No doubt the mood around the N17 campfire is generally doleful and sombre, so here at AANP Towers we have hit upon the fizzing idea – and you can thank me later – of kicking off things with a topic that, if not exactly seeping joy and plugging in the endorphins, is at least a darned sight more positive than anything else on the horizon.
Said topic is, of course, the performance of young Master Winks. While all around him looked thoroughly bored by proceedings, Winks did his best to confirm suspicions that when created in the lab he had the DNA of a young Jack Russell surreptitiously thrown in for good measure, for he duly bounded about the place as if yesterday were the best thing to happen to him in his life.
When we had the ball he regularly beavered to within 8 yards or so, to demand it; when we didn’t have the ball he scurried to all parts in his attempts to remedy this crisis.
It was all particularly pleasing given that I subjected him to the raised eyebrow and inscrutable stare a few weeks ago against Newcastle. In all honesty I maintain that against such teams, who pack the defence and wait, Winks is of pretty limited value, not being the sort who wanders the streets picking locks and passing through eyes of needles.
But against moderately better-equipped mobs – such as our hosts yesterday – who leave that much more space and have a greater attacking instinct about them, a healthy dose of Winks is precisely what the doctor orders, and he scurried around to excellent effect yesterday. I would hazard a guess that he’ll be in similarly fine fettle away to Leicester at the weekend.
If Winks’ afternoon was full of zip and vim, Eriksen’s lay pretty much at the other end of the spectrum.
For context, the Great Eriksen Debate generally features those who adamantly insist that the chap is just about the only game-changing soul in our midfield, and has the goals/assists stats to prove it; and the likes of yours truly, who bluster in frustration that for a man of his undoubted lock-picking skills (the type sadly lacking in young Winks, above) he ought to be a lot more prominent in games such as this.
Pretty much every onlooker noted quite how off-colour Eriksen was yesterday, so no point dwelling on that. The more notable angle, to this ill-educated eye, was the contrast between First Half Eriksen and Second Half Eriksen.
To do this back to front, I had some grudging respect for Second Half Eriksen. True, his passing remained wayward, his touch heavy and his creative juices evaporated – plus his brainless dallying led directly to their penalty (I did mention that the respect was only grudging).
But Second Half Eriksen at least demanded the ball. As a collective our heroes showed a tad more urgency (not difficult, comparatively, I realise) and Eriksen seemed to be fairly central to this, in that he regularly trotted over to the man in possession and waved his arms until it was given to him. He did little of note with it, but at least he looked like a man who felt some sort of moral obligation to be at the heart of things.
By contrast, First Half Eriksen seemed positively to shy away from the ball. I barely noticed the chap, apart from that one moment when he found himself leading a promising counter-attack, and seemed to react to the situation in sheer horror, eager to rid himself of the ball at the earliest opportunity before scuttling off to the nearest pit of sand into which he might bury his head.
Admittedly I rather exaggerate the contrast in order to make my point – but it’s a heck of a point. The chap ought always to have the attitude of Second Half Eriksen, greedily demanding the ball and always wanting to be the one at the hub of things from his own little Danish command centre. Instead, too often, we are treated to First Half Eriksen, who flits in and out of existence like that polaroid in Back to the Future.
If he is having a bad day in possession that can probably be forgiven; but what irks AANP like nobody’s business is when he does not seem massively concerned about whether or not he sees much of the ball.
3. Sanchez at Right-Back
Elsewhere, longing glances were cast once again towards Atletico Madrid as Davinson Sanchez was subjected to his latest rather cruel stint at right-back.
The chap did very little wrong defensively, in truth, with most of our woes emanating on t’other flank where Messrs Davies and Vertonghen were getting themselves into numerous muddles.
But going forward, Sanchez’ limitations had some pretty powerful beacons of light shone upon them. For a start he rarely got himself to within 30 yards of the opposition goal-line, therefore failing to provide an attacking outlet that turned around the Olympiakos defence (although in this respect he was not alone, Ben Davies also being generally, oddly, conservative).
On top of which, Nature evidently forgot to bestow upon him the gift of being able to whip, float or simply punt a cross from the right, further limiting his attacking prowess.
Quite what his attacking instructions were in the first half is anyone’s guess; but in the second half Lucas was stationed permanently on the right touchline, and Sanchez added decorative value only.
With Aurier fit, KWP getting there and even Eric Dier now in residence, one would hope that this is the last we’ll see of Sanchez at right-back.
4. The General, Sorry State of Things (A Rant)
A few hardy souls have attempted to silver lining their way through the rubble of this, pointing out that an away point in the CL Group Stage is no bad thing, and that we’ve matched our tally from the first three games of last season, and so on and so forth. And they have a point – two-goal lead surrendered or not, this could have been worse.
But putting aside the immediate context (and one presumes we ought still to qualify from this group), the bigger picture does not make particularly cheery viewing.
Harry Kane has clearly been media-trained to within an inch of his life, and is therefore rarely worth listening to in interviews, so straight is his bat, but there was a hint of exasperation to his reported musings yesterday, as he spotted the nail and gave it a firm thump on its head. We are making the same mistakes as we made 5 or 6 years ago.
And this lack of improvement, year on year, is troubling. I am no doubt being a tad dramatic here: even ignoring the luck involved in Houdini-ing our way past Man City and Ajax last season, we still overcame Dortmund over two legs of textbook professionalism, which was a massive improvement on our slip-up vs Juve the previous year – so we are improving. (And the season before that we didn’t even get out of the group – again, we are improving).
But one important game after another seems to come our way, and we do seem to exhibit the same old flaws. Throwing away leads; failing to quieten and dispirit opponents; wastefulness in front of goal; or simply a lack of creativity and urgency to break down an opponent. For every welcome thrashing of Palace, there’s a struggle against Villa plus a defeat against Newcastle plus a squandered lead against Arsenal. In terms of results we lack consistency; and in terms of performances there are countless sloppy errors scattered all over the pitch, rather than the notable step up in quality that one would hope for season-on-season.
This is by no means a crisis – we remain third domestically, and still ought to qualify from the CL group – but the lack of obvious progression in performances does rather grate, what?