Not to be uncharitable to Oliver Skipp – as honest a bean as ever trod the hallowed turf – but when tasked with recalling his contribution to last week’s affair I drew a blank for an uncomfortably long time, before a single word floated to mind: ‘nondescript’.
The news that young Master Sarr had inherited his berth for this one was therefore met with a raised eyebrow of intrigue in this neck of the woods. Certainly, the mood around these (and, as I understand, many other) parts had been that while Bissouma and Maddison were doing all their respective necessaries, and with flying colours, a job opening was presenting itself for the final part of that midfield triumvirate. Mid-game (last weekend) there had been a few understandable yelps for Lo Celso; give it a few months and the knees will weaken considerably when Bentancur bobs back into view; but I was as curious as the next fellow to see what Sarr might bring.
And to his credit, the young egg brought a decent-sized sackful of the good stuff. Admittedly in the first half hour or so he seemed to be peddling an Oliver Skipp impression – working hard but to little great effect – but for this he could be excused, as Bissouma aside, not too many in lilywhite were having the game of their lives.
Thereafter, however, seemingly struck by the realisation that this stage was actually a pretty good fit for him, he began belting out a few greatest hits. Tackles were won (and as often as not with a spot of additional biff, for meaning), and crisp passes were passed, which meant that he fitted right in with the happy campers all sides of him. That aforementioned triumvirate had a pretty balanced look to it, which might sound like a rather dreary physics experiment but is actually intended as a compliment of the highest order. To Bissouma’s all-action defence-to-attack dribbling, and Maddison’s creativity, one could add decent wedges of energy and intelligence from Sarr.
On top of which he made a difficult finish look pea-shellingly easy. Having already dipped into that well of energy and intelligence to Platt/Scholes/Dele his way into the penalty area at just the right moment, he then managed to keep under control a ball that was both bobbling and moving away from him. Lashed into the net it might have been, but as he swung back the appropriate limb in preparation for his shot, the AANP mortgage was on the ball sailing off into the gods.
Big Ange still seems to be in Test Mode when it comes to identifying the right fit for the starting eleven, but P-M Sarr’s struck me as one heck of an audition for the coming 36 games.
As mentioned, however, it was Bissouma and Maddison who again elevated the thing.
Some may have cleared the throat with a spot of indignation at the comparisons to Mousa Dembele being tossed about the place when it comes to Yves Bissouma, but if a fellow is going to collect the ball from his own defenders and then glide past an endless stream of opposing midfielders with little more than a spot of upper-body misdirection, then what else is there to do but draw precisely such comparisons?
A common lament echoing around the walls of AANP Towers last season was that none amongst our midfield number seemed either confident or capable of collecting the ball under pressure, much less shielding it and turning with it and finding nearby chums and whatnot. Close the eyes, and it is not too difficult to conjure up an image of a Skipp, Hojbjerg, Winks or whomever facing their own goal and being bundled out of possession, ensuing catastrophe not far behind.
Bissouma, however, is a different and vastly preferable kettle of fish. Whether receiving the ball just inside his own area or just outside the opposition’s, he seems to exhibit a pretty minimal level of concern either way, and just gets on with the business of dipping a shoulder and easing his way around swinging opposition limbs. It is an absolute joy to behold. Presumably there will come times when this approach backfires and Bissouma comes to look something of a chump, but frankly he is already amassing a decent wodge of credit in the bank.
The newly-signed misfit of last season is unrecognisable. If he really were unable to master Conte’s tactics, then I rather scorn the tactics and the man who oversaw them, because Bissouma has twice in a week looked comfortably the best player on the pitch.
And Maddison was not far behind him. At times in the first half, and then regularly in the second, he seemed to delight in first demanding the ball and then strutting around with the thing once it had been sent his way.
Nor was it just for show. Be it a pass or a dribble, Maddison seemed pretty adept at picking an option that caused a fair amount of consternation – or blind panic – amongst the United bods. He may not have scored or created a goal today, but his contribution was considerable, not least in that glorious period after half-time when our heroes really had the other lot against the ropes and gave them a good old-fashioned pummelling.
I particularly enjoyed seeing Maddison share a midfield with one Christian Eriksen, the last creative spark to bound about the place. A regular grumble about the latter was that he was a bit too polite about things when in lilywhite, happy to let others grab the mic as it were, while he sidled off into the background.
By contrast, Maddison seems always to be popping up about the place demanding to be involved. I suppose strictly speaking his official position is on the left-ish side of the centre, but the net result seems to be that if the ball is in play then he is merrily bobbing towards it, happy to take on the responsibility of pulling a few of the key strings.
Not that it was all a bed of roses in midfield. As well as Sarr, the other tweak from last week’s line-up was Porro for Emerson, in that right-back-cum-who-the-hell-knows role. It was not Master P.P.’s finest hour and a half. That whole collect-the-ball-on-the-half-turn-outside-one’s-own-area gambit may look a whizz when Yves Bissouma casually unveils it, but Porro’s attempts were rather more on the ham-fisted side of things. Whether it was lack of technique, lack of awareness or lack of eyes in the back of his head, it soon became evident that popping the ball to Porro outside our area was a manoeuvre absolutely dripping in risk.
In truth I felt rather sorry for the young nib. I mean, there he was brought to these shores under the beady eye of one chappie, who then exploded in rage and biffed off, to be replaced by another chappie with vastly different ideas about the way of things. Because lest we forget, Porro was beginning to demonstrate himself to be one of the better wing-backs about the place. Play a vaguely conventional system, and ask him to bomb up the right flank, and he’s your man. Be it crosses, cute passes or pretty lethal finishing, his final third armoury was well-stocked.
And instead, he’s now being asked to tuck inside and spend a goodish amount of time pretending to be three-fifths of a defensive midfielder. As with Emerson last week, he seems to be a fairly capable square peg being asked to rearrange the features in order to squeeze into a round hole. Porro, like Emerson, is pretty decent at what he does best, but this system seems to ask him to do something rather different.
A successful afternoon’s work for young Signor Vicario. Opinions ranged a bit last week – I was rather taken by his calmness on the ball; others seemed to resent being driven to the brink of coronary failure by it – but this time around we can probably agree that, like or loathe the approach, he did not put too many feet wrong.
His presence certainly adds a pretty natty line of operation to our defensive setup. Whereas in the days of Lloris, on seeing our lot attempt to play out from the back the anthem on the AANP lips was typically some variant of “Just clear the bally thing, dash it,” nowadays I watch on with a curiosity bordering on admiration.
Vicario seems awfully comfortable in possession. Heck, I rather fancy that if necessary he could do a better job than Porro in that spot just outside the penalty area. Well maybe not, but you get the gist. Picking a pass from within the six-yard box seems to be just another unspectacular part of the day-job for the fellow. This brave new era will certainly take a bit of getting used to, but having a goalkeeper as available for a spot of keep-ball as any of the outfield mob certainly makes things a few notches easier.
Vicario also had a handful of saves to make, many of which were straight down his gullet, but one or two of which involved a spot of the old spring-heeled action. And again, say what you want about the aesthetics of it all, but he did precisely what was required in each instance. For all the leaping around in the latter stages, I personally thought that his low block in the early moments, when dashing off his line to face Rashford, was the pick of the bunch.
Still too early to opine wisely either way, but this at least was reassuring stuff.
So another day, and another triumph for Ange-Ball. Not just in terms of the result, but very much in terms of the performance too. As with last week, and the various pre-season jaunts, this was something that brought the joy back to watching our lot.
The usual caveats apply – we might have been well behind before we really got the hang of the thing; the whizzy football was produced in fits and starts; Richarlison still seems to be playing the wrong sport – but this was often marvellous stuff to take in.
Worth bearing in mind too that we are, in patches, purring away after only about six or seven weeks of the new regime. The draw last week was against a side that has had a settled and organised way of doing things for a season; the win today against a Top Four team whose manager has been in situ for over a year. Frankly, the thought of where our lot might be after a year of Ange makes me rather giddy.
Oddly enough, one of the moments that really left its mark over in this corner of the interweb came from the size nines of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, a chap who has generally been shovelled well off into the background since Our Glorious Leader came rumbling into view (to the extent that this might have been his final appearance in lilywhite, Atletico-infused rumours doing the rounds).
In the dying embers, Hojbjerg, having been brought on to wise-old-head the game to its conclusion, popped up in a right-back sort of spot – and I mean a conventional right-back spot, rather than the new-fangled midfield-ish one. From out of nowhere, Hojbjerg produced a rather thrilling turn to leave his man groping at thin air, and for a moment he seemed to be away. The pitch opened up ahead of him; momentum suddenly shifted onto the front-foot; that opponent was still groping away in the wrong direction. Opportunity knocked.
But Hojbjerg, being Hojbjerg, responded to this new and exciting possibility by picking the option that I suppose made him so undroppable under Jose and Conte, and put his foot on the ball before spinning around and passing the damn thing backwards. And one understands – the game was almost won and the lead well established, so playing it safe would bring its reward.
But the whole episode jarred rather, precisely because it was so out of keeping with the 180 minutes of Ange-Ball we have witnessed to date. This current Tottenham vintage turns its man and doesn’t look back, but puts its head down and races forward, or at the very least pings off a pass in a northerly direction for some well-intentioned colleague to do the racing forward instead. Watching Hojbjerg default to safety-first seemed to ram home the fact that he was one of the last of the old era, while all around him were Bissoumas and Maddisons and the like, for whom receiving the ball was basically a prompt to go wandering off on the attack.
All a rather long-winded way of saying that this newly-adopted style is absolutely ripping stuff, nascent and rough around the edges though it might be, and I for one cannot wait for the next instalment.