1. Emerson at Left-Back
Destiny Udogie’s chequered history having caught up with him, we found ourselves in the awkward position of requiring Emerson Royal to fill in at left-back-cum-midfield yesterday. On this matter three outstanding points immediately arrested the attention and refused to let go, viz:
- Emerson is right-footed
- Emerson has not dabbled much in the inverted-full-back role
- Emerson is as mad as a bag of cats
No shortage of reasons, then, to give the lower lip a nervous chew, and it is with a cheek burnished with shame that I report to having had the knives sharpened well ahead of time, in anticipation of the worst.
As it happened, what actually transpired was a performance so steady and reliable that, come the closing credits I toyed long and hard with the notion of feting Emerson with the prestigious Nod of the Head awarded for being the game’s outstanding contributor. Admittedly this was largely earned by default, our heroes having clocked a round of individual performances so middling that Emerson’s rose to the top by virtue of being amongst the least flawed, but nevertheless – some credit to the lad for overcoming each of the 3 challenges highlighted above.
Without necessarily contributing anything eye-catching and game-changing, I thought that Emerson got right just about everything at which he tried his hand yesterday. Positionally, he seemed up-to-speed from the off, knowing where to go and whose shoulder to lurk behind, when to give the arms a frantic wave and when to keep a low profile. He availed himself to Davies, Skipp et al when we were in possession, and kept a diligent eye on affairs in his jurisdiction when we were defending.
That said, he dithered away like nobody’s business and needed a sizeable dollop of luck with the disallowed Everton goal. Too complacent for my liking, and who knows how things might have panned out had that one been allowed to stand, what?
Equally, however, at one point in the first half he almost had a moment of glory, finding space for Sonny to set him loose up the left flank and curling a most inviting pass – with that rarely-spotted left appendage, no less – into the path of an incoming Brennan Johnson that, but for a rather wild finish, would have put us three up and afforded all concerned a much gentler snooze of an afternoon.
That was about as glamorous as it got for him but, given the anxiety with which I had anticipated Emerson taking the inverted left-back reins ever since Udogie’s yellow card last week, the young nib’s largely error-free shift was received with quiet but fervent prayers of gratitude.
The prospect of 90-plus minutes’ worth of out-of-position Emersoning was not the only element causing a few worry-lines to form on the AANP map pre-kick-off yesterday. Skipp for Bissouma is nobody’s idea of a fair trade, even allowing for the latter’s dreary dip in form, but there we were yesterday – and there we will remain for the foreseeable, given that Bissouma is currently being detained at His Majesty’s pleasure before flying off for that blasted AFCON next month.
Skipp at least came armed with a spot of positional experience, having occupied defensive midfield spots pretty much ever since he first learned to walk, but his presence there from the off still gripped me with an unspeakable fear. Stick Skipp in a Sean Dyche team and one would emerge pretty satisfied; ask the honest fellow to spend his afternoon Ange-balling and it’s a little difficult to know quite how events will unfold.
Understandably enough, once the whistle sounded Skipp just rolled up his sleeves and gave the impression of not giving too many damns about Ange-ball, Sean Dyche or anyone else. He just rattled through the catalogue in order to locate the most Oliver Skipp performance he could find, and delivered that with all the trimmings.
It was perfectly sufficient. Whenever our centre-backs were in possession he immediately scampered to within five yards of them, yelping to be allowed to play. They rolled the ball to him, he immediately rolled it back whence it had come and the sequence was able to begin again.
Those of us who have watched with quiet satisfaction as Bissouma, or indeed Bentancur or whomever, have received the ball from the centre-backs on the half-turn, and with one quick shoulder-dip been away from their marker and on the front-foot, had to moderate our expectations pretty quickly. This was Oliver Skipp’s world, and fancy shoulder-dips or changes of direction were pretty strictly outlawed. Skipp would dab the ball straight back to whomever passed it to him, and no more.
He served his purpose well enough. With Porro, Emerson, Romero and Davies on hand to do more of the heavy-lifting, in terms of picking the more incisive passes from deep, it was basically enough for Skipp simply to occupy appropriate areas and create space for others. He also beavered away earnestly enough when we were out of possession, holding a protective central position and occasionally taking it upon himself to snap at a pair of Everton ankles if the mood took him. There were occasional mistakes and fouls, but on the whole he did what was required.
As a temporary solution, filling in every now and then when an A-lister is unexpectedly withdrawn, I’ll shrug the shoulders and mutter that he’ll do I suppose, and prepare to scrawl a 6 out of 10 against his name. I can’t really say that the prospect of him scuttling about the starting XI for another month fills me to the gills with joy, but unless the January window brings a Connor Gallagher or some such, we may well be stuck with him.
I mentioned that it was an odd sort of showing all round, with various cast members appearing a little off-colour, and few summed up this peculiar state of affairs better than our on-field lieutenant.
Sonny did of course pop away the crucial goal, and as such excuses a multitude of other sins across the other 95 or so minutes. That his goal was an odd, scruffy sort of job is neither here nor there – basking in the satisfaction of fourth spot the morning after, few amongst us will grumble that the second goal lacked a bit in the aesthetic stakes. ‘Shove the damn thing into the net’ has been a fairly critical instruction in the last couple of months, and not one that our heroes have necessarily adopted too gaily, so if Sonny wants to bobble the thing through a crowd in order to score his goals that’s fine by AANP. Bobble away through as many crowds as you like, is pretty much the approving response over here.
But his headline contribution having been thus secured, I thought that Son spent the rest of his afternoon mangling his lines in all manner of ways. Just a temporary blip of course, and his absence will be lamented with some pretty meaningful wailing and gnashing of teeth when he flies off for that blasted Asian Cup next month. But still. This was not his finest hour and a half.
If he were on the run with the ball, he found a bizarre series of ways to extinguish the threat himself, be it losing control of his own feet, treading on the ball or slightly forgetting who and where he was, and scuttling off on his own towards the edge of the playing surface while an Everton man collected the ball and trotted off with it in the opposite direction.
There was also a series of opportunities to feed a nearby chum who would have been in on goal, which Sonny curiously kept miscalculating, poking the ball out of play or straight to a defender or some other such oddly-judged ideas that didn’t quite hit the spot.
Anyway, there was no want of effort on his part, and the honest fellow is allowed an off-day – particularly as he got the most important part right, in front of goal – and moreover, even if his end-product was generally all over the place, he clearly kept the Everton mob on their toes throughout just by virtue of being Son and all the energy that entails.
4. A Mixed Bag
When the employer invites AANP to tick the boxes in one of those psychometric tests, invariably the findings are that I am one of those souls who likes things neatly squared off. Spades are called spades. Everyone knows where they stand. And it is in such a spirit that I generally like to assess the outputs of our heroes in lilywhite. A thumbs-up for a job well done; a thumbs-down when they’ve stunk the place out; and not too much time wasted sugar-coating things in the middle.
All of which leaves me in a bit of a spot about yesterday’s goings-on. It was a strange old showing from our lot, when one steps back and thinks about it. On the bright side, I could count probably a good half a dozen instances of Ange-ball at its finest. “Ping, ping, ping,” would be a pretty accurate way to describe those moments, when the stars aligned, everyone gave everyone else a knowing nod and in the blink of an eye the ball was being whizzed from our area to theirs.
The first goal was an example of the above, even if strictly speaking the whizzing took the ball from the middle third to their area. There was the usual flurry of one-touchery, a lovely spot of body-feinting thrown in by young Sarr (the one bean I thought might beat Emerson to the Nod of the Head when all votes were counted) and a finish that oozed confidence from Richarlison.
Even the second goal, for all the rougher edges about its coup de grâce, had a pleasing look about its build-up. But in general, our heroes seemed to be off the boil as often as they were on it.
Passes were misplaced as if there were an internal competition to which everyone had pretty feverishly dedicated themselves; and a lot of the time those in lilywhite simply lost possession. It was pretty rummy to behold, but on several occasions some well-meaning sort in lilywhite would have possession, without too much imminent danger presenting itself other than an Everton bounder surreptitiously edging into view – and before you knew it possession had swapped hands. The Everton bounder now had possession, our hero was forlornly nibbling at his ankles and the entire cast had to reconfigure and don their defensive hats again.
These days one does not see to much of the straightforward, honest tackle – interceptions and blocks being all the rage – but yesterday it seemed that every couple of minutes we were losing possession because an Everton sort had simply wandered over, and without having to put in too much thought or effort, positioned himself between ball and lilywhite and made off with the dashed thing.
We brought no end of problems upon ourselves towards the end of the first half, the whole business of playing out from the back being executed with pretty scant regard for the delicacies that such an operation requires, with the result that Everton time and again were presented with the ball some twenty yards from goal and invited to amuse themselves as they saw fit.
And towards the end of things, that blasted Danjuma was made to like a bit too much like Pele for my liking. A handy chap in the final third we can all agree, having been treated to his cameos at close quarters last season, but for him thrice in ten minutes to befuddle our defensive mob and blast a shot at goal seemed a bit thick. Porro, Dier and Skipp seemed to find the lad unplayable, which was alarming, and quite what strain of sorcery Vicario has signed up for is anyone’s guess, but he seems to have had other-worldly intervention on his side in his last couple of matches, and it’s no stretch to say we’ve been centimetres from conceding – and missing out on two points yesterday.
All told, it was a hard-earned win – against a team slap bang in the middle of a hot streak, and with our usual slew of absentees. The general sloppiness in our play suggests more than anything that our heroes could do with a few days off, with some massages and scented candles and whatnot, but to be four points off the top having had such a rotten old November reflects well.
Merry Christmas, on we trot to Brighton.