1. Not The Worst Opening Hour
Family commitments being what they are, AANP spent yesterday afternoon watching Disney princesses until the eyes bubbled, and as attempts to shield the self from the final score for 24 hours inevitably came a cropper, I found myself in that curious situation of settling down today to watch in its entirety a game the outcome of which I already knew.
Admittedly I was already pretty used to challenging viewing, following the marathon of wicked stepmothers and whatnot, but I naturally braced myself. The gist of the communication received overnight had been that, while not necessarily our lowest ebb, this performance was making itself quite at home amongst the great heapfuls of decidedly low ebbs we’ve had to experience in recent times.
But oddly enough, as the game unfolded I though our lot did reasonably well, albeit without being particularly good.
I probably ought to take this opportunity to duck out of the way of any rotten fruit being hurled my way by whomever is reading, for I suspect this is not a popular opinion. The masses, one fears, will not approve. Nevertheless, having expected the usual business of settling in for minimal possession until two down, or forlornly shuttling the ball along the back-three from east to west, and then west to east, each of the principals dwelling on their opportunity as if trying to get through a chapter of War and Peace before playing a pass, I was taken aback to note a degree of urgency throughout.
While there was a definite blank in the column marked ‘Creativity’, there seemed to be a consensus amongst our lot that if we were going to explore dead-ends we might as well do it snappily. (As an aside, I attribute much of this to the absence of Eric Dier, a chappie who, when in possession, does not consider his day’s work worthwhile unless he has wasted about half an hour rolling the ball from one foot to the other while contemplating his next move.)
In the absence of Dier, and in a general spirit of hurriedness, our lot managed at least to roll the ball from A to B within two touches each time. This struck me as a few notches up from rock-bottom, so I welcomed it happily enough. Moreover, but for some pretty iffy refereeing calls in the opening ten minutes, we might have been through on goal a couple of times. Before half-time Perisic found himself clean through, leading to the Kane header that was cleared off the line, and we started the second half looking far likelier to score.
Obviously things fell apart pretty spectacularly thereafter, and in an odd reversal of recent history, on finding ourselves two down with 30 to go our lot gave the shoulders a collective slump and dialled their efforts right down – but here at AANP Towers we viewed the first hour or so, if not exactly with uncontained enthusiasm, then at least with a degree of optimism. The urgency of that first hour was a welcome sight.
The flip-side of this, apart from conceding two more goals that made eyes bleed and soul weaken, was that for all our urgency there was no attacking spark.
The absence of Bentancur from central midfield does not help matters in this regard, but I suggest that the problems run a little deeper. Talented soul though he is, Bentancur alone is not the solution to our lack of midfield spark.
We seem to lack a fellow of ingenuity and whizzy ideas, slap bang in the centre of the stage (or perhaps ten yards advanced of that spot). And this seems to come back to the formation, the use of three central defenders meaning that we are restricted to two in central midfield – and while Hojbjerg and Bentancur have been amongst our starrier sorts this campaign, neither really are the creative masterminds whose reputations have been built on creating and scoring goals through an array of shoulder-dips and defence-splitting passes.
There has been a fair amount of chatter in recent weeks about the similarities between England and Spurs – I found it instructive to note how the national team nailed its colours to the Back-Four mast, thereby adding a sprinkle of creativity to midfield, and as a result died fighting, as it were, rather than waving a white flag in meek surrender.
Back to our lot, and in the absence of Bentancur, young Master Bissouma had another crack at the big-time. Alas, as with most of his previous appearances, nothing quite seemed to work for the chap. Not being one of those creative mastermind types alluded to above, his raison d’être could reasonably be concluded to be more along the lines of a defensive sort – collecting scraps, making tackles and intercepting Villa moves at their genesis.
And while he occasionally did each of the above, he just as often seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Villa attacks bypassed him; he picked up a booking essentially for being out of position and tripping a fellow from behind; and in possession he again seemed oddly uneasy with the physics of a sphere, seeming a little too easily confused by its propensity to roll, and bounce, and whatnot.
His nadir came with the second Villa goal, when for the second consecutive game the notion of tracking his man into the penalty area appeared a long way down his To-Do list, leaving the bounder in question with more space in our box than was reasonable to afford. One would understand – not accept, but understand – if a born-and-bred centre-forward made such an error, but here is a chap whose job title essentially reads “Defensive Midfielder”. To neglect the first rule of defensive midfielding, twice in consecutive games makes ones eyes bulge a bit, what? And it’s not as if he has a whole sackful of attacking party tricks into which he can dip to atone, at the opposite end of the pitch.
The fellow needs to get himself up to speed, and pronto. Frankly, if he is not going to carry out his defensive duties as if his life depends on them, I’d sooner he were politely shoved from his spot and someone more creative used in his stead (admittedly a practical problem or two emerges here, given that we have no-one matching that description in our ranks, but you see my point).
As it happened, I thought that the young lad Sarr looked a bit more familiar with things in the defensive midfield vicinity during his ten-minute cameo than Bissouma did during his eighty minutes, but the pecking order seems well established.
If a few stern words can be bellowed in the direction of Bissouma, decency forbids elaborating upon the suitable punishments for Lloris after his latest hare-brained input.
Cast your minds back to the World Cup and the Lloris on display looked every inch the seasoned professional, carrying out his duties correctly and with minimal fuss, neat-and-tidying his way to the Final. Of the various clangers magicked out of thin air in our colours every few weeks there was no sign. It would be a stretch to describe him as ‘The Best on Duty’, but a reliable sort of egg he most certainly was.
What the hell happens to him once he pops up for our lot is therefore anyone’s guess, but this rot he springs from nowhere is simply too much. Fully paid-up members of the Lloris Fan Club may warble about the ball moving, or the ball bouncing, or the ball turning a somersault en route, but that guff won’t wash at AANP Towers. The chap’s job is first and foremost to catch the dashed thing, and if he can’t master that particular basic then I’m at a bit of a loss to understand what purpose he serves.
These mistakes are far too frequent. Moreover, while one of the johnnies of yesteryear once came up with a decent gag, that to err is human, the gist being that just about every player will make the occasional mistake, the goalkeeper is well aware of his lot in life. There’s little in the way of safety nets or bail-outs in that position. Either get it right or be off, is pretty much the AANP message to the goalkeeping fraternity, and Monsieur Lloris has now created quite the catalogue of foul-ups for our lot.
4. Gil (and Perisic)
If absence makes the heart grow fonder it pretty much bursts through the ribcage and howls for Dejan Kulusevski at present. Still, no use complaining, what? The absence of D.K., plus a couple of the other preferred options, meant that young Senor Conte had to dip his hand into the box marked ‘Last Resort’, and pulled out a Bryan Gil.
I suppose the one-line summary is that we found out nothing that we did not know before. He was full of willing, itching throughout to unleash a trick or six and, containing practically zero in the way of muscle about his frame, was always liable to come out second-best in any man-on-man combat.
I thought the young nib made a decent stab of things. If points were awarded for body language he’d have needed a decent-sized bag to carry off his prizes, because he seemed to burst with enthusiasm for the task at hand. There were a few good link-ups with Matt Doherty (who I thought also fared well enough, certainly incurring less rage in his decision-making than the other fellow) and a few moments when he dipped a shoulder or two to create space for a cross. Alas, Gil continues to look like a boy in a man’s world. A delightful and earnest boy, the sort who would take great pleasure in doing his mother’s bidding – but a boy nevertheless. Still, I was glad to see him get a game, combine with Doherty and buy into the general mentality of urgency.
And on the other flank, I thought this was one of Perisic’s better days, at least when on the front-foot. The ‘Back’ part of the wing-back role is, as touched upon before, not one to which Perisic attaches too much concern, but going forward he is a pretty nifty so-and-so. His ability to choose from right or left clog when it comes to swinging in crosses is a bit of a blessing, even if his only targets tend to be Kane and Doherty, and as often as not he was our most advanced forward.
However, for all the silver linings and first half urgency and whatnot, this was another dreadful defeat. A couple of opportunities await to right these wrongs, before a few rather alarming fixtures come flying at us later in the month.