1. That Late Equaliser
Nothing quite wrenches the gut like conceding an added-time equaliser, what? If you don’t mind a remarkably early tangent, one of the oddities of such things is the change in narrative it brings about, with the great and good effortlessly swivelling from a narrative of Spurs showing spirit to grind out a win to, one set-piece later, Spurs’ lack of game management in one of their worst showings of the season.
Back to the wrenched gut, and when all concerned adopted their positions for that final free-kick, AANP would gladly have directed all three wishes from the nearest genie towards a Tottenham head getting to the ball first. Picture my delight then, when, upon delivery of the f.k., the head that rose to prominence belonged to one of our own, Cristian Romero taking a spot of initiative. It was high-fives all round at AANP Towers, Everton having seemingly been denied and the danger averted.
Alas, to my considerable consternation it quickly became evident that this was but the first element in a quite horrific two-parter. Romero’s part having been played well enough, the immediate sequel somehow saw the Everton laddie Branthwaite and poor old Vicario drawn together in close-quarter combat, with nary another soul in sight.
The mood at AANP Towers swiftly darkened. Vicario is a man of many goalkeeping (and, indeed, outfield) talents, the strings to his bow being rich and plentiful; but standing up to some brutish lump in a duel to the death is not amongst them. Vicario, already back-pedalling was duly flattened, as that Branthwaite creature skirted over the finer points and simply bundled into the net the ball, goalkeeper, self and anything else that happened to catch his eye. In neatly appropriate fashion, Vicario sustained a blow to the gut in the process.
So no blame attached to Romero; and while Vicario might have offered a bit more resistance (as shall be explored below) the damage by that point seemed already done. As such, the initial reaction was simply to bemoan the rotten luck of the ball looping so invitingly to an Everton head.
But a little further investigation revealed that in fact there were culprits galore dotted about the place.
The dashed free-kick in the first place. Review the footage and one notes Richarlison losing possession in his own half in the first place, which was unimpressive but I suppose not, at that stage terminal. Next, and after a spot of this and that amongst the principals, the responsibility for matters fell upon Kulusevski.
Having lost a 50-50, which was excusable enough, rather than try something constructive to redeem the situation, or indeed simply put his head down and chase back, Kulusevski took an unsubtle swipe at the legs of the Everton man from behind. It was comfortably the most knuckle-headed option on offer, being both utterly unnecessary whilst also presenting a free-kick in prime position to a side whose only threat had been from set-pieces.
Nor did the ignominy end there. The headlines of that second goal may by now be familiar to all – Romero, Branthwaite, et cetera – but there comes a time in a man’s life when he must pause and ask himself precisely why it was that Branthwaite was left unchallenged in the six-yard box at the depth.
The guilty party, rather regrettably, given his contributions in other areas, was Richarlison. Attached to Branthwaite at the moment of delivery, he retained an observer’s interest in events as they unfolded, his beady eye remaining on the ball throughout. The crux of the thing, however, was that Richarlison’s presence ought to have been in the capacity of a participant rather than an observer, and in this respect he erred pretty sensationally. Once the ball was airborne, the chap simply stopped moving. Branthwaite jostled his way into prime position, whether in hope, expectation or whatever else; but behind him, Richarlison was making it pretty clear that his race was won. ‘If anyone is going to stop that chap’, he seemed to intimate, ‘it dashed well won’t be me.’
2. Richarlison’s Happier Moments (Or What Ought To Have Been Happier Moments) – Part One
As mentioned, a shame that the trail of evidence can be traced back to Richarlison for that one, because in other respects he looked a man in the form of his life.
Now a cynic might suggest that his first goal didn’t amount to much, perhaps pointing out that he simply stood in one spot and had the ball fed to him on a plate, leaving him with a To-Do list that contained little more than to stand on one leg and swing with the other. Not necessarily untruths I suppose, but this in itself seemed to illustrate the fellow’s brimming confidence. The nous to stand in one spot, for a start, was indicative of a striker who knows he is on a bit of a roll, rather than trying too hard to be in all places at once.
And even the finish, whilst low on technical requirements such as first touch, the side-stepping of defenders or the deceiving of the goalkeeper, was nevertheless a bit of a triumph of slick technique. After all, who amongst us hasn’t witnessed this very same man at the vital moment tripping over real or imaginary obstacles, or thumping the ball everywhere except within the frame of the goal? To see him simply slap the ball first-time into the net, without pausing to dwell on any of the ways in which the operation might go wrong, was mightily pleasing.
An honorary mention to those involved in the build-up to that first goal, the neat, quick passing of that move summing up our approach in those glorious first ten minutes or so, before we spent the remainder of the half struggling to control proceedings. Hojbjerg (whose contributions typically swung wildly between Decent and Rotten), Udogie and Werner all made smart choices in possession out on the left before Richarlison applied the coup de grâce, and at that stage I must confess that I topped up the lunchtime bourbon in rather self-satisfied fashion. The early signs were pretty promising.
3. Richarlison’s Happier Moments (Or What Ought To Have Been Happier Moments) – Part Two
By the time Richarlison’s second goal rolled around, the atmosphere had shifted somewhat, from heady optimism to something considerable sterner, our heroes struggling to demonstrate any semblance of control when in possession in our own half. But out of the blue they chiselled another delightful goal, and while Richarlison again made a point of showing the world that he was a changed man in front of goal, the build-up once more merited acclaim.
Maddison in particular emerged with credit from that second goal. In truth, it was a bit tricky to follow in its entirety quite what sorcery he produced, the naked eye being rather unfairly limited to seeing these things in real-time, but the headlines seemed to be that having received the ball in a bit of a pickle, circumstances not really being at their optimum – ball stuck under his feet, defenders poking their noses into his business – by the time he had finished conducting his affairs the ball was neatly rolling into the path of Richarlison to spit on his hands and get down to business.
Not that the end result was a tap-in for R9. The pouty Brazilian still had a fair amount of legwork to get through before he could go reaping the harvest, but again it was indicative of the mood of the young fish that he didn’t pause to fret and over-think, nor rush into his shot and hit any one of the various blue-shirted bounders scattered between him and the goal.
To his credit, Richarlison had the presence of mind to open up his body a tad, in the split-second or so in which the opportunity presented itself, this allowing a route to the top corner to present itself where previously there had been only Everton limbs. Moreover, the chap then nailed the pretty testing combination of placement and power, managing to sidefoot his shoot such that it dripped with accuracy, whilst also shoving enough heft behind it that it flew in at a decent rate of knots.
It’s taken some time, but the young nib is now marauding about the place like a bona fide finisher, which, for all his earnest endeavour and essential contributions in other areas (holding up the ball, effecting the high press etc) is really the meat and drink of the role.
All that said, it did rather irritate to see him making such a song and dance of not making a song and dance about scoring. This trend for refusing to celebrate goals against one’s former employer is one of those maddening modern fads that AANP would punish with a good thrashing if I ever came to power, but I suppose we’re stuck with it for now, so I can do little more than point out that in trying so hard not to upset his former fan-base, he’s rather irked at least one member of his current fan-base. I trust he will toss and turn and lose a goodish amount of sleep puzzling over that one in the coming nights.
4. Van de Ven
The other notable contributor de jour was young Micky Van de Ven, whose importance to the setup seems to grow with each passing game.
AANP’s latest whizz for whiling away the idle hour is to try to decide who amongst our number is the most important cog in the machine. And while Maddison, Son, Sarr and Vicario all have their merits, and in more left-field moments one might propose Udogie or even, when in his pomp, Bissouma, yesterday was the sort of afternoon on which the merits of Van de Ven seemed almost irresistible.
That turn of pace is really quite astonishing. The memory of his hamstring snap a few months ago against Chelsea does linger uncomfortably in the memory, so every time I witness him rev up and move through the gears I do hold the breath and murmur a silent prayer or two, but to witness him in action is quite something.
I have heard it pointed out that not only does he eat up the ground like some prize racehorse, but he is also blessed with the good sense to know when to dive in and when to stay on his feet – which may sound straightforward enough, but in a world of Romeros and Bissoumas and so on, is probably something to be appreciated.
Having a chap of his ilk manning the rear provides an attacking thrust as well as the defensive security, allowing the entire mob to play high up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that VDV’s pace provides something of a safety net, and while the other personnel did not really fulfil their side of the bargain yesterday, Van de Ven did not miss a trick.
One could probably make a decent case for the notion that Everton’s aggression caused us problems all over the pitch, but it was at corners and against Vicario that the issue really came to a head.
Various of those in lilywhite have invested a decent amount of energy and outrage in complaining that the general buffeting of Vicario at corners is just not cricket, and that such behaviour ought not to be allowed. Personally I’m inclined to give the shoulders a shrug at that one. If the officials allow it – and the evidence of recent weeks indicates that they have done and will continue to do so for the foreseeable – then complaints ought to be silenced and energies devoted to fixing the issue.
Assigning Vicario some sort of burly minder might be an agreeable first step. One appreciates that all involved at corners have their dedicated roles and responsibilities (not that these necessarily carry too much weight in practice, if Richarlison’s marking of Branthwaite is anything to go by), but I would suggest that some physical protection for Vicario is now a priority.
And we’re not short of suitable candidates either. Even allowing for two or three man-markers, there are plenty amongst our number who are constructed from layer upon layer of thick muscle and ligament, so finding a volunteer to park himself next to our goalkeeper and prevent opponents from interfering in his business ought to be achievable.
The other option, of course, would be to train Vicario himself in a spot of self-defence, and perhaps investigate ways in which a bit of bulk could be added to his frame while at it. Vicario’s first reserve, Fraser Forster, I imagine, by virtue of being built like a sizeable oak, is not the sort of fellow who is too often barged off balance as he goes about his business, so he may have a tip or two to impart on these fronts.
Whatever the route they go down, something will have to be done. Clearly it is not sufficient for Vicario to be shoved to one side and bleat away at the ref after the ball is prodded in. Everton did not create too many chances from open play, but the mood amongst my little squadron of onlookers was one of ever-increasing panic each time they were awarded a corner, so it is conceivable that a certain anxiety may enter the minds of those on the pitch. Having achieved so much in open play, it would be vexing in the extreme to concede repeatedly from corners because of one single issue. Time for The Brains Trust to earn their keep.