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Spurs match reports

Arsenal 3-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Tactical Set-Up

Even the most committed creature of habit could learn a thing or two from Our Glorious Leader, who reacted to all the noise about playing a midfield three by sticking his fingers in his ears and scrawling ‘3-4-3’ across his teamsheet for the umpteenth consecutive game.

‘Twas the usual suspects then, in the usual formation – and funnily enough with the usual outcome, as our lot spent the opening twenty minutes penned back in and around our own area, looking longingly at all the possession the other lot were churning through.

Show me a nib who enjoys watching that sort of thing and I’ll show you a chappie who should go and boil his own head, because it makes for pretty ghastly viewing. The opposition hog the damn thing; their every pass feels like a prelude to something ominous; on top of which our defence is so deep that the slightest miscalculation is pretty much guaranteed to gift a goal to the foe (as Lloris helpfully demonstrated). Needless to say, watching it unfold blow by blow had the heart fairly racing along in a manner that would have even the most upbeat cardiologist chewing a nervous lip.

Nerve-shredding stuff to observe then, but as Senor Conte would presumably point out, if done properly it does tend to work. For all the prodding and probing, Woolwich only broke through in that first half via a long-range pop, and in the second via a goalkeeping mistake (I artfully dodge the 10 vs 11 activity). That at least would presumably be the gist of the argument. I’m not sure too many juries would be swayed, but there we go.

The argument would continue that our lot sprang into life on the counter attack enough times in that first half to have scored more than just the one – and towards that point I’m a bit more inclined to clink glasses and offer a friendly nod. There were a few occasions on which our front-three set off on a scamper, and but for a careless final ball would have been through on goal.

But even so, it’s all a bit thick, no? One can only hold one’s breath and hope that the opposition foul things up for so long, what? If one were feeling particularly unkind one might suggest that the whole setup is simply a more polished version of the utter dirge that was peddled under Jose. Opportunities were there on the break, and on another day we might have led by half-time, but as under Jose the strategy relies a little too heavily on both flawless defending and pretty damn clinical finishing.

We sit within the Top Four, so fans of this sort of stuff would have a pretty compelling point if they told me to shove off and take my bleating with me. Nevertheless, here at AANP Towers we would be whistling a lot more gaily if the mantra were to win games by controlling possession and whizzing along a dashed sight closer to the opposition area.

Having gone on a bit about the doom and gloom side of things, I probably ought to mention that, given the rather tough hand they’d been dealt, Messrs Hojbjerg and, in particular, Benancur, made a pretty decent fist of things in the midfield two. Every Bentancur involvement seemed to end with him winning the ball or locating a chum – or, indeed, doing both, as happened at the start of the move that led to our penalty. One sympathised with their plight, being but two men in a midfield swarming with Woolwich goons; and one cast a few longing glances towards the forms of Bissouma and Skipp on the bench; but this defeat was not for lack of good, honest perspiration from H. and B.

2. Emerson

No such comforting words and bobbish sentiment for Master Royal however. That dashed pest ought to be slung out onto the streets and given a good old-fashioned thrashing.

It occurred to me that there was something of a parallel between his character arc and that of England’s resident clot, Harry Maguire, vs Germany the other night – in that neither were too bad until the moment they were very bad indeed.

For most of the game Emerson did the sort of stuff we now expect Emerson to do. He galloped forward gamely enough, and then failed to produce any decent output when given the opportunity, his crosses being blocked for a corner or sailing beyond any souls in lilywhite. This being Emerson, and his bar being low, the AANP reaction was simply to roll the eyes, mutter a choice curse and then see what would happen next. It was pretty much standard fare.

And in fact, at one point in the first half, he made one of the better tackles of his entire Spurs career, inserting a well-timed foot when I think Gabriel Jesus went off on a jink. If he cannot offer anything useful in attack he might as well provide something in defence, or so goes the theory, so by the time the second half rolled around he was in pretty solid ‘6 out of 10’ territory.

However, there then followed his red card, which judging by the current internal mood might well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, in what legal bods might term the case of “AANP’s Patience vs Emerson Royal”.

No doubt one or two hardy souls will protest that a yellow card would have sufficed, to which the usual AANP line is drearily trotted out, about not being daft enough to give the referee a choice to make in the first place.

And “daft” really doesn’t do the chap justice, for this was about as fat-headed a move as I’ve ever seen. There couldn’t have been less threat if the Woolwich lad had curled up in a ball to take a nap. He was oiling off towards his own corner flag for heaven’s sake! Nor was it the case that tempers had already flared and shoves been exchanged., or any of that sort of jolly guff.

Martinelli had generally led Royal a merry dance the whole afternoon, which admittedly is the sort of sinister sequence of events that might prompt a tantrum from amongst the younger AANP nephews and nieces, but for it to prompt a professional footballer to stamp on the ankle of an opponent makes the brain sizzle a bit.

The silver lining of this nonsense is that Royal will now be legally barred from entering the pitch for another three games, and opportunity knocks for Doherty, Spence, Perisic, Sessegnon, Kulusevski, Lucas, Tanganga or frankly anyone else who fancies a stab at beetling up and down the right for a while. Simply being there would be sufficient to reach the standards set by Royal; any further input would class as an improvement. Safe to say I’m rather fed up to the gills with that chap.

3. Lloris Mistake

Monsieur Lloris, of course, has a vastly larger stash of goodwill stocked up, and he would have grasped at great clumping handfuls of the stuff (possibly dropping some) after today’s faux pas.

A funny old oeuf, is Lloris, in that despite being about as loyal as they come, and having loitered about the corridors for longer than anyone else in the place, he is not necessarily revered as one of our heroes. This is hardly a scientific and robust, evidence-driven conclusion, but I get the sense that most of lilywhite persuasion are generally happy enough with him, but harbour a reservation or two. The sort of chappie about whom not too many tears would be shed if he biffed off and a half-decent newbie were unearthed.

In general, his shot-stopping has been top notch and his handling a touch squiffy. Today, however, his were a pretty basic couple of errors in the shot-stopping sector, and on a stage on which we needed the experienced sorts to bring their A-games.

First in padding out the shot centrally rather than off to the sides, and then in making a heck of a mess of the follow-up shot, Lloris put us in a bit of a spot.

For what it’s worth, I rather fancied us to equalise again when 11 vs 11, and Lloris alone was not at fault for our falling behind – the sluggish start to the second half was very much a collective effort. But dash it, that was pretty basic fare, and while one ideally one would rather not concede at all, if it has to happen I would much rather the other lot were made to work their socks off for the privilege.

4. Waving The White Flag

As mentioned, at 2-1 and while fully staffed, the AANP mood was still hopeful enough. “More of the first half routine” was pretty much the chorus on the lips – until the third goal went in. At that point, the odds no doubt lengthened, but hope still spluttered along. A second goal for our lot in the last few minutes would have caused the nerves to flutter amongst the Woolwich mob, what?

You can picture AANP’s displeasure, therefore, when Our Glorious Leader effectively threw in the towel with a good twenty or so minutes remaining. The swapping of Lenglet for Sanchez one could abide, in isolation; but the removal of Richarlison and Sonny, for various assembled defenders, left none in the galleries in any doubt. Conte conceded this one.

And I don’t mind admitting that I frowned at that. Might have folded the arms and pursed the lips a bit too. I’m of a vintage that waits all week (or however long) to see our lot play, and then expects maximum effort from every one of the blighters until the final toot. If they’ve done their jobs properly they should be collapsing in puddles on the ground at full-time, and scraped up in wheelbarrows by the support staff. Having the manager effectively signal that they can simply give up with twenty minutes remaining, against Woolwich of all teams, does not sit well around these parts.

The argument will presumably run that there are games every couple of days, and Lenglet, Richarlison, Sonny et al will be needed for the CL on Wednesday. All of which makes sense – but at the same time, throwing in the towel did not seem right. It’s not really cricket. Perhaps one or two might have been withdrawn, but whilst still maintaining some sort of attacking threat (flinging Gil up at the apex, to offer some pace alongside Kane, for example).

One continues to trust Conte, of course, but that does not preclude criticism of the chap. This was a pretty unpleasant end to a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 6-2 Leicester: Four Tottenham Talking Points

While decency would normally dictate that I apologise for tardiness, between Vegas, Denver and some unspecified spot over the Atlantic, AANP can barely remember its own name, let alone the date and time.

1. Defensive Rotation

Discovering that the rarely-heard Drury was on comms for the screening of this match in Vegas was quite the pre-match mood-enhancer and morning-after pick-me-up; but alas, the good news ended there as a quick scan of the cast members indicated a Romero-shaped hole, awkwardly occupied by the various uncontrollable limbs of Davinson Sanchez.

Of course, being a man of chivalry and values, I let Sanchez proceed with perfect objectivity, and he duly took about two minutes to confirm, to what I now understand to be a global audience, that he is, in fact, a chump of the highest order. Everything about his diving, sliding, obvious and unnecessary foul was utterly clot-headed, and nor is it the first time he’s produced such mind-boggling idiocy at the earliest possible juncture (that time we hammered Man Utd away springs to mind, Sanchez similarly gifting away a penalty in the opening exchanges).

One understands that the fixture schedule requires a spot of management of the more important dramatis personae, what with World Cups, Champions Leagues, Carabao Cups and bread-and-butter League games every three days from now until around 2038. And if an A-lister like Romero can’t be allowed to put the feet up and catch the breath in a home fixture against the bottom team, then one might reasonably ask when the devil can he?

And all of this makes perfect sense, until one throws Sanchez into the equation, as first back-up. Now his legions of fans will no doubt point to the fact that prior to Saturday night we hadn’t conceded in an absolute age with him on sentry duty. On top of which, aside from the ridiculous early penalty he actually carried out his tasks dutifully enough – but that’s not really the point is it? What good is a defender trotting around doing the basics if he’s already stuffed up and given away a goal for nothing in the opening exchanges?

The debate will presumably loop around pointlessly until he is eventually sold, so best just accept it for now. Such was our lack of control that Conte saw fit to hook the blighter and interrupt Romero’s night off, calling upon him to keep the door bolted for the final twenty or so.

On the other side of defence, Lenglet oiled around reasonably enough in lieu of the indisposed Davies, with a straightforward interception here and a (usually, though not universally) accurate forward pass there. He might not sweep the board at the awards ceremonies for outstanding individual contributions come May, but he ticks enough boxes to give us two solid left-sided options.

The spots that furrow the brow are the other centre-back positions. Sanchez and Tanganga do not really instil confidence, even when flanked by more competent souls. Worse, opponents are exchanging knowing looks and beginning to target Sanchez. Somehow, we must muddle through.

2. Wing-Backs

However, if the centre-back rotation gambit was fraught with risk, the latest wing-back experiment had about it an air that was bonny, bright and gay.

A few muted voices had half-heartedly wondered aloud in recent weeks, on the back of Emerson’s obvious limitations, whether Perisic might be deployed on the right, but I’m not sure anyone really believed it would actually happen. And yet there it was, in glorious technicolour, from the off.

And it worked pretty well, at least going forward. Perisic was as game as ever going forward, his compass evidently still in full working order despite the switch from West to East. The restored Kulusevski marked his return to the fold by haring off down the right at every opportunity, and taking the full-back with him, while young Sessegnon was not about to miss out on the fun, signalling his intentions with a few early crosses from the left.

This was all well and good, but a fairly crucial component of its success was that we were in possession. And as time continued its irresistible march, and we rather surrendered the initiative (more on that below), the defensive frailties of our wing-backs rather awkwardly rose to prominence.

Not that I blame Perisic. Here is a man who made his name on the front-foot, and if he’s anything like AANP he has untold lung capacity for the forward charge, but needs a bit of a blow when it comes to the defensive side of things. As with Sporting in midweek, so against Leicester on Saturday, he seemed to be beaten a little too easily in the mano a mano items, and with Sanchez behind him the brow began to furrow with a decent amount of nervousness.

Similarly, Sessegnon gave a full display of his fallibilities, not for the first time being fairly straightforwardly beaten in the air in the build-up to the second goal, in a manner that suggested he offers decorative value only when it comes to aerial combat.

So for all the early promise and excitement of Perisic-right and Sessegnon-left, Conte then switched the pair, and ultimately resorted to Emerson, presumably in the name of tightening the locks a smidge.

The whole sequence did again make me wonder what the hell Matt Doherty has to do these days to get a game, while Djed Spence may also be stroking a thoughtful chin, but the Perisic-Sess experiment, while showing a few rays of promise, was not quite the unmitigated success for which I’d hoped.

3. Central Midfield

In those early exchanges our lot seemed mercifully undeterred by the early deficit, and I thought were fairly good value for the 2-1 first half lead, at least in possession. Alas, as the pattern evolved to that rot about sitting deep and looking to counter, Leicester began to get to grips with life – which really is utter muck if you think about it. This lot were bottom, conceding goals for fun – and yet there they were, controlling possession for five-minute chunks, in our own back yard!

Well, you can imagine the harrumphing emanating from this corner of Vegas, and the dashed thing is this is hardly the first time we’ve seen our midfield lose control of things. I don’t really blame either of Messrs Bentancur or Hojbjerg, as the problem seems to be quantity rather than quality. Any team with three in midfield simply has more available legs in the area.

The point of the 3-4-3 seems to be to ensure that we have plenty of men manning the back-door at any given point, but even within this packed environment Leicester did not have to break too much sweat to bop their way around us.

Helpfully, Leicester were simply not very good, so while we let them offer far more threat than decency ought to allow a team at the bottom of the table, there was rarely a point at which I felt we would not outscore them. However, any semblance of control of the dashed thing only really emerged once Bissouma was introduced and we switched to a three-man midfield.

Conte has made Bissouma kick his heels a tad, for reasons of fitness or tactical education or some such rot apparently, but the fellow was on the button once introduced on Saturday, happy to treat the masses to his fabled array of interceptions and tackles.

Various pundits will hone in on a chap who scores and mark them out as a standout performer, irrespective of anything else contributed or lacking during the course of the 90, and I’m a tad wary of doing the same with young Master Bentancur. His goal was certainly a triumph for high pressing and general alertness, and I’m pretty sure he contributed crucially to one of Sonny’s goals through another sprightly tackle. All told, however, he seemed to me to swan through life in his usual neat, tidy and effective way.

The challenge he faces each week is, as mentioned above, that that central midfield pair is too often outnumbered. All of which does make one wonder whether there might be scope for Bissouma to be added more permanently, and a switch to 5-3-2 to be effected (I’ve heard it mentioned that Kulusevski could occupy the right wing-back slot for such a move).  Such jiggery-pokery might also allow Bentancur to shove forward ten yards or so, and allow the creative juices to flow a little more freely. The Brains Trust, no doubt, have all options under consideration.

4. Sonny

Only right to give the chap a mention I suppose. Personally I’d have preferred him to make less of a song and dance about it all – stiff upper lip and all that – but a man has his feelings I suppose, and the whole business of getting dropped and then scoring from all angles would presumably have been a lot to digest in one afternoon.

Aside from the drama that surrounded the honest fellow, I was most taken by the gumption he displayed in striking the shot for his first goal. By the time of his third the narrative was well established – Leicester were falling to pieces, and Sonny’s redemption arc was well into its third act.

But when he collected the ball and set off towards goal at 3-2, he was still a man who had been dropped, was without a goal, hadn’t smiled since May and appeared to have forgotten which foot was which. Given this context, for him then to bend one from approximately a mile out, and shape it from outside the post to within, with whip and height and all sorts, was remarkable stuff indeed.

His confidence having been at a low ebb, one would have bottled up a sigh and forgiven him for shuffling off with the ball towards some cul-de-sac near the corner flag. And had he swiped at the ball and got his geometrics wrong, the groans would have been audible down the High Road. To eject himself from his rut, and in such fashion as that first goal, was a triumph. (As was the sweet, sweet strike for his second, while we’re on the topic.)

I suppose one might glance at the scoreline and label this a triumph for defensive rotation, but given that Hugo had to make three or four pretty spectacular leaps about the place this felt anything but comfortable until the final fifteen or so. It’s a remarkable thing to engineer an unconvincing 6-2 win, but there we are. I must confess to looking ahead to the game away to Woolwich with a fair amount of dread, given the way our lot have struggled to exercise control over any opponent so far this season. As such I might quietly start a campaign for a three-man midfield, in the hope that it grows into quite the din by 1 October. For now, however, despite being oddly off the boil, we remain comfortably ensconced in the top four.

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Spurs 4-1 Southampton: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Emerson

Emerson had what might officially go down in the tome of such things as his best game in lilywhite. Admittedly the bar in this particular area is pretty low, the memory lingering long of countless dreadful attempted crosses last season, but let that not detract from some surprisingly impressive stuff in all areas for the peculiar chap. Who knew he had it in him?

If Emerson is the sort to let the failings of previous seasons weigh on him, he hides it well. Here is a fellow not wanting for self-confidence, irrespective of how much the evidence of the senses and weight of data has suggested he ought to think otherwise.

Watching him scurry off down the right, find himself incapable off beating a man or whipping in a cross, therefore decide to keep scurrying and eventually hit the byline, before attempting to pull back the ball out of necessity as much as anything else, you would think from his manner that he had long ago decided, with supreme confidence from the off, that scurrying to the byine and pulling back the ball was in fact the best possible plan, and nobody on earth could convince him that any alternative would be better – or indeed that any other living soul could execute it better than he. 

Impressively, however, it worked. In fact, just about everything Emerson tried on Saturday struck oil. From the starter’s clap he went about his business yesterday like a newly-born lamb having his first taste of spring and deciding that he’d be dashed if he was going to be prevented from gambolling about the place.

With Kulusevski on hand to provide attacking finesse as required, Senhor E’s willing and energy, and runs and uncomplicated passes, had the left side of Southampton scampering around in something of a muddle throughout.

His input for Kulusevski’s goal illustrated much of what he was doing well – first summoning the energetic spirit of that new-born lamb to bound off towards that murky area in between corner flag and penalty area, then picking a pass as simple as it was effective for Master K, who did the rest with customary aplomb.

His contribution to the own-goal was ultimately a little less conventional, his self-confidence by this point reaching the stratospheric height at which simply being wing-back was beneath him, and he fancied himself rather as a Haaland sort, motoring through the centre as the furthermost forward – but mark the preamble. Emerson tackled his man cleanly in the traditional right-back berth, then, rather than sitting back to admire his handiwork, led the charge over halfway at the sort of lick that was less new-born lamb and more thoroughbred racehorse.

Having successfully communicated the message that one need not whip in crosses from deep in order to fulfil one’s attacking remit as a wing-back, it is also worth noting that his attacking success did not come at the expense of his defensive duties. In fact, he was as diligent as the next man when on sentry duty. It was all most impressive. Whether he can hit such heights next week, say, at Chelsea, is for another day, but with Dohertys and Spences now littering the place one cannot fault Emerson’s first stab at the role of 22/23 RWB.

2. Kulusevski

Not that Saturday was simply the Emerson Show, with others in attendance offering supporting roles only. Far from it. The list of standout performers was pretty extensive – which mangles the language somewhat when you think about it, but such was the quality of the various presentations.

Kulusevski, yet again, hit impressive heights. He is quite the curio, being one of those attackers who bursts with creativity despite not having some obvious eye-catching quality. He is neither lightning-quick, nor possessed of stepovers and mazy dribbles and whatnot, and can sometimes give the air of one of those types who was not bestowed abundant gifts by Mother Nature, but made the most of what he had through hard work. Think Lampard or Kane.

And yet, his wealth of talents were on full display on Saturday, rendering him quite the unpredictable force. He seemed at any given moment as likely to go on the gallop; or pick a cute, short pass; or drag the ball back and switch directions, making the entire Southampton back-line trip over themselves; or whip in a cross begging to be despatched; or have a shot for himself. Whenever the ball entered his orbit, marvellous things began to happen.

If he had done nothing more than deliver the cross for Sessegnon’s goal I’d still have purred about him a goodish bit – but that was arguably not even the best cross he delivered, one in the second half that Romero might have flung himself at being arguably of finer quality. The second half also saw him pick out something close to the perfect pass for Sessegnon to steam onto; on top of which there was his goal, stroked in with the nonchalance of one idly pinging a ball from A to B while stretching his limbs on the training pitch.

How long it will be before he is spoken of in the exalted terms generally reserved for English-born folk remains to be seen – it took Sonny a good half-dozen years – but if he continues to deliver on a weekly basis to limited acclaim beyond N17 then there will be no complaints over here.

3. Bentancur

And yet even Kulusevski cannot necessarily be deemed the outright champion of all he surveyed on Saturday. As seems to have happened every time he skims the surface in lilywhite, Master Bentancur breezed through the game on a different plane from anyone else.

He really is the rarest of nibs, one who seems to see the game from a vantage point about twenty yards above ground level, with panoramic vision that takes in the positions and movements of all other bodies on the pitch. How else to explain the marvellous fellow’s ability to flick first-time passes in directions well beyond the realms of terrestrial vision?

Here at AANP Towers we are very much of the opinion that passes do not necessarily need to be earth-shattering as long as they are popped along swiftly. A first-time pass can rearrange the pieces just as effectively as one of those pearlers that bisects a clutch of opponents. Bentancur seems effortlessly to have mastered both disciplines, often at the same time. One could remover the goals from the pitch, and still delight in watching him dip his shoulders and ping his passes, simply for the heck of it.

On top of which, any asterisked concerns in his early days about him sometimes being ambushed by the pace of things over here seem to have been dispelled. The young bean was shuttling the ball off in new directions before opponents realised he had it; on top of which he was pretty zesty in the tackle too.

4. Sessegnon

Here at AANP Towers we are certainly fond of the grumble, and at various and regular points last season wasted little time in jabbing an accusing finger at young Master Sessegnon.

As with Emerson on t’other flank, Sessegnon seems to have used his summer weeks wisely, and went about his business on Saturday looking a darned sight more assured about his trade than previously.

The early goal presumably helped chivvy him along in this sense, but in general where last season a nameless fear seemed to envelop everything he did, often manifesting itself in heavy touches and complete absence of ball control, on Saturday he seemed vastly more capable when it came to the basics, and was a viable option on the left throughout his hour.

It was rather satisfying to note that the chap has well and truly got to grips with Conte-ball, regularly popping up in the area as an auxiliary attacker, as any wing-back should under Our Glorious Leader. He scored one, had one disallowed for offside – admittedly his own fault for jumping the gun, but again reflecting an eagerness to elbow his way into positions from which he can observe the whites of the goalkeepers’ eyes – and was denied a second goal only by a last-ditch tackle from KEP.

(A note on KWP while on the subject – the young pip has attracted some attention, with various fellow lilywhites reverently bawling that we should be in for his services again. To these I wave a dismissive hand, because no self-respecting defender ought ever to be outmuscled in the air, and in his own six-yard box, by anyone, let alone by the waif-like physique of Sessegnon; and to anyone who marvelled at the aforementioned last-ditch tackle I suggest that the best defenders read the game well enough not to need to make up five yards and execute sliding tackles from behind.)

But reverting back to Sessegnon – as with more than one of the above, this was comfortably one of his better days in lilywhite. One would expect Perisic to assume responsibilities for bigger tests, but if Sessegnon gets wheeled out for Southampton and the like he’ll get a glowing reference and rousing hand from me.

5. The Debutants

After six summer signings, I rather liked the fact that the only new sight was the gleaming kit (top marks from AANP by the way, a fan of the simple white shirt over here) and a couple of new-fangled set-piece operations. It sent the message that one has to earn one’s place in this team – earn one’s spurs, if you will – and helped to cement the notion that ours is a setup that increasingly needs to think like a big club.

Bissouma only got five minutes or so, but seemed determined not to be constrained by such mortal limitations as time, and set about cramming as much action as possible into his brief cameo. Thus we were treated to Bissouma blocks, interceptions, sensible passes, a yellow card and, intriguingly, a long-distance effort hit with some wattage. With Hojbjerg hitting (the pass in the build-up to Kulusevski’s goal was a weighted delight) but also missing (various misplaced passes littered the place), Bissouma’s brief bustle made for quite the hors d’ouevres.

Perisic had a little longer to acquaint himself with things, and similarly caught the AANP eye. The headlines of his half-hour were a couple of forays in the meaty end of things – stepovers and party-tricks to evade his man, followed by a couple of crosses into dangerous squares of the penalty area. These bode well, and in time one imagines Kane and chums feasting on his produce.

But as a long-time admirer of the chap, I kept a particular eye on his positioning at every given point, and noted that it is safe to say that rumours of him being well attuned to the whims of Senor Conte are resoundingly true. As soon as we turned over possession he was off on the gallop, well in advance of the defensive line – and, as often as not, in advance of the midfield line too. Where Sessegnon seems content enough to stay within a stone’s throw of Ben Davies, Perisic has more heady ambitions, and could regularly be spotted further up the pitch than anyone else, and frankly straining at the leash for a ball to be released onto which he might run.

All of which meant that when we lost possession he was a good-ish distance up the pitch, but the honest fellow made the effort to sprint back to his post. Should he feature against Chelsea next week I’ll be intrigued as to the extent to which his attacking instincts are indulged or otherwise.

And finally there was also a brief cameo for Lenglet, who took up the appropriate position on the left, and seemed to make the sensible hand-gestures of one who wants at least to look he knows what he’s about. He also picked a handy pass in the move that led to Bissouma’s long-distance shot, which earned him a subtle nod of approval – but his appearance was little more than a chance for Conte to flex a bicep and show the world that he has Levy eating out of the palm of his hand.

So after one fixture we sit pretty atop the pile. While it is, of course, mathematically possible that we might yet blow this, frankly anything less than the title would now be a massive disappointment.

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Yves Bissouma: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Joyous Tidings

If you happened to notice AANP bounding about the place in particularly bonny, blithe and gay fashion in the last week or so I’d congratulate you on your perceptive nature. Every now and then our lot unveil a new signing that puts no end of buck in the step, and the scrawl of Yves Bissouma across the headed notepaper has done precisely that.

I mentioned in my last tuppence worth, a couple of weeks back, that I’m not generally one to devote my energies to watching opponents, being far too consumed with monitoring the every move of those in lilywhite. As a result, it’s something of an event when an opposing player catches the AANP eye during a Tottenham game, but in this category young Monsieur Bissouma can proudly step up to collect a gong and clear his throat for a victory speech.

The job he did when we travelled to Brighton last season, was quite something to behold. Memory suggests that while some other chappie pinched the last-minute goal that weighted the scoreline in Brighton’s favour, it was Bissouma’s security work in the central areas that won the thing. In particular, I wouldn’t wonder if that rotter Harry Kane greeted Bissouma’s arrival in N17 by bunging him over the head with a brick, such was the job done by the latter on the former in that match. Whenever the ball was shoved in the general radius of Kane, Bissouma was upon him in an instant, sucking the life – and most of our collective creative juices – out of him for the entirety of the gig.

And while admittedly one random shindig in the sun last season is not the sort of stuff upon which one ought to base a fully-fledged opinion, the bespectacled sorts who crunch numbers have rather more weight to throw behind the chap. For a start, the numbers have him down as having made more frequent tackles and interceptions than anyone else in the league last season, which lends a touch more gravity to the argument and has me nodding an admiring head.

Of course, he might still swan into the team and prove a dreary letdown (he wouldn’t be the first in the hallowed corridors of the Lane) but frankly the odds are stacked in his favour. A player who looked in charge of much he surveyed last season, with a couple of years of Premier League experience and, at 25, one would presume a fair amount of oxygen to in his lungs, represents one heck of a deal at £25m.

Indeed, he even popped up with a rather eye-catching solo goal in the Cup fixture at N17 last season; although my spies assure me that such activities are the exception rather than the norm when it comes to Bissouma’s list of bullet points. Nice to know that he’s capable of such things, of course, but the fellow has been designed by Mother Nature for more defensive-minded inputs.

And that’s fine by me. While Bentancur would collect the ball and dreamily pop it along to the better-placed, Hojbjerg last season grafted away but often seemed to be operating on the very last couple of drops of energy wrung from his tissues. The addition therefore of a bona fide midfield enforcer is pretty exciting stuff, particularly given that in our neck of the woods midfielders tend to be the creative sorts who’d rather not waggle too many defensive legs if they can get away with it.

2. How He Fits In

The central options next season therefore appear to read: Bentancur, Bissouman, Skipp and Hojbjerg, the first two of whom will presumably rise, cream-like to the top, but the latter two of whom have respectively the energy and nous to deputise at the drop of any hats and with minimal disruption or – crucially – dip in quality.

One might, of course, quibble, that between this quartet there is still something of a dearth of creative tricks and party-pieces that make the eyes pop and opposition fall apart at the seams, but that’s not really the point. Conte-ball seems to require a central midfield pairing that neutralises all threats and shifts us from back- to front-foot in the blink of an eye, and in both respects Bissouma appears to be precisely the sort of egg about whom exciting montages are spliced together.

(Some might also point that the potential incoming of a certain free-of-charge alumnus in central midfield would add a degree of creativity, and the option for tactical tweaks away from 3-4-3, but that’s a debate for another time.)

3. Our Changing Transfer System

Part of the thrill of all this to-ing and fro-ing is the pretty radical departure it signals from the traditional way of doing things in N17. We’ve been raised (rather cruelly it seems to me) on a diet of tortuous transfer sagas stretching the entirety of the summer, before a last-minute panic to complete deals, and the signing of a couple of unproven bods in their early twenties with potential sell-on value.

Witness the current contrast. Three deals inked and ready to go before the longest day of the year has stretched its legs; each of whom are proven in their positions. This rather than being the sort for whom we wait, with fingers crossed and lips pursed, to see if they’ll fulfil their potential.

Frankly, the good sense of this summer’s dealings thus far, coupled with the no-nonsense way in which players have been identified as the best available to meet the necessary criteria, makes this seem like a game of Football Manager rather than the Way of Things in Hotspur-land.

The immediacy of it all – buying proven players who can waltz straight into the starting line-up and will improve our league position in this coming season, rather than three years hence – is both unusual and jolly entertaining. Frankly, it represents a degree of sensible thinking I had not thought possible with our lot. But then, Conte has seemingly had that effect in all he does about the place. And Grandmaster Levy, rather sensationally, is now backing the honest fellow! Long may the sanity continue!

(Not wanting to gloss over the potential seriousness of the legal case hanging over him, but with no information available it’s near-impossible to opine one way or t’other at present, so the ramblings above are purely football-related)

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Spurs match reports

Norwich 0-5 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Spursy vs Conte

If you’ve stopped by this corner of the interweb you will know well that after the chortling against Woolwich and nail-chomping against Burnley, last week the ingrained pessimism of being a Spurs fan well and truly pulled on its gloves and got down to business, so that by the time Norwich rolled around the feeling was not so much whether we’d blow things but simply in what farcical manner we’d do so.

The AANP wad was staked on a Brighton-esque meandering for 88 minutes followed by concession of a late goal and an all-too late rally, but in truth the possibilities and potential for doom seemed pretty endless. As kick-off approached, that need to avoid defeat took on a pretty ghastly hue. Memories of lasagne and Tyneside batterings set up shop in the mind.

All of which slathers the praise for Our Glorious Leader all the more thickly about the place. Relegated and pretty clueless though Norwich might have been, they were not the main villain here by any stretch. As recently as a few months ago, at the last dregs of the Nuno era, this remained a Spurs vintage drenched in the ability to make a pig’s ear of the most straightforward of tasks.

To see our lot therefore casually brush off all concerns of self-sabotage and disaster, and simply don their professional garb and set about getting the thing done from minute one, jolly relieving though it was, also had me clutching at the nearest stable point, giving the eyes a quick rub and generally questioning my senses.

As mentioned, the concern in this quarter was that we might witness some doppelganger of the Brighton defeat. In this respect, it certainly helped that Norwich were a few miles off the quality of even Brighton. Where Brighton had Bissouma patrolling the central decks and sniffing at Kane’s size nines every opportunity, Norwich simply waved a cheery hand at the midfield and left us to do it, which didn’t half help chivvy things along.

Nevertheless, obliging opponents will only take things so far. The operation still required all on Team Lilywhite to put on serious faces and play the game a bit – and this they did pretty relentlessly, from the off until deep into the second half, at which point the lead was five and even by our standards it seemed a safe bet.

The anthem from the off seemed to be, ‘Prod, probe, and prod and probe again, and make sure you do it briskly and accurately’. Moreover, one got the impression that even with Norwich rolling over and practically begging to have their tummies tickled, Signor Conte would have grabbed by the neck anyone not delivering the goods and bellowed in their faces until matters improved.

And again, taking all this into account, one can only sing the praises of the man, and when done, pick a different key and sing them all over again. The mentality amongst our lot has not so much changed on his watch, as switched one hundred and eighty degrees, and for good measure seen the old mentality burnt to a cinder. There can be little clearer proof of this than the fact that when needing to avoid defeat our lot pointedly trotted out and stuffed the other lot by five.

2. Bentancur and Hojbjerg

I mentioned above that Norwich did not exactly treat the midfield region as some gladiatorial arena in which bloodied limbs were to be strewn and every inch fought for like the dickens. Quite the opposite. They seemed happy to back out of the way and cede that patch of land in its entirety. A curious ploy, and not one teeming with overpowering logic, or indeed effectiveness, but there it was.

Messrs Bentancur and Hojbjerg therefore took one look at the wide open spaces and promptly marched into them unopposed, which seemed reasonable enough. And continuing the theme of reasonable choices, once camp had been set up in midfield, and it became clear that any Norwich bods about the place were providing decorative value only, our midfield pair unfurled their more creative sides. Cautiously at first, understandably enough, but they soon got into the spirit of the thing and embraced the moment.

Hojbjerg in particular seemed to relish the opportunity. When the grass was still wet with morning dew he could be spotted shaking a limb or two in the Norwich area, evidently noting that here was an opportunity to recreate the glory of his attacking cameos at Euro 2020, or 2021, or whatever decorum dictates we call it.

Bentancur followed suit, but in rather more apologetic manner. Where Hojbjerg had been presented with a shooting opportunity from inside the area and greedily lashed at it with every ounce of his being, Bentancur adopted a far more relaxed attitude when Norwich parted at the moorings (via a Hojbjerg pass) and allowed him an eternity to pick his spot from close range.

Such vulgar acts as lashing a shot goalwards with ferocity are obviously beneath Bentancur, who prefers to imbue his contributions with class and elan. Seemingly disgusted at the notion of having to apply the finishing touch himself, he tried instead to invert the entire pitch, somehow dragging the ball backwards for one of the more uncouth sorts to bundle the thing in.

Bentancur was it at again five minutes later, looking almost embarrassed to collect the ball when handed to him on a plate by Tim Krul (who was evidently keen to undo all the good of that one-man barricade he presented against us a few years back), before gracefully chipping the ball towards Kane, in a manner which punished the mistake without twisting the knife and drawing too much attention to it. AANP looked on with approval.

Thereafter Bentancur was content to withdraw to a more behind-the-scenes role, making himself available and collecting on the half-turn, in that dreamy fashion that seems to be the unique gift of a chosen few. Hojbjerg meanwhile continued to have the time of his life, evidently aware that the Norwich midfield is a pretty rare treat and throwing himself forward with gusto.

With Skipp to return and signings presumably incoming it is debatable quite how many more afternoons this particular pair will enjoy in each other’s company, so in common with various others around them, I was rather pleased that proceedings were such that, as against Woolwich a few weeks back, they were able to enjoy themselves and lap up a spot of appreciation from the assorted onlookers.

3. Kulusevski

It would be stretching things to say that this was a mixed bag from young Master Kulusevski, because in truth it was another tour de force. A solid hour of perspiration topped off with a very welcome opener – coming, as it did, early enough to put to bed the nerves – and one heck of a finish in the second half.

That second goal in particular was fashioned from pretty spectacular stuff, beginning as it did with the young bean gently meandering toward the corner flag, before suddenly taking a sharp turn towards the spectacular and curling one of those glorious efforts that start outside the post but then shift-ho midway through its journey.

Nevertheless, awkward though it is, the really eye-catching moment in Kulusevski’s afternoon came a minute or two prior to that, when he produced a deceptive burst of pace and rounded the goalkeeper. At that point it appeared that only the formalities remained, what with the ‘keeper flailing in a different postcode and the net opening its arms in a welcoming embrace.

Bizarrely though, having until this point shown himself to be pretty adept at matters of consequence in the final third, the lad then seemed to lose track of how many feet he had, and things rather went downhill from there. I do wonder whether he was preoccupied with thoughts of enabling Sonny to get on the scoresheet, but whatever his motivations the outcome was pretty disastrous, and what ought to have been a straightforward tap in ended in an unsightly bundle of limbs, with the ball gently bobbing off in another direction.

Mercifully, this particular wrong was promptly righted with his wonder-strike moments later, and ought not to detract not only from another sterling display, but also the fact that his arrival has coincided with a pretty seismic upturn in our fortunes.

4. Sonny’s Golden Touch

Having said all that about various others, the star of the show ought really to be Sonny, and he’s evidently a popular sort, judging by the fanfare and ovation he was being afforded by his on-pitch chums as he edged closer to the Golden Boot. But it’s indicative of how underrated the fellow is that even at AANP Towers he gets shunted quite a long way down the list, behind Bentancur and Hojbjerg dash it.

This is actually quite the injustice. His second goal gave proof – not that any is required these days – that his nose for goal is right up there with the best, and if anything it was quite the curiosity to see his two straightforward second half chances culminate in the successful extension of a goalkeeping limb or two, rather than a net-ripple and celebratory finger-photo-frame-whatnot.

Sonny is evidently the principal beneficiary of Kane’s exploratory lumberings into deeper territory, blessed as he is both with blistering pace (including with ball at feet, which is not to be sniffed at) and, as mentioned, an increasingly ruthless streak in front of goal.

As well as being genuinely world class (by which I suppose I mean he would waltz into just about any team in the world) he also fits the system perfectly. Week after week he delivers the goods, both in front of goal and through his general movement, in and out of possession. And yet the fellow rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as other luminaries of the era – nor, more to the point, does he feature to highly on AANP’s post-match verbal meanderings.

One to bear in mind for the future I suppose, but for now it seems appropriate that he at least received the glory of an individual award recognised beyond the streets of N17.

5. Ben Davies

There has been some talk of summer signings including a new left-sided centre-back, and while upgrades are always welcome it would be a little harsh on poor old Ben Davies, who has fought the good fight with bundles of pluck and gusto this season. The circle of life and all that, and as Davies himself would presumably attest, being an honourable sort of egg, anything for the greater good is to lauded.

However, as I saw the chap doing his darnedest to prod us into life with forward passes from an inside-left-midfield sort of berth, or adopt the correct defensive stance as necessary in his own area, the thought did strike me that this might be something of a swansong.

He’ll almost certainly have a part to play next season, new signings or otherwise, what with fixtures piling up and the unique input provided by virtue of being Chappie With a Left Foot, so this was no tear-stained adieu.

But nevertheless, once the idea popped into my head, it rather stuck there, what? With each flying challenge and surprisingly testing long-range shot I looked at the blighter with a sort of avuncular fondness, noting proudly how far he has come. And while Norwich, to repeat, barely extended an arm, let alone laid a glove, Davies nevertheless spent the afternoon diligently applying all that he has learnt from Conte over the months – the forward dashes, the attacking input, the defensive solidity.

In a way, Davies represented much of our lot in a microcosm, having massively improved and bought into the system, but potentially due to be elbowed aside for someone newer and shinier come 22/23. Being a model pro, however, and given the spirit that Conte seems to have engendered, I suspect that he’ll be fully on board nonetheless.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-0 Arsenal: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Sanchez

If there’s one thing AANP enjoys more than plucking one of the more unheralded players to laser in on as the first talking point, it’s finding sticks with which to beat poor old Davinson Sanchez. There’s a neat symmetry therefore in opening with a spot of praise for Senor D. S., after a game in which the chap swanned along more or less under the radar.

The marvellous pre-match atmosphere was punctured somewhat by yowls of anguish when the teamsheet was posted to reveal Sanchez where Romero ought to have stood. This was with good reason. Most of sound mind could rattle of the truths that not only is Romero comfortably a more dependable sort of bod in defence – crunching of tackle, intelligent of positioning, and so forth – but he also has turned into a pretty critical cog in our attacking machinery by dint of his ability to pick a forward pass from deep within the bowels of the back-line.

By contrast, Sanchez’s defensive attempts seem to come under as much pressure from factors such as gravity and control of his own limbs as opposing attackers; on top of which, while in possession, the list of options in his head seems to read:

  • Panic;
  • Send panicked pass backwards;
  • Blast panicked clearance into the atmosphere

As such, the reasons for concern were strong and manifold. The mood at AANP Towers, for a start, flipped from cautious optimism to “Death where is thy sting” in about the time it takes to read a teamsheet.

And those pre-match yowls were being repeated with some added vigour in the opening seconds of the match, when Sanchez received the ball and promptly wobbled through all three of his options. The omens were not good.

Worse still, the Woolwich rotter up against him – Martinelli – seemed to get whiff of the fact that here was a startled rabbit in headlights, and made a very public decision to get his head down and run at him every time he received the ball, no doubt reasoning that he was onto a good thing so why not.

Mercifully, the Martinelli threat was up in smoke once Woolwich went down to ten and reshaped themselves. Even so, the few threats they posed thereafter, Sanchez rose to sufficiently well. Be it on the ground or up in the air, he seemed on board with the basics of his role, and carried out sentry duty in his specific area pretty well.

As impressively, despite obviously being new to the centre-back troupe, he held his position well. Over the last couple of months, Dier, Romero and Davies have seemed particularly well drilled in the curious art of lining up alongside each other as if bound in position by taut rope, and in this respect Sanchez slotted in admirably.

He won’t have many gentler days, particularly in this fixture, but given the pre-match alarm prompted by his selection, the curious egg deserves a congratulatory fist-bump, or whatever it is the youth do these days.

Moreover, just when I was exhaling some of the 45 minutes’ worth of breath being held at the prospect of Sanchez being called into action, at the start of the second half he then went and played one of the best passes of the game in the build-up to our third.

Naturally it went under the radar, but his roll of the ball into Kane in the area was slyly spotted in the first instance, given that the onus at that point was on safe sideways passes and space was at something of a premium, and perfectly weighted in the second instance. From then on Kane and Son took charge – Kane using his strength, Sonny applying the finish – but that it all emanated from the size nine of Davinson Sanchez was impressive indeed.

2. Professionalism

All that said, one would hardly reflect on this game as one in which victory was obtained principally by the efforts of Sanchez. Rather, this was a triumph of lilywhite professionalism.

I suppose some might stop me right there, and counter that our lot didn’t really have to do much more than check in on time, as Woolwich needed little encouragement to go about the place imploding in comical fashion at every opportunity. And I would not be able to deny that this were an argument of some substance.  

Nevertheless, it was mightily encouraging that once up a goal and a man, our lot scented blood and dispensed with the traditional niceties of a genial host. The sentiment seemed to be that if our visitors wanted to fire off rounds into their own feet that was their prerogative, but we were not about to pause and extend the hand of friendship. Instead, much like those cyborg assassins sent from the future that one occasionally sees at the picture house, those in employment at N17 went about their business without any thought of bargaining or reasoning, and without feeling any pity, remorse or fear.

As the inexperienced young coves in the opposition ranks sought to impose themselves through the medium of one rash and hot-headed decision after another, our lot suddenly bore the hallmarks of a troupe who have seen a few things in their time, and now approach such matters a lot more wisely.

Where Holding, for the other lot, approached the occasion like some wild and ill-considered skirmish in the playground, with little consideration of the bigger picture, and went to extreme lengths to ensure he’d be sent off at the earliest opportunity, those in lilywhite added plenty of crunch and clatter to things, but without straying into the more sordid realms.

Even the moments of ill-discipline seemed to have about them an air of knowing professionalism. When Davies lost control of the limbs and allowed Nketiah to sneak in front of him, he wasted little time in entrapping the fellow’s ankle between his own two legs and refusing to release. A yellow card duly followed, but an infinitely worse threat – of Nketiah bearing down on goal unchallenged – had been halted. This was no rash swipe; it was a calculated breach of the regulations for the greater good.

The urge to press high up the pitch seemed stronger than usual once the red card had been shown, and in general there was a sense that here was a Spurs team deciding collectively that their moment had arrived and they were dashed well going to make the most of it.

The second goal seemed to emanate as much from grinding down Woolwich as from Bentancur’s leap and Kane’s finishing instincts. All of which made a most pleasing change, bearing evidence of the sort of gritty ruthlessness one wouldn’t normally associate with our mob. As ever, credit can liberally showered upon Our Glorious Leader, the fingerprints of whom could clearly be seen all over this.

Even in the second half, when my primitive instincts urged our lot to fly forward every time they touched the ball and shoot from all angles, I could still appreciate that the gentle and inoffensive popping of the ball this way and that was serving a purpose. The game was won, our goal difference was already superior – there was no need to do anything other than gently and inoffensively pop the ball.

3. Dier

As mentioned above, Sanchez filled the Romero-shaped hole adequately enough, but I thought Eric Dier met with this particular disaster particularly well. Not only did he have to contend with the loss of a reliable sort of egg to his right, and take on a spot of baby-sitting, the absence of Romero also deprived us of a usual outlet for distribution, heaping a few extra handfuls of responsibility upon Dier to do the forward-prompting from defence.

And this was not a responsibility he shirked. Admittedly he did not exactly morph into a modern-day Hoddle when the ball was at his feet, but he took to heart the responsibilities that come with being a defender at the heart of Conte-ball, and sought to distribute the thing usefully each time.

This was sometimes simply a sideways pass to Sanchez – about which Dier seemed a lot more sanguine than AANP, who greeted each of these occasions with a sharp intake of breath and fevered hand over the eyes – but as often it was a more constructive attempt. Notably this included the chip forwards towards Sonny that led to Holding being gripped by the idea that raising a shoulder to the face would swing the pendulum decisively his way.

While I’m not sure too much credit can be laid at Dier’s door for that particular incident – Holding, frankly, was the gift that didn’t stop giving, and might have been fun to observe for another hour – the point is that Dier was happy to try playing the ball out from the back, and in the absence of Romero this was pretty critical to our set-up.

Indeed, when the head hit the pillow and I began contemplating the infinite last night, the thought did strike me that the national head honcho could do worse than bring Dier back into the fold, particularly when one observes the regularity with which Harry Maguire makes a pig’s ear of unthreatening situations at the heart of any given defence in which he is placed.

4. Bentancur and Hojbjerg

And once supremacy was achieved, and the mission parameter switched from establishing a lead to protecting it, Messrs Hojbjerg and Bentancur cleared their throats and spent the remainder of the evening gently directing operations.

In fact, well before this, I was particularly enamoured of the manner in which Hojbjerg had gone about his business. Woolwich had signalled from kick-off that they felt this was a game that would be won by means of sly elbows and crafty kicks as much as anything else, so it was handy to have in the ranks a fellow like Hojbjerg who, one feels, strains at the leash to launch into a full-blooded challenge on someone from the moment his eyes open in the morning.

Moreover, Hojbjerg’s partiality to a forward gallop has also been in evidence in recent weeks. Admittedly one tries to erase from the memory his late input into matters in the opposing penalty area vs Liverpool last weekend, but in general the sight of him eagerly chugging up into the final third is a welcome one, and his contributions, whilst maybe lacking a little finesse, tend to be useful enough.

But it was in maintaining control of things once the game was won that both he and Bentancur excelled last night. Bentancur in particular has the happy ability to grasp the geography of the place in advance of receiving the ball, which, married to a pretty silky first touch, allows him to improvise changes in direction and whatnot according to any challenges that may fly his way at short notice.

It all contributed to what was essentially a half-hour victory parade at the end of the game last night, as this pair kept careful watch of possession and Woolwich, sensing the thing was up, waved a white handkerchief and looked on glumly.

Alas, I suspect that a week on Sunday we will still be left shrugging the shoulders and settling for fifth, and I suppose life does give one such crosses to bear – but no doubt about it, yesterday’s was as emphatic a win as they come, and if nothing else it will leave the grin etched across the map for a goodish while yet.

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Spurs match reports

Brentford 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Matty Cash (Stay With Me Here)

When Mother Nature was fashioning right wing-backs I fancy she sneaked off for a few minutes away from prying eyes, to surreptitiously create a red herring in amongst the quality stock, because Emerson Royal may have his talents (a debatable point, come to think of it) but wing-backery is not one of them. In fact, I’m still not convinced that this man is actually a professional footballer, in terms of the fine print and T’s and C’s. And yet history will record that this utter charlatan thrice appeared for Barcelona, which if nothing else goes to show what sorcery a cunning football agent is capable of.

To the surprise of no-one Emerson was at it again on Saturday, charging into cul-de-sacs like a toddler thrilling at a new game, and taking every available opportunity to make a pig’s ear of things when in possession.

There’s a broken record resounding with the four walls of AANP Towers, which continually belts out the refrain that for Conte’s system to work it blasted well needs a pair of pretty inspired wing-backs. Until Christian Eriksen returns we’re certainly not going to set any pulses racing in central midfield, where Messrs Hojbjerg and Bentancur are unfailingly polite and diligent, but respond with rather blank looks and the offer of a sideways pass when asked to create something. As such, the burden of expectation falls on those patrolling the flanks.

And this is where that pest Matty Cash lumbers into view, because until he took it upon himself to fling his entire body-weight at the knee of Matt Doherty a few weeks back, our lot could go about their 9-to-5 with at least one semi-decent wing-back in the ranks. Doherty seemed to have read the manual and got the gist of where to be and when. Even though, curiously, crossing the thing was never too high on his To-Do list, he still had enough good sense to plant himself in helpful attacking spots about the place.

Emerson, by contrast, is cursed with an inability to contribute helpfully to attacking matters – which to be honest, quite likely stems from his underlying inability to contribute helpfully to footballing matters more generally.

So when attempts to weave pretty meticulous routes straight down the centre came to naught, hopeful looks were cast towards the flanks for a spot of timely inspiration, only for those looks to fall upon Emerson Royal and become infused with a few shades of anguish.

Nor did the other flank bring a more productive harvest, being populated by young Sessegnon, who appears still petrified of his own shadow. All of which leaves me cursing with a great deal of spirit that damned Matty Cash (and, for good measure, Steven Gerrard, still hoovering up the goodwill around the place from his playing career to get away with such uncouth tactics as a manager). The Woolwich would do well to reward both with a handsome chunk of the winnings should they make the CL spot, because the absence of Doherty, while not the sole factor, has caused the whole operation to sag a bit.

2. Plan A

As alluded to above, the well of central midfield invention, if not quite bone dry, was certainly not threatening to spill over at the sides on Saturday.

That said, I’m not one to slap on the sackcloth and ashes and start bleating that our heroes simply moped about the place without caring a hang for matters of the turf. That was their domain last weekend vs Brighton. On Saturday vs Brentford, investment was at least made in the concept of prising out a chance.

The flanks were pretty derelict, arid territories, but our lot did have a couple of stabs at that business of quick, one-touching passing straight through the middle. And a chief inspector of such things might note that these endeavours met with some success. On a couple of occasions we successfully transferred the orb from circa. centre circle to circa. oppo penalty area with minimal oppo interference.

The problem was that by the time we hit oppo p.a. the whole operation ground to a halt, as we discovered that Brentford had populated the place with about fifty of their finest, and every possible avenue for entry was sealed off.

And that was pretty much the beginning, middle and end of Plan A. There was simply no way through via the centre, and our wing-backs were too dashed gormless to conjure up anything out east or out west.

3. Plan B

With Plan A thus fizzling out pretty much upon take-off, one could not impress enough upon our heroes the importance of a sturdy and viable Plan B, the sort that would force the Brentford mob to reconsider their lot in life and conjure up chances from new and exciting angles.

Unfortunately, while the theory of Plan B was sound, the reality of Plan B hit upon a pretty sizeable flaw, of the existential variety, in that it didn’t actually exist.

It’s difficult to say where the blame lies for this. Certainly the obvious direction for the accusatory finger to point is that of Our Glorious Leader, he being the nib tasked with devising such ruses. Conte appears very much a creature of tactical habit, wedded not only to his wing-backed 3-4-3, but also to pretty much an identical XI every week, if availability allows.

However, having played two games without registering a shot on target one might reasonably suggest that opponents are starting to get the hang of The Conte Way and, worse, finding ways to neuter it. And this, surely, is where the Big Cheese earns his monthly envelope, shrugging his shoulders at the unfortunate fate of Plan A and unveiling with a flourish some dastardly Plan B – and, ideally, also Plans C, D and E for good measure, if he is really in the mood.

Instead, Conte seems at as much of a loss as the rest of us, if the 3-4-3 and identical XI aren’t delivering the goods.

Now strictly speaking, if recording these musings under oath I would be in a bit of a spot, because this is a mild untruth. Cast your mind back to the rip-snorting draw with Liverpool back in December, and Conte lined up our heroes in a 5-3-2, to pretty decent effect when one takes all things into account.

These days however, Conte’s gambling blood doesn’t really extend much beyond flinging on Lucas for a ten-minute scamper and possibly Bergwijn in the dying embers of added time, neither of which really tear up the manual and indicate a wild and daring inversion of tactics.

Aside from Conte, I suppose one might direct a chastising poke of the ribs towards the actual players themselves, they being the souls in most direct command of proceedings. One never really feels comfortable attributing to footballers the capacity of enlightened thought and ingenuity, so it is perhaps asking a bit much of them to fix the tactical machinery mid-game. However, while it would be nice to see, unfortunately beyond Kane dropping into his little holes the market for such in-game player spontaneity is pretty much closed.

The alarming thing is that with only a handful of games left and precious little scope for further dropped points, we need a few viable alternatives and pronto. Actually, the alarming thing is the failure to hit a bally shot on target in two games, but you appreciate the forward-looking concern too.

4. Eriksen’s Corners

Of course, all such miseries and concerns rather faded away when one drank in the sight of Christian Eriksen treading the boards again, and long may he continue to do so.

His touch remains in pretty decent working order, and I noted with interest that the data bods awarded him the rosette for Most Distance Covered, which is the sort of stat that will do no harm to the Returning To Spurs rumours.

Back in his lilywhite days, my main gripe with the chap was that he tended to deliver his wizardry in fits and starts, flitting around the periphery of the match for much of it, rather than wading around knee-deep in the stuff from first whistle to last, as a man of his talent ought. Whether he is therefore the solution to our ills is debatable – although his advocates would make the pretty reasonable point that with him pottering around the midfield it is unlikely that we would go two games without a shot on target.

But aside from all that, what really caught the eye was the sight of him pinging corners and free-kicks about the place like a chap who’d been blessed with such ability since childhood.

Much has been made of the fact that three first-half corners were delivered pretty much on a sixpence to Toney at the far post. Anyone within earshot of AANP as these sailed over would have recoiled at the coarse and earthy language being gaily splashed around the place, such was my disgust at the complete abandonment of marking duties displayed by Sonny on these occasions, he evidently not being the sort for any of that enlightened thought or ingenuity I mentioned earlier (or even the plain common sense to spot the same thing happening and act upon it at the third time of asking).

However, the more charitable pundits about the place chose instead to focus their energies upon a spot of good old-fashioned sycophancy at Eriksen and his set-piece delivery, and I must admit that I did give it an eye. It was all the more remarkable to me, however, because one of the abiding memories of the chap’s final season in N17 was his bizarre inability to deliver a decent set-piece. It was quite the curiosity that so many of his corners would skim along the turf and straight to the first defender, incurring some early variations of that coarse and earthy language.

On Saturday, however, set-piece delivery appeared, once again, to have become his speciality, and it dashed well near enough sank us, leading to two rattles of the frame and one off-the-line clearance.

So much for Eriksen, and good luck to the honest fellow. As for our lot, one heck of an upturn is needed, and pronto, because this thing is slipping away. Strictly speaking it does remain in our hands – win all remaining fixtures, including the North London derby, and fourth is ours – but for any of the above to materialise, on-pitch matters need some pretty immediate and effective surgery.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 0-1 Brighton: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Midfield Distribution

After games such as this one can pretty much close the eyes and point a moody finger in any direction, and one will hit upon a failing. And on Saturday one such failing was the complete absence of interest in attacking play from those dozing away in central midfield.  

What struck me as particularly galling was that the business of playing the ball from defence to attack was not one of those disasters beset in problems from start to finish. It was not one of those tragedies in which the knowledgeable onlooker can spot from a mile away that the whole scheme is destined for failure as soon as it begins. At various points during the game, the beginning of our play-ball-from-defence-to-attack strategy was actually pretty neat and tidy stuff.

For a start, any sniff of danger from what masqueraded as the Brighton high-press around our area was swatted away pretty dismissively. The control of possession demonstrated by Hugo, the three centre-backs and any kindly wing-back who happened to be passing by, was of sufficient quality to sidestep any hint of trouble around our own net. Manoeuvring the ball from A to B – with A being the feet of Hugo and B the feet of anyone else in lilywhite – was an operation for which our lot demonstrated all the requisite levels of competence.

So far, so good. Our lack of a single shot on target could not be pinned upon any perceived difficulties in emerging unscathed from our own penalty area.

At this point, however, the plan started spouting leaks. The challenge seemed to be not so much the risk of losing possession in our own defensive third, as much as the conundrum of how to do anything meaningful with it, at the same point on the map.

In recent weeks, Hojbjerg and, in particular, Bentancur and Kane, have attracted their fair share of awe-struck gazes through the ability casually to flick a ball first-time around the corner, and into space up the flanks for one of the attacking cohort to gallop after. As well as being the sort of scenic stuff one could bring a picnic to watch, such first-time flicks have had the pragmatic advantage of turning the narratives completely on their head, leaving opposition defenders galloping back towards their own goal and pulled apart in all sorts of directions.

And yet on Saturday, of those first-time flicks there was no sign. Instead, both Bentancur and Hojbjerg (Kane having been muzzled by that Bissouma fellow, who I’m sure would look fetching in white upper garments come August) seemed entirely preoccupied with the notion that if anything good were to come of things it would have to have its genesis in a first-time backwards pass. No matter the coordinates, or time of day, or any other consideration of external circumstance: first-time backwards passes had been adopted as the panacea for all ills, and any other consideration was tossed aside.

Now I’m all for the practice of one passing the way they are facing. If anything, I consider it a somewhat neglected art. At the appropriate time and in the appropriate place, few things in life can top a swift nudge of the ball backwards by a fellow who has his back to goal and senses opponents hunting him down. Done in suitable conditions, it can be precisely what the doctor ordered, throwing opponents off the scent and ensuring quick movement of the ball.

But note well the preamble: “in suitable conditions’; “the appropriate time”; and “appropriate place”. All key components, and yet merrily ignored by our heroes, who seemed to think that the backwards-pass routine was such a good yarn they should thrust it into the heart of whatever was happening, irrespective of whether the circumstances required it or not.

While the occasional backward pass can be a ripping little gag, doing it every dashed time one receives the ball starts to make the regulars raise an eyebrow and wonder if all is well at HQ.

While I appreciate that it is difficult to flick around a corner when everyone in lilywhite is static and all Brighton-folk are already in position and set, there were nevertheless opportunities to start attacks, when Brighton had committed numbers up the pitch. On such occasions, some effort had gone into bypassing the Brighton press, and finally the ball was funnelled up to Bentancur and Hojbjerg (and occasionally Son), with the stage set for them to ping the ball into the spaces ahead for attacking sorts to run onto – and instead they simply bunged the thing back into defence again, and everyone in Brighton colours re-took their sentry positions.

It was as if they considered that a quick shove of the ball back towards goal were some sort of triumph in itself, and once completed they could consider their jobs done for the day.

I suppose there are multiple contributory factors here, but from the AANP viewpoint our lot seemed to be missing one heck of a trick. Instead of zipping up the pitch, all in lilywhite ponderously rolled the ball around the halfway line, and by the time last orders were called it was little wonder that we had not managed a single shot on target.

2. The Absence of Doherty

I once heard a pretty ripping gag about chickens and eggs, the nub of which was to speculate as to which arrived on the scene first, which, when you stop to consider it, starts to make the mind swim a bit. I was reminded of this when trying to fathom the root of our problems on Saturday, because on the one hand, as documented above, our midfield mob appeared in no mood to set in motion anything of attacking promise – but on the other hand I did wonder if this might be because the supporting cast were neglecting their duties.

In recent weeks, Master Doherty has carried himself full of buck and vim, taking every opportunity to chip in with his tuppence worth on the right flank, and indeed infield from said flank. He, and whichever less talented equivalent has been patrolling the left flank, have been key components of our attacking apparatus. The front three have hogged headlines and statistics, but the two wing-backs have quietly been going about the place adding meat to things.

The absence of Doherty has now coincided with a game in which we have failed to strike a bally shot on target, which might sound like a spot of AANP amateur dramatics, but, rather disturbingly, is a statement of fact. And the point I’m driving at is to speculate as to whether the two are in some way causally linked.

Certainly, Doherty’s replacement, Emerson Royal, seemed in customary fashion to offer all the on-pitch value of a mannequin, making himself visible without contributing anything of the slightest value. However, it should be noted that on the other flank Senor Reguilon was similarly impotent – and frankly neither did any of the front three display the necessary wit or intelligence to escape the beady Brighton eyes upon them and enjoy a spot of freedom in the attacking third.

So to castigate Emerson in this instance might be a touch rough. Doherty, for all we know, might similarly have laboured pointlessly.

But nevertheless, I rather considered that if the central midfield consists of Hojbjerg and Bentancur – a couple of lads with plenty going for them, but not the fellows you’d back to create twenty goals a season – then your wing-backs are going to deliver some pretty special stuff going forward. And this was precisely the sort of prime fare that Doherty had been spewing forth until having his knee rearranged last week.

To suggest that Doherty has become the most important player in our setup would be laying it on rather too thick, but he was starting to look a pretty important sort of bean in the whole mechanism. One can only hope that Saturday’s ills were indicative of a wider – and isolated – malaise, rather than due to the absence of Doherty and Doherty alone.

3. Hojbjerg

Possibly not the sort of suggestion that will have the paying public hoisting me on their shoulders and sending down the ticker-tape, but in the absence of anyone else dangling a remarkable foot, I thought that P-E H Esq. at least had the decency to suggest he cared about things.

As ventured above, his tendency always to biff the ball back to Romero or Dier upon receipt had me banging the head against whichever wall fancied it, but as the game wore on and most of our lot stubbornly refused to give a damn, I did at least admire the fact that he did not simply slump his shoulders and slink off into the shadows.

In the final knockings, he and he alone could be seen diving into tackles, and, despite the above character assassination built entirely upon his insistence on passing backwards, he did eventually get the gist of things and try to carry the ball forwards once or twice as close of play beckoned.

Hojbjerg is actually a curious egg in that it becomes harder with each passing week fully to grasp what he does. There is a danger that he might simply turn into this season’s Joe Hart, viz. a man of limited playing talent whose principal role seems to be to shout at people. He does not possess either energy, passing ability, tackling ability, dribbling ability or any other ability – bar shouting at people – that really catches the eye, and as such there is a sense that he is merely keeping a seat warm for young Master Skipp.

And yet he fits rather neatly within the Conte system, by virtue of knowing how both to patrol in front of the back-three and ward off foes, and how to collect the ball from the back-three and shovel it along, albeit usually unadventurously. (He does occasionally demonstrate an appetite for an effective forward pass, but these are generally filed under ‘Exception’ rather than ‘Rule’.)

However, given that everyone around him was determined simply to mope about the place until they could scuttle off down the tunnel, Hojbjerg can, if he fancies, treat himself to the AANP going for the day, by dint of his perspiration rather than inspiration. And that rather sad state of affairs neatly captures the whole performance.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 5-1 Newcastle: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Doherty

Having spent the last couple of years drooping his frame and acting like the whole football lark is a new one on him, in the last few weeks Matt Doherty has ripped off the mask to reveal that all along he was actually one of the better right wing-backs around.

It therefore seemed pretty cruel to react to the absence of Reguilon and Sessegnon by shoving him in at left wing-back. I mean, really. He’s only just found his feet, and now we jab a finger at him and say, “But can you do it on the left-hand side?”

On top of which, the re-jig meant that Emerson Royal and his mobile clown show was the custodian on the right. Moving our one decent wing-back to an alien position, in order to accommodate an infinitely less competent wing-back, seemed rather knuckle-headed thinking to me. As our heroes lined up at kick-off, I chewed a pretty nervous lip.

As it turned out, the one Johnnie completely unflustered by all this behind-the-scenes complexity was Doherty himself. These days it seems he wakes up each morning convinced he’s some distant relative of Pele, and not giving too many damns which flank he’s asked to patrol.

It actually works to Doherty’s advantage that he’s not really one for whipping in crosses all day and night. As far as Doherty is concerned, a wing-back’s job is to make himself available at various points up the flank, and indeed further infield, popping short passes to chums who fizz around nearby.

‘Interplay’ seems to be the anthem on Doherty’s lips, with ‘Whipped Crosses’ coming a long way down his list. And this being the case, it doesn’t really matter if he’s on his weaker foot, because even the weakest limb going will not stop a man adopting useful positions and dabbing handy five-yard passes that keep attacks healthily ticking along.

Our opening goal (the Ben Davies header) was a case in point. Naturally, much has been made of Sonny’s whipped cross for that goal, but rewind a good minute or so, and the corner was earned after Sonny went on the gallop from circa halfway to circa the six-yard box; and (stay with me here) rewind a further ten seconds or so and, crucially, this gallop would not have happened but for a perfectly-weighted, first-time, half-volleyed cushioned pass from Doherty.

For context, immediately prior to this, Romero and Lloris had been rolling the ball left and right to no real purpose, before the latter punted it upfield in the general direction of Doherty. Until then our entire game had been characterised by the absence of quick, forward-thinking distribution. Doherty’s first-time pass to Son admittedly did not look like much at the time, but I’d suggest that it was precisely the sort of injection of urgency we’d been begging for.

Admittedly I suppose we could keep on rewinding indefinitely, and count our lucky stars that the game kicked off at all, but having kept a pretty beady eye on Doherty and his left-sided escapades I clocked this one with approval.

As if to hammer home the point that being right-footed is neither here nor there if you tick all the other left wing-back boxes, Doherty then popped up with a goal at the far post, which is the sort of good habit to be encouraged in any wing-back, and even followed it up with some jiggery-pokery to set up Emerson to clown-shoe in our third.

2. Romero

Young Master Romero continues to raise his performance level drastically with each game, which by my reckoning means that he should become the best defender in the history of the game by approximately Easter Sunday.

When the match was long won, a four-goal lead established that even our lot couldn’t have messed up, I derived some entertainment from watching that Saint Maximin fellow scuttle away and perform step-overs and whatnot, looking for all the world like he possessed eight legs rather than the designated two. It generally required three in lilywhite to crowd him out on such occasions – except, however, when Romero sized him up.

There was a marvellous thrill in watching Romero trot over, cut through the bluster and fly into a challenge that pretty emphatically took ownership of the ball, whilst also uprooting young S-M and sending him a few feet into the atmosphere.

Simply to close the chapter on that violent note would, however, be to do Romero a grave injustice. The rattling challenges constitute only approximately 50% of the sketch. As has been noted with awe in recent weeks, part of the fellow’s magnetism lies in the fact that he also uses the ball with such good sense.

Romero tends to look for something fresh and spring-like when delivering a pass, as if to send the ball on its way with a message that he isn’t simply idling away the hours but genuinely believes that that act might be the start of something magnificent.

Which is not to suggest that every pass he plays scythes open the opposition: that is more the domain of rotter-in-chief, Harry Kane. Much of the time Romero’s passes are pretty gentle beasts – but they seem to me to have two critical points of delight.

Firstly, they are almost always forward, looking to advance the play by shifting the narrative from Defence to Midfield. Only in extreme circumstances does Romero go in for the rather negative business of bunging it back to the goalkeeper.  And secondly, they are generally very specific in nature, plastered all over with the name and whereabouts of the recipient, as opposed to simply being hoicked up the line with a fair amount of meat, for an unholy scrap to ensue between opposing members of the supporting cast.

It says much about the chap that when the ball rests at his size nines, rather than letting my eyes glaze over and contemplating the infinite, I crane the neck with a goodish amount of fevered anticipation.

3. Kane

I’m not sure whether Kane determines such things by poring over the data or simply tossing a coin, but this was evidently a day on which he decided that he would be Creator rather than Finisher, and after going through the motions a bit in the first half – like everyone else in lilywhite – he duly rolled up his sleeves and became unplayable thereafter.

I did wonder quite what the Newcastle tactical bods did with their time in the lead-up to this game, because Kane’s ability to drop deep and spray the ball wherever he damn well pleases is hardly an innovation. But as often as not when he picked up the ball around halfway, the Newcastle mob seemed to think he could be left to his own devices without causing any damage, seemingly oblivious to his ability to pick out teammates from just about anywhere on the pitch.

As ever there was some dreamy stuff, and the only shame was that he couldn’t be on the other end of his own passes. But I suppose that would be asking rather a lot, even for him, so we had to make do with him having the absolute time of his life in that withdrawn sort of role, orchestrating things like nobody’s business. In fact, by the end of proceedings he was starting to deliver no-look flicks and pings, which really are the hallmark of a chappie in his absolute prime.

Moreover, those around him started to pick up the rhythm of the thing too, realising that if Kane were in possession around them then they had better upgrade their own personal outputs. Thus it happened that Kulusevski started his dashes before Kane had even received the ball, and Emerson Royal – who in truth, rarely takes much convincing that he is a far better player than he actually is – began unleashing back-heeled passes and whatnot whenever his path crossed with Kane.

Of course, being a rotter, it is unclear quite how much longer Kane will remain a member of this particular parish, but while we’ve got him we might as well marvel at him.

4. Bentancur

Far fewer column inches will be devoted to young Master Bentancur. This strikes me as something of an injustice, for if column inches were to be dished out for artistry alone then Bentancur ought to have entire volumes written about him, as he both glides around the place and then typically picks a dickens of a useful forward pass, to chivvy things along and have the attackers snapping to it.

Even in that slightly moribund first half, when our heroes seemed to think that every pass required a detailed dossier of pros and cons before execution, Bentancur had the presence of mind to give the dashed thing swiftly, a hint rather lost on his colleagues.

This might not have been a day on which Bentancur’s passing brought obvious rewards – in terms of leading to goals and near-misses and the like – but with an egg like him taking possession of the thing in the middle third, life feels a lot less worrisome than it otherwise might.  

While Hojbjerg alongside him had one of his better days, I nevertheless remain impatient for the return of Skipp, and the unleashing of a double-act that promises to blow up the skirts of all onlookers. I rather fancy that Skipp’s energy would complement Bentancur’s smooth amblings around the place, and the overall effect would be ultimately to overwhelm all-comers.

5. Conte’s Attacking Substitution

On a final note, I was mightily impressed with Our Glorious Leader’s decision, in the final knockings, to replace Emerson with Bergwijn, and switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 (terms I use loosely, given the fluidity of it all, but you get the gist). I was jolly surprised too, for the record, but mightily impressed nonetheless.

Lest we overlook the context, this change was made when we were already 4-1 up, so hardly the sort of situation that called for flinging on an extra attacking body. If anything, I would have expected the rather dispiriting if understandable sight of Davinson Sanchez tripping over his feet and into the fray, stage right, while Sonny or someone similarly attack-minded made the long walk around the perimeter.

Quite what the rationale was I cannot be sure, Conte still opting not to single out AANP for a quick tactical chat about this and that after the curtain falls. However, if the thinking was to press the foot on the accelerator and up the goal difference while opportunity knocked, then I think I might have to hastily rewrite the will and bequeath everything I own to this genius of a man.

It has long been a frustration of mine that when dishing out a hammering, and faced with an opponent desperately wanting to exit the premises and disappear up the motorway, rather than taking full advantage and peppering them with attack after remorseless attack as the clock winds down, our lot will too often stroke the ball around between themselves, as if content that their work is done. The concept of making a bit more hay while the sun is blazing down like the dickens appears lost on them.

All of which made the Emerson-Off-Bergwijn-On gambit yesterday even more pleasing. And you can probably picture AANP’s delight when the thing brought near-instant rewards, with Bergwijn bobbing along for his customary goal. As well as the entertainment value of dishing out a good thrashing, these things may also have some practical value come mid-May when the points are totted up. It was only a month ago that our goal difference was ten or so worse than the other lot; now we’re ahead by a nose. Long may the needless attacking substitutions continue.

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Spurs match reports

Spurs 3-1 West Ham: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Bentancur

If young Bentancur had taken to the pitch wedged behind the steering wheel of a Rolls Royce I’m not sure anyone would have noticed, because he absolutely purred around the place today. I have quite the soft spot for those coves who can trap a ball on the half-turn and then switch angles and whir off on a completely new adventure, while – and here’s the rub – completing the entire project in one single movement. They give the impression of ticking about eight different tasks off the To-Do list in one swipe, generally uncluttering life.

Bentancur seemed hell-bent on making this his signature move today, and I was all for it. The ability to receive the ball in midfield while opponents converge has typically been the sort of duty greeted by our lot with the distant, petrified stare of a team of astronauts being told that the oxygen tank has been ruptured beyond repair. Panic settles in, and the best they can do is shovel the ball backwards and hope that such hellish conditions never occur again.

Bentancur, by contrast, swans around the place as if receive-ball-whilst-opponents-converge was a game he played on a daily basis when still being bounced on his mother’s knee. Time and again he received the ball half-facing his own goal, tamed the thing, swivelled into more appropriate alignment and then weighed up his options and picked a corker of a next step, all as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If West Ham rotters heaved on him he simply dipped a shoulder or two and sent them flying off into different postcodes.

It was masterful stuff, and meant that playing out from the back was not just some frantic escape route, but actually a stepping stone towards new and exciting attacks.

In previous weeks I have stuck something of an asterisk against Bentancur’s name, noting that for all his obvious dreamy goodness in possession, he was not always cognizant of the fact that there were eleven hulking brutes in opposition, doing their damnedest to tread on his toes and whatnot. He would occasionally dwell on the ball and react with some shock to being bustled off it, as if such things were not part of the T’s and C’s.

This wrong, if it could be described as such, appeared to have been righted yesterday. I kept a close on the fellow, initially to chastise him for any repeat of this offence, but swiftly because my eyes were simply drawn towards him in admiration.

If any lessons had needed learning about the pace of the game in these parts they had evidently been digested with gusto. The chap makes our team tick – perhaps not in the stats-obsessed manner of a Kane, but in a manner pretty critical to the entire apparatus.

2. Romero (and Passing Out of Defence)

If Bentancur were the critical link between defence and Kane attack, then we still needed to ferry the ball from defence to Bentancur in the first place, in order for the whole system to sound its bells and whistles.

And in the days not too long behind us, the responsibility for such missions lay at the trembling size nines of Davinson Sanchez, and occasionally young Master Tanganga. The latter, most neturals would assert, was sufficiently able to sort out his right foot from his left to be able to pick out a lilywhite shirt if pressed to do so; the former danced around the thing as if scared it would burst into flames, at best toe-poking it back to Lloris and wobbling back towards his own goal. The zenith of our passing ability with these sorts patrolling the back-line tended to be a solid biff towards the nearest wing-back.

All of which makes the presence of Romero at the right of the back-three an absolute blessing from on high. For a start, he welcomes the ball like an old friend with whom he has shared many a fond adventure. Rather than recoil in fear at its presence, and swing a leg at it like an axe-murderer getting down to business, Romero happily skips around with it by his side, much like small children used to cavort with their dogs in Enid Blyton books.

On top of which, as well as the obvious option of feeding Doherty wide on the right, Romero as often as not has both the presence of mind and the ice-cool nerve to look further infield for the next available point of contact.

I don’t mind admitting that, at first this, business of bisecting a couple of opposing midfielders in order to pick out Bentancur had the AANP heart skipping one or two pretty critical beats, and leaping up the throat and into the mouth. But the more I watched Romero deliver such passes – diagonally, fifteen yards forward and taking out a couple of opponents to reach Bentancur – the more I felt a quiet thrill.

There is a risk associated with the manoeuvre for sure, because any inaccuracy in direction or weight – or indeed Bentancur (or Hojbjerg or whomever) simply taking his eye off the thing – would result in conceding possession in a pretty frightful area.

But, as happens with these things, greater risk brings a greater reward. Bypass a couple of West Ham players en route from Romero to Bentancur, and suddenly our lot are within two shakes of a lamb’s tail of haring off towards the opposition area.

All of which is to say nothing of Romero’s actual defending, which was either top-notch or an isolated mistake swiftly followed by a top-notch recovery.

The above also overlooks the fact that Messrs Dier and Davies were also both willing and able to toe the company line in this respect. It’s pretty critical to the Conte m.o. that the defenders play the ball out from the back without succumbing to the urge to belt it over the horizon, and these three grow more comfortable by the week.

3. Kane’s Passing

Of course Harry Kane, being a rotter or some ilk, did not give a damn about all this fine spadework being applied in the background, and instead went about the place determined that if there were a headline going he was going to grab it.

In this regard Kane has fashioned for himself the particular advantage of being adept in two areas, namely those of creating and finishing chances. One might say he both maketh and taketh. If one cylinder is not firing for whatever reason, there’s a pretty strong chance the other will be; and thus did it transpire yesterday. His finishing was strangely awry, but it barely mattered, as he created all three of our goals and had a generous hand in the Sonny chance that hit the post too.

Kane’s pass for the opener was what you might call a triumph for hard work, involving as it did putting his head down, puffing his chest out, going for a run and then squaring the ball.  It was not a presentation dripping with aesthetics and finery, having much about it of the sweat-stained 80s playground footballer; but when the great minds thrash things out afterwards they’ll conclude it did the job.

This sort of stuff was pretty unusual fare from Kane, whose days of bursting past defenders seem to have long gone. He was on more familiar ground with his pass for our second, bunging in vision and weighting, and generally doing as much one could reasonably ask in such circumstances. Sonny still had to gallop forward and lash the thing, but the pass from Kane (and to him, from Bentancur) had the effect of cutting to ribbons much of the resistance around the place.

The assist for the third can probably be glossed over, owing more to the dull stupidity of the defenders around him, curiously drawn towards him and leaving Son to roam as he pleased ahead of them.

But for all these interventions, I was actually a little underwhelmed by Kane’s attempts to spray the ball around. The quarterback act is ripping stuff when it works, but he seemed to make three or four attempts in the second half – from an inside-right sort of spot around halfway, trying to pick out Son or Reguilon who were little more than specks in the distance on the left – and generally fouled up the mechanics, pinging the ball straight to the covering centre-back instead.

This is not to suggest that he should give up on the practice, or any such rot. On the contrary, I rather admire his gumption, and am all for a little risk-taking when on the attack. It just seemed to me that while he clocked his assists merrily enough, his attempts at the big, sweeping, crossfield numbers fell rather flat on each occasion he tried them yesterday. He can consider himself rather lucky that he found time to cram in three other assists, cunningly deflecting attention from his failings elsewhere.

(With apologies for going off-radar after the Brighton win – Covid rather knocks the stuffing out)