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Sheff Utd 1-3 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Ndombele’s Goal

Oddly enough, nobody has yet asked me to sit down with them and explain the rhyme and reason to the penning of my thoughts on Tottenham games, but were they to do so I would top up their bourbon and explain that sometimes these things are deliberately sculpted chronologically, and sometimes simply dictated by whim – but today it feels like it would be inappropriate to begin anywhere other than with the undoubted highlight of the production, the glorious parabola spawned from the outside of Tanguy Ndombele’s right boot.

Not that we should have been surprise, for fair warning had been sounded in the first half of the level of sorcery that could emanate from the aforementioned limb, when Ndombele had contrived to ping a pass, again with the outer-right clog, curled in between two opponents and around the back of the full-back, into the path of Aurier.

That touch had the punters purring, but the goal was on another level, prompting some pretty wild and joyous exclamations at AANP Towers, and no doubt in other lilywhite-tinged domiciles about the land.

Decorum of course dictates that in such circumstances those labouring behind the scenes are given due recognition. As such a ripple of polite applause is due to young Master Bergwijn, for general shimmying followed by a chipped pass that released the hero of the hour.

But at this point few amongst us, on surveying the scene, would have pulled out a wad of notes from their pocket and with a knowing nod bet handsomely on the next action being a first-time effort into the net. The laws of physics, while not rendering the thing impossible, certainly stacked up against our man. To this amateurish eye the three most salient points in the Debit column seemed to be that i) Ndombele at this point was trotting off in the opposite direction to goal; ii) the ball was mid-air and showing few signs of deviating from this mode of travel; iii) all of the above was taking place on the left of the goal, and as such, on Ndombele’s weaker foot.

Some of the more curmudgeonly amongst us have rather sniffily proposed that what happened next was a man misplacing a pass, nothing better than a hopeful lob of a grenade into a loosely advantageous error. Democracy, of course, permits and indeed encourages the voicing of such wildly erroneous opinions. Here at AANP Towers however, there was not a shred of doubt that Ndombele’s only thought was to attempt the near-impossible, and dink it via that exact arc, and into that exact spot.

I’m not sure any other trajectory could have rendered the goalkeeper quite so impotent (although to be honest, judging by his dramatic but ineffective flap at Kane’s goal, I doubt that such perfection was necessary to best the chap). It was a thing of skill and beauty – and for added aesthetic pleasure the ball entered the net via the foot of the post, as if simply thrilled to be part of the action.

2. Mentality

As it happened, when the entire operation is viewed as a whole, the timing of Ndombele’s goal was arguably of greater importance than the execution.

The mists of time might obscure the fact, but having breezed into a two-goal lead at the break, our heroes surprised absolutely nobody in the second half by easing up on the accelerator, showing less appetite for a ruck and gradually shuffling back towards their own goal. Inevitably, we conceded, and for approximately a minute and a half thereafter all manner of fruity curses escaped the lips, as the usual tortuous narrative looked set to unfold.

However, before there was opportunity for the prophets of doom to clear their throats and really get down to business, Ndombele had executed the world’s greatest toe-poke, and with the two-goal buffer restored we were able to progress to 90 in pretty serene fashion.

I am still inclined to veer between nervous and downright irate as I drink in our heroes’ approach to leading any given match, as there so rarely seems to be what an impartial observer would classify as genuine intent to score again and thereby eliminate all doubt.

Even in the first half, after the customary early goal, it seemed to be perfectly within our gift to stretch United and carve out chances, simply by increasing the intensity of our play by a notch or two. And yet ,rather than be possessed by an almost rabid desire to do precisely that, the mood around the camp seemed to be that actually a one-goal lead was plenty and there was no real imperative to double that.

Admittedly we did not immediately react to taking the early lead by surrendering possession and camping on the edge of our own penalty area, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for that much. Every now and then we upped a gear – and immediately looked threatening. It just seemed odd that we did not therefore adopt this higher-intensity approach for more of the half.

Mercifully, Sheffield United simply weren’t particularly good. None in their ranks were remotely capable of finishes of the quality of either Kane’s or Ndombele’s, nor of the creative spark of the likes of Lookman, Eze, Neto et al in recent weeks.

3. The Midfield Pair

Jose, one gets the impression, was not formed in the womb in the same way as you and I. So, for example, where most presumably enjoy seeing our lot knock the living daylights out of whomever is in our way, Jose seems instead to thrive upon a backs-to-the-wall one-nil.

But more positively, where the mere mortal would note that we’re playing the worst team in the league and tell the usual rabble to do proceed in their usual manner, Our Glorious Leader spotted the myriad benefits of deploying wing-backs to silence their wide threat, and dispensed with the usual defensive extra midfielder, instead using a third centre-back.

And credit where due, the man certainly knows how to pull tactical strings. The formation allowed both Aurier and Reguilon to fill their attacking boots, while still providing ample defensive cover (although Dier might want to buy young Master Rodon a post-match shandy or two, for a couple of timely sprints that doused threatening flames when he had sold himself far too cheaply).

The availability of Aurier and Reguilon meant that there we were rarely short of attacking options – the challenge, as noted above, was more that for patches of the game we did not seem to show the intensity to hammer this home.

Critical to the success of this formation tweak was the impressive shift put in by the central midfield pair. Both Hojbjerg and Ndombele were at the peak of their powers, whether donning their defensive hats and bearing down on opponents, or adding their presence and keeping possession ticking along in more attacking areas.

In fact, our second goal came about from Hojbjerg marrying these two delights, applying pressure in the attacking third and thereby winning possession from United high up the pitch, in a manner last witnessed to similarly fruitful effect against Leeds a couple of weeks ago. Having won possession behind enemy lines, as it were, he then did the sensible thing and shoved it with minimal fuss at first Sonny and then Kane.

There was a glorious simplicity to all this, but it neatly summed up the quiet effectiveness of both him and Ndombele.

And while I suppose any back-slapping should be effected within the context that this was against the lowest placed team in the division, it does make one wonder whether and when the approach might be adopted again. A year ago, few amongst us would have countenanced the notion of Ndombele forming one half of an effective central midfield pair, but there it was in glorious technicolour.

There was a pleasing discipline to his performance too, for while he broke forward to such glorious effect for his goal, by and large his movements were not those of one whose job description reads “Attacking Midfielder”. This was a performance that offered as much in defence as attack.

4. Dele Alli: Now Inferior to Gedson Fernandes

However, another idiosyncrasy of Our Glorious Leader is his seemingly irresistible urge to dish out a public flogging to one of his troops.

It should probably be remembered that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that Dele Alli’s form for a year or so pre-Covid had taken a pretty hefty dip southwards. Nevertheless, in his intermittent cameos over the past couple of months he has done approximately as much as could be expected.

It may surprise visitors to these pages to learn that I am not privy to what goes on in the hallowed confines of the training ground, so I can only speculate as to whether his produce or attitude when wearing a fluorescent bib is so poor as to merit this bizarre expulsion from the squad. However, perusing today’s teamsheet and discovering the absence of a D. Alli, and simultaneous presence of a G. Fernandes, struck me as laying it on a bit thick.

I suppose this may have been a one-off punishment for his pretty cheesed off reaction (via the medium of social media) to not being involved against Leeds, but either way it’s all fairly unpleasant stuff. This is not a third-choice right-back; it is a bean who only a year or two back was one of the brightest young things in world football. Simply to shrug the shoulders and elbow him out, rather than looking for a way to bring out his best, seems pretty rummy stuff – but alas, the odds of him slinking off across the channel appear to shorten by the day.

Spurs 2-0 Brentford: Three Tottenham Talking Points

1. Mentality

Lilywhites of a certain vintage – by which I broadly mean those who weren’t born yesterday – will doubtless be pretty familiar with our heroes’ traditional capacity to amble up to a fixture of this ilk; note that the opposition are weaker pound-for-pound; as a result consider the matter already decided in their favour before a ball has been kicked; and proceed to make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.

On settling in for the spectacle there was a therefore a decent whiff of trepidation in the air at Chateau AANP. However, love or loathe the chap, it is becoming difficult to deny that Jose has changed the ambience around the place, to the extent that that ingrained pre-match trepidation found itself eyeball-to-eyeball with a competing sentiment that might be qualified as “Cautious Optimism”. The sort of optimism that springs from seeing our lot put Leeds to the sword in pretty clinical fashion on Saturday, or, harking back a few weeks, execute a faultless, ruthless game-plan vs City.

Recent fixtures have obviously illustrated that there are plenty of moving parts that need oiling, but the mood about the place is changing, and rarely could this be better illustrated by the fact that going into a semi-final against an in-form gang from the division below, it seemed as possible that our lot could do a professional job as that they might trip over their own shoelaces in the time-honoured fashion of a Team That Never Dashed Well Wins Trophies.

And reflecting on the game 24 hours later, it was actually about as clinical and professional a project as one could have imagined. Without ever breaking sweat or setting pulse-rates anywhere north of ‘Slow and Steady’, our heroes efficiently breezed through.

There were two notable warning shots fired in our direction – one requiring a block by Serge Aurier of all people, and the other the offside effort. But even taking these into account, we seemed strangely in-control throughout, and capable of motoring up a gear for a few minutes as necessary (witness our second goal).

Sissoko won the individual gong, and one or two others merited polite applause (Ndombele had a blast, and Reguilon’s cross positively begged to be converted), but what really stood out was the highly professional mentality of the collective. Oddly enough there was no complacency in sight, with every cast member’s concentration levels dialled up to the maximum, and tasks being carried out across the pitch with quiet, unspectacular efficiency.

So no drama, precious little excitement and a semi-final negotiated with the minimal fuss and maximum efficiency of a military inspection. By the end of it I felt like one of those women one reads about from a bygone era, whose husbands disappear to war and then reappear several years later, reporting to be one and the same and looking similar enough, but markedly changed in character. This is not the Tottenham I remember, but they are yet strangely attractive.

2. Our Second Goal

As mentioned, for the most part barely a bead of sweat was expended, and nor were many needed. As our first real foray forward brought a goal there didn’t seem any real need or urgency amongst our lot thereafter to do much more than keep Brentford at arm’s length and pop the ball from A to B.

One-nil at half-time seemed reasonable enough, reflecting most judges’ scorecards.

However, it was at around the halfway point that it occurred to me that if “One goal is not enough” were not already an adage, then the panel that decides these things ought to get themselves in gear and make it such, because it was not so much a truth as a deafening anthem of the opening bursts of the second half.

While still leading, in control and far from complacent, our lot remained but one lapse from parity. And after the Brentford offside goal officially sounded the warning gong our heroes promptly took note and dialled up the intensity by the necessary couple of notches.

Thus germinated our second goal, and it was a thing of some beauty. For a start there was much to admire about the weighting of Ndombele’s pass. At various points in the evening esteemed artistes in lilywhite had spotted potential routes to glory and attempted to play the killer pass, but not quite delivered the thing, either pressing too firmly or too lightly on the pedal.

Ndombele, however, hit the sweet spot and Sonny, already well at full pace, could continue his merry, full-paced journey without the slightest adjustment. I can offer no clues as to the reputation of the agent representing Ndombele, but if he negotiated a bonus for assists it was well merited last night.

Sonny at full pace is a difficult beast to overcome, and heaven knows the Brentford lad flapping at his shadow did his best, by hurling every available limb across the turf in an effort to floor him, but Sonny was already long gone.

There then followed the tour de force, and from the comfort of the AANP sofa I particularly enjoyed the subtle manner in which Son delayed his shot just long enough for the Brentford ‘keeper to surrender himself to the lure of gravity. As the ‘keeper began to go ground, Sonny blasted the ball above him. The whole scene could not have been better executed if all parties had been practising their roles for weeks.

3. Hojbjerg’s War-Wound and Lust for Blood

Thereafter there was a collective exhalation and some nifty triangles were put on show, as our ensemble politely ran down the clock.

However, we were nevertheless treated to a further highlight just before the curtain fell, as Hojbjerg received a rather robust interrogation from some bounder who, it turned out, had been schooled in his arts at Other West Ham.

In a population of 7 billion I imagine there are few who wear their battle scars with greater pleasure than Hojbjerg, and he wasted little time in revealing to the world the treats bestowed upon his left shin. Nothing that hasn’t been seen in the rough-and-tumble of amateur 5-a-side, so as long as he’s fit for whenever the Premier League resumes there were no complaints from this quarter, but I was mightily enthused by his reaction when back on his feet. Evidently the Hojbjerg blood had boiled, for he looked every inch the man who had cared no more for the beautiful game, and wanted only to be allowed back into the arena to tear his opponent limb from limb.

Perhaps it is a result of decades of witnessing the term “soft underbelly” personified on the hallowed turf of N17, but seeing a near-demented Hojbjerg utterly consumed by a lust for blood was possibly the most pleasing aspect of the whole evening. Sonny and Kane will break the records, Ndombele will earn the applause – but if we are to win anything this season then I rather fancy Hojbjerg’s bloody-mindedness will be key.

Wolves 1-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics

The natives, I think it is fair to suggest, are becoming restless.

Alan Smith comes across as one of the more tolerable followers of Other West Ham, being a cove not really given to the hyperbole of the majority of his colleagues on the telly-box, and a choice phrase of his yesterday neatly encapsulated the essence of Jose’s Tactical Mastery, trimmings and all. “The end justifies the means”, he opined, like an owl of the particularly thoughtful variety, and it was hard not to disagree.

No two ways about it, surrendering possession and defending for dear life, for an entire dashed game, saps the spirit and makes the eyes bleed. Watching a player as talented as Harry Kane receive the ball and promptly belt it into the atmosphere, falling to ground in the Wolves half a good fifty yards from anyone in lilywhite, felt like an act of treachery against the traditions of the club. But if it got us to near enough the summit of the table, then a good swathe of the lilywhite hordes would swallow it. Turning a blind eye, and all that. The end justifying the means.

Except that it’s now two defeats and two draws in the last four games. It would take a PR rep at the absolute peak of their powers to spin that rot as ends justifying means.

By the grace of God – and a few humdinging away days early in the season – we somehow remain fifth, and all is not lost. And despite the ghastliness of it all, I am quite open to accepting that against the likes of Man City, and Chelsea away, the tactic of defending at 18 yards and countering is a reasonable approach to life.

But when boasting two of the best strikers in the world, a fellow like Ndombele simply brimming with on-ball quality, some of the more progressive full-backs in the league, a raft of attacking options on the bench, and so on and so forth – to toddle up to a team slap-bang in the middle of the table and treat them with the defence of peak Barcelona is an absolute nonsense.

What the absolute devil would it have cost us to have tried to put together a couple of attacks between minutes 20 and 85 yesterday, in order to increase the lead and protect the three points thusly? I’m not talking about all-out attack with every man and his dog pouring forward and Hugo considering adding his presence in the area for corners; but simply trying to retain possession and work something around the edge of their area, something that might have allowed Kane and Son actually to receive the ball within shooting distance, rather than on or before the halfway line and without a soul ahead of them.

The percentages are stacked against us when trying to defend deep for an entire game, relying as it does not on not making a single mistake (or being on the wrong end of a ricochet or deflection) and being absolutely clinical, with zero room for error, when the one or two counter-attack chances do come our way.

And on a final side-note, for Jose then to face the cameras and declare that the fault lay with the players for not trying to score again was rot of the highest order.

2. Winks

In theory this ought to have been a good opportunity for Winks go peddle his wares. With a back-three behind him and a little less onus on him to spend his day putting out fires, it seemed there might be opportunity for him to dial into the ghost of deep-lying creative midfielders past and produce one or two Luka Modric impressions.

To his credit, Winks did have a stab at picking progressive passes. The criticism regularly bellowed at the lad from the AANP sofa is that he too often goes for backwards or sideways passes when a forward option is perfectly viable, but yesterday one could not fault his intent. He received the ball, he looked up, he passed forwards.

Alas, far too often, that was the extent of his success. Far too often those forward passes missed their mark, and possession was surrendered as a direct result of his input.

It must be a tough gig I suppose, suddenly starting and being under the spotlight after so long on the sidelines, and no doubt he was eager to please, but yesterday things just did not fall into place for him.

At this juncture I would normally be inclined to pat him sympathetically on the head and trot out something along the lines that there will be further opportunities – except that with a bizarrely vindictive man-child like Jose at the helm one never really knows if he will decide that he has had enough of Winks and cast him aside like an unwanted Christmas toy.

3. Ben Davies

The switch to a back-three featuring Ben Davies was an unsubtle nod to the talents of Adama Traore in opposition. Traore, a man whose muscles themselves have muscles, was tormentor-in-chief last time we faced this lot, so one understood Jose assigning to him his own private security detail.

When not pinging them in from long-distance in Carabao Cup Quarter Finals, Ben Davies earns his living by delivering 6 out of 10 performances with metronomic regularity, so I have to admit that his selection up against that Traore lad did have me shooting a nervous glance about me pre kick-off.

And in the first half, perhaps a little unfairly, I was a tad critical of his efforts. He held his position well enough, but it struck me that whenever Traore wished to breeze past him he did; whenever Traore wished to deliver a cross he did. Ben Davies did not neglect his post, but neither did he do much to prevent Traore that a life-size cardboard cut-out of Ben Davies would not also have done.

As mentioned, this was probably a harsh appraisal, particularly coming from one who has not walked a mile in the shoes of Ben Davies – or indeed the shoes of anyone up against Traore.

And in the second half, I have no hesitation in admitting that my cynicism was replaced by healthy admiration. Ben Davies warmed to the task and was not for wilting, no matter how much Traore twisted and turned and shoved and battled. It actually turned into quite the contest, and while he might have needed to have a sit-down and catch his breath afterwards, there can be no doubting that Ben Davies earned his weekly envelope.

Just a shame, then, that he did not quite keep track of his man sufficiently at the corner from which Wolves scored – but while that was a error on his part, I am not about to blame him for the two points lost. If anything, he was possibly our stand-out performer.

4. Ndomble

Another of the more eye-catching performers – a small band, ‘tis true – was Monsieur Ndombele.

As is his way, he rather faded after half-time, and was duly euthanised on the hour, but in the early stages what attacking spark we had originated at his size nines. The body swerves and balance remain things of delight, easy to spot but seemingly near-impossible to stop. But I suspect we were all pleasantly surprised to see that burst of his from well inside our own half to well inside theirs.

There is something about Ndombele’s gait that gives the impression of a man whose lungs are about to breathe their last, and who will at any moment collapse to the ground and commit his soul to his maker. Put bluntly, the chap never looks fit. But I do sometimes wonder if this is an optical illusion. Sometimes drooping shoulders and hangdog expressions will make a professional sportsman look like anything but. Followers of leather-on-willow who are of a certain vintage may remember one Angus Fraser looking similarly exhausted every time he bowled for England.

So it is with Ndombele, and for that reason that sixty-yard burst of his was as surprising as it was pleasing. Even with the ball at his feet, he managed to outpace the chasing pack. A shame (very much the phrase de jour) that he picked the wrong option at the end of it, Reguilon boasting a goalscoring record slightly inferior to that of the other spare man, Harry Kane, but it did provide further evidence to the notion that Ndombele might turn out to be Mousa Dembele with added attacking prowess.

Liverpool 2-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics (and Associated Risk)

Normally after a sinking of the good ship Hotspur, the mood at AANP Towers is one of pretty doleful lamentation, with the sackcloth and ashes out in force and long, drawn-out sighs only occasionally mingled with a choice curse or ten.

On this occasion, however, amidst the frustrated kicking of inanimate objects and moody grumbles, there is something of a philosophical air. Study your scribe closely enough and you may notice him scratching his chin from time to time, and looking pretty dashed thoughtful as he does it. Because although defeated, and now three points down on the principal cast member in this little drama, the realisation is dawning that our lot really are shaping up for a proper biff at things this season.

We may have lost, and we may have been absolutely dominated in possession (the 96% stat for a five-minute period just before half-time did make me chuckle, as being possibly the most Jose stat ever seen), but the tactics pretty much worked again, right up until the execution of chances. We restricted Liverpool to snatched chances – heart in mouth stuff each time, but still snatched chances, as opposed to clear one-one-ones as Sonny and Bergwijn had – while at t’other end we created enough of the aforementioned one-one-ones to have gone into injury-time with a lead onto which to cling.

We will presumably have to accept that playing this counter-attacking style means, by the law of probabilities, that every now and then we will concede a rather gut-wrenching late goal that shoots the entire game-plan out of the sky. But if we beat City, draw away to Chelsea, beat Other West Ham and find ourselves second at Christmas, then those odds are probably worth a flutter.

What struck me in the first half in particular was that, despite barely springing three passes together at any point in the whole act, we still came within a whisker of being clear through on goal on three separate occasions – before the moment that Sonny actually was clear through on goal.

The Amazon Prime microphone fiends were too busy purring at Liverpool to notice, but twice Kane had the opportunity to play in Son around halfway, and twice his pass was marginally too close to a defender, and cut out on the brink. The fact remained that there was an absolutely huge gap behind the Liverpool centre-backs, and it just needed a tad more guile on the final pass to open up said space, and let Son gambol away like a spring lamb that cannot believe its luck.

On a third occasion we did actually find the space, when Sissoko barrelled his way down the right and found Kane, unmarked and twenty yards out, but alas the main man dithered somewhat and the chance went up in smoke.

Again, not a mention was made of this by any of the paid prophets on the telly-box, but let that not detract from the fact that the game-plan was in full swing – no matter how warped, twisted or negative one regards it. We were repeatedly six inches away from smashing and grabbing.

2. Bergwijn’s Finishing

Of course, this rather dubious approach to ‘To Dare is To Do’ requires as a pretty critical component that when the final pass is eventually pinged with requisite sweetness, the chap haring in on goal then keeps his side of the bargain and finishes the job.

And in the first half, as against Other West Ham and Man City, Sonny kept up his end of the bargain. It feels almost blasphemous to say it now, but once upon a time I questioned the fellow’s finishing. Not so these days. Sonny could not be more clinical if he were laser-guided.

The plan tends to provide one or two chances per game, and Son snaffles them all up. As, typically, does Kane. Last night, however, the two big moments fell to Bergwijn, and the honest chap gave an illustration of why he, Lucas and Lamela sit decidedly below Kane and Son in the hierarchy of attacking sorts at N17.

The Jose plan really provides no room for error – when these counter-attack chances occur, they absolutely must be taken. Bergwijn has generally impressed in recent weeks, oddly enough on account of his defensive contributions – the work-rate, the positional sense, the discipline. Just a dashed shame that when it came to the attacking stuff, of which he has made a career, he twice missed the target.

3. Aurier vs Mane

Elsewhere on the pitch, a pretty eye-catching sub-plot was playing out between Messrs Mane and Aurier.

Aurier, as has been widely feted on these pages in recent weeks, has undergone quite the transformation this season, and now ranks as one a pretty critical cog in the defensive machine.

Admittedly there was one moment in the first half, when the ghost of Aurier past crept up behind his ear and started whispering sweet nothings, resulting in a spectacularly poorly-judged Cruyff turn inside his own area, that almost led to a goal. But that minor aberration aside, the chap wore his sensible hat throughout.

And he needed to, because in Sadio Mane he had a pretty worthy foe. In terms of strength, guile, trickery, positioning and pace, Aurier had to have his wits about him throughout, and to his credit he generally did the necessaries. He was caught out by one sublime turn in the second half, but recovered to wave a useful foot and deflect Mane’s shot onto the bar; otherwise he generally stood his ground.

Just a shame that his final intervention led to the corner from which Liverpool scored, but the young bean could probably mooch off at stumps with his head held high.

4. Ben Davies: Too Dashed Nice

I’m not sure the same can necessarily be said of Ben Davies, who may equally have been christened ‘6 out of 10’. There was nothing egregiously bad about his play, but at the same time his every appearance leaves me thinking he could and should be doing more.

One understood the principle of his selection – a more conservative option than Reguilon, and therefore less likely to be caught upfield and out of position, in a game in which defensive shape was pretty critical. But little things, like hacked clearances when there is time to pick a pass, suggest that there are several notches of improvement for him to achieve.

On top of which, the young egg really needs to take a leaf out of the Hojbjerg book and embrace a much nastier side. In the opening exchanges, when denied a clear corner, Ben Davies simply flung a hand in the air and turned to jog back, epitomising much of the pre-Jose spirit of simply accepting defeat as one of those unfortunate things that happens and should not be questioned.

Far be it for me to espouse that the chap greets a bad refereeing call by going on a murderous rampage and laying waste to all in front of him, but more fire in the belly, more aggression and maybe some of the Lamela-esque sly niggles would not go amiss. It is perhaps indicative of the change of ethos instilled by Jose, that Ben Davies’ meekness now looks a very noticeable weakness.

Spurs 2-0 Arsenal: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg

As ever, the man of the match award became a secondary detail to the triumph of the collective and their defensive discipline, because once again this was a win fashioned from impeccable tactical set-up and execution.

However, not for the first time, one got the impression that P-E Hojbjerg Esq. is the sort of chap whose first action on emerging from the womb was immediately to look around and win back possession. And then clench his fists on a job successfully completed.

While the collective of Sky Sports bods seemed ready to grab the nearest axe and go on a murderous rampage in bitter moral protest at what they were witnessing, Hojbjerg reacts to Jose-ball like a giddy child let loose in a toy factory. Give him a game-plan of sitting in front of a deep back-four, rolling up his sleeves and doing the grubby stuff, and he tears out onto the pitch and towards the ankles of the nearest opponent before the instructions have been fully delivered.

There will presumably be other fixtures in which the cape is donned by those personnel with rather more subtlety and guile in their play, but during this run of fixtures against title-challengers – and Other West Ham – Hojbjerg might just be the most important cog in the whole machine. In games such as these, in which the stakes are high and the opponents particularly dangerous (or, as today, opponents for whom this is a cup final), the role of Destroyer-in-Chief is critical.

The AANP heart always skips a beat when I see Hojbjerg rolled out for the Thursday-night Europa group drivel, because an injury to this chap would not so much knock the stuffing from us as pummel straight into the rib-cage and yank out the beating heart. Unlikejust about every other position in the pitch, I’m not sure we have anyone in the squad who has remotely the appropriate skillset to deputise.

Back to today, and amidst a whole team of hard-grafting worker bees, Hojbjerg’s was the hard graft and bee-working standard to which the others could look for inspiration, in each of the tackling, intercepting, harassing and uncomplicated passing categories. I’d recommend the chap pours himself a bourbon and puts his feet up, but I rather suspect he unwinds by chewing on some raw glass and finding the nearest bear whom he might wrestle.

2. Aurier

Once upon a time, in a world before bubbles and lockdown, the AANP Dictionary defined Serge Aurier as something along the lines of ‘Bringer of calamity’. For all his undoubted prowess on the front-foot, one could hang one’s hat on some unnecessary dereliction of duty, typically with consequences of the gravity of own goals, penalty concessions or red cards.

It was well-documented stuff, and as such the summer arrival of Matt Doherty was the prompt for a look or two towards the celebratory cigars, as I wondered whether Aurier’s catalogue of errors might be consigned to Thursday nights.

Instead, in a plot-twist that I’m not sure even the keenest mind anticipated, the turnaround in Aurier’s output has had me not so much rubbing my eyes as questioning the very fabric of existence.

While Doherty has taken a little time to find his bearings in lilywhite, if you don’t mind the rather generous euphemism, Aurier has reacted to the presence of competition for his spot – and, presumably, to the instruction of Our Glorious Leader – by transforming into the model of positional and decision-making discipline.

Having Sissoko stationed within eyeballing distance presumably helps, but let nothing detract from the praise that Monsieur Aurier is due. The madcap forays out of position are pretty much a thing of the past now, as are the similarly madcap lunges within the penalty area. The transformation from classroom rebel to responsible prefect might be one of the less glamorous success stories of the ages, but the curious fellow is now nailed on right-back in the meanest and most disciplined defence in the league.

3. Lloris

A spot of context might be necessary on this one, because the casual observer would be well within his rights to query the T’s and C’s of a commendation for our resident shot-stopper on a day on which he had precious few shots to stop.

However, Thursday night’s performance left us wondering if Marine away really was such a straightforward tie, with Joe Hart in particular giving the impression that his benefit to the squad lies in the area of dressing room yelps (or left arm seam) rather than actually getting his paws to the ball.

And when a rumour began to whizz hither and thither that Monsieur Lloris might be forced to sit out today’s bash, the collective gulp fairly echoed around North London, as the two and two were put together with the conclusion that Joe Hart might be entrusted with repelling the ball through the use of his endless bellowing.

Mercifully, the starting line-up revealed no such eventuality, and while Hugo’s first half brief was largely restricted to “Regarder”, matters biffed up a few notches at the start of the second half.

This was probably the period in which Other West Ham were at their most threatening, and had they scored then the dynamic might have taken a ninety-degree turn or two. I therefore gave Lloris a pretty rousing hand for his save from a flicked Lacazette header, not least because it was goalbound and the sort of fare at which Joe Hart has been flapping, but also because Lloris executed that rarest of skills and actually held onto the thing – as opposed to punching or pushing it back into play. This capacity to hold the ball was particularly critical given that it occurred on the goal-line and slap bang in the centre of the goal. Any slippery fingers at that juncture would have spelt almost certain calamity.

And for good measure Lloris was at it again five minutes later, tipping one around his right-hand post. In truth, not the most difficult save of a World Cup winner’s career, but having witness Hart’s bizarre attempt to fore-arm a shot out of harm’s way on Thursday, one does not take such things for granted.

4. Toby’s Block

A brief commendation also for Toby Alderweireld, and his impressively-executed block of a late Aubameyang shot.

The Jose-based set-up meant that such shots, representing as they do a breach of the tight-knit defensive wall, are pretty rare commodities. In general, our lot are so deep that all the action happens in front of them, and any opponent wishing to crack one towards goal has something of an army of white shirts first to negotiate.

However, for some reason, on this occasion Other West Ham stole possession high up the pitch when a few too many of our lot were mooching forward, and for one ghastly minute it looked like Aubameyang had snuck in behind the rear.

It was the sort of situation in which one could imagine Sanchez tripping over his laces, or Dier backing off ad infinitum, or Aurier circa 2019 flying in with studs up. Mercifully, Toby knows his beans, and did the decent thing, going toe for toe until the moment was right, and then extending a well-judged leg to repel the danger. One would like to imagine that on the sidelines, Ledley allowed himself a knowing smile.

5. The Goals

Amidst all the chattering about defensive duties and tactical shape it would be easy to be sucked into our own penalty area and forget the moments that really separated the wheat from chaff; but it would be thoroughly remiss simply to gloss over the fact that both our goals were of the highest order.

Even before Sonny let fly, the build-up stuff casually lobbed around by Kane was pretty special. Simply bringing under control the pass he received was quite a feat, but the vision and weighting of his pass into the left-wing channel, for Sonny to shimmy onto, was the sort of fare that made you feel lucky to be alive. The aesthetics alone of those diagonal passes into a space behind a full-back, are worth parting with hard-earned money to observe.

As for Sonny’s finish – heavens above, how much confidence must flow through that chap’s veins? Let’s be clear, we all saw the yawning gap that existed in the top right of the net, and all briefly imagined that if this were a computer game, or even a training session, one might casually seek to caress the ball with just the right amount of elevation and curl – but nobody in their right mind would actually try that sort of nonsense. And yet…

By comparison, the second goal was a simpler beast, but still a delightfully-executed counter. I feel like I have seen our lot squander far more of these overloads, in which we have more attackers than they defenders, than I have seen us score from them. On this occasion, however, it was played to perfection, with each of Lo Celso and Sonny making the perfect decision and with the perfect weight on their pass.

And again, with his rich appreciation of aesthetics, it was dashed good of Kane to thump the thing off the underside of the bar, for such visual and audio effects are always vastly more satisfying.

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Spurs 2-0 Man City: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Jose’s Tactics

It says much about the tactical scribblings of Our Glorious Leader that after a match in which all 14 players used can be congratulated for performing to the absolute peak of their powers, the first roses are strewn in the direction of the manager.

But no doubt about it, Jose and The Brains Trust did not leave a stone unturned in this one, with every slightest tactical eventuality seemingly taken care of. Everywhere one looked on the pitch there seemed to be a tactical tweak with Jose’s name scrawled over it, from the switch of Sonny from left to right, to the use of Sissoko as an additional defender in between right-back and centre back, via Hojbjerg’s more central berth and Kane’s deeper role.

I don’t mind admitting that The Angst of Over Three Decades of Spurs Supporting was weighing pretty heavily upon me in the first half, as our tactic became clear. Sitting back and soaking up pressure is one thing, but trying to do so for ninety minutes against a team as nifty on the ball as Man City struck me as a dashed dangerous game to play, and the wildly escalating AANP blood pressure during that first 45 no doubt bore provided sound medical evidence of this truth.

Looking back however, it is a testimony both to Jose’s masterplan and the concentration of troops invovled that City’s only clear shots at goal were two headers from set-pieces – and even then, the first was from quite a distance, on account of the delightful high defensive line now deployed, which cunningly acts as a safety net against our inability to man-mark.

On top of which, every time we touched the ball – which admittedly seemed only to be around once every ten minutes – we looked like scoring. City, for all their pretty patterns in possession, resembled a gang of schoolboys in a playground when it came to defending, all bluster but precious little strategy, and were duly cut to ribbons.

Our opening goal itself was a thing of beauty, each of its constituent parts worthy of some pretty gushing praise; and then the offside effort would have been one of the goals of the season if Kane had not rather unnecessarily strayed forward a moment too soon (one does wonder if that lad will ever cut it at the highest level) – but the gist of the thing was clear enough in the first half, and hammered home in the second, that ours were a menacing mob when attacking.

2. Ndombele (and Lo Celso)

Much has been made, by the chaps paid to opine on these things, of the contribution of Kane to the first goal. And no doubt about it, Kane’s novel ruse of jogging five yards towards the ball pretty much seemed to cause the heads of both City central defenders to explode, leaving a red carpet down which Sonny was able to saunter.

But what went largely overlooked was the contribution of Ndombele (not least by the Sky Sports bod in charge of the pictures, who displayed that modern pandering to the cult of managers’ personalities rather than the actual football, by zooming in on Pep instead of showing the blasted game).

Ndombele’s ability to take several players out of the game simply by swerving his upper body is fast achieving the sort of mesmeric status previously reserved for David Blaine and others of his mind-boggling ilk. It was a trait previously exemplified in lilywhite by Mousa Dembele, and rarely was it better demonstrated, and to better effect, than by Ndombele in assisting Son, when he received the ball facing his own goal, and then took a leaf out of the Kane Book of Making Opposition Heads Explode by ducking in one direction and weaving off in another.

That done, he then drizzled a little icing on top, in the form of a chipped pass weighted with backspin, all of which meant that young Sonny, who rarely needs to be told twice to rev up and motor, barely had to break stride.

While that was arguably Ndombele’s most eye-catching contribution, the impromptu applause which greeted his every touch – and body swerve – thereafter was reflective of the fellow’s remarkable ability to create space where previously there was none, simply by a wiggle of the upper body.

Others around him may have put in more relentless, non-stop running shifts, but Ndombele’s brief was more around positioning, availability and shielding of the ball when collecting it from defensive chums, each of which qualities feature fairly prominently on the Tanguy CV. While this is admittedly a little like praising a sedated polar bear for its sensible conservation of energy, that role of being the first available option when ridding the ball from defence was an important one, and the man did a sterling job.

And then, when the last drop of fuel was wrung from his frame, Lo Celso replaced him with strict instruction to treat the ball with the same paternal care, but with a few additional dollops of energy – as immediately demonstrated by the forty yard sprint for his goal, a feat, one suspects with the greatest goodwill, of which Ndombele would not have been capable.

(As a side note, another stellar performance from P-E Hojbjerg was discreetly gilded with the interception that led to him being fouled – from which free-kick Ndombele swerved and Sonny scored. Easy to miss, but it was further evidence to support the general theory that Hojbjerg’s Every Contribution is Immense.)

3. Aurier: Pleasant Surprises From The Usual Scapegoats, Part 1

Those familiar with the AANP way of things will know that at this juncture, the drill tends to be to add another splash of bourbon and set about lazily chiding Serge Aurier for abandoning his post to dive two-footed into the nearest moving body.

But as if to illustrate through one real-time example quite what a difference Jose can make, Aurier behaved impeccably throughout. I rubbed my eyes, and pinched myself, and poured another splash for luck, but could not doubt the evidence of my eyes: not one reckless challenge, not too many misdirected simple passes, mostly staying on his feet – mostly – and a general positional discipline of which the chap has not once in his career previously shown himself capable.

It was surreal stuff, which seemed to suggest that either the arrival of Doherty has spurred him onto greater heights, or, as seems vastly more probable, he has been kidnapped, cloned and a positionally-aware doppelganger now occupies the space where once Aurier leapt towards calamity.

4. Dier: Pleasant Surprises From The Usual Scapegoats, Part 2

A couple of steps to the left, and Eric Dier seemed similarly determined to avoid his weekly AANP berating. Pundits have been clambering over each other to insist that Dier is now a defensive colossus, seemingly on account of that one (admittedly impressive) twisty, headed, off-the-line clearance a couple of weeks ago – but over in these parts we remain vastly unconvinced of his worth as an elite centre-back.

Make no mistake, Dier will mooch around in the right vicinity, and is relatively vocal, but as I repeat on a weekly basis, he is neither the quickest nib nor the most alert to opposition movement, and his passing as often misses as hits.

Yesterday however, the fellow shirked no responsibility, and made not one false move. It was as close to flawless as such things get. I suspect that defending deep benefits the man, as it removes from the equation any test of his pace (or lack thereof) – as was the case with John Terry, a few years back – but even so, much had to be done positionally, and Dier did not miss a trick. Be it a block, interception or tackle, the lad was not to be beaten.

5. Our Title Parade in May

It would be easy to recline, light a smug cigar and lovingly ramble on about the contributions of all involved, but as there are another six months until we are eventually crowned champions there seems plenty of time to single out each of the individual title-winners before the white and blue ribbons are eventually tied around the thing.

It is such a formality that there seems a pretty strong chance that the league will just be called off now and the silverware packed off to N17 immediately, and few around the country would quibble.

The only things that can possible prevent our title parade – and they are but minor details – are our central defence, and the potential (nay, inevitable) injuries to key personnel.

With regards to centre-backs, the audible twang of Toby’s groin was the only blot on yesterday’s escutcheon. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t trust any of our gaggle of central defenders, but I probably mistrust Toby the least, even if he is not quite the reliable rock of old.

But with Sanchez yet to convince that he can complete 90 minutes without at least one costly aberration, Rodon untried at this level and Tanganga very much categorised as ‘Promising But Flawed’, one does rather bite the lip nervously at the prospect of one of the above manning the gates in our coming fixtures.

Moreover, where Toby has fallen foul of muscle-based woe, you can bet your mortgage that one or two others will follow in due course. And while our squad depth is like nothing previously seen around these parts, long-term injuries to any of Hojbjerg, Kane or Son in particular would considerably weaken the whole.

Rather a shame to speculate on this, as the title would otherwise be ours at a canter, clearly, but into all lives must some rain must fall, as the chap blathered.

Nevertheless, after such a pleasing afternoon’s work as yesterday’s, the only reasonable point of debate now seems to be whether Ledley will be allowed to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

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Royal Antwerp 1-0 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. ‘Squad Depth’ and What It Actually Means

Generally in my relentlessly advancing years there’s not much that moves me to the state of excitable animation. The 90s output of either The Prodigy or Arnold Schwarzenegger; a well-weighted pass played by literally anyone inside the opposing full-back; and a decent bourbon – this would probably fill that list in its entirety.

Recently, however, a further addition was made, when someone sent me an image of the current Spurs squad by position, featuring at least two pretty decent, international players in each spot. It would be deceiving my public to say that I salivated, but the thought certainly occurred that if ever there were a time to rub one’s hands in glee then that was it.

Much has been made of the strength in depth of the current Hotspur vintage, as enabled by the oddly generous spirit of giving that overcame the resident purse-string holder this summer. And quite rightly too, as the view here at AANP Towers is that as long as the defence can find a way to muddle through each week then we might all be able to head over to N17 next May for one heck of a shin-dig.

However, ‘Squad Depth’ is a potentially misleading term. What it suggests in this corner of the interweb is that should a couple of players pick up knocks – or worse, be absented for longer periods – then fully functional and relatively able reserves can seamlessly slot in, and the general equilibrium of the whole operation remains unsullied. Life goes on; day follows night; and where once a Lo Celso picked the midfield passes now a Ndombele does so.

What such squad depth does not do is give licence to The Brains Trust to change all eleven (or near enough) in one crazed swoop, and hope that nobody notices. The England team has done this often enough to teach anyone with a smidge of good sense that swapping out more than half of the regulars for a bunch of capable substitutes simply will not pass without a dip in quality. The individuals involved might all be good enough, but the spine of the team is gone, and instead there stands on the greenery a bunch of fellows who presumably have never once played together en masse.

Changing maybe four of the line-up ought generally to be manageable, whilst retaining the core of the team. But sticking with Lloris and hoping that a jumble of the rest of them will cope is a bit like holding onto the Ace, throwing the rest of the cards into the air and expecting them to fall in order.

The complete absence of first half fluency was therefore lamentable but fairly unsurprising. A new back-four, a new midfield three and a new front three predictably enough all looked around for someone else to take the lead.

Which is not to excuse them from blame – the lack of movement from those not in possession was fairly criminal stuff, and presumably most of them will at some point in the coming days have their heads flushed down a nearby toilet as a pointed reminder that a professional footballer ought to run until his lungs burst.

But nevertheless, I’m not sure what miracle Jose was expecting, having fielded a brand new eleven.

2. The Ongoing Struggles of Young Master Dele

Fair to say that Dele Towers will have witnessed happier times. The young squirt is clearly not Jose’s preferred tipple, which must be tough enough on a chap who not so long was being feted as The Next Big Deal.

But as if to really twist the knife, whenever he does get a start these days, the planets do anything but align, he scrabbles around for his best form and the it’s a safe bet that by half-time he’ll be invited to model some of the exciting THFC bench-warming garb.

Dele’s performance tonight sat somewhere between Terrible and Brilliant. In truth it was pretty typical Dele fare. Some nice touches and a few attempted cute passes were interspersed with him dwelling on the ball longer than necessary and flinging his arms in the time-honoured fashion of a toddler who can tantrum like the best of them. Personally I thought his work-rate was acceptable enough, and he was a little hard done by to be hooked at half-time; but such is life.

Part of the problem is that he does tend to swan around the place with the air of one who would like the team to be built around him. Dele, one sometimes suspects, would like to be the superstar flair player, or if not The Main Man then dashed well first amongst The Supporting Cast. And once upon a time that was indeed the case, with Dele the foil to Kane’s leading light.

At present, alas, he is being required simply to roll up his sleeves and put in a shift like the rest of the plebs. This does not appear a role for which Nature has fashioned him.

One wonders how long the impasse will last – or at least one would if this were a transfer window, but it isn’t, and presumably a few more opportunities for redemption await in the Europa.

3. Ben Davies, AANP’s Nemesis

Few things get the juices flowing like a pantomime villain, and as such I sometimes wonder if Ben Davies was put on this earth purely to give yours truly someone at whom to vent after five minutes of gently simmering discontent.

In truth he’s a pretty honest trooper – but when the reasonable fan has half an eye on title celebrations next May, then ‘Honest Trooper’ does not cut it.

As a full-back his crosses typically hit the first man (think back to the delicious Reguilon cross for Kane vs West Ham, and imagine how many attempts it would have taken Davies), and as a centre-back he seems best when in amongst a three.

It ought not to have mattered tonight, but just as the simmering discontent began to make itself felt, there was Davies to clatter over his own feet and pretty much usher in Antwerp with a route to goal.

Alas, we are hardly blessed with talent in the centre-back area at present, and if anything will halt the title parade next May it’s that particular berth. However, having incurred the AANP wrath from his general lack of threat as a bona fide left-back, I need hardly describe how the passions were stoked by his faux pas tonight.

4. Bale’s Lack of Fitness

Another game, and another underwhelming showing from our resident Galactico.

As ever, one is reluctant to chide Bale for the crime of being dreadfully undercooked, but it is difficult to tell how effective he might be at full-blast when he shows reluctance to break sweat, as is currently the case.

Bale currently ambles around the place with the air of one paranoid his muscles might snap if he approaches anything near a sprint – which may well indeed be exactly his mindset. And if that is indeed the case then there’s not much anyone can do but fling him into the pit on Thursday nights and hope that the cylinders begin to fire before too long.

It didn’t help the cause tonight however, not least given that, as articulated above ad nauseam, he was one amongst a group of relative strangers all looking to each other for inspiration. Moreover, one got the impression that young Lo Celso was in a similar boat of being a little wary of stretching the limbs as far as they would go, being also freshly returned from injury.

The net result was a team that looked like they were carrying one or two passengers, which certainly stuck a few spanners in the works.

On top of which, it remains nigh on impossible to gauge what sort of Gareth Bale we find ourselves in possession of. He is still capable of lung-busting gallops? Is his sole purpose in life now to lamp the ball at goal from thirty yards? There is no way of knowing at present.

5. Oddly Reticent Full-Backs

No doubt that the game was lost in that oddly neutered first half. The glut of half-time substitutions nearly had the desired effect in terms of result, and certainly bucked up things performance-wise, with Messrs Sonny, Lamela and Hojbjerg each offering the levels of energy one has come to expect.

It was notable in that second half that Monsieur Aurier in particular was suddenly struck by the whim to attack down the flank. Quite why he didn’t do so in the first half was a rummy one to me, with Reguilon on the other flank similarly shy on the matter.

A failing in that first half was the narrowness of our lot, alongside the absence of movement and general lethargy about the place. But a key component of Jose’s Spurs has generally been the willingness of the full-backs to push forward, allowing the forwards to shuffle infield, and generally sprinkling the place with options.

As noted, Aurier did so in the second half, but it was all lacking in the first. Maybe it was due to the slow tempo of the build-up play, maybe not, who knows? It was not the only failing, and certainly not the only reason we lost – but as with all the shortcomings, it left the interested observer with a sense of irritation.

Spurs 3-3 West Ham: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Second Half

What with the early carousing in which everything turns to gold, followed by a feeling ultimately of feeling sick to the stomach, this had all the hallmarks of a particularly exuberant night out for which one pays pretty heavily the next day. ‘Moderation’ is generally a watchword at AANP Towers until the drink starts to flow, and between you and me there has been more than one occasion on which I have woken bleary-eyed on the bathroom floor, still wearing the previous night’s layers, with head pounding like the dickens and a ghastly taste in the throat, leaving me to wonder at precisely what point things went from Rip-Roaring-Fun to Oh-So-Terribly-Wrong.

I mention this regrettable morning-after sentiment because that same question – of the point at which things went from RRF to OSTW – seems pretty ripe here.

It would be easy to suggest it was half-time – and the trail of breadcrumbs certainly points to our lot failing remotely to match West Ham’s second half lust for battle.

But here at AANP Towers there were one or two mutterings of discontent even in the first half, even amidst the Kane-and-Sonny double-act, because whenever West Ham probed down the flanks our lot seemed to make quite the song and dance about simply putting out the fires and getting on with life. While it was true that every time we attacked we looked like scoring, and a three-goal lead ought to have been plenty, our back-four could hardly have been described as hammock-swinging and cigar-puffing at any point.

Nevertheless, with a three-nil lead at home to middling opposition, the decent thing to do would have been to shuffle off with all three points. But whereas in the first half we cleared the set-pieces and had some generous spells of midfield possession – with occasional breakneck forward thrusts – in the second half it seemed the urgency levels were gently dialled down as the clock ticked towards 90. Where Ndombele, and Hojbjerg in particular, were pulling strings in the first half, they gently faded into the background in the second.

I suppose, just as one can identify the precise Jagerbomb on the night-before as the moment at which events suddenly veered south, one can point to the removal of Son and his energy, or Sissoko’s failure to challenge for a header at a set-piece, as turning points here. And such individual moments certainly did seem to contribute to the general malaise.

However, unlike the Newcastle last-minute equaliser a few weeks back, we can hardly claim that this was a bolt from the blue – our lot allowed West Ham to have too much of the game in the second half.

2. Aurier and the Void Between his Ears

This was probably one for ‘Collective Responsibility’ rather than zooming in on the obvious, traditional cause of calamity, but as we were increasingly on the defensive in the second half, and given that most of the damage was being done on the flanks, I took it upon myself to conduct a thorough study of Serge Aurier’s second half activity; and, unsurprisingly, the results made for pretty dubious viewing.

It may have been tactically ordained from on high, but Aurier constantly seemed to be ten yards further forward than the rest of the back-four. This obviously accommodated his impulse to attack, which made sense, and Sissoko more often than not slotted in behind him to cover.

This in itself seemed reasonable enough. Not a tactic with which I was terrifically thrilled, but one accepts such things with good grace. What irked no end, however, was that when possession was lost and the defensive gong had clearly sounded, Aurier tended to do little more than watch events unfold from ten yards away. When he ought to have been busting a gut to return to his quarters, he rarely did more than saunter back.

It was disturbing quite how often he was simply in the wrong position. This seemed to be compounded by his urge to race into tackles in midfield – simply because he happened to be in the vicinity. A dollop or two of defensive nous might have encouraged him to leave midfield battles for the midfielders, while he hurried back to his right-back post, but such thoughts rarely seemed to occur.

It was all a little odd, and I rather wish I had studied Reguilon on the other flank to see if similar events were unfolding there.

And then, to compound matters, in the dying seconds Aurier managed in a single movement to segue from being comfortably in possession to needlessly losing possession and conceding a free-kick, from which the equaliser was scored. All the attacking benefits in the world cannot convince me of that man’s worth as a defender.

3. Early Thoughts on Bale

Whisper it, but the much-heralded return of Gareth Bale proved to be one heck of a damp squib, as tends to be the case when one wanders onto the pitch and sees things immediately fall apart at the seams just in time for the final whistle.

Not since the signings were announced of Edgar Davids, and before him Jurgen Klinsmann, has the excitement at AANP Towers reached such giddy levels. For ten mind-boggling minutes we were even treated to the Son-Kane-Bale axis in all its glory. Nothing happened, as all three, in their own unique ways, all looked pretty shattered – but there it was! Actually unfolding!

In time, one suspects those three will absolutely blitz some poor, honest souls who amble up on the wrong day. This, however, was not that day. Bale, frankly, did not look fit. I suspect no-one begrudges him that, and at three-nil with twenty minutes to go it ought not to have mattered, but I suppose we will simply have to wait a few more weeks before that front-three fires on all cylinders.

A dashed shame that Bale fluffed his lines when the big moment arrived, particularly having done the hard work, but he seemed to receive an untimely shove that knocked him off his axis at the crucial moment. The good times will presumably roll soon enough.

4. Deep-Lying Kane

On a brighter note, the japes of the first sixteen minutes were all sorts of fun!

What seemed to begin as a mere whim or flight of fancy of Harry Kane’s, to drop deep and show off his passing range, now seems to have evolved into a bona fide plan, which presumably has files saved online and a ring-binder containing notes and coloured post-its in Jose’s inner sanctum.

When our lot begin passing from our own goal kick, Kane now stations himself in midfield as a matter of permanent residence, in order to collected the lofted ball and make merry.

Things are a little different when we’re in possession around halfway, in which case normality resumes and he’s as likely to be the attacking spearhead; but if the opposition defence is pushed up to halfway, Kane’s drill is to sow his wild oats from a deep-lying starting position.

And why not? His passing is sublime, and his runners willing. Teams will presumably suss this out and deploy appropriate counter-measures – but in a way this will be where the fun really does begin, because we have the option of simply having Kane wander back into attack, and dragging opponents with him.

5. Clinical Finishing

The heading ‘Clinical Finishing’ rings a little hollow now, admittedly, but in the opening twenty minutes or so our finishing was the very dictionary definition of clinical.

I recall several years ago in an away Champions League match – possibly Barcelona, possibly Dortmund – when Son was clean through and shot straight at the ‘keeper, I gave the blighter an absolutely rollicking for several weeks afterwards. Not much point, of course, as he couldn’t hear me, but I was convinced at the time that the lad was not one of nature’s born finishers.

Things have moved on somewhat since then, and now Sonny is as deadly as they come when the frame of the goal looms into view. I did rather titter at the West Ham defender who did not think to prevent his right-footed shot in the first minute – it seems a safe bet that the entire watching global audience could see what Son was going to attempt as soon as he collected the ball – but it’s one thing attempting such manoeuvres and another thing crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s, and these days Sonny just doesn’t seem to miss.

Credit also to Kane for rolling out the double-nutmeg for his first goal, and a slap on the back for young Senor Reguilon and his glorious first-time cross, which practically begged to be nodded home. I cannot imagine that I was the only one who wondered how many attempts that might have taken Ben Davies.

Our lot can barely be contained going forward – if we could just work out how to defend (and no, Eric Dier is not the answer) just imagine where this season would take us. For now, however, it seems all action, no plot.

Southampton 2-5 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

As 5-2 victories go this one was of the lesser-sighted ilk, that has one slapping the thigh in satisfaction, for sure, but also musing to one’s neighbour that we pulled it off without at any point playing particularly well. It would be a little crude to say that this was simply a triumph of lobbing balls over the top of a fairly clueless opposition defence – but only a little.

1. Ndombele

Premier Sports appear to have hit upon one heck of a market strategy judging by the midweek experience, of pocketing AANP’s hard-earned cash and promptly downing tools. However, in between the blank screens and random Serie A montages during our Europa jaunt on Thursday I did get to see enough of Ndombele’s cameo to suggest that if the stars align he could be the one that gets the pistons firing.

The shoulder-dips to wriggle free of minders were reminiscent of Mousa Dembele – blessed be his name – while Ndombele also appeared instinctively to look for those short, defence-splitting, diagonal passes whenever the aforementioned shoulder-dip had allowed him room.

After the torpor that had preceded, it made for pretty radical viewing, and although one rarely knows quite how the cogs whir inside Jose’s curious little mind it was no massive surprise to see Ndombele given the opportunity to peddle his wares from the off today.

And when he did end up in possession I thought he delivered more of the same. The problem was that he only ended up in possession about five times in the entire half, but it ought not to detract from the fact that each of those occasions made for a pretty pleasing highlights reel. Shoulder-dip-enabled wriggles and diagonal passes were very much the instructions being delivered by the voices in his head, and he held up his part of the bargain.

Early on he played a pass through the middle, and while both Sonny and Kane were each comfortably offside, the very fact that he possessed both the vision and chops to attempt such a thing – in a land in which Harry Winks was haring around demanding the ball just so that he could immediately roll it backwards ten yards – was the sort of encouraging stuff one gulps down.

Ndombele’s piece de resistance of course, was the moment bang on half-time in which he somehow managed to unite in one movement tribute acts to both Mousa Dembele and Luka Modric, arguably our two finest midfielders of the past twenty years.

The strength and control to pirouette was worthy of Dembele, and took out two Southampton defenders at once; the placement and weighting of the pass took out another two. Kane and Sonny delivered their lines with the professionalism one would expect, and we went into half-time with a parity that was barely deserved.

Much of the purring around that goal was directed towards Kane and Son, which was understandable enough, given that each made a pretty difficult task look akin to shelling peas stolen from babies – but here at AANP Towers we have rather the soft spot for those unsung heroes who assist the assist, and Ndombele’s contribution did much to alter the momentum of a game that was drifting from us a tad.

2. Lo Celso

So it was no real surprise to see Jose hook Ndombele immediately and dabble in a spot of Lo Celso for the second half instead.

And credit where due, where Ndombele’s contribution had vitally altered the scoreline, Lo Celso’s altered the general pattern of play. One does not want to massage the ego any more than is absolutely necessary, but a congratulatory nod is probably due to our esteemed head coach.

Lo Celso appeared to pitch his tent a good ten or fifteen yards further north of Ndombele’s stomping ground, and it allowed for a little more subtlety to the general tactic of lobbing the ball over the top and chasing.

With Lo Celso pushing further up the field, and Kane dropping into deeper pockets, the relationship between midfield and attack, which in the first half had been little more than strangers in similar garb exchanging suspicious looks, blossomed into something vastly more convivial. As if to cement the entente cordiale, Lo Celso duly assisted two of the assists in the second half., which obviously made him the toast of the town within these four walls.

The successes – of sorts – of both Lo Celso and Ndombele in their respective cameos in that third midfield slot does make one dizzyingly wonder quite how the cup of creativity might overfloweth if the two of them were paired together. But perhaps we cannot expect Jose’s attacking instincts to extend quite so far, and for the foreseeable it will be one or the other, with two midfield minders in attendance to keep a lid on any frivolity.

3. Dele Alli

Quite where Dele Alli fits into all this is one for the square-peg-round-hole specialists to mull over. Our Glorious Leader does have something of the vindictive ex-wife about him when it comes to picking a scapegoat and slinging some mud, so Dele probably ought not to take his squad exclusion too greatly to heart, but for this month at least he appears to have been identified by Jose as The Cause Of All Life’s Ills, so he had better get used to the feeling.

One might argue, and in pretty compelling fashion, given the evidence of the senses, that Dele’s particular bag of tricks is not quite the right fit for the current formation. However, I am inclined to think that if Jose wanted team Hotspur to include one Alli, D. Esquire then Jose would find a way to do so. It is not so much that the young eel does not fit the formation as that Jose is simply casting his admiring glances at other shiny toys in his box – and Dele will simply have to apply more make-up in order to win back those lost affections.

While there have been some rumbles of discontent about the place at the omission of the chap, it would be remiss to suggest that pitchforks are being sharpened and villages burned in indignation. His absence is not being particularly lamented. When on song, Dele has the technique – not to mention eye for goal – to make himself a nuisance in and around the opposition box.

But when off the boil – and let’s face it, for various reasons this has been the case for at least a season – he appears neither one thing nor another. Unless one of those things is a midfield presence who takes far too many touches in possession, sucking momentum out of attacks, in which case he is absolutely that thing.

The breathless nature of the fixture list in the coming weeks means that Dele need not sulk in the corner for too long, as his services will doubtless be required. The Carabao Cup must, after all, go on. He would be well advised, however, to take a cautionary glance over his shoulder, for with a sudden overload of attacking sorts mooching about the camp he will need to do more than simply go through the motions and attempt nutmegs every time he receives possession if he is to elbow his way back up the midfield pecking order.

4. Son, Kane… and Bale

Son and Kane naturally enough are the names in lights tonight, what with their clinical finishing and exquisite vision and passing. The humility overload as every figure in lilywhite attempted to pass credit to someone else did nauseate pretty swiftly, but that can be excused. They were five lovely goals, and whatever else is malfunctioning about the place we are dashed lucky to have those two up top.

Given what had gone before, this game seemed like it would result in anything but a five-goal salvo. The evidence of the first half suggested that this was set to be another dubious Jose performance, as low on fight as possession – but such is the benefit of having world-class strikers. Having been second best for half the game, our forwards randomly turned the scoreline into an absolute mauling before anyone had really registered how that midfield struggle of the first half was unfolding in the second.

And with the excitement of Bale’s return in recent days, it has made one reflect that the last time he was in our ranks, our lot were similarly low on a defined system. Back then, the plan as often as not was simply to cross halfway, give it to Bale and sit back in the knowledge that he’d likely find a way to score (typically by galloping forward twenty yards and then leathering it from distance, teammates present for decorative value only).

And in the first half at least, until Lo Celso did the honourable thing, the tactic seemed to be a variation on a similar theme – lob the ball into the final third for Son and Kane, and sit back in the knowledge that they’d likely find a way to score. The tactics barely need tweaking to accommodate Bale.

However, given that the excitement dial has simply exploded into a puff of smoke at AANP Towers, in a fashion not seen since Klinsmann’s signing was unveiled in ’94, one can be excused for simply waving away tactics and dreaming of quite how good the attack might look. If Kane and Son can magic up five goals between them at the head of a fairly rudimentary system, imagine what delights Kane, Son and Bale might provide. The mind boggles.

Spurs 0-1 Everton: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. New Season, Same Dross

The cheery new-season optimism at AANP Towers dissipated after around 7 minutes, which feels like it might be some sort of record.

Having raced around immediately post kick-off as though they meant business, our heroes pretty swiftly reverted to type once those initial sprints had been sprinted, and spent the remaining 83+ minutes of the game displaying all those ominous traits that had wormed their way into the fittings at the end of last season.

Mistaking today’s opponents for Barcelona circa 2012 we generally sat off them, genial hosts that we are, and let them do as they please, wherever they pleased.

In possession, ‘Anything But Urgency’ seemed to be the mantra, as the ball was gently plopped this way and that in the slow, soothing and threat-free manner of a lullaby one might hum to a sleepy infant.

Service of any sort to Kane was unapologetically removed from the menu; a goal was conceded from a pretty rudimentary set-piece; and having gone behind our lot appeared to down tools and relax, seemingly under the misapprehension that this was a two-legged affair, and there would be plenty of opportunity to correct things at a later date.

Since his arrival Jose has seemed to enjoy reeling off a chorus along the lines of ‘Give me a pre-season and I’ll show you a team in my image’ – but the evidence of our eyes was that of a team whose dial has been set to ‘Underwhelming’ and is absolutely not for deviating from that course.

2. Hojbjerg

Since I write this thing under oath I might as well come clean and admit to my public that when Hojbjerg signed up, while not exactly moved to dancing a jig, I nevertheless went out of my way to nod in approval and insist to those within earshot that here was a smart purchase.

On paper, everywhere you cared to look there was a ticked box. The chap was evidently fond of a tackle, had the good sense to position himself in the sort of positions that upset opposition attacks at source, had run a lap or two in the Premier League and was reasonably well priced. A cure to all life’s ills he might not quite have been, but a dashed handy addition to the rack he most certainly was.

And, continuing the spirit of Bible-sworn honesty, I thought that his opening quarter of an hour in lilywhite did much of what was scrawled on the tin. He tackled, he positioned himself usefully within spitting distance of the back-four, he poked his nose in Everton’s business. It was low-key stuff admittedly, and no bones were shattered or worlds set alight – but it seemed to be the good, honest stuff of which behind-the-scenes midfield minders are made.

The commentary bods evidently disagreed, and with considerable strength of feeling, but in the early stages at least I thought it was all palatable enough. Being Tottenham through and through, one is inclined to give the newbies the benefit of the doubt, plus a little extra. To do otherwise would not be cricket.

However, as the hands of time continued on their relentless march, so Hojbjerg’s contributions became by turns less remarkable, then more ordinary, and then downright ragged, if you pardon the fruity language.

Now one does not slander one’s fellow Spur lightly, and much less on debut, so a little perspective would not go amiss. This was no horror-show, it simply meandered into ineffective territory, which happens to the best of us.

But having been heralded as the sort of bean who would call spades spades and stamp down on any nonsense, it was a heck of a downer to see levels of midfield bite drop to zero, levels of midfield creativity fail to rise above zero and life drain away well before the curtain came down. Hojbjerg remains a good player, and the odds are that the coming weeks and months will demonstrate as much, but this was disappointing stuff.

3. Doherty

The other shiny new toy in the cupboard was shoved about a mile up the right wing and told to get on with it. Hopes were high for young Doherty, and who knows, if he had picked his spot six inches to the east or west when through on goal the headlines might be of the upbeat and celebratory variety.

Alas, his diem went un-carped, and instead we were left to reflect on a curious sort of performance that was neither one thing nor the other until he ran out of puff and had mercy shown.

He seemed to get the broad gist that his role was as much attacking as anything else, and it is worth remembering that by virtue of not being Serge Aurier he did not contribute anything in the way of kamikaze penalties or red cards from thin air.

At the same time, one got the impression as often as not that a geography lesson or two might be in order, as at times he seemed to be a member of the back-four in name only, being stationed a good twenty yards from the others even when on the back-foot.

Presumably other days will showcase better his crossing ability, but it was a shame that his expertise in this area was rarely used. The dash forward and one-two with Kane that led to his big chance did at least give the watching world a glimpse of the man’s capabilities, and I rather fancy that if the urgency he showed in driving into the Everton area in that instance were to become the norm, then the world would be a better place.

As with Hojbjerg, one would assume that better days will come.

4. Brighter Notes

Still feeling in honest mood I’ll confess that this is gearing up to be one of the shorter paragraphs of the memoirs, but I thought Davies made a passable contribution, and hared forward a few times as if he knew Danny Rose were watching and waiting for fresh material about which to complain.

Lucas also at least had the decency to look interested, even if just about every attempt of his to build a head of steam and become some unstoppable force of nature stalled at take-off.

And, gloriously, we always have Jose’ secret weapon, The Lightning Quick Counter-Attack From The Opposition Corner. In the absence of any other tactic, one deviously wonders if we might start deliberately conceding corners, precisely to create the platform for Sonny, Lucas and Kane to gallop the length of the pitch and fashion a one-on-one. Now if that’s not grounds for boundless, sunny optimism about the future, then frankly I don’t know what is.

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