It has been bleated at AANP a goodish amount – and I suppose with some justification – that I have a tendency to treat our heroes as a mother tiger would a favoured cub. That is, I can apparently land on the side of being a tad more generous towards them than their behaviour necessarily merits. Glossing over their mistakes, goes the claim, and rather over-egging things when it comes to dishing out the complimentary word.
And those who watched our lot magic a 4-0 deficit out of thin air last night might well waggle an exasperated finger at me and claim I’m letting them off too lightly yet again when I suggest that in possession at least, we generally crossed t’s and dotted i’s in required fashion, at least until we hit the Brighton penalty area.
But 4-0 or not, I remained pretty impressed with the speed and simplicity with which our lot peddled their usual routine of shifting the ball from south to north, lickety-split. Not quite ten out of ten for build-up, admittedly, but a general thumbs-up nevertheless.
The problem – in the first half in particular – was that once the build-up was taken care of and it came to spitting on their hands and seeing the thing through to completion, all concerned became rather bogged down in detail. The concept of just walloping the thing towards goal once within 20 yards or so was evidently a foreign one. An obsession seemed to have gripped all members of the troupe for passing the thing to death, and then squeezing out an additional pass or two for luck.
A fair amount of hot air was expelled at AANP Towers in yowling at Son and Richarlison in particular – but by no means exclusively – to yank on the dashed trigger at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep trying to thread their way to within spitting distance of the net.
I’m all for the style of play in general, which is off the scale in comparison to the dross of Conte, Nuno and Jose, but as Our Glorious Leader himself gruffled a few weeks ago, it’s not such great football if it fizzles out in a forest of opposition legs before topping up the Goals Scored column because we’ve overdone the build-up.
There was an improvement of sorts in the second half, notably in the umpteen efforts to play in Richarlison for a pop at goal. I suppose one has to wag a disapproving finger at the chap for straying a few inches offside each time, but I was at least heartened by his principle of having an immediate swing at goal rather than pirouetting away and searching for yet another needless pass.
And I was also encouraged by young Veliz, who made the most of a rare twenty-minute opportunity to show the watching world that he’s not one for procrastination when it comes to penalty area scraps. Sling him the ball in any sort of contortion of limbs, and his mantra seemed to be that he would untangle his feet, use the absolute minimum number of touches to work an opportunity and dig out a shot – typically all in a single, efficient movement. It brought him one goal, one shot saved at close-range and a delicious lay-off that nobody else in pinkish brown seemed to care about, but I was also for the young bimbo’s approach to life.
Oh that life in N17 comprised simply one attack after another. Irritatingly, these easy-on-the-eye moments are rather rudely punctured by the other mob scything through us pretty much at will whenever they have possession.
The ease with which opponents get at us is rather difficult to ignore. Even in the Van de Ven-Romero era, one was nagged by the sentiment that while that pair would do a fine job of extinguishing fires before they blazed out of control, they were still being called into action with alarming frequency. The issue is all the more concerning in their absence.
Not really being the most tactically-minded I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to uncovering the root cause of this unholy mess, but it I have been struck a few times by the fact that anyone wanting to get at us from the wings can simply waltz straight through with minimal interference from security personnel. I’m not sure if this is a result of Messrs Porro and Udogie galloping forward at every opportunity and therefore being ill-prepared for defensive duties, or whether the full-backs are deliberately instructed to tuck in fairly narrowly, giving opponents the freedom of the flanks. Be it one of those or some other genesis, the conclusion each time seems to be that if anyone on around the halfway line fancies a mooch around our penalty area a visit can be arranged tout de suite.
One might dig up extenuating circumstances for the various goals last night. The Kulusevski foul for the first penalty was as knuckle-headed as they come and not the sort of input for which one can really prepare; and the long-range goal from the corner, although strictly the sort of effort that decency should ensure is closed down before any harm can arise, was nevertheless something of a freak effort.
But the Lo Celso foul for the second penalty came about because he had let his man drift the wrong side of him in the penalty area; while the opening goal sprouted from the Joao Pedro being granted the freedom to jig his way past no fewer than five of our lot, none of whom seemed inclined to sharpen the elbows and take a spot of initiative.
On top of which, Vicario was called upon for a point-blank save from Welbeck, and Brighton hit the post on two other occasions. I continue to offer a mitigating shrug to Emerson and Davies, both of whom are evidently trying their damnedest in foreign climes at centre-back – but neither are fit for purpose in the role.
Put another way, our back-four seems to be populated in its entirety by a squadron of chappies who are all pretty competent on the ball, but, rather crucially, none of whom seem actually to be much good at defending. While I continue to be thoroughly entertained each week by the 90-minute mystery of whether we can simply outscore the other lot, the porous nature of our back-line does hinder the objective somewhat.
I suppose the other point that’s worth a spot of air-time is that the entire collective is now clearly quite frazzled. Ange-ball, though an absolute delight to behold, does seem to require each individual concerned to do the work of several men on a bi-weekly basis, one minute donning their attacking hat and hurtling into the penalty area, the next minute – or sometimes the very same minute – replacing that attacking hat with its defensive equivalent, and tearing back towards the criminally undermanned rear. Little wonder that the pose de jour appears to be being bent double, hands on knees, great gulps of O2 being glugged at every opportunity. Those January reinforcements cannot come fast enough.
Regular drinkers at this particular inn will no doubt see the headline ‘Hojbjerg’ and brace themselves for a spot of unrestrained AANP vitriol, the chap’s tendency to pass backwards with religious fervour, pausing only to wave his arms pointlessly at those around him, having rather made the forehead veins throb over recent years.
But in a pretty spectacular plot-twist, I come to praise Hojbjerb, not to bury him. I thought he made a pretty good fist of things last night. Limitations apply, of course. Any praise for Hojbjerg must be asterisked with the acknowledgement that he has nothing about him of the Mousa Dembele or Luka Modric, and as such ought not to be judged by such lofty standards. Instead, Hojbjerg picked up where young Oliver Skipp had left off at the weekend, and where Skipp insisted on biffing the ball straight back to whomever had given it to him with relentless monotony, Hojbjerg had at least enough sense of adventure to collect the ball on the half-turn, and look to pop it to someone in a more advanced spot.
He also threw in a couple of forward runs and picked a couple of forward passes into the path of the wingers, and in general gave the impression of a man not wedded to passing backwards upon pain of death, but instead approaching life with the more care-free attitude that dictates that if an opportunity for forward-thinking creativity opens he’ll shove in his chips. I approved.
And amidst these occasional dipping of toes into attacking waters, Hojbjerg also appeared to understand with perfect clarity that his primary purpose was to supplement the rearguard. Thus it transpired that when Brighton ambled into our territory, Hojbjerg was typically present, inserting himself either between or ahead of Emerson and Davies, and trying to stick a few fingers in dikes as the situation required.
The moral of the story remains that the squad is in pretty desperate need of upgrades, but nevertheless, an honourable shift from Hojbjerg, better fare than he has been in the habit of trotting out, and very nearly crowned with a late goal that would have set up the most mind-boggling finish.
4. The Late Flurry
And what a dashed shame that that mind-boggling finish did not materialise, Hojbjerg’s injury-time tuppence worth coming back off the post rather than bouncing in, but I suppose hitting the frame of the goal isn’t really the point of the exercise. Christmas, as Hans Gruber neatly put it, is a time for miracles, but even by the most extreme, all-action-no-plot standards of our lot at their most madcap, a comeback from 4-0 down at the 80-minute mark would have been a bit much to swallow. Instead we had to settle for the curious coda that was our exhausted mob finding from nowhere a second wind that brought two late goals and several other presentable chances.
The sudden sense of urgency was an odd one to drink in. There remained a bit of a tendency to elaborate unnecessarily in and around the Brighton 6-yard box, when all in lilywhite were screeching at our heroes just to take a shot, old habits dying hard I suppose. But by and large, dithering was kept to a minimum and we gave the Brighton goal a bit of a peppering.
The caveat here is that Brighton, as one would at 4-0 up, had signed the thing off as a done deal, withdrawing personnel and fiddling with their formation. Nevertheless, it was heartening to see our lot pick them apart through various different approaches in that finale.
Oddly enough, the late flurry seemed to owe more to the collective than to any particular individuals. For all his honest beavering and body-feints, I’m not sure that Bryan Gil delivered one useful cross. Lo Celso conceded one penalty, came pretty close to conceding another and provided little more useful value during his cameo. But by virtue of popping around some slick one-twos, and whipping in a couple of handy crosses, the chances flowed fairly steadily in the closing stages.
As mentioned, young Veliz made the most of a pretty nondescript hand, and Sonny also perked up a bit in those closing stages. And, perhaps because they were unencumbered by the rigours of defending, Messrs Udogie and Porro made themselves useful in the attacking third. It all amounted to a strange old game, in which our lot weren’t particularly impressive, defended dreadfully at times, generally got bogged down whenever within shooting distance and yet still would have been good value for three or four goals. Give it a year or so and our lot will be quite the proposition, but for now it’s head-scratching stuff.