1. Hojbjerg a Lone Ray of Sunshine
While one never really knows what to expect with our lot, generally it seems safest to assume the worst, so when the teamsheet hit the airwaves – with its absence of Alderweirelds, and unnecessarily liberal scattering of right-backs – my profile took on a pretty ashen hue, and remained that way for kick-off and the opening sallies.
At which point it actually gained a pretty healthy tint, because oddly enough our lot began proceedings like they meant business. And not the usual Jose-induced business of retreating into the collective shell and guarding the edge of their own penalty area. Au contraire. The intent on show, if not exactly that of a mob beelining for the opposition goal, was at least that of a mob spitting on its hands and getting down to it.
‘Zip’ was the word that sprung to mind, in those early exchanges. We moved the ball with a swiftness and positivity so rarely seen these days that I eyed it with some suspicion. Equally, when out of possession, for the opening ten minutes or so at least, we raced about the place sniffing out mini-contests in which to embroil ourselves. Zip abounded. It was just a shame about the final eighty minutes.
Central to this pleasingly sprightly preface was, as ever, P-E Hojbjerg Esq. Although every week the commentators seem to talk about his debut against Everton as a reference point, as if that performance caused Covid, the fact is that if Player of the Season rosettes were awarded on the basis of Being Outstanding Whilst All Around You The Walls And Ceiling Are Burning, then Hojbjerg would be Kevin de Bruyne. And again yesterday, he set the tone.
By the end of the piece, at which point the walls and ceilings really had burnt to the ground, Hojbjerg was the only one who could have left the stage with head held high, having been right at it from the opening buzzer. It was hardy his fault that he and Ndombele were outnumbered in the centre – I will chide a player for many things, but not for failing to be two people – and it was good to see him spend much of the opening salvo in conference with Thiago, slap-bang in the meat of the thing (bearing in mind that Thiago is a man who, but a year ago, had the freedom of the stadium as Bayern stuck seven past us).
Hojbjerg did not necessarily boss the game (as mentioned, we were regularly outnumbered in the centre), and, as befits a mortal, he made his fair share of mistakes. Yet he, more than anyone else in lilywhite, seemed to carry out his duties with the determined attitude of a man whose life mission it is to see a thing done. Even when he inadvertently miscontrolled the ball out of play he seemed to do it with a wild frenzy in his eyes.
His goal (one heck of a hit, by the by) and indeed celebration were cut from similarly frenzied cloth. As noted above, by the time the final curtain fell most of our lot had slowed to sulky walks and long given up, but Hojbjerg at least seemed to care.
2. Ndombele Continuing to Mesmerise
While dwelling on the positives – all two of them – it’s satisfying to note that Ndombele’s transformation from timid and clumsy, bespectacled Daily Planet reporter to cape-wearing, superhuman saver-of-the-day is nearing completion.
As demonstrated when he set the cogs in motion for Sonny’s disallowed goal, there are times when the ball is absolutely stuck to his feet and no number of opponents can do the damnedest thing about it. In bobbing from A to B in that move he seemed to take out half the Liverpool team, and it was something of a running theme throughout the first half.
In general his talents were fairly wasted, either receiving the ball too deep or in circumstances too pressurised to do much more than shove it elsewhere like a hot potato, but whenever opportunity presented itself – and frequently when it did not – he was swivelling away from a man in red like a mean uncle toying with a small child.
In fact, after a while it all went to his head, and he started throwing in stepovers and body-swerves when there was really no need, but this could be excused. The fellow appears to be fulfilling his side of the bargain and making good on that potential. Just a shame that he is peddling his wares in a team that almost seems designed to minimise his abundant talent (see also Son, H-M and Kane, H).
3. Jose’s Tactics
Having been one of the principal cast members in the first half, Ndombele barely saw the ball in the second half, as Jose’s rearrangement of deck-chairs looked less the work of a multiple Champions League-winning genius and more the work of AANP desperately trying whatever springs to mind while overseeing another Football Manager failure.
I will go relatively easy on Jose for this, because his tactics, though they often make me want to stab out my own eyes, do regularly seem to bring home the bacon. I’d be willing to bet this season’s Carabao Cup, and possibly Europa, on that.
On this occasion however, Jose tried to be far too clever for his own good, and rather than deriving a few percentage gains here and there, he seemed instead to create an amorphous mess that handed the initiative to an out-of-form and injury-hit Liverpool we’ll rarely have a better chance to beat.
The Doherty Experiment, featuring an out-of-form player playing out of position, failed. Doherty looked all of the above. I suppose it’s not his fault that having spent a lifetime honing his left leg for decorative purposes only he was at a loss when asked to use it as an attacking weapon against the Champions, but frankly we might as well have stuck Bale or Rose (or Tanganga) out there. Or been completely radical and used Toby at centre-back with Davies on the left…
(The thought actually struck me that perhaps Doherty, well advertised as a lifelong Arsenal fan, was executing the perfect con – infiltrating the enemy to destroy it from within. I’ll let that idea ferment.)
The choice of a back-three was similarly dubious in concept and wretched in execution. Young Rodon looks like he might one day become a decent – or even majestic – centre-half, but if a young pup is flying in with mightily impressive sliding tackles it tends to mean he has been caught out of position in the first place. Between he and Aurier we managed to usher in Mane for around half a dozen face-time chats with Hugo, the dam eventually bursting on half-time.
On top of which, the use of a back-three left us undermanned in midfield. Everything about the approach seemed flawed.
In his defence Jose did try to remedy this by switching to a back-four and adding an extra body in midfield, but that extra body happened to be possessed by young Master Winks, who seemed oddly convinced that the road to success lay in passing to Liverpool players at every opportunity.
Jose can probably be excused the blame for that inventive approach to tide-turning, but for ignoring Messrs Bale and Vinicius, and sticking Sonny atop the tree and starving him, he deserves all the eye-rolling and incredulous outstretched hands going. Lamela, of whom I am generally quietly fond, entered the arena and promptly disappeared, and when Bale was tossed on he yet again found it beneath him to sprint.
Meanwhile at the other end, young Rodon took a rather unforgiving physics lesson in front of a worldwide audience of millions, discovering that a bouncing ball on a wet surface doth not a loving bedfellow make; and Lloris, having admirably performed his half of a Chuckle Brothers tribute act with Eric Dier for the first goal, obligingly set up Liverpool for some target practice for their second.
I daresay one of those Renaissance chappies with a palette and one ear might have quite enjoyed depicting on canvass this perfect storm of tactical calamity and individual disaster, but at AANP Towers the reaction was simply to clasp hands to head and wish that Jose would hurry up and win his trophy so that we can get rid of him and start again.
4. McManaman and the Art of Not Kicking In One’s Own Television
The plan on settling down with parchment and quill had been also to muse on Kane’s injury, Sonny’s first half miss, Dier, Bale and so on and so forth. But simply dredging up the memories has rather sapped my will to live, so instead forgive me if I veer off-topic to finish.
Back in the heady summer of 2019, on inviting various chums over to AANP Towers for the Champions League Final, the one stipulation that accompanied this golden ticket was that, whatever their allegiance, attendees must not cheer on the opposition. My rationale being that if I wanted a partisan crowd, I could simply venture to a public house, and enjoy to my heart’s content the thrill of an irritating Liverpool fan nattering incessantly in my ear.
Last night, I rather feel that I was treated to that exact experience. McManaman infuriated throughout. Whether eulogising over often fairly by-the-numbers Liverpool passing (and not treating our lot the same); castigating Sonny for perceived diving (and not treating his lot the same); bleating for the handball to be ignored even when told otherwise by the resident studio ref (and conveniently forgetting the Champions League Final ‘handball’ by Sissoko); or casually admitting that he has not watched much of Spurs (the job for which he is paid, and for which most of us would kill) and asking someone else how Bale has been playing, the fellow drove me to within one swing of a Hojbjerg right foot of kicking in my own television.
Ex-players as pundits is not an issue per se, if they can keep their allegiances neatly compartmentalised, or perhaps offer inside knowledge that the average tax-payer would miss. But employing an ex-player simply to hear him emit joyous, wordless noises when his former team is in action is a bit thick.
It’s an argument I’m happy to wave in the direction of Messrs Jenas and Hoddle too – it naturally grates a little less to hear them refer to our lot as “we”, but I’d be perfectly happy if someone completely neutral were roped in for the gig instead.
So all in all, pretty rotten stuff. One hopes that the players feel sufficiently enraged to dish out an absolute hammering to Brighton on Sunday.