1. That Rather Enjoyable First Half
Say what you like about young Mason – and this particular pen has scribbled a few choice descriptions in recent weeks – but when it comes to binning what went before and trying something completely novel, he is not lacking in pluck and vim. Where Conte would stick to 3-4-3 even if his life depended on some minute alteration, Mason scatters around new approaches like confetti. Having flirted with some distant cousin of 4-4-2 in recent weeks, yesterday he made a pretty abrupt pivot off into the land of 4-2-3-1, earning an admiring glance from AANP Towers in the process.
And for 45 minutes, the thing operation tootled along pretty swimmingly. More goals would have helped of course, particularly if you are the sort who assesses these things with rather dead-eyed steeliness, caring only for wins won, no matter the fashion in which they are achieved (or, in other words, if your name is Jose or Antonio).
But for those of us who would have gladly donated a liver just to see some entertaining football at some point over the last three years dash it, that we only scored one goal was a pretty incidental footnote. The real headline was that there was genuinely enjoyable football on show.
No doubt Brentford played into our hands in that first half. They seemed as surprised as anyone else to see our lot take to the field with four fully functioning attackers primed and ready, and could regularly be sighted scampering back into position with looks of concern etched all over their maps, repeatedly undermanned whenever our heroes counter-attacked.
Members of our attacking quartet at various points took turns to station themselves in cunning pockets of space that seemed to fall under the jurisdiction of neither the Brentford defence or midfield, and also took to gaily swapping positions, looking for all the world as if this football business could actually be rather a lark, which is a pretty rare sight around these parts.
Moreover, once in possession, we positively brimmed with exciting and innovative ideas about how to jig all the way into the penalty area in order to get shots away. There were crosses, and one-twos, and AANP’s personal favourite, the neat diagonal passes played inside a defender. That our only goal was from a free-kick was rather a curiosity, because Sonny, Danjuma and even Emerson Royal each seemed to come within a well-placed Brentford limb of adding to the tally by virtue of some well-crafted routine during that opening 45. Frankly I didn’t know we had it in us.
The front four may have been the principals, but a pretty vital cog in this 4-2-3-1 was the 2, and Messrs Skipp and Bissouma were in imperious form, at least in that first half.
Bissouma carried out his duties with the relish of a fellow who wakes up every morning determined to wring every last ounce of pleasure from his day. Where some might react with a scowl to being told to spend all day tidying up in midfield, Bissouma flipped the thing on its head, treating every crowded coming-together as an opportunity to display his full range of nifty footwork. If Brentford johnnies descended upon him en masse and with nefarious intent, he simply pirouetted out of trouble, as often as not picking some eye-catching pass at the end of it all too, as an unexpected treat.
He threw in his usual needless crunch at one point, earning the standard yellow card that seems to accompany his every appearance in lilywhite, but that aside, he generally made the grubby job of midfield guard-dog look a lot more glamorous and elegant than one would have thought possible. As with much else on display in that first half, it gave a bit of a whiff of a potentially brighter future around these parts, if the right sort of bean can come along and make a fist of the old wheat-chaff separation routine.
Young Skipp, while perhaps not quite as easy upon the eye, was also doing a heck of a job fighting the good fight within that deep-lying midfield pair. If it were Bissouma’s job to tiptoe out of increasingly complex situations and ever-diminishing spaces, Skipp’s role seemed to be simply to hunt down loose balls wherever they happened to spring up.
The young whelp’s motivation appeared in no way dimmed by his billing as the less refined of the pair, he seeming to be all in favour of spending his afternoon racing off to win the thing over and over again. Young Skipp also appeared to be blessed with a decent sense of dramatic timing, typically leaving his interventions until the last possible moment before haring in from distance to nick the ball away, amidst a flailing opposition leg.
It will no doubt go under the radar, but on one such occasion, having rolled out his nick-of-time routine to win a 50-50, he was dumped to the floor by an opponent by way of reward, bringing about the free-kick from which we scored. Kane might have hit the thing, Davies might have shoved the laddie aside in the wall; but Skipp earned the opportunity in the first place.
A shame, then, that his eagerness to show a spot of initiative later on went pretty seriously awry, resulting in the Brentford third. Skipp’s intent in this incident had been pretty wholesome, collecting a throw-in deep inside his own half, with a view, no doubt, to setting in motion some campaign for an equaliser. However, he got off to a poor start, taking his eye off the package and letting it bobble past him, which rather set the tone for how the whole incident would play out. While his attempt to bring the situation back under control by means of a spot of wriggling and opponent-dodging was laudable in theory, it met with some pretty significant obstacles in practice – not least being shoved to the ground and having his belongings pilfered from him.
Not his finest hour, but it says much of Skipp’s general attitude and contribution that there were not too many irate fingers wagging in his direction. “Accidents will happen,” seemed to be the gist of the reaction, on realising the identity of the culprit on this occasion. Young Skipp has a fair amount of credit in the bank. Our multitude of woes over the course of this season have many roots, but the efforts of O. Skipp Esq. is not among them.
4. Davies and Lenglet
By contrast, Messrs Davies and Lenglet do not get off so lightly. Even in the first half, in which, thanks to the efforts of those positioned north of them, they were not too onerously employed, they still seemed to make rather a production of the fairly menial tasks thrown their way. However, being swept along by the general gaiety of the occasion one brushed it aside.
There was no brushing it aside in the second half however, as that well-earned one-nil lead became a two-one deficit without Brentford having to do much more than wander into our penalty area and peer about the place, thanks to the idiotic bumblings of Davies and Lenglet.
That the equaliser should have been allowed to happen still makes the blood boil, a good twenty-four hours and more after the event. Brentford dully wibbled the ball from somewhere vaguely left to somewhere vaguely right, and with two defenders and a goalkeeper barring the path to goal, an immediate equaliser ought to have been one of the lowest-ranked of likely outcomes. That some danger was imminent was not in doubt, for the chappie was in our area, and behind the scenes various of our party could be seen scuttling to and fro to prevent any harm occurring once the ball was passed along and Stage Two of the operation got underway. But any immediate shot seemed to carry minimal threat.
And yet somehow, Davies and Lenglet, intent on a programme of utterly passive non-interference, contrived not only to allow that Mbuemo to have a shot, but between them constructed the flimsiest conceivable barrier. Had Mbuemo struck the thing like an Exocet, or had he shimmied and tricked until they lost their footing, one might have held up the hands and done him some homage. But the blighter did none of the above. Frankly, I’ve seen passes hit with more ferocity than his shot. And yet Davies and Lenglet backed off him as if he brandished a machete, and then somehow allowed his shot a route through all four of their combined legs.
And if any in the paying galleries were expecting the following minutes to bring a display of contrition and redemption from this combo they were in for the sort of disappointment for which only a season of this dross can really prepare the soul. As Mbeumo was released for his second, he and Davies were neck and neck in a straightforward sprint for the ball. Mbuemo arguably had the advantage, already being well in his stride, but nevertheless one would have anticipated Davies having sufficient pace to keep within clattering distance of him, or at the very least manoeuvring his frame in that cunning way of the wiliest old devils, blocking off the route of Mbuemo and resulting in a satisfying display of arm-waving frustration. As previously, at the point of release, danger seemed fairly minimal.
Incredibly, however, Davies managed to concede a five-yard gap over a ten-yard sprint. I simply could not believe what I was watching. He moved as if he had hoisted one of his teammates onto his back and then attempted simply to get from A to B without falling over, no matter how long it took him. Anyone convinced that a Premier League footballer, when required to sprint twenty yards, might whir the legs until a hamstring pinged and a lung exploded would have wept in dismay.
I suppose if Davies had been remotely competent then Monsieur Lenglet would not have been dragged into this; but dragged into it he was, and he reacted by unleashing, of all things, his Ben Davies Tribute Act.
Having gawped in disbelief at the sight of Davies running as if through quicksand, the rescue act five yards inside him ran as if with lead in his boots. Moreover, having been gifted an unlikely second chance to intervene, by virtue of Mbuemo pausing – to compose his thoughts, and untangle his feet and whatnot, ahead of his shot – Lenglet then slid in as if to block the shot, but neglected to extend his leg fully. Had he done so, there was a pretty strong chance he might have effected some sort of block; but instead he seemed, when sliding in, to withdraw the limb in question, as if convinced at the last that it would be better simply to avoid interfering and let the Fates decide.
That we lost the thing was not, of course, solely down to the deficiencies of this rotten pair, maddening as they were. In the second half Brentford seemed to exercise a mite more caution in their approach, flinging fewer bodies forward and keeping staff numbers high at the back, a tweak that left our lot completely stumped. As mentioned, they were barely made to work for any of their goals; but as galling was the fact that the footloose and fancy-free approach of the first half was replaced by one of laboured build-up and generally blank looks in the second.