1. Jose’s Tactics (and Associated Risk)
Normally after a sinking of the good ship Hotspur, the mood at AANP Towers is one of pretty doleful lamentation, with the sackcloth and ashes out in force and long, drawn-out sighs only occasionally mingled with a choice curse or ten.
On this occasion, however, amidst the frustrated kicking of inanimate objects and moody grumbles, there is something of a philosophical air. Study your scribe closely enough and you may notice him scratching his chin from time to time, and looking pretty dashed thoughtful as he does it. Because although defeated, and now three points down on the principal cast member in this little drama, the realisation is dawning that our lot really are shaping up for a proper biff at things this season.
We may have lost, and we may have been absolutely dominated in possession (the 96% stat for a five-minute period just before half-time did make me chuckle, as being possibly the most Jose stat ever seen), but the tactics pretty much worked again, right up until the execution of chances. We restricted Liverpool to snatched chances – heart in mouth stuff each time, but still snatched chances, as opposed to clear one-one-ones as Sonny and Bergwijn had – while at t’other end we created enough of the aforementioned one-one-ones to have gone into injury-time with a lead onto which to cling.
We will presumably have to accept that playing this counter-attacking style means, by the law of probabilities, that every now and then we will concede a rather gut-wrenching late goal that shoots the entire game-plan out of the sky. But if we beat City, draw away to Chelsea, beat Other West Ham and find ourselves second at Christmas, then those odds are probably worth a flutter.
What struck me in the first half in particular was that, despite barely springing three passes together at any point in the whole act, we still came within a whisker of being clear through on goal on three separate occasions – before the moment that Sonny actually was clear through on goal.
The Amazon Prime microphone fiends were too busy purring at Liverpool to notice, but twice Kane had the opportunity to play in Son around halfway, and twice his pass was marginally too close to a defender, and cut out on the brink. The fact remained that there was an absolutely huge gap behind the Liverpool centre-backs, and it just needed a tad more guile on the final pass to open up said space, and let Son gambol away like a spring lamb that cannot believe its luck.
On a third occasion we did actually find the space, when Sissoko barrelled his way down the right and found Kane, unmarked and twenty yards out, but alas the main man dithered somewhat and the chance went up in smoke.
Again, not a mention was made of this by any of the paid prophets on the telly-box, but let that not detract from the fact that the game-plan was in full swing – no matter how warped, twisted or negative one regards it. We were repeatedly six inches away from smashing and grabbing.
2. Bergwijn’s Finishing
Of course, this rather dubious approach to ‘To Dare is To Do’ requires as a pretty critical component that when the final pass is eventually pinged with requisite sweetness, the chap haring in on goal then keeps his side of the bargain and finishes the job.
And in the first half, as against Other West Ham and Man City, Sonny kept up his end of the bargain. It feels almost blasphemous to say it now, but once upon a time I questioned the fellow’s finishing. Not so these days. Sonny could not be more clinical if he were laser-guided.
The plan tends to provide one or two chances per game, and Son snaffles them all up. As, typically, does Kane. Last night, however, the two big moments fell to Bergwijn, and the honest chap gave an illustration of why he, Lucas and Lamela sit decidedly below Kane and Son in the hierarchy of attacking sorts at N17.
The Jose plan really provides no room for error – when these counter-attack chances occur, they absolutely must be taken. Bergwijn has generally impressed in recent weeks, oddly enough on account of his defensive contributions – the work-rate, the positional sense, the discipline. Just a dashed shame that when it came to the attacking stuff, of which he has made a career, he twice missed the target.
3. Aurier vs Mane
Elsewhere on the pitch, a pretty eye-catching sub-plot was playing out between Messrs Mane and Aurier.
Aurier, as has been widely feted on these pages in recent weeks, has undergone quite the transformation this season, and now ranks as one a pretty critical cog in the defensive machine.
Admittedly there was one moment in the first half, when the ghost of Aurier past crept up behind his ear and started whispering sweet nothings, resulting in a spectacularly poorly-judged Cruyff turn inside his own area, that almost led to a goal. But that minor aberration aside, the chap wore his sensible hat throughout.
And he needed to, because in Sadio Mane he had a pretty worthy foe. In terms of strength, guile, trickery, positioning and pace, Aurier had to have his wits about him throughout, and to his credit he generally did the necessaries. He was caught out by one sublime turn in the second half, but recovered to wave a useful foot and deflect Mane’s shot onto the bar; otherwise he generally stood his ground.
Just a shame that his final intervention led to the corner from which Liverpool scored, but the young bean could probably mooch off at stumps with his head held high.
4. Ben Davies: Too Dashed Nice
I’m not sure the same can necessarily be said of Ben Davies, who may equally have been christened ‘6 out of 10’. There was nothing egregiously bad about his play, but at the same time his every appearance leaves me thinking he could and should be doing more.
One understood the principle of his selection – a more conservative option than Reguilon, and therefore less likely to be caught upfield and out of position, in a game in which defensive shape was pretty critical. But little things, like hacked clearances when there is time to pick a pass, suggest that there are several notches of improvement for him to achieve.
On top of which, the young egg really needs to take a leaf out of the Hojbjerg book and embrace a much nastier side. In the opening exchanges, when denied a clear corner, Ben Davies simply flung a hand in the air and turned to jog back, epitomising much of the pre-Jose spirit of simply accepting defeat as one of those unfortunate things that happens and should not be questioned.
Far be it for me to espouse that the chap greets a bad refereeing call by going on a murderous rampage and laying waste to all in front of him, but more fire in the belly, more aggression and maybe some of the Lamela-esque sly niggles would not go amiss. It is perhaps indicative of the change of ethos instilled by Jose, that Ben Davies’ meekness now looks a very noticeable weakness.