1. Conte-Ball: Defending
I suppose the more smug amongst us would claim, on the basis of recent history in this fixture, to have seen this coming (although I’ve always thought there’s a certain wonkiness to such reasoning, namely that the results and personnel and whatnot from years gone by ought not to have anything to do with getting one’s hand dirty in the here and now).
Anyway, the point here is that if some of the smarter coves had pencilled in “1-0” beforehand then good for them, but I’m not sure any man, woman or child on the planet would have foreseen us accompanying that 1-0 scoreline with a masterclass of this ilk.
‘Masterclass’ was the term I used above, and I’ll fling it around a bit more now. From the off it was apparent that City were going to grab the ball and hang on to it for most of the evening. And frankly, not an eyelid was batted at that. I think we’ve all seen enough of this mob to know that that’s how they set about in life, and of itself it doesn’t really cause that much damage. One just learns to work around it, and our lot certainly seemed to take it all in their stride. Collective shrugs and diligent positioning seemed about the sum of it from our heroes, with everyone knowing their lines and the whole thing panning out as if it had been rehearsed this way for months.
When City oozed up towards our area, our back five generally did sensible things, which started off as a relief and quickly became a rather satisfying watch – doubling up on Grealish and Mahrez, blocking off shots, that sort of thing. It helped that Pep pulled his usual party-trick of wildly over-thinking matters rather than simply shoving the best midfielder around behind one of the best forwards around and letting them go wild; but that wasn’t really our concern. If City were adamant that feeding Haaland was only to be a last resort then that was their prerogative. The crucial thread from a lilywhite perspective was that as and when required, our back-five kept the other lot at arm’s length.
Nor was this set-up the sole preserve of the designated defenders. As City scratched their heads and popped possession around in the middle of the court, our attacking triumvirate obediently trotted off to their designated targets, allowing Bentancur and Hojbjerg to dash around putting out fires in midfield. It was all so well organised that one could well imagine Signor Conte lighting a most satisfied cigar, if such things were not – presumably – frowned upon in the healthcare centres of Turin.
2. Conte-Ball: Attacking
However, defending against City is but one part of the challenge, and a relatively straightforward one at that. The broader picture was more complex. The whole thing was like one of those GCSE Maths equations from back in the day, containing all sorts of garbled messages within various sets of brackets, and just when you’re patting yourself on the back for deciphering the contents of one set of brackets, you look up and realise there’s about fifteen others to come. So it can be with playing Man City. Setting up to defend against them is all well and good, but after about five minutes of that I did find that the ghost of Jose Mourinho was sidling up to me and quietly enquiring whether I could stomach it for a full 90 minutes.
Mercifully, Conte’s masterclass extended well beyond the perimeter of our own penalty area. There was also a plan for the opposing penalty area, and extraordinarily, the critical component of this was Eric Dier, of all people.
The gist of the thing was as follows. With City rolling the ball around their own playpen, casual to the gills, our front three shoved up in the faces of their back three. This was a steady start, thrusting the main characters into the foreground as it were. But it was the supporting cast who caught the eye, because Eric Dier then mooched forward from his position slap bang in the heart of defence, and stationed himself slap bang in the heart of midfield.
If one were a little petty and childlike about such things, one might gently clear the throat and refer to having banged on for weeks about the need to shove another body in midfield; but that is hardly germane. What was critical here was that Dier’s temporary foray into midfield meant that Hojbjerg and Bentancur had licence to press further forward. And the upshot of all this small print was that when our esteemed hosts shuffled the thing from A to B without due care and attention, Hojbjerg was on hand to snaffle the life out of the poor mite in possession, setting up Kane for his moment. Cue more cigar smoke billowing around the hospital wards of Turin.
The other element of the plan was arguably the most fun part, comprising as it did our heroes racing up the pitch on the counter-attack every five minutes, against a bizarrely undermanned opposing defence. In the first half this tactic kept things interesting, albeit the winnings never really extended beyond the occasional corner.
But in the second half, by golly it looked like every time we cleared the ball we would, within about three and a half seconds, be up the other end and clean through on goal. Of course, at one-nil, one always gives the fingernails a good going over, but nevertheless it was actually pretty riotous fun.
I had never quite followed the whirs and clicks of those “Expected Goals” statistics, but I think the point of them is to reflect that, in a game like yesterday’s, for all their possession City didn’t really look like scoring (even the shot that hit the post seemed to do so rather apologetically); while our lot could conceivably have had three or four in that second half. Possession be damned, this was a triumph for Expected Goals and cigar smoke.
3. Emerson Royal
And as if cantering to a pretty serene and composed victory against the Champions wasn’t already peculiar enough, the poster boy for the whole thing was none other than Emerson Royal.
I have heard it said that the rationale in shoving overboard Messrs Spence and Doherty while treating Emerson to pats on the head and tummy-tickles was that while the former pair are moulded in the same gung-ho shape as Pedro Porro, Emerson is a more defensive sort of breed, and therefore increases the options in the squad. This actually makes a decent wad of sense, but for anyone struggling to follow the thread, yesterday’s match offered a handy visual illustration of the key points.
There will doubtless be games in the coming weeks in which teams opt for the more conservative approach and sit back waiting to see what we’re about. In such instances, the more attacking wing-backs – those from the same conveyor belt as Pedro Porro – will doubtless be called upon for attacking input. Yesterday, however, was a day for clear-headed defensive thinking, and to his credit Emerson plugged away at his task like the dickens.
And it was quite some task, make no mistake. He was up against renowned trickster and professional ruffian Jack Grealish, a fellow as adept at beating a man as he is at tumbling over that same man’s outstretched lower limbs.
It was one heck of a contest. Emerson may have miscalculated the coordinates once or twice, but nine times out of ten he seemed to get the better of Grealish, at least depositing the ball beyond the boundaries of the pitch to let all colleagues to his left catch their breath and reset.
And while Emerson may have displayed hitherto unseen powers of long-term concentration in his defensive duties, he was still happy to throw off the shackles and jump on board whatever attack we stitched together. Indeed, in the second half, as Sonny, Kulusevski and Kane went through the gears and over halfway, Emerson could be seen regularly steaming up and straight through the centre like some demented Olympic sprinter, not necessarily waving his arms and pulling faces but quite possibly yelling “Give it to meeee!” as he motored into the heart of City’s holiest of holies. Quite batty, that chap.
The consensus seems to be that Emerson was the pick of a pretty impressive bunch, but P.E.H. was hoving into view in his wing mirror at a rate of knots. In fact, Hojbjerg seemed to appear pretty quickly in the wing mirrors of all present, having one of those games in which you looked in one direction and saw him ploughing over a couple of challenges, then looked in a completely different direction and saw him chasing down a City bod.
A lot of the fellow’s work tends to be undertaken in the shadows. Sounds a bit murky admittedly, but I mean his job often involves adopting an appropriate position and stance of readiness, and as such forcing whichever opponent to think twice about whatever perfidy was lined up. The chap aborts, and Hojbjerg, without appearing to do much, has averted a spot of danger.
Yesterday, however, felt a bit like that moment when the anonymous vigilante pops up from out of the shadows, removes his mask and gives cheery waves to all around him, drinking in a spot of applause for good measure. As well as covering a decent amount of mileage in shadowing runners and blocking off passing angles, Hojbjerg also waded knee-deep into the thick of things, and could regularly be spotted breaking up attacks and emerging from a melee of limbs with something of a limp, but the ball, nevertheless, ensconced in his care (his role in the goal being a case in point).
A word similar merit too, to Bentancur, whose ability to receive the ball in a pretty perilous range of circumstances, but calmly manoeuvre a course to safety like the best of them, is now rolled out so regularly I rather start to take it for granted.
And while on the subject of brief words of commendation being sprinkled like confetti about the place because why not, I’ll reach over and give Sonny a playful punch on the upper arm.
I appreciate that some in the gallery might, at this point, think things are getting a little out of hand, and furtively shove the decanter to a spot beyond my immediate grasp. But while Sonny might not have been solid pillar upon which the whole jolly ruckus was built, he made his own little contributions here and there in our counter-attacks; and, more pertinently gave another glimpse or two that Form may be returning to her throne.
Last week saw the welcome return of Sonny’s Shooting Boots – lower league opposition or not, it was a relief to see the chap strike a ball with the sweet timing of a cover drive at Lord’s. And yesterday, I felt like a further box was ticked in his rehabilitation, as on several occasions he collected the ball and set off on a gallop.
Nothing particularly memorable there, you might think. But consider the context, of his inability all season to take three steps without stumbling like a chap having the dickens of a time remembering which leg is which, and the sight of him tearing through the wide open spaces yesterday made the the juices flow and pulse quicken.
There was a spot of end-product thrown in too, the loveable bounder picking a couple of sensible short passes to his left and right at the conclusion of his jollies, where previously in such circumstances he had seemed to get a little lost in a cloud of options and bounce straight into opponents. Not quite vintage Sonny just yet, but the evidence suggests it’s on its way.
The final word, however, belongs to Harry Kane. In truth, the first and middle words ought to as well but I’m sure he won’t mind. His finish was actually one of the less sensational variety, although it still boasted the impressive quality of being his first kick of the ball in the match.
But this was a day to salute the fellow’s longevity. As he himself noted afterwards, the years have rather whistled by – eleven of them now, since the Shamrock Rovers affair – but to rack up 267 goals in that time is really the sort of stat that makes you pause, compute and then widen the eyes and say “Golly”.
When I consider the hours my old man, AANP Senior, has spent rattling off the exploits of Jimmy Greaves as the stuff of legend, it is easy to take for granted quite what a privilege it is to witness Kane go about his relentless business each week. Kane will be spoken of in the way Greaves was, and while there is no real knowing what the blazes will happen to English football in the coming decades, it seems rather a stretch to imagine some other johnnie buzzing along and rattling off 268 or however many more. A privilege to have him about the place. Bravo, sir