All Action, No Plot

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Fulham 0-1 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Front Four

Not sure how well versed you are on your scripture, but as I recall there’s one wheeze in The Good Book along the lines of Character A bumping into Character B, who – and this is crucial to the plotline – happens to be pregnant, with the punchline that on seeing Character A, it is reported by Character B that “the child in her womb leapt for joy”.

A pretty rummy line, and not something I can personally relate to, having, for various reasons, not experienced a child or indeed a womb myself – but had I been so blessed it is absolutely nailed on that the child would not just have leapt but would have performed an Irish jig at seeing the teamsheet yesterday. The universal reaction amongst all lilywhites of my acquaintance on learning of the starting eleven was one of barely containable excitement, as the star-studded quartet of Kane, Son, Bale and Dele was unleashed.

That said, the gratification was not quite instant, with Fulham inconsiderately deciding to start on the front foot for the first 10 minutes or so, and our lot revealing a pretty sizeable disconnect between defence and attack. However, when things did click it was pretty fruity stuff, and the fact that Fulham were still waltzing into our area a little too easily when in possession simply added to the feel that this whole thing was an Ossie Ardiles ’94 tribute act.

It will be interesting to see how stronger teams cope, but when our front four did purr last night there wasn’t a great deal Fulham could do to stop it. In time one would imagine that their interplay will improve, if the telepathy between Sonny and Kane extends to the other two; and, being an indulgent sort, I’d rather like to see the various band members interchange positions and go a-wandering.

As it was, Sonny obediently stayed out on the left, presumably because Bale had announced that he intended to stick to the right, with Kane varying his longitude if not his latitude. I’m not sure of the extent of the tactical coaching this mob received, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jose simply told them to toddle out there and do as they please, relying on their individual quality to do the necessary. It certainly brought about enough clear first half chances to have more than just the single goal.

In that respect Harry Kane deserves a slap on the wrist and a spell on the naughty step, as he was guilty of the sort of basic errors in front of goal that, had they been committed by Vinicius, would have had us booting him out the door and hurling a suitcase and his passport after him.

2. Dele Alli

The star of the show was probably Dele. While the headlines have been grabbed by his glaring miss that turned into an own goal by the chap next to him, the existential point he made by simply popping up in the area at that moment, with a good sense of dramatic timing, did a lot to justify his inclusion.

In a team so heavily reliant upon Son and Kane for the beginning, middle and end of its goals, Dele’s presence and natural inclinations to tiptoe forward immediately open up new routes to goal, and as such give fresh headaches to opposing defences.

On top of his attacking threat, I feel legally obliged to mention that he also knuckled down to the meat and veg of a midfielder’s role, performing such unglamorous tasks as tracking back, making tackles and helping to dab possession about the place. However, the principal benefits he brought were in the attacking spots, which does make one wonder why the hell Jose saw fit to kick him out of the squad for the first two thirds of the season, but I suppose life is full of such mysteries.

3. Ndombele

Having missed out on parity by a whisker with the last kick of the first half, Fulham decided to try the same approach in the second, with the result that we spent a full 45 minutes clinging on for dear life against a team that for all intents and purposes is from the division beneath us. From the Championship they came, and to the Championship they will return, but this did not stop them relentlessly attacking us and coming within one rulebook absurdity of equalising.

Every time our defence desperately thwacked the ball clear it came back at us, as the concept of hanging onto the thing seemingly lost on those members of the collective who were stationed further north.

The whole nerve-shredding spectacle did make me stop and wonder about the role of Ndombele in these scenarios. No matter how many times and how large the phrase “Defensive Midfielder” is stamped across his frame, it does not alter the fact that here is a chap who looks longingly at his attacking chums on the other side of the halfway line, desperately wanting to remove himself to such sunnier climes.

This seemed to be emphasised by the fact that he raced forward over halfway at every opportunity, not even really caring about the specific destination as long as he could glimpse the sight of the opposition goalposts and take a few gulps of oxygen from the Fulham half.

Which is all well and good, and is the sort of back-up act that makes the dreamy front four even more irresistible; but when he is stationed as one of two chappies sitting in front of the back four, there is something of a statutory requirement that he puts on his defensive hat and offers some protection.

Alas, he didn’t offer much in this department. If anything I noticed Dele’s defensive contributions more than his. This is not so much a criticism of Ndombele himself, more an observation that if we are going to field a stardust-sprinkled front four then we probably do require something a bit more solid behind them.

4. Davinson Sanchez

For the second successive game I was struck by the thoroughly disorienting sensation that Davinson Sanchez was, just about, doing an adequate job of keeping intruders at bay. Much though I would like to, I cannot really bring myself to describe him as a reassuring presence back there, as he does give the impression that calamity is only one opposing stepover away.

However, he stuck to his task yesterday, and by and large emerged in credit with a number of solid interventions and tackles to his name. There were a couple of moments, notably one at the very end of the first half, when it seemed that the ghost of Gundogan had returned, and threatened to leave him writhing on the floor again, but he recovered well and generally did the necessaries.

Ultimately, I thought his night was rather summed up by the disallowed goal: an agricultural clearance (which is better than no clearance at all), combined with a spot of luck, with the net result that the clean sheet remained intact.

In the final analysis it is a bit difficult to get one’s head around things: two consecutive wins is excellent stuff; albeit the opposition have been relegation strugglers; the front four could potentially light up our end to the season; yet our defence remains pretty wobbly at best. Luckily the games come so quickly these days there isn’t much time to dwell on these imponderables.

Man city 3-0 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Lloris

One does not really like to dwell on the misfortune of others, but it would be remiss not to record in the Book of Events the latest series of errors from our resident gate-keeper.

For the first two goals (and some might make convincing arguments also for the third) he seemed to do the hard part, of stationing himself at the appropriate coordinates and at the appointed time, with relevant limb duly outstretched, in order to make the necessary saves. These boxes having been ticked, all that remained seemed to be for him to complete the job by ensuring that aforementioned outstretched limb completed its principle purpose in life, viz. to prevent the ball entering his net.

Of course at this juncture the operation seemed to collapse in pieces. It is pretty vexing stuff, because shot-stopping has tended to be Lloris’ headline trick. One rarely sees him dashing from his line to claim crosses, and his distribution tends not to win too many awards: but for the past however many years he has at least amassed a decent array of saves. Take this away from him and tongues will wag.

And on the subject of his diminishing shot-stopping powers, I’ve noted a recent tendency of his to fall backwards as he attempts to carry out this particular duty. The second and third goals yesterday, and also the first goal against Everton (Calvert-Lewin’s powerful volley, for those struggling to keep track), each featured our man tumbling back onto his derriere.

Now not having been particularly schooled in the art as a whole I couldn’t offer much expertise on the matter, but it does seem a peculiar quirk. One would have thought a chap aiming to spring into action ought to plant his weight on his toes. This business of falling backwards suggests that the chap is more inclined to rock on his heels.

2. Hojbjerg

Regulars in this part of the world will be well aware that the affection for Hojbjerg all season has been strong. Alas, yesterday he dipped below the expected standards.

Following his errors against Everton in midweek, Hojbjerg was at it again yesterday. Some have suggested that the penalty should not have been awarded, but before examining the case for that particular defence I chide the man for getting himself into that position in the first place. The opponent in questions was Gundogan, who, in order to station himself for the aforementioned drama to unfold, had to amble forward into the area, while a chum was in possession; and at this point Hojbjerg simply watched him skip past.

As derelictions of duty go it was pretty thick stuff, and most unlike the chap. Had he tracked this run with the eagerness of a boy scout I dare say the various legs that then became tangled would have remained in tangle-free state.

Personally I had no beef with the decision itself, as it appeared that Hojbjerg kicked the chap’s standing leg, the principal crime here being one of clumsiness. All in all, as bursts of five-seconds-of-action go, this was one of the more flawed exhibits.

3. Lamela and Lucas

While Hojbjerg has been looked upon fondly all season, a more recent favourite at AANP Towers has been Erik Lamela, primarily for his combination of high energy, skulduggery and useful – if heavily left-footed – creative spark. It was also a rare opportunity for Lucas to do his damnedest, and whether by accident or design the pair of them interchanged their first half roles pretty regularly.

However, as with Hojbjerg, this seemed not to be the sort of performance upon which either man will look back with any particular fondness. It was not so much that they made any specific, game-changing mistakes – there were plenty others queueing up to do that.

Rather, it was the fact that Lamela having begun to display his talents in the final third in recent games, nothing really clicked for the young nib yesterday, and Lucas was similarly wanting. Both were guilty of making the occasional poor decision, when the very limited opportunities arose for us to poke and prod at the City back-line.

City defended well, no doubt, but our game tends to rely on correct choices in the counter-attack, to ensure that the ball whizzes from point A to B, and onto C, with blink-of-an-eye alacrity, and while this pair had fairly regular opportunities to bring the ball over halfway, neither seemed to pick the most effective options having done so.

4. Ndombele and the First Half Formation

By the time the last rites came round City were basically toying with us, but in the first half the front-page news seemed to be that Jose had dispensed with the customary tactic against Man City, of deploying a back-six under strict instruction to venture no further than their own penalty area. Instead, while hardly expansive, our lot seemed willing to poke cautious noses into the swathes of turf that lay further north.

This I welcomed. It made a pleasant change, reduced the chances of conceding and was less painful to watch than might otherwise have been the case. In practice, of course, it mattered little, but the symbolism of the thing was duly recorded here at AANP Towers.

And directly linked to this mildly more progressive outlook was the deployment of Ndombele as one of the two deeper-lying midfield souls. Pre-Christmas, the Mourinho Dirge had been founded upon a deep-lying pairing of Sissoko and Hojbjerg, both of whom seemed pretty well drilled in the art of slotting in betwixt full-back and centre-back at the drop of a hat.

With Ndombele occupying the berth however, it’s a different kettle of fish. He follows the T’s and C’s of defensively midfielding adequately enough, but coursing through his veins is an urge to pick up the ball and drag it with him over halfway and into opposition territory. In short, his deployment in the role changes the dynamic of our play. This scheme was initially pursued against West Brom last week, which, in the politest terms, was a pretty low-risk test of its efficacy. It was then wheeled out for the manic Cup-tie vs Everton, the sheer lunacy of which game made it pretty difficult to gauge its success, although Ndombele’s breaks from deep did add a useful additional dynamic to our play.

However, then to use Ndombele in the deeper role against the juggernaut that is City struck me a a pretty significant act of faith in his abilities.

The experiment went the way of all flesh in the second half, as Sissoko came on and sat deep, while Ndombele shoved forward, before being hooked – but not before this additional piece of symbolism had similarly had its details taken. Amidst the doom and gloom about the place, I do at least look forward to further use of Ndombele as a deep-lying attacking threat, in coming weeks.

5. Bale and Alli

Funnily enough it flew completely under the radar that we finished the game with something of a fantasy line-up, of Kane, Son, Bale and Dele Alli in attack.

I don’t really keep track of these things but I’d imagine it can’t have been that long ago that a decent proportion of the world’s lilywhites would have given their right arms to see that quartet in action simultaneously.

Now obviously when this dream team is assembled within the circumstances of a three-goal deficit in the dying embers of a match, it loses much of its sheen. But if somehow the best can be coaxed out of Dele, and anything remotely near fitness and form out of Bale, we might potentially have a front four that, frankly, would be far beyond anything Jose has ever done to deserve.

I suspect most of us are scratching our heads at Bale’s odd flurry of non-performances so far, but in one fleet-footed dribble past multiple City legs yesterday he gave a brief flash of hope that perhaps his appetite for such things may not have fizzled out completely.

With transfer speculation about Dele now put to bed for at least the next few months it appears that Jose has moodily decided he might as well play the two-time Young Player of the Year, on the off-chance that he has something about him. There is still enough time in the season for he and Bale to hit some loose approximation of form – and should either, or, God-willing, both do so, and with Ndombele prompting things from deep, our attacking options would suddenly abound.

Everton 5-4 Spurs: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. All Action, No Plot

Cut me open and you’ll find me bleeding lilywhite, and so on and so forth; and every defeat for our lot conjures up that hurtful feeling of being bitten in the leg by a personal friend, and so on and forth; but I have to admit, that having felt like my soul was being dragged from my very being while watching our lot resolutely defend their own penalty area for the last six months, to see the return of all-action-no-plot football last night brought a certain satisfaction.

As I will bleat to anyone within earshot, I would much rather see our lot lose while buccaneering like a whole regiment of particularly well-oiled musketeers, than settling for 28% possession and aimlessly hacking clearance after clearance, before conceding in the final five minutes anyway.

It might not be the opinion that has the masses flooding to the ballot box to formalise their support, but give me an-all-action-no plot display any day of the week.

And make no mistake, this was AANP of the highest order. A team denuded of Harry Kane always prompts a few pursed lips and quizzical glances about the place, but from the off our heroes took to the challenge like a bag of cats freshly released. The football in general was one-touch, which is always one of life’s more positive omens, bringing with it, by definition, a rapid shifting of the central orb from points A to B and back again.

Chances were created and shots taken at a healthy rate from the opening minutes onwards, and while it was an annoyance to see just about all of them disappear straight down the throat of the Everton ‘keeper, each routine seemed to be undertaken in the right spirit. The movement of each of the front four was lively; and both the nominal deep-lying midfielders, Hojbjerg and Ndombele, seemed to treat the opportunities to motor forward with all the relish of a pair of teenagers allowed out to their first party.

In short it was pretty unrecognisable from the defensive fare we’ve had rammed down our throats for so long under Jose, and while the first half hour or so brought only a one-goal lead and around half a dozen missed chances for a second, the entertainment alone was ample compensation for an underwhelming scoreline.

Looking back, but for the five-minute burst of defensive howlers before half-time we may have shaded the thing on balance – not that the book of events records such speculation. I suppose we can draw some mild consolation from the fact that we did not concede due to inviting wave after wave of pressure, or being in ragged defensive shape, but primarily due to forming a neat queue of individuals eager to have their own individual howlers given air-time, with Messrs Hojbjerg and Lloris oddly intent on stretching the boundaries of the calamitous.

Having clawed the thing back twice in normal time, it was pretty galling to see it all disappear in smoke at stumps – but while others may grumble, I was simply glad to have at least been entertained. Rather a 4-5 after extra-time, than an impotent 0-1 utterly devoid of invention.

2. Lamela

I must confess it is not immediately clear to me which particular ghost has elected to inhabit the wiry frame of Erik Lamela in these two and a half games since his latest return from injury, but I like the cut of his spectral jib.

In attitude as much as output, Lamela has been a joy to behold, all energy, urgency and will to win. While his actual stats might not necessarily have been flawless, he was the creative hub regularly enough, and his goal seemed a pretty fair reward for a few hours of good honest graft in the last week or two.

3. Lucas

The offering from Lucas was more of a mixed bag. In the credit column, his attitude was also admirable from the off.

Now I appreciate that this is akin to dishing out a sympathetic pat upon the head of the chubby lad in the class, and awarding him a prize for effort, but this upbeat, energetic take on life was pretty critical. Cast the mind back just a week or two, to the utterly lifeless showings against Chelsea and Brighton, and one realises that we cannot simply take for granted that our lot will career about the place like men possessed.

And while Lucas’ capacity to dribble into cul-de-sacs, and dismiss multiple opportunities to pass because he simply prefers to do it all himself, does drive the casual observer to a state of apoplexy, it was pretty vital that he devoted himself with energy to even these hollow pursuits, for this beavering contributed crucially to the general dynamism of the whole.

4. Out Substitutions and the Loss of Energy and Shape

The value of Lucas’ contribution seemed to become clearer once he was withdrawn. To put it another way, cast the mind back to the latter stages of normal time and the entirety of extra-time, when the subs were thrown on, and our energy disappeared along with our shape.

Where Ndombele had repeatedly dragged the ball from defence to attack for ninety minutes, offering a sixth attacking option that helped maintain a constant threat, Winks replaced him and promptly set about chiselling out one of the worst cameos in recent memory, capping off an array of misplaced passes with the concession of possession that led to the Everton winner.

For all his over-elaboration, Lucas was also missed once hooked, with Dele doing little to affect matters.

Most tellingly, the introduction of Kane seemed to slow down a lot of our attacking play, with the high-energy buzz of the opening hour or so replaced by a slightly more circumspect approach. At three-one down one can hardly quibble with the decision to send on the greatest goalscorer of his generation (and both Sonny’s cross and his diving header, for our fourth, together amounted to a thing of beauty), but the front-foot attacking style with which we had swaggered through the first half certainly sapped away.

5. Lloris

Ultimately though, four goals really ought to have been enough, and probably would have been but for the steady stream of individual clangers that littered the place.

Hojbjerg without doubt has enough credit in the bank to be excused his part in the mess, which comprised principally a heavy touch to allow Everton their first. Little doubt that he also clipped his man for the penalty, but I am inclined to exonerate him on the grounds that this did not appear one of those fouls that had been delivered on the back of hours of planning, our man instead seemingly bumping into the chap, as one tends to do in a crowded spot.

Winks, as mentioned, had a bit of a stinker all round, and played himself into trouble when he really ought to have known better.

But the rotten tomatoes ought really to be reserved for Monsieur Lloris. A lame duck might have done better with at least two of the goals; a World Cup-winning goalkeeper ought to have snaffled them with pretty minimal breaking of sweat.

The first was particularly lamentable stuff, given that the ball came straight at him, and that his chosen course of action was then simply to shovel the ball onwards in its journey, while falling backwards into the net. I suppose one can give him the benefit of the doubt with the second, and the penalty left him with little chance; but for the fourth he again struck me as being a little too keen to wave the white flag.

That fourth, from Richarlison, was at a pretty tight angle for the forward, and while it is not really my place to lecture Lloris, I do wonder if the outcome might have been altered if he had thought to display a little less goal, or maybe stuck out a paw in preventative manner as a means of voiding the attempt. Just a thought.

So it’s all slightly unfortunate that there’s a bitter taste in the mouth now that the dust has settled; but whereas in almost every previous week of the last couple of months the grumbles have lasted long into the night on account of having to sit through utterly dire fare, I take some solace in the fact that at least this, and in particular our play going forward, was entertaining fare.

Spurs 2-0 West Brom: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Lamela

It’s a rummy thing about life, and also a pretty essential cornerstone of democratic civilization, that two souls seeing exactly the same thing will draw vastly different opinions of it. With that in mind I appreciate that the view over here might not necessarily be universally shared, but I rather fancied that Erik Lamela deserves to have the rosette for being Star Performer pinned to his blazer today.

There were actually quite a few contenders, which is a rare treat, but I thought that from the off Lamela did much to set the tone. There may well be occasions on which Lamela adopts a cautious approach to life, taking a back seat and allowing himself a good half hour to get a sense of how events are playing out before getting involved; but this occasion was not one of those occasions. Instead, picking up where he had left off in midweek, he began proceedings with the air of a man pretty determined to get things done pronto.

Whenever a chum had the ball Lamela seemed to be on the move. Where in previous weeks whichever man were in possession would look up to find that all his friends had deserted him, today every time we had the ball – which was most of the time – a quick glance gave evidence of a nearby little blur of white, which on more considered inspection typically transpired to be Lamela scuttling into frame and pleading his case for involvement.

It proved a popular approach, for Lucas was in similarly supportive mood. The net result was a range of options for whomever was in possession, a treat the like of which in recent weeks has seemed a thing of wild fantasy. As a neat consequence there was variety to our attacking play, and chances came along at a pretty healthy lick.

In previous weeks the supporting roles to Son and Kane have been provided by Bergwijn, who is typically preoccupied with marking an opponent, and Ndombele, whose myriad talents could not truthfully be said to number amongst them ‘Limitless Energy’. The contributions of Lamela and Lucas therefore, simply off-the-ball and in providing options, made a massive impact.

It’s almost an afterthought, but when in possession too they performed handily enough, Lucas in particular seeming to delight in the opportunity to indulge in a few playground-esque wriggles around as many opponents as he could draw in.

2. Hojbjerg’s Passing

On the subject of the Star Performer rosette, what I believe in the trade is known as “An Honourable Mention” ought to be made for the ever-impressive P-E Hojbjerg.

So far, so AANP, I hear you mumble; but in the sort of plot-twist that typically happens around p. 195 and is greeted by gasps of disbelief, in this case the plaudits for Hojbjerg are not so much for the role of indefatigable caretaker (although it should be said that his caretaking was of the usual efficient and no-nonsense ilk) but instead for his surprisingly impressive forward-passing range.

This, I confess, took me by surprise. The point of stationing Ndombele in the deep-lying midfield role alongside Hojbjerg seemed to me to have been that the latter would roll up his sleeves and fly through the muck, precisely in order that the former might receive possession and pick out killer passes.

Instead, while Ndombele seemed often to wander off in the directionless manner one sometimes sees traced by snails along the ground – you know the sort, meandering around and back on themselves, with no clear end-point in evidence – Hojbjerg seemed to take it upon himself to combine the rolls of muck-flying and killer-passing. And he did the latter in particular with aplomb.

I recall he had shown in the game away to Man Utd a surprising knack for the weighted pass inside the full-back, a routine looked upon with particular fondness here at AANP Towers, and he was at it here again, sliding in Aurier deliciously in the first half.

Much has been made of the well-spotted and equally well-weighted pass to set up Kane’s opener, but it ought not to be overlooked that immediately prior to that he set the whole routine in motion by playing another ball inside the opposing full-back to pick out Ben Davies, in a mini-acre of space on the left wing. Ben Davies, being Ben Davies, took the blandest option available and wandered infield to little effect before giving the ball back to Hojbjerg, and from there the goal was duly assisted.

However, even Homer occasionally nods, and at one point Hojbjerg made a pig’s ear of things by allowing himself to be caught in possession and a West Brom counter-attack to magic itself out of nothing.

(But as it turned even this was drizzled in stardust, as the resulting passage of play saw West Brom pile men forward, only for our lot to pinch possession and set off on the counter-attack for our second. One is tempted to suggest that Hojbjerg, in his infinite wisdom, deliberately lost possession in order to draw out West Brom for the counter-attack – but this is maybe a little too fanciful.)

3. Kane

Inevitably, where there is a discussion of Star Performer rosettes, one need not wait too long before the distinctive brogue of Harry Kane is making itself heard, and in his understated – and at times, headline-grabbing – manner he was at it again today.

His radar was actually decidedly shonky in the early portions, but that particular wrong was righted in good time, and his equalling of Bobby Smith’s mark as our second highest scorer ever gave a handy moment for reflection on quite how magnificent he is.

However, as is often the case these days, his goal amounts almost to an afterthought, because it was the overall Kane display that got the juices flowing here. The whole game was, of course, a completely different kettle of fish from the Chelsea debacle in midweek, but nevertheless the contrast between Vinicius against Chelsea and Kane today could not have been much starker.

Where Vinicius was honest but limited as a fairly static and ineffective target man, Kane bobbed and weaved about the place, dropping deep as often as he headed to the uppermost point in the formation.

Naturally enough, West Brom were pretty spectacularly out of their depth when it came to handling him, and while they went through all the correct and official motions it was basically to little effect, because these days Kane just does what he wants and there is precious little that most defences can do to contain him.

The chest-off to Lucas for our second goal was a particular highlight, and the interplay with Lamela, Lucas, Son and, slightly oddly, Ben Davies, in the first half in particular, brought a bit of fun back into our football.

4. Jose’s Redeeming Tactics

All things considered I’m not sure this could have been more satisfactory if specifically hand-picked from a catalogue of such things.

Having wasted no opportunity to deliver both barrels at Out Glorious Leader in recent weeks for the style (was there ever a greater misnomer?) he has cultivated to such ghastly effect, it is only fair to give a faint but meaningful nod of the head towards him today for making such tweaks as were necessary, to both personnel and positioning of personnel. Even before kick-off, the teamsheet alone had an uplifting whiff about it.

Aside from the return to arms of Kane, which to the amateur sleuths amongst us wasn’t really as much of a shock as the BT commentator seemed to have it, in selecting his team Jose appeared to have set out with the express intention to win back some of the favour lost at AANP Towers in recent weeks.

Now if you don’t mind, at this point I’ll take a minute to delve into the technicalities, so by all means feel free to disappear elsewhere for a few minutes, and pick up again at the next paragraph. Essentially, by shoving Sissoko out of the picture, dragging Ndombele back into a deeper role alongside Hojbjerg, where once Sissoko had stood, and giving Lamela the freedom of N17 in the more advanced midfield role – where once Ndombele had stood – the whole setup looked infinitely better balanced than in previous weeks.

For whatever reason, and despite possessing many of the necessary attributes for the role, Ndombele is rarely at the peak of his powers when granted the dream role of Number 10. Instead his many talents seem better evidenced when getting stuck into the action from a deeper starting point, and particularly when excused of too many defensive duties, so his delegation in the deeper role today made good sense. Oddly enough, despite the tailor-made platform, his performance ended up being slightly muted, but it mattered little given that the eyes of everyone else on show fairly lit up from the off.

Admittedly one had to take certain accommodating circumstances into account, not least the fact that this was a West Brom team seemingly determined to be even more like Jose’s Tottenham than Jose’s Tottenham, taking every opportunity to sit back and defend their own area until they fell behind. To have set up in the face of this with the usual back-six would have been a bit thick even by Jose’s standards. Nevertheless, we showed precious little attacking intent recently against a similarly lowly Fulham, so the more progressive tweaks in personnel and position were very welcome today – even if the cynic inside me does suspect a return to drearier ways in upcoming fixtures.

Spurs 1-3 Liverpool: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Hojbjerg a Lone Ray of Sunshine

While one never really knows what to expect with our lot, generally it seems safest to assume the worst, so when the teamsheet hit the airwaves – with its absence of Alderweirelds, and unnecessarily liberal scattering of right-backs – my profile took on a pretty ashen hue, and remained that way for kick-off and the opening sallies.

At which point it actually gained a pretty healthy tint, because oddly enough our lot began proceedings like they meant business. And not the usual Jose-induced business of retreating into the collective shell and guarding the edge of their own penalty area. Au contraire. The intent on show, if not exactly that of a mob beelining for the opposition goal, was at least that of a mob spitting on its hands and getting down to it.

‘Zip’ was the word that sprung to mind, in those early exchanges. We moved the ball with a swiftness and positivity so rarely seen these days that I eyed it with some suspicion. Equally, when out of possession, for the opening ten minutes or so at least, we raced about the place sniffing out mini-contests in which to embroil ourselves. Zip abounded. It was just a shame about the final eighty minutes.

Central to this pleasingly sprightly preface was, as ever, P-E Hojbjerg Esq. Although every week the commentators seem to talk about his debut against Everton as a reference point, as if that performance caused Covid, the fact is that if Player of the Season rosettes were awarded on the basis of Being Outstanding Whilst All Around You The Walls And Ceiling Are Burning, then Hojbjerg would be Kevin de Bruyne. And again yesterday, he set the tone.

By the end of the piece, at which point the walls and ceilings really had burnt to the ground, Hojbjerg was the only one who could have left the stage with head held high, having been right at it from the opening buzzer. It was hardy his fault that he and Ndombele were outnumbered in the centre – I will chide a player for many things, but not for failing to be two people – and it was good to see him spend much of the opening salvo in conference with Thiago, slap-bang in the meat of the thing (bearing in mind that Thiago is a man who, but a year ago, had the freedom of the stadium as Bayern stuck seven past us).

Hojbjerg did not necessarily boss the game (as mentioned, we were regularly outnumbered in the centre), and, as befits a mortal, he made his fair share of mistakes. Yet he, more than anyone else in lilywhite, seemed to carry out his duties with the determined attitude of a man whose life mission it is to see a thing done. Even when he inadvertently miscontrolled the ball out of play he seemed to do it with a wild frenzy in his eyes.

His goal (one heck of a hit, by the by) and indeed celebration were cut from similarly frenzied cloth. As noted above, by the time the final curtain fell most of our lot had slowed to sulky walks and long given up, but Hojbjerg at least seemed to care.

2. Ndombele Continuing to Mesmerise

While dwelling on the positives – all two of them – it’s satisfying to note that Ndombele’s transformation from timid and clumsy, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter to cape-wearing, superhuman saver-of-the-day is nearing completion.

As demonstrated when he set the cogs in motion for Sonny’s disallowed goal, there are times when the ball is absolutely stuck to his feet and no number of opponents can do the damnedest thing about it. In bobbing from A to B in that move he seemed to take out half the Liverpool team, and it was something of a running theme throughout the first half.

In general his talents were fairly wasted, either receiving the ball too deep or in circumstances too pressurised to do much more than shove it elsewhere like a hot potato, but whenever opportunity presented itself – and frequently when it did not – he was swivelling away from a man in red like a mean uncle toying with a small child.

In fact, after a while it all went to his head, and he started throwing in stepovers and body-swerves when there was really no need, but this could be excused. The fellow appears to be fulfilling his side of the bargain and making good on that potential. Just a shame that he is peddling his wares in a team that almost seems designed to minimise his abundant talent (see also Son, H-M and Kane, H).

3. Jose’s Tactics

Having been one of the principal cast members in the first half, Ndombele barely saw the ball in the second half, as Jose’s rearrangement of deck-chairs looked less the work of a multiple Champions League-winning genius and more the work of AANP desperately trying whatever springs to mind while overseeing another Football Manager failure.

I will go relatively easy on Jose for this, because his tactics, though they often make me want to stab out my own eyes, do regularly seem to bring home the bacon. I’d be willing to bet this season’s Carabao Cup, and possibly Europa, on that.

On this occasion however, Jose tried to be far too clever for his own good, and rather than deriving a few percentage gains here and there, he seemed instead to create an amorphous mess that handed the initiative to an out-of-form and injury-hit Liverpool we’ll rarely have a better chance to beat.

The Doherty Experiment, featuring an out-of-form player playing out of position, failed. Doherty looked all of the above. I suppose it’s not his fault that having spent a lifetime honing his left leg for decorative purposes only he was at a loss when asked to use it as an attacking weapon against the Champions, but frankly we might as well have stuck Bale or Rose (or Tanganga) out there. Or been completely radical and used Toby at centre-back with Davies on the left…

(The thought actually struck me that perhaps Doherty, well advertised as a lifelong Arsenal fan, was executing the perfect con – infiltrating the enemy to destroy it from within. I’ll let that idea ferment.)

The choice of a back-three was similarly dubious in concept and wretched in execution. Young Rodon looks like he might one day become a decent – or even majestic – centre-half, but if a young pup is flying in with mightily impressive sliding tackles it tends to mean he has been caught out of position in the first place. Between he and Aurier we managed to usher in Mane for around half a dozen face-time chats with Hugo, the dam eventually bursting on half-time.

On top of which, the use of a back-three left us undermanned in midfield. Everything about the approach seemed flawed.

In his defence Jose did try to remedy this by switching to a back-four and adding an extra body in midfield, but that extra body happened to be possessed by young Master Winks, who seemed oddly convinced that the road to success lay in passing to Liverpool players at every opportunity.

Jose can probably be excused the blame for that inventive approach to tide-turning, but for ignoring Messrs Bale and Vinicius, and sticking Sonny atop the tree and starving him, he deserves all the eye-rolling and incredulous outstretched hands going. Lamela, of whom I am generally quietly fond, entered the arena and promptly disappeared, and when Bale was tossed on he yet again found it beneath him to sprint.

Meanwhile at the other end, young Rodon took a rather unforgiving physics lesson in front of a worldwide audience of millions, discovering that a bouncing ball on a wet surface doth not a loving bedfellow make; and Lloris, having admirably performed his half of a Chuckle Brothers tribute act with Eric Dier for the first goal, obligingly set up Liverpool for some target practice for their second.

I daresay one of those Renaissance chappies with a palette and one ear might have quite enjoyed depicting on canvass this perfect storm of tactical calamity and individual disaster, but at AANP Towers the reaction was simply to clasp hands to head and wish that Jose would hurry up and win his trophy so that we can get rid of him and start again.

4. McManaman and the Art of Not Kicking In One’s Own Television

The plan on settling down with parchment and quill had been also to muse on Kane’s injury, Sonny’s first half miss, Dier, Bale and so on and so forth. But simply dredging up the memories has rather sapped my will to live, so instead forgive me if I veer off-topic to finish.

Back in the heady summer of 2019, on inviting various chums over to AANP Towers for the Champions League Final, the one stipulation that accompanied this golden ticket was that, whatever their allegiance, attendees must not cheer on the opposition. My rationale being that if I wanted a partisan crowd, I could simply venture to a public house, and enjoy to my heart’s content the thrill of an irritating Liverpool fan nattering incessantly in my ear.

Last night, I rather feel that I was treated to that exact experience. McManaman infuriated throughout. Whether eulogising over often fairly by-the-numbers Liverpool passing (and not treating our lot the same); castigating Sonny for perceived diving (and not treating his lot the same); bleating for the handball to be ignored even when told otherwise by the resident studio ref (and conveniently forgetting the Champions League Final ‘handball’ by Sissoko); or casually admitting that he has not watched much of Spurs (the job for which he is paid, and for which most of us would kill) and asking someone else how Bale has been playing, the fellow drove me to within one swing of a Hojbjerg right foot of kicking in my own television.

Ex-players as pundits is not an issue per se, if they can keep their allegiances neatly compartmentalised, or perhaps offer inside knowledge that the average tax-payer would miss. But employing an ex-player simply to hear him emit joyous, wordless noises when his former team is in action is a bit thick.

It’s an argument I’m happy to wave in the direction of Messrs Jenas and Hoddle too – it naturally grates a little less to hear them refer to our lot as “we”, but I’d be perfectly happy if someone completely neutral were roped in for the gig instead.

So all in all, pretty rotten stuff. One hopes that the players feel sufficiently enraged to dish out an absolute hammering to Brighton on Sunday.

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 Fernandeshttp://www.allactionnoplot.com/wp-admin/profile.php

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.

Spurs 0-2 Leicester: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. The Style of Play (Again)

I would normally pity the poor souls who part with their hard-earned wage, and write off an afternoon of their lives, to attend such a ghastly matinee as that, but on this occasion, mercifully, we were at least spared such punishment in the flesh.

Not that the 2D alternative did much to mask the unfolding rot. A peculiarity with The Jose Brand is that it relies absolutely entirely upon results for its success. In fact, its very raison d’être is its results.

The football itself at times borders upon the painful – for there were times in the first half in particular, when still nil-nil, that our heroes seemed to be actively looking to concede possession because the situation did not lend itself to a counter-attack, which rather beggars belief; and when pressed into a more progressive state of mind in the second half, when trailing, the absence of ingenuity was enough to make a grown man weep, or at least fling his hands heavenwards and curse the day.

So results, for sure, are front and centre of this operation, and when we proudly surveyed the land from atop the pile, any grumbles about the aesthetics, or lack thereof, could be merrily waved away. After all, if the open-topped bus could be booked for May ’21 on the back of a six-man defence and a few counter-attacks, I’m not sure too many of us would mind.

Over the last week, however, for one reason or another we have begun to depart increasingly wildly from the script.

Part of the problem with playing so defensively and deep each week is that the odds increase that every minor error can result in fairly seismic fallout. Against Liverpool we saw how a random deflection can upset the defensive ecosystem; today it was first a moment of mind-numbing stupidity; and then an unwelcome ricochet. (One might consider the deflections and ricochets unlucky – but by defending so deep we rather make our own rotten luck, or at the very least invite it a tad.)

The crux of the thing is that while the rewards are high – table-topping and title-challenging, no less – the risks are magnified. Spend three quarters of the game camped on the edge of our own area and there is no coming back from a looping deflection or an Aurier brain-fade. On top of which, up the other end, there is minimal margin for error in front of goal,

And so on days like today, when the result is not produced, we are left instead to pore over the remains of a failed defensive performance, and frankly it looks utterly dreadful. These things will happen, but they cannot happen too often. Thrice in a week is enough.

2. Aurier

As mentioned, the dirge-like output requires everyone in the back-line to perform pretty flawlessly, in order to set up the platform for the counter-attack and three points.

And to his credit, Serge Aurier has spent the last month or two pretty diligently abiding by what must seem to him a pretty radical reinterpretation of his day-job. By and large, the needless lunges and mad decisions have been rinsed from his DNA, and while a wild glint occasionally develops in his eye, it rarely manifests any more on the pitch.

Jose himself would probably have argued that the plan had worked in the first half, as Leicester, for all their sharper play in midfield, had barely tested Lloris.

However, Aurier’s retro moment of mind-boggling stupidity completely upended the Jose Masterplan. What might have been passed off as a solid, if utterly uninspiring, defensive display suddenly became a disastrous first half, as we found ourselves not only having created nothing but also a goal behind.

Difficult to know what to make of Aurier. For sure the blister has previous, but if this is merely an isolated incident then we can potentially sweep it under the carpet and look forward to another half-dozen performances in which he keeps his head down and steers clear of trouble.

On the other hand, I suppose we dare not contemplate that this might be the beginning of a full-blown relapse, and the return of the Aurier of the past couple of seasons, whose every appearance seemed to be marked by at least one completely unnecessary aberration. Time will tell, and he probably has enough goodwill in the bank for now, but I’m not sure many more such moments will be suffered too gladly.

3. The Ndombele-Lo Celso Dream Axis

Odd to say it now, but in the first five minutes or so I actually had pretty high hopes.

Proceedings began with Ndombele sending half the Leicester team into the wrong postcode with a series of his trademarked upper body swerves that are seemingly impossible to resist.

A couple of free-kicks were duly won, and the omens looked pretty positive, pointing as they did towards an afternoon spent on the front foot and giving the Leicester mob a few things to think about in the defensive third.

Moreover, this marked one of (if not the) first blessed union of Messrs Ndombele and Lo Celso in holy midfield partnership. Quite what the tactical implications would be were fairly happily overlooked, because the prospect of these two peddling their silky wares in tandem seemed to override any need for detail. “Just give them the ball and let them dovetail” was the AANP mantra, and when Ndombele began proceedings in that shoulder-swerving manner of his, the omens appeared good.

Alas, thereafter things did not so much go downhill as fall directly off a cliff. Lo Celso’s principal contributions seemed to be lose possession and then slide in to win it back, before rolling around in feigned agony – until he ended up rolling around in bona fide agony.

With Ndombele having drifted to the periphery before himself being hooked, the dream combination ultimately turned into something of a disaster.

One hopes that Jose will not take this as his cue to banish any further of a future Ndombele-Lo Celso axis, simply on the grounds of one heavily undercooked display. Such a pair of talents ought to be able to combine to pretty decent effect, given a little love and tactical direction.

4. Bale (and Dele)

Another day, another mightily underwhelming extended cameo from G. Bale Esq. He did at least have the decency to look occasionally as if he cared today, at one point even breaking into a sweat to challenge for a 50-50. However, for those in the gallery eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the man who just a year or two back was still skinning international defenders and blasting the thing home from distance, this was another afternoon of frustration.

Bale’s introduction did precious little to improve, or in any way change, the dynamic of the game. It is probably reasonable to assume that the fellow is still not quite 100%, but by now one would at least hope to see a glimpse or two of the global superstar of recent times.

Frustratingly, of this there has been not a squeak. Were the name on his shirt anything other than ‘Bale’, it is difficult to imagine that he would be considered a better fit for the current eleven than any of Bergwijn, Lucas, Lamela – or, dare I say it, Dele Alli.

Admittedly there’s been precious little opportunity for Dele, but each time he has been trotted out, he has done so under the microscope, and to his credit has at least tried to contribute. Difficult to judge on the back of ten minutes here and there, but his brief fling against Liverpool at least saw him roll up his sleeves and get on the ball. Not much about which to write home – but not any worse than Bale, and to this untrained eye, probably slightly better.

With games coming every couple of days over Christmas, both will presumably get an opportunity or two. And in a team crying out for some attacking ingenuity, who knows, maybe this time next month one of them will be undroppable?

Chelsea 0-0 Spurs: Four Tottenham Talking Points

1. Rodon’s Debut

Presumably during the upbringing of young J. Rodon Esq. there were one or two wild nights around the campfire, but it is difficult to imagine that his clan would have been much more a-twitter than today, with one of their gang thrust into the spotlight, from the off, and against one of our principal challengers for the end-of-season jug.

Given the much-vaunted success of our summer shopping spree, and the consequent strength in depth across the board, the prospect of enforced changes at N17 have generally been met with a fairly care-free shrug at AANP Towers, as if to suggest that there is no need to panic because the next cab on the rank is a pretty reliable sort.

You get the gist – a Lamela twists a knee and a Lucas bounds into view; a Reguilon stubs a toe and a Ben Davies is wheeled into action. Some reserves are better than others, but in general the fellows on show are of the tried and tested variety. The panic station claxons need not be sounded.

However, when Toby limped off last week a distinct shudder passed down the spine, because if there is one area in which we have a few cracks it is centre-back. None of the current mob are in the “Top Notch” bracket, with Toby himself the best of a middling bunch, and while the passage of time might reveal young Rodon to be one of the game’s all-time greats, one still gulped at the news that his first start in lilywhite would be away to Chelsea.

Naturally, no judgement can be passed after one game – but observations abound.

Evidently AANP was not the only indulging in a nervous gulp or two at the prospect of the Rodon limbs being flexed, for in the opening exchanges the lad himself – understandably enough – gave the impression of one trying hard not to show how nervous he was. A few simple passes went astray, which were duly noted in the debit column; but he displayed an early knack of toddling forward a few paces to intercept usefully, bringing himself into credit.

As was well documented, he used up a couple of lives, to top and tail the game – losing possession in an ill-judged mooch forward early on, resulting in the Chelsea offside goal, and then the weak header that let in Giroud at the death – but frankly such mistakes have been made on multiple occasions by other centre-backs stationed not a million miles away from him.

All told, in dashed difficult circumstances Rodon seemed alert and did not shirk the challenge. While I formally cough up my penny for the thoughts of Japhet Tanganga, this seemed promising enough.

The longer-term test, as ever, will be whether Rodon progresses a level or six, à la Ledley, or fails to eradicate the flaws and improve notably – in which respect he would join a pretty crowded gang, including all sorts from Gardner and Thelwell to Wimmer, Foyth and, dare I say it, Sanchez.

2. Dier

Meanwhile, a few yards to the west, Eric Dier once again dined out on what the tomes will record as a clean sheet, but which left the AANP lips pursed and arms folded, in a manner that sharper minds will recognise as communicating displeasure.

Dier has the advantage of being part of a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Under Jose, the back-four functions practically as one single entity, existing to keep marauders one heck of a distance away from goal and crowding the spaces into which trouble can drop. (I use the term ‘back-four’ pretty loosely, because Sissoko and Hojbjerg see to it that it’s often a back-six, with no shortage of additional helping hands from the attackers.)

No doubt it’s a successful operation, but this seems to owe more to the collective and its organisation levels, than to any outstanding quality from the individuals concerned. And in fact, when it comes to Dier, the quality repeatedly strikes me as a hefty distance away from outstanding.

On two notable second half occasions his passing from in or around his own area was unnecessarily risky and just plain inaccurate, gifting Chelsea possession that turned into half-chances; and his marking of Abraham for one cross was abysmal, featuring as it did Dier not even looking at the ball but watching the striker. That Abraham fell over rather than tapping in will inevitably wipe from many memories the pretty glaring error.

Throw in a couple of mistimed, lurching challenges that left him out of a position, and one may understand why the lips-pursed-arms-folded routine began to kick in at AANP Towers. This is not the stuff of a defensive lynchpin upon whom title-winning teams are built. The compactness and organisation (to which, in fairness, Dier presumably contributes) has given us the meanest defence in the division, but Dier himself instils precious little confidence.

3. Tanguy’s Lovely Touches

With caution making its masterpiece from the opening gong, this stuff was not exactly easy on the eye, but bless him, Tanguy Ndombele is the sort who to whom wriggling out of unwriggleable spots comes pretty naturally, and amidst the tactical proddings his little cameos lit up the place.

Given the current vogue for passing out from the back it’s just as well, because he often receives the ball in rather hairy spots and with opponents homing in on him like vultures. More fool them. Via the blessed combination of quick feet, low centre of gravity, general upper body strength and whatever other tricks he has up his sleeves, no position seems too tight for Ndombele, and like some mesmeric conjurer he’s away.

4. The Final Ball (In The First Half)

In the second half we barely laid a glove on our foes; but the pretty comfortable first half was lit up by the occasional forward foray. Alas, whereas in recent weeks, “Clinical Finishing” has been the mantra of all in lilywhite, this week the final ball was either poorly selected or not quite correctly executed.

Bergwijn’s shot over the bar, or Sonny trying to pass rather than shoot when haring towards the penalty area – these were moments that were impeccably and ruthlessly popped away in previous games, but today, with the radar not quite in full working order, the moments came and went.

I confess I expected them to come and go again in the second half, but with the emphasis on preserving what we had rather than venturing out for the win, the whole thing petered out about as unspectacularly as these can.

Spurs’ Cult Heroes: Christmas approacheth, and if you’re looking for a stocking-filler for the Spurs fan in your life, you could do worse than AANP’s own book, Spurs’ Cult Heroes, charting the careers of 20 of the most popular players in Tottenham’s history.

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