1. The Change in Shape and Personnel: Porro
After a couple of weeks that have been heavy on action and light on plot, our latest Glorious Leader did the honourable thing and picked the option marked “Do Something – Anything – Differently”. Which translated into the hooking of Messrs Perisic, Dier and Kulusevski; and a line-up that, while still seeming pretty lopsided, was at least lopsided in a new and interesting way.
The change in formation struck me as one of those jobbies in which in possession the gang adopts Format A, but out of possession they revert as one to Format B, if you follow. So at various points Emerson was tucking in as a third centre-back, while at others he seemed to be surreptitiously shuffling off towards the flank to adopt a more conventionally right-back pose. In fact, it appeared at certain times as if our heroes were going about their business in a 4-4-2, which rather took me back to my salad days in the 80s. A pleasing riposte to false nines and that sort of thing, what?
Back to the general mass of humanity on our right side, and the reappearance of resident eccentric, Emerson Royal, was quite the pleasant surprise. For a start, he displayed a hitherto unknown sense of inconspicuousness in returning to the fold completely under the radar. I’d pretty much written the fellow off for the season, and rather forgotten about him in truth, what with one damn thing and another at N17.
But there he was, in that unspecified, hybrid defensive role on the right, crossing all t’s and dotting all i’s in the manner one would expect of arguably our greatest ever player. However, if the reception he received from the paying masses was rosy, I suspect it paled into insignificance next to that he received from Pedro Porro. Poor old P.P.’s eyes may light up when charging into the final third, but if he’s shown us one thing over the last couple of months it’s that he couldn’t look less comfortable in his defensive duties if he slung a sandwich board about his frame bearing the legend “I Just Want To Be A Winger”, and continued wearing it while trying to defend.
With Emerson babysitting him however, it was a different story. Porro was able to shove most of his eggs into the attacking basket, and on balance one would say he ended up with a few more pluses than minuses to his name.
He slung in enough crosses that sooner or later he was bound to strike oil with one of them, duly doing so to create our goal; but as well as his general output I was pretty satisfied to see him scuttling into view, stage right, with every attack. Again, the goal was a decent example of that, Porro getting his head down and hurtling over halfway out on the right, even as the attack was still having its genesis somewhere nearer the left flank – all of which preliminaries meant that when Kane lobbed the ball off towards the right of the area, the young frijole seemed to have approximately a quarter of the stadium at his mercy to do as he pleased.
2. The Change in Shape and Personnel: Dier (and Romero and Lenglet)
The other principal consequence of the rejig was the removal of Eric Dier from any area in which his slightest involvement might spark the usual disaster. It is, of course, a little difficult to judge the success of someone’s absence. One could, in theory, emit a joyful whoop at the fact that Dier was not in situ to dither on the ball or play a chum into trouble or mistime a lunge or get dragged out of position or get outpaced; but this seems a little hollow. Rather like celebrating the fact that a piano hasn’t fallen on one’s head – good news, of course, in anyone’s book, but more the sort of thing one curses when it does happen, rather than celebrating when it doesn’t.
More usefully, the absence of Dier seemed to have a calming effect upon Romero, who, since returning to the day-job with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck, has given the impression of turning up for work every day since absolutely sozzled in celebration.
Yesterday, however, with the absence of a calamitous defender on one side of him, and the presence of a capable defender on the other, Romero appeared pretty steady on his feet. Of wild lunges and cavalier shimmies forward, there were none. He still found time to pick another lovely 50-yard pass or two – hang your head in shame, Sonny – but it was the principal business, of keeping things under lock and key at the back, that were of concern, and he seemed focused enough.
I’m not sure how much credit Monsieur Lenglet should be given for this. I’m never really sure how much credit Monsieur Lenglet should be given in general. He seems to be one of those chappies who has loosely the right sort of idea, and can also contribute a bit bringing the ball forward, which helps; but who will just shrug the shoulders and let out a sad gallic sigh if an opponent gets the wrong side of him, accepting his fate as irreversible, which nettles a bit.
Be that as it may, not being Eric Dier seemed to work in his favour yesterday, as did the fact that alongside him (I’m shuffling right-to-left here) he had Ben Davies in Cautious Mode, both full-backs for the day clearly having been drilled on the importance of being as boring as possible, for the greater good. Anyway, the nub of it was that Lenglet-and-Romero more or less worked, as a central pairing, at least when up against Palace at home and with Fraser Forster’s enormous frame behind them.
3. Ryan Mason
A triumph for Ryan Mason, then, a bean about whom I can’t really make up the mind, three games into his second stint.
That he cares about the club, with all the loveable idiocy of you, I or any other long-suffering fan, is beyond doubt. Cut Mason open and he bleeds lilywhite. Thrust a microphone in his face immediately after the final whistle, and within ten seconds he’ll forget the rules of diplomacy that the PR mob have spoon-fed him, and instead launch into some pretty impassioned stuff, his voice rising an octave, which is really the tell-tale sign that it’s all coming from the heart. After the public sabotage of Conte and Jose, this sort of thing is welcome stuff. This sort of thing makes me want to clasp his hand with firmness and meaning, and there’s not much stronger sentiment than that.
The players are apparently fond of the chap too, or at least happy enough to do his bidding and enquire how high when he yips ‘Jump’. Again, after a couple of years’ worth of managers taking every opportunity to advertise to the world how inept the players are, this seems a pretty useful commodity.
Tactically, I find him a bit harder to fathom. The changes made yesterday seemed to do the trick, at least suggesting a spot of welcome clarity at the back, as well time well spent behind closed doors. It’s hardly his fault that there is not a creative midfielder to be found at the club; and his adjustment to a back-four featuring bona fide full-backs, while seemingly about as common sensical as it gets, was much needed (and yet, bizarrely, completely beyond the grasp of those who trod the path before).
I also rather like the spirit with which he approaches in-game tweaks and substitutions, as if struck by a realisation, which again had completely eluded his predecessors, that by virtue of his role he possesses the capacity to move the pawns about a bit and thereby effect change in real-time. The famous Dier-related adjustment against Man City was apparently his bright idea; and he can take a sizeable chunk of the credit for second half comebacks against both Man Utd and Liverpool, improvements of sorts being evident after his tuppence worth at half-time.
But nevertheless, I have my doubts in this regard. Improved though we may have been after half-time in the aforementioned matches, they were still his troops, under his orders, who fell behind in the first place. (One sympathises here, admittedly, for he was dealt an abysmal hand; but one cannot really have it both ways – credit for the comeback goes hand-in-hand with chiding for the deficit.)
Nor does young Mason exactly come across as particularly Churchillian in manner. Fun though it is to see a genuine fan taking charge of things, for all his being a likeable young soul I struggle to imagine him either stirring fire in bellies or plotting tactical works of genius. Not his fault, of course, that he’s a contemporary (or junior) of half them, but still. Gravitas and nous do not really seem to be his selling points.
The big caveat here, of course, is that this judgement is based purely on the evidence of what Mason presents to the public in press conferences and interviews and whatnot – and here I may well do him quite the injustice. The impression he gives in front of the camera is that of a passionate fan, rather than one of the game’s great thinkers; behind closed doors there may well lurk a far more astute mind (indeed, the murmurs one hears from behind the scenes suggest as much), and one heck of a communicator too.
For now, at least, his presence at the helm makes a goodish amount of sense. Whatever the problems at the club, they were not of his making. If he can inspire our lot simply to care as much as he does, politely demote those worth demotion (irrespective of reputation) and continue to instil the same level of organisation and clarity that was evident on Saturday, then it will be a job pretty well done.