The more eagle-eyed regulars at the AANP Arms may have noticed that since his summer antics, that rotter Harry Kane has not exactly been the most popular so-and-so around these parts. However, if there were one moment yesterday that went some way towards mending bridges it was not his goal, and certainly not the never-ending stream of wasted opportunities to put the game to bed.
No, it was that moment midway through the first half when Kane completely forgot that he’d rather leave N17 for shiny pots in Manchester, and, rather carried away by the fun of it all, went flying in to win a loose ball and sent his opponent cartwheeling off into the north London air.
The legal minutiae of the punishment he then received will be pored over below. What caught the eye was the fact that here was a rare outbreak of passion from the man.
Typically sighted over the last six months looking forlorn, exhaling glumly and generally giving the impression of a fellow who would much rather be elsewhere, there was something remarkably uplifting about the sight of Kane being so carried on the wave of joy and energy brought about by his goal that he would merrily go flying, studs up, into an opponent. In short, it was nice to see him looking once more like he cared.
It arguably helped him feel more like his old self to have all the furniture arranged around him specifically to replicate the good old days of Poch. There, never more than ten yards away, like an obedient lamb in a nursery rhyme, was Sonny, the pair now deployed as a front two; fast arriving in the rear-view mirror was Dele Alli, supplementing attacks with well-timed bursts from midfield just as he did in the glory days. The whole production could not have dripped in more nostalgia if they had all worn Under Armour kits with great big blue flashes across the front.
Being part of a dedicated front two, and not just any front-two but a front-two specifically instructed to play on the counter-attack (and curiously aided in this respect by a Liverpool defence that seemed hell-bent on pushing right up to halfway and allowing us to race beyond them at every opportunity), Kane also benefited positionally. By and large, this had the welcome consequence of ensuring that when shots needed shooting in and around the penalty area, Kane was on hand to carry out his obligations.
This may sound obvious, but as we’re all well aware this has not always been the case, such is his unwavering faith in his abilities as a deep-lying creator. Yesterday, mercifully, the instruction was clear, and Kane lurked throughout at the northernmost point of the structure.
Opinion seems to have varied regarding the precise identity of our standout performer. The rejuvenated Dele has attracted a healthy chunk of popular opinion, while several members of the fourth estate have sung the praises of Sonny (which seemed a rummy one to me in truth).
Here at AANP Towers, the congratulatory rosette would probably be pinned to the breast of young H. Winks Esq.
To say that this was his finest performance in several years, while true, would also be fairly faint praise, the Winks bar having been lowered pretty dramatically since, I would suggest, the 2019 Champions League Final. But nevertheless, yesterday’s was the sort of product that would be most gratefully lapped up on a weekly basis. Particularly in the absence of young Skipp, Winks provided the engine that kept the whole machine ticking over, if you follow.
Winks has never been wanting for enthusiasm, so it was no surprise that this was in evidence throughout yesterday. The challenge with the recent vintage of Winks has been that he has developed about himself much in common with a tortoise reeling itself back into the security of its shell. Winks has gradually taken fewer and fewer risks with his passing, ultimately getting to the point of folding in on himself, with the result that he stagnates rather than ignites our play.
Yesterday, however, he tore about the place like a man who, if not quite actually at the peak of his powers, had a one-way ticket to get there and was thoroughly enjoying the journey. It did of course help that he was up against a Liverpool midfield cobbled together from their reserves, veterans and what looked like a minor plucked from the middle of his GCSEs, but it was to Winks’ credit that he took full advantage.
When receiving the ball, he popped it along briskly; crucially, he looked to move it forward at every opportunity; and when Liverpool were in possession, he rolled up the sleeves and scrapped away at them.
While it is easy – and rather lazy – to get carried away by the goals scored, Winks’ role in both neatly captured much that was good about his work. In the build-up to the first goal, he contributed one of the lengthiest slide tackles in living memory, seeming to begin his challenge somewhere around the centre circle and then sliding approximately a mile and a half before winning possession from one of Liverpool’s midfield competition winners. Play continued, the ball reached Ndombele, and before you could say, ‘Gorgeously-weighted and -shaped pass’, we were ahead.
Then for our second, Winks managed to combine all the core qualities of great central midfielding into a single, digestible nugget. First he played a neat one-two within in his own half to remove from the equation half of the Liverpool midfield. He then hared off over halfway, in the sort of ball-carrying operation that is fairly basic when you break it down, but pretty dashed effective at the right place and time. At this point, however, the value of the whole manoeuvre hinged on his output. Here, after all, was a man who had spent the last two years taking every opportunity to pivot one-eighty and find a safe passing option to his rear.
There need not have been any cause for concern. The Harry Winks of 19-12-21 was a man in whom the creative flames burned bright, and with Son and Kane already in motion ahead of him, his curved pass around the defender and into space was an excellent choice. The execution was actually not quite perfect, but Alisson helpfully trialled a new party-trick, and the net result was an open goal for Sonny.
An asterisk should probably be printed highlighting that Winks’ contributions were by no means limited to these two goals. Rather, while these made for pleasing additions to the highlights reel, they were indicative of an overall performance characterised by equal parts feist and intelligence.
And this bodes well in the broader scheme of things. With Hojbjerg looking every inch a man who is rolled out to perform in every minute of every game without respite, gulping oxygen and retaining limbs in their sockets by sheer force of will, the all-action performance of Winks potentially offers a credible alternative in midfield.
As with Winks, so Dele similarly took the opportunity to unveil his most impressive day’s work in a good few years.
Dele, like Kane, seemed to benefit considerably from the formation tweak (which rather makes you think, what?), and, like Kane, cavorted about the place like it was somewhere between 2016 and 2018.
Nominally one of the midfield three, Dele beavered as necessary when we were on the back-foot, albeit with greater proportions of enthusiasm than competence for the dirty work of central midfield.
However, it was when we nicked possession and the forward gallop began that Dele really rediscovered the joys of his youth.
Such was the all action, no plot nature of the spectacle that I lost track of the number of times our lot found themselves wandering the Liverpool penalty area with not a defensive soul in sight, and while it was galling in the extreme to witness a whole procession of straightforward chances go the way of all flesh, there was something extremely comforting in seeing Dele front and centre of things, by virtue of his well-timed sorties from midfield.
It was prime Dele (apart, I suppose from the execution, around which there were almost visible layers of rust). That the Liverpool midfield repeatedly lost sight of him as he slunk forward says much of the natural gift for timing that resides within him.
As with Winks it is too early to slaughter the fattened calf and crack open the vintage stuff just yet, but the signs were hugely promising, both in terms of his individual form and also the potential tactical option his rejuvenation might provide.
A final note on both Winks and Dele: having regressed so alarmingly under both Jose and Nuno, our latest Glorious Leader can probably bask in some credit for the improvements on display yesterday. Two swallows are admittedly a different kettle of fish from a whole summer, but the omens are good, and the critical difference would appear to be the change in leadership. Bravo, Conte.
4. The Refereeing
Any sequence of events that results in Jurgen Klopp reaching a level of apoplexy fit to make his explode is, of course, to be applauded, so in this respect yesterday’s oversight of proceedings was an absolute joy.
However, had a red card been brandished at Harry Kane, the Defence Lawyers would have had a devil of a time wriggling out of it, because by the letter of the law all boxes appeared to have been ticked.
There have certainly been plenty of instances of dubious refereeing decisions going against our lot – against these very opponents, and in fact, in this very match – so one has certainly learnt to take this particular smoothness with the various rough calls over time, but frankly any other decisions made are pretty irrelevant. Had Kane seen red there could not have been too many complaints, and given how early the Kane incident occurred, one ought to sympathise. One does not. One chortles. But one ought to sympathise.
Similarly, had Emerson (who from the AANP vantage point, was comfortably our weakest performer) been penalised for his less-than-dainty interference with Jota in the penalty area, one would not have had much of a counter-argument. However, as Dele can attest, this was not a day on which shoves to the back were deemed sufficient to merit sanction.
The claim from Dele was no doubt weaker than that from Jota, but in both instances, as ever, the AANP take is to wag a disapproving finger at the defenders in question, and suggest that they do not give the referee the option of giving a penalty.
There was also a crude exchange of views between Winks and some Liverpool defender, which resulted in our returning hero being flattened in a manner that in most other areas of the pitch would have drawn a perfunctory whistle. However, by that stage I was automatically defaulting to the wise words of my old man, AANP Senior, who would drill into me in my youth that, “The referee’s decision is final,” thereby closing the case without the option of appeal.
It only remained for Salah’s handball to be merrily waved away as an offence that didn’t take place at the right time, and Robertson to protest wide-eyed innocence at his own attempt at full-blown assault. By which stage there had been so much whizzing and banging that I had lost track of whether or not I was supposed to feel aggrieved.
Within such a strange, contradictory set of events (less possession but far more clear chances; good luck with the Kane decision, bad luck with the Salah handball) it has been quite a task to make sense of things, and far easier simply to pour a splash of early afternoon bourbon and enjoy – but the gist of it all seems to be that this Conte era has got something about it.