1. A Note On Var
One always likes to improve the mind, of course, so if last night’s high jinks concerning VAR have brought anything in the way of a silver lining, it’s the sparkling discovery that one can be offside from a pass directed backwards. A fact – and a pretty critical one at that – of which neither I nor the general population at large were remotely aware until circa. 22.00 last night. And if that doesn’t cushion the blow of the wider thing, I don’t know what does.
For tax purposes and whatnot, I ought to declare that here at AANP Towers we are actually in favour of VAR – in theory. When it does the job for which Mother Nature had intended it, viz. swiftly correcting absolute howlers, then it’s a most welcome addition to the ecosystem. (Neatly illustrating this was an initially disallowed goal just last weekend, by Everton’s Anthony Gordon – he of the Princess Diana tribute hair – whose finish was initially flagged offside, instantly checked and within seconds discovered by the first replay to be as comfortably onside as these things can be.) In theory, a ripper. Howler overturned. Football the winner.
In practice, however, the bods in the video booth seem to have taken this fine and noble theory, of immediately correcting clear and obvious errors, and given it a good kicking before locking it in a basement somewhere, which has increasingly struck me as not really cricket.
If a VAR decision takes longer than the specified period required to boil an egg, the AANP eyebrow leaps into action and does its thing. And if VAR’s offside lines cannot be drawn without inviting pretty fruity debate about their accuracy or width or whatever else, the AANP index finger is raised with calm but thrillingly authoritative purpose. And when any of the above exist in combination, it indicates that a general rumminess is afoot. To spell the thing out scientifically, these are not the kind of acts for which VAR was invented.
And it felt like all of the above, and more, was sprinkled about the place pretty liberally last night. Coming as it did, to puncture the mighty crescendo of last night’s efforts, I don’t mind admitting that I did not necessarily receive the announcement with the exquisite decency that the AANP lineage traditionally demands.
Still, there it is. Deliberately positioning oneself to block the ball can be deemed accidental. Knees can be offside. And we can all rejoice in the fact that we are now that much wiser today than we were yesterday about the capacity to be offside or otherwise from passes delivered in a regressive direction.
2. The Different Second Half Approach
All of which distracts somewhat from the real front-page stuff. Our first half was, for the most part, pretty mouldy fare.
An important asterisk deserves shoving in at this point, because there was a spell of maybe ten minutes or so in the first half when our heroes seemed to stumble, inadvertently or otherwise, upon one-touch football and the pretty sizzling harvest it produces. Kane tended to feature fairly prominent in these vignettes, with Lucas, Doherty and the midfield twins also bobbing into frame for little cameos. Being an optimistic soul, I was pretty encouraged by these moments. Times, it seemed to me, were a-changing. It might not have been quite the whirlwind of irresistible force for which we’d been pining all bally season, but snippets of one-touch stuff were a fair few notches up from the rot of recent weeks.
It was pretty unfortunate therefore that Sporting should choose that moment to beetle down the other end and take the lead. Thereafter, the very concept of one-touch passing seemed to be erased from the minds of all concerned, and our lot returned to that mournful routine of taking three touches and passing sideways in defence again, as if they had been rehearsing it all week.
When out of possession too, the sentiment seemed to be to approach things as if we were actually three or four goals ahead, and were quite content to sit off and let Sporting do their darnedest. The whole approach was equal parts peculiar and excruciating.
Come the second half, however, the gravity of the situation seemed gently to manifest itself into the minds of the main cast, until, by around the 60-minute mark, our lot were hammering away at the Sporting goal at every opportunity.
Certain key factors made themselves known during this period. For a start, the whole business of gloomily shoving the ball left and right in defence, ad infinitum, was shelved. Instead, the back-three seemed collectively struck by the notion that shovelling the ball elsewhere – anywhere, but at a healthy tempo – would start to pop a few Sporting noses out of joint, if you follow.
The wing-backs adopted increasingly adventurous positions – with varying degrees of success in terms of output, I suppose, but by virtue of simply making the effort and being there they benefited the general effort.
Bentancur and Hojbjerg struck up a brief entente cordiale, whereby the former would mind the rear and the latter would charge off to support the attacking mob. (At least temporarily; as the clock did its thing the whole one-sit-one-attack agreement became a little fuzzier around the edges.)
By the final few minutes we even had Romero shrugging his shoulders and mooching up into the centre-forward position.
Admittedly by that point we had rather dispensed with finesse, and Sporting were inclining towards an all-hands-to-the-pump mentality, but in general, the attitude of simply moving the ball quickly struck me as making a world of difference. Funnily enough, showing the desire to win any given loose ball did likewise.
Why the hell it takes concession of a goal and a full 45 of clueless meandering around the halfway line to get there is a mystery that has been stretching out all season now, but AANP is a sunny sort, and if we can bottle the second half approach and uncork it again at 3pm on the nose this Saturday, then I’ll observe matters with a smile on the map and the hum of popular melodies on the lips.
If I quote the date “Summer 2021” and let memory do its thing, you may recall the good ship Hotspur indulging in a spot of over-the-counter trading with Sevilla, to the effect of shoving them one serviceable Lamela plus £20m, and receiving in return a shiny new Gil.
I’ve never really been one for the shops if I’m honest, being more the sort of cove who will buzz in and out to buy things out of necessity rather than wile away hours browsing through every dashed thing on the shelf. As such, I’m not really an expert in these matters, but even so, I have been unable to shake the thought ever since that we congratulated ourselves a little too hastily on that one. Gil is a younger specimen, that much is pretty much scientifically and legally assured. But with each fleeting cameo, the same critical question has occurred, namely whether this chap is really £20m better than Lamela. Actually, a second question also tends to leap to mind, that of why, if he really is that good, does he never play.
And the answer to the second part of the conundrum at least seems to present itself with regard to the young fellow’s bulk – or, rather, lack thereof. Put bluntly, all the pace, willing and trickery in the world doesn’t amount to much puff if the slightest spot of good, honest shoulder-to-shoulder waltzing sends you hurtling into the stands.
I myself am one of the sinewy sort of frame, all skin and bone or, as put lovingly by a 5-a-side teammate, “made of biscuits”. As such, should young Gil and I ever take to a pitch together, I fancy we’d address each other as physical equals. Any coming together would not invite a dark sequel, but rather just a spot of picking up, dusting down and friendly back-slapping. The problem seems to arise when just about anyone of remotely muscular build comes into Gil’s sphere. For all his undoubted trickery and pace, it seems pretty public knowledge that one meaty clump around the upper-body will send the poor nib into next week.
All of the above was in evidence against Frankfurt last week, when Gil produced a similarly endearing and effective cameo, halted every now and then by physical contact, so it was a rather pleasant surprise to note that Sporting seemed pretty ignorant to his obvious Achilles’ heel. And as a result, he was terrific. Unpredictable, willing and creative, it was precisely what we needed at that point. I suppose there is a question around whether he is better resourced against European teams than slighter beefier sorts in the Premier League, but last night such concerns were way down the list.
The sight of Gil operating high up the pitch with Lucas as auxiliary wing-back behind him was particularly thrilling (although Conte then burst that particular bubble to bring on Royal, whose lamentable no-look pass out of play for a goal-kick I would gladly accept as his swansong in lilywhite).
Both Gil and Lucas offered the potential to dash in behind the defence, as well as simply tying up an opponent in knots, but Gil in particular seemed an exponent of this art. In the absence of both Kulusevski and Richarlison, Conte’s next selection in this respect will be intriguing.
Mercifully, the life and times of our resident last-line were merely a footnote by the time the curtain came down, but despite only popping into focus intermittently, Monsieur Lloris still managed to cram a few extremes into his highlights reel.
To his credit, that reflex save late on in the second half pretty much kept us in the match. After all that nonsense he peddled at the weekend it was pretty heartening to see him hit upon the idea of doing that for which he is paid, with minimal fuss and a fair helping of quality.
Alas, the chap’s wackier side was rarely far behind. A tardy offside flag consigned the moment to history, but his charge out of his area and then off into the south-western corner, giving futile chase to a Sporting soul – and then letting him escape, forsooth! – had seasoned Lloris-watchers covering the eyes of nearby small children.
And this was to say nothing of his role in the goal conceded. Not straightforward of course, and one listens keenly to those who advise walking a mile in a man’s shoes before subjecting him to pelters – but for a fellow who’s saving grace is his shot-stopping, he probably ought to have given a moment’s thought to his own coordinates as Edwards locked on and prepared to fire.
As mentioned, the fun and games which accompanied the mad old finale helped to shove to one side Lloris’ latest indiscretions, but he ought to be in no doubt that the hawk-like eye of AANP will be upon him in the weeks to come.