1. Outfought in the First Half
Life being what it is, we rumbled into this game bereft of various midfield luminaries, so with one thing and another Jose settled on a line-up so forward-thinking I greeted it with all the excitement of a bulldog being presented with a slab of meat.
With Eriksen and Lo Celso adopting the posts normally occupied by more dour and workmanlike sorts, and the usual glitzy array of swingers and shakers in attack, one could not swing a cat without hitting some sort of attack-minded chump, and hands were gleefully rubbed in anticipation.
And although typically porous at the rear, proceedings began promisingly enough. Through a combination of our glut of forward-thinkers and Norwich’s own unique brand of defensive hospitality, we had ourselves enough presentable chances in the opening thrusts to suggest that we would rack up a handful.
Oh that life around these parts were so simple, what?
Naturally, our heroes took it upon themselves to steer well clear of any such method that would have carved out a fairly straightforward route to victory, and instead imploded with impressive promptness, gifting Norwich their opening goal.
This was frustrating enough – albeit far from surprising – but what really irked was the communal decision taken thereafter to wilt away from combat and allow Norwich to outfight us for the next forty-odd minutes. Our line-up boasted as much talent as one could waggle a stick at, yet none of them seemed interested in fighting for superiority. But for the most VAR-esque of VAR decisions we might well have been two down, and few words of complaint about such a situation would have passed muster.
2. Ndombele in Possession
Jose tweaked and tinkered at half-time, as much, one suspects, to shake our heroes out of their collective torpor as to facilitate any critical tactical alteration, and it worked to a degree, at least in so far as it arrested the slide.
An odd second half followed, in which we sporadically dominated Norwich without really hitting top gear. However, from start to finish, one man who, in possession at least, was faultless to an absolutely mesmerising level, was Ndombele.
It was the occasion of his 23rd birthday, so my spies inform me, and on this showing the chap has evidently been putting those two and a bit decades to excellent use, because he seemed to wander around the place with the ball positively glued to his person. The Ghost of Mousa Dembele Past was flouncing about the place like nobody’s business, as Ndombele made the very most of his meaty frame to ensure that all-comers simply bounced off him and possession remained unsullied.
As well as upper body strength in spades, Ndombele also rolled out what one suspects will quickly become a signature shoulder-drop-and-body-swerve routine, straight from the Mousa Dembele box of tricks, and having realised he had stumbled upon a good thing the first time, he did not stop flashing it at every opportunity thereafter.
The whole thing had the light of love in AANP’s eyes, make no mistake, and I honestly cannot recall a single occasion on which Ndombele actually lost possession. He simply wriggle and shimmied his way clear of opponents every time he touched the ball.
Alas, this sterling work was all conducted in a strip of earth around the centre circle, rarely more than about ten yards inside the Norwich half. So for all the aesthetic quality – and he had it by the bucketload – ultimately Ndombele’s labours amounted to precious little in terms of runs scored, if you get my drift.
He was not helped by teammates who seemed to have little appetite for using the ball to any productive ends once he had given it to them, but in general it seemed a dashed shame that having fairly effortlessly glided his way into space, Ndombele did not keep gliding until he found himself in or approaching the final third.
3. Eriksen – Man of the Match, According to the TV Bods
I had the pleasure of observing yesterday’s events through the medium of telly-box, and hearing it narrated by a couple of rather odd fish, who got it into their pickled little brains at around the mid-point that the star performer amidst the mediocrity and mistakes was one C. Eriksen Esquire.
And once they had landed upon this narrative, these commentators were not about to relinquish it. The fact that Ndombele was untouchable in his little central campsite was completely ignored. Eriksen – who, in the interests of fairness, did weight one glorious pass into the inside right channel – was identified as the star performer, and this was sufficient, irrespective of what he actually did.
The eagle-eyed amongst you might pause at this point, re-read the above paragraphs, and wonder to yourself if this particular scribe were not overly impressed by Eriksen’s contribution – and you would not be far wrong. The chap was not awful, but neither was he particularly outstanding. As with Lo Celso and various others who drifted through the midfield lanes, he hovered over the ball, hummed and hawed, and then tended to shove it elsewhere in fairly inoffensive fashion.
There were spells in the second half when collectively we produced some slick stuff, but it would be a stretch to say that Eriksen was front and centre of such purple patches. And while his free-kick hit the top corner, it did so via a deflection, and punctuated a string of corners that as often as not rolled apologetically to the first defender to clear.
Still, he – and presumably his agent – would have been as thrilled as the rest of us that his free-kick did ultimately find its way to goal. Something by which to remember the chap. Shame it did not quite change the momentum of the game as originally threatened.
4. Foyth Does What Foyth Does
However, any discussion of the merits of otherwise of Eriksen, Ndombele and whomever else rather flies into the background at a rate of knots when the catastrophic defensive mistakes are hauled into view and subjected to inspection.
As is traditional, Foyth was a central figure in the calamity. We enlightened types are all for the next generation coming through, and learning from mistakes and so and so forth – but the narrative comes crashing down when the young beans in question keep making the same dashed mistake every time.
It seems that having done the basics (which itself is not necessarily guaranteed, but I’ll buzz over that for now) Foyth takes the reasonable step of advancing with the ball, at which point the voices in his head take over and trouble kicks in. These voices seem to whisper that he is on a good thing, that bringing out the ball will put hair on his chest, that he is possessed of the technique and vision that can alter a game – and while these voices are in full swing and have his complete attention, some bounder from the shadows steals in to dispossess the chap, and all hell breaks loose.
If we’ve seen it happen once we’ve seen it happen every time Foyth takes to the pitch. The collective decision by those around him to back off the Norwich chap hardly remedied the situation, nor did Gazzaniga cover himself in glory by flapping a limp hand at the ball – but the problem had its genesis at Foyth, as happens so frequently.
5. Aurier Chips In His Contribution to the Calamitous
And while on the subject of eye-wateringly catastrophic defensives lapses, it would be remiss not to parade Serge Aurier, a chap whose name may well translate into English as “Defensive Calamity”.
Oddly enough, in this specific instance I have a degree of sympathy for the young fool, as I often do in matters of The Own Goal. My take on these is generally that, unless lamped into one’s own net flush on the volley, these things tend to be pretty unavoidable acts of physics, in which the ball whizzes towards a defender at such a rate of knots that he barely has time to register the turn of events, let alone recalibrate the mechanics and remove himself from the situation.
Moreover, the chap whose misfortune it is to deflect the ball in is quite often the only poor sap who has bothered to haul his frame back into a relevant defensive position. As such, I give him credit for being in the right place, and sympathy for being there at the wrong time. (And yes, there is a reason why my sympathy for purveyors of own goals is quite so strong.)
However, while potentially exonerating the chap in this specific instance, the well of sympathy is not endless, and the sooner we can elbow him off the scene the better.
The Jose Tactics Board seems to dictate that in any given situation, Aurier is our spare attacking outlet, and while this generally minimises the damage he can do towards his own goal, it creates a rather charmed life for a man whose wing-back play is good but hardly magnificent.
But more to the point he is a defensive liability and every soul around, be they friend or foe, knows it. Opponents target him; we lilywhites hold our breath whenever his defensive services are required; and one suspects his own teammates rather hope he will not be called into action.
The sale of Kieran Trippier looks more absurd with each passing game – as absence will make the heart grow fonder – and given the travails of Juan Foyth, and the fact that he is resident right-back for his national team, one wonders whether he might be given a stab at the gig. The notion of Serge Aurier being a fixture on the teamsheet is, after all, a pretty damning indictment on the calamitous state of our defence.