1. The First Half: Actually Not Too Bad
Obviously when sifting through the wreckage, shaking the head sadly and tutting knowingly, it seems almost inappropriate to reflect that in the first half things had actually been pootling along fairly comfortably. And yet, when the curtain came down at the halfway stage the mood at AANP Towers was that this was probably the best we’d looked since Day 1. A low bar, admittedly, but still.
For a start, whereas at Forest on Sunday the entire concept of a midfield was ignored and everyone involved just slapped the ball up to the front three at the earliest opportunity, in the first half last night our lot pinged the thing through the pitch in neat, little diagonals. From defence the ball would roll along to Hojbjerg or Kane dropping deep; and from there be worked in another neat little diagonal to Kulusevski or Sonny or Perisic; and the net result was that we regularly worked our way from back to front in bright and breezy fashion. Although none of this was remotely Brazil 1970, our opponents seemed to have their minds blown by it, simply standing around gawping as our heroes slid passes around them at half pace.
The biggest early impediment to all this was that blasted VAR delay, after which our lot rather dozed off and the other lot remembered their obligations. Even so, by half-time it did feel like anything less than victory would represent a pretty major faux pax on our part.
In particular I was rather taken by the way that rotter Harry Kane made use of the wide, open spaces nearer halfway, West Ham seemingly oblivious to the trouble he can cause from such positions and he accordingly picking forward passes hither and thither.
Perisic was another who caught the AANP eye, ever willing to explore the lane ahead of him and ever able to deliver a decent cross. Indeed, the winnings from Perisic’s recent crosses have been considerable – the VAR incident here, the penalty against Forest on Sunday, the late equaliser against Chelsea (from a corner admittedly) and a near-miss header from Kane against Wolves.
On top of which, the fellow is as wily as they come, well-versed in the murky arts that facilitate the shielding of the ball and winning of free-kicks and whatnot. Not since Edgar Davids have we been blessed with one of these more experienced eggs, who manages to deliver the goods with little more than a knowing wink and spot of upper-body muscle.
2. Our Goal
I alluded earlier to the crispness of some of our first half interplay from defence onwards, and rarely was this better exemplified than in our goal, a move of such slickness it looked like they’d been rehearsing it for weeks.
In the first place it came about when the defensive siren was being sounded, with the other lot on the attack and attempting to tiptoe their way into our area. At this juncture Eric Dier made a couple of his better life-choices, firstly in stepping forward from the defensive line to intercept an opposing forward pass. This having been done he then rattled through the options, and rather than belting the ball to within an inch of its life, slid the thing about ten yards north to the waiting Kane.
As mentioned, despite having turned into an art-form the practice of dropping deep, and having given fair warning of his ability in this sector for a good three or four years now, West Ham seemed utterly oblivious to the threat posed by Harry Kane in such situations. There were few complaints from AANP Towers. Kane collected the ball ten yards outside his own area, toddled along with it another ten yards and then biffed it out to Kulusevski, in about the time it takes to murmur, “Defence into attack”.
One of the marvellous things about Kulusevski is that he is the sort of bean who’s happy to run first and think later, seemingly living by the maxim that life will present a solution further down the line. Having collected the pass from Kane around the halfway line he injected a little more urgency into the move, flicking the dial from “Saunter” to “Gallop”, which in turn was a signal for Kane and Sonny to rev up and pick their supportive spots. Kane went outside, Sonny inside, and by the time Kulusevski had arrived at the edge of the West Ham area all sorts of options were presenting themselves, fitting confirmation of the Swede’s aforementioned life motto.
It would be easy to overlook, but in dinking inwards, giving the impression of being the sort of fruit who’s about to ping a shot with his left clog, Kulusevski did just enough to sway all three claret shirts around him in one direction, leaving the streets free for Kane to charge off in the other direction. As his pièce de résistance, Kulusevski then timed his flicked pass to perfection, ensuring that Kane was onside and his view unimpaired for the climax of the piece.
Sonny’s luck being what it is these days, an opposing sort got in first to poke the ball home, but rarely has an own goal been crafted with such beauty and precision.
As mentioned, come half-time, although a long way from first gear, AANP gazed upon the breadth of the domain and greeted it with a fairly care-free shrug. Matters seemed in hand.
3. Their Goal
Matters, however, then pretty swiftly u-turned. For a bod who appears to pride himself, and build entire empires, on defensive organisation, one can imagine that Senor Conte would have been out for blood after observing the goal we conceded, sloppiness oozing from its every pore.
At the time the throw-in was (rather dubiously, to my beady eye) taken, both Perisic and Hojbjerg were looking in directions other than the ball, which at any level of football is pretty thick stuff.
Had Perisic been on the right planet he might have assisted with the general operation to nullify Antonio, but by the time the penny dropped matters had progressed and the danger heightened. Now Perisic is something of a favourite around these parts, but there are times in life when one has to put one’s foot down. All the whipped crosses and wily know-how in the world doesn’t count for much if one is then going to drift off to the land of fairies when a throw-in is being taken within spitting distance, dash it.
Had any one of Sessegnon, Sanchez or Emerson been guilty of this they’d have had the book – and various heavier, blunter instruments – thrown at them by AANP, so there is no reason for Perisic to escape censure. The fellow deserves stern words and a brief thrashing.
Meanwhile Hojbjerg, another who really ought to know better, was, unbelievably, similarly gazing elsewhere at the crucial juncture. In his defence he was at least facing the ball, and had seemingly turned his head to yell at someone in the way footballers like to do to pass the time, but it was still a heck of an oversight.
Worse than this however, once he had refocused on current affairs, he (along with Bissouma) was far too slow to respond to the forward dart of Soucek. Both Messrs H. and B. had a couple of yards on Soucek, and yet while the latter built up a head of steam, our two did not accelerate beyond a common jog. By the time Hojbjerg bucked up his ideas it was far too late, while Bissouma didn’t even reach the point of bucking up ideas, and simply ambled along providing decoration to the piece.
All in all, a pretty soggy goal to concede, and one which rather summed up much of our play in the second half. Inevitably, Richarlison immediately brought a little spark when introduced, and one might charitably suggest that an away draw in a London derby is no small fry, but really, throwing away a lead against this mob was pretty criminal stuff. They were not particularly good; but frankly, neither were we.
I mentioned young Bissouma’s input – or lack thereof – into the goal conceded, and it summed up a rather underwhelming first start for the chap.
I actually thought his early knockings were pretty encouraging. He seemed more comfortable than most in receiving possession, unflustered by the presence of opposing legs around him and generally doing a pretty good impression of Bentancur when it came to receiving and redirecting the ball around the halfway line.
Matters started to take a turn for the murky when he picked up his yellow card. This in itself was pretty fat-headed stuff – unlucky though he was to be penalised for a foul, seemingly on the basis of crowd reaction rather than the referee having actually seen anything, thumping the ball away in response marked him out as a pretty dim cove.
If one wanted to quibble one might have cleared the throat and politely mentioned that thereafter he didn’t always have to play the way he was facing, his habit of popping the ball straight back to Davinson Sanchez frankly doing more harm than good given the latter’s pretty limited passing ability (it seems no coincidence that Emerson barely offers an attacking threat when Sanchez rather than Romero lines up for company inside him).
By half-time, it seemed from my vantage point that Bissouma had morphed from Bentancur to Winks during the course of proceedings, so it was some relief to see him approach the second half in a marginally more offensive spirit, receiving the ball on the half-turn and generally looking north for a useful pass to pick.
Nevertheless, it was all a little disappointing. Of his fabled zeal for intercepting and tackling there were only glimpses, and as mentioned, his role in the goal conceded was lamentable.
None of which is to write the chap off; far from it, he is one of the shrewdest signings we’ve made for some time. Just a shame that his middling performance last night was in keeping with all around him, and led to the forfeiting of a couple of quite obtainable points.