Emerson had what might officially go down in the tome of such things as his best game in lilywhite. Admittedly the bar in this particular area is pretty low, the memory lingering long of countless dreadful attempted crosses last season, but let that not detract from some surprisingly impressive stuff in all areas for the peculiar chap. Who knew he had it in him?
If Emerson is the sort to let the failings of previous seasons weigh on him, he hides it well. Here is a fellow not wanting for self-confidence, irrespective of how much the evidence of the senses and weight of data has suggested he ought to think otherwise.
Watching him scurry off down the right, find himself incapable off beating a man or whipping in a cross, therefore decide to keep scurrying and eventually hit the byline, before attempting to pull back the ball out of necessity as much as anything else, you would think from his manner that he had long ago decided, with supreme confidence from the off, that scurrying to the byine and pulling back the ball was in fact the best possible plan, and nobody on earth could convince him that any alternative would be better – or indeed that any other living soul could execute it better than he.
Impressively, however, it worked. In fact, just about everything Emerson tried on Saturday struck oil. From the starter’s clap he went about his business yesterday like a newly-born lamb having his first taste of spring and deciding that he’d be dashed if he was going to be prevented from gambolling about the place.
With Kulusevski on hand to provide attacking finesse as required, Senhor E’s willing and energy, and runs and uncomplicated passes, had the left side of Southampton scampering around in something of a muddle throughout.
His input for Kulusevski’s goal illustrated much of what he was doing well – first summoning the energetic spirit of that new-born lamb to bound off towards that murky area in between corner flag and penalty area, then picking a pass as simple as it was effective for Master K, who did the rest with customary aplomb.
His contribution to the own-goal was ultimately a little less conventional, his self-confidence by this point reaching the stratospheric height at which simply being wing-back was beneath him, and he fancied himself rather as a Haaland sort, motoring through the centre as the furthermost forward – but mark the preamble. Emerson tackled his man cleanly in the traditional right-back berth, then, rather than sitting back to admire his handiwork, led the charge over halfway at the sort of lick that was less new-born lamb and more thoroughbred racehorse.
Having successfully communicated the message that one need not whip in crosses from deep in order to fulfil one’s attacking remit as a wing-back, it is also worth noting that his attacking success did not come at the expense of his defensive duties. In fact, he was as diligent as the next man when on sentry duty. It was all most impressive. Whether he can hit such heights next week, say, at Chelsea, is for another day, but with Dohertys and Spences now littering the place one cannot fault Emerson’s first stab at the role of 22/23 RWB.
Not that Saturday was simply the Emerson Show, with others in attendance offering supporting roles only. Far from it. The list of standout performers was pretty extensive – which mangles the language somewhat when you think about it, but such was the quality of the various presentations.
Kulusevski, yet again, hit impressive heights. He is quite the curio, being one of those attackers who bursts with creativity despite not having some obvious eye-catching quality. He is neither lightning-quick, nor possessed of stepovers and mazy dribbles and whatnot, and can sometimes give the air of one of those types who was not bestowed abundant gifts by Mother Nature, but made the most of what he had through hard work. Think Lampard or Kane.
And yet, his wealth of talents were on full display on Saturday, rendering him quite the unpredictable force. He seemed at any given moment as likely to go on the gallop; or pick a cute, short pass; or drag the ball back and switch directions, making the entire Southampton back-line trip over themselves; or whip in a cross begging to be despatched; or have a shot for himself. Whenever the ball entered his orbit, marvellous things began to happen.
If he had done nothing more than deliver the cross for Sessegnon’s goal I’d still have purred about him a goodish bit – but that was arguably not even the best cross he delivered, one in the second half that Romero might have flung himself at being arguably of finer quality. The second half also saw him pick out something close to the perfect pass for Sessegnon to steam onto; on top of which there was his goal, stroked in with the nonchalance of one idly pinging a ball from A to B while stretching his limbs on the training pitch.
How long it will be before he is spoken of in the exalted terms generally reserved for English-born folk remains to be seen – it took Sonny a good half-dozen years – but if he continues to deliver on a weekly basis to limited acclaim beyond N17 then there will be no complaints over here.
And yet even Kulusevski cannot necessarily be deemed the outright champion of all he surveyed on Saturday. As seems to have happened every time he skims the surface in lilywhite, Master Bentancur breezed through the game on a different plane from anyone else.
He really is the rarest of nibs, one who seems to see the game from a vantage point about twenty yards above ground level, with panoramic vision that takes in the positions and movements of all other bodies on the pitch. How else to explain the marvellous fellow’s ability to flick first-time passes in directions well beyond the realms of terrestrial vision?
Here at AANP Towers we are very much of the opinion that passes do not necessarily need to be earth-shattering as long as they are popped along swiftly. A first-time pass can rearrange the pieces just as effectively as one of those pearlers that bisects a clutch of opponents. Bentancur seems effortlessly to have mastered both disciplines, often at the same time. One could remover the goals from the pitch, and still delight in watching him dip his shoulders and ping his passes, simply for the heck of it.
On top of which, any asterisked concerns in his early days about him sometimes being ambushed by the pace of things over here seem to have been dispelled. The young bean was shuttling the ball off in new directions before opponents realised he had it; on top of which he was pretty zesty in the tackle too.
Here at AANP Towers we are certainly fond of the grumble, and at various and regular points last season wasted little time in jabbing an accusing finger at young Master Sessegnon.
As with Emerson on t’other flank, Sessegnon seems to have used his summer weeks wisely, and went about his business on Saturday looking a darned sight more assured about his trade than previously.
The early goal presumably helped chivvy him along in this sense, but in general where last season a nameless fear seemed to envelop everything he did, often manifesting itself in heavy touches and complete absence of ball control, on Saturday he seemed vastly more capable when it came to the basics, and was a viable option on the left throughout his hour.
It was rather satisfying to note that the chap has well and truly got to grips with Conte-ball, regularly popping up in the area as an auxiliary attacker, as any wing-back should under Our Glorious Leader. He scored one, had one disallowed for offside – admittedly his own fault for jumping the gun, but again reflecting an eagerness to elbow his way into positions from which he can observe the whites of the goalkeepers’ eyes – and was denied a second goal only by a last-ditch tackle from KEP.
(A note on KWP while on the subject – the young pip has attracted some attention, with various fellow lilywhites reverently bawling that we should be in for his services again. To these I wave a dismissive hand, because no self-respecting defender ought ever to be outmuscled in the air, and in his own six-yard box, by anyone, let alone by the waif-like physique of Sessegnon; and to anyone who marvelled at the aforementioned last-ditch tackle I suggest that the best defenders read the game well enough not to need to make up five yards and execute sliding tackles from behind.)
But reverting back to Sessegnon – as with more than one of the above, this was comfortably one of his better days in lilywhite. One would expect Perisic to assume responsibilities for bigger tests, but if Sessegnon gets wheeled out for Southampton and the like he’ll get a glowing reference and rousing hand from me.
5. The Debutants
After six summer signings, I rather liked the fact that the only new sight was the gleaming kit (top marks from AANP by the way, a fan of the simple white shirt over here) and a couple of new-fangled set-piece operations. It sent the message that one has to earn one’s place in this team – earn one’s spurs, if you will – and helped to cement the notion that ours is a setup that increasingly needs to think like a big club.
Bissouma only got five minutes or so, but seemed determined not to be constrained by such mortal limitations as time, and set about cramming as much action as possible into his brief cameo. Thus we were treated to Bissouma blocks, interceptions, sensible passes, a yellow card and, intriguingly, a long-distance effort hit with some wattage. With Hojbjerg hitting (the pass in the build-up to Kulusevski’s goal was a weighted delight) but also missing (various misplaced passes littered the place), Bissouma’s brief bustle made for quite the hors d’ouevres.
Perisic had a little longer to acquaint himself with things, and similarly caught the AANP eye. The headlines of his half-hour were a couple of forays in the meaty end of things – stepovers and party-tricks to evade his man, followed by a couple of crosses into dangerous squares of the penalty area. These bode well, and in time one imagines Kane and chums feasting on his produce.
But as a long-time admirer of the chap, I kept a particular eye on his positioning at every given point, and noted that it is safe to say that rumours of him being well attuned to the whims of Senor Conte are resoundingly true. As soon as we turned over possession he was off on the gallop, well in advance of the defensive line – and, as often as not, in advance of the midfield line too. Where Sessegnon seems content enough to stay within a stone’s throw of Ben Davies, Perisic has more heady ambitions, and could regularly be spotted further up the pitch than anyone else, and frankly straining at the leash for a ball to be released onto which he might run.
All of which meant that when we lost possession he was a good-ish distance up the pitch, but the honest fellow made the effort to sprint back to his post. Should he feature against Chelsea next week I’ll be intrigued as to the extent to which his attacking instincts are indulged or otherwise.
And finally there was also a brief cameo for Lenglet, who took up the appropriate position on the left, and seemed to make the sensible hand-gestures of one who wants at least to look he knows what he’s about. He also picked a handy pass in the move that led to Bissouma’s long-distance shot, which earned him a subtle nod of approval – but his appearance was little more than a chance for Conte to flex a bicep and show the world that he has Levy eating out of the palm of his hand.
So after one fixture we sit pretty atop the pile. While it is, of course, mathematically possible that we might yet blow this, frankly anything less than the title would now be a massive disappointment.