As not one of our lot produced a performance greater than middling in quality (although, credit where due, as a collective they did at least have the decency to roll up second half sleeves and turn defeat to victory through sheer force of will), the principal focus of AANP’s attention, by the time the curtain came down, was our newest Glorious Leader.
I suppose the various media outlets about the land will have gorged themselves on the sight of him frantically waving every available limb from the sideline, and while this is perhaps the least important element of his role it was good to see him at least give a dam.
But of vastly greater interest in AANP Towers was whatever the devil he said at half-time. Naturally, I was not privy to it, but I’m pretty convinced that it would have been the stuff of Hollywood, because on the back of his tuppence worth, our heroes came out in the second half not so much all-guns-blazing as i) wondrously able to find each other with their five-yard passes, and ii) wondrously facilitated with their ability to sprint where previously they had loped. And as it turned out. both of these were pretty critical elements in executing the 180 degree turnaround that followed.
As mentioned, we were still pretty light on quality in that second half, but attitude and intensity were noticeably up several notches, so in terms of delivering his Churchillian stuff at the mid-point I think it’s fair to say that Conte hit the spot.
That said – and not wanting to nitpick any more than is strictly necessary – but in my idler moments since the final whistle I have wondered why whatever sweet nothings were whispered at half-time could not have been drilled into the cast members immediately pre-kick-off. Tactically, of course, there was no real knowing beforehand that, for example, that Phillips lad would pop up in Leeds’ central defence, causing Kane and Sonny’s minds to explode; but in terms of the general sentiment of simply charging around the place like the game genuinely mattered, this strikes me as the sort of instruction that might have been issued circa 16.25 GMT, thereby saving everyone concerned from going through the stress of it all.
It’s one of life’s imponderables I suppose, and the important thing here seems to be that Conte dragged a winning performance out of our lot, so well done him.
(For what it’s worth, I was also rather taken by the sight of him celebrating with some gusto with each individual player afterwards. None of them seemed to consider it quite such an achievement – and frankly that strikes me as a large part of the problem, but if he can instil in them the concept that each game is something for which it’s worth sweating every available drop, then maybe they might even care enough to give their all from opening whistle to last.)
2. The Good and Bad of Reguilon
AANP’s lockdown Spanish is still something of a work in progress, so I couldn’t inform my public whether or not there is an equivalent idiom to “All’s well that ends well” en español, but if there is then I’d wager that young Senor Reguilon cheerfully whistled it a few times last night.
It was entirely appropriate, given the nature of our performance as a whole, that his goal should have had its genesis in the unsightly combination of both a massive deflection and a ricochet off the post, but the alacrity shown by the chap in springing into action as soon as Dier struck his free-kick was worthy of the highest praise. I would suggest that he showed the instinct of a natural striker – but not even our own, much-vaunted striker shows that much spring in his step these days.
Moreover, as with Conte at the final whistle, the lifelong fan in me took a particular pleasure in seeing him celebrate his goal like it meant the world to him.
This was all a far cry from his role in the concession of Leeds’ opener. In what was a depressingly familiar tale amongst our defenders, of dozing off on the job and failing to carry out the basics, Reguilon simply let his man waltz by him to tap in.
Had he been bamboozled by trickery one might have waved a forgiving hand, but to be caught on his heels and outsprinted by someone who had given him a five-yard start was pretty criminal stuff. Should Reguilon continue to play under the new Grand Fromage – and he seems to have been designed specifically to fit within Conte’s system – then he’ll need to tighten up his defensive game, and sharpish.
Moreover, even Reguilon’s forte, of charging over halfway and into enemy territory, brought groans from the faithful during that dreadful first half. He was actually one of the more sprightly amongst our number, but one moment in particular had the natives offering some forthright opinions, as he led a bona fide counter-attack, veered infield, and as Leeds’ defence obligingly channelled their inner Red Sea and split themselves right down the middle for our convenience, he rather bafflingly opted not to play the obvious pass, to Emerson Royal clean through on goal, but instead carried on veering infield and off into the nearest cul-de-sac.
All in all, it looked set to be one of the less auspicious specimens from the Reguilon repertoire, so to end proceedings as the match-winner was an unexpected bonus for the fellow.
3. Emerson Royal
Not to be outdone when it came to moments of substandard wing-backery, over on the right-hand side Emerson Royal was busily making his own lamentable contribution to Leeds’ goal. He simply sold himself a little too easily in the build-up to that goal, allowing his man first to bypass him and then to hold him off, when really any defender with a shred of dignity would have explored a few additional means of preventing the opponent from haring away so.
An interesting specimen, is young Royal. While not culpable of such calamities as were so frequently offered by Serge Aurier, and generally pretty committed to the cause, he nevertheless strikes me as the sort of bean who will as regularly lose his mano e mano duels as win them. And, bluntly, a hit-rate of around fifty per cent hit rate is not really good enough.
Going forward, as with Reguilon on the left, he certainly is not a man who needs to be asked twice, and tends usefully to station himself in pretty advanced positions. As such he seems to be handy enough, without necessarily being what any self-respecting judge would describe as ‘top-drawer’.
But in a sense, this is about as much as one can expect from a £25m defender, which does me scratch the loaf and wonder why we bought him in the first place. Competent going forward, and nothing special defensively, Royal is precisely the standard of player I would much rather we put back on the shelf when perusing the aisles, waiting instead for the real premium stuff.
However, here we are, and here he is, so fingers crossed that Conte weaves his magic and extracts the best from him. There is certainly the basis of a very good wing-back lurking beneath his outer crust.
I offer comment on Lucas not because he features prominently in the list of nominees for either Most Prominent Hero or Villain, but more because his individual performance neatly encapsulated that of the collective, in the sense that he peddled no end of rot in the first half, and upped his game pretty markedly in the second.
In his defence, First Half Lucas did not shirk the challenge, he just hit the wrong notes over and over again. Every time he received the ball his eyes lit up and off he scampered, which in theory is the sort of stuff upon which kingdoms and dominions are built. In practice however, Leeds put a stop to him within about three paces, each time he set off. The net result was pretty unseemly, particularly as much of this seemed to take place within spitting distance of his own penalty area.
Things bucked up considerably in the second half, as he replaced the run-into-trouble approach with a vastly more productive flick-the-ball-swiftly-onwards scheme. This threatened to bear fruit within about thirty seconds of the re-start, freeing up that rotter Kane, and rewards were duly reaped later on.
Both Sonny and Lucas seemed to have the right idea from that point on, playing a tad narrower, flitting this way and that and, crucially, not dwelling too long on the ball.
And as mentioned, Lucas was not the only one whose performance improved markedly after the break. Young Winks missed as much he hit throughout, but if nothing else simply played a bit further up the pitch in the second half, and Hojbjerg also made himself more useful second time around.
Having taken my seat at the outset confident that two full weeks of Conte training would have had us fully prepped to steamroll some average opposition at home, this was something of a reality check, but for now it’s probably just important to win these things in any fashion going.