Amidst the non-stop excitement of what was happening on the pitch yesterday, I missed whatever ruckus transpired a yard or two off it, when apparently after Dele was removed from the premises a handful of moody stares and possibly even unsavoury mutterings were exchanged between him and Our Glorious Leader.
Judging by the post-match sermon Jose’s targeting of Dele continues with some gusto, which is his prerogative I suppose, but from my perch up here on the AANP Towers balcony I thought that, far from being the root of all evil, Dele had a pretty good stab at the Man of the Match rosette.
What caught the eye was his willingness to work in finding space to receive the ball. Whenever Hojbjery, Winks, Dier or whomever else was surveying the scene with ball at feet around halfway, invariably it was Dele who was zipping around in search of space and waving an arm or two in request for possession.
One of the hats I wear around these parts is that of an uncle – with, at the latest count, seven nephews and nieces in the brood – and a significant element of this role comprises being badgered fairly relentlessly to partake in board games, hide-and-seek or other such frivolous entertainment. And I was reminded of this relentless badgering yesterday by Dele, given his positive and fairly ceaseless attitude towards availability.
In a game such as this, when the counter-attack is pretty much redundant, and much depends upon finding space between the lines and quick shuffling of the ball, Dele’s movement was, I thought, close to exemplary. (Certainly it struck me that a handsomely-paid Welsh teammate might have taken a leaf or two from his book when it came to energetic beavering.)
And moreover, when it came to topping things off at the other end, Dele was the man making the runs into pockets in and around the area, and generally giving a glimpse or two of the Platt- or Scholes-esque Dele of old. But for a well-judged limb or two from the goalkeeper he might even had had a goal to his name.
Jose’s post-match gripe seemed to revolve around an errant Dele flick leading to Stoke’s goal, in much the same way as a flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon brings down governments in the West. And I’m sure that, ultimately, through a process of cause and effect, one could trace back a series of episodes and identify that this was indeed the case; but to single out the young eel and castigate him thusly – when the entire back-four were on their heels and out of position, and when Serge Aurier was summarily excused of blame for his far worse and more costly mistake at the weekend – smacked of hidden agendas and borderline bullying.
A real shame, because Dele appeared to me to prove his worth as at least a squad member capable of filling the attacking midfield role. Instead, the odds now seem shorter than ever on him linking up with, say, Poch, at PSG, in the coming weeks.
While Dele worked hard and met with scant reward, Gareth Bale meanwhile interrupted his golfing trip with a gentle mooch around the pitch for half a game.
As if to hammer home to Dele how unfair life can be, not only was Bale rewarded for his lack of effort with a goal, but that very goal came about rather symbolically by virtue of him not moving. It turned out to be exactly the right thing to do at the time, but I did nevertheless allow myself a chuckle that simply by standing still he was able to get himself into precisely the right place at the right time.
When Bale swanned back into our lives a couple of months ago the consensus was that he was unlikely to possess the electricity of old, but would still offer much in the way of general energy and threat on the move, as well as a thunderous long-range left clog. Christmas, we told ourselves, would see the return of the fully-fit Bale, and until then he would be awarded a period of grace.
Fast-forward to the present day, and with Christmas literally hours away, there is still no sign of Bale breaking a sweat for the club, let alone rediscovering any of his former glories.
He appears to have immunity from Jose, and will presumably be shoved on for half-game cameos in some more of the gentler approaching fixtures, but it is nigh on impossible to see what he is adding. It mattered little yesterday, in what was ultimately a canter, but Bale remains a passenger. In the rather more bustling environment of a Premier League game, his lack of either work-rate or attacking output will make him something of a liability.
At kick-off yesterday, given the quality of the opposition and the length of time he has been back, I had expected to see him move up a gear or two. I do now rather wonder if that gear-change will happen at all.
3. Winks (Compare and Contrast to Hojbjerg)
At the conclusion of yesterday’s proceedings I don’t mind admitting I was pretty startled to discover a wreath being placed around the neck of young Master Winks for his services to the preceding 90 minutes.
Given the lopsided squad dynamics so lovingly hand-crafted by Jose, every game Winks starts (as with Dele) is now a pretty critical moment in his lilywhite career. Yesterday was no exception, and with Stoke set up to defend, the opportunity for Winks to showcase his more progressive talents was neatly handed to him on a plate of fine china and with all the trimmings.
With the stage set and audience hushed it seemed reasonable to expect pretty great things, and as such I was, yet again, a tad underwhelmed. He did little wrong – but at the same time I felt that this was an opportunity to boss things, which simply melted away.
By contrast, I thought that Hojbjerg rather bossily took responsibility, in precisely the manner in which I had hoped Winks might. When the ball was being ferried out from the back Hojbjerg was the one demanding it, and on receiving it his instinct was to look for a forward pass. Winks seemed content to play his sidekick.
Winks had his moments, it is true. The pass for the opening goal was a curious beast – having little angle or flight – and ought really to have been easier to defend than it was, but it did a pretty critical job because that opening goal settled our nerves as much as it deflated their spirits.
Similarly, Winks’ pressure in closing down his man led to the Stoke mistake in possession that brought about our third.
So my observation on Winks is not that he had a poor game; more that on a stage like this he had the opportunity to dominate and control proceedings, and it seemed to me that the chap alongside him did that better.
4. Kane’s Finish
I’m not convinced that it was the wisest move to play Kane for the entirety, given that the games pile on a tad at that time of year, but had he been hooked early we would have been denied the sight of yet another high-class finish.
The delay and dummy before his shot, so perfectly executed, were a joy to behold. The Stoke chappie trying to prevent the thing had the odds stacked against him from the start, but was almost knocked off his feet simply by Kane’s feints.
After which, the conclusion of the project was to lash the ball high into the centre of the net. This approach was adopted to similarly strong effect against Other West Ham a few weeks back, and struck me as a useful additional string to Kane’s finishing bow. Where previously he has tended to aim low and for the near or far corner, he now appears to throw into the mix the option of waiting for the ‘keeper to spread himself low, and then lash the ball above him and into the roof of the net. As ever, we are lucky to have the chap.
Have a merry and blessed Christmas.