1. Almightily Dashed Annoying
West Ham, to their credit, were physically present. There were definitely eleven of them on the pitch, so well done them; but beyond responding ‘Aye’ when the register was taken I didn’t think they contributed much else of note. They were skin-of-their-teething it throughout the first half, and only perked up in the second when, through no merit on their part – or particular fault on ours – the ball pinballed off two our number this way and that, before obligingly rolling slap bang into the path of one of their bounders so lost in his own thoughts in the six-yard box that at first he appeared not even to notice his luck. Irritatingly, not only did the penny drop, but the run of the ball was such as to make it pretty difficult to not score. To report that a fruity oath escaped the AANP lips is understating it.
After which, West Ham perked up a bit and flung every available limb about in pursuit of the defensive cause, but still looked decidedly useless in attack. More than once the thought struck me that a better team would have picked us off on the counter, but their lot swung rather hopelessly when approaching goal. Even so, it was a bit much for the boy Udogie to present them their second quite so obligingly. ‘At least make them work for it, dear boy,’ was the family-friendly interpretation of the AANP response to that one (whilst noting that again, in keeping with West Ham’s woeful attacking, they still almost managed to gum up the thing).
The point of all of the above is that, as I saw neatly put elsewhere, this was a game that we lost, rather than one that our visitors won. Blasted annoying it is too, far more so than any of the previous, recent losses. This is to an extent on account of the ridiculous luck around the first goal conceded; the moment of knuckle-headedness about the second; and also the luck involved in that second, in that the shot that hit the post could, theoretically, have bounced off in any bally direction instead of beelining – yet again – so neatly into the path of a West Ham sort as to render it impossible not to score.
Anyway, whilst all of the above has meant I have spent most of my Friday aiming angry kicks at small animals and errant children, it also represents the latest failing of our heroes to hammer home the advantage during a first half hot-streak. As ever, AANP remains fully supportive of the swift one-touch passing and whizzy movement of all concerned in the final third, and that it meant West Ham barely touched the thing in the first half was a positive; but dash it all, at some point one of the regiment really needs to clear his throat and do the decisive thing. Top off all the pretty patterns by planting the ball in the net, is what I’m getting at. And if our lot would even go so far as to score three or four times while the iron is hot, then it would be fine with me.
Oddly enough, the most prolific we’ve been in recent weeks was against Man City, in which we spent at least half the gig penned in and clinging on. On that occasion, in front of goal it seemed to be all dead-eyed accuracy and shots targeted so perfectly as to go in off the woodwork. That game apart, one has had the sense that we could have played for several hours without doing the necessaries.
Richarlison’s second half header rather captured the state of things – full marks for build-up, and no lack of effort from the chap taking the shot, but directing the ball an inch or two wide of the post just isn’t the point of the exercise.
2. Kulusevski On The Right
In terms of personnel, the selection of Hojbjerg, to keep an eye on the back-door, ahead of Gil and his more forward-thinking outlook, while understandable to a degree (Gil having offered little of note last time out), seemed to hinder things a tad.
For a start, Hojbjerg does always give the impression of being a sort for whom creative forward nudges do not come naturally. Station him in front of a defence rooted in and around its own penalty area, and Hojbjerg springs to life; but ask him to pop a casual pass that slices open the opposing back-four and one can sense his agitation. It is not his comfort zone. In that first half he seemed to slow down rather than stimulate our attacking play. If anything he would have been a better fit in the colours of the other lot.
Moreover, his presence, alongside Sarr and Bissouma, meant that Kulusevski was back out on the right, after his brief recent stint in a more central role. Now one understands that Kulusevski brings benefits out on the right. When receiving the ball from defence in particular, and shuttling over the halfway line – a general sequence of events that could be stamped with the headline, “The Middle Third” – there are few better.
But when it comes to the final third, and the opposition penalty area, the narrative tends to begin with him cutting back onto his left foot, and end with the ball either sailing off for a goal-kick or being drilled straight into the nearest defender. It struck me that he came away with a much more impressive haul of goodies when able to go flying into the area from a more central position, wearing a lanyard on which was printed ‘Finisher’ rather than ‘Provider’.
In fact, in the opening minute last night, he evidently had not yet found his allocated seat and popped up as what you might call a left-sided striker, slipped in by Son and very nearly poking in from close range.
While, as mentioned, I understand the benefits he brings on the right, particularly in chipping in his tuppence worth in build-up play, I’d nevertheless raise a hand in support of a motion that had Johnson wide right and Kulusevski given a bit more freedom to poke his nose into affairs from the centre.
It has been suggested in some quarters that our heroes ran out of puff in the second half, after their efforts of the first half – which were undoubtedly worthy of the half-time nod of approval, but irritatingly limited in output.
I’m not so sure about that ‘ran out of puff’ theory myself. Perhaps; but then, on the other hand, perhaps not. Difficult for an eye as untrained as mine to gauge the energy levels of all the dramatis personae when I was so busy trying to stop the veins bursting from my forehead in exasperation at those goals conceded.
But whether it was a dip in energy, or a reinvigorated opposing defence, our heroes seemed less able to get into the West Ham box in the second half than the first. The one fellow who did seem still to have some ideas about him, even as the clock ticked down, was young Porro.
It may or may not be coincidence that he is also the one remaining, natural crosser of the ball in the ranks, but whether it was from crosses out wide or little darts and short passes further infield, he gave the impression of being convinced throughout that there remained life in the old dog.
I do actually wonder what Our Glorious Leader made of his second half crosses from wide. On the one hand they were of a pretty high standard – pacy, head-height and generally doing all that the inviting cross should. On the other hand, Ange is very obviously a ringmaster who demands that operations are carried out in a certain way, and the slinging of crosses towards a queue of waiting foreheads stretches the definition of Ange-Ball to its very limit.
For what it’s worth it struck me as a useful tactic, not only because of the threat it posed, but also in forcing the West Ham mob to pause and give a spot of reflection to their general configuration. Variety, I thought, forehead vein still throbbing, was not the worst idea.
Either way, while it came to naught, one can probably slap a gold star next to the name of Porro, P. (as that of Romero, C., from my vantage point). Mercifully, the next shinding rolls along double-quick, which ought to soften the rather foul mood about the place – providing, of course, we translate the inevitable early dominance into a whole shedload of goals.