After yesterday’s mess, anyone in the market for a spot of finger-pointing would have no shortage of options, for “Sub-Par” seemed to have been the motto adopted by our lot throughout. Nevertheless, even Hugo Lloris’s own family members would probably have to accept that their man played a pretty critical role in the whole sorry affair.
It would be a stretch to say that we were on top of things, or even matching Woolwich, at the time of his main clanger. Although the scores were level, they were making good use of their extra man in midfield, passing from the back and through our press a little too niftily for my liking and having oodles of joy in that Saka-Sessegnon mismatch.
But nevertheless. The scores were still level, and our lot were showing a bit of willing going forward. On top of which the atmosphere in the place, while hardly confident, was at least still hopeful. When a first-minute pass into the path of Sessegnon on halfway is greeted by a roar the like of which is normally reserved for a goal, you know that the watching masses are suitably bucked. Anything, one felt, might yet happen.
Alas, what did happen was Monsieur Lloris treating us to the latest malcoordinated flail of his limbs. Maddeningly, he had signposted that he was in the mood for a clanger just moments earlier. A back-pass of the harmless variety had landed his way, and rather than just deal with the thing through means cultured or otherwise, he went down the bizarre route of assuming that he would be allowed to saunter unchallenged across his area for as long as he fancied.
Well, it didn’t take 10 years in the Premier League, 100+ international caps and two World Cup Finals to see that that the scheme was doomed. Barely had Lloris started dribbling the thing than an opponent was at his back, and routes to escape were fast disappearing. Lloris sought solace in the form of a countryman, but popping the ball at Lenglet’s right peg added a further layer of complication.
Not that Lenglet should have had too much difficulty in simply blasting the ball to safety, whichever foot was required, being an international footballer and whatnot. But, perhaps taking a cue from his captain, he botched the operation further by giving the ball straight to a Woolwich player in the six-yard box, of all things. In the panic that followed, Lloris at least had the dignity to save at point-blank range, but the awkward glances were already being exchanged.
And sure enough, calamity soon struck. Which is to say a fairly straightforward undertaking was required, and Lloris made a pig’s ear of it again.
One might leap to his defence by pointing to the various mitigating factors about the place. Sessegnon might have done better than simply stepping aside and waving Saka through; the cross when delivered caught a deflection of the small-but-critical variety; and it also came flying in at a rate of knots.
And if the blister charged with minding the net had been a ten year-old, or perhaps an elderly and overweight sort whose hand-eye coordination has always been a bit off, these might well have been acceptable excuses. But for a chappie whose life is dedicated to catching footballs, and who, as mentioned above, has more Premier League and international appearances than one can shake a stick at, such excuses do not wash. Catch the bally thing. Or at the very least buffet it off into a safe space.
Watching Lloris instead pat the ball upwards and backwards into his own net really did have the will to live seep from every pore of my being.
Thereafter, all the saves in the world would have done little to rectify things, because in a game in which we were second-best anyway, it was pretty crucial to avoid gifting them a goal, and similarly crucial to keep the atmosphere charged and hopeful.
Not that Lloris did make all the saves in the world thereafter. Romero was to a large degree at fault for the second goal – first in not bothering to close down the chappie, and then turning his back on the shot, forsooth – but from 25 yards or so one would expect a luminary of the goalkeeping trade to cover his bases and extend a sturdy paw sufficiently. Lloris was beaten too easily, and I imagine there are now few about the place who expect him still to be in situ come the start of season 23/24.
For young Sessegnon already to have been chastised twice above in a sermon about the failings of another player entirely is rather telling.
His selection certainly gave the eyebrows of all in N17 a bit of a pre-match jolt, but one could at least attempt to explain it away, loosely on the grounds of the vivacity of youth – Perisic, after all, while a bit of a specialist with the ball at his feet and the masses howling for a cross, is not the sort of chap at whom one would point and say, “There’s the fellow on whom I wish to build a defence, particularly on account of his breakneck speed”. With Saka in opposition, I presumed that Conte saw in Sessegnon a young bean with enough to pace to thwart Woolwich’s right-sided threat.
A nice idea in theory, but pretty wildly off the mark in practice. How Perisic might have fared in that first half against Saka we’ll never know, but the berth was Sessegnon’s and it was pretty obvious from even casual observation that he was pretty powerless to stop Saka doing whatever he damn well pleased. With neither Lenglet nor Son particularly inclined to help out, we pretty much just resigned ourselves, at least in the first half, to that flank being wide open for business and as good as unmanned.
Sessegnon did show some early inclination to carry out the more attack-minded elements of his role, but even there, having made the necessary gallops into threatening territory, he was let down time and again by a string of crosses that seemed to give up on their mission as soon as they left his foot.
In the interests of fairness it should be noted that his dash infield, which brought about the first-half chance for Sonny, was impressively bobbish. It showed a spirit of enterprise and adventure we otherwise lacked, and was topped off with a surprisingly crafty little diagonal through-ball. What the devil he was doing there, in some sort of Number 10 slot, is anyone’s guess, but it was much-needed.
He also combined neatly with Kane for his one-on-one in the second half, but whatever merit he earns for making the run, he rather loses for failing to bury the chance.
Those two little jaunts aside, I saw precious little in his performance to impress, and even before half-time I was constructing the argument for his removal and replacement by Perisic.
The other selection of considerable note was that of Pape Matar Sarr. One rather sympathised with the young bounder, for as long Conte sticks with his 3-4-3 then the central midfield pair will almost always find themselves outnumbered, which seemed a rotten hand to deal a fellow on his full debut.
I suppose if one were to cast a cursory eye over a narrative of the first half, and digest that the Woolwich mob cantered through the centre pretty much at will, one might conclude that the Sarr selection was a failure on a par with that of Sessegnon.
However, I am inclined to launch a fairly robust defence of young Sarr. Given that Woolwich employed a midfield three, often supplemented by a fourth in Zinchenko, Sarr admittedly spent a lot of time simply chasing shadows, but, as I have thought of Messrs Benancur and Hojbjerg at various other points in the season, the lad can hardly be blamed for being outnumbered.
When Sarr was able to intervene, he did so well enough. He took to his tasks with plenty of zest, shuttled the ball along to others sensibly and seemed pretty composed when dwindling options forced him to quicken his feet and dance away from trouble.
He is by no means the finished article, and his yellow card was evidence of the fact that this was a midfield battle we definitely lost. On top of which, for all his positives, he is another in the depressingly long list of hard-working but rather functional sorts, when our midfield absolutely screams out for some creativity. However, both in terms of being outnumbered in midfield, and populating said midfield with functional bods, the blame lies squarely with Our Glorious Leader.
All things considered, I thought Sarr bobbed about pretty well. Quite where he stands in the midfield hierarchy is a little unclear – I heard a whisper that Bissouma had a knock, and Bentancur will certainly waltz straight back in, but Sarr, it appears, is now a credible alternative to and possibly preferred option above young Master Skipp.
4. Kulusevski (and Son’s Ongoing Struggles)
If Sarr’s performance was one of our better ones by virtue of being acceptable enough, Kulusevki’s was possibly the best, by virtue of offering an occasional threat.
Not that you’d have known he was playing in the first half, during which time our heroes struggled to string three passes together. Naturally, beginning the second half with a two-goal deficit was the prompt for a slightly improved performance, and it seemed little coincidence that we were far more threatening once it occurred to those in lilywhite that they were allowed to pass to Kulusevski.
He did his usual thing – running literally around opponents, and yet doing so in surprisingly effective fashion; standing up crosses towards the back post; cutting in to curl efforts with his left foot. And on another day, one or two of those little adventures might have brought slightly richer harvest, but even though the conclusion of his little incursions repeatedly fell a little short, his presence and involvement at least sparked us into life.
By contrast, on the other flank, poor old Sonny once again laboured away like the less talented twin of the chappie from last year. As happens every week, he simply failed to run up a head of steam in any respect. Be it a dribble, shot or attempt to shield and hold up the ball, his bright ideas repeatedly came a cropper at source, and not for the first time we were as ten men and one passenger.
Injury and conditioning no doubt forbad an earlier appearance from Richarlison, but the AANP line from pretty early in the second half was to hook Sonny and plop the Brazilian in his place.
5. Conte’s Role In All Of This
For all of the above, however, my principal grumble is not so much the individual performances as the masterplan (a term with which I play pretty fast and loose) from Our Glorious Leader. Yesterday was a neat illustration of how we are getting on under the chap.
The formation, and in particular the use of a back-three, irks the dickens out of me. I suppose in theory one might argue that the more defenders one thrusts onto the pitch the less likely we are to concede. And perhaps amongst most right-thinking folk, this would work out swimmingly, one fellow covering the next fellow, and so on. If the back-three were watertight and achieved clean sheets every week, the case for it would be pretty compelling.
Amongst our lot, however, the back-three is anything but watertight. And not only is it a pretty flimsy structure, its very existence also weakens our midfield. Deploying three central defenders means deploying only two central midfielders; and as evidenced yesterday – and in almost every match this season – our central midfield pair are routinely overrun by opponents with a midfield three.
On top of which our midfield pair offer precious little creativity because their principal role is to destroy rather than to create. In fact, I often wonder if their principal role is simply to gulp down great mouthfuls of oxygen at every opportunity and recover after galloping around trying to do between them the work of three men.
Aside from the formation, The Conte Way irritates because it seems the general philosophy being peddled is to defend rather than attack or entertain. The strength of our squad is undoubtedly its attacking riches, yet Conte’s primary goal each week seems to be to focus on shutting out the other lot. All of which inclines one to fling up the hands and implore them just to attack for heaven’s sake, what?
The fellow seems to be steering our ship until something more to his liking comes along. One year in and his brand of football is neither fun to watch nor particularly impressive on paper (fifth we may be, but we’re pretty comfortably beaten by all of our ‘rivals’). As I saw it put last night, “Conte’s priority appears simply not to mess up”, and this isn’t much fun to drink in every week.