1. Bale: Worth It?
I suppose you may consider it an odd place to start, when we had Auriers and Diers performing unspeakable acts everywhere you cared to look, but the virtues and vices of Gareth Bale came into pretty sharp focus yesterday. Or, more accurately, the vices came into focus; the virtues were nowhere to be seen.
And in a way, that’s the critical issue surrounding the young bean. Being the assiduous followers of AANP that you are, I’m in no doubt that you’re all too aware that last week, on these very pages, I opined that aside from his hat-trick Bale contributed precious little to the cause. Which is not to denigrate the chap, for I think most of us would accept Hat-Trick-Plus-Nothing-Else as a weekly input from any of troops; it’s more just to state a fact – Bale doesn’t contribute much to our game in general; he doesn’t beaver tirelessly and track back; he doesn’t dictate games; he doesn’t relentlessly torment opponents.
What Bale does is produce goals out of nothing through moments of genius; and it could probably be argued that his very presence on the pitch is also of benefit in terms of scaring the dickens out of opponents for fear of what he might do at any given moment, which is a dashed important metric if you ask me. The psychology of an anguished opposing manager, after all, is not to be sniffed at.
Yesterday, however, there were no moments of genius to be seen, and as a result we were left with those aforementioned vices – the not-contributing-not-beavering-not-dictating and so on. The not-tracking-back element was a particularly sore point, given that it led to the concession of at least one of the goals (and possibly two, they do rather blur). Serge Aurier does not deserve much sympathy for the manner in which he goes about the day-job, but the thought did strike me as he was outnumbered for the umpteenth time yesterday that the humane thing to do would be to at least enquire whether he would like some support as Leeds bodies swarmed all over him. He can be blamed for many things, but not really for failing to be two people at once.
However, Bale did not offer him support; Leeds overlapped whenever they dashed well pleased; and the flip-side of having Bale in the team was exposed in pretty unforgiving manner.
So is he worth it? Is it worth effectively carrying a passenger each game, albeit one who, as last week (and most weeks) is capable of producing a goal or two from nothing? As you might expect from a blog that in its very name endorses the approach of action and waves a dismissive hand at the planning that goes with it, I’m all for Bale’s occasional moments of magic, and quite happy to give him dispensation to biff off into the background the rest of the time, as long as he produces the goods, say, two games out of three. Which he does.
Others would no doubt beg to differ, and indeed the contrary opinion seemed to be championed pretty firmly by the previous Grand Fromage at N17.
I do, however, acknowledge that the deployment of Bale becomes a bit more questionable when literally half the team are allergic to hard work and defensive duties. One does wonder whether the balance is quite right when somehow each of Kane, Bale, Son, Dele and Lo Celso are stuffed within the framework.
2. Aurier: Exasperating
As mentioned, Monsieur Aurier was hardly inundated with offers of support; but at the same time his usual dereliction of defensive duties was proudly on offer, with not a hint of self-consciousness.
It will come as little surprise to anyone associated with the sport that Aurier’s brightest moments were on the front-foot, and if he were stomping forward safe in the knowledge that an abundance of defensive sorts gathered behind him I think we would all rest a little easier, and maybe even wave him on his way with an encouraging shout or two.
But, as articulated at some length above, there was precious little assistance forthcoming from Bale, while Lo Celso and Dele were similarly ill-inclined to push to one side all attacking inclinations and bury themselves in the defensive duties that awaited.
Aurier, understandably enough targeted by Leeds, generally came out second-best in his scraps with the Leeds bod Harrison; and if that is disappointing but excusable, his reluctance to bust a gut in returning to his sentry post was simply not cricket. To clarify, the request here was not that he rush back to help a chum in need; it was that he rush back to do his own core duties, dash it all.
3. Dier: Dire
If he were receiving a health dollop of benefit of the doubt in the previous five or six years, it appears that popular opinion has swung pretty firmly against Eric Dier after yesterday.
As the cross for the first goal flashed towards him and into his path Dier presumably weighed up the options, and would surely have considered taking the agricultural but blisteringly effective route of hammering the ball off into the sunset.
Instead, seemingly struck by the urge to give vent to his more creative juices, he appeared to select as his method of choice for countering the danger the option of swooning out of the ball’s path and allowing it to continue on its trajectory. Unhindered by any intervention from Dier it absolutely zipped across the six-yard box, and while Reguilon joined the long list of erring lilywhites in dozing away at the back-post, before prodding it towards his own net, the damage was already done.
Now as with Serge Aurier, Dier’s cause was hardly helped by the pretty damning dereliction of duty of those around him. For the second goal Dier did make a point of calling Hojbjerg into his office as the move was beginning, and instructing him to keep an eye on the eventual goalscorer Bamford – a task that Hojbjerg appeared to consider beneath him.
When the cross did eventually whizz into the area, Bamford’s run was blissfully unhindered by Hojbjerg, but the striker then appeared right on the shoulder of Dier who reacted, as Barry Davies might have put it, by not reacting. Instead, in another of that catalogue of unexpected defensive decisions that really keep the audience on their toes, Dier responded to the immediate threat by adopting a pose of absolutely ridigity. If any passing cad happened to be in the market for Elgin Marbles this would have been mightily impressive stuff; but in terms of the matter at hand it proved ineffective, and Bamford tapped in.
(Nor should it be overlooked that the whole bally thing originated with Dier needlessly looping a defensive header straight into Leeds attacking possession).
By the time of the third goal any semblance of formation or defensive coherence had long since gone the way of all flesh, but Dier nevertheless did not miss the opportunity to exacerbate matters, first by playing Leeds onside, and then by doing a pretty rotten job of preventing the decisive square pass.
Dier apologists could legitimately point to the chap’s attacking contributions, for he took it upon himself to trundle off on a handful of bizarre, but surprisingly effective excursions up the left flank of all places. On top of which some of his long passing was pretty handy (one notes that the long diagonal pass from deep, banished under our former leader, has made a pretty triumphant return under that Poch disciple Mason).
Nevertheless, as with Aurier, the exasperation lies in the fact that Dier’s principal role is to defend, and until he excels in that, or even masters the basics, one doesn’t really care a hang for what he does beyond the halfway line.
4. Hojbjerg: Disappointing
This was one of those occasions on which one could probably have had a pretty curt word in the ear of all eleven, plus any substitutes who felt compelled to throw in a poorly-judged Rabona, with only Monsier Lloris really escaping censure.
However, as much as anything else because his standards are normally higher than those around him, I was pretty dashed disappointed with Hojbjerg.
When all around him are letting their standards slip, here is a man who seems to take it as a matter of deep ancestral pride that his remain at the highest levels. Goodness knows, therefore, what got into him yesterday, but if there were a pretty basic error to be made he seemed to be front of the queue.
His appetite for pressing and ankle-snapping at least remained undimmed throughout, but in possession in particular Hojbjerg was oddly errant. As already remarked, he was also pretty negligent in the basic duties on at least one of the goals conceded, and given the more progressive tendencies of those around him in midfield one would have expected him to be a tad more mindful of his defensive obligations.
5. Lo Celso: Glimpses, But Not Enough
Still, in the first half at least, without ever really showing an inclination to tear up Yorkshire and lay claim to the place, our lot did occasionally illustrate that when the mood takes them they can be almost effortlessly devastating.
Both the legitimate goal and the disallowed effort (a goal that we would hardly have merited, but which undoubtedly ought to have stood – and which may well then have changed the dynamic of the piece) were brief showcases of much that is good about our attacking sorts.
Ever since that glorious night in the San Siro, when Modric released Lennon, who raced half the length of the pitch before squaring for Crouch, I have lamented the lot of the unsung hero who provides the penultimate pass. It’s dashed Fantasy League football that has done this, by formally recognising the ‘Assist’; but those who, like me, hold close to their bosom the deep-lying creator will appreciate the importance of the chap who sets the ball rolling before the assist.
Yesterday, for both our allowed and disallowed goals, Lo Celso was the anonymous hero. Under pressure, around halfway, he twice wriggled sufficiently to escape enemy clutches, and twice showed presence of mind to play a forward pass to Son. On both occasions Sonny laid off to Dele, and rewards were duly reaped. It might not sound like the most devastating contributions, but I would be willing to bet the mortgage of AANP Towers that in a similar situation young Harry Winks would have pirouetted for all he was worth back towards his own goal and played the safe option.
So while one applauds Lo Celso for both his good sense and smart work in executing this operation, seeing these two particular passages did make me yearn for him to take the hint and keep peddling exactly the same trick rather more frequently. Not to put too fine a point on it but we were absolutely crying out for someone to control possession, collecting it from defence, rolling forward over halfway and playing an effective pass into attack. Lo Celso did it twice, but really ought to have done it a heck of a lot more. Ndombele, one presumes, breathes uncomfortably close behind him.
6. Dele: Reminders of His Talent
And further up the pitch, Dele’s contribution to these two goals were pleasant reminders of the impudent, attacking input he can provide to such occasions. Rather a shame that they were in a losing cause – and indeed that one was farcically disallowed – as it suggests that they might simply be lost in the mists of time rather than being as indelibly etched in the memory as I fancied they deserved to be.
The notion that this chap could be ostracised for almost the entire season does make one fling up the hands and beat the chest rather, but if there were doubts about Dele’s abilities I imagine that a run of half a dozen or so games will sweep them aside.
I don’t doubt that plenty will have their say about his contributions elsewhere on the pitch, in tracking back and helping out the nibs behind him, all of which might be legitimate enough; but given that he was picked as a Number 10 role, I thought his two contributions to the ball ending up in the net illustrated that he is pretty worthy of the role.