1. Low-Tempo Stuff
Given that even when the Top Four was realistic our lot hardly dashed about the place with any sense of frenzied urgency, it was perhaps unsurprising that today, with the only available carrot being the slightly wonky, shrivelled one of Europa football (or the even smaller, even more shrivelled one of the Europa Conference, whatever that is), the mood amongst those tasked with doing the necessaries in N17 was set to ‘Leisurely’.
Not that it mattered much, as Wolves had switched off their mood setting entirely, in order to sit on a beach and sip something punchy, but there was a curious gentleness to the way in which we gradually exerted our superiority.
Yes, Kane hit the post in the opening jabs, with the sort of shot out of thin air of which he seems to be the sole licence-holder; and yes, we twice had shots thwacked off the line with the ‘keeper seemingly distracted by the beach-side view; but there was none of that zip about our build-up play that makes the pulse quicken and arrests the attention.
The Sky cameras caught the spirit of the thing by doing their best to not show our opener when it did eventually come, preferring to dwell on their narrative de jour about a man from Sunday league football repeatedly heading away crosses (a plot-line with which they were so obsessed that they pretended it continued long after it had stopped, bizarrely awarding the bean in question the day’s rosette despite him being wildly out of position, and then comically parked on his rear for the first goal; and too slow to get to the rebound for the second: man of the match indeed).
It was not until early in the second half that our lot began showing any appetite for the thing, and we were treated to the first sights of free-flowing football coursing through the veins. Again, probably worth emphasising that nothing beyond third gear was really necessary, but given the talent on display, and the pliant nature of our guests, the first half in particular was oddly muted.
However, it was still comfortably sufficient, and should an eager student ever choose to write an essay on ebbs and flows of this particular match then “Two-Nil” would be a title that captured entirely appropriately the game’s dynamics as well as its scoreline.
2. Dele: Delightful and Exasperating
In terms of the specifics, Dele’s performance was an odd mix of the delightful and exasperating.
In the Debit column, the chap was guilty on a couple of occasions of the sort of carelessness that would have been excoriated by notable former managers who were sticklers for that sort of thing and who, it might be suggested, carried about themselves particularly needless vendettas.
In one instance he gave away a pretty needless free-kick in a dangerous area, via the medium of an unnecessary and pretty unsubtle shove to the back; on another occasion he tried to be rather too cute for his own good inside his own penalty area of all places, giving away possession, when anyone in the Sky commentary box could have advised that simply hacking the ball away to kingdom come would have had him lauded as the game’s standout performer.
One might point out that the nature of the chap’s play means that such errors are simply part and parcel of the whole Dele experience. Here, after all, is an egg who seems to take to heart the anthem “Go out there and express yourself”, generally treating the pitch as his playground and the match as an opportunity to roll out as many party tricks as possible (witness the glorious first half nutmeg).
Mercifully, the Wolves players were too busy admiring the bathing suits of their fellow holiday-makers to do anything with these gifts, but young Dele might do well to give some consideration to the time and the place, when next he dips into his box marked ‘Casual Possession Giveaway’.
More prominently, however, Dele’s attacking instincts came to the fore today. He seemed quite happy to take a prominent role in affairs, availing himself of a pass at every opportunity and stationing himself pretty centrally throughout. The man did not shirk the challenge.
And, without exactly dominating things (that accolade fell upon the Wolves chappie who occasionally cleared a cross, don’t you know) Dele made enough deft contributions to swing the thing.
His role in the odd sequence of post-hitting was impressively delivered. In the first place he won possession in the old-fashioned way, emerging victorious in the often-neglected tangle of legs known as ‘tackling’; and then picked precisely the right moment to play his killer pass. I don’t mind admitting it was a moment that deeply affected me, having spent many of my years of Dele-watching berating him for hanging onto the ball for too long. On this occasion, I bowed in the presence of his greatness. He hung onto the ball for precisely the appropriate amount of time, and then played a perfectly weighted pass – through the opponent’s legs, of course – into the path of Kane. The whole thing deserved a goal; what it got, instead, was two successive shots hitting the two different posts.
And then for our second goal, I was rather impressed by the manner in which Dele first sprayed the ball stage left, for Reguilon to run onto (albeit Reguilon made rather a production of things out there, sliding and scampering and all sorts); and secondly, on receiving the ball back from Reguilon, in picking out Bale. Bale’s shot was then parried, and Hojbjerg completed the routine; but Dele did enough to merit at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
3. Lo Celso’s Deeper Role
Ryan Mason it appears, is not one of those fellows who thinks that the key to life is to dive in and change as many things about it as he can get his hands on. For Mason, the status quo seems to hold a certain charm, and as such, having deployed Lo Celso in a deep-ish role once, he has been happy to extend the experiment a little while longer.
Personally, I am rather enamoured of the role itself and its current occupier. Particularly in a game such as this, something of a free hit given the quality and mentality of the opponent, there is hardly need for multiple defensive types to prowl the midfield looking for fires to put out. The use of Lo Celso then, is primarily forward-thinking, tasked with picking up the ball from the back-line and transferring to the forward-line, with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency.
(It should be noted that, in addition to the forward-looking stuff, Lo Celso does not mind scampering around to win back possession either; he might not necessarily be the most gifted exponent of the more destructive arts, but he knows what’s expected.)
But it was going forward that I rather enjoyed Lo Celso’s mentality. Now, to be clear, I thought this week, as last, he could have done more of it – demanding the ball and making it clear to all in the vicinity that he was the go-to man for these sort of jobs. But nevertheless, his general mentality, of wanting to create whenever he received the ball, went down well at AANP Towers.
As if to illustrate the point, we were then treated to fifteen minutes or so of the slightly dreary alternative, when young Master Winks bounded on to replace Lo Celso, and promptly set about biffing the ball backwards every time it was given to him. Sometimes Lo Celso hit and sometimes he missed, but pretty much every time his first instinct was at least to go forward.
4. Hitting the Woodwork
At one point (at what I am tempted to call a lull in proceedings, but which description does not necessarily narrow down the timeframe), the TV bods flashed up a stat to the effect that our heroes have hit the woodwork more than any other team this season. 23, if my eyes did not deceive.
Pertinent stuff, given that we were treated to this very scenario thrice this afternoon. Now one might wail and lament our ill fortune at this, but the stat did remind me of a moment in my formative years, when on returning from a school football match and receiving an enquiry from my old man, AANP Senior, as to how I got on, I informed him that while I did not score I did at least hit the post. This earnest communique, as I recall, met with a pretty unforgiving eye and the brusque response from the esteemed relative that he would give me credit if I were aiming for the post; and that feedback rather ended the back-and-forth.
It’s a mantra I apply to this day. Hitting the post 23 times is deserving of little credit or sympathy given that the pretty unambiguous aim of the exercise is expressly not to hit the post, but the structure contained therein.
All that said, the little burst of activity that saw Kane and Dele hit the two posts with successive shots did make the head swim a bit and the curses flow. One can only imagine what the kindly folk who neighbour AANP Towers made of the assorted yips and yelps that doubtless emerged from within as the passage of play unfolded.
Mercifully, neither the woodwork nor VAR nor any other excuses needed to be wheeled out on this occasion. A curious game for sure, not least because of the odd passivity of our opponents, but a comfortable win is always a delight.