1. Second-Quickest to Everything, Dash It
As happens maybe every five years or so before a crunch game, I actually approached this one in a spirit of quiet optimism. The summer transfers, the pre-season hard work, Chelsea not quite looking themselves – it would be a stretch to say I foresaw us steamrolling them, but word definitely got about the place over the weekend that AANP thought we would edge this one.
I should have known better of course. Four decades of watching our lot should have taught me that if nothing else, just when it seems that things are looking up, we would find some way to make a pig’s ear of things.
The preferred method yesterday of gamming up the entire operation was to approach the thing from about five minutes in with a spirit of half-paced drowsiness. Our lot seemed convinced that they would have this thing won if only the other lot would leave them alone for a dashed minute or two. Each time anyone in lilywhite received the ball, the immediate reaction appeared to be to celebrate the fact by pausing, taking another touch, dwelling on it for a goodish bit, taking an additional touch, having a look around and then setting about the business of deciding what to do next.
I suppose one might kindly say that the theory behind this was reasonable enough, as one likes to get things just right in life, but in a bash against one of the best teams out there this was never going to wash. Chelsea rotters were swarming around our heroes as soon ball hit lilywhite boot. The above sequence never progressed beyond “pausing”. If it had not dawned upon our lot beforehand that matters were going to be conducted at breakneck pace in all areas of the pitch, it ought to have become clear once the game started and our every touch saw blue shirts harass the dickens out of us.
I’m not sure any of our number escapes censure for this, which is pretty troubling stuff. Kane had one of those days, which occasionally happens, when he drops deep in search of the thing, but finds the opposition are wise to the ruse, and have designated someone to shadow him like Mary’s bally lamb, nicking the ball from him before it even reaches him (I seem to recall Bissouma doing this to him last season).
Sonny’s every involvement had much about it of Hudson’s last stand in Aliens, as he was generally crowded out and made to disappear from view before he knew what had hit him.
Even Kulusevski, who for six months has been carving out quite a career for himself as A Chap Who Always Finds A Way, now found himself muzzled at every turn. Indeed, so rotten was Kulusevski’s day that he ended up as one of the principal villains in the second goal conceded, being shoved to the floor when in possession and left to wave a few forlorn arms in protest – a sure sign of guilt – as Chelsea got on with things and scored.
The introduction of Richarlison and tweak of shape helped to ease things a bit – more on that below – but a fifteen-minute uplift in matters was not simply going to paper over the cracks of the previous hour as if all had been bonny and gay throughout. AANP does not easily forget. If anything, AANP stews in his juices and reproaches bitterly all in lilywhite long after it is appropriate to continue doing so.
As such I remain deeply troubled by the general approach of being second-quickest to just about every exchange that happened on the pitch until that point. Whether it was a tactical flaw brought about by the stationing of Chelsea’s midfield bodies, or technical flaws on the part of each of our own mob, or indeed attitudinal flaws on the part of each of our own m., or some unholy combination of the above, it was not something that we ought to peddle, and we were pretty fortunate to escape with a point.
I read in some post-match critique or other that Richarlison only touched the ball seven times, a revelation which, if true, is quite the shot in the arm for those who like to trumpet the merits of quality over quantity.
It did not require the keenest intelligence to note that things bucked up a bit when he entered the fray and went stomping about the place. I suppose this upturn in fortunes could be attributed in part to the change in shape that he brought with him – giving the Chelsea defence an extra body to keep their beady eyes upon (a factor that almost brought home immediate bacon when Koulibaly was caught wondering whether to shadow the newly-arrived Richarlison or stick to his position, and ended up dithering for long enough to allow Kane to march in on goal unmarshalled, for the chance that was dragged wide).
Equally, the upturn in fortunes could be attributed to Richarlison himself. Seven touches he may only have had – and I’m dashed if I can remember any of them to be honest – but he took to the challenge of changing the game like a man who had spent the preceding hour itching to get involved in the various scraps unfolding on the pitch.
He bounded about the place with an energy I’m not sure any of his colleagues had displayed, and generally gave the impression of a chap who, rather than fling up his arms every time he received a barge to the upper half, instead positively sought out such stuff as precisely the kind of bally-hoo for which he was designed. This felt like the exact stage and scenario for which he was brought to the club.
3. The Second Equaliser
That said, the congratulatory back-slaps and whoops were rendered pretty hollow within minutes, as Chelsea reacted to conceding the first equaliser by rearranging their own pieces on the board, upping the intensity and scoring again.
(A cursory note on the general din surrounding our first goal, while on the subject – Bentacur touched the ball, and the goalkeeper could see the ball.)
Come the 96th and final minute, things were bubbling nicely, with Senor Romero no doubt fortunate that the eye in the sky did not take a dimmer view of his latest approach to settling differences. It was understandable enough that he felt the urge to tug the chap’s sensational mane – had I shared a pitch with Cucurella I’d have given it a friendly pull every time I passed him, for sporting a coiffure that voluminous in any sporting arena should not come without consequence – but using the ridiculous hairpiece as a lever by which to yank him to the ground was ill thought-through on Romero’s part.
Nevertheless, there was deep satisfaction to be gained from the antics of Romero and Richarlison in general. Dastardly stuff of course, and one would never publicly advocate this sort of thing, but behind closed doors all manner of knowing winks are exchanged, and rightly so. One assumes that somewhere in Spain, Erik Lamela nodded approvingly before shrugging his shoulders in a gesture of wide-eyed innocence. Moreover, as Thiago Silva will remind us from last season, this is a fixture in which one simply has to accept the referee’s call and stiffen the upper lip.
Back to our second equaliser, and there was much to digest. Let the quality of Perisic’s deliveries in that final minute not be overlooked in the first place, for goodness knows we have seen our fair share of terrible corners over the years (in fact, Master P’s first effort of the match was something of a shocker, but one forgives and forgets).
The timing of the thing also merits a moment’s consideration. Scoring a late equaliser of course always comes drenched in lashings of smug satisfaction and schadenfreude, but for our lot to beaver away until the end reflects rather well on the mindset of those involved – all the more so on a day on which any slump in shoulders would probably have seen Chelsea wrap the thing up.
But most eye-catching from my viewpoint was the fact that as the corner came in it was greeted by a veritable parade of Tottenham bodies. Kane of course took the credit, but had he decided against jumping for the thing his absence would not have been lamented, for Richarlison was right behind him in the queue. I noted that Richarlison was strangely unattended by anyone in blue, which seemed one heck of an oversight given the situation but also thoroughly at odds with the approach Chelsea had taken the whole game.
Not that I quibbled, of course, and in fact, even had Kane not been there I doubt Richarlison would have been able to indulge, because at the crucial moment we were additionally treated to the sight of Lucas Moura absolutely hurling himself at the ball, having taken a running leap at the thing.
Again, there was not a resisting defender in sight, which was rather rummy – but I was simply thrilled to see three of our number so emphatically intent on winning the ball and bagging the goal. Having been second best in so much of what had gone before, and seemingly unmoved to attempt to remedy it, the sight of three of them doing their damnedest to barge to the front of the queue for the equaliser was satisfying stuff. Had every challenge been greeted with such bloody-minded gusto the whole thing might have turned a different shade, but this was good enough.
This was a rare occasion on which even in the face of seeming defeat I rather enjoyed the thing as a spectacle, which just goes to show. The rapidly escalating mutual dislike between the two managers – which, of course, no-one likes to see – was the sort of stuff everyone loves to see, and added a pleasing garnish to the general spectacle. And having thought beforehand that this would serve as a useful gauge of our progress (and having, as mentioned, registered some optimism about our chances) the reality-check, that work remains in order to overhaul this lot, was useful; while at the same time fighting back to nab a point in the face of defeat, away to a Top Four side, sent us off home in cheery enough mood.