While decency would normally dictate that I apologise for tardiness, between Vegas, Denver and some unspecified spot over the Atlantic, AANP can barely remember its own name, let alone the date and time.
1. Defensive Rotation
Discovering that the rarely-heard Drury was on comms for the screening of this match in Vegas was quite the pre-match mood-enhancer and morning-after pick-me-up; but alas, the good news ended there as a quick scan of the cast members indicated a Romero-shaped hole, awkwardly occupied by the various uncontrollable limbs of Davinson Sanchez.
Of course, being a man of chivalry and values, I let Sanchez proceed with perfect objectivity, and he duly took about two minutes to confirm, to what I now understand to be a global audience, that he is, in fact, a chump of the highest order. Everything about his diving, sliding, obvious and unnecessary foul was utterly clot-headed, and nor is it the first time he’s produced such mind-boggling idiocy at the earliest possible juncture (that time we hammered Man Utd away springs to mind, Sanchez similarly gifting away a penalty in the opening exchanges).
One understands that the fixture schedule requires a spot of management of the more important dramatis personae, what with World Cups, Champions Leagues, Carabao Cups and bread-and-butter League games every three days from now until around 2038. And if an A-lister like Romero can’t be allowed to put the feet up and catch the breath in a home fixture against the bottom team, then one might reasonably ask when the devil can he?
And all of this makes perfect sense, until one throws Sanchez into the equation, as first back-up. Now his legions of fans will no doubt point to the fact that prior to Saturday night we hadn’t conceded in an absolute age with him on sentry duty. On top of which, aside from the ridiculous early penalty he actually carried out his tasks dutifully enough – but that’s not really the point is it? What good is a defender trotting around doing the basics if he’s already stuffed up and given away a goal for nothing in the opening exchanges?
The debate will presumably loop around pointlessly until he is eventually sold, so best just accept it for now. Such was our lack of control that Conte saw fit to hook the blighter and interrupt Romero’s night off, calling upon him to keep the door bolted for the final twenty or so.
On the other side of defence, Lenglet oiled around reasonably enough in lieu of the indisposed Davies, with a straightforward interception here and a (usually, though not universally) accurate forward pass there. He might not sweep the board at the awards ceremonies for outstanding individual contributions come May, but he ticks enough boxes to give us two solid left-sided options.
The spots that furrow the brow are the other centre-back positions. Sanchez and Tanganga do not really instil confidence, even when flanked by more competent souls. Worse, opponents are exchanging knowing looks and beginning to target Sanchez. Somehow, we must muddle through.
However, if the centre-back rotation gambit was fraught with risk, the latest wing-back experiment had about it an air that was bonny, bright and gay.
A few muted voices had half-heartedly wondered aloud in recent weeks, on the back of Emerson’s obvious limitations, whether Perisic might be deployed on the right, but I’m not sure anyone really believed it would actually happen. And yet there it was, in glorious technicolour, from the off.
And it worked pretty well, at least going forward. Perisic was as game as ever going forward, his compass evidently still in full working order despite the switch from West to East. The restored Kulusevski marked his return to the fold by haring off down the right at every opportunity, and taking the full-back with him, while young Sessegnon was not about to miss out on the fun, signalling his intentions with a few early crosses from the left.
This was all well and good, but a fairly crucial component of its success was that we were in possession. And as time continued its irresistible march, and we rather surrendered the initiative (more on that below), the defensive frailties of our wing-backs rather awkwardly rose to prominence.
Not that I blame Perisic. Here is a man who made his name on the front-foot, and if he’s anything like AANP he has untold lung capacity for the forward charge, but needs a bit of a blow when it comes to the defensive side of things. As with Sporting in midweek, so against Leicester on Saturday, he seemed to be beaten a little too easily in the mano a mano items, and with Sanchez behind him the brow began to furrow with a decent amount of nervousness.
Similarly, Sessegnon gave a full display of his fallibilities, not for the first time being fairly straightforwardly beaten in the air in the build-up to the second goal, in a manner that suggested he offers decorative value only when it comes to aerial combat.
So for all the early promise and excitement of Perisic-right and Sessegnon-left, Conte then switched the pair, and ultimately resorted to Emerson, presumably in the name of tightening the locks a smidge.
The whole sequence did again make me wonder what the hell Matt Doherty has to do these days to get a game, while Djed Spence may also be stroking a thoughtful chin, but the Perisic-Sess experiment, while showing a few rays of promise, was not quite the unmitigated success for which I’d hoped.
3. Central Midfield
In those early exchanges our lot seemed mercifully undeterred by the early deficit, and I thought were fairly good value for the 2-1 first half lead, at least in possession. Alas, as the pattern evolved to that rot about sitting deep and looking to counter, Leicester began to get to grips with life – which really is utter muck if you think about it. This lot were bottom, conceding goals for fun – and yet there they were, controlling possession for five-minute chunks, in our own back yard!
Well, you can imagine the harrumphing emanating from this corner of Vegas, and the dashed thing is this is hardly the first time we’ve seen our midfield lose control of things. I don’t really blame either of Messrs Bentancur or Hojbjerg, as the problem seems to be quantity rather than quality. Any team with three in midfield simply has more available legs in the area.
The point of the 3-4-3 seems to be to ensure that we have plenty of men manning the back-door at any given point, but even within this packed environment Leicester did not have to break too much sweat to bop their way around us.
Helpfully, Leicester were simply not very good, so while we let them offer far more threat than decency ought to allow a team at the bottom of the table, there was rarely a point at which I felt we would not outscore them. However, any semblance of control of the dashed thing only really emerged once Bissouma was introduced and we switched to a three-man midfield.
Conte has made Bissouma kick his heels a tad, for reasons of fitness or tactical education or some such rot apparently, but the fellow was on the button once introduced on Saturday, happy to treat the masses to his fabled array of interceptions and tackles.
Various pundits will hone in on a chap who scores and mark them out as a standout performer, irrespective of anything else contributed or lacking during the course of the 90, and I’m a tad wary of doing the same with young Master Bentancur. His goal was certainly a triumph for high pressing and general alertness, and I’m pretty sure he contributed crucially to one of Sonny’s goals through another sprightly tackle. All told, however, he seemed to me to swan through life in his usual neat, tidy and effective way.
The challenge he faces each week is, as mentioned above, that that central midfield pair is too often outnumbered. All of which does make one wonder whether there might be scope for Bissouma to be added more permanently, and a switch to 5-3-2 to be effected (I’ve heard it mentioned that Kulusevski could occupy the right wing-back slot for such a move). Such jiggery-pokery might also allow Bentancur to shove forward ten yards or so, and allow the creative juices to flow a little more freely. The Brains Trust, no doubt, have all options under consideration.
Only right to give the chap a mention I suppose. Personally I’d have preferred him to make less of a song and dance about it all – stiff upper lip and all that – but a man has his feelings I suppose, and the whole business of getting dropped and then scoring from all angles would presumably have been a lot to digest in one afternoon.
Aside from the drama that surrounded the honest fellow, I was most taken by the gumption he displayed in striking the shot for his first goal. By the time of his third the narrative was well established – Leicester were falling to pieces, and Sonny’s redemption arc was well into its third act.
But when he collected the ball and set off towards goal at 3-2, he was still a man who had been dropped, was without a goal, hadn’t smiled since May and appeared to have forgotten which foot was which. Given this context, for him then to bend one from approximately a mile out, and shape it from outside the post to within, with whip and height and all sorts, was remarkable stuff indeed.
His confidence having been at a low ebb, one would have bottled up a sigh and forgiven him for shuffling off with the ball towards some cul-de-sac near the corner flag. And had he swiped at the ball and got his geometrics wrong, the groans would have been audible down the High Road. To eject himself from his rut, and in such fashion as that first goal, was a triumph. (As was the sweet, sweet strike for his second, while we’re on the topic.)
I suppose one might glance at the scoreline and label this a triumph for defensive rotation, but given that Hugo had to make three or four pretty spectacular leaps about the place this felt anything but comfortable until the final fifteen or so. It’s a remarkable thing to engineer an unconvincing 6-2 win, but there we are. I must confess to looking ahead to the game away to Woolwich with a fair amount of dread, given the way our lot have struggled to exercise control over any opponent so far this season. As such I might quietly start a campaign for a three-man midfield, in the hope that it grows into quite the din by 1 October. For now, however, despite being oddly off the boil, we remain comfortably ensconced in the top four.