1. At Least Lloris Put On A Show, What?
This being a new day I thought I’d begin with a once-over of the positives from last night. Alarmingly, there was in fact only one, but never mind that, and step forward Monsieur Lloris.
There’s a train of thought that it’s a bit redundant to bleat, “We would have lost by such and such an amount if not for our goalkeeper,” because the whole point is that the fellow is our goalkeeper, and that making those saves is precisely his job within our team – but nevertheless seeing everyone in front of him simply melt away time after time, forcing the poor chap into about eighty different extended reaches, did seem a bit much.
Oddly enough, Lloris’ evening had threatened to get off to a pretty horrendous start. Just about his first involvement occurred when a United sort spotted him off his line after a botched clearance, and attempted a lob. These are usually pretty anticlimactic interludes, promising much but typically fizzling out on launch, and so it proved as the shot barely reached head height.
Now I’m no goalkeeper, but if I see a ball gently float towards me I prefer to take the old-fashioned approach and catch it, ideally keeping any additional fuss to a minimum. And this had appeared the designated tactic of Lloris, until at the last minute he appeared to lose control of just about all of his critical limbs, and somehow, from a standing start, ended up flailing around on the ground, only just managing to pat at the ball, and diverting it marginally wide of the post.
It had seemed a pretty ominous start, and had me bracing myself from one of those nerve-riddled routines of his between the sticks. However, in one of those nifty little quirks of fate, that moment actually turned out to be the cue for everyone else to peddle absolute rot, while Lloris transformed into something vastly beyond the realms of mortal man, pulling off a whole sequence of full-stretch saves from around that point until the end of the match an hour later.
One in particular (from Rashford, if I recall correctly) had him in full flight in one direction, but having the presence of mind to stick out a paw in the other direction, whence he had come, creating the overall effect of a chappie who had mastered the matrix and was able to defy physics by bobbing around faster than the eye could make sense of. It just seemed rather a shame that this whole exhibition was of pretty minimal value. I mean, it stopped us losing about eight-nil, so I suppose it could be argued that it did in fact teem at the edges with value, but you know what I mean. Losing cause and whatnot. Still, bravo Hugo – which is more than any other of the blighters deserve.
2. The Fabled 3-5-2
With the regular 3-4-3 having made dashed hard work of such luminaries as Forest and Everton so far this season, in recent days you couldn’t have lobbed a brick in North London without it hitting on the head someone pleading for Our Glorious Leader to switch to 3-5-2.
All such wishes were granted last night, as injuries to Richarlison and Kulusevski rather tied poor old Conte’s hands on this front (admittedly I think most reasonable folk of lilywhite persuasion would have gnawed off their own arm to have Kulusevski restored, he being pretty much the missing link in all this). And moreover, with Emerson by his own idiocy absented, we armchair experts even had the luxury of Doherty on the right. As such, the pre-match sentiment at AANP Towers was one of cautious optimism. Quietly smug, knowing smiles were very much the order of the day. This one seemed winnable.
Or at least it did until the game actually started, at which point it pretty swiftly fell apart at the seams. Having howled away that we were getting outnumbered in midfield with the 3-4-3, the sight of our lot having rings run around them in a 3-5-2 had the AANP map turning a pretty impressive shade of crimson. Numbers of pairs of legs, it appeared, had not a dashed thing to do with it. Quite frankly, our lot were utter rot.
It’s all very well pointing out that United were on pretty spiffing form, but if any team can make Fred look like a master of all he surveys then one has to wonder if there’s some deep-rooted failure lies within. And sure enough, the problems amongst our lot were so numerous that I started to look about me for parchment and quill, for simply trying to keep track in my head was becoming increasingly problematic.
Defensively, despite having five fine specimens neatly lined up across the back, with a further three doing the doorman thing in front of them, there were great yawning gaps out wide. When United did tuck inside, our heroes seemed pretty spooked by the novel approach being used against them, of quick, one-touch passing, and gaps promptly appeared amongst our clustered bodies. Out on our left, all of the years of experience and League Title medals about his frame did little to prompt Ivan Perisic to stop Anthony chap cutting infield with gay abandon.
There was a train of thought within the AANP circle that part of the problem was that Bentancur seemed to have licence to roam forward, leaving us understaffed further south. While true enough at the outset, thereafter it seemed that even if Bentancur got his coordinates bang on it was of little use.
Moreover, the 3-5-2 meant that there was no useful means by which to stop their wide chaps chugging forward at will, as Sonny and Kane were both narrow.
All of the above, and various other failings, created the bizarre scenario that our massed defensive ranks seemed bizarrely incapable of robbing United of the ball outside our area, or preventing either their passes or shots in around the same vicinity.
On top of which, whenever our lot did stumble upon the ball they made a point of stumbling back off it again pretty sharpish. Not one of them seemed to have the good sense to seek out a teammate when in possession, the drill seeming to be that life might as well be made as difficult as possible. And unable to play beyond the United press, the net result was a pretty incessant barrage of all things United, from bally start to bally finish.
The 3-5-2 will see better days, but by golly this was a mess.
Rather awkwardly, the whole sorry affair does rather make one shoot a dubious look at Senor Conte, and clear the throat in meaningful manner. Knocking over Forest and such rot is one thing; and if we were losing with grace and elan to Top Four types that would be another; but simply mooching about on the edge of one’s own area and waiting to be blown away, against each of Chelsea, Woolwich and Man Utd, really is a bit thick, what?
It’s the style of play, of course. Watching the likes of Newcastle and Woolwich bound about the place with gusto and attacking intent does make one scratch the chin and wonder why our mob couldn’t be cajoled into something similar. It’s not as if we lack the talented individuals for such things.
Instead, we have a slicker version of Jose’s anti-football, all defence and countering. Against the weaker teams it’s rarely much fun to watch; and against the better teams we barely hang on to the coat-tails.
The counter-arguments, however, are pretty loaded. It would be a pretty significant dereliction of duty as a fan of the good ship Hotspur to forget quite what a stinker poor old Nuno had left us in, and quite what a job Conte did of dragging the club up by the armpits and into the Top Four.
Moreover, by the end of last season, the football was starting to flow and the goals fly in from all angles. There’s a pretty reasonable train of thought that if we can get to the World Cup in or around the Top Four, then a similar gallop in the second half of the season, possibly nudged along by a January signing or two, would be just the ticket.
And then, as alluded to earlier, there’s Kulusevski. Now a cautionary note ought not just to be struck, but given the full gong treatment, because nothing increases the value of a young nib like his absence from the team. One can gloss over how good he actually is – simply the fact that he is not in a team that is performing badly is generally enough to convince the human mind that the lad in question is the answer to all prayers. As recently as last week this was the case for Doherty; already it is becoming the case for Spence; and one does not have to cast the mind back too far to find umpteen other examples.
Nevertheless, Kulusevski became pretty critical to our play in his guise as ‘Johnnie Linking Defence to Attack’, and also providing our lot with some creativity beyond simply ‘Kane Diagonalling the Thing into Son’. That surge in the second half of last season, to which I alluded above, owed much to the fact that Kulusevski was fit and firing in just about every game. His absence is keenly felt. Bring him back, or so goes the narrative, and the Jose-esque dross currently being peddled morphs into something vastly more palatable.
Either way, the garbage on show last night was nowhere good enough. The visit of Newcastle this Sunday therefore takes on a rather meatier hue – not quite Top Four sorts yet, they are certainly a notch or two above Everton and the like, so our performance as much as our result will be watched with a pretty critical eye.