1. Bissouma, and Conte’s Tactical Switch
My Spurs-supporting chum Dave displayed quite the knack for trenchant observation when he summed up our first half as, “A lot of huff and puff.” I’m not sure too much expansion is required there. It made a pleasant change, I suppose, to see our lot start like they meant it and have the lion’s share of possession. And all of them were red of face and positively dripping with willing; but come half-time “huff” and “puff” were about the sum of it.
And I daresay that if left unchecked this rather dull routine, of poking at the Everton penalty area and promptly being repelled, might have gone on all night, but for the intervention of the gods, of all things. The gods of calf injuries, specifically, which was pretty rotten luck on poor old Richarlison, who had clattered around the place in his usual meaty style.
But off he tottered, and at this point the plot took quite the unexpected turn. Being a simple soul, my immediate reaction on seeing Richarlison exit was to assume that one of Gil or Lucas would be thrust on in his place, to continue with the aforementioned r.d. routine. I mean to say, if one has a contraption, a small part of which snaps off, what could make more sense than to replace it with another identical part?
The Brains Trust, however, were evidently struck with alternative modes of thought, and on gambolled Bissouma, sprightly as you like. At which point, I furrowed the brow and narrowed the eyes, like nobody’s business. A defensive-minded nib for an attack-minded nib did not strike me as the sort of moment of inspiration for which The Big Cheese earns his bulging monthly envelope.
Of course you don’t need me to tell you that far from diminishing our front-foot potency, this rearranging of the pieces proved a tactical masterstroke, swinging the entire affair in our favour. What we lost in a third attacker we more than made up for in just about everyone else on the pitch beetling north at least ten yards, and where once Everton were casually enough knocking back everything we’d sent in their direction, they now flailed a fair bit with more than just a hint of skin-of-the-teeth about their defending.
Most obviously, Bentancur and Hojbjerg were able to pop up in vastly more advanced spots, safe in the knowledge that Bissouma was manning the rear. As if to hammer home this fact, the pair of them combined for our second, in what struck me as possibly the first time since they started playing together that they had both oiled into the final third at the same time.
Similarly, I can barely remember a time since the better days of Dele Alli that we had been graced with the presence of a bona fide midfielder arriving in the penalty area to see what it was all about – and yet there was Hojbjerg, most advanced of the lot, to put the game to bed.
One would need to get into the realm of parallel universes and whatnot to be absolutely sure, but it seems a reasonable bet that neither Bentancur’s little foray down the right nor Hojbjerg’s guest appearance in the area would have come to pass were it not for the fact that Bissouma was on the pitch and sticking to his defensive drill.
Bissouma himself was neat and tidy in what he did – a couple of busy snaffles here and there certainly won over the punters – but it was not so much what he did on the ball that won the day as simply being in existence. That is to say, by simply being on the pitch and in the right area, he got the rest of the machinery clicking.
Now this being the case, I was inclined to hoist Senor Conte up on my shoulders and carry him all the way home, slinging a garland around his neck for good measure. After all, and as mentioned, the Bissouma-for-Richarlison gambit had been a long way down the AANP list of options circa. minute 50, so I was mightily impressed by the chap’s lateral thinking.
And yet when I put to various fellow lilywhites this sentiment of gushing praise for Conte, they have generally greeted me with that funny look I so often get, the visual equivalent of a pat on the head for being innocent and rather simple. Because apparently, to everyone else in N17, the injection of Bissouma had been the most obvious thing in the world! Apparently nobody else even considered the use of Lucas or Gil, on account of their respectively being unfit and waif-like. So, what had struck me as a moment of tactical genius was actually pretty standard fare to the rest of you blighters, but there we go I suppose.
2. Everton Illustrate The Flaws of Conte-Ball
A digression at this point, for I noted in various post-match interviews that assorted members of the Everton mob were glumly pointing out that they felt they should have won. Had they taken either or both of those first half chances, went the gist, they would have fancied their chances.
Now, one sees the logic here, and the hypothetical is a reasonable one – had they been one or two goals up at half-time, there was little from the first half to suggest that we would have come back.
The issue here is that this argument required firstly that they took either of their only two chances – which they didn’t – and secondly that they avoided any defensive mistakes – which they didn’t. They missed both their chances, and Pickford then made a mess of a couple of things for the penalty.
I bring up all this because the Everton approach seemed to the AANP eye to have much about it of the style Conte has had us peddling in pretty much every game so far this season. And while it has worked for us, Everton yesterday illustrated quite how difficult it is to execute properly. It required all chances to be taken in attack, and no mistakes to be made in defence.
By contrast, in the post-Bissouma era yesterday we apparently had something like 8 shots in the 10 minutes immediately after the substitution – which rather relieves the pressure on the forwards. With that approach, one does not need to bury the head in the hands and bawl in frustration at a missed chance, because another one will be along soon enough.
The approach adopted yesterday, of playing higher up the pitch and fashioning numerous chances, seems vastly preferable to the usual Conte way, both to watch and in terms of the odds of actually winning games.
I touched earlier upon the positive impact of Bissouma upon the geographic inclinations of Bentancur, but it would be a disservice to the latter to suggest that his good deeds were due solely to the introduction of the former.
Far from it. Bentancur struck me as the standout performer throughout, beavering away aross all blades of turf like nobody’s business and silkily linking things together like it were the most natural thing in the world. The fellow’s passing is neat and tidy when aiding and abetting the defensive mob; but rather more inventive and exciting when given licence to shove on a bit, and both elements were on display yesterday.
Nor is he the sort who’ll quietly slink into the shadows when more robust duties are required. He can consider himself pretty hard done by to have been cautioned, for his tackling was generally in the ‘Firm But Fair’ category throughout, and that yellow card ought not to suggest otherwise.
All of which made it rather appropriate that he was the driving force behind our second goal. His little legs having wheeled away non-stop all game, one understood Harry Kane popping the ball up the flank and simply looking at him expectantly. Where others might have flung skywards an irritated hand or two, Bentancur scuttled after it in precisely the manner he’d scuttled after everything throughout the game. On top of which, he then had the presence of mind to look beyond the more straightforward pass to Sonny, and instead picked out Hojbjerg in an infinitely better position.
It is perhaps a little mean-spirited, but with Emerson Royal’s domestic suspension still ongoing I found myself absolutely pleading with Matt Doherty to put in a bravura performance that might consign to the annals – or at least to first reserve – the willing but lamentably limited Brazilian.
The first half showing threatened to disappoint. It was not that Doherty was particularly bad, but rather that nobody in lilywhite found their groove. Everton had plenty of numbers back in defence, and whereas Perisic on the other side could resort to crossing with either foot, Doherty’s attacking game comprises one-twos and nifty darts – precisely the sort of fare that Everton’s massed ranks were able to stifle.
However, as with various others, Doherty was able to disengage a shackle or two once Bissouma arrived. Seemingly gripped by a greater spirit of adventure, he made the sort of forward bursts that Emerson will also make; but, crucially, seemed to have a vastly superior grasp of his options once there.
And various elements of his repertoire were duly exhibited. We were treated to runs towards the byline, outside the area; runs infield, to facilitate nifty diagonal passes; and even a couple of shots from inside the area – one of which led to the penalty.
Of course, it might be that Conte issues a very specific set of instructions – positional, distributional or along some other metric – that Emerson follows to the letter and Doherty cannot nail for love nor money. As a layman, however, I struggle to see how anyone of sound mind and pure intention would resort to Emerson over Doherty again, after seeing yesterday’s performance and comparing it to the countless maddening displays by the Brazilian.
As ever, it is easy to take for granted that rotter Harry Kane, particularly when his goals are of the scruffy ilk (or penalties – which even then does him a disservice, because despite the midweek miss I don’t think I’ve seen a better penalty-taker in all my puff). But when Kane hits something like his top form he becomes quite the specimen, and at the moment he appears to be doing precisely that.
His most recent goals may indeed have been three penalties and one off the shoulder, but there were moments yesterday that prompted a knowing grin to spread across the AANP map, for the evidence points to a fellow who is reaching the peak of his powers and is fully aware of it. In particular, his volley of a ball that dropped across his body and from the heavens, was a thing of some wonder, being the sort of technique that would have resulted in mere mortals shanking the thing off towards the corner flag, and quite possibly have splaying a limb or two about the place.
There was also a spin-and-shot in the second half, which deserved better than arrowing straight down the gullet of the goalkeeper, but which again served notice of the chap’s current sharpness.
For all his talents, I am struck just about every game by how bad his control is (witness his first touch in the build-up to our second, when the ball bounced off his frame as if hitting a wooden door), and at times this has extended to rather ungainly, bobbling attempts to dribble that probably seem a terrific idea in his head but manifest as clumsy stumbles into traffic. Both yesterday and midweek, however, Kane even seemed to hit upon the art of close-control dribbling, beating one man and nutmgegging another before popping off a shot yesterday, to add to his run past four defenders that earned a penalty on Wednesday.
All of which glosses over the fine creative work he does when he drops deeper. As mentioned, his initial touch in the build-up to our second goal yesterday was clunky in the extreme, but once he had the dashed thing under control his creative juices were up and away, feeding Bentancur with just the right weight, into space rather than into feet and in the process doing much to ease the nerves of those final few minutes.
While the first half was something of a struggle, the combination of incisive attacks and controlled possession made for vastly more enjoyable viewing in the second, and added to the promise of the midweek Frankfurt game, it all has a bit of excited chatter about AANP Towers that perhaps, finally, our lot might just have started to click.