1. The Post-Conte Era
AANP is pretty sharp. The former Commander-in-Chief may no longer have been of the parish, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour or so into proceedings last night when it dawned on me that actually, for all the bluster and announcements, not a dashed thing had changed.
For a start there was the formation. Now one generously acknowledges that, thirty games into a season, one can hardly force a completely revamped model down every available throat, and expect everything to fall into place without so much as a squeak. The newly-installed Brains Trust had had by my reckoning about five days to inspect the troops. So, much though the wretched 3-4-3-featuring-two-defensive-midfielders grates, one understood the logic and waved an accepting – if grudging – hand.
But nevertheless, while tearing down the foundations and creating something completely wacky and new might have been a bit rich, a few nuanced adjustments would have been nice, what? Brave new era, and all that. Would it really have cost the earth, I asked myself, to have rearranged the deck-chairs and including an extra creative soul in midfield? Not that we seem to have any such souls left, but with a bit of jiggery-pokery – and maybe a Pape Sarr – I thought we might see Hojbjerg pushed further forward, or Kulusevski more central, or Kane and Sonny as a front two, or literally anything that indicated that Conte had biffed out the door in deed as well as word.
But nope. The formation was exactly the same. And if that was not enough, the performance ended up being even more Conte-esque than it had been under Conte, which takes some doing.
In fairness, there were patches of play in the first half that weren’t too bad. Everton had obviously got into their heads the ridiculous notion that we were the sort of mob that would fold immediately under questioning, and so spent the opening exchanges charging in a frenzy at whichever of our lot were in possession, lacking only a bayonet to brandish and a war-cry to shriek. And our lot responded pretty impressively, at least at various points between approximately minutes 5 and 25. Whomever was in possession tended to do a quick tap-dance, shimmy around the nearest swinging Everton leg and pop the ball off to a nearby chum, at which point the whole routine began again.
So we looked competent enough in possession, and able to sidestep the Everton press. Most notably to the AANP eye, we moved the ball pretty quickly. One got the sense that Team Stellini had spent their five days barking a few choice phrases celebrating the virtues of the quick pass and one-touch football, because there was a welcome dash of urgency about the place.
On top of which, whether by our design or the accident of Everton being rather narrow, Messrs Perisic and Porro had a few moments of joy up the flanks. Hojbjerg seemed to be having one of his better days in the centre. Kane had a couple of near-ish misses. Rumours of a new-manager bounce were no doubt miles off the mark, but for half an hour or so I at least thought that we might just about edge our relegation-zoned, lowest-scoring-team-in-the-division opponents.
2. The Performance at One-Nil
I should have known better of course. From the latter part of the first half onwards, our lot absolutely stank the place out. Whatever upper hand we might have had early doors was old news by the midway point, and there was not much improvement in the second half.
It took some pretty generous and unsubtle interventions from Everton to get our noses in front, because goodness knows our clueless heroes weren’t going to manage it themselves. First that laddie got himself sent off; but on seeing that our lot hadn’t really taken the hint, and were still scratching their heads a bit, another Everton slab of meat took it upon himself to give us a penalty, just to make sure.
And at that point, I fancy I even allowed myself a smile, which just goes to show one never really learns. The one-nil lead was not really a deal-breaker; but a one-nil lead against ten men with under half an hour remaining struck me as the sort of binge even our lot couldn’t foul up.
Of course, it is a little hard to describe what happened next. One simply stared in disbelief, and rubbed the eyes a few times. After Sheffield United and Southampton – and seemingly every other game we’ve played this season, in truth – it shouldn’t have come as any surprise, and yet this seemed to be one of the worst performances of the lot. By just about any metric available, we managed to let ourselves get comprehensively outplayed by ten men. Even now, 24 hours on, the recollection of it seems to hollow out my insides.
It is tempting to get a bit Shakespearian about things and declare this the worst I’ve ever seen from our lot, but having had my teenage years fashioned by the delights of Francis, Graham and Gross a little perspective is probably in order.
Nevertheless, though, this collective offering – let’s call it The Conte Tribute Act – was down there amongst the absolute dregs. If a chum had suggested to me that with twenty minutes to go against one of the worst teams in the league, and up a man, our lot would choose the option of dropping deep, ceding possession and praying for the final bell, I’d have laughed them out of town and suggested for good measure they had over-indulged in the sauce. And yet our lot did precisely that! Forsooth!
The amateurish passing from the back; the aimless hoicks upfield; the introduction of Davinson Sanchez as a means to shore up the defence; the brainless red card; the continued absence of Danjuma – I’m not one to betray the emotions unnecessarily, but when I tell you that at least one of my lips quivered with despair as I watched matters unfold I rather fancy you get the picture.
The rest is mere details. By full-time I was in such a state of shock that I found myself groping blindly towards the drinks cabinet, but at half-time, when thoughts were slightly better ordered, one of the principal points of concern was the latest dithering performance from young Sonny.
The wise old coves have it that form is temporary and class permanent, which is true enough I suppose, but it makes this dip in form one of the longest temporary contracts in living memory.
The poor blighter was dreadful yet again, in just about every area of his game. I admired to an extent his diligence in trying to track back or drop deep to receive the ball, but seeing him trip over his own feet and fall to the dirt upon every contact, I did look skywards and utter a silent prayer or two that he might just relocate to the top of the pitch and stay there. I much prefer the chap playing on the shoulder of defenders and scurrying off towards the opposition goal.
Not that his attacking manoeuvres bore much fruit either, mind. The days of him dipping a shoulder, side-stepping a defender and whipping a shot goalwards seemed pretty distant specks as we watched him shuffle straight into an opposition frame and, more often than not, complete his routine by yet again hitting the turf.
After last night it is admittedly hard to make a case to suggest that Lucas is the answer, but one does cast a longing look or two towards Danjuma on the bench and wonder what on earth that is all about.
Amongst the bigger decisions our newest Glorious Leader had to make was between the sticks. Absence, of course, makes the heart grow fonder, and Fraser Forster has not been without the occasional flaw, but I did puff the cheeks and think it rather a shame that he was automatically elbowed aside and the red carpet rolled out for Monsieur Lloris.
In Lloris’ defence he did grab a cross or two of the high-and-swirling variety in the first half, which lowered the blood pressure a bit around these parts. However, with the ball at his feet he seemed, as ever, to be not entirely sure of what day it was or which sport he was playing, and there were more sharp intakes of breath than any right-minded nurse would consider healthy whenever our lot tried to play out from the back. An admonishing clip should be aimed around the ear of Romero at this point, for his bizarre inputs into this particular nonsense, but the whole fiasco did have me pining for the return of Forster.
The real blow to the ribs, however, was the goal. The objective viewer would, naturally enough, raise an appreciative eye at the quality of the strike, but at AANP Towers the headline was all about Lloris and that utterly infuriating habit of his, of simply standing and watching, rooted to the spot, as the ball sails past him.
I don’t mind admitting I could have absolutely screamed at him to use his bally hands. Why the dickens does he keep doing this? Adopting the pose of readiness, as if coiled to leap into action, and then, as the crucial moment approaches, instead of leaping as advised, simply swivelling the hips to watch the ball? It happens over and over, and drives me to absolute distraction. What is stopping him from extending the frame and at least broaching the possibility that he might reach it?
It is galling at the best of times, when he is nowhere near the ball; but last night the thing whistled within his wingspan! I’m not sure he even needed to dive in order to reach it, simply extending an arm might well have done the trick. That the ball was travelling at a fair old lick is beyond doubt; but geographically this was no insurmountable challenge.
Utterly bewilderingly, after that utter crate of garbage – and all the other ones we’ve witnessed – we sit fourth in the table, but given the games played and whatnot (and, more pertinently, the utter guff we keep peddling) we’ll be waving that one goodbye pretty sharpish. One can only look onwards, and hope yet again for an upturn on Saturday, but this really is getting a bit thick now, what?