Oddly enough, in the midst of yet another thoroughly toothless lilywhite showing we actually had one pretty eye-catching individual performance; and even oddlier, that performance was delivered by young Monsieur Ndombele. I don’t know much about his childhood, but I would guess that in his school reports the gist of the feedback from his teachers would be along the lines of ‘Gifted, but doesn’t always apply himself’.
But by golly that gifted streak was on show yesterday, in full technicolour. It would be a stretch – and in fact a plain untruth – to say that he covered every blade of grass and bossed proceedings, but that never has been the instruction on the side of his particular tin. Instead, his gifts manifested themselves in the form of absolute wizardry pretty much every time he had the ball at his feet.
During the early knockings, when we mistakenly chalked this up as a walk in the park, Ndombele seemed central to all that was good about us, not least in carrying the ball ten yards from central to attacking locations, casually dispensing of opponents as if playthings. It appeared to be the sort of attacking spark for which our mob have been crying out in recent games, and Rennes couldn’t fathom it.
His contribution to the opening goal has been well documented, and even thereafter, when all around him seemed to realise that rather than a stroll in the sun this was actually a fight to the death, and one they were losing, Ndombele continued casually to befuddle the nearest Rennes opponent with his every touch, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the tide had turned and disaster loomed. Remarkably, every time he received the ball he seemed to carry on like this was some sort of exhibition match in which fleet-footed trickery was a legal requirement. It was pretty sensational stuff.
Whether or not he can do this regularly, and indeed how he might be accommodated in the first place, are questions for another day. For now, it is simply pleasing to note that after another thoroughly underwhelming production we were at least able to give tongue to some rarely-used compliments about Ndombele.
The current whacky trend amongst our heroes is to hobble off injured at the earliest opportunity, and Messrs Bergwijn and Lucas duly filed their entries yesterday, with all the accompanying winces and limps on show.
About Bergwijn I am relatively indifferent, truth be told. Being the sort of armchair fan who prefers my wide attackers shiny, with plenty of dribbles, crosses and goals, I am yet to warm to the chap terrifically. His injury I therefore acknowledge as unfortunate, and so on and so forth, but once out of AANP sight he’s pretty definitely out of AANP’s mind.
Far more galling was the sight of Lucas succumbing to whatever fatal blow it was. While in previous seasons I must confess to having been unconvinced, this time around he has been delivering the goods by the bucketload. His dribbles have been suitably mazy, and unlike in previous seasons, rather than simply waltzing around in a small circle and hitting a brick wall, this time around he seems to waltz past hacking limbs before delivering a sensible conclusion to the whole adventure.
It is produce all the more bewitching given the amount of risk-free nonsense being peddled by those around him. With Sonny still AWOL and the boy Gil seemingly considered too green for the rigours of the English game, the stage seemed well set for Lucas – and he appeared to have been delivering.
His injury therefore elicited a pretty fruity curse or two from this quarter. A swift recovery is to be firmly wished.
While Lucas seems to have fallen back in love with the game, and Ndombele – well, it’s anyone’s guess what goes on in between those two particular ears – that rotter Harry Kane now lopes about the place with the air of an aggrieved teenager.
I can’t help wondering if he would steam around the pitch with greater vim if the white shirt had on its breast three lions rather than one cockerel, but I suppose it’s difficult to gauge and probably harsh to opine. Still, while one appreciates there is little he can do when all and sundry are tying themselves in midfield knots rather than simply giving him some service, his body language is nevertheless that of a man who would rather be elsewhere. Which rather chimes with his close-season interviews, what?
This attitude is all the more galling when one considers that he has now overtaken the great S. Perryman Esquire as our European appearance record-holder. It’s an honour that ought to be held by someone who wants to wear the shirt, dash it.
On a more practical note, this rot of him swanning around in midfield has to stop. The back-to-goal first-time flick to set up our opener was a joy to behold, straight out of the Teddy Sheringham playbook; but an occasional venture a few steps south to dink one cheeky pass is one thing; taking up residence in midfield and trying his best Pirlo impressions are another. “Stay up front, laddie”, would be the anthem in his ears from AANP Towers.
4. Nuno’s Masterplan
This was a pretty difficult game to summarise in a single, pithy statement. I know because I tried – my old man, AANP Senior, presumably deciding that, having cut his teeth on the double-winners, the Europa Conference was beneath him. I suspect he is now clearer on events now, having been fully briefed by yours truly.
If the raison d’etre of momentum is to swing, it put its heart and soul into the job in yesterday’s game. Whereas the first twenty or so had much of the cakewalk about it, when Rennes decided to up the ante they did so with such relentless gusto that our lot simply could not cope. This storm having been briefly weathered thereafter, Rennes seemed in the second half to decide that being the dominant force suited them, and I for one had rather given the thing up as a lost cause when Hojbjerg spared our blushes.
Credit where due then, but trying to fathom Our Glorious Leader’s tactics did make the head swim a bit, particularly in the context of previous games. Having approached the Palace game – as league leaders, lest we forget – with three defensive midfielders, I can only assume that Nuno was approached by an angel in a dream, such was the extreme nature of his swerve to yesterday’s tactic, of a single holding midfielder and everyone else with radar set to attack.
His hand was rather forced, admittedly, by injuries, but at present much about our weekly setup suggests that the Brains Trust has not quite yet got to grips with the squad at their disposal. This is hardly to chide the honest fellow, mind, for he’s only been there five minutes.
Moreover, in truth, rather than a settled formation, I’d prefer us to have a default attitude, preferably that shown in our opening day win over City – and not a million miles from that shown by Rennes when they went behind yesterday, for it was an absolute force of nature.
Finally, as a valedictory note, a congratulatory word to the Rennes support, who, for reasons that I must confess baffle me, sounded absolutely nuts throughout.