If young Bentancur had taken to the pitch wedged behind the steering wheel of a Rolls Royce I’m not sure anyone would have noticed, because he absolutely purred around the place today. I have quite the soft spot for those coves who can trap a ball on the half-turn and then switch angles and whir off on a completely new adventure, while – and here’s the rub – completing the entire project in one single movement. They give the impression of ticking about eight different tasks off the To-Do list in one swipe, generally uncluttering life.
Bentancur seemed hell-bent on making this his signature move today, and I was all for it. The ability to receive the ball in midfield while opponents converge has typically been the sort of duty greeted by our lot with the distant, petrified stare of a team of astronauts being told that the oxygen tank has been ruptured beyond repair. Panic settles in, and the best they can do is shovel the ball backwards and hope that such hellish conditions never occur again.
Bentancur, by contrast, swans around the place as if receive-ball-whilst-opponents-converge was a game he played on a daily basis when still being bounced on his mother’s knee. Time and again he received the ball half-facing his own goal, tamed the thing, swivelled into more appropriate alignment and then weighed up his options and picked a corker of a next step, all as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If West Ham rotters heaved on him he simply dipped a shoulder or two and sent them flying off into different postcodes.
It was masterful stuff, and meant that playing out from the back was not just some frantic escape route, but actually a stepping stone towards new and exciting attacks.
In previous weeks I have stuck something of an asterisk against Bentancur’s name, noting that for all his obvious dreamy goodness in possession, he was not always cognizant of the fact that there were eleven hulking brutes in opposition, doing their damnedest to tread on his toes and whatnot. He would occasionally dwell on the ball and react with some shock to being bustled off it, as if such things were not part of the T’s and C’s.
This wrong, if it could be described as such, appeared to have been righted yesterday. I kept a close on the fellow, initially to chastise him for any repeat of this offence, but swiftly because my eyes were simply drawn towards him in admiration.
If any lessons had needed learning about the pace of the game in these parts they had evidently been digested with gusto. The chap makes our team tick – perhaps not in the stats-obsessed manner of a Kane, but in a manner pretty critical to the entire apparatus.
2. Romero (and Passing Out of Defence)
If Bentancur were the critical link between defence and
Kane attack, then we still needed to ferry the ball from defence to Bentancur in the first place, in order for the whole system to sound its bells and whistles.
And in the days not too long behind us, the responsibility for such missions lay at the trembling size nines of Davinson Sanchez, and occasionally young Master Tanganga. The latter, most neturals would assert, was sufficiently able to sort out his right foot from his left to be able to pick out a lilywhite shirt if pressed to do so; the former danced around the thing as if scared it would burst into flames, at best toe-poking it back to Lloris and wobbling back towards his own goal. The zenith of our passing ability with these sorts patrolling the back-line tended to be a solid biff towards the nearest wing-back.
All of which makes the presence of Romero at the right of the back-three an absolute blessing from on high. For a start, he welcomes the ball like an old friend with whom he has shared many a fond adventure. Rather than recoil in fear at its presence, and swing a leg at it like an axe-murderer getting down to business, Romero happily skips around with it by his side, much like small children used to cavort with their dogs in Enid Blyton books.
On top of which, as well as the obvious option of feeding Doherty wide on the right, Romero as often as not has both the presence of mind and the ice-cool nerve to look further infield for the next available point of contact.
I don’t mind admitting that, at first this, business of bisecting a couple of opposing midfielders in order to pick out Bentancur had the AANP heart skipping one or two pretty critical beats, and leaping up the throat and into the mouth. But the more I watched Romero deliver such passes – diagonally, fifteen yards forward and taking out a couple of opponents to reach Bentancur – the more I felt a quiet thrill.
There is a risk associated with the manoeuvre for sure, because any inaccuracy in direction or weight – or indeed Bentancur (or Hojbjerg or whomever) simply taking his eye off the thing – would result in conceding possession in a pretty frightful area.
But, as happens with these things, greater risk brings a greater reward. Bypass a couple of West Ham players en route from Romero to Bentancur, and suddenly our lot are within two shakes of a lamb’s tail of haring off towards the opposition area.
All of which is to say nothing of Romero’s actual defending, which was either top-notch or an isolated mistake swiftly followed by a top-notch recovery.
The above also overlooks the fact that Messrs Dier and Davies were also both willing and able to toe the company line in this respect. It’s pretty critical to the Conte m.o. that the defenders play the ball out from the back without succumbing to the urge to belt it over the horizon, and these three grow more comfortable by the week.
3. Kane’s Passing
Of course Harry Kane, being a rotter or some ilk, did not give a damn about all this fine spadework being applied in the background, and instead went about the place determined that if there were a headline going he was going to grab it.
In this regard Kane has fashioned for himself the particular advantage of being adept in two areas, namely those of creating and finishing chances. One might say he both maketh and taketh. If one cylinder is not firing for whatever reason, there’s a pretty strong chance the other will be; and thus did it transpire yesterday. His finishing was strangely awry, but it barely mattered, as he created all three of our goals and had a generous hand in the Sonny chance that hit the post too.
Kane’s pass for the opener was what you might call a triumph for hard work, involving as it did putting his head down, puffing his chest out, going for a run and then squaring the ball. It was not a presentation dripping with aesthetics and finery, having much about it of the sweat-stained 80s playground footballer; but when the great minds thrash things out afterwards they’ll conclude it did the job.
This sort of stuff was pretty unusual fare from Kane, whose days of bursting past defenders seem to have long gone. He was on more familiar ground with his pass for our second, bunging in vision and weighting, and generally doing as much one could reasonably ask in such circumstances. Sonny still had to gallop forward and lash the thing, but the pass from Kane (and to him, from Bentancur) had the effect of cutting to ribbons much of the resistance around the place.
The assist for the third can probably be glossed over, owing more to the dull stupidity of the defenders around him, curiously drawn towards him and leaving Son to roam as he pleased ahead of them.
But for all these interventions, I was actually a little underwhelmed by Kane’s attempts to spray the ball around. The quarterback act is ripping stuff when it works, but he seemed to make three or four attempts in the second half – from an inside-right sort of spot around halfway, trying to pick out Son or Reguilon who were little more than specks in the distance on the left – and generally fouled up the mechanics, pinging the ball straight to the covering centre-back instead.
This is not to suggest that he should give up on the practice, or any such rot. On the contrary, I rather admire his gumption, and am all for a little risk-taking when on the attack. It just seemed to me that while he clocked his assists merrily enough, his attempts at the big, sweeping, crossfield numbers fell rather flat on each occasion he tried them yesterday. He can consider himself rather lucky that he found time to cram in three other assists, cunningly deflecting attention from his failings elsewhere.
(With apologies for going off-radar after the Brighton win – Covid rather knocks the stuffing out)