1. The Second Half
What with the early carousing in which everything turns to gold, followed by a feeling ultimately of feeling sick to the stomach, this had all the hallmarks of a particularly exuberant night out for which one pays pretty heavily the next day. ‘Moderation’ is generally a watchword at AANP Towers until the drink starts to flow, and between you and me there has been more than one occasion on which I have woken bleary-eyed on the bathroom floor, still wearing the previous night’s layers, with head pounding like the dickens and a ghastly taste in the throat, leaving me to wonder at precisely what point things went from Rip-Roaring-Fun to Oh-So-Terribly-Wrong.
I mention this regrettable morning-after sentiment because that same question – of the point at which things went from RRF to OSTW – seems pretty ripe here.
It would be easy to suggest it was half-time – and the trail of breadcrumbs certainly points to our lot failing remotely to match West Ham’s second half lust for battle.
But here at AANP Towers there were one or two mutterings of discontent even in the first half, even amidst the Kane-and-Sonny double-act, because whenever West Ham probed down the flanks our lot seemed to make quite the song and dance about simply putting out the fires and getting on with life. While it was true that every time we attacked we looked like scoring, and a three-goal lead ought to have been plenty, our back-four could hardly have been described as hammock-swinging and cigar-puffing at any point.
Nevertheless, with a three-nil lead at home to middling opposition, the decent thing to do would have been to shuffle off with all three points. But whereas in the first half we cleared the set-pieces and had some generous spells of midfield possession – with occasional breakneck forward thrusts – in the second half it seemed the urgency levels were gently dialled down as the clock ticked towards 90. Where Ndombele, and Hojbjerg in particular, were pulling strings in the first half, they gently faded into the background in the second.
I suppose, just as one can identify the precise Jagerbomb on the night-before as the moment at which events suddenly veered south, one can point to the removal of Son and his energy, or Sissoko’s failure to challenge for a header at a set-piece, as turning points here. And such individual moments certainly did seem to contribute to the general malaise.
However, unlike the Newcastle last-minute equaliser a few weeks back, we can hardly claim that this was a bolt from the blue – our lot allowed West Ham to have too much of the game in the second half.
2. Aurier and the Void Between his Ears
This was probably one for ‘Collective Responsibility’ rather than zooming in on the obvious, traditional cause of calamity, but as we were increasingly on the defensive in the second half, and given that most of the damage was being done on the flanks, I took it upon myself to conduct a thorough study of Serge Aurier’s second half activity; and, unsurprisingly, the results made for pretty dubious viewing.
It may have been tactically ordained from on high, but Aurier constantly seemed to be ten yards further forward than the rest of the back-four. This obviously accommodated his impulse to attack, which made sense, and Sissoko more often than not slotted in behind him to cover.
This in itself seemed reasonable enough. Not a tactic with which I was terrifically thrilled, but one accepts such things with good grace. What irked no end, however, was that when possession was lost and the defensive gong had clearly sounded, Aurier tended to do little more than watch events unfold from ten yards away. When he ought to have been busting a gut to return to his quarters, he rarely did more than saunter back.
It was disturbing quite how often he was simply in the wrong position. This seemed to be compounded by his urge to race into tackles in midfield – simply because he happened to be in the vicinity. A dollop or two of defensive nous might have encouraged him to leave midfield battles for the midfielders, while he hurried back to his right-back post, but such thoughts rarely seemed to occur.
It was all a little odd, and I rather wish I had studied Reguilon on the other flank to see if similar events were unfolding there.
And then, to compound matters, in the dying seconds Aurier managed in a single movement to segue from being comfortably in possession to needlessly losing possession and conceding a free-kick, from which the equaliser was scored. All the attacking benefits in the world cannot convince me of that man’s worth as a defender.
3. Early Thoughts on Bale
Whisper it, but the much-heralded return of Gareth Bale proved to be one heck of a damp squib, as tends to be the case when one wanders onto the pitch and sees things immediately fall apart at the seams just in time for the final whistle.
Not since the signings were announced of Edgar Davids, and before him Jurgen Klinsmann, has the excitement at AANP Towers reached such giddy levels. For ten mind-boggling minutes we were even treated to the Son-Kane-Bale axis in all its glory. Nothing happened, as all three, in their own unique ways, all looked pretty shattered – but there it was! Actually unfolding!
In time, one suspects those three will absolutely blitz some poor, honest souls who amble up on the wrong day. This, however, was not that day. Bale, frankly, did not look fit. I suspect no-one begrudges him that, and at three-nil with twenty minutes to go it ought not to have mattered, but I suppose we will simply have to wait a few more weeks before that front-three fires on all cylinders.
A dashed shame that Bale fluffed his lines when the big moment arrived, particularly having done the hard work, but he seemed to receive an untimely shove that knocked him off his axis at the crucial moment. The good times will presumably roll soon enough.
4. Deep-Lying Kane
On a brighter note, the japes of the first sixteen minutes were all sorts of fun!
What seemed to begin as a mere whim or flight of fancy of Harry Kane’s, to drop deep and show off his passing range, now seems to have evolved into a bona fide plan, which presumably has files saved online and a ring-binder containing notes and coloured post-its in Jose’s inner sanctum.
When our lot begin passing from our own goal kick, Kane now stations himself in midfield as a matter of permanent residence, in order to collected the lofted ball and make merry.
Things are a little different when we’re in possession around halfway, in which case normality resumes and he’s as likely to be the attacking spearhead; but if the opposition defence is pushed up to halfway, Kane’s drill is to sow his wild oats from a deep-lying starting position.
And why not? His passing is sublime, and his runners willing. Teams will presumably suss this out and deploy appropriate counter-measures – but in a way this will be where the fun really does begin, because we have the option of simply having Kane wander back into attack, and dragging opponents with him.
5. Clinical Finishing
The heading ‘Clinical Finishing’ rings a little hollow now, admittedly, but in the opening twenty minutes or so our finishing was the very dictionary definition of clinical.
I recall several years ago in an away Champions League match – possibly Barcelona, possibly Dortmund – when Son was clean through and shot straight at the ‘keeper, I gave the blighter an absolutely rollicking for several weeks afterwards. Not much point, of course, as he couldn’t hear me, but I was convinced at the time that the lad was not one of nature’s born finishers.
Things have moved on somewhat since then, and now Sonny is as deadly as they come when the frame of the goal looms into view. I did rather titter at the West Ham defender who did not think to prevent his right-footed shot in the first minute – it seems a safe bet that the entire watching global audience could see what Son was going to attempt as soon as he collected the ball – but it’s one thing attempting such manoeuvres and another thing crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s, and these days Sonny just doesn’t seem to miss.
Credit also to Kane for rolling out the double-nutmeg for his first goal, and a slap on the back for young Senor Reguilon and his glorious first-time cross, which practically begged to be nodded home. I cannot imagine that I was the only one who wondered how many attempts that might have taken Ben Davies.
Our lot can barely be contained going forward – if we could just work out how to defend (and no, Eric Dier is not the answer) just imagine where this season would take us. For now, however, it seems all action, no plot.