1. The Weirdly Rubbish First Half
At the risk of sending mixed messages, I found myself concluding that our lot were today equal parts utter garbage and frightfully unlucky. I’ll start with the garbage, not least because that’s exactly what our heroes did.
Having sung antiphons of joy just two days ago, about the virtues of our press and energy in winning possession high up the pitch, against Palace, I was deeply disturbed to find the boot on the other foot today. But on the other foot it was, as our lot turned from high pressers to high pressees. Any time they even thought about bringing the ball under control in the defensive third, they were molested by someone in red and had possession unceremoniously snatched from them.
With our entire team oddly accepting that this was the way of things and there was nothing that could be done to prevent it, Southampton’s opener was alarmingly inevitable, and it prompted the nasty suspicion that matters would degenerate further.
But at that point, Fate cleared her throat, declared, “All change”, and with the red card and equaliser delivered in just about a single motion, we had ourselves a completely different set-up.
Now the fellows paid to spout forth on TV seemed pretty convinced that our heroes did little to merit a second goal, which is of course their prerogative; and on hearing this I declared them both asses whose opinions I would never again entertain, which is of course my prerogative.
For clarity, our second half performance was far from faultless, and might have benefited from swifter exchanges of passes or, whisper it, an input or two from Ndombele. Nevertheless, in going up against a ten-man defence I thought we had a pretty decent stab at things, particularly when getting behind their defence on the right flank. The fact that their goalkeeper made ten saves would seem to support the notion the Pretty Decent Stab theory; the problem being rather that most of our attempts went straight at the gigantic fellow, rather than texting his reflexes to the east or west.
This, one might reasonably counter, is just part of life; and, if anything, represented a failing of which we were the authors. After all, no prizes are awarded for directing shots straight into the keepers’ mitts.
2. Disallowed Goals
However, you will recall that, mingled with the utter garbage of the first half, I referenced our Frightful Bad Luck, and this took the stage and belted out its greatest hits in the second half. For all the missed attempts, the point of contention is that we twice put the ball in the net, as required, and were still denied the contracted rewards. And this, put bluntly, is just not cricket.
The offside decision was a nonsense, and on multiple levels. While red and blue lines were helpfully scrawled across the screen to indicate who was where, the fact that they were level with each other rather gave the game away.
This was telling enough; but for added farce, the line for Kane was drawn from his armpit, rather than his head or foot, both of which were comfortably behind the Coloured Lines of Doom.
And if one really wants to gauge the accuracy of the decision, one only needs to imagine whether Southampton would have complained post-match had the goal been allowed – which it is difficult to imagine they would have done, what with Kane having been level with rather than ahead of the defender.
The second point of dispute was the Doherty incident. In fairness, this was more subjective than the offside call, so I am more inclined to bow the head and accept this one with good grace, but it nevertheless had one scratching the bean and re-watching about thirty times to detect where exactly any offence occurred. It seems reasonable to assert that had this incident taken place anywhere else on the pitch, play would have been waved on merrily; but referees rarely miss an opportunity to toot away in favour of a goalkeeper, and if nothing else the whole thing put to good use Matt Doherty’s permanent, open-jawed, hangdog expression.
We certainly might have done more to force the issue against the ten men, urgency only really elbowing its way into the fray in the final fifteen or so – but having pretty reasonably deposited ball in net on a couple of occasions prior to this, one does waggle the arms a bit and chunter on about the injustice of it all.
The inclusion of both Winks and Dele in itself delivered something of a pre kick-off jolt; the fact that this pair were included at the expense of Skipp and Lucas, two of the shinier of our lights in recent weeks, nudged the stakes that bit higher.
Winks delivered an oddly mixed bag. So keen was he to be noticed that he eagerly devoted much of his energy into being the Player Most Regularly Caught In Possession, an award for which, as noted above, there was pretty stiff competition from all quarters, in the first half in particular. In mitigation, he did at least have the decency to hare back after the ball in an attempt to win it back, whenever he was pickpocketed or passed straight to the opposition, but in general in those early knockings one was moved to scrawl his name under the heading of ‘Problem’ rather than ‘Solution’.
At this point, however, Winks delved into his box of tricks, and delivered a couple of eye-catching plot twists, in the shape of two pretty glorious passes – each of which resulted in the ball obligingly finding the net, and one of which also brought about Southampton’s red card).
The first of Winks’ glorious passes was the one that had Sonny chopped down in the area; the second the one that Kane tucked away only to be called offside. For all his eccentricities, in spinning around multiple times before playing the most obvious pass anyway, and losing possession on the edge of his own area, he evidently does still have it in him to split a defence when the stars align.
Dele, however, did not have such riches to offer.
Being a generous sort, I’ll toss him a smidge of sympathy for being stationed in what appeared to be a Right Midfield sort of spot, which seemed to be neither one thing nor another – and most pertinently was definitely not a Supporting Second Striker sort of role, as such diminishing his chances of success pretty heftily.
When he did turn up to support attacks he did so from a wider berth, which might have been better suited to Bergwijn or Gil, rather than the late, central burst from deep on which his reputation was built.
To his credit Dele did not shy away from matters. However, few mountains have ever been scaled or lands conquered simply by not shying away from matters. This was a time for brio and whizz, or at the very least for some seamless interplay with Sonny and Kane – but alas, Dele’s basket of S. I. with S. and K. was fresh out of produce, and he idled away his hour out on the right flank, getting sucked into pointless little skirmishes alongside Emerson Royal, which is the sort of activity that offers little value to anyone.
With Reguilon bundled off the pitch for the avoidance of further unrest and general benefit of society, an unlikely opportunity presented itself for the rarely-sighted Matt Doherty. As ever, he delivered a performance that was well-intentioned and fully in compliance with company policy, but frustratingly light on any sort of quality.
With Doherty, as with the aforementioned Dele, a pretty hefty caveat must be swung into view, for here was another of our entourage who was dealt a fairly thankless positional hand. Doherty is evidently a soul who has been nurtured since birth for life on the right-hand side of the pitch, so all the good luck messages and back-slaps in the world would have been of pretty limited use to him once he was told to play out on the left.
And it very quickly became evident that his career as a left wing-back was indeed going to be considerably hamstrung, as the chap quickly took pains to indicate to the entire watching gallery that his left-sided lower limb was an appendage entirely foreign to him.
In fact, Doherty wandered about the place with the air of a man shocked to discover that he had a left leg at all. Having discovered it, however, he quickly made it plain that he was damned if he was ever going to be tempted to use it, with the result that every single time he touched the ball he shifted infield onto his right peg.
Gallingly, Doherty’s principal chances for glory fell to his left foot – but the man was nothing if not consistent, and preferred to contort his body into new and fantastical shapes rather than experiment with the mysterious limb, with the result that his various opportunities were belted by his right foot in every direction but the goal.
Ben Davies, bless his soul, did his best to ease the shock of left-leg-ownership that had beset Doherty, by taking every opportunity to motor off outside him and offer a bona fide left-footed option. But by and large, Doherty’s attacking potential was neutered, and by the end of proceedings our lot had pretty much given up on the left flank as an avenue of attack.