I’ll get to the salacious stuff in due course, but during the occasional first half moment when I paused to drink in the full extent of the catastrophe unfolding, one concept that kept bugging me was this business of Sessegnon at right wing-back.
In fact, even before the whistle peeped and all concerned sprung into action, my eye had been drawn to the teamsheet and the forehead had promptly creased. For a start, there was the sight of three more right wing backs, plus one Tanganga, on the bench. (Actually, this was rather well received at AANP Towers, as it meant that Emerson’s interference with proceedings had been restricted, but nevertheless, the cogs were whirring alright.)
Call me old-fashioned, but I had rather assumed that Sessegnon would be stationed on the left, with Perisic, a cove more used to swinging the right boot, assuming RWB duties. The sight of Sessegnon ambling around on the right from kick-off therefore threw me. It’s happened before of course, fleetingly here and there, but I’ve rarely seen the point of it, and the use of inverted wing-backs in a game as critical as this certainly did wonders for my repertoire of puzzled looks.
Whatever the plan was meant to be, it pretty much died at birth. When the stars align, Sessegnon can be an effective left wing-back – diligent in defence, and pretty willing to stick a foot on the accelerator and make a bit of hay in the final third. Last night however, the stars did not align. If anything, the stars came crashing down from their moorings.
Sessegnon did not make it to halfway, let alone the final third, so whatever the elaborate ruse was around using his left foot to cut inside on the right, we were dashed if we were going to get a glimpse of it. Instead, the young potato bobbed along around the edge of his own area throughout, and while he can’t really be faulted for effort, I felt anything but assured by the sight of him patrolling his spot. Indeed, Marseille’s first decent shot (the volley from the left that Hugo beat away) came about from an attempted Sessegnon clearance that apologetically bobbled about two yards.
A degree of sanity was restored towards the end of the first half, with Sessegnon switched back to the left, but the whole experiment struck me as pretty dashed odd – especially, to repeat, when countless naturally right-footed sorts were giving the beady eye from the substitutes’ bench.
None of this is to suggest that all our first half problems lay at the door of poor old Sessegnon, far from it. For a start the problems seemed a lot bigger than any single player (more on that later). And if we are singling out individuals then Eric Dier, a fellow from whom one would expect a lot better, inexplicably opted to lob a few passes back into our own penalty area, via some passing, low-hanging clouds, as a spirit of general ineptitude spread about the place like wildfire.
So it was not all Sessegnon’s fault by any means; but it would be no understatement to suggest that his deployment on the right baffled the dickens out of AANP.
2. Emerson’s Positive Contribution
Desperate times and all that, but even after observing the car crash that was our first half, and after seeing young Sessegnon square flap around on the right, come half-time I had not reached the stage of yearning for a spot of Emerson to solve things.
But someone in the camp obviously thought that was what was needed, so on he rolled, and promptly introduced himself to the galleries by heading a ball firmly to his right and out of play, when all ten of his teammates loitered at various points to his left.
This seemed ominous, if in keeping with his career to date, but I shifted it from my mind – as is healthy practice when taking in eyefuls of Emerson – and waited keenly to see what might unfold next. And I’ll be dashed if I were not treated to the sight thereafter, of Emerson generally doing the basics in competent and reliable fashion.
It helped, of course, that the entire collective upped their performance level about sixty notches, but nevertheless it was a pretty startling sight to see Emerson contributing healthily as required. Most welcome, but startling nevertheless. As various members of our mob oiled further up the pitch, passing options began to spring up everywhere you looked – and Emerson, to give him his dues, did not shirk responsibility in this respect.
Nor did he overcomplicate things unnecessarily, or bungle crucial interjections. On one or two occasions he galloped up into attack and pinged in a cross as the situation demanded, and while few would suggest that he existed on a different, superior plane to all others, he nevertheless contributed considerably to the marked upturn in our fortunes. Gradually we asserted a spot of control, and, remarkably, Emerson was a played a significant part.
If Emerson’s ability to do normal things made my eyes pop out of my head somewhat, Bentancur had the vaguely opposite effect, in that his ability yet again to rise a level or two above everyone else seemed simply to be standard operating procedure.
His anonymity in the first half was a tough one to swallow, but that painful drudgery having been very much a collective effort, one did not dwell. However, whatever the nature of the sorcery that was discussed and greenlit at the break, it seemed that Master Bentancur had been enlisted to play a pretty critical role. With Bissouma thickening things up in midfield (and, in the second half at least, producing one of his better performances in our ranks to date), Bentancur appeared to have a bit of licence to jolly off into attack as the urge grabbed him.
He rattled off his lines with aplomb. Dreamy technique never goes amiss, of course, and having been neutered in the first half he was right on the money second time around; but on top of which, the nature of the thing, with Marseille heaving forward and leaving themselves rather exposed at the rear, meant that Bentancur was often to be observed leading the charge over halfway, sprinting up towards their area, either with ball at feet and killer-pass on radar, or in support of whichever other chappie was at the controls.
It is true that as a collective our lot improved pretty much exponentially, but either because or due to that – and strong cases can be made in each camp – Bentancur was at the hub of much that was good in our second half play. Be it retaining possession and putting in a spot of game-management, or haring up towards their goal, Bentancur was the font from which our goodness spouted. A mild shame that he overhit the pass for Lucas, which would have had the latter through on goal, but that aside his was, again, a performance vastly superior to all others’.
4. First Half vs Second Half
Of course, the column inches on Sessegnon, Emerson and Bentancur amount to polite small-talk. The real front-page news was the umpteenth instance of our transformation from clueless and impotent in the first half, to clued up and punchy in the second – the prompt for such a metamorphosis, as ever, being the concession of a goal.
Why the hell our lot must always wait until falling behind to unleash their better selves is an absolute mystery, but to this end my attention was arrested by a sentence casually lobbed into conversation by Monsieur Lenglet during his post-match buttering last night. Lenglet stated – and I paraphrase here – that the johnnies in the camp were unsure, when pistols were drawn, whether the message from above was fight or flight.
This did not strike me as mightily encouraging. One would have thought that any team at any level would head off to battle with clear instruction ringing in their ears at least as to whether the general approach would be attack or defend. With Conte having a reputation as the sort of egg who drills home tactical instructions for every eventuality, I found the mind boggling a bit at the notion that Lenglet – and who knows how many others? – was not sure in even the broadest sense what the setup was supposed to be.
I certainly understand that a deficit in any game removes any lingering doubt. When trailing, after all, one is rather obliged to up the levels, in order to salvage something. However, the notion that at kick-off the players simply look at each other and shrug, none the wiser as to what course ought to be plotted until they fall behind, seems to me rummy in the extreme.
Another theory being bandied about the place is that Conte is essentially playing rope-a-dope, both in the short- and long-term. In each individual match he wants the opposition to expel every last ounce of puff by around the midway point, so that our heroes have that much more mileage to go snatching and grabbing the points at the death; and over the course of the season he would like us simply to keep pace with things until the World Cup, so that the shackles can be cast aside come the new year and the race be run with a spot more dash and elan. In truth, however, AANP treated this one with a pretty sceptical eye.
Perhaps more believable is the notion that Conte simply does not have much faith in our defence to do as bid, and therefore piles up the reinforcements each game, resulting in scenarios such as the first half last night, when all ten outfield players are wedged within spitting distance of Lloris, and there is no attacking outlet at all.
Whatever the reason, be it accident, design or some otherworldly intervention, it is pretty maddening stuff to ingest every three days. As numerous second halves have indicated, not only are our lot perfectly capable of playing on the front-foot, giving multiple passing options, defending relatively high up the pitch and winning the ball in midfield or higher, but they can actually do it pretty effectively.
All of which makes me fling my head back and howl at them for not simply adopting that approach from the off, and racking up the goals at various points prior to the absolute dying seconds of the game.
On a positive note, however, last night was, ultimately, an absolute joy, the like of which we haven’t experienced in the Champions League since Amsterdam. Qualifying for the knockout stages was a triumph, and I suspect ticked a box that most of us would have scrawled at the start of the season when pondering what a successful campaign would look like. To dump out in such manner a team stocked everywhere you looked with former Woolwich blisters added to the fun. And credit where due – for the third time in a week (albeit ruled out on one occasion by a dubious VAR) our heroes have come from behind to score a winner in the dying seconds, which represents a heck of an improvement from all those lightweight Spurs sides of my youth.