With apologies for tardiness.
Understandably enough the murmur about the place pre kick-off was around the return to the cast list of Messrs Son and Romero; but once all concerned spat on their hands and got down to it, the chappie who quietly emerged to AANP as having a say on things was one H. Winks Esq.
In a way, the current Winks vintage – Winks 3.0, you might say – requires for full appreciation an acknowledgement of what he is not. That is to say, Winks is not some all-singing, all-dancing box of trickery. If it’s Ndombele-esque body-swerves you’re after, of indeed Mousa Dembele-esque wriggles-from-tight-corners, then look elsewhere. And if you’re the sort who needs a Luka Modric eye-of-the-needle pass to get your pulse racing, then young Winks will not do much to soothe the savage beast lurking within.
Instead, on Saturday night, “neat and tidy” seemed to be the chorus on the lips of the fellow. I was rather taken by the manner in which our heroes regularly one- and two-touched their way out of ever-diminishing little defensive alleys, and Winks was as often as not front and centre of these operations. He availed himself whenever crisis (in the form of onrushing Brighton folk) approached a defensive chum, and having received the ball, did not stand around making speeches or counting his blessings, but swiftly shoved it along to someone better placed and less harassed.
A criticism of Winks, from this corner of the interweb as much as any other, has been his tendency, after surveying the terrain and weighing up all options, to take the rather excessive step of deciding that the slightest whisper of danger means the immediate cancellation of all forward-thinking possibilities. As a result, whatever the question, Winks’ answer has tended to be to go backwards.
This, however, might be described as Winks 2.0. The current, Conte-fied version (Winks 3.0) is by no means averse to passing backwards, but – crucially – does not view such retreat as the panacea to all that life throws at him. Winks 3.0 instead seems to be motivated primarily by an urge to do whatever the situation requires, as long as it’s done without too much hesitation.
This, at least to my uneducated eye, seems an infinitely more productive approach. It means that his primary motivation is simply to move the ball along, and preferably into a less troubled climate – and if that means going forward, backwards, underground or up into the atmosphere, Winks is on board.
And so on Saturday, we were treated to such delights as Winks dabbing little diagonals, Winks nudging the ball back towards goal, Winks chipping the ball square into space, and so on. The imp seemed to understand that what mattered was simply moving the object of the piece from Point A to Point B with minimal delay – and in the first half in particular this seemed to amount to a pretty critical part of the overall operation of pinching the thing from under Brighton’s noses and racing off on the counter-attack.
Winks was not perfect – the growing influence of Brighton’s Bissouma in the second half was evidence of that – but he seemed fully attuned to the company policy of swiftly turning defence into attack through swift distribution, and in this sense did enough to earn himself a much sought-after nod of approval from AANP.
As mentioned, Saturday brought about the welcome return of Senor Romero, and a welcome one it was too.
Everything seemed in working order, at least until his various sinews malfunctioned on 75 mins, but by then I think all concerned had seen enough to have any doubts about his return to the front-line suitably eased.
Part of the appeal of Romero is that he seems to do the majority of his business in an understated way, such that one wouldn’t necessarily notice he were there if one weren’t actively on the lookout for him. It helps that he is but one cog in an increasingly well-oiled defensive machine, all five of them (plus midfield helpers) seeming to know their lines and starting spots. The back-line was not necessarily impenetrable, but nor did it have the look of a gang hastily cobbled together with all concerned improvising their way through life. When on the back-foot, our defensive five appear to know their eggs, and Romero seemed perfectly content with his role and responsibility as bean-at-centre-of-things.
As well as simply being in the appropriate location at the appointed time, Romero also went off on the occasional wander to pretty good effect. If a Brighton wag had the temerity to scuttle into dangerous territory with the ball at his feet, Romero was perfectly happy to trot along after him and present himself as a rather imposing barrier, which in the circumstances seemed a reasonable enough approach.
On one occasion he was also temporarily possessed by the spirit of Beckenbauer, and accordingly went for a spin up over halfway and deep into opposition territory. Such day-trips appear to be heartily encouraged by Our Glorious Leader, and are facilitated by the presence of a back-three plus midfield minders, so we can probably get used to such raids.
On the subject of defensive eggs finding themselves tempted into the sordid world of the opposition half, Davinson Sanchez was oddly emboldened from start to finish.
Context here is crucial, for in all his appearances in lilywhite to date, Sanchez has given the impression that nothing distresses him more than finding the ball at his feet and being instructed to do something useful with it.
Go charging after an attacker, and Sanchez is in his element, bobbing from side to side like an out-of-control rowing boat until he is able to go charging into a challenge, sometimes taking ball, sometimes taking man, but always walking away from the crime-scene with the look of a man satisfied that he has done all asked of him.
Alternatively, if faced up by an attacker and given the opportunity to clear the ball to safety, Sanchez defers to no man in his ability to blast the thing as far from danger as possible, like a committed trooper hurling a live grenade out of his immediate sphere. There are few frills to Sanchez’ game, and one can almost read within his eyes that he sees no reason why there should be. Football, to Davinson Sanchez, is a game played by clearing all immediate danger, using whatever means necessary. Given this framework, he appears only too glad to have been blessed with the ability to draw back his right peg and deliver an almighty swing.
All of which had me rubbing the eyes and raising a puzzled finger on Saturday night, as we were treated to regular viewings of Sanchez charging up the right and towards the promised land of Brighton territory. What the hell possessed the chap is anyone’s guess. Personally, I blame Ben Davies, whose forays up towards the enemy penalty area in recent months have evidently not gone unnoticed in the Colombian quarter.
Admittedly, Sanchez’ actions betrayed the mentality of a man whose strategy seemed to be to act first and think later. He would set off full of buck and brio, looking every inch a fellow driven by an irresistible spirit of adventure – but on approaching halfway, reality seemed to hit and he typically slammed on the brakes, suddenly aware of the practical implications of his behaviour.
It’s a pretty telling indication of the state of things when one turns to Emerson Royal for help, but as it dawned upon Sanchez that all eyes were on him and that the thing at his feet was a real, live football, Emerson suddenly became the life-raft to which he felt the urge to attach himself.
At one point, unless my eyes deceived, Sanchez even found himself up in something like a centre-forward position. The whole thing was most peculiar in truth, but here at AANP Towers we were all for it. All too often we have been treated to the sight of Sanchez receiving a harmless pass and doing his best not to spontaneously combust at the shock of it all, so if he is prepared to venture like some new-born lamb, over halfway and up along the right flank, then it seems a more productive approach to life.
4. Kuluslevski and Bentancur
The other headline of the evening was the unveiling of our shiny new toys. Actually, the headline as far as AANP was concerned was the burst of pace shown by Sonny to set up our third goal, a blur of heels so rapid that the nearest Brighton defender completely lost control of his limbs and all sense of spatio-temporal awareness, and somehow found himself dribbling the ball unstoppably towards his own goal.
(The sub-headline of the evening was Ben Davies randomly unleashing an inch-perfect fifty yard cross-field pass to Kane.)
Back to the debutants. Kuluslevski was given half an hour or so entertain himself, and did so principally by making clear to the gallery that he has one preferred trick and will keep repeating it until time is called. In fairness, the old “Cutting Infield Onto Your Left Foot” gambit was sufficient for Arjen Robben to carve out an entire career, so Kuluslevski might argue that this is no bad tree up which to bark. Nevertheless, after seeing him put into practice this same manoeuvre a fourth time in his single cameo I did wonder about the extent of the research taken into this chap.
Bentancur on the other hand was given only five minutes, a period he put to good use in diving straight for the heart of the action in central midfield. One obviously hesitates to read anything into a five-minute teaser, but nevertheless I was encouraged by the fellow’s gusto in homing in on the busiest hub, as well as his neat footwork and one or two well-judged interventions.
He even found time to pick up a caution for a foul low on subtlety and high on efficiency, in putting a stop to an opponent’s forward intent by simply grabbing him by a couple of his limbs and refusing to relinquish. Again, what struck me here was not so much the specifics of the interaction as the general message it sent: for here was a soul concerned only to stop the other chap prospering, and if that meant brazenly committing Rule Violation 101 in full view of the ref then our man had absolutely no compunction. And I rather liked that about him.
Of course, the coming weeks and months will tell us a lot more about both, but it was nevertheless handy that each could take in a personal tour of the place. More broadly, given that Brighton are no mugs, a comfortable win against them should go down as a pretty slick evening’s work.