Even before kick-off the teamsheet was a pretty welcome sight for the sore AANP eyes. One does not wish ill upon one’s fellow man of course, but nevertheless it was with some relief that I noted that Dele had been quietly escorted from the starting line-up, and the apparatus instead arranged for a 4-2-3-1.
The use of 4-2-3-1 in midweek had, as remarked on these very pages at the time, given our lot far better shape and organisation – but, as also noted at the time, only so much could be read into its deployment against a team of bobbish but pretty limited part-timers. Seeing the system put to use today against a Villa team that has steadily improved in recent years felt like a far greater test of its efficacy, so it was pretty pleasing to report that while hardly the perfect performance this was nevertheless a massive improvement on recent weeks. A low bar admittedly, and they’d have been hard pressed to be any worse, but still – the set-up was better.
Put bluntly, within the 4-2-3-1 everyone seemed at least to know what their roles were. This was in pretty crucial contrast to the 4-3-3 trotted out in recent weeks, when the midfield 3 in particular had seemed oddly lost, just wandering about the pitch with the air of chappies new to the place and without a compass between them.
Today, at least, one got the impression that all in attendance had been briefed on the general strategy – again, a vast improvement on last weekend, when one rather suspected that that all concerned had been granted licence to do whatever they pleased, wherever they pleased. Today, the agenda seemed a bit clearer. Two lads sitting in front of the back-four; further north, Ndombele given the freedom of N17 (and permission to ignore some of the game’s more onerous, defensive duties); the full-backs encouraged to amble up the pitch and sniff around when the urge took them; and Kane under instruction to temper his urges to drop deep.
2. The Midfield Three
That said, one can unwrap the greatest formation in history and it would count for nothing if those individuals tasked with effecting it simply shrug their shoulders and fade into obscurity. Mercifully, today all eleven (plus subs) had the dignity to engage the grey matter and apply themselves to the task at hand.
In midfield, Skipp was restored and wasted little time demonstrating his many virtues. In his love for a full-blooded midfield challenge this young specimen shares much in common with an AANP hero of yesteryear, Paul Ince, and it was rather frustrating to note that, also in common with Ince, he seems to be developing the knack of picking up yellow cards simply for being a player of tough-tackling ilk, rather than for actually committing any particular heinous crimes. While we may just have to purse the lips and accept that Skippy will pick up yellows more often than not, this week’s was particularly harsh, given that a) he won the ball cleanly enough, and b) even if he hadn’t won the ball, there was little about the challenge or its position on the pitch to merit a caution.
It was to his credit that despite being under such observation for over half the match his energy in that role of sentry-keeper was undiminished. Indeed, when things did begin to creak a tad in the second half, Skippy’s were the limbs, on more than one occasion, that extended to goal-saving effect inside our own area.
Alongside him, Hojbjerg seemed to have a little more direction than in recent weeks. While his starting berth tended to be deep, alongside Skipp, he seemed happy enough to trot forward if circumstances warranted, most notably of course, for his goal.
And the main beneficiary of all this elbow grease was Monsieur Ndombele, who treated us to a pretty Ndombele sort of performance – occasional flashes of pretty dizzying genius; several attempted passes not more than a whisker or three from scything open the Villa defence; and a lot of his time on the pitch seemingly spent in gulping in oxygen and trying to keep up with play. And this was fine by me to be honest, as the system is pretty much created specifically for him to treat us to flashes of p.d.g. and passes that scythe. With Skipp and Hojbjerg in attendance Ndombele can essentially get away with being something of a luxury, with little in the way of defensive duties.
What matters is that he produces enough flashes of creative goodness to trouble the opposition, and this he just about did. In the first half in particular he barged his way onto the front of the stage fairly often, linking merrily enough with Lucas and Sonny. No game-changing moments today, and he faded a little in the second half, but it seems reasonable to say he played his part, and I imagine the Number 10 role is his for the foreseeable.
And there is some competition in that respect. Lo Celso was given fifteen minutes in the role at the end of proceedings, and produced a couple of near misses, albeit without exactly pulling strings; and one suspects that Lucas, Dele and even the fifth Beatle might equally be deployed in the role, within this particular formation.
3. Emerson Royal
Ndombele was not the only soul to benefit from the presence of the Skipp-Hojbjerg axis in front of the back-four, as E. Royal Esq. was another who needed little encouragement to toddle forward and see what delights awaited.
It would be stretching things to say he’s Beckham-esque in his crossing, but Royal certainly made himself useful in supplementing our attacks and offering a wide option, showing all the willing of young Tanganga in previous weeks but with perhaps a little more polish and nous in his doings.
None of which is to suggest that he neglected his defensive duties, far from it. Indeed, I rather enjoy the commitment he shows in racing into battle with his opposing left-sided attacker, seemingly determined that if there is a fifty-fifty on his particular patch of turf he will lick his lips and charge straight in. One admires the attitude.
In recent weeks we have been treated to increased sightings of our newest centre-back, and I suspect AANP is not alone in upturning the thumb in approval at the young bean’s execution of duties.
Romero is, by and large, a calming sort of presence at the back. There is a caveat to this – which was in full view today – to which I shall return anon, but in carrying out the business of winning aerial battles and positioning himself just so, he seems to do most of those things one would hope for from a competent centre-back. Not the worst in possession of the thing either, which is always a bonus.
Moreover, given that Villa could not go thirty seconds without hurling a long throw into our box, and also had a whole sackful of corners to lob in similarly, I was pretty impressed at how Romero – and indeed all in lilywhite – coped with the barrage, this sort of thing having been something of a weakness in the THFC constitution to date this season.
The elephant in the room is of course his rather reckless and ill-timed lunge, immediately preceded by a decision to come haring out of position, and swiftly followed by both concession of a goal and a yellow card for his troubles. I feel that in our recent history we have had rather enough centre-backs who can produce that ‘Serene For Most Of The Game But Liable to Magic A Calamity From Nowhere’ routine, so while it would be fun for Messrs Dier and Sanchez to have another with whom to share stories and slap backs, I do hope that today’s moment of madness was an exception rather than a norm.
A job well done from just about everyone in lilywhite then, but it seems reasonable to suggest that Sonny should take home whatever gongs are on offer for doing the most important bits and bobs.
In the second half in particular, with Villa obligingly pushing up to halfway, and Reguilon being sufficiently quick of thought to pop the ball into the resultant wide open spaces, Sonny’s pace was a threat and bore suitable rewards. The winning goal emanated from his size nines, and we really ought to have had one or two more from this route.
Sonny can also take his fair share of applause for one of the more entertaining three-minute segments seen in N17 in recent history, when he, Lo Celso and Hojbjerg between them drove the surrounding Villa players to the brink of breakdown by successfully keeping the ball in the corner. This is a tactic of which AANP has never been a particular fan, primarily because it rarely seems to work, the ball typically being surrendered within about five seconds and a race ensuing as the opposition counters.
Today, however, our lot played the situation to perfection, and to pretty hilarious effect. The highlight of the routine was arguably delivered by Sonny himself, in wriggling free from all manner of flailing limbs near the corner flag, buzzing into the area, creating room for a shot – and then u-turning and buzzing back out towards the corner flag again, irate Villa players flailing in his wake. A comical appendix to what was a much-improved display, and Our Glorious Leader can breathe a little easier for a couple of weeks.
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