1. The Tactics
Ryan Mason still seems to be receiving a free pass from great swathes of our support. For reasons I don’t particularly fathom, truth be told, but there we go, and I voiced a few of the yays and nays around him last week, so won’t bother going into that again.
This week, his grand masterplan was a dastardly plot to beat Aston Villa’s high line by releasing Sonny with passes from deep, to sprint off into the wide open spaces and make merry.
Here at AANP Towers we spotted three critical flaws.
Firstly, the bally thing just didn’t work. Say about it what you like, and who knows, perhaps the Villa back-four spent the afternoon close to tears with the stress of it all – but the facts are that this approach brought us zero goals. In fact, this approach brought us zero chances, because every blasted time we tried it, Sonny or Richarlison stuffed up their lines and strayed offside.
Once or twice would be forgivable – “teething problems’, would no doubt have been the gist of the exchange amongst the Brains Trust on the sidelines – but when it came to minute 96 and Sonny was yet again caught on the wrong side of the red line, there was nothing for it but to sink the old head into the hands and hope that when reincarnated I come back as something less exasperating than being a Spurs fan.
And when I screech that it happened ‘every time’, this is not a spot of hyperbole, thrown in for dramatic effect. It just happened over and over again. Our heroes simply didn’t learn. Richarlison one understands might want to sneak in a headstart; but goodness me Sonny ought to have worked out that an extra six inches or so were not really necessary when blessed by nature with a pair of size sevens as spring-heeled as his. Surely, ran the train of thought, if Sonny started level he would still have had a decent chance of outsprinting the Villa mob over fifteen yards or so?
Secondly, even if this tactic had born a spot of occasional fruit, one would have thought a Plan B might have been tried at some point too, or even a Plan A, Version 2. Mix things up a bit, what?
Take that lad Porro, out on the right. A flawed sort of chap no doubt, but if he brings one asset to the table it’s his capacity to sling in a decent cross. One might have thought that Mason’s pre-match pearls of wisdom might have included the suggestion that every now and then we keep the Villa mob on their toes by feeding Porro, sticking an extra body or two in the area and seeing what might happen. Maybe just once or twice.
But the evidence of the eyes indicated that Mason & Chums were not having any of it. As far as “Villa (Away)’ was concerned, the strategy was evidently to be “Beat the offside trap, or nothing”. No matter that it failed the first half-dozen times, for a good hour it was our one and only idea.
Thirdly, the whole setup made for a football that was pretty dreadful to watch, from a lilywhite perspective. After a whole season of games, pretty much every one of which has made the eyes bleed, it takes some doing to find a brand new method of boring to tears the watching masses, but this Low-Block-And-Beat-The-Offside-Trap approach managed it.
Central to the approach seemed to be the mad idea to just let Villa have as much possession as they wanted, which as a year of Jose proved, even if successful sucks every ounce of joy out of the thing. Whenever we did stumble upon possession, our heroes seemed strangely unable to master the art of the six-yard pass, picking out opposition players a little too frequently for comfort (and to be fair, young Mason can hardly take the fall for this one; this is just down to the players’ own ineptitude).
And of neat triangles or the whizzy stuff that lights up the eyes and quicken the pulse, there was none. It was just left to Kane, or Lenglet, or whomever to try sticking the ball behind the Villa back-line for Sonny to dash onto and over-complicate everything before the flag went up anyway.
So in short, this plan brought no success (and did not even get as far as sticking within the rules of the game long enough to gauge whether it might bring any success); had no alternative; and was awful to watch. The ‘Give it to Mason’ campaign, as much as there is one, will need a few additional compelling arguments before AANP is swayed.
After an hour of this nonsense however, Mason had the good grace to bang his head against the nearest wall and try something different. Richarlison was relieved from duty, Kulusevski was stationed out on the right, and for two minutes or so the entire collective bucked up their ideas a bit. Irritating, then, that that particular balloon was punctured by their second goal, after which both sides pretty much shrugged their shoulders and were happy to bump into each other and shout for the remainder.
As if to really twist the knife, the only time our heroes showed any genuine urgency was for approximately five minutes of injury-time at the death, after Kane’s penalty. If they’d bobbed about their place with that same meaning and dash from minute one I’d have been all for it. Our lot might have had a decent stab at the win, for a start, and we the viewing public might have had something about which to make a racket. It might even have added a bit of gusto to the “Mason In! (Permanently)” campaign.
But when they only muster that energy for added time at the end of the ninety, I’m afraid they won’t get much more than icy glares and a few stinging words of rebuke from these parts.
As mentioned, just about the only time things picked up, added time aside, was during a brief, post-substitution surge. Bissouma looked game, possibly just excited to be on a real pitch again, but the lightning rod for that halcyon ten minutes seemed to be Kulusevski.
He beavered away in that curious manner of his, bludgeoning past people in that ungainly fashion that suggests that while he was not born to be a footballer he has nevertheless hit upon something so might as well keep going until told otherwise.
It was already a big day for trying the same old trick over and over again, but whereas springing the offside trap had failed miserably, Kulusevski’s party-trick of chopping back inside his full-back (again, in the ungainly manner of someone who prefers football not to involve a ball) seemed to keep working, no matter how many warnings his opponent had.
With the first few steps of Operation Kulusevski working so well, it was slightly maddening that the final element kept missing the mark, but life – particularly in Season 22/23 – is like that, what? Where last season the young specimen would cut in on his left and either find the net or hang the ball up for an arriving surge at the back post, this time around the ball has tended to fly off into the galleries, leaving all in the vicinity with hands on heads and a general chorus of “If Only…” echoing about the place.
There’s no real knowing what zany idea Mason will magic up next week, but having injected the faintest murmur of a pulse into a collective that had otherwise looked for all the world ready for a toe-tag and body-bag, one wonders if Kulusevski might be involved from the start next week.
In the great Lloris vs Forster Debate, AANP comes down pretty heavily on the side of the latter. Monsieur Lloris has played a fine old innings, no doubt, but in the last season or three the old bean has seemed to lose the faculties somewhat, so if he is lofted on the shoulders and carried off into the sunset, he has my blessing. ‘All hail that Foster chappie, at least for the time being’, is very much my motto.
As such, having nailed my colours to this particular mast, I rather find myself bending over backwards to applaud Forster’s every contribution – never missing an opportunity in so doing to pointedly highlight how Lloris would never achieve such glories – and excusing his mishaps. And there were arguments in both camps yesterday.
For a start, and in the debit column, Forster made a couple of very good saves. One in particular, in the first half, involved some of that quick-reaction stuff, which always looks good when replayed from multiple angles. It was a low shot, well within his vicinity, but involved him bringing the entire frame down towards the dirt in double-quick time. This he achieved within the necessary timescale, managing to scoop back a ball that seemed almost behind him. Buoyed by feverish anti-Lloris sentiment, I applauded as if he had taken a bullet for the Pope.
I also noted that at one point a corner was hoisted into the general mess of limbs that is the penalty area, and where Lloris tends to flap around in such situations, Forster got such a meaty paw onto the thing that it flew off towards somewhere near halfway. Again, the reaction at AANP Towers was mightily overblown.
The whole propaganda machine was thus pootling along pretty smoothly until that second half free-kick. Even I can admit that Forster did not really cover himself in glory at that juncture.
The shot may have ended up at the opposite end to that which he had opted to patrol, but still. It was not in the top corner for a start, and more pertinently, he actually did the hard part well enough, transferring himself from right to left in good time. All that was left was to bring that same meaty paw back into play, and bat the thing off into the gay old meadows of Villa Park. Instead, he got himself in a bit of a tangle, and batted the thing into the roof of the net.
Now my Spurs-supporting chum Ian, not being one to hold back on a spot of constructive criticism, duly acted as judge, jury and executioner and delivered an instant take on Forster’s attempts, and not a complimentary one.
My immediate reaction was to point out that at least he tried to save the thing; Lloris, I inevitably argued, would have stood rooted to the spot and watched. And Forster, in his defence, did have a lot of bodies around which to peer. Failing to slap the ball away may be a flaw; not being able to see straight through the human body is not.
But nevertheless, he might have done better. Coming at a time when we were just beginning to impose ourselves, it did much to kill off the game too. While there’s no knowing what the hell will be going on at the club next season, the AANP vote would be for a younger, shinier upgrade on Lloris to be unwrapped pretty sharpish; and for Forster to remain in situ as this season, backing up when required.