Evidence of the last couple of months suggests that, even though obliged to change his preferred XI by the rules and regulations, Ange did so only with the greatest reluctance, and likely a decent slab of harrumphing. But there we were, Bissouma’s previous follies meaning that Hojbjerg received a promotion, and at AANP Towers we rubbed an ever-so-slightly nervous chin before the curtain went up.
Anyone expecting Hojbjerg simply to get his head down and mimic the every shoulder-drop and forward burst of Bissouma would, of course, have been misreading the situation pretty drastically. Messrs P-E.H. and Y.B. are radically different beasts. Mercifully, however, if one could have drawn up a list beforehand of the preferred fixtures in which to replace the buzz and drive of Bissouma with the stasis and arm-flapping of Hojbjerg, I think a home date with Fulham might well have been pretty high up the list.
And frankly, it proved as gentle a stroll as hoped. In fact, in those opening ten minutes it appeared that we might not need Hojbjerg at all. As against Luton last time out, we had much of the runaway train about our work in last night’s opening scenes, running rings around our opponents and without too much need for the deeper-lying folk. This seemed to owe much to our pressing (which was mightily impressive throughout, strangling the life out of Fulham in their own half, bringing about both goals and generally compensating for a fair amount of sloppiness in the second half).
Back to Hojbjerg, and to his credit he did the various odd-jobs asked of him with pretty minimal fuss. The setup seemed to require him to fill in around various unglamorous locations towards the rear, but Hojbjerg being one of those curious eggs whose take on life is that the grubbier the task the better, this turned out to be a pretty convenient marriage. Fulham tried to clear to halfway, and Hojbjerg stepped up to snuffle it out; our heroes were forced to poke the ball backwards for a moment, and Hojbjerg availed himself to receive and re-distribute; and for good measure, when we threatened to become irresponsibly blasé about a one-goal lead, Hojbjerg was there to win possession high up the pitch and set up Sonny to set up Maddison for our second.
On the debit side, he did pick up an unnecessary and slightly odd booking, for opting to lunge at a Fulham body, changing his mind about matters fairly swiftly but finding that the laws of physics prevented him from effecting any alteration, and having simply to skid irresistibly about ten yards along the turf until he ploughed into his man; but then on the credit side he also played one of the passes of the season, about midway through the first half, reversing matters from left to right in a Harry Kane sort of way; so all told it was a perfectly acceptable night’s work.
Not a performance to win him any awards, nor to earn him a starting spot when Bissouma returns; but he did not look miles off the pace nor appear visibly out of sync when stepping into a unit that has been tightly-knit without him for 8 games, so he probably merits a nod of acknowledgement.
Never mind the miracles Big Ange has worked for our lot – his decision to hook young Master Udogie before we hit the 60-minute mark has left a pretty sickly hue over my fantasy team, so I’ll be demanding a full explanation at our next tete-a-tete.
I don’t know about you, but Udogie – or rather the positions and instructions Udogie is given – make my mind boggle like nobody’s business. It’s one of those awkward situations in which the more one tries to understand the thing the more complicated it all seems to become.
What I’m getting at is where the devil does he actually play? Convention would dictate ‘left-back’; the achingly fashionable amongst us call it ‘inverted full-back’; but watching the match unfold he seemed to decide that it was open season anywhere on the left, and if he had to slap a hand on the Bible and absolutely swear under oath he’d announce that an attacking midfield role, ever-so-slightly left of centre, was the spot for him. And since everyone around him was too polite or too consumed with their own affairs to correct him, there he stayed.
In the interests of accuracy, I probably ought to acknowledge that when we were out of possession he did trot back to an old-fashion left-back spot. In general, however, I cast a beady eye, spotted him a-wandering and duly scratched my head.
Anyway, whatever the hell you want to call his role, he did it pretty well, at least in an attacking sense. Maddison, as ever, was the brains of the operation, but I derived a fair amount of enjoyment in seeing Fulham simply unable to cope with the mere presence of Udogie as an additional forward body, adding to the numbers and generally making a nuisance of himself in between Richarlison and Son.
Out on the other side, Porro seemed more inclined to obey the rules of convention and hover within spitting distance of the touchline, generally limiting himself to one or two visits to the opposition area; but Udogie appears constantly to be one well-timed burst away from being our second striker.
As is often the case with these things, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when Udogie was removed I thought we missed him somewhat. Emerson Royal, being a barmy sort, gave his own, rather madcap interpretation of the role, and with the entire collective being not quite at the races in the second half, the quality dipped notably.
So while I don’t pretend to understand his precise purpose, with each game I enjoy more and more the input from young Udogie, and hope that his early retirement last night was merely precautionary.
Not for the first time, some occasionally breathtaking football did not quite produce the rich harvest one would have hoped, and with only one first half goal to show for our efforts, those in the rear needed to pay a dashed sight more attention than one would have thought necessary.
At this point one could easily have gazed into the mid-distance, painted vivid images in the mind’s eye of Van de Ven neatly defusing bombs and extinguishing fires – and perfectly weighting passes that led directly to our opener, come to think of it – and purred appropriately at the chap for his highly impressive Jan Vertonghen Tribute Act.
But instead the AANP eye was drawn more towards the other side of central defence, where young Romero was busily plotting a flawless course through the night. Whenever Fulham broke down our right – and it seemed to happen far too often for my liking, considering the one-sided nature of proceedings – we seemed rather taken by surprise, as if such an eventuality simply hadn’t figured in all the pre-match planning. It was all a little too easy for Fulham to use that route to get within shooting distance. Where Senor Porro was in all this I’m not too sure, but happily the 2023/24 version of Cristian Romero has such matters well in hand.
On several occasions Romero popped up in precisely the spot in which trouble appeared about to befall, and for good measure, rather than simply blooting the ball to kingdom come, he typically had the presence of mind to make good use of it, either with a calming pass sideways, or, occasionally, with a gallop up the pitch.
As the game wore on and all in lilywhite cared less and less, Romero was called upon to do more than just intercept loose balls in his own area, increasingly being called upon to sprint back towards his own goal and put a lid on any looming trouble.
Much has been made of the calmer and wiser Romero, who this season thinks before hacking to pieces an opponent, but even with this new thoughtful head atop his shoulders, he still took every opportunity to put a bit of meaning into his tackles, going to ground and caring little if he upset the surrounding furniture.
As mentioned, Van de Ven did everything asked of him on the left, but I did particularly enjoy Romero’s bad-cop routine on the right.
I trust that when Signor Vicario dived beneath the duvet and started totting up sheep last night, he was able to reflect on a pretty satisfactory day’s work for the employer. So far this season the young bean has attracted plaudits as much for his contributions to penalty area keep-ball as anything else, but last night he was called upon on a couple of occasions to lend a hand in the more traditional sense, and he did so in mightily impressive fashion.
It was the first half save that really caught the eye. A full-length extension, to a headed effort that for all the world looked already to be nestling in the net, was not to be sniffed at. Moreover, this came when the score was still 0-0, and when, although our lot were dominant, it was not yet clear that Fulham would be quite as bad as they were. It was worth a goal, and young Master V. ought to be serenaded appropriately for his efforts.
He had to make a couple more sharp-ish stops towards the end of things too, at that point at which a pact seemed to have been agreed by all concerned that 2-0 it would be, yet Fulham sneakily tried to score anyway. These later saves were a dash more straightforward, the ball being leathered pretty much straight at his frame, but I can think of former members of the parish who might have made a pig’s ear of them. They needed saving; and save them Vicario did.
Ironically enough, for one whose major contribution to date has been his confidence and capability with ball at feet, Vicario actually dropped something of a clanger in precisely that field in the first half, gifting possession to some Fulham sort inside our own area. Luckily enough, one of the main principles of the day – that Fulham were dreadful from root to stem – was swiftly reinforced, and they made little of the moment, but I thought it was a pleasing indication of quite how much Vicario has already banked that none in the galleries reacted with any opprobrium towards him.
5. A Below-Par Second Half
By my reckoning we ought to have been about 6-2 up at half-time, but instead had to make do with just the one – which would have been reasonable enough had we begun the second half with the same vim and vigour as that with which we ended the first.
Alas, our lot appeared to have tucked into sizeable portions of pasta at half-time, quite possibly washed down with an ale or two, because the sluggish second half approach was very much that of a troupe who felt their night’s serious business was done, and were content to pay only the loosest attention to proceedings for the remainder, seemingly adopting the view that any matters of precision and accuracy would take care of themselves.
Against anyone else this might have been a problem. Mercifully, Fulham – and in particular that lad Bassey, at the back – appeared to be Spurs fans at heart, and did their best to ensure a smooth passage to victory for us, both in spurning an alarming number of late chances but also, crucially, in gifting us a second goal to wrap things up, just when it seemed that we were starting to lose control of things.
How our heroes might have coped with the late concession of a goal, bringing the score back to 2-1, will forever remain unknown, but AANP certainly ground a displeased tooth as that second half unfolded. One would hope that the careless attitude was a product of the circumstance – a poor opponent; the sense that we could go up a gear or two if needed; the fixture list throwing up another joust on Friday night – but I would much rather have seen us roll up sleeves, apply boot to neck and see off the thing a little more professionally.
Still, it ended up being a mightily comfortable win, and with the Title now practically sewn up, the only question left at AANP Towers is whether we will bag the FA Cup as well.