1. Full-Backs Exposed
I think it’s fair to conclude that that did not really go as planned. Instead of taking the game to our hosts from the off, we were a tad off-colour and distrait, and the early initiative having been up for grabs for any willing taker, Southampton had a whirl at it.
In the first 45 they opted to drill away at our flanks, which made them hay by the absolute shedload, and it would not be stretching things to say that certain members of our all-star cast rather obliged them in this endeavour. Messrs Son and Sissoko simply peered over at their full-backs and decided that they would rather give the whole jamboree a wide berth, offering precious little more than moral support, and leaving Davies and Aurier to fight the actual physical battle on their own.
When these things are discussed over port and cigarettes later this evening, the full-backs might make the point that that was really not quite cricket, and should they be feeling particularly fruity might even introduce, as Exhibit A, the goal that we conceded, its genesis indeed arriving from a waylaying of Aurier. All deeply unsatisfactory, even if the weeping and gnashing off teeth lasted only around a minute or two.
2. Conditions. Which Affected Both Teams Equally, Mind
This slight dereliction of duty on the part of Son and Sissoko was indicative of a wider sloppiness across the ranks. Presumably when accustomed to playing on the sort of pristine lawn on which one would normally crack open the croquet set and get boshing, one raises an eyebrow or two if instead presented with a sodden bog being lashed upon from the heavens.
Our heroes certainly did seem to approach the task as if having just had the rug whipped from beneath them, and to suggest that they struggled a tad through the conditions would not be overstating the case. Passes as often missed their targets as hit, control became a near-mythical entity and anyone trying to run with the ball at feet quickly came to curse the decision as they stumbled and bumbled like an entire squadron of Moussa Sissokos.
The current vintage are at their best when nudging first-time passes to one another, and that particular brand of quality output was in desperately short supply. All the more galling that Southampton seemed to adjust better and do the first-time thing rather more niftily at times (although that might just be a view coloured by the mournful, pessimistic lenses of an observer who has seen two points frittered away).
3. To Absent Friends, Part 1: Eriksen
Can’t really blame the chap for sitting it out with a hot drink and some paracetamol, because man-flu is scientifically proven to make one’s head explode if not kept in check, but Eriksen’s all-seeing eye and unique brand of sorcery was most certainly missed. As lamented earlier, our one-touch game was replaced by a giant bowl of stodge, and whereas these things usually have Eriksen at their hub, like a human heart doing the decent thing and keeping every other organ on top of its game, today there was simply an awkward impotence about the place.
Replacing Eriksen with Sissoko is like being told on entering the gladiatorial arena that your sword and shield are being replaced by a scrunched up ball of paper but best of luck anyway. One is inclined to make a fist of things, but cannot escape the sense that the odds have been rather cruelly reversed and things are about to take a turn for the nightmarish.
Pre kick-off I had, with what turned out to be fairly outrageous optimism, opined that I would rather Eriksen were missing for this game than the upcoming ones vs Man Utd, Arsenal and so on. Quite the misjudgement. We simply do not have another of his ilk in the ranks. Personally I would have opted for Lamela over Sissoko – although in truth, I would have volunteered to play myself rather than pick Sissoko. The point is that we are too reliant on Eriksen, and lacking a suitable deputy.
4. To Absent Friends, Part 2: Lloris
Monsieur Lloris was also sniffling his way through proceedings from his sick-bed, meaning the rarely-spotted Vorm was duly trotted out. I have to admit I did not envy the chap, who appeared to be on a hiding to nothing with the heavens flung wide open and every drop of rain available being sloshed around the surface.
Credit to the bean then, for getting his mitts onto everything that came his way. The own-goal left him with little in the way of an escape-route, but in addition Southampton fired in a handful of low shots that slid across the tur, and had the AANP heart leaping the odd somersault or two, and it was to Vorm’s credit that he snaffled up everything with a decent slab of assurance.
5. Dembele: Frustrated and Frustrating
If there were one man who perhaps might have conjured up a little inspiration, it was possibly Dembele. He seemed to have been encouraged to run with the ball and do as he pleased, and briefly it looked like this might do the trick, for he certainly does it have in him to glide past two or three of the opposing fish with barely a sideways glance.
Alas, things did not really click for him today, and he was as likely to be swarmed upon and diverted as he was to do any good wholesome damage. In the end he reverted to bundling folk over and waving his arms around, and the whole drama ended rather soberly with a booking and a substitution.
If we cannot ping quick passes we need someone capable of beating a man, and today we had neither.
So the Top Four is still eminently doable, but equally looking quite the delicate operation, if you follow. The next month or so will require some deep breaths, rousing performances – and Eriksen restored to full health.