1. Were we actually any good? Are we actually any good?
Given that the pre-match mutterings at AANP Towers were to wonder how the devil we would ever score again, the output a couple of hours later could not have been a more pleasant surprise.
By the time Doherty popped up to make it 3-0 the matter was essentially concluded, all remaining perspiration being expended merely because regulation required it, rather than out of any sense of mystery as to how matters might resolve. But here’s a thing – Doherty’s goal, sealing the game, came 20 minutes after Kane’s opener, meaning that the entire operation was essentially contained from start to finish within that short burst.
Thereafter Palace simply shrugged collective shoulders and moped about the place waiting for the final bell – you know the spirit of willing has disappeared when your centre-backs are being outmuscled by Sonny of all people.
And while that 20-minute, three-goal blitz was absolute manna from heaven, it did make one tilt the head at an inquisitive angle, and wonder whether our heroes have it in them to string together a full 90-minute performance.
Casting the mind back a bit, we started fairly punchily. Combinations here, corners there – it might not exactly have been thrill-a-minute stuff, but at least we took the starter’s gun as a prompt to bob onto the front-foot, rather than the usual business of sitting back, dozing gently and waiting to concede twice.
Disturbingly, however, this early fizz lasted somewhere between 15-20 minutes before going the way of all flesh. Thereafter, Palace pinned us back and the rest of the half seemed to consist of them pummelling away at us, with our heroes occasionally emerging to gasp for breath before the sequence was repeated. And this rather sorry pattern appeared likely to continue in the second half – when out of nowhere we took the lead and the 20-minute blitz ensued.
With our tails up and a healthy lead tucked away, our lot, naturally, looked transformed. And if we continue to look that way, and play that way, then not a whisper of complaint will emanate from these parts. But with the second half blitz coming from nowhere, I do still give the lip a nervous chew, because the general pattern of things at the end of that first half was no improvement on previous games.
Twenty-minute jollies are all well and good, but they won’t bring a three- or four-goal harvest every week. The rub of the thing is that our heroes need somehow to learn the mystical alchemy that is performing well for an entire 90 minutes. In a curious way, the random blitz of Palace in the second half – coming against the run of play, and yet doing enough within a short period to completely kill the match – highlighted what’s wrong as well as what’s right with our mob.
Of course, only bothering to turn up for twenty minutes is a dashed sight easier when you’ve got leading the line an unstoppable beast operating at the peak of his powers and revving up all four cylinders. A rotter he may forever remain in the eyes of AANP, but by golly Harry Kane does sometimes elevate his play a good few levels above the mere mortals surrounding him.
One might be tempted to dismiss the header that got things going as the least of his contributions, and in a way I suppose it was, but even that was a pretty impressive feat. In particular I was rather arrested by the natty fashion in which Kane proceeded with take-off nice and early, then just sort of hung around in the air for about a minute and a half, taking in the South London sights from his vantage point of approximately ten feet up.
By the time Perisic’s cross actually reached him he was already well established as master of that particular realm, and merely took time out to flex a muscle or two and send flying the nearest Palace defenders, whose own measly attempts at doing the aerial thing had them no more than about six inches off the ground.
It was mightily impressive stuff. I’ve seen that Ronaldo chap do something similar. Heaven knows how it’s done – I’ve always found gravity, and physics and whatnot get in the way whenever I attempt it – but from the moment Perisic’s cross took flight there was a joyous inevitability about the way things would pan out.
The second looked even better. Young Bryan Gil fairly pinged the ball at him (which is by no means a criticism of the young frijole, for the situation absolutely demanded that the ball be pinged at a decent lick, or it would not have reached basecamp).
The ping having been effected, Kane’s task may have looked simple enough on paper – “Control the thing and spank it” – but all constituent parts of the exercise were actually mightily taxing, and the odds for most strikers would have been long. As it happened, however, Kane made it all look about as difficult as tickling the tummy of sleeping kitten.
For a chap whose close control often seems to me, at close quarters, to be a rather glaring fault in his DNA, that first touch was scarcely believable, consisting as it did of simultaneously killing the ball and delivering sufficient nudge that he didn’t have to break stride before lamping it. And then, as if simply to show off, Kane did not even bother to surface for a quick three-sixty, to find his bearings and locate X on the map. He simply put his head down and blasted the thing, into the best possible spot and at the hardest possible force.
Thereafter, with goals to his name, he unstrapped the pads and grabbed the new ball, so to speak, experimenting with his creative side by dropping deep and spraying the ball hither and yonder, for his chums to get in on the act. His pass released Sonny for what eventually became Doherty’s goal, and officially he also has his name pinned to the assist for the fourth – although that was possibly the least remarkable of all his contributions.
All told, it was one heck of a performance, an absolute masterclass.
Meanwhile, off to the right, young Senor Gil delivered possibly his longest and quite likely his best display in lilywhite.
As ever, from the off he was all buck and vim, bounding around like a lamb being released into a meadow specifically designed for the frolic. As mentioned above, our opening fifteen or so actually constituted something of a highlight, and at the centre – or, more accurately, the right – of much that was good was young Gil.
His interplay with Doherty, although rough around the edges, as befits a newly-formed and rarely-practised double-act, had about it plenty of energy and invention; and when left to his own devices Gil seemed delighted to have the opportunity to throw in a few stepovers and whip in something meaty.
He missed as well as hitting, particularly in the first half, various attempts to hoodwink or simply outrun his man ending in a battle lost, but the cut of his gib certainly ranked amongst the more likeable on display.
Like ten others in lilywhite, he faded as the first half wore on; but it was the second half that really was the making of the man. For a start, that opening goal, advertised above as “Coming from nowhere”, more accurately came from the size fives (presumably) of Gil. Receiving the ball centrally, with back to goal and a good 30 yards from goal, and, more pertinently, with no fewer than three Palace sorts in close attendance, Gil ducked and weaved a bit, held onto the ball, held off the Palace search party, and played into space the advancing Perisic.
It may all sound simple enough, but I was rather taken by it, given that he might easily have been muscled out of things, or opted for the safer option of simply popping the thing back towards halfway. (As a fun aside, watch the replay of Kane’s header and you might also spot both Gil and Perisic themselves jumping as if to head, at the critical moment, which rather tickled me.)
As mentioned, Gil also played to perfection the pass that set up Kane’s second. Here he deserves shiny little gold stars first for spotting the opportunity; then for having the nous to realise that the ball would have been to driven at Kane at a fair lick, in order to bring home any harvest; and thirdly for taking the risk to attempt it, when the slightest inaccuracy for that eye-of-the-needle stuff would have ceded possession.
And thereafter Gil rather enjoyed himself, and we him. Shimmies, shoulder-dips, quick passes – the young bean managed the game without getting carried away. He will presumably remain for some time one of the lesser cabs on the rank, but who amongst us wouldn’t want to see more of him as the weeks roll on?
Less impressive was young Master Skipp. Not to chide the honest fellow, for he has delivered the goods often enough, and frankly he did well to clamber out of all the extenuating circumstances that engulfed him – recent injuries, and lack of match sharpness, and so on.
In the opening seconds Skipp actually hinted at great things, picking the ball up on halfway and setting off on a hike deep into enemy territory to set up a half-chance. I duly gave the hands a rub and settled in, for great things appeared to await.
Alas, they’ll have to come another day. Thereafter, Skipp couldn’t take two steps without making a wrong decision. He did not lack willing, which is always good to see, but generally erred in just about everything he did. I did feel for him when received his yellow card mind, Perisic having fed him an unnecessarily obscure sort of pass, forcing him to have a bit of a lunge, but it summed up his evening.
A shame, because with Bissouma miles off his own high standards, Bentancur out and Hojbjerg rarely given a chance to catch his breath, an on-song Skipp would be akin to a pretty handy new signing. He will, presumably, have a chance to atone in the Cup on Saturday.
As if to hammer home the fact that Skipp was a long way below par, young Sarr came on and didn’t put a foot wrong for thirty minutes.
AANP being a man of honour and principle, in the same way that I excuse Skipp his aberrations and acknowledge the mitigating circumstances, I similarly caution against too much enthusiasm for Sarr, whose admittedly strong performance came in pretty welcoming circumstances. He bounded on at 3-0 and with Palace having thrown in the towel and begun looking rather longingly at the ref to put an end to things, and in that context one would hardly say that this was ever going to be the most fraught half hour of his career.
Nevertheless, where Skipp was mistiming tackles and being caught in possession, Sarr nailed his t’s and made sensible use of p. Again, one would expect him to feature at the weekend, and I hope he does so from the off, rather than a 30-minute cameo.
Sarr had barely featured in thinking at the start of the season, when the Bentancur-Hojbjerg-Skipp-Bissouma quartet were widely cast as our midfield options, but if he can make a better fist of the ugly stuff than any of the aforementioned then he’s a pretty useful option in the second half-and-a-bit of the season.