1. Missed Chances
Easy to forget by the time the credits rolled and we let out that enormous, collective exhalation of relief, a few years having been shaved off each individual, but our lot might – and really should – have been two or three goals up before the clock had even struck 7 minutes.
Profligacy hasn’t really tended to be a particular problem around these parts, so one generously excuses the wayward nature of the finishing yesterday as an isolated incident. ‘These things happen’, seems the platitude of choice in such situations, ‘no hard feelings’. But even armed with this ‘Forgive and forget, what?’ attitude to life, one cannot simply gloss over the fact that for each of the spurned chances I raised my eyes to the heavens and unleashed an almighty howl.
For make no mistake, as straightforward chances go all three of these were absolute corkers. With Luton ambling about the place like they had no idea what sport they were playing (our lot had 96% possession in those opening exchanges, egads!) decency really demanded that we shovelled a few into their net and had the thing done and dusted inside ten minutes.
Naturally, the simplest of these tasks fell to Richarlison, who, bruised potato that he currently is, found some pretty extraordinary ways to fashion a pig’s ear out of them.
The first opportunity would be described by most of sound mind as a tap-in from one yard, and as such be as inexcusable as they come. However, in the interests of fairness it is only right to allow the most zealous members of the Richarlison Fan Club to stamp their feet a bit and highlight the fact that such a description glosses over the fact that the ball reached their man at a most inconvenient height, thereby rather putting the skids on the notion of this as a ’tap-in’.
One sees both sides. The ball, when it did finally arrive at the prescribed meeting point, was at what might be described as Davinson Sanchez height – meant for the feet, but sufficiently high that the dimmer members of the clan might try heading it instead. The point being that it was rather an awkward height, and Richarlison therefore deserves some sympathy for failing to keep the thing under his spell.
Personally I’m not particularly convinced, as the chap had seemed to have done the hard work – arrived on location, connected foot to ball – and quite simply missed the target.
(I noted images circulating around the interweb, no doubt posted with accompanying shrieks of outrage, that appear to show the Luton bobbie in Richarlison’s slipstream grabbing a handful of his shirt at the vital moment. I strongly recommend that these are ignored, for watching the incident again, with the beadiest of eyes, seems to highlight that this was quite the non-event, and did nothing to affect the outcome.)
Minutes later, Richarlison had the ball on terra firma, and went for the bottom corner, only to be denied by the leg of the Luton goalkeeper. Again, our man’s supporters might argue, with some justification, that he didn’t do much wrong – kept it low, aimed for the corner, struck it cleanly and so forth – but the critical point is that six yards from goal with only the ‘keeper to beat, any self-respecting striker ought to be depositing the thing as if shelling a pea, and off for the mandatory knee-slide without the need for any further points of debate.
Pedro Porro was next, letting the ball run a mite too far away from him and consequently extending the lower appendage slightly more than the textbook suggests is optimal, with the net result that he steered the ball the wrong side of the post. This one actually surprised me, because if the last nine months or so have taught me anything about young Senor Porro it’s that he seems to finish better than Richarlison. No airs or graces, just decisive thwacks into the low corners.
All very irritating, but at this point it seemed that our lot were up against a bunch of poorly-arranged mannequins, and had brought their short-sharp-passing A-game, so a further hatful of chances would arrive pretty sharpish. One little would have suspected that we would have been deploying skin of the teeth to cling on to a one-goal win at the end, but I suppose the moral of the story here is just to bury the dashed chances when they thrust themselves into one’s lap.
That gushing stream of early chances stopped, scratched its head and opted to become more of a trickle after those first ten minutes, but as all concerned readied themselves for the midway intermission the general sense remained that our heroes remained comfortably superior, in all respects other than actually bobbing along the scoreline.
And until that part Bissouma had been buzzing along doing the sorts of things that Bissouma does. Part of the joy of the man is that he manages to cram into his nine-to-five the work of several different men. He is at various points Bissouma: Destroyer of Worlds, by virtue of his ability snatch the ball from opponents just outside our own area; also Bissouma: Dropper of the Shoulder, a party-trick again typically unveiled outside his own area, when receiving the ball under pressure and displaying a Waddle-esque ability to send opponents into another postcode without actually touching the ball, but simply by dipping the frame; and Bissouma: Carrier of the Ball, which tends to be more front page news, as he gallops over halfway and threads the thing onwards to an attacking comrade.
All of which meant that when he was removed from the cast-list, it felt like we had had more than one man sent off. There is having a player sent off, and the reshuffling that this requires; and there is having Bissouma sent off. He’s a pretty valuable commodity.
A pretty brainless one, too. Harking all the way back to his lilywhite debut, when he was cautioned for tossing the ball away with a bit of feeling, the chap seems to exhibit a penchant for idiocy of a pretty high level.
For a start, in every game he seems to booked for the same foul, a rather needless, inelegant and, crucially, wholly unsubtle bundling over of a scampering opponent from behind. Occasionally in such instances one surreptitiously lowers one’s gaze and murmurs a line or two about tactical fouls – but too often with Bissouma it seems fewer parts tactical and far too many parts reckless.
But then, having collected his token yellow, to fling himself to the ground and have himself expelled from the vicinity was utterly mind-boggling in its bone-headedness. I mean, really. How does a fellow so wanting for IQ manage to tie his laces in the morning?
And more to the point, his dive was pretty unabashed cheating. AANP has a pretty strict moral compass, and bilge like this stinks the place out. Not at N17, thank you. One could argue that there have been plenty of instances in recent years of tumbling to the ground as if shot under the slightest contact; but giving the old to-dust-I-shall-return routine when no contact has been made at all just simply isn’t cricket.
I noted that Jermaine Jenas displayed the slightly lazy tendency of the modern telly-box pundit in shoving the Man of the Match brick at the goalscorer. In fairness young Van de Ven could be considered a fairly worthy winner, having kept everything under lock and key at the back, and then displaying an impressive ability to reshuffle what seemed like numerous feet in setting himself for the winner.
But from the AANP Towers vantage point it was the fellow joined to VDV’s hip who caught the eye. Young Cristian Romero had one of his zingiest days in lilywhite, or pink, or whatever the kids are calling it these days. Whether it was heading, blocking, tackling or racing back to interfere with an opposing striker just as they were readying themselves for a spot of shooting practice, Romero seemed pretty determined to make this his day, irrespective of what Jermaine Jenas had to say on the matter.
It was all the more impressive when one considers the hot-headed Romero of yesteryear, whose mantra seemed to be ‘Chop someone in half first, debate the finer points in life later’. Practically a Buddhist monk by comparison these days, Romero barely makes a foul, can be seen to weigh up the pros and cons before charging into the action and even produces a spot of the old UN-Secretary-General routine, wading into on-field rows as peacemaker of all things, ushering away the more hot-headed and vocal souls around him.
Much has been made of the impact of awarding him the vice-captaincy, and I suppose the evidence of this honour is there for all to see, although being of a different vintage I’m rather dismissive of such things myself. But if improves Romero as a player, and tightens the defence accordingly, then I’m happy to toot the nearest klaxon in support.
Back to yesterday, and both the occasional cross into our box and more frequent glut of corners conceded had the AANP teeth grinding away, make no mistake. However, Romero, aided by his chums, kept trouble to a minimum. (Credit at this point also to Our Glorious Leader for the introduction of Skipp and particularly Royal, to augment our back-four into a back-five, and reduce the threat posed by back-post crosses.)
It ought not to have been a day for trumpeting the centre-backs, but it’s pretty reassuring to know that should they be thrust into service then neither Romero will grab the responsibility and sling it over his shoulder with meaningful looks in all directions.
I suppose few in attendance would have given more than cursory glance of acknowledgement to Dejan Kulusevski for his day’s work. ‘Busy throughout, and particularly effective in the first-half’, might have been the summary in the local rag, before awarding him a 6 out of 10 and sinking its teeth into Richarlison.
But again, in the spirit of championing the lesser-heralded amongst the troupe, AANP was positively drooling about the chap by the time the curtain came down. In particular, it was the effort he put in in the final 20 or so, when both Sonny and Maddison were hooked for the greater good, and one imagines the dialogue between Big Ange and Deki Kulusevski running along the lines of:
DK: shrug (of acceptance)
At which point Kulusevski loped off to be the central striker, a pretty lonely job when everyone else of an attacking persuasion was topping up on their isotonic fluids and energy gels on the sidelines.
But Kulusevski comes across as the sort of chap who, in his youth, if told to run home five miles if he wanted feeding, simply laced up his trainers and started jogging. Yesterday, he did not stop running for the cause in those final stages, either up the top or out on the right.
Regularly spotted collecting the ball and motoring off into a corner, pursued by two or three of the enemy, he found himself simply having to stiffen the torso and barge interlopers out of the way while he waited for a spot of company. The drill seeming to be that we’d clear the ball to Kulusevski and rely on him single-handedly to delay Luton’s next attack, which seemed a mite harsh on the lad, but he’s evidently an uncomplaining sort.
As mentioned, few headlines will be written about him, and I don’t recall spotting too many garlands about his neck as he trooped off, but his contribution as lone-johnnie-holding-up-the-ball-in-attack was priceless stuff.
It was only Luton (just as last week it was only nine men, and the previous week it was a team shorn of three or four first teamers) but AANP can barely sit still with excitement. Not so much for the League table, although Monday 20th May has already been marked with a big thick cross as the date for the open-top bus parade along the High Road. Rather, the thrill of all this is that we continue to win games in which, in recent (and more distant) history our heroes would have come out with the best intentions but flopped badly.
After a couple of injury-time winners in recent weeks, this time we were deducted a player for half the game and told to sink or swim. There are, I suppose, tougher assignments out there, but this nevertheless felt like a significant impediment, and an equally significant achievement. Keeping Luton at bay for 45 minutes in these circumstances was mightily impressive going; having the spark to pinch a goal in the midst of it reflected that this was not merely a backs-to-the-wall operation.
As mentioned, it’s not the sort of output I’m used to seeing from our lot, but I suppose that’s what you get in a brave new era. Either way, it’s yet another of those irksome tests, passed yet again with flying colours, and it all does really make one wonder quite which replica shirt to don on 20th May.