1. Bentancur and the Midfield Three
Ordinarily if one were to be ambushed on a Sunday lunchtime with the news that 100% of your first-choice midfield were to be unavailable, one might be excused for choking on a roast potato and offering a few choice lamentations. The absence of Maddison alone, after all, would be sorely felt at any time of year; an additional suspension for Bissouma would pose an almighty conundrum; but throw into that a muscle strain or some such rot for Sarr, and if every last drop of hope drained from the soul it would be a pretty understandable reaction.
This, however, was not really ordinary circumstance. For even as the AANP mind registered that young Sarr was indeed being added to the list of those unfit for public consumption, any dregs of despair were being swept away with a goodish amount of excitement, as the penny dropped that the new-look midfield triumvirate would comprise one each of Bentancur, Lo Celso and Kulusevski.
For a start, there is a pretty reasonable train of thought that, nine-month ACL-induced absence or not, Bentancur should really be part of the first-choice midfield anyway. Lo Celso I suppose, in this context, is a slightly more controversial type of chestnut, having officially been part of the N17 furniture for a goodish number of years now, yet having blown up so few skirts that you can count them on the fingers of one hand. But nevertheless, on a good day – or, put another way, in an Argentina shirt – he’s a pretty talented sort of bimbo, and one for whom AANP harbours secret admiration. And as for Kulusevski, the chap has a pretty deep reservoir of goodwill into which he can dip, so if Our Glorious Leader saw fit to shunt him into a Number 10 sort of role, the pre-match thinking process went, then that was good enough for me.
But more than the individual choices, the intriguing aspect of this was the collective, if you get my drift. Selecting all three of the undersigned to constitute a midfield in its entirety was not the move of a manager concerned about extra-thick layers of security to protect the midfield. In fact it was about as far removed from E-TLs of S as one could get. ‘Hojbjerg be damned’, seemed to be the attitude of The Brains Trust ahead of this one. Big Ange was shoving his every last chip at the Dreamy Attacking Build-Up option – and as you might expect, AANP was all in favour of such wild and romantic recklessness.
And frankly, it very nearly worked too. As one would expect of a laddie who is half-mortal, half footballing deity, Bentancur purred about the place, pretty quickly finding his range and beginning to settle into a routine of through-balls of the ‘Simple-Yet-Devastating’ variety, most of which really deserved better than the forward collective tripping over their shoelaces when within sight of goal.
Cunningly stationed at the base of midfield, and as such disguised as a defensive sort who is pretty clueless when it comes to his attacking eggs, Bentancur was duly granted a goodish amount of space in possession, and looked to me to be settling into quite the groove as a deep-lying creative sort. Moreover, his presence a few yards south seemed to inspire the happier sides of Lo Celso’s personality to emerge, and he began picking neat diagonals into the area. Between the two of them, the absence of Maddison could more or less be shrugged off; while further north, young Kulusevski in the Number 10 role gave the look of a man for whom this was not his first time.
While not quite the perfect 26 or so minutes of football, our attacking verve was still pretty impressive, the gist of the conversation being far more one-way than AANP had dared to expect against a direct rival. Indeed, but for the knuckle-headed antics of those in front of goal we might have been two or three up in that period.
Alas, poor old Bentancur then hobbled off, courtesy of the latest crippling swipe from Matty Cash Boo (he, you may recall, having been responsible for ending Matt Doherty’s season a couple of years back, just as the chap was finding his feet in the RWB role for us).
Thereafter, Hojbjerg came on to give one of the most Hojbjerg performances imaginable – diligently winning the ball high up the pitch before pinging a cross under no pressure straight into the arms of the goalkeeper – and the attacking flair on show decreased a gentle notch.
I actually thought we continued to make a decent fist of things going forward, until Villa took the lead and the dynamic of the thing was rather turned on its head (they being happy to defend a lot deeper at that point). It would be tempting to take one look at the outcome and emphatically stamp the words ‘Never Again’ across a midfield of Bentancur-Lo Celso-Kulusevski, but such was the early dominance that going forward I’d happily type in their names and press ‘Enter’.
The problem, rather obviously, was that it offered fairly minimal protection for those at the rear, and Villa did not exactly have to devise the most intricate plans to bypass our security levels – but these days the plan simply seems to keep attacking and hope we’ve got enough goals in the locker come the final curtain.
Pedro Porro is a bean who generally goes under the AANP radar, right up until the moment that he pops up in the opposition area. I’m not really sure why that is to be honest, as one can’t lob a brick these days without it hitting someone desperate to lecture you on the virtues of the fellow. Still, I maintain that if you’re actively trying to avoid noticing Porro he’s a pretty easy chap to fail to notice.
Yesterday, however, was a pretty momentous day at Casa Porro, as I had decided to give him the beady eye throughout. ‘See what all the fuss is about,’ was about the sum of my thinking there.
And ‘Pleasantly surprised’, was about the sum of my findings. It will come as no surprise to seasoned PP-watchers, or indeed to most lilywhites who have kept even half an eye on us so far this season, but young Porro is pretty dashed effective in the inverted full-back spot. It’s his passing from deep that really arrests the attention. AANP is a particular fan of those weighted passes inside an opposing defender, and Porro, perhaps knowing his audience, delivered a slew of these. Our first half dominance owed about as much to his positioning and creative juices as to any of the designated midfield three.
Which is not to say that he was without blemish. Towards the end of the first half his attempt to sing the gospel of Ange-Ball got rather stuck in his throat, as he was caught dithering in possession right outside our own penalty area. When Emerson Royal is the man bailing you out, you know you’ve made a bit of a hash of things.
In the final half hour or so I actually forgot that pre-match remit to which I had wedded myself on pain of death – the one about watching PP’s every move like a hawk – so I couldn’t really tell you much about what he did or failed to do, other than one overhit free-kick, but I suppose by that point I’d seen enough. Porro is a pretty important cog in the machine, and not just when galloping off into the final third, and all the more credit to him for re-inventing himself for this role, having arrived on these shores as something quite different.
It was a big day for the lesser-spotted Bryan Gil, another alumnus of that Lo Celso school of chappies who can look pretty impressive as long as they’ve rolled out of the right side of the bed. Alas, it’s fair to say that this wasn’t his finest hour. To suggest that he stank the place out would be over-egging it, but my pre-teen niece, casting eyes upon him for the first time, did not hang about in passing her judgement that he was utterly without merit and undeserving of his place in the team. One understood her train of thought.
I actually thought that, when not suddenly stopping attacks in order to drag the ball back and pass behind him, Gil made himself a nuisance. Put another way, he kept his opposing defender on his toes. If the opposing defender (Konsa?) had wanted to bed in for a gentle snooze he was in the wrong neck of the woods, for Gil was not lacking in eagerness to collect the ball and have a dart.
The problem was that having done all his scurrying, he didn’t really have an exciting conclusion with which to round off his stories. He delivered one gorgeous-looking cross that was an inch or two too high for Sonny, but that aside seemed repeatedly to choose the wrong option when it came to The Big Moment.
Not that he was alone in this, for, as alluded to above, none of the forward line exactly covered themselves in glory, each tripping over themselves to demonstrate different ways in which to bungle the simplest of chances.
Being rather a fan of young Gil, I rather hope that this is not his only opportunity under Big Ange. One mal-coordinated swallow doth not necessarily a dreary summer make, and I seem to recall about this time last year he began to impress when given a run of games under Conte (before rather oddly being shoved out the door and off on loan). He is clearly well down the pecking order, and the returns of Sarr and Bissouma will presumably see a rejig, but seeing as much of that aforementioned pecking order has been obliterated by injuries, opportunity ought still to knock for a few weeks yet.
4. The Centre Backs
It feels rather harsh to criticise Davies and Emerson for not being outstanding centre-backs. A bit like criticising a couple of horses for not being great whales. Not really their fault, what? Not really the roles for which their maker made them.
Still, there they were, and there it was. Whenever Villa ran at them on the counter, Davies and Emerson offered token resistance only. This was rather emphatically demonstrated in the early disallowed goal (Watkins header, immediately after our opener, in case you’re struggling to categorise all the offsides and VAR). A fairly perfunctory cross was swung in from a wide area – perfectly fine, decent pace and trajectory – but the mind-boggling, and pretty alarming element of all this was the wide old acreage in which Watkins was allowed to potter around. Squint the eyes and one might have made out Emerson on the far side, a sizeable distance away from Davies on the near side. And wandering between them like an abandoned stray was Watkins.
It didn’t help, of course, that our midfield were of the all-action-no-plot school, and therefore gave precious few cares about such issues as defensive cover. As and when Villa wanted, they strolled straight through the centre and had a pretty free run at our centre-backs.
Nevertheless, when called into action, Davies and Emerson gave it their all but were pretty worryingly out of their depth. The second goal again illustrated all of the above. Hojbjerg and I think Lo Celso did a good job of statically watching as the ball was passed around them and towards goal, and when it reached the edge of the area Davies and Emerson gave the air of men desperately trying to recall what was printed in the training manual as Watkins sauntered between them and did his thing.
Not really their faults, to emphasise, and I understood the decision to use those two instead of Dier, given that much of the game was to be spent playing a high line and sprinting backwards; but the return of Romero cannot come soon enough, and the need for another top-notch centre-back to join the gang is pretty stark.
RIP Terry Venables, nothing but the fondest memories