1. Lo Celso
Odd to say it now, but things started pretty swimmingly.
Our lot, without ever really purring into top gear, were on top throughout. There have been plenty of games in recent years when opponents have sat back to defend, and we have laboured accordingly, passing sideways and backwards without a glimmer of a chance – this was not one of those occasions. For sure we ought to have hit the bottom corners – no fantasy points are awarded to a player for hitting woodwork, blast it – but opportunities were at least being created at a fair old lick.
(It should be pointed out that Newcastle were absolutely appalling, seemingly incapable of executing even the most basic facets of the game.
Lob a ball gently at one of their lot, and it would bounce off them as if hitting a concrete wall. Invite them to roll a six-yard pass under no pressure, and they would instead ping the thing out of play. At one point one of their number tried to turn approximately ninety degrees in a clockwise direction – a skill that most able-bodied folk manage to execute breezily enough – but succeeded only in falling to earth like a collapsing tower, and, for added comedic value, grabbing the ball with his hand on his way down.)
No doubt Newcastle’s players are better than their performance today indicated, but even with our umpteen missed chances I did not at any point have the slightest concern about our profligacy (until Carroll biffed along, and the aerial bombardment began). Until that point there seemed no way on earth that Newcastle would trouble us. Bar the goalkeeper, collectively they had a stinker.
Back to our lot, and they put on show some pretty decent fare throughout. For this, I give much of the credit to Lo Celso. He might not necessarily be as naturally gifted as Christian Eriksen, but where Eriksen would quietly fade out of existence during games, Lo Celso, like some annoying, attention-seeking youth, seemed pretty eager to be at the centre of things.
Taking up a possession neatly in between midfield and attack, much of what was good went through his size nines, a sure sign that here was a bounder in no mood to shirk responsibility.
Moreover, he appears to be one of those rare beasts whose natural instinct on receiving the ball is automatically to pass forward. This might not sound particularly revolutionary, but after the diet of midfield sorts who seem intent on passing sideways or backwards as if their lives depend on it, this makes for pretty refreshing stuff.
Not every pass necessarily hit the mark, but as often as not he tried to pick an early pass in between defenders, for the attacking mob to run onto, and frankly it’s a joy to behold.
2. Winks’ Game of Two Halves
On the subject of sideways and backwards passing, in the first half young Master Winks did not miss many opportunities to swivel back towards home and roll the ball thither.
On occasion, this is certainly no bad thing, but against a Newcastle team both devoid of ideas and pretty lacking in talent this seemed pretty heavy stuff, and unnecessarily so. If Lo Celso’s instinct was always first to seek a forward pass, Winks’ was the opposite, as if created as the precise genetic inverse. It grated.
In Winks’ defence, one cannot fault his energy levels. If a man in lilywhite needed a chum within ten yards, Winks was doing the neighbourly thing. If the ball fell loose, Winks was the one racing in to pick up the scraps. It simply appeared, particularly in the first half, that he was misjudging the mood of the occasion, and adopting a safety-first approach when there was not a whiff of danger within a mile of the place.
Mercifully, whatever pleasantries were exchanged at half-time had a pretty positive effect, and in the second half young Winks emerged with a far more positive take on life. He did not dwell on the ball, nor did he attempt the outrageous, yet simply by playing simple, forward passes he increased the general fluency of the spectacle, and the world seemed a better place for it.
3. Ndombele’s Cameo
A topic of chatter amongst the thinkers of N17 is how both Lo Celso and Ndombele might be accommodated in the same team. At present, with Jose preferring two deeper-lying midfielders, it appears that only one or other can get the gig in the more advanced position.
While very different fish, both Lo Celso and Ndombele appear most effective when granted the licence to wander forward and do their damnedest. Lo Celso’s is a more energetic form of linking attacking and midfield, but Ndombele again showed, in his fifteen or so minutes, that his boots are made of pretty silken stuff.
If opportunity allows for a quick pass Ndombele does not hang around for the formalities, and it is potentially game-changing fare. His cute first-timers visibly rattle the opposing defence, and help create gaps that the mere mortal does not necessarily spot on an initial cursory glance.
Over the coming week, the fixture-list suggests that it will be one or t’other, with two defensive midfielders positioned behind them for solidarity; but in the longer-term one wonders whether Jose might ink his forearm, dye his hair blue and include both Lo Celso and Ndombele in the same eleven, while filming the whole thing on his phone and posting it on social media.
4. Kane Dropping Deep – The Future?
While the cute, eye-of-the-needle passes were the preserve of Messrs Lo Celso and Ndombele, Harry Kane continues to make his case for ultimately becoming Creator-in-Chief of this mob.
I’m not sure anyone in the squad can rival him for big, booming crossfield passes onto the very toe of a teammate, and as the last couple of games have illustrated, his vision and weight of passes typically leave his striking partner with little option but to roll the ball into the net.
One senses from his warblings over the last year that the coming 12 months are fairly critical to him, but should we retain his services in the longer-term, a future might beckon for him in a deeper, number 10 role – andI’m not sure many in the game would be better equipped for it.
5. Handball Rot
And so this dreary slab of nonsense. If, like AANP, you rather enjoying wiling away a couple of hours with the pleasures of an all-no-plot film, you may be familiar with that moment of oddly perfect calm displayed by a sort who realises he’s about to go the way of all flesh and pronto.
Andy Garcia in Black Rain, as an example, was pattering about the place trying to solve several of the world’s ills, until a chap with what appeared to be a samurai sword, of all the dashed things, made a beeline for him. And at that point Andy Garcia, realising his race was run, appeared entirely at peace with things and rather philosophically just accepted it (and promptly had his stem separated from its moorings).
I mention this because it was with that same philosophical calm that AANP exhaled, once the VAR routine kicked off in minute 90+5, and accepted that things were going to end badly. Where Jose stomped off, and Eric Dier presumably screamed out more choice expletives as loudly as comically possible in an empty, microphoned stadium, my sentiment was more along the Andy Garcia lines of “Well I can see where this is going, and there’s not a bally thing I can do about, so might as well just accept it.”
If you’ve toddled this way hoping for some fresh and original pearls on the matter I’m afraid that – much like Andy Garcia, and indeed Jose, Dier et al – you’re bang out of luck. The AANP sentiments are in common with most others. To summarise: the current handball law is a rummy one.
Some have grumbled that the referees ought to exercise common sense, but I’m not having that – if the rules are in place let’s at least apply them consistently so that everyone knows where they stand. I’ll happily throw a blunt object at anyone who argues otherwise on that one.
However, there are a couple of pointers I would lob into the mix. One is that the handball rule is apparently supposed to take into account the distance the ball travels before it reaches the offending limb. While, admittedly, I was not privy to the whisperings between officials as the decision was made, it seems a safe bet that on the issue of ‘Distance Travelled by Ball’ precious little dialogue was exchanged.
The other grumble from AANP Towers is that the award of the free-kick which led to the whole fandango was rummy in the extreme. Watch again and it rather appears that the Newcastle player in question plays a pass and then hurls his body headlong into Hojbjerg – for which curious sequence of events he is awarded a free-kick.
None of it counts for a great deal now, of course, but when the numbers are racked up at the end of the season, should we fall two points short of something exciting I wonder if we might look back on this afternoon and roll out some of Eric Dier’s most choice observations.