1. Lots of Tinkering, No Obvious Strategy
If ever there were a sign that a manager is not quite sure how to fix things, it is when he makes 7 changes of personnel and a switch in formation, and then switches formation again at half-time.
Not entirely the fault of Poch of course, for if the eleven on the pitch last time out had performed to their abilities no changes would have been needed at all – but nevertheless. The current approach by Our Glorious Leader smacks of a chap whose best-laid plans are but a distant memory, and who is now experimenting his little heart out, with little clear strategy in place.
By and large Our Glorious Leader retains enough credit that the masses are willing to let him untie the various knots and restore some normality. But where previously there was a fairly clear approach – such as the high press, or faith in youth – and one might have correctly named nine or ten of the starting eleven, now it is difficult to know quite what the plan will be from one game to the next.
The first half performance duly reflected the confused organisation of things, with little discernible identity amongst our lot, and we ended up seeming to rely on Toby’s long punts as our main attacking gambit. Few on the pitch seemed particularly clear on how to go about their honest work, and the outputs were suitably uninspiring.
Poch has talked a lot about “trust” and “confidence” and various other concepts that seem to the AANP ears to wander rather off-topic, but I’m none the wiser about what tactical approach he thinks is best to reverse our fortunes. At present the approach appears to be try something new every half hour or so, until we strike oil.
2. Lack of Deep-Lying Creativity
The first half provided the sort of turgid fare that various lilywhite managers of the 90s fought tooth and nail to mark their own trademark.
It seemed from my vantage point that chief amongst our ills was the absence of a deep-lying playmaker, if you get my drift. A Modric/Carrick sort of chap, who could pick up the ball from the defenders and play a pass – long or short, the finer points matter little – that would bypass one or two opponents in the blink of an eye, and make its recipient sit up and say “What ho, if I point my compass north I might have a few yards of space into which to amble and make mischief”.
Or, indeed, a Dembele type of fellow, who, rather than pass, would simply dip a shoulder or puff out a chest, and breeze past one or two opponents – similarly in the blink of an eye – carrying the ball fifteen yards and forcing friend and foe alike to view proceedings in a different way.
Instead, our central midfield pairing were Winks and Sissoko. Now the effort of these two can hardly be faulted, and both have assets that are useful and have earned the respect and affection of most right-minded fans. However, neither of these young eggs really possess in spades the sorts of talents upon which Messrs Modric, Carrick or Dembele made their careers.
Sissoko has it in him to carry the ball 30 yards – which I suppose is the net effect of a Dembele – when a cloud envelops him and he seems to be possessed by some unearthly compunction to take on all-comers. But yesterday, and this season in general, that particular party-trick has remained in his locker.
And Winks constantly appears to be on the cusp of changing the game. He seems to tick numerous boxes – availing himself when defenders have the ball, picking up possession on the half-turn, driving forward – but ultimately his final pass, nine times out of ten, goes sideways or backwards. He keeps possession and fizzes with energy, but hardly tests opposing defences with his passing range.
The causes of these two were not helped by both Lucas and Dele generally adopting positions within a couple of yards of Kane, leaving precious little in the way of link-up between midfield and attack. (On the one occasion in which Lucas did drop a little deeper, the planets aligned and we almost scored – Winks fed Lucas straight through the middle, Lucas fed Dele – still straight through the middle – and, not standing on ceremony, Dele took our one and only shot on target in the first half.)
Anyway, on the point of deep-lying playmakers – perhaps Lo Celso or Ndombele can, in time, provide the answer. Or the more attacking sorts can simply drop ten yards deeper. Either way something has to change, because watching the ball end up with Toby time and again, to punt a hopeful diagonal, made the eyes water a tad.
3. Introduction of Son
Things perked up noticeably once Sonny was introduced – which, on reflection, is the sort of statement that would ring true on just about any given day in any given circumstances.
The removal of Sanchez and reversion from 3 centre-backs to 2 made bucketloads of sense. While Watford threatened on the counter a few times, the third centre-back was by and large a wasted player, given that his most significant role tended to be simply rolling the back right or left to his neighbouring centre-back, in what was reminiscent of those pointless bureaucratic processes one sometimes encounters in life.
Watford did not present enough of a threat to merit such defensive caution; and if the idea were more of an attacking one, to allow our wing-backs to bomb forward in the manner of Walker-and-Rose-circa-2016, it fell pretty flat. I have called Serge Aurier a few choice names in my time, but “An impressive likeness to the Kyle Walker of 2016” has not been amongst them. Similarly, Danny Rose is now an angry shadow of the marauding soul who set the tone in those halcyon days.
So after the break Son moved to the right, to provide an extra body linking defence to attack, and both the changed shape and the particular individual improved things ten-fold. Sonny tore around like a puppy reunited with its owner, and others around him seemed to perk up, as if struck by the thought that his high-octane approach to life might bring about a change in fortunes.
Moreover, with Son installed on the right, where once midfield and attack had resembled strangers harbouring deep, mutual suspicions, in the second half there appeared to be consensus amongst all that collaboration would bring about a goal.
4. VAR Luck
Ultimately we were good value for the draw, having bossed possession and had the decency to show some urgency in the second half. That said, Lady Luck gave us a few admiring glances along the way, for Dele’s goal could quite reasonably have been ruled out.
I’m pretty sure that a few weeks ago Man City had a late winner against us disallowed for use of the upper arm in the build-up, so to say I was perplexed that Dele’s shoulder-nudge was waved on is to understate things.
More to the point, my best mate Jan rather forget the laws of the game in the first half, when he slid in and aimed one or two little kicks at his man. It’s not allowed, Jan! Except that in this instance, it was. The inconsistency of the thing is most puzzling, but there we go and here we are.
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