1. The Second Half Improvement (It’s An Admittedly Low Bar…)
I thought it would make a sunny change to start with the positives, and before you raise a suspicious eyebrow and lead me away gently to the nearest padded cell, let me pick out the nuances of that one. The second half struck me as, if not quite a wind of change, then at least a breath of air marginally less stale and rancid than the first half.
Whereas in the first 45, with the possible exception of the ever-frenzied Hojbjerg, our lot barely raised themselves out of a collective sulk, huffily chasing Chelsea players because they absolutely had to, and then moodily booting the ball away whenever it was given to them; in the second half they at least roused themselves to amble forward into attacking positions, as if suddenly introduced to the concept of being allowed to score goals, and being quite taken by it.
Admittedly we were still a few miles short of looking like we might win, or even draw, but the tentative dipping of toes into the world of ambitious football seemed a massive step up from the first half (and from what feels like about a hundred preceding games), in which the plan from the starter’s gun has been to retreat into our penalty area with a bizarre paranoia and refuse to come out.
To sum up things, at one point in the second half, having committed approximately half of the team forward into attack, we lost possession around the halfway line and (I think) Kovacic picked up the ball and simply sauntered, unopposed, all the way to the edge of our penalty area, with not a lilywhite shirt anywhere near him. At which point he promptly had a nosebleed and bunted the ball harmlessly out of play; but the point is that this is the sort of goal I’d much rather concede. I’d much prefer that we get caught short because we have committed too many bodies forward, and end up with literally nobody between halfway and our own penalty area to make a challenge, than the usual goals we concede, of dragging ten men back to the edge of our own area and spending 80 minutes desperately trying to clear our lines and catch our breath before the next wave hits.
That was how we conceded to Fulham, and Leeds, and Palace, and Liverpool, to name but four. In each of those cases there was a gloomy inevitability to the whole sorry mess; and moreover it was soul-destroying to watch. At least in yesterday’s second half, albeit still rather tactically clueless and light on creativity, we applied some pressure and there seemed a hint that some sort of goalmouth threat might brew.
And that’s where things have got to at AANP Towers – success is now measured not by how many goals we score, or how few we concede, but whether the goals we do concede are less dreary than previously.
Next in the long line of two positives was the extended cameo from everyone’s favourite Master of the Dark Arts, Erik Lamela. That he comfortably became our man of the match despite playing around half an hour speaks volumes about the competition, but it was still an eye-catching bop.
The young mutt’s capacity to scuttle around incessantly like a wind-up toy unleashed has never been in doubt. Indeed, cynics might suggest it ranks alongside Dark Arts as one of his greatest talents. And, naturally, it was on show yesterday, his relentless energy looking ever relentlesser when contrasted to the moping, static teammates around him.
But in a pleasing and unexpected development, Lamela’s buzzing turned out not to be pointless. In fact, every time he buzzed, he seemed to do so with the express intent of demanding the ball – which might not sound like rocket-science, but in a world in which the mantra on everyone’s lips seemed to be, “I know you have the ball and are looking for a passing option, but I’m quite happy standing in my own spot and minding my own business, so you can look around for the next option, Miladdio,” Lamela’s eagerness to be at the hub of things made him seem like a veritable Maradona circa ‘86.
It occurred to me while watching him do his damnedest to breathe life into the collective lilywhite corpse that if Gareth Bale had at any point since his return put in a shift of that ilk the adulation would be wild and long.
Whether or not Lamela has done enough to merit a place in the starting line-up probably depends on what the voices in Jose’s head are whispering, for the current drill seems to be to ask Bergwijn to carry out all manner of defensive duties (which, to his credit, he tends to do pretty well). The concept of Bergwijn as a bona fide attacking threat seems to have become ever more foreign. If it is attacking brio that is required, then Lamela might well be the man – but when does ask oneself when Jose has ever required attacking brio.
The fact that Jose picked Bale in the last game and Vinicius in this, points squarely at him having little faith in either, but that can probably be logged away in the rather lengthy file marked ‘Jose: Questionable Choices’.
This was Vinicius’ big opportunity, if being starved of the ball or any company, and given three burly minders for the duration, can legally be described as a ‘big opportunity’. If ever a game were going to remind a man that life at Spurs is not all training ground japes and hat-tricks against Marine then this was that game.
Much of his first half was spent watching Chelsea bods knock the ball away from him, and when we occasionally lobbed it up towards him I was disappointed to note that the rather elegant touches of a refined support striker occasionally evidenced in the Europa League had rather cruelly deserted him, he instead resembling a brick wall as the damn thing simply bounced harmlessly off him.
His big first-half opportunity came, inevitably, when we countered, and he found himself at the hub of things, with Son advancing at pace to his left. However, when the crucial moment arrived he seemed unsure whether he had too many feet, or perhaps too few feet; and by the time he had finished counting his feet the moment had passed and the ball had been spirited away.
This was pretty much the extent of his involvement until the dying embers of the second half. In true Jose style, having trailed for an hour, our heroes waited until the 87th minute to swing a cross into the area. And it was a pretty decent cross too, replete with whip, pace and all the trimmings.
While not exactly a tap-in, this certainly seemed a presentable chance for one standing in excess of six foot, of sound mind and body and who had spent a lifetime being drilled in the necessary art. Alas, where Vinicius needed to summon the spirit of Harry Kane, he was possessed instead by the ghosts of Soldado, Janssen, Postiga and Llorente, and planted the header six inches west of the desired sweet spot.
A shame, because as the studio bods pointed out, taking his one chance in a game like that would have excused 89 other minutes of anonymity, whilst also doing wonders for his confidence.
As it happens, the miss seemed to confirm that here is a promising sort of bean, who may in time develop into a competent all-round forward, but who at present is far from being the solution to the Harry Kane-shaped hole. Of course, the quirk of science that means he is not the exact genetic replica of Harry Kane is not his fault, but it nevertheless leaves us no nearer to filling the aforementioned hole.
Vinicius being relatively wet behind the ears (and there is something about him that gives the impression of a small boy born into a body about eight sizes too large for him) he can probably be excused the worst of the rotten fruit being pelted in the direction of our heroes. Elsewhere, and all over the pitch, there seemed to be worse offenders.
Principal amongst these, and not for the first time by my reckoning, was Eric Dier. Dier is a curiosity, being a central defender without any pace, and whose decision-making and passing can veer from Pretty Good to Pretty Dreadful, with both extremes typically on show in any given game. He seems designed, appropriately enough, for a Jose style of play, that requires a line of six defenders to stay in the same spot and block all shots and crosses that enter their immediate radius. Feed him according to this diet, and he looks a happy man.
True to form, on occasions yesterday he dribbled or distributed the ball out of defence with some elegance. However, he could have played the entire game like Franz Beckebauer and it would not have excused the absolute mind-boggling stupidity of his foul for the penalty, conceded, incredibly, at the third attempt, and while lying on the ground for heaven’s sake.
Nor was it the first penalty he has rather needlessly conceded since the Covid interruption, and as if to hammer home quite what a vacuum exists between his ears he then blasted a half-volley towards the head of Lloris in the second half.
Admittedly we are hardly replete with reliable defensive alternatives, but with gate-keepers like Dier patrolling the rear one is tempted to conclude that the safest thing would be to keep the ball as far away from our defence as possible – an idea it seems unlikely that Jose will adopt.
5. Jose’s Future
As an afterthought, and in common with many of lilywhite persuasion, I have wondered quite what the future holds for Jose. Not in terms of whether he’ll live out his years on a vineyard in Portugal, you understand, but more the immediate future, and specifically his employment at N17.
Having worked so hard to secure him, I presume that Levy will be more patient with him than, for example, the tax-payers of AANP Towers. (Some have mooted that the prospect of paying off his contract will dissuade Levy from sacking him: I suspect not, on the grounds that this has hardly stopped Levy before.)
The drill was very much to win trophies, so there is a good chance that winning the Carabao would buy Jose more time – and if there is one thing it is possible to imagine Jose doing, better than almost anyone else, it is masterminding victory in a one-off, winner-takes-all match.
However, keep losing league games and the Carabao will not save him. I suspect only a Europa win would, should league form continue to nosedive.
I suspect the style of play does not particularly bother Levy either, particularly without any fans around to give polite reminders of the mood amongst the masses.
This is fairly exasperating, because it is the style more than anything else that is causing my own, personal, current flap. I am the odd sort of egg who thinks that if we are going to lose anyway, (and at present we usually do), then we might as well lose while having a dashed good go, rather than camping in our own area and showing zero attacking spark. Which is why I was mildly comforted by the second half last night: while still pretty dire, it at least had us committing men forward. Jose’s defensive style was only palatable as long as it brought results and had us challenging for the title. At present, we might as well set out with Ossie’s 5-0-5 and at least go down in a blaze of glory. We certainly have the personnel to play more entertainingly.
And finally, I wonder where this leaves Harry Kane, and indeed Sonny. It seems criminal for a manager to have two of the best forwards in the world, in the prime of their careers, and design a system that gives them mere scraps. Irrespective of the style of play, if results continue and we finish mid-table, I do fear that Kane, and Son, might consider that their final years are better spent elsewhere.