1. Maddison as Vicario’s Bodyguard
Easy to forget amidst all the joyous bedlam of full-time, but one of the burning questions going into this one was around the thorny issue of Vicario receiving more of the rough stuff at corners, and the ploy devised by Our Glorious Leader to negate such dastardly acts.
We didn’t have to wait too long to see the fruits of such planning, with Vicario being assigned his own personal bodyguard at corners, evidently tasked with inserting self in between goalkeeper and opposing, interfering forward. In a world in which meaty specimens such as Romero and Udogie and Richarlison lurk about the premises, I have to confess to raising a slightly alarmed eyebrow upon discovering that the identity of Vicario’s saviour was to be one J. Maddison Esq.
Now in a sense this added up. Heavyweights such as the aforementioned presumably already had their own important duties to carry out at corners; while Maddison comes across as the willing sort, always happy to take on an additional task that will help the collective, and even more so if it’s a high-profile little number.
On the other hand, however, there’s the delicate issue of what one might politely term ‘Suitability for the Role’. Putting it delicately, Maddison’s is not a physique of pure, unadulterated brawn and sinew. If I were to request, from an agency that handled such things, the services of a bit of muscle to protect me from harm of an evening, I’d be pretty cheesed off if they sent James Maddison my way, and would probably send him straight back and demand a refund. Of the entire squad, I imagine that only the wisp-like Bryan Gil would have any difficulty in shoving aside Maddison in any form of physical combat.
Nevertheless, it was better than the alternative, of simply allowing whichever forward (Welbeck yesterday, I think) an unhindered run at Vicario to flap in his face and barge him around as he pleased. And one might reasonably argue that the proof of the pudding was in the fact that Vicario being forced into errors at corners simply was not an issue yesterday, as it had been in previous games. (Although the caveat here is that Brighton’s delivery from corners was not so accurate as to put him under proper scrutiny.) Certainly, Maddison got into the spirit of the thing, all bravado and tugging and pulling each time the principals set themselves for a corner.
So a solution of sorts, but I do consider that a more rigorous test of this scheme, and Maddison’s abilities in the area of personal security, could be yet to come.
2. Not Quite At The Races
Is it just me or does every outing of the Good Ship Hotspur end in some dramatic stoppage-time goal, one way or the other? It certainly feels that way, to the extent that if one of our games finished 5-3 but with all scoring wrapped up by the 80th minute, I’d probably slope away in a bit of a mood, grumbling about not having received my money’s worth.
Anyway, whichever soul launched the gag about all being well that ends well certainly hit the bullseye yesterday, and I blush to admit that I rather lost my sense of propriety when Johnson popped up at the end, bounding about the place like one possessed, truth be told. All of which was well and good, and pretty much captures why we make the weekly pilgrimage in the first place; but it did also paper over the fact that this was a slightly squiffy sort of showing from our heroes.
The dubious tone was set within the first 30 second when young VDV, normally the sort of egg upon whom you’d bet your mortgage as well as the life of your least-favoured child, oddly floundered, losing his bearings, his sight of the ball and his understanding of gravity. Under minimal pressure he tripped over himself and into a little heap, allowing Welbeck to race off and send an early greeting Vicario’s way.
VDV was at it again for the penalty, dipping a foot into a spot he ought to have avoided; an episode that had its genesis in Bentancur miscalculating pretty significantly and being hustled off the ball on the edge of his own area. Bentancur was perhaps the poster-boy for the day’s travails, occasionally delivering his trademark wriggle from trouble, but too often caught dwelling in possession and failing to provide the steady hand to which we’ve become accustomed.
To be clear, however, this was not a case of VDV and Bentancur alone being at the heart of our troubles. Most in lilywhite seemed a little undercooked. Take Udogie, for example. Strangely muted, no? Vicario at one point ill-advisedly underarmed the ball to Bentancur in a most precarious spot; and so on.
Being a gracious sort, I can grudgingly admit that a lot of our under-performing was down to Brighton, whose high-press was pretty snappy, and whose short passing was at times terrific. In fact, the whole thing struck me as what would happen if our heroes played against themselves in one of those shiny computer games with fancy graphics.
Whatever the reason, for the first twenty or so, our lot were comfortably second best; and while we got back on top in the latter part of the first half, this owed as much to pressing high and turning over possession as to any particular guile in our build-up play. Following ingestion of the half-time victuals, our lot hit first gear for a good 25 minutes or so, which looked like it would bring a lot more that just the equaliser, and I confess that at that point I settled back into my seat with a rather smug sense of anticipation; only for our lot to lose their way again, and end up rather clinging on as the clock struck 90. A strange old knocking from our heroes, then.
Richarlison was another who didn’t quite hit the right notes, until he eventually did circa minute 96.
His first half miss when clean through (doff of the cap to Maddison for the pass, by the by) was pretty unforgiveable. One can bleat away all day about the goalkeeper spreading himself and whatever else, but that was about as straightforward as chances come, and a chap in his current form ought to have crossed t’s and dotted i’s with minimal fuss.
He delivered similar rot when given the opportunity to tee up Maddison for a straightforward finish, again before half-time. Admittedly that was a pass that required a tad more timing and weighting, but nevertheless it ought not to have been beyond a fellow whose juices have been flowing like his in the last six weeks or so.
It was a curious performance from Richarlison, because it was not one of those in which he skulked about the place like a moody teen, or wobbled unconvincingly, beset by a critical absence of confidence. He seemed right as rain in matters of the head, full of confidence and positivity. He just failed to deliver at the critical moments – until the finale.
At that point, he did a cracking job, delivering his lines to perfection. His pass for Son looked simple enough, but had he played it with any greater or lesser force Sonny would probably have had to break his stride – or strayed offside – and we’d all be grumbling about another drawn game we should have won. Instead, Richarlison (having been involved in the earlier build-up too), picked his moment and weighted his pass, and AANP duly forgave his earlier transgressions.
4. The Winning Goal
While Richarlison’s minor but critical role receives a light ovation from these parts, I’m inclined to shove the Best Supporting Actor trophy towards Sonny. One can take it for granted, but there aren’t too many nibs around who can go flying off at that sort of pace. His timing had to be on the money too, to stay onside, but mercifully the chap was fully alert to the situation, and crammed the best of all worlds into one single package – staying onside whilst building up a sufficient head of steam to outpace his opposing defender pretty comfortably.
There then followed the most critical part of the operation, viz. delivery of the pass. We could all see it, of course – and being the helpful sort, AANP took the opportunity to scream at the blighter a pithy but accurate instruction as to what was needed at this juncture – but it’s one thing seeing, and a different kettle of fish actually doing.
Mercifully, Son delivered to the millimetre. There was no messing around with additional touches, or considerations of taking it on himself, or any such nonsense. Son pinged the pass first-time, with a spot of curl to evade the stretching Estupinan, leaving Johnson with a pretty straightforward mission from 5 yards.
Johnson, as is well known, has attracted a decent amount of opprobrium over the months, principally for his delivery of a final ball, but if he excels in one area it is in understanding the value of arriving at the back post when potential is bubbling away on the opposite flank. He does it better than most of the others in our ranks, and there is something particularly pleasing about seeing a goal created by one wide attacker to be executed the other. If Son deserves credit for his burst of pace on the left, Johnson ought also to be lauded for acting similarly on the right – for all his attributes I’m not sure Kulusevski would have eaten up those yards.
For one horrific moment I did actually think that Johnson had managed to blast the ball over the bar, but the lad had the good sense not to lash at the thing, and the happy ending was safely tucked away.