Another day, another winner in the final minute of added time, and an interested onlooker might observe that our heroes are beginning to make a habit of this.
There are worse habits of course, and I suppose if one could guarantee that come the 98th or so minute our troops would always scuttle off to form a messy human pyramid in some corner of the South Stand, then I’d be all for it.
There is of course a snag here, for it is a bit rich to expect that every huff-and-puff from minute 70 onwards will result in the triumphant last-minute gallop of all on the bench over to the corner flag.
Against Sheff Utd a couple of weeks back, it was to the credit of our troops that they just about adhered to The Plan. No gormless lumping off the ball into orbit, they instead stuck religiously to the diet of short sideways passing, all fully signed up to the notion that Ange-Ball would deliver. Admittedly it took a Perisic corner of pretty much celestial quality to get the equaliser, but the winner when it came was pure, distilled Ange-Ball – from the moment Udogie managed to pilfer possession high up the pitch by first invading the opponent’s personal space and then completely engulfing him, to the quick series of passes that set up Kulusevski.
It was a triumph for a good half hour of patient adherence to His Master’s Voice. Yesterday, however, that half hour dedicated to Huffing, Puffing and Blowing the House Down did not really come across as particularly intelligently spent.
For a start, one of the key principles of Ange-Ball is that whatever great idea is being hatched, it is hatched at breakneck pace. The art of dithering is unwelcome. If, through some sequence of events, the ball ends up at your feet, the only real requirement is that whatever you do next you do it quickly. A lilywhite receiveth and that same lilywhite shoveth on pronto, about sums it up.
But yesterday, once Liverpool were down to nine, a trend arose for whomever was in possession to clear their throat, stare off into the mid-distance and take an absolute eternity to get on with things. It was not at all in keeping with what has gone before this season, and it hindered rather than helped the operation yesterday.
Another oddity was this business of trying to pick a path through the mightily congested central areas. Once down to 9 Liverpool understandably enough crowded both central defence and central midfield, which I would have thought would have been a cue for our lot to maximise the width and stretch them out a bit. But whether by accident or design, this notion seemed to be well down the list of priorities, the principle of just standing around and taking a bit too long evidently deemed far more important than hugging the touchline and dragging opponents out of position.
Personally, I’m also rather a fan of getting to the byline and firing the ball across the face of goal, this having the advantage of turning defenders to face their own goal and giving them a fresh quandary to chew over. Again, it was not an option that our lot really explored until the final minute, when it ultimately brought about the own goal. This is not to suggest that the principle will succeed infallibly and in all instances, but rather that a spot of variety might have been nice, after the umpteenth attempt to pick a path through the centre came up short.
Anyway, it all worked out swimmingly, and while in future I think we’d all rather such issues were wrapped up with time for cocktails and cigars, that we somehow find ways to win these things is in itself worth a tip of the cap. Not so long ago – about five months ago in fact – going one down at home to Sheff Utd with half an hour to play would have been a bit of a death rattle. Similarly, hammering away at a locked door against nine men would not only have ended with us drawing a blank but may well have seen us somehow contrive to concede some nonsense on the counter-attack in the dying seconds.
In these nascent moments of The Ange Revolution, there’s a very different air about the place. Early days and all that, but there appear to be forces afoot, that would have it that our lot do not simply collapse like a pack of particularly brittle cards at the first whiff of trouble, but hang about a bit, even daring occasionally to find a way.
Yesterday’s was arguably our least impressive performance of the season – not too bad when 11 vs 10, with Liverpool seeming to regard the removal of one of their number as little more than a flesh-wound, and continuing to attack, thereby feeding into our approach neatly enough – but pretty grim viewing when 11 vs 9. And yet, our lot found a way. As impressive as the flashy one-touch stuff is from Maddison and Bissouma et al, when we go flying up the pitch with sparkle and jazz, this ability to stay in the fight and just linger, giving ourselves a sniff even as the clock ticks past 90, represents a touch of steel that I don’t remember existing in too many of the previous iterations.
2. Red Cards and VAR and Whatnot
If you’ve stopped off at this corner of the interweb before you’ll know that ever since the youthful AANP had the temerity to suggest that the referee was wrong, and received a pretty meaningful clip around the ear for his troubles from the unforgiving AANP Senior, the motto around these parts has been that the referee is always right, and there ends the narrative.
This was the case last week, when Romero found that an unfortunate by-product of owning arms is that they will exist in time and space, and even if there is nowhere to pop them short of detaching them then handball will still be called; was the case during the Champions League Final when the ball hit Sissoko’s armpit and the ref decided that was plenty; was the case back in April when Jota studded Skipp in the head and then popped up to score the last-minute winner; and was indeed the case yesterday when Udogie won the ball but was penalised for a foul from which Liverpool scored their equaliser. One takes rough; one takes smooth; and one stiffens the upper lip and accepts the referee’s call.
The fact that Luis Diaz’s strike was so obviously onside, and that the VAR mob actually agreed it was onside but failed to clock that it had been disallowed in the first place, is therefore mightily unfortunate for all concerned of Liverpudlian persuasion, but absolutely gut-burstingly hilarious to this particular observer. AANP Towers pretty much rocked to its foundations to the sounds of howls of laughter from within. Every team has its own sizeable portfolio of hard-luck VAR stories – the Good Ship Hotspur as much as any other – and none generally receives much sympathy from without.
So if you have pottered along expecting leaders from different political and religious spheres, lined up with heads bowed and pretty sombre expressions all round, I’m afraid you’re bang out of luck. Nothing but uncontrollable mirth around here, and the snatching of whatever goodies are being doled out. Goodness knows we’ll fall foul of VAR again soon enough, so tonight we make merry.
As for the red cards, I suspect you’ve picked up the general tone by now. Again, a bit of a motto amongst the AANP clan through the ages – more typically aimed at our own block-heads than those in opposing colours – is simply to avoid giving the referee the option. Which is to say that if young Master Jones had not applied his studs to the lower leg vicinity of Bissouma, none of the referee or the VAR mob or anyone else would have got involved.
In games such as these, when the last half hour is played pretty exclusively in the opposition half, it is easy enough to forget that the resident Last Line of Defence is even still pottering about in the vicinity.
But back in the first half, when the game was still a contest, at both 11 vs 11 and 11 vs 10, young Signor Vicario, not for the first time, was quietly going about doing all the necessaries. Actually, not that quietly, as the chap seems to be one of those slightly bonkers sorts who thinks that each of life’s daily achievements, from boiling an egg to crossing a road, is worthy of a pretty passionate scream of delight. Young people, what?
Anyway, nothing attracts the eye to a goalkeeper like an action-packed save or two, and when Liverpool were slicing straight into the heart of our penalty area with a bit too much ease, I was mightily grateful that we had Vicario stationed in the hotseat rather than veteran iteration of his predecessor.
Vicario’s double-save from Gakpo and then Robertson was pretty Hollywood stuff. One might flounce a bit and counter that both shots were essentially straight at him, and it would be a good point well made; but what attracted the AANP eye was that having repelled the Gakpo effort he understandably found that the aftermath had left him prostrate, and with limbs ill-assembled. Lesser men might have sought a moment to re-combobulate – reassess the bearings, check that all appendages remained in working order, that sort of thing.
Vicario was mercifully alert to the fact that there was no real time for such surveying of surroundings and drinking in of circumstances. Actually, it was a mindset he might usefully have passed onto his outfield chums later in the piece, but the point is that having made his save and hit the floor, he saw the value in immediately springing back to his feet in order bat away the damnedest that Robertson could fire at him.
Simply to hone in on his shot-stopping does a pretty major disservice to Vicario, for the transformation from defensive dullards to Ange-Ball entertainers owes much to the chap’s calmness and capability with ball at feet, in playing out against the opposition press. But nevertheless, his saves were pretty vital. It was a tight old game throughout, and in recent seasons we have not been able to rely upon our goalkeeper to pull off the point-blank stuff.
A strange old fish, Richarlison. One of those for whom a pretty persuasive argument could be made either way, if you get my drift.
One might point to his stats, and his goals output, and missed chances and offsides and various other rotten tomatoes and conclude that he’s not quite the bean for the job.
But yesterday, having been told to shove off to the left and make some lemonade, he seemed to cause a decent dollop of bother to those in his path. More so when out left than when stationed centrally in fact, although mitigating circumstances abounded here, not least that Liverpool switched to three centre-backs at the point, thereby pretty much depriving the poor chap of even the occasional bubble of oxygen.
But in the first half in particular, when out on the left, I thought Richarlison ran a pretty honest race. He buzzed around, linked with Udogie and took every opportunity to pop onto a plate goalscoring opportunities for those stationed in more easterly outposts. That early ball he whipped across the area was a good example, he seemingly defying physics by angling the thing back into the centre of the goal at a point when he was running off in the opposite direction. In fact the fist he made it of it was so surprisingly impressive that not a single dashed chum had anticipated it, and what ought to have been a tap-in from about five yards instead just whistled across N17.
He also hit the post at one point, which seems to sum up the way life is treating the poor chap at present, but when it came to picking out Sonny for our opener he nailed it. Maddison deserves the loudest ovation for that one actually, the weight and direction of his pass executed so as to take out approximately 8 Liverpool players in one go, but Richarlison got the memo and ensured that Sonny was left with little more to do than pop the thing into the empty net.
As mentioned, and in common with all his teammates, his well ran dry in the second half as the whole operation ground to a halt somewhat, but in a tough old fixture he made himself a nuisance, and where a few weeks ago there might have been doubts and question marks around his name, he now seems a viable option in the starting XI.
So in the space of seven days, our heroes have faced a couple of the bigger hitters, and emerged in decent shape. The draw last week was impressive for various reasons – a draw in a fixture we normally lose comfortably; twice coming from behind; looking as likely to win as the other lot, away from home – while yesterday’s was something of an oddity, in which we went toe-to-toe when 11 vs 11 and 11 vs 10, but badly lost our way when 11 vs 9 and somehow still found a win. A run of winnable fixtures loometh, but these last two games alone suggest that the current vintage is much improved on the previous few incarnations.