The lot of the goalkeeper is a pretty dreary and thankless one. Make a mistake and their reputation is up in flames; but do all that is asked of them and more, and come the end of the game they’ll still look up to see that the chap being hoisted on shoulders and having their name shouted into the night sky is the middling striker who spent most of the game dribbling into trouble and failing to hold up the ball.
And last night seemed a good case in point. I thought Monsieur Lloris was near enough faultless in just about every respect, but when I donned the robe and scanned the morning papers, the headlines led me to believe that this was a single-handed Bergwijn success. For all the coverage given to the goalkeeping, the uninformed amongst us might have inferred that this was one of those cup ties in which one from the conveyor belt of unremarkable reserves was shoved between the sticks.
If I have had a criticism of Lloris over the years it is that, while his shot-stopping is right up there with the best of them, when it comes to ambling forward from his line to wave his limbs and do decisive things – command the area, collect crosses and so forth – the venerable fellow’s powers seem not so much to wane as to fall off a cliff and disappear.
Yesterday, however, Lloris set about his business as if personally piqued by such stinging criticism, and determined to address it in no uncertain terms. Limited in imagination though West Ham may have been in the first half, they executed pretty well their tactic of relentlessly swinging in crosses and set-pieces. The effect was to spoon huge dollops of confusion all over our penalty area. In short, it was the sort of situation that called for a goalkeeper to roll up his sleeves, sharpen his elbows, wade through all-comers and take charge of events.
And where previously I’ve felt that Lloris has been all too easily bullied into the background in such situations, yesterday he flung himself into the midst of them like a slightly too well-oiled Englishman abroad. He grabbed and/or punched whenever the situation required, and, in particularly extreme circumstances, back-pedalled like the dickens to arch his back and fingertip the ball away from peril.
The furniture was rearranged a tad in the second half, when our heroes followed a worryingly Jose-esque strategy of sitting back and looking to hit on the counter (although to the extent that this generally reduced West Ham to little more than hopeful pops from the edge of the area, I suppose one could argue that it worked. It did few favours for the heart-rate, mind – we are most decidedly not a team built to defend a narrow lead).
The crosses were a little less threatening and majority of shots were straight at Lloris, but on the one occasion when a ball over the top seemed to out-fox our centre-backs, Lloris had the presence of mind to gallop off his line – again, a quality he has not typically demonstrated to have been in his armoury in recent years – and crisis was averted.
It has not gone unnoticed that the fellow’s contract is up next summer, and there has not been a whisper to date around the camp-fire about it being extended, which seems something of an oversight. However, Conte seems the sort of fellow who knows his eggs, so I would imagine that some sort of plan is being hatched to address this eventuality.
As mentioned, many of the column inches were dedicated to young Master Bergwijn, and this is understandable enough, as we live in an era in which the principal currency is Goals and Assists. (A shame, for such statistics do little justice to the talents of deep-lying creative sorts like Carrick and Modric, but that’s a debate for another day).
Bergwijn began his game in exactly the manner one would expect of someone restored to the team for the first time in an age, and with the expectant eyes of the better half of North London focused upon him. He beavered willingly but nervously, and, with each unsuccessful dribble and charged down shot, seemed to be learning on the hoof one of life’s critical lessons, that things don’t really go according to plan.
However, when, around half an hour later, things did click for him, they did so pretty spectacularly. In the first place, he might want to send a particularly fruity Christmas present the way of Hojbjerg Towers. The Dane’s sprightliness to burst into the area, followed by his presence of mind to cut the ball back, were markedly more impressive than much that had gone before, and presented Bergwijn with about as straightforward a chance as one could hope for on one’s return to the fold.
And buoyed by this sudden turn of events, Bergwijn took it upon himself to turn temporarily into Lionel Messi, wriggling around opponents in the area before teeing up Lucas (who himself might consider his goal a neat reward for that glorious pass into Kane in the early exchanges).
While Bergwijn did not necessarily thereafter replicate such heady success, he did at least look a dashed sight more comfortable in his role, joining in the slick, half-turn counter-attacking interplay with gay aplomb, and generally giving the impression of one who, as required, would probably do an adequate job of deputising for either of Messrs Son or Lucas in a 3-4-3.
A success then, and I would also highlight that this practice, of making two changes to core personnel, whilst maintaining the spine who know each other’s’ games, seems a much better way of executing squad rotation than changing eight or nine at once and expecting them immediately to gel.
The rarely-sighted Matt Doherty was the other key change, and it’s probably fair to say that his evening did not quite reach the heights achieved by Bergwijn.
Which is not to fault his willing. In fact, Doherty’s performance had much in common with the early knockings of the Dutchman, being similarly full of enthusiasm, coloured somewhat by nerves and generally resulting in things not quite going according to plan.
To his credit, Doherty seemed to follow instructions positionally. He happily provided attacking width and offered himself as an option on the right, whilst also having the energy to scuttle back when the defensive klaxon sounded.
It was just a slight shame that, to put it bluntly, his crossing wasn’t up to much. It was actually rather an eye-catching curiosity that most of his crosses seemed to be dragged back behind the waiting queue of penalty area snafflers, rather than whipped into their path. Needless to say, from the comfort of my viewing perch, I have never misplaced a cross so egregiously.
However, while his output might have been better, he at least adhered to the plan, and could hardly be accused of dereliction of duties. I would be interested to see how he might perform given a run of games, because there is little about Emerson Royal to suggest that the right wing-back slot is closed for business. And as Walker & Rose – and indeed Trent & Robertson – have shown, a cracking pair of wing-backs can absolutely transform a side.
Having been singled out by Our Glorious Leader a day earlier as having the potential to become the ‘best in the world’ in his position – a suggestion I can only presume was intended as motivational hyperbole rather than factual prediction – Eric Dier wasted little time in correcting any such wild and fanciful notions by reminding us all of some of the flaws in his DNA.
Now before I assassinate the chap’s character, I am happy to admit that his performances in recent weeks have been amongst the brightest of the whole troupe, in terms of positioning, organisation, concentration and distribution. Moreover, the limitations of his that have previously driven me to distraction (principally his lack of pace and late, lunging challenges) are well compensated for by the switch to the back-three.
Yesterday, however, he made rather a pig’s ear of things, in his role in the West Ham goal. In the first place, his pass out of defence was dreadful, and put us in one heck of a pickle. I can only imagine he was aiming for Kane, up near the halfway line, but to attempt this pass from within his six-yard box and along the ground was a risky idea at best, and the execution pretty ghastly.
All of which is a shame, because in general his long passing from the back has been a real asset in recent weeks, adding a useful string to our attacking bow.
However, such things happen. It was then all the more unfortunate that in attempting to rectify the situation by blocking Bowen’s shot, Dier lunged off into a different postcode as the ball was flicked from left foot to right. In fairness, I don’t really blame Dier for this, as it made sense for him to spread his limbs and attempt as wide a block as possible. It just looked rather silly.
Thereafter – and, in fact, beforehand – he seemed to do all that was required of him. In the first half he was in the midst of the aerial carnage, and in the second he played his part in restricting West Ham to the more speculative stuff from the edge of the area, and then extending the necessary appendages to block said stuff. Talk of being the world’s best does still make raise an AANP eyebrow or three, and as a unit the back-three still strike me as slightly cumbersome, but they withstood the pressure last night, and Dier’s latest renaissance continues to inch along.