1. 60 Vaguely Encouraging Minutes
A shame we lost this one – well, it always is a shame to lose – but a particular shame to lose this one, because I thought that, at least until we went behind, our lot played fairly well.
Some qualifying context is perhaps needed here. I heard a pretty nifty gag once, which went along the lines that in a land full to the rafters with blind folk, any chap who happened to be one-eyed would as likely as not be king. And that sprang to mind today, as I watched our lot hit the front-foot pretty much straight off the bat, for it struck me that in the land of the utterly dreadful performances at home to Leipzig and away to Chelsea, today’s fare was, by comparison, something of an unexpected improvement.
Such has been the rot peddled in recent weeks that I fully expected that a match at home to Wolves would see us stuck in 30% possession territory, allowing our visitors to roll the ball around amongst themselves unchallenged and perhaps launching a desperate salvage operation in the final 20. Because let’s face it, we now have a certain recent history in this woeful regard.
So instead to be greeted by the sight of Harry Winks collecting the ball, ambling forward ten yards and then bopping a pass forward another ten yards was pretty sensational stuff.
(I single out young Winks not for any particular reason, as to a man our lot seemed to have their dials switched if not exactly to ‘Attack’ then seemingly to ‘Let’s At Least Be A Little More Progressive In Our Approach Than In Recent Weeks’. I suppose seeing Winks embody this approach was just a little eye-catching, as he’s not always been one of nature’s born forward-passers.)
And for an hour or so we looked good value for a lead – but alas, Wolves are no mugs, and as befits the non-mug ilk they’re also pretty dashed clinical in front of goal. Thus having got their noses ahead they shut up shop and that, for a mob as limited as ours, was that. Not even the inspired decision to throw on the boy Parrott for the entirety of injury-time could effect the required rescue.
Still, having seen glimpses of quick passes from middle-to-top, and the sort of level of off-the-ball movement that suggests the collective torpor might have been shaken off, I at least trudged home a notch of two up from the Pit Of Despair that had taken hold post-Leipzig and -Chelsea.
For that halcyon first hour or so when we made a decent fist of things, Lucas struck me as one amongst our number who had doubled down on his spinach pre-match.
Although employed as often as not in a deep-lying position that may or may not have been part of a strikerless formation, he seemed to be at the hub of things, evidently having adopted as his word of the day ‘Scamper’. For every time he touched the ball he scampered like a man who had amassed prizes for it in a former life.
There is something particularly compelling about watching a man get his head down and dribble mazily past the despairing, hacking legs of opponents, and when on song Lucas channels his inner playground footballer like few others.
Ultimately the effect of all this was not as devastating as one would have hoped, but with Messrs Aurier, Lo Celso, Alli and Bergwijn all happy to assist, there appeared to be potential for a most welcome rise in spirits about the place.
The slightly unlikely source of the mid-game hoick in spirits was Serge Aurier, who continues to flit effortlessly between sublime and ridiculous.
His finish for two-one was taken with a huge dollop of aplomb, and in the second half, with a whole chorus of angels by now stationed on one shoulder and whispering sweet nothings at him, he delivered a couple of delicious crosses of the whipped variety, that deserved better than simply to have been watched and admired from afar by panting midfielders.
However, the pack of devils stationed on his other shoulder rarely go five minutes without making their presence known, as we well know. And so it was that misplaced simple pass followed misplaced simple pass, efforts to wriggle casually free off attention ended in ceding possession, and at one point he simply picked up the ball when under the illusion that it had left the field for a throw-in – a faux pas which would have been classified as Peak Aurier were it not for the countless red cards and penalties and own goals and whatnot that seem to be part of his very fabric.
4. The Back Three
The extent of Jose’s defensive masterplan currently appears to be write all names on paper, pick them out of a hat and roll with them for the following 90, and so it was that we began with a three-man core of Dier, Sanchez and the boy Tanganga.
My sentiments on these three at the end of proceedings were decidedly mixed. Plenty of scribbles in both the Credit and Debit columns, if you follow my drift.
Take Dier, a great big log of a fellow whose star has taken a bit of a plummet in the eyes of AANP over the last few years. I actually thought he acquitted himself relatively well yesterday, exceeding expectations that were, admittedly, not far off the floor pre-match.
As often as not finding himself up against the man-mountain that is Adama Traore, a fate one wouldn’t really wish upon a loathed enemy, Dier seemed at first to have his wits about him, timing his tackles well and then bouncing back to his feet with a most serious expression etched across his face, a sure sign of knowing that a job is being done well and that admiring comment is heading one’s way.
And yet when push came to shove, the Wolves forwards ended up skipping past Dier and chums as if none of them were there (or, more accurately, as if they were certainly there but fitted with roller skates and attempting to navigate an ice rink covered in marbles). Wolves forwards sashayed one way; Dier and co flew off the way, Wolves forwards drilled the ball home. Thrice.
As such, my sentiments on Tanganga were not a million miles away from those on Dier. Lots of solid tackles, initially giving the sense that here was a chap who had arrived at the office in a mood not to be trifled with – but then suddenly undone by a pretty basic error for their first goal, followed by that roller-skate-ice-rink routine for the next goals.
Obviously Tanganga still has plenty of credit in the bank, and there really does appear to be an excellent defender waiting to emerge, but each of the three crucial moments that our lot had to defend were ultimately turned into pigs ears – and if one wanted to make the case that these cost us the game, there would be a decent stash of evidence at which to poke.
(For what it’s worth I’ve been increasingly impressed with Sanchez week by week, albeit his inability to judge the flight of airborne missiles still rankles a tad.)
So we find ourselves simultaneously on the cusp of the Top Four, in a fairly literal sense, and approximately a million miles away, on observing the dross being peddled on the turf. A run of wins would improve matters, an obvious style and identify even more so, so I suppose there is little more to do than stiffen the upper lip and hope for the best.