Fulham sort inside our own area. Luckily enough, one of the main principles of the day – that Fulham were dreadful from root to stem – was swiftly reinforced, and they made little of the moment, but I thought it was a pleasing indication of quite how much Vicario has already banked that none in the galleries reacted with any opprobrium towards him.

5. A Below-Par Second Half

By my reckoning we ought to have been about 6-2 up at half-time, but instead had to make do with just the one – which would have been reasonable enough had we begun the second half with the same vim and vigour as that with which we ended the first.

Alas, our lot appeared to have tucked into sizeable portions of pasta at half-time, quite possibly washed down with an ale or two, because the sluggish second half approach was very much that of a troupe who felt their night’s serious business was done, and were content to pay only the loosest attention to proceedings for the remainder, seemingly adopting the view that any matters of precision and accuracy would take care of themselves.

Against anyone else this might have been a problem. Mercifully, Fulham – and in particular that lad Bassey, at the back – appeared to be Spurs fans at heart, and did their best to ensure a smooth passage to victory for us, both in spurning an alarming number of late chances but also, crucially, in gifting us a second goal to wrap things up, just when it seemed that we were starting to lose control of things.

How our heroes might have coped with the late concession of a goal, bringing the score back to 2-1, will forever remain unknown, but AANP certainly ground a displeased tooth as that second half unfolded. One would hope that the careless attitude was a product of the circumstance – a poor opponent; the sense that we could go up a gear or two if needed; the fixture list throwing up another joust on Friday night – but I would much rather have seen us roll up sleeves, apply boot to neck and see off the thing a little more professionally.

Still, it ended up being a mightily comfortable win, and with the Title now practically sewn up, the only question left at AANP Towers is whether we will bag the FA Cup as well.