One does not really like to dwell on the misfortune of others, but it would be remiss not to record in the Book of Events the latest series of errors from our resident gate-keeper.
For the first two goals (and some might make convincing arguments also for the third) he seemed to do the hard part, of stationing himself at the appropriate coordinates and at the appointed time, with relevant limb duly outstretched, in order to make the necessary saves. These boxes having been ticked, all that remained seemed to be for him to complete the job by ensuring that aforementioned outstretched limb completed its principle purpose in life, viz. to prevent the ball entering his net.
Of course at this juncture the operation seemed to collapse in pieces. It is pretty vexing stuff, because shot-stopping has tended to be Lloris’ headline trick. One rarely sees him dashing from his line to claim crosses, and his distribution tends not to win too many awards: but for the past however many years he has at least amassed a decent array of saves. Take this away from him and tongues will wag.
And on the subject of his diminishing shot-stopping powers, I’ve noted a recent tendency of his to fall backwards as he attempts to carry out this particular duty. The second and third goals yesterday, and also the first goal against Everton (Calvert-Lewin’s powerful volley, for those struggling to keep track), each featured our man tumbling back onto his derriere.
Now not having been particularly schooled in the art as a whole I couldn’t offer much expertise on the matter, but it does seem a peculiar quirk. One would have thought a chap aiming to spring into action ought to plant his weight on his toes. This business of falling backwards suggests that the chap is more inclined to rock on his heels.
Regulars in this part of the world will be well aware that the affection for Hojbjerg all season has been strong. Alas, yesterday he dipped below the expected standards.
Following his errors against Everton in midweek, Hojbjerg was at it again yesterday. Some have suggested that the penalty should not have been awarded, but before examining the case for that particular defence I chide the man for getting himself into that position in the first place. The opponent in questions was Gundogan, who, in order to station himself for the aforementioned drama to unfold, had to amble forward into the area, while a chum was in possession; and at this point Hojbjerg simply watched him skip past.
As derelictions of duty go it was pretty thick stuff, and most unlike the chap. Had he tracked this run with the eagerness of a boy scout I dare say the various legs that then became tangled would have remained in tangle-free state.
Personally I had no beef with the decision itself, as it appeared that Hojbjerg kicked the chap’s standing leg, the principal crime here being one of clumsiness. All in all, as bursts of five-seconds-of-action go, this was one of the more flawed exhibits.
3. Lamela and Lucas
While Hojbjerg has been looked upon fondly all season, a more recent favourite at AANP Towers has been Erik Lamela, primarily for his combination of high energy, skulduggery and useful – if heavily left-footed – creative spark. It was also a rare opportunity for Lucas to do his damnedest, and whether by accident or design the pair of them interchanged their first half roles pretty regularly.
However, as with Hojbjerg, this seemed not to be the sort of performance upon which either man will look back with any particular fondness. It was not so much that they made any specific, game-changing mistakes – there were plenty others queueing up to do that.
Rather, it was the fact that Lamela having begun to display his talents in the final third in recent games, nothing really clicked for the young nib yesterday, and Lucas was similarly wanting. Both were guilty of making the occasional poor decision, when the very limited opportunities arose for us to poke and prod at the City back-line.
City defended well, no doubt, but our game tends to rely on correct choices in the counter-attack, to ensure that the ball whizzes from point A to B, and onto C, with blink-of-an-eye alacrity, and while this pair had fairly regular opportunities to bring the ball over halfway, neither seemed to pick the most effective options having done so.
4. Ndombele and the First Half Formation
By the time the last rites came round City were basically toying with us, but in the first half the front-page news seemed to be that Jose had dispensed with the customary tactic against Man City, of deploying a back-six under strict instruction to venture no further than their own penalty area. Instead, while hardly expansive, our lot seemed willing to poke cautious noses into the swathes of turf that lay further north.
This I welcomed. It made a pleasant change, reduced the chances of conceding and was less painful to watch than might otherwise have been the case. In practice, of course, it mattered little, but the symbolism of the thing was duly recorded here at AANP Towers.
And directly linked to this mildly more progressive outlook was the deployment of Ndombele as one of the two deeper-lying midfield souls. Pre-Christmas, the Mourinho Dirge had been founded upon a deep-lying pairing of Sissoko and Hojbjerg, both of whom seemed pretty well drilled in the art of slotting in betwixt full-back and centre-back at the drop of a hat.
With Ndombele occupying the berth however, it’s a different kettle of fish. He follows the T’s and C’s of defensively midfielding adequately enough, but coursing through his veins is an urge to pick up the ball and drag it with him over halfway and into opposition territory. In short, his deployment in the role changes the dynamic of our play. This scheme was initially pursued against West Brom last week, which, in the politest terms, was a pretty low-risk test of its efficacy. It was then wheeled out for the manic Cup-tie vs Everton, the sheer lunacy of which game made it pretty difficult to gauge its success, although Ndombele’s breaks from deep did add a useful additional dynamic to our play.
However, then to use Ndombele in the deeper role against the juggernaut that is City struck me a a pretty significant act of faith in his abilities.
The experiment went the way of all flesh in the second half, as Sissoko came on and sat deep, while Ndombele shoved forward, before being hooked – but not before this additional piece of symbolism had similarly had its details taken. Amidst the doom and gloom about the place, I do at least look forward to further use of Ndombele as a deep-lying attacking threat, in coming weeks.
5. Bale and Alli
Funnily enough it flew completely under the radar that we finished the game with something of a fantasy line-up, of Kane, Son, Bale and Dele Alli in attack.
I don’t really keep track of these things but I’d imagine it can’t have been that long ago that a decent proportion of the world’s lilywhites would have given their right arms to see that quartet in action simultaneously.
Now obviously when this dream team is assembled within the circumstances of a three-goal deficit in the dying embers of a match, it loses much of its sheen. But if somehow the best can be coaxed out of Dele, and anything remotely near fitness and form out of Bale, we might potentially have a front four that, frankly, would be far beyond anything Jose has ever done to deserve.
I suspect most of us are scratching our heads at Bale’s odd flurry of non-performances so far, but in one fleet-footed dribble past multiple City legs yesterday he gave a brief flash of hope that perhaps his appetite for such things may not have fizzled out completely.
With transfer speculation about Dele now put to bed for at least the next few months it appears that Jose has moodily decided he might as well play the two-time Young Player of the Year, on the off-chance that he has something about him. There is still enough time in the season for he and Bale to hit some loose approximation of form – and should either, or, God-willing, both do so, and with Ndombele prompting things from deep, our attacking options would suddenly abound.