1. The Bryan Gil Quandary
I seem to recall that when applying to the old alma mater, I was faced with an exam question asking whether I would steer a runaway train to mow down 6 evil folk tied to one track, or switch to another track on which was tied 1 honest and virtuous sort of egg. And that particular quandary flitted to mind as half-time approached yesterday, and Bryan Gil was bounced off the ball for about the twentieth consecutive occasion.
For broadly speaking, this was not his day. Whereas last week his end result was repeatedly wanting, yesterday he didn’t even make it that far, barely able to put a foot on the ball without being sent flying from the premises. It’s been all very well joshing one another and making cracks about the lad needing to shove a few steaks down his gullet, but the blighter has had three years to plumpen that scrawny frame, and he still looks no bulkier than the day he arrived.
No particular finesse or talent was required by the City mob to edge him out of the game, they simply took a deep breath and blew, and he was knocked off his stride. If they really wanted to twist the knife in they gave him a spot of shoulder too, and down he tumbled.
But, crucially, the one moment he did stay on his feet long enough to affect the game, he set in motion our goal. When he received the ball, from a half-hearted clearance of a corner, the siren was still wailing to signify immediate and considerable risk to our own goal. City had monopolised possession since kick-off, and had amassed themselves around Vicario for a corner. Scoring ourselves was just about the last thing on anybody’s mind.
As such it’s difficult to quantify the praise due to Gil, for first shielding the ball; then swivelling the hips niftily enough to leave his marker needing a quiet sit-down; before rolling the ball into the path of Kulusevski and yelling, ‘Fetch!’
From where this moment of inspiration emanated is anyone’s guess, but it is no huge stretch to describe it as game-changing. Thereafter, of course, he was back to his wispy and ineffective self, repeatedly nudged out of possession and spending most of his afternoon sprawled on the floor and waving his arms, like an angry toddler. He had one split-second opportunity to play in Son when City gifted him possession 30 yards out, but dithered over that too, as if to emphasise the sort of afternoon he was having.
All of which left me wondering, much like a driver at the controls of a runaway train, was it worth 44 and a half minutes of a Bryan Gil so impotent that we were effectively down to 10 men, in return for the one moment of magic that earned us a pretty priceless goal? And being an all-action-no-plot sort, you can probably work out what I decided there.
2. Lo Celso
Oddly enough, the AANP take on Giovanni Lo Celso was not a million miles from that of Gil.
Different sorts of performances, in the specifics, of course. For a start Lo Celso, having a bit more meat on his bones than Gil (hardly a distinguishing feature, granted) tended to leave a few souvenirs about the place on the limbs of City folk – but here, for a start, I rather took exception to him.
Cast your minds back to last week, and having dominated Villa for a half, we conceded from a free-kick deep in first-half stoppage time. Cast your minds back another 20 seconds or so, and you may recall that said free-kick was conceded by none other than G. Lo C, and pretty needlessly so, I don’t mind adding. It was not a free-kick of the ilk that Kulusevski cunningly conceded in the dying embers yesterday, cynically hacking to terra firma an opposing blister who was rushing towards our area. Lo Celso’s was an unnecessary and unsubtle shove on some random nib who was largely immersed in his own thoughts out on the touchline. But from this pointless intervention, Villa swung a free-kick into the area and scored.
Now you can probably see where this is going, but yesterday, with the cheers still ringing about the place in salute of Sonny’s opener, Lo Celso was at it again, utterly needlessly bundling over Bernardo Silva in pretty much an identical spot, gifting City a set-piece from which they duly equalised.
And thereafter, GLC was definitely present, occasionally popping up to receive and transfer possession, but without ever really stamping any authority on things. Where Maddison, to take the obvious comparator, tends to bustle about the place demanding possession, Lo Celso struck me as happy enough just to be there.
Now crucially, the fellow scores. And dashed good goals they are too. Last week’s against Villa was a corker, albeit assisted by an errant opposing thigh; and yesterday’s was similarly despatched with the sort of dreamy ease that is the reserve of only a select few technical sorts. He might have had another too, stationing himself outside the area and lashing another volley from a half-cleared corner, à la last week against Villa.
One gets the point, therefore. Lo Celso scores goals. I’m not sure he provided much additional value yesterday, rather pottering around without creating a great deal, but he has two exceptionally well-taken goals in his record-book, and from only two starts, which is more than can be said of Richarlison or Johnson or various others.
The whole thing does make me wonder if he is something of an Eriksen sort, in terms of being the type of player who will flit around the peripheries for much of the game, apart from when he contributes to goals – therefore always appearing on Match of the Day and seeming to be quite an important player, until you watch the full game and realise you barely notice him.
This might also explain why he always seems to return from international duty with a rich old haul to his name – goals and assists and whatnot, for Argentina – and then promptly flatters to deceive in lilywhite.
Either way, by the time he was withdrawn late on in the piece yesterday, I was ready to give the head quite the contemplative scratch. Not really sure what to make of him. Of the useful prodding and passing in the final third last week against Villa, there was little sight. However, City away is a tough old nut for anyone to crack, so perhaps best to give him benefit of the doubt this week; and with the midfield cupboard still pretty bare he will presumably receive plenty more opportunity to clarify his value in the coming weeks.
If the AANP mind was a little torn on GLC’s performance yesterday, there was a lot less doubt about poor old Bissouma. Fair to say the chap stank the place out, pretty much throughout. His first half contributions seemed most notable for a succession of basic passes played out into touch in a left-back sort of spot; his principal second half contribution was to gift City their third goal.
Form being temporary and all that, I’m quite prepared to dismiss this one as an outlier, and look forward to brighter things in the coming games. He showed often enough at the start of the season that he’s capable enough of swanning past flailing opposition legs to bring the ball out of defence, and against teams slightly less accomplished than City one would hope his approach bears a bit more fruit.
But yesterday, particularly in the first half, when our lot got themselves into deep and irredeemable muddles, Bissouma’s attempts to receive the ball at the base of midfield and shimmy out of trouble were actually at the core of many of our woes.
He was not alone in this – Emerson seemed at times actively to be trying to convince all onlookers that his selection as ball-playing centre-back was an error of the deepest magnitude, providing a steady stream of evidence to convince The Brains Trust never to select him there again. Even Vicario, normally pretty a confident sort of chappie with ball at his feet, was pretty woefully misreading the old compass and spraying the ball all over the place.
But having yearned over the last few weeks for Bissouma to return from his spells on the naughty step, I must confess to feeling mightily underwhelmed as he rolled out one poorly-executed offering after another. As with Lo Celso, the opportunities to atone lie ahead.
But if that lot were all strangely off-colour, young Kulusevski was pretty happy to roll up his sleeves and single-handedly bail them all out.
In fact, there I immediately do him a disservice, for it was with the greatest approval that I noted the chap turning up his nose at this business of long-sleeved under-garments, and setting about his work in a t-shirt. Thus attired, for a game of football rather than a fireside mug of cocoa, he did rather the opposite of Emerson, by indicating to the galleries that he rather fancied himself in his new-ish role, as Number 10.
He was shunted back out to the right in the second half, which I thought rather a shame ( if understandable, to accommodate the replacement of Gil with Hojbjerg), but in the first half he made quite the impact slap bang in the middle of things.
For a start, his contribution to our opening goal was expertly judged and executed. It actually amounted in its entirety to a single swing of the left clog, but this was plenty, and precisely what was required – letting the ball run across him, spotting the gallop of Son and delivering a cross-field pass that ticked all boxes in terms of weight, height, direction and so forth.
Less headline-grabbing, but equally valuable to the AANP eye, was Kulusevski’s diligent work in dropping deep in midfield to collect the ball and shield it from interfering City souls. On several occasions as our various defensive incompetents made a dreadful hash of playing out from the back, Kulusevski buzzed in to lend a hand, usefully positioning the entirety of his bulk between the ball and the opponent, and thus turning defence into attack in a trice.
And while I lamented his switch to the right in the second half, where his options diminish and his predictability grows, it was nevertheless from this station that he came barrelling in for that glorious equaliser, again utilising every cubic inch of his frame to bulldoze aside Ake and make sure that he and he alone would be winning the header (or shoulder, as it transpired).
A complimentary word too for Sonny, indefatigable throughout, and as critical to the second goal as well as he was clinical with the first, but Kulusevski took the AANP gong for Outstanding Contribution to Madcap Proceedings yesterday.
5. Ange-Ball: Here To Stay
Ange-Ball it is then. For the complete avoidance of any lingering shred of doubt, Our Glorious Leader sent us out to play the best team in the world, whilst shorn of 10 or so personnel, and still stuck to his play-out-from-the back system with all the dedication of a religious zealot.
No doubt there are still those who grumble about the approach, and will furiously wave the takings of 1 point from 12 as proof that this is madness. To which, in the first place, I shrug the shoulders and say it’s all pretty academic as this is clearly going to continue happening. On top of which, it’s vastly more entertaining to watch us go down swinging than adopting a miserable, Conte-esque to life obsessed with defending one’s own penalty box.
And on top of all of that, while 1 point may represent the sum of the last 4 games, on balance that’s a pretty wonky representation of the manner in which those games have unfurled. We actually looked like scoring when down to 9 men against Chelsea; came within injury-time of beating Wolves; would have been out of sight of Villa by half-time if our forwards had learnt to shoot straight; and I’m not sure we’d have taken a point from City by simply sitting deep, clearing the danger and waiting for the next barrage for 90-plus minutes.
Back to yesterday, and while fully signed up to Ange-Ball and its eccentricities, I did nevertheless wonder, as time and again I watched Vicario pass the ball straight to their striker and Emerson dribble straight into the nearest opponent, whether our heroes might apply an extra brain cell or two to their approach. I’m all for sticking to the strategy, and every now and then when it did work we shifted the narrative, in the blink of an eye, from Outside-Own-Area to Approaching-Their-Goal.
But the air about the place all too often seemed to be that simply putting one’s signature to the approach was sufficient, and that the practical elements – such as the ball finding a teammate – would take care of themselves. “Not really so,” I found myself murmuring, as Emerson played his umpteenth pass straight to light blue and City swarmed upon us once more. Much like VAR, I mused as City blasted the thing against our woodwork, I fully support the Ange-Ball theory but do sometimes wonder about those manning the controls. A mite more care and attention would have done wonders for the old heart-rate.
Anyway, we got away with it. Where last week our forwards had stuffed their lines against Villa, this week City’s forwards stuffed theirs against us, the thing going neatly full circle I suppose. On top of which, all three of our goals were actually pretty impressive specimens of Ange-Ball at its finest.
The first demonstrated the virtues of quick forward-shovelling of the treasured orb, with Bryan Gil wriggling not just out of space but onto the front-foot, from the edge of his own area; the second in its genesis was a triumph of proactive bounding to get to the thing first (by both of Messrs Emerson and Davies); and the third, also at the nascent stage, owed much to young Master Skipp of all people twinkle-toeing his way between two opponents to start off the move. In all three of the above, those starting manoeuvres were fraught with risk – miscalculations of any of them would have resulted in some pretty furious back-pedalling.
We ought really to have been hammered – but then we all knew that anyway. Playing City with 10 absentees lends itself to such logic. But to come away with a point – riding our luck. scoring some lovely goals and nabbing a last-minute equaliser – was a pretty thrilling way to round off the weekend. The risks are clearly sky-high, but, particularly when our heroes finish as clinically as yesterday, the style of play creates enough chances to see us off with an overflowing goodie bag.