1. Boos And The Improved Performance
The good gentlemen and women of the press would have it that our lot were booed off so venomously that the whole of North London quivered to its foundations and we were but a hop and a skip from cracks appearing in the sky. In truth I didn’t discern much more than a bit of a grumble on the half-time whistle.
Granted, all eleven in our ranks began proceedings with the usual, vexing caution, and for a while it appeared that that oft-repeated script was to receive another airing. For around ten minutes or so, their lot hogged the ball, our lot sat deep and AANP’s will to live began its bi-weekly course of ebbing away.
Indication of our stance on this matter was provided in those opening ten minutes on each flank, when counter-attacking opportunities presented themselves, but instead of carpe-ing the diem, the principals pirouetted one-eighty and set about shovelling the ball backwards, until it ended up at the feet of Lloris to bunt off into the wild.
Mercifully, the usual 45 minutes of this rot was bunged on its head pretty early. Our heroes thoughtfully hit upon the radical idea of conceding well inside the first act, a turn of events that had the pleasing consequence of jolting everyone into action a darned sight earlier than usual. Where normally the rich tapestry of life is pretty funereal for the entire first half, this time our heroes had the shackles removed as early as minute 11.
Proof that they had been yanked from the collective reverie was provided in the very next counter-attacking opportunity up the flank, when Emerson, seemingly struck by the realisation that we were trailing, did not even consider relaying the ball back eighty yards, but fed the ball forward to Kane in the move that led to Perisic bundling the thing against the post.
For the rest of the first half, I thought we made a fairly decent first of things. Perhaps not the sort of fare to arrest the attention and turn the knees to jelly, but a step up from the usual guff we peddle of a first half, and notably featuring the fairly rapid transfer of the ball from Player A to Player B at every opportunity. It was just an almighty dashed shame that Eric Dier chose to unleash his inner chump before half-time, because Liverpool, while having a bit about them, were not worth a two-goal lead, and our endeavours merited a little better.
Thereafter of course, the narrative changed course quite drastically and we gave them quite the second half going over; but the notions that we were poor first-half relations, and that the N17 air resounded with a chorus of half-time abuse, struck me as a little wide of the dial.
Oddly enough, in contrast to most games this season, that second half saw us put in one heck of a performance and fail to dredge up a result – the norm, of course, having been to dredge the up a R. but without much in the way of a P. And this having happened, I have to admit I vastly prefer putting in the performance, even in a losing cause.
This is not to say that I’d happily watch us lose by the odd goal every week as long as the patterns are pretty; the point is more that if we play to that standard, and eke out a dozen or so decent chances in the space of one half, then most fair-minded folk would agree that the goals would follow pretty swiftly. A performance of goodish intensity and stuffed with a few handfuls of creativity will be fun to drink in, and by the laws of probability is also likely to generate results. (Of course I have no hard science to support the last point, but were I to make that relate it in the galleries I’d expect a smattering of applause and a nodding head or two.)
As mentioned, Eric Dier’s temporary abandonment of grey matter cost us the game, set and match, so that will be something for him to reflect upon in any idle moments.
Much has been made of the chap’s renaissance within a back-three, pretty much since the dawn of Conte at N17; but by and large I have to admit to never having been fully convinced by the chap.
Yesterday’s moment can probably be popped to one side, in truth, for while fat-headed in the extreme it was nevertheless an isolated mistake. I am more broadly a little unsure of his value as a defender in more conventional scenarios. His worth, I suppose, lies in his positioning. When on the back-foot, the defensive five do tend to operate as one, shuffling hither and jimmying along thither, with nary a yard of space between them for dastardly types to squeeze through – and Dier being slap bang in the middle of those five, presumably deserves a back-slap and some kind words.
The dubious gaze I cast upon him is probably more to do with his conduct when stripped of the earnest fellows to his right and left. Leave Dier to take sole care of an opponent, and suddenly the heart-rate quickens a tad and the odds seem to lengthen. His lack of pace is generally papered over within a back-three, but is a deficiency nonetheless, and he is similarly a little sluggish on the turn. I may do the fellow a disservice, and I would certainly prefer him to Sanchez, but any move to reinforce at centre-back would receive some pretty enthusiastic backing from AANP Towers.
One of the big selling points of Dier is supposedly his passing range, and, as I’ve prattled on about often enough on these very pages, while he does possess a sparkling crossfield diagonal in his size nines, he seems to attempt the trick a little too often and too unsuccessfully for my liking.
Perhaps more irritatingly, particularly in light of recent first half struggles, when our lot meander sideways and backwards like lost sheep, Dier insists on dwelling on the ball as he surveys all around him – rather than just giving it to someone – anyone – and getting on with things. A sideways pass will not blow anyone’s skirt up, granted, but do it with the first or second touch and it at least forces the opposition to suck in a few more gulps of oxygen.
After falling behind yesterday, Messrs Lenglet and Davies seemed aware of the added urgency about the place, and accordingly shoved the ball along sharpish; Dier continued to swan along with the attitude of one of those rather odd fish who insist that time is a social construct and everyone can just get behind them and wait.
In the second half however, Dier, no doubt racked with remorse for his front-page idiocy of a half-hour earlier, set about doing his damnedest to make amends. Presumably under instruction from Our Glorious Leader, he bobbed up in advanced positions on the right, supplementing and occasionally replacing poor old Emerson. His right-sided adventure notably extended to swinging in a handful of deep and meaningful crosses, which no doubt made rather awkward viewing for all concerned when it became clear that they were of vastly superior quality to the Brazilian’s.
It created a most useful additional attacking tool, with he and Emerson able to double up on those in opposition – and triple up when Doherty and Kulusevski were flung on. For all my sharp words about his passing from the deep-lying centre-back spot, I was rather taken by his efforts as an additional pair of attacking legs on the right.
Tempting though it is to wax lyrical about the attacking cup that flowed over like the dickens in that second half, the eye was frequently drawn to the neat-and-tidying offered at the base of midfield by Yves Bissouma.
Even his most ardent followers would likely admit that the young bean has flitted a little in his lilywhite career to date. The occasional act of determination in extending a lower limb and raking the ball from an opponent has been greeted pretty enthusiastically, in the expectation of more to follow, only for him to disappear a tad. Comparisons to Harry Winks have not been lobbed around in the complementary way. In short, we have all been patiently waiting for the best of the chap.
And yesterday, the thought occurred that we might have started to see it. The hearty enthusiasm with which we attacked in the second half was great fun to watch, but did leave those at the back stretched out a little desperately whenever possession was lost and Liverpool advanced over halfway.
Mercifully, those were the moments that seemed to stir Bissouma into life, and like a particularly well-trained domestic pet he was on the scene no sooner had a distress call been sounded.
Those leggy tackles alluded to earlier became increasingly conspicuous. Rather eye-catching too, he being a nib who prefers not to go to ground if it can be helped, the slide-tackle seemingly considered an imprudent use of resources. Instead, he seems to burrow his way into the heart of the action, wrap a leg around the impostor in question and neatly drag the ball into his sphere, before doing something eminently sensible with it.
And fittingly for a chap who displays few airs or graces in going about his work, once said work is done and signed off, he has much about him of one of those heroic sorts on celluloid, who opt to disappear a little mysteriously into the shadows rather than hang around drinking in the acclaim. I’m not sure he does actually shrug the shoulders in the manner of one wondering what all the fuss is about, but if he did so it would be entirely in keeping with the general air with which he goes about his trade.
Having been much-lamented in his absence, Kulusevski could probably have delighted the masses by his simple act of being present (his introduction certainly earned one heck of a reception), but, determined to make up for lost time, he spent little more than a minute acclimatising before he had seen to it that the ball was in the net and the game was on.
And goodness how his little cameo reminded us of what we had missed. Cutting infield and dabbing a cheeky diagonal pass in between defenders might not sound like much, but when performed live on set it served as a direct illustration of precisely the sort of guile we have been missing.
And that was just the goal; aside from that he had the unique ability to keep guessing friend and foe alike as he took up his spot in that inside-right sort of coordinate, and weighed up the relative merits of shimmying inside or out. With the aforementioned support of Messrs Dier and Doherty, and no end of lilywhited sorts queueing up for a feed in the centre, one got the impression that here was a viable attacking alternative to the effective but somewhat predictable approach of asking Perisic to find half a yard and swing in a cross.
No doubt he will need five minutes or so to restore the tissues to their previous vigorous state, but with Sweden absenting themselves from the World Cup one would hope he will be in pretty rude health come December 26th. A couple more guest appearances in our final two games before the break would whet the appetite nicely, and while it is a little imprudent to shove upon his back the hopes of the entire season, the theory that he is the fellow critical to our success has gained pretty feverish momentum in recent weeks – yesterday’s show-and-tell served only to fuel those particular flames.