Beginning geographically, and our newest custodian actually began his lilywhite career by making a solid pig’s ear of things, with a pass firmly planted off into the stands. Thereafter, however, Vicario certainly gave the impression of being well fitted by Nature for life with the ball at his feet. In fact, at times he came across as one of those chappies in a 5-a-side team who takes their stint in goal only because they absolutely have to, but is far happier outfield and will make the point by regularly straying out of their area to join in the keep-ball.
And in that respect I thought he ticked along nicely. Easy to forget, but in recent years we’ve been treated to the sight of Lloris’ brain appearing to melt every time he had to deal with the ball at his feet. Vicario by contrast was pretty laid-back about ball-on-turf matters.
I must admit that the sight of him casually stroking the ball to a chum on our penalty spot quickened the old pulse a dashed sight more than is ideal on a Sunday afternoon, but he seemed to consider it all a bit of a non-event and just kept doing it. And since nobody around him demurred, and given that it was also entirely in keeping with the broader Ange-ball approach, I fairly quickly became a fully paid-up signatory.
In other respects there were limited grounds for wild and premature over-reactions. He had no chance with either goal; claimed the occasional cross; and pootled off on one ill-advised little wander late one, which on another day might have resulted in another penalty. But by and large he kept his head down and amused himself by milking every opportunity to play the ball with his feet.
2. Van de Ven and Udogie On the Left
A nervous eyebrow was raised pre-match at the sight of both of Messrs VDV ^Udogie stationed across the left side of our back four. Not to cast aspersions on their characters or abilities of course, or to question the impeccable judgement of our newest grand fromage, but still. Throwing in one fellow for his first taste of life in a Spurs defence does prompt the sharp intake of breath and silent prayer – and, frankly, carries the risk of traumatising the young nib in question – but one generally reassures oneself by looking along the line at more experienced bods east and west.
To have two such new faces stationed at the back suggested that Ange either brimmed with confidence in the abilities of both, or was happy to play pretty fast and loose with our back-line.
Mercifully, it proved a pretty inspired call. Van de Ven came across as one of those chaps who knew where and when a crisis might brew and his services be required, and conscientiously galloped off to the appropriate coordinates on schedule. He was pretty unfortunate to pop the ball into his own net, but that deflection aside his touch looked pretty assured, and the fabled burst of pace was in good working order throughout.
Young Master Udogie was even more impressive. I’m glad that he rather than I was asked to bob about the place as an ‘inverted full-back’, because the concept makes my head swim a goodish bit, but he seemed pretty up-to-speed with the T’s and C’s of the deal. It seemed a nifty concept, allowing for an extra body in attack, and Udogie did it well; but crucially also had the good sense to keep an eye on his defensive duties at all times. He is evidently the sort of johnnie who takes the defensive stuff pretty seriously too, as witnessed by some robust thou-shalt-not-pass stuff at various points in the second half in particular.
When one realises that the main defensive lapses had their genesis on our right side, one appreciates all the more the efforts of VDV and Udogie, the contrast between this pair on the left and the Emerson-Sanchez axis on the right being noticeable.
Possibly foremost amongst a healthy selection of positives were the works and deeds throughout of one Yves Bissouma. After some pretty underwhelming stuff from him last season, this felt a lot more like the laddie about whom we all raved and back-slapped last summer when he first pitched up at the door.
In fact, this actually surpassed what I had been expecting of him last season. To my shame, I had him down as pretty much Destroyer of Opposing Bright Ideas, and little else. Mark my surprise, then, when I realised as today’s frolics unfolded, that the fellow is actually also an impish master of the Fleet-Footed Skip Around Attempted Opposing Challenges. Put another way, I assumed Bissouma’s trademark would be his tackling; I was ill-prepared for adeptness also in the field of dribbling.
And yet, with a dip of the shoulder and a spot of close control, he could often be spotted weaving his way forward past a challenge or two before handing the mic over to a nearby chum to clear their throat and hammer out a line of their own. I’ll whisper it, and qualify it as dreadfully early to say such things, but it even reminded me of the way one Mousa Dembele would transfer matters from his own half to the opposition’s, leaving bystanders to do little more than flap at him.
With Maddison (more on whom below) alongside – or, rather – further forward to receive Bissouma’s produce, the midfield actually began to glisten a bit, a million miles from the drudgery of last year. Give everyone a bit of time to get used to the new way of things, and then throw in Bentancur in a few months, and this really could be mouth-watering stuff.
Maddison was another who attracted the approving nod from this quarter. It’s no particular exaggeration to suggest that he is the first creative midfielder we’ve had in our ranks since Eriksen oiled off, but whereas a bête noire of mine about the latter was that he would too often drift on the periphery of matters, Maddison seemed possessed of just the right level of confidence-bordering-on-arrogance to elbow his way into the centre of things and demand possession at every given opportunity.
And once given possession, he peddled a dashed handy line in making things tick. Not all his attempted tricksy diagonals and cute reverse passes necessarily came off, but he tried them throughout, and fed into the overall narrative of our lot as a team with a bit of zip and creativity about us.
He also has a most becoming habit of collecting the ball on the half-turn and leaving a flailing opponent in his rear-view mirror. The progressive shuffle from Bissouma around halfway, to Maddison inside the opponents’ half, and then on again towards Richarlison or Kulusevski or whomever, was pleasing to observe.
On top of which, that free-kick delivery for our opener was as much a joy to behold as it was no doubt fiendishly difficult to defend. Another most useful string to the bow.
5. The Rest of the Midfield (Bundling in Emerson, Son and Kulusevski Here, As Well As Skipp)
However, while Bissouma and Maddison caught the eye, I feel I would be wilfully deceiving to suggest that Skipp reached similar heights. He was certainly there, in the flesh, no doubt about it, and presumably statistics abound to suggest that he completed passes and covered a few miles, but I do struggle to remember contributing much to the overall jamboree. This may be a good thing, I suppose, in a ‘ticking things over’ sort of way. But nevertheless, as he departed the scene, the words ‘Hojbjerg Tribute Act’ rather cruelly sprang to mind.
The other questionable element in midfield was Emerson Royal. I use the term ‘midfield’ a little loosely, but you get my drift – part of the new whizzy set-up evidently involves the right-back shuffling into a deep-lying central midfield sort of area, and one understands the logic. Credit to the chap also, for daring to take a shot, a strategy that most of his chums seemed to regard often with suspicion and at times a deep-rooted aversion.
But nevertheless, if we are to stick an extra body in midfield, I would vote in future for someone a bit cannier on the ball than Emerson. Put bluntly, Trent he is not.
Moreover, for all the modern tweaking to his roles and responsibilities, Emerson’s job title remains ‘Right-Back’, and in this respect he was far from flawless, not least in allowing the equaliser (and very nearly a third on the stroke of half-time).
And one further, slightly deleterious consequence of the new-fangled formation is that it struck me as slightly limiting the contributions of Messrs Son and Kulusevski. I suppose they might just have had subdued days, or not quite grasped the intricacies of their respective roles, but both seemed a little marooned out wide, and either reluctant to or forbidden from venturing into more central areas. One about which our newest Glorious Leader can give the chin a few further strokes, perhaps.
A brief note on poor old Richarlison, who will no doubt be eternally damned by some for the crime of not being Harry Kane.
I suspect even his most ardent fans would admit that his afternoon’s work was fairly unspectacular stuff. He had perhaps two chances, neither of which were entirely straightforward, and neither of which he made the most of. In truth it seemed to me that for all their willing and endeavour, those around him did not quite know how best to service the chap, and, as a result, for all his huff and puff there was little chance of him blowing anything down in a hurry.
A slightly more developed understanding between Richarlison and the other 10 will presumably evolve in time – and this hits upon a point I was yammering on about to anyone who would listen pre-match, viz. that his dubious stats from Season 22/23 were based on intermittent appearances and rarely in the Number 9 role. To suggest that his limited output last season is down to plain ineptitude would rather overstate things a bit too dramatically. Given the opportunity this season for a run of matches, in the central striking role he occupies for Brazil, I would have thought there is a good chance he’ll start popping away his opportunities.
Moreover, as my Spurs-supporting chum Dave pointed out, Richarlison’s out-of-possession strengths, specifically in leading the high press, adds an element to our play that we didn’t necessarily have with the last chap leading the line. Specifically, he conjectured that part of the reason we had so much possession and looked the likelier winners, in the second half in particular, was that Richarlison’s beavering meant Brentford’s centre-backs rarely had sufficient time to play the ball out.
AANP’s pre-match prediction had been “4-3, to whom I’m not sure,” and if that were a tad fanciful I was pretty satisfied nevertheless with what I witnessed. There’s the obvious caveat that we didn’t actually win the bally thing, and to emerge with a draw despite having dominated a lot of possession hardly screams a successful day out; but that I grudgingly accept a draw away to a proven and settled Brentford side already seems an improvement on last season’s (and indeed the previous seasons’) drudgery.
For a start, this was vastly more fun to watch than the previous seasons’ fare. Whichever member of our gang was in possession today was pretty intent on finding a short pass as a matter of urgency. While this led to a few comical exchanges of multiple short-distance one-twos, overall the effect was most pleasing upon the eye. Unlike in previous seasons, those in our colours seemed pretty clear on the game-plan.
Understanding between those on the pitch will presumably take some time to develop, but whereas in previous seasons the poor blighter in possession would often give his arms a flap and spend a good five seconds searching for an option before spinning around and blooting the dashed thing south, today the default was to venture north, and passing options abounded.
There are, naturally, plenty of areas for improvement – as mentioned earlier we were rather shot-shy; Sonny and Kulusevski seem a tad forlorn; right-back remains a slightly squiffy issue; and so on – but here at AANP Towers this certainly felt like a pretty sizeable breath of fresh air, and a marked change from and improvement upon what had gone before.