1. Bad, But Marginally Less Bad Than We’re Used To
It’s a sign of things, and a pretty damning sign at that, when progress is being measured by how less disastrous the situation now is compared to previous times, but that’s about the rub of it here at AANP Towers.
Once upon a time – by which I mean just about every game – I would use these pages to wail and lament like a banshee having a particularly bad time of it, on the grounds that we just seemed to observe the same damn thing every damn week. Viz. that our lot would take a lead; drop deep and try soak up pressure; fail to soak up said pressure and concede; concede again dammit with five minutes remaining; and then put on an impressive, but futile attacking display in the dying embers in an attempt to claw back the lost points.
Now this week, while most of the above admittedly remains true, the crucial difference is that we did not drop deep and try to soak up the pressure.
As I result, I got to about the eightieth minute or so of this one feeling less of the usual weekly frustration and ire. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing. Seeing our lot churn out something not particularly good, but not quite as bad as usual, felt if not exactly uplifting then at least a mite more calming than the usual tortuous fare. Yes, we were dropping points; but at least we weren’t dropping points in a manner quite as negative as usual.
(Or rather, that was the state of things until we conceded the second, at which point I expected our usual punchy, late attempt to salvage something, but this was also strangely lacking. In fact, our lot seemed to settle for defeat even with ten minutes left on the clock, barely able to get a foot on the ball, let alone mount a late charge at the opposition goal. All of which rather soured my mood of previous calm.)
However – and I refer you back to the opening gambit, above – when progress is being measured by things being slightly less disastrous than usual you know you’re in a bit of a spot.
I’m not quite sure what the plan was, it being neither to play on the front foot nor the counter-attacking back foot. We had our moments, but United generally had more of them. I noted to a chum pre-match that I would prefer seeing us go down in flames as in the 5-4 defeat at Everton then meekly limp to the usual 1-1 draws each week; but this felt like neither. The whole thing was a bit odd and uninspiring; and that was even before we conceded two late goals.
One definite ray of sunshine was the pitter-patter of Hojbjerg’s size nines around the place. Since the turn of the year he’s occasionally dipped below his usual high standards, but today signalled a return to something like peak Hojbjerg (possibly benefiting from a rare midweek rest?).
If there were a playground-style, thrashing tackle to be made, he merrily stomped in and made it. If there were an opportunity to nip in quickly and win back possession only recently surrendered, he did not wait for the Ts and Cs of the deal to be refined.
At one point in the second half he broke up a potential United counter-attack and appeared for all the world to be appealing for some non-existent crusade; until I realised that he was actually bellowing a celebration at having conceded a throw in the cause of stifling a United move at source.
Not much else in lilywhite clicked today, but Hojbjerg’s performance was impressive.
Scraping the barrel now admittedly, but Lucas showed a few flashes of creativity, when not being bumped from the number ten spot by Lo Celso.
The chap always brims with pretty honest sweat and endeavour, which is decent of him but of itself not exactly blowing up anyone’s skirts. Where Lucas does add value, however, is in picking up the ball just over halfway and jinking away from scything legs, transferring the action from what might be termed Midfield Stodge to what might equally be termed Final Third Potential.
As with Lamela a month or so ago, he seems to be benefitting from a steady run of starts, and while hardly in the same bracket as Kane and Sonny, he does at least provide decent empirical evidence for his position ahead of Bale in the queue for the coveted role of Fun Uncle.
A smart assist for Sonny’s goal today too; and in fact most of those involved in its genesis (Ndombele, Lo Celso and, to a lesser extent, Kane) attracted commendation. Seeing goals like that equally delights (because lovely goals do make the heart leap, what?) and infuriates (because why the devil can’t we peddle such stuff more often?).
4. The Defence
Given the personnel at his disposal, I’m not sure that Jose could unveil any back-four without inducing a groan from these parts, so when the names Aurier and Dier were rattled off I suspect I wasn’t the only one praying for their guardian angels to be on high alert.
As it happened though, and in another indication of that first point in today’s sermon about progress being measured by a reduction in dreadfulness, the back-four were generally not terrible.
Neither United’s disallowed goal nor their first two legitimate goals were necessarily due to the type of schoolboy defending that has graced the turf a little too often in the last few years (I’ll overlook the third as it stemmed from several of our lot being dragged out of position). United’s movement of the ball for these goals was impressive, and I suspect a neutral might have dished out some polite applause. There was not, on first sight at least, a great deal that might have been done about them.
First sight, however, may have been a little generous.
Eric Dier has few obvious attributes upon which to call, but generally fares better in the more static life that accompanies crosses or passes into the box than the sprint-based existence of chasing from halfway. However, both United’s first two and their disallowed goal were fashioned in and around the penalty area, and for both Cavani’s allowed and disallowed goal Dier simply lost track of the striker.
This is not to suggest that I might have done any better; if one is supposed to walk a mile in a man’s shoes before chipping away at his character I’d be an unholy mess at this point. But that’s not really the point, is it? Dier is supposed to be an international defender, and while Cavani is a master at his art, Dier was not just a yard behind him, he was completely ignorant of his whereabouts.
Aurier, inevitably, dozed off for one of the goals (their second, allowing Cavani to breeze past him unbothered); while young Rodon switched off for the equaliser, when he ought to have been first on the scene after Lloris parried away the initial shot.
So there were some pretty preventable errors scattered about the place for the goals, but nevertheless, this did not seem a game in which to lambast those at the back. By and large they did a presentable job of things, and while Dier may not be the most alert soul on the planet, Rodon at least seemed to know his beans.
Who the hell knows which combo Jose will try next, given that his selection method seems to be to close his eyes and pick names out of a hat, but there would seem to be both immediate and at least medium-term benefit in giving persisting with young Joe Rodon.