1. Midfield Distribution
After games such as this one can pretty much close the eyes and point a moody finger in any direction, and one will hit upon a failing. And on Saturday one such failing was the complete absence of interest in attacking play from those dozing away in central midfield.
What struck me as particularly galling was that the business of playing the ball from defence to attack was not one of those disasters beset in problems from start to finish. It was not one of those tragedies in which the knowledgeable onlooker can spot from a mile away that the whole scheme is destined for failure as soon as it begins. At various points during the game, the beginning of our play-ball-from-defence-to-attack strategy was actually pretty neat and tidy stuff.
For a start, any sniff of danger from what masqueraded as the Brighton high-press around our area was swatted away pretty dismissively. The control of possession demonstrated by Hugo, the three centre-backs and any kindly wing-back who happened to be passing by, was of sufficient quality to sidestep any hint of trouble around our own net. Manoeuvring the ball from A to B – with A being the feet of Hugo and B the feet of anyone else in lilywhite – was an operation for which our lot demonstrated all the requisite levels of competence.
So far, so good. Our lack of a single shot on target could not be pinned upon any perceived difficulties in emerging unscathed from our own penalty area.
At this point, however, the plan started spouting leaks. The challenge seemed to be not so much the risk of losing possession in our own defensive third, as much as the conundrum of how to do anything meaningful with it, at the same point on the map.
In recent weeks, Hojbjerg and, in particular, Bentancur and Kane, have attracted their fair share of awe-struck gazes through the ability casually to flick a ball first-time around the corner, and into space up the flanks for one of the attacking cohort to gallop after. As well as being the sort of scenic stuff one could bring a picnic to watch, such first-time flicks have had the pragmatic advantage of turning the narratives completely on their head, leaving opposition defenders galloping back towards their own goal and pulled apart in all sorts of directions.
And yet on Saturday, of those first-time flicks there was no sign. Instead, both Bentancur and Hojbjerg (Kane having been muzzled by that Bissouma fellow, who I’m sure would look fetching in white upper garments come August) seemed entirely preoccupied with the notion that if anything good were to come of things it would have to have its genesis in a first-time backwards pass. No matter the coordinates, or time of day, or any other consideration of external circumstance: first-time backwards passes had been adopted as the panacea for all ills, and any other consideration was tossed aside.
Now I’m all for the practice of one passing the way they are facing. If anything, I consider it a somewhat neglected art. At the appropriate time and in the appropriate place, few things in life can top a swift nudge of the ball backwards by a fellow who has his back to goal and senses opponents hunting him down. Done in suitable conditions, it can be precisely what the doctor ordered, throwing opponents off the scent and ensuring quick movement of the ball.
But note well the preamble: “in suitable conditions’; “the appropriate time”; and “appropriate place”. All key components, and yet merrily ignored by our heroes, who seemed to think that the backwards-pass routine was such a good yarn they should thrust it into the heart of whatever was happening, irrespective of whether the circumstances required it or not.
While the occasional backward pass can be a ripping little gag, doing it every dashed time one receives the ball starts to make the regulars raise an eyebrow and wonder if all is well at HQ.
While I appreciate that it is difficult to flick around a corner when everyone in lilywhite is static and all Brighton-folk are already in position and set, there were nevertheless opportunities to start attacks, when Brighton had committed numbers up the pitch. On such occasions, some effort had gone into bypassing the Brighton press, and finally the ball was funnelled up to Bentancur and Hojbjerg (and occasionally Son), with the stage set for them to ping the ball into the spaces ahead for attacking sorts to run onto – and instead they simply bunged the thing back into defence again, and everyone in Brighton colours re-took their sentry positions.
It was as if they considered that a quick shove of the ball back towards goal were some sort of triumph in itself, and once completed they could consider their jobs done for the day.
I suppose there are multiple contributory factors here, but from the AANP viewpoint our lot seemed to be missing one heck of a trick. Instead of zipping up the pitch, all in lilywhite ponderously rolled the ball around the halfway line, and by the time last orders were called it was little wonder that we had not managed a single shot on target.
2. The Absence of Doherty
I once heard a pretty ripping gag about chickens and eggs, the nub of which was to speculate as to which arrived on the scene first, which, when you stop to consider it, starts to make the mind swim a bit. I was reminded of this when trying to fathom the root of our problems on Saturday, because on the one hand, as documented above, our midfield mob appeared in no mood to set in motion anything of attacking promise – but on the other hand I did wonder if this might be because the supporting cast were neglecting their duties.
In recent weeks, Master Doherty has carried himself full of buck and vim, taking every opportunity to chip in with his tuppence worth on the right flank, and indeed infield from said flank. He, and whichever less talented equivalent has been patrolling the left flank, have been key components of our attacking apparatus. The front three have hogged headlines and statistics, but the two wing-backs have quietly been going about the place adding meat to things.
The absence of Doherty has now coincided with a game in which we have failed to strike a bally shot on target, which might sound like a spot of AANP amateur dramatics, but, rather disturbingly, is a statement of fact. And the point I’m driving at is to speculate as to whether the two are in some way causally linked.
Certainly, Doherty’s replacement, Emerson Royal, seemed in customary fashion to offer all the on-pitch value of a mannequin, making himself visible without contributing anything of the slightest value. However, it should be noted that on the other flank Senor Reguilon was similarly impotent – and frankly neither did any of the front three display the necessary wit or intelligence to escape the beady Brighton eyes upon them and enjoy a spot of freedom in the attacking third.
So to castigate Emerson in this instance might be a touch rough. Doherty, for all we know, might similarly have laboured pointlessly.
But nevertheless, I rather considered that if the central midfield consists of Hojbjerg and Bentancur – a couple of lads with plenty going for them, but not the fellows you’d back to create twenty goals a season – then your wing-backs are going to deliver some pretty special stuff going forward. And this was precisely the sort of prime fare that Doherty had been spewing forth until having his knee rearranged last week.
To suggest that Doherty has become the most important player in our setup would be laying it on rather too thick, but he was starting to look a pretty important sort of bean in the whole mechanism. One can only hope that Saturday’s ills were indicative of a wider – and isolated – malaise, rather than due to the absence of Doherty and Doherty alone.
Possibly not the sort of suggestion that will have the paying public hoisting me on their shoulders and sending down the ticker-tape, but in the absence of anyone else dangling a remarkable foot, I thought that P-E H Esq. at least had the decency to suggest he cared about things.
As ventured above, his tendency always to biff the ball back to Romero or Dier upon receipt had me banging the head against whichever wall fancied it, but as the game wore on and most of our lot stubbornly refused to give a damn, I did at least admire the fact that he did not simply slump his shoulders and slink off into the shadows.
In the final knockings, he and he alone could be seen diving into tackles, and, despite the above character assassination built entirely upon his insistence on passing backwards, he did eventually get the gist of things and try to carry the ball forwards once or twice as close of play beckoned.
Hojbjerg is actually a curious egg in that it becomes harder with each passing week fully to grasp what he does. There is a danger that he might simply turn into this season’s Joe Hart, viz. a man of limited playing talent whose principal role seems to be to shout at people. He does not possess either energy, passing ability, tackling ability, dribbling ability or any other ability – bar shouting at people – that really catches the eye, and as such there is a sense that he is merely keeping a seat warm for young Master Skipp.
And yet he fits rather neatly within the Conte system, by virtue of knowing how both to patrol in front of the back-three and ward off foes, and how to collect the ball from the back-three and shovel it along, albeit usually unadventurously. (He does occasionally demonstrate an appetite for an effective forward pass, but these are generally filed under ‘Exception’ rather than ‘Rule’.)
However, given that everyone around him was determined simply to mope about the place until they could scuttle off down the tunnel, Hojbjerg can, if he fancies, treat himself to the AANP going for the day, by dint of his perspiration rather than inspiration. And that rather sad state of affairs neatly captures the whole performance.