1. The Most Lamela Performance Imaginable
If you want to describe the mood at AANP Towers as “sombre” that will be fine with me, because that was pretty rotten stuff. Since the final whistle I have mostly just aimlessly wandered about the place: not as a devastatingly accurate tribute to those in lilywhite today, but because there was precious little about which to cheer.
Not for the first time in recent weeks, pretty much the sole beacon of light amidst this gloom was – or at least, was until he wasn’t – Erik Lamela.
Quite unperturbed by his rather hurried introduction into affairs, Lamela just set about the game as I imagine he sets about dressing himself in the morning, or eating his breakfast: viz. with high energy, sneaky fouls and a total reliance on his left foot.
It would be a stretch, and in fact a plain untruth, to say that he brimmed with creativity, but as ever he seemed pretty keen to engage in robust exchanges of views with just about anyone clad in red who wandered anywhere near him.
The highlight, of course, was his goal. Has any mortal ever held his right foot in such disregard as Lamela? Not that I’m complaining of course, because I suspect most of us would happily retire after scoring a goal like that, in a game like this (and for added delectation the shot also nutmegged some lost soul en route to goal). For a while it seemed that Lamela had done the most Lamela thing imaginable.
Except, alas, there was more classic Lamela to come. Any game of Lamela Bingo requires a yellow card borne of a fully determined but slightly mistimed tackle, and being the excitable sort of fellow he is, this duly followed. However, on this matter I have a healthy dollop of sympathy for the man, because the sequence of events that earned that first yellow card involved, in chronological order, i) Lamela winning ball, and ii) Lamela flying into opponent.
One might argue that this is simply the manner in which games are officiated these days, and that would be a pretty irresistible point; but in the latter stages I’m pretty sure Xhaka went flying into a challenge on Doherty, taking first ball and then clattering man, and earning nothing more than an unconcerned shrug from those in authority. Scandalous stuff.
Frankly I thought Lamela’s second yellow was also rather soft. Not the wisest course of action from a man already cautioned, ‘tis true, but the supposedly flailing arm could pretty reasonably have been construed as a fairly harmless attempt push away the chest of his opponent. Spilt milk now, of course.
And thus we had every aspect of Lamela, in an hour-long microcosm.
2. Doherty and Bale
Lamela’s goal, and Lucas’ diligent beavering in the final fifteen, were about as uplifting as things got.
Just about everywhere else on the pitch there seemed to be a pretty hefty dereliction of duty, as all involved misplaced passes (Hojbjerg being oddly culpable on multiple occasions), wandered into dead-ends or generally turned in curiously lethargic performances, as if the current state of affairs in the world were weighing on their minds a little too heavily today.
In the first half in particular, much of the success had by the other lot came down our right. I had neither the energy nor inclination to try to diagnose the problem, but the quartet of lilywhites covering that patch of land (Doherty, Bale, Hojbjerg and Sanchez) between them seemed pretty ill-equipped even to understand what was happening around them, let alone address it.
Doherty in particular gave the impression of a defender on life-support, repeatedly outfoxed by his opponents’ mind-blowing tactic of kicking the ball past him and running. The excuse repeatedly trotted out for this pest is that he is a wing-back, not a full-back, as if this is akin to asking a right-handed fast bowler to design a spaceship, and not something that should be expected of him. Utter rot.
In my calmer moments I actually consider that Doherty is someone who has shown enough in recent seasons to suggest that he will, if still around next campaign, eventually come good. Today, however, he was a shambles, whether in possession or trying to defend.
(Bale, it seemed, took one look at the car crash unfolding behind him and decided to steer well clear. One understands the sentiment, I suppose, but it’s hardly mucking in with the boys.)
Another week, and another blot on the Davinson Sanchez escutcheon. Apparently some are arguing that the penalty should not have been awarded; and by the letter of the law perhaps it should not, I did not stick around for the debate. My misgiving about the whole incident was that Sanchez saw fit to clatter into an opponent in the penalty area. Irrespective of what other events were unfolding, that course of action stacked the odds against him. Pull off a stunt like that and immediately the ref has a reason to take action.
It was actually something of a shame, because while Sanchez never has and never will inspire me with the slightest confidence, he was somehow getting things right. Blocks, headers, timing of challenges: all the parts of his game that have me covering my eyes with hands and muttering fevered prayers, in these this afternoon he seemed to emerge triumphant.
But such is the lot of a centre-back. I’m not sure it does much good to turn in an impeccable 89 minutes, if you fill your remaining 60 seconds flattening opposing attackers in the penalty area.
4. Negative Approach
I have no idea who gives the orders to our lot as they limber up, as I am scandalously excluded from the inner sanctum of the club at such times, but after games like these the anthem on my lips is, “Accident, or design?”
That is to say, is it simply an unhappy stroke of fate that our lot mooch gormlessly around the pitch for an hour showing minimal intent to break forward (until they eventually, inevitably, concede and have to)? Or do they conduct themselves with such apathy because someone in the upper echelons has force-fed them the instruction to act in precisely such manner?
All neither here nor there of course. It wouldn’t make much difference if the instructions were being delivered by a booming voice from the clouds, as the net effect is one we have witnessed pretty regularly. We defend, and defend, and only bother attacking once behind.
While at least avoiding the ignominy of defending along the edge of our own area, our heroes did not cover themselves in glory for the first hour or so, by seeming oddly indifferent as to whether or not they had the ball. Whereas the other lot gave the impression of familiarity with the equation that the scoring of goals facilitates the winning of games, those in lilywhite appeared pretty relaxed about the flow of events. “If Arsenal want to attack”, went the thought process of our eleven, “then who are we to interfere?”
That our only shot in the first half brought about a goal seemed to be taken as vindication by those involved that all was well with the world. However, the fact that the other lot twice hit the woodwork during this period, rather than jolting anyone into alternative action, was seemingly taken as further evidence that everything was under control, and even after they equalised the plan remained unmoved: just bob gently about the place, and everything will be alright in the end.
That it took the unholy combination of falling behind and having a man sent off to prompt any change of approach was about as frustrating as these things get, not least because thereafter came the astonishing discovery that if we went and attacked our chances of scoring improved exponentially.
One is tempted to suggest that there is a salutary lesson in there, but it would be a stretch to assume that the combined brain power of those strolling the corridors of power will do anything to change this approach in the next big game we play.