As ever, the man of the match award became a secondary detail to the triumph of the collective and their defensive discipline, because once again this was a win fashioned from impeccable tactical set-up and execution.
However, not for the first time, one got the impression that P-E Hojbjerg Esq. is the sort of chap whose first action on emerging from the womb was immediately to look around and win back possession. And then clench his fists on a job successfully completed.
While the collective of Sky Sports bods seemed ready to grab the nearest axe and go on a murderous rampage in bitter moral protest at what they were witnessing, Hojbjerg reacts to Jose-ball like a giddy child let loose in a toy factory. Give him a game-plan of sitting in front of a deep back-four, rolling up his sleeves and doing the grubby stuff, and he tears out onto the pitch and towards the ankles of the nearest opponent before the instructions have been fully delivered.
There will presumably be other fixtures in which the cape is donned by those personnel with rather more subtlety and guile in their play, but during this run of fixtures against title-challengers – and Other West Ham – Hojbjerg might just be the most important cog in the whole machine. In games such as these, in which the stakes are high and the opponents particularly dangerous (or, as today, opponents for whom this is a cup final), the role of Destroyer-in-Chief is critical.
The AANP heart always skips a beat when I see Hojbjerg rolled out for the Thursday-night Europa group drivel, because an injury to this chap would not so much knock the stuffing from us as pummel straight into the rib-cage and yank out the beating heart. Unlikejust about every other position in the pitch, I’m not sure we have anyone in the squad who has remotely the appropriate skillset to deputise.
Back to today, and amidst a whole team of hard-grafting worker bees, Hojbjerg’s was the hard graft and bee-working standard to which the others could look for inspiration, in each of the tackling, intercepting, harassing and uncomplicated passing categories. I’d recommend the chap pours himself a bourbon and puts his feet up, but I rather suspect he unwinds by chewing on some raw glass and finding the nearest bear whom he might wrestle.
Once upon a time, in a world before bubbles and lockdown, the AANP Dictionary defined Serge Aurier as something along the lines of ‘Bringer of calamity’. For all his undoubted prowess on the front-foot, one could hang one’s hat on some unnecessary dereliction of duty, typically with consequences of the gravity of own goals, penalty concessions or red cards.
It was well-documented stuff, and as such the summer arrival of Matt Doherty was the prompt for a look or two towards the celebratory cigars, as I wondered whether Aurier’s catalogue of errors might be consigned to Thursday nights.
Instead, in a plot-twist that I’m not sure even the keenest mind anticipated, the turnaround in Aurier’s output has had me not so much rubbing my eyes as questioning the very fabric of existence.
While Doherty has taken a little time to find his bearings in lilywhite, if you don’t mind the rather generous euphemism, Aurier has reacted to the presence of competition for his spot – and, presumably, to the instruction of Our Glorious Leader – by transforming into the model of positional and decision-making discipline.
Having Sissoko stationed within eyeballing distance presumably helps, but let nothing detract from the praise that Monsieur Aurier is due. The madcap forays out of position are pretty much a thing of the past now, as are the similarly madcap lunges within the penalty area. The transformation from classroom rebel to responsible prefect might be one of the less glamorous success stories of the ages, but the curious fellow is now nailed on right-back in the meanest and most disciplined defence in the league.
A spot of context might be necessary on this one, because the casual observer would be well within his rights to query the T’s and C’s of a commendation for our resident shot-stopper on a day on which he had precious few shots to stop.
However, Thursday night’s performance left us wondering if Marine away really was such a straightforward tie, with Joe Hart in particular giving the impression that his benefit to the squad lies in the area of dressing room yelps (or left arm seam) rather than actually getting his paws to the ball.
And when a rumour began to whizz hither and thither that Monsieur Lloris might be forced to sit out today’s bash, the collective gulp fairly echoed around North London, as the two and two were put together with the conclusion that Joe Hart might be entrusted with repelling the ball through the use of his endless bellowing.
Mercifully, the starting line-up revealed no such eventuality, and while Hugo’s first half brief was largely restricted to “Regarder”, matters biffed up a few notches at the start of the second half.
This was probably the period in which Other West Ham were at their most threatening, and had they scored then the dynamic might have taken a ninety-degree turn or two. I therefore gave Lloris a pretty rousing hand for his save from a flicked Lacazette header, not least because it was goalbound and the sort of fare at which Joe Hart has been flapping, but also because Lloris executed that rarest of skills and actually held onto the thing – as opposed to punching or pushing it back into play. This capacity to hold the ball was particularly critical given that it occurred on the goal-line and slap bang in the centre of the goal. Any slippery fingers at that juncture would have spelt almost certain calamity.
And for good measure Lloris was at it again five minutes later, tipping one around his right-hand post. In truth, not the most difficult save of a World Cup winner’s career, but having witness Hart’s bizarre attempt to fore-arm a shot out of harm’s way on Thursday, one does not take such things for granted.
4. Toby’s Block
A brief commendation also for Toby Alderweireld, and his impressively-executed block of a late Aubameyang shot.
The Jose-based set-up meant that such shots, representing as they do a breach of the tight-knit defensive wall, are pretty rare commodities. In general, our lot are so deep that all the action happens in front of them, and any opponent wishing to crack one towards goal has something of an army of white shirts first to negotiate.
However, for some reason, on this occasion Other West Ham stole possession high up the pitch when a few too many of our lot were mooching forward, and for one ghastly minute it looked like Aubameyang had snuck in behind the rear.
It was the sort of situation in which one could imagine Sanchez tripping over his laces, or Dier backing off ad infinitum, or Aurier circa 2019 flying in with studs up. Mercifully, Toby knows his beans, and did the decent thing, going toe for toe until the moment was right, and then extending a well-judged leg to repel the danger. One would like to imagine that on the sidelines, Ledley allowed himself a knowing smile.
5. The Goals
Amidst all the chattering about defensive duties and tactical shape it would be easy to be sucked into our own penalty area and forget the moments that really separated the wheat from chaff; but it would be thoroughly remiss simply to gloss over the fact that both our goals were of the highest order.
Even before Sonny let fly, the build-up stuff casually lobbed around by Kane was pretty special. Simply bringing under control the pass he received was quite a feat, but the vision and weighting of his pass into the left-wing channel, for Sonny to shimmy onto, was the sort of fare that made you feel lucky to be alive. The aesthetics alone of those diagonal passes into a space behind a full-back, are worth parting with hard-earned money to observe.
As for Sonny’s finish – heavens above, how much confidence must flow through that chap’s veins? Let’s be clear, we all saw the yawning gap that existed in the top right of the net, and all briefly imagined that if this were a computer game, or even a training session, one might casually seek to caress the ball with just the right amount of elevation and curl – but nobody in their right mind would actually try that sort of nonsense. And yet…
By comparison, the second goal was a simpler beast, but still a delightfully-executed counter. I feel like I have seen our lot squander far more of these overloads, in which we have more attackers than they defenders, than I have seen us score from them. On this occasion, however, it was played to perfection, with each of Lo Celso and Sonny making the perfect decision and with the perfect weight on their pass.
And again, with his rich appreciation of aesthetics, it was dashed good of Kane to thump the thing off the underside of the bar, for such visual and audio effects are always vastly more satisfying.
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