1. The Midfield
The white-hot news ahead of kick-off was that our Glorious Leader had donned his lesser-worn 3-5-2 boots. I suspect AANP was not alone in reacting to this firstly by rubbing the eyes and administering to self a solid pinch, to ensure that reality was in full working order; before rubbing the hands with glee and informing anyone who would listen that great things were no doubt imminent.
That said, anyone who considers that Senor Conte simply bowed to the masses and accepted that we, the Spurs-supporting public, knew better than him all along, probably needs a few truths explained to them.
A large driver of the formation change was apparently the sudden dearth of attacking options. This tallies. With Kulusevski and Lucas still having limbs reattached, and only Bryan Gil representing an attacking option from the bench, one understood the sentiment of resting one of the usual front-three in the midst of the mini fixture pile-up.
(And a propos young Gil, the decision to trade in Lamela plus several bags of cash for the undercooked waif looks barmier by the minute. One does not doubt his willing nor his touch, but Gil’s physique remains that of a malnourished Dickensian orphan. Lamela may have had as many flaws as attributes, depending upon whom you ask, but he’d have been a handy reserve for games such as Brighton or Frankfurt away – more so than young Gil at any rate.)
I digress. One of the joys of 3-5-2 was that Messrs Bentancur and Hojbjerg both appeared infinitely happier in their refurbished surroundings. And understandably enough, for which amongst wouldn’t let rip a sigh of relief, kick back and enjoy oneself when informed that a helping pair of hands was imminent in a role that had previously been understaffed for months?
Bentancur appeared the most advanced of the supporting cast. The usual silky touch was evident, on top of which, and in common with his chums, he was very much on board with the whole ‘High Press’ chorus-line. For half an hour or so, it seemed he as an individual and we as a collective had struck oil.
That said, even during that halcyon first half hour, a gnawing sentiment still irked me that Bentancur could have made rather more of his many talents. The half an eye I’ve kept on Woolwich in recent weeks has prompted me to wonder if Bentancur ought not to be matching and indeed bettering the role of Odegard for that lot – high up the pitch, seeing all angles at once, zipping early passes into tight spaces. Rather than being string-puller-in-chief, Bentancur seemed happy simply to let himself bob along on too many occasions, even when afforded the luxury of protection behind him on Saturday.
That protection took the sinewy form of Master Bissouma. As with the rest of them, for half an hour he seemed pretty much in control of matters. Having been stationed slightly south of Messrs B and H, Bissouma seemed happy to let the others tiptoe forward while he manned the rear, doing without fanfare all that menial guff that allows the machinery to hum and whir.
As well as allowing Bentancur to move to a new address ten yards up the pitch, this also seemed to inspire Hojbjerg to shrug his shoulders and dominate everything he got involved in. On various occasions the chap would win the ball, chug forward with it ten yards and then pop it off for Sessegnon or whomever to begin the next chapter. I’m not sure I remember seeing Hojbjerg go about his business with such a confident and effective strut.
And as mentioned, for the first thirty or so, things seemed fairly serene. Brighton may have occasionally triangled their way past our high press, but by and large they didn’t do much with it. Whereas our lot time and again seemed to pick their pockets within swinging distance of their goal, and, egads, even dominated possession. After a relentless stream of games in which the rope-a-dope tactic has been deployed, I could scarcely believe what was unfolding – and yet there it was, our lot hogging the ball and playing on the front-foot.
It couldn’t last of course. Brighton ended the first half more strongly, and in the second upped their possession. Ultimately, however, despite ceding possession, the story ended happily enough, as our hosts caused us problems without really causing us problems if you follow my gist – having a bit too much possession for anyone’s liking, but not actually fashioning a clear chance, thanks to the impressive shifts put in by all amongst our rear.
One of those shifting impressively was young Master Sessegnon. However, while he put his head down and racked up more ticks than crosses, I must admitting thinking it was a bit thick to shove the Outstanding Chappie Award down his gullet once the curtain had come down.
No doubt mine is an opinion tainted with prejudice and deep suspicion at the fellow’s hit-and-miss history in lilywhite. And it is true that he took several opportunities to gallop off into the final third, in the first half in particular, and did that which precious few others amongst our number seem capable – viz. launching a half-decent cross into the general vicinity of the area.
Here, I suppose, is where I start to pause, and raise a quibbling finger. For while it is true that he slung in more crosses than probably anyone else, a pedant might argue that he could have directed them a little better. Where one would ideally like to see crosses whipped in front of the onrushing throngs, Sessegnon seemed to pop them just behind the danger area, or over it, or in some other way slightly miss the sweet spot.
Harsh criticism this may be, but better crosses would have led to better chances. Nevertheless, after some of the rot to which we’ve been subjected from the flanks in recent times (and I charitably name no names here), the sight of Sessegnon first charging up the wing and then slinging in a few crosses once he’d got there, was a welcome one.
On top of which, his defensive shakes steadily improved. In the first half he seemed a little too often to allow himself to be tossed around in the spirit of a ragdoll. By the time the second half oiled round much seemed to have changed, and for the better. If a Brighton sort gave him an upper-body barge of muscle and substance, Sessegnon of the second half seemed ready for it, and inclined to respond in kind. If beaten along the ground, Sessegnon was not about to give up the cause, but retook his position and plugged away.
So this was undoubtedly one of his better displays. I dare not take that from the honest fellow. I simply raise a pretty surprised eyebrow at the notion that his was the standout display amongst our mob – partly because I thought Hojbjerg did better, and partly because, harsh and unforgiving soul that I am, I expect more dangerous deliveries from my wing-backs.
As exciting as the switch to 3-5-2 was the news that Matt Doherty was being dusted off and paraded for the day. The whole drama around the chap’s inclusion or otherwise, as pieced together by snippets from Conte press conferences, has in all honesty made the AANP head throb a bit – but for whatever reason there he was on Saturday, gormless expression in place and the right touchline waving invitingly at him.
And, again in common with his ten chums, for half an hour he made a decent fist of things. Now admittedly, if he were Emerson Royal, at about this juncture I’d hurl a rotten fruit or two, because Doherty’s contribution seemed to go swimmingly until it came to execution of his final contribution. And at that point, be it a pass, cross or shot, the stars did not quite align, and things fizzled out a tad.
Nor did Doherty even attempt a cross of the sort that Sessegnon was gaily swinging in from the other side. But nevertheless, I was heartened by what I saw. The system required wing-backs comfortable motoring forward, and Doherty seemed that. He might not have produced any crosses worthy of the name, but he mooched further infield as is his wont, popped a shot or two and offered an attacking threat on the right.
As with everyone else, his attacking juices ran rather dry after the break, and I’m not sure I remember him hitting the final third, which was a shame. He did however keep his defensive buttons switched on throughout, and as the instruction to repel the other lot at all costs became ever louder, he popped up with some notable blocks and tackles.
Whether any of the above is enough to convince Conte that the right wing-back pecking order deserves a reshuffle is debatable, but for a johnnie who hasn’t kicked a competitive ball in several months I thought his was a solid combination of forward willing and defensive solidity.
The obsession in the last decade or so with assists seems to me a rummy one. One understands the principle, of course, but reducing an attacker’s input to goals and assists always seems wilfully to ignore much of what makes such folk tick.
Sonny, for example, could be said to have contributed the assist to the game’s only goal, and therefore to have pretty much swung the thing in our favour. Preeminent Contribution of the Match, and all that guff.
And good for him, it should be said. His delivery created the only goal, so we are in his debt, no doubt. Someone needed to do it – he alone did it. So far, so good.
One might quibble that his delivery was almost certainly a shot, rather than a cross, and the argument is a strong one. Nevertheless, shoot from that sort of angle, and with that sort of power, and one rather earns any luck going, in the line of own-goals or Kane shoulders or whatever else. On top of which, there was some nifty footwork immediately preceding this delivery, which had the Brighton fellow floundering and waggling useless limbs. So, again, bravo Sonny.
However, something remains not quite right at Chateau Heung-Min. Personally my heart sinks every time I see a ball from defence or midfield played into the feet of Sonny facing his own goal. When the lad drops deep to collect the ball, the outcome seems almost always to be that we lose possession.
For a start, Son is anatomically composed purely of skin and bone, with not an ounce of muscle on him, meaning that a defender needs only to breathe on his neck for him to go sprawling. As such, any attempt to feed the ball into him, in the hope that he will collect and shield it before laying it off, is doomed to failure and a crumpled heap of limbs.
On top of which his touch has deserted him somewhat this season. Even if he stays upright when collecting these passes, the ball seems simply to bounce off and away from him.
The chap is far better when pointing towards the opposition goal, somewhere in the vicinity of the shoulder of the last defender. Feed him the ball there, or play it into space to run into, and he seems several notches more dangerous – witness his disallowed goal. Admittedly he is still malfunctioning a little too regularly at present (witness that moment in the second half when he tried an over-elaborate solo rather than feeding Kane), but in general he seems to cause more problems to the opposition, and pose less risk to teammates, when up at the apex rather than dropping deep to collect.
But ultimately, we were treated to three hard-earned points. Admittedly the sentiment throughout this volume has much about it of a spoilt child who simply wants more, rather than being satisfied with what he has. Frankly, a win away to an in-form Brighton, and on the back of last week (on and off the pitch), was the stuff of which I had dared not dream. To have achieved it in the manner we did – all grit and steel and whatnot – was even more impressive, and is precisely the sort of stuff of which successful seasons are made. The wait for a thoroughly convincing performance goes on, but all things considered – not least the desperately sad circumstances – this might have been our best display of the season to date.