1. An All-Action-No-Plot Welcome for Conte
I recall a few years ago visiting the pictures in order to watch a talkie, which started off sensibly enough following a couple of bank robbers, but then took a sudden swerve into a completely different genre, in which everybody turned into vampires, of all things. I distinctly recall stumbling out of the place as amused as I was bewildered by what I had witnessed. Last night’s outlay had about it much in common with that motion picture, starting as it did one way, turning into a bit of a struggle – and then swerving violently into a different sort of thing altogether by the close. Sort of segueing abruptly from the Thriller genre to Slapstick Comedy, if you get my drift.
Given the frankly hilarious nature of the finale, it was easy to forget that for an hour or so we had a tight – if pretty amateurish – football match on our hands. Yet towards the latter stages this descended into the sort of farce that was reminiscent of two groups of drunks challenging each other to a kickabout on an oversized field, encapsulated by Emerson Royal attempting multiple step-overs (and doing so for the first time in his life, judging by their cumbersome execution), Sergio Reguilon doing keepie-uppies during the game and wide open spaces everywhere you looked, as befitted a match of 10 vs 9.
If Signor Conte were in any doubt about the madcap, all-action-no-plot way of things at N17 beforehand, he would have seen just about everything he needed to know last night.
2. Shiny New Formation
I cannot quite remember the last time I watched a game staring so intently at the formation of the collective, rather than the what was actually happening with the ball – but after all the chatter and videos about Conte’s supposed strategy, this was definitely one such occasion.
Much of the pre-match wisdom had been that we could expect to feast our eyes upon some form of 3-5-2, so I don’t mind admitting that I raised an eyebrow or two when our heroes trotted out adhering to a strict 3-4-3, with Sonny and Lucas either side of that rotter Kane.
And within that 3-4-3 there was not a hint of Kane dropping deep, Conte seemingly true to his word about viewing the fellow as one best employed in and around the penalty area.
Admittedly it might not be everyone’s idea of a wild day out, but I shall watch with considerable interest to see whether we stick with 3 in attack, or revert to a front 2 and an extra creative soul in midfield.
Yesterday, at least, it seemed a case of Conte moulding the formation to the personnel, rather than vice versa, and therefore accommodating Lucas within the front 3; but in time I wonder whether he might find himself shoved into a Number 10 role, demoted to the bench in favour of A.N. Other at Number 10 – or even reinvented as a wing-back. There seems a rather unfortunate irony in the fact that he and young Skipp – arguably our two standout players of the season so far (slim pickings, admittedly) – appear the least likely fits into Conte’s supposedly favoured 3-5-2 system, so it was awfully square of our newest Glorious Leader to accommodate both last night.
Further south, Conte pretty emphatically nailed his colours to the Back-3-And-Wing-Backs mast, to the extent that even when reduced to 10 men, and therefore presented with every excuse to revert to a back-four, he instead hooked a sweaty midfielder and brought on another centre-back, to ensure that B-3-A-W-Bs remained the order of the day.
It’s certainly an exciting idea in theory, but perhaps slightly flawed in practice, at present, by the fact that the various centre-backs at our disposal seem to demonstrate between them a few different shades of dubiousness.
The other captivating point of note around our formation was quite how wide the wing-backs stayed when we were in possession. If this were park football, with jumpers for goalposts and no set boundaries, both Reguilon and Emerson would have disappeared over the horizon and only reappeared at tea-time; but as it happened they each stuck pretty obediently to their respective touchlines, no matter which of our mob had possession, or where. And one understands the principle. We have a huge pitch, so why not utilise every blade, and give the opposition full-backs something to ponder?
(Of course, all the formation-tweaking in the world is of little use if Dier is going to be beaten to a straightforward header from a corner; and various of them contrive to make a pig’s ear of passing out of defence to gift Vitesse their second; but these are the joys on which Conte can reflect as his head hits his pillow each night.)
A word on the dismissal of young Romero, who by and large seems to have had the right idea about things since joining the madhouse.
Now footballers are not renowned for being the most cerebrally blessed, but even the thickest among them ought to be able to compute that once cautioned they should avoid like the plague any interaction that might land them a second yellow, unless absolutely necessary. (And for avoidance of doubt, ‘absolutely necessary’ here covers pretty much only saving a life or preventing a goal.)
So for Romero to go carting through the back of an opponent – on halfway – having already been booked, was pretty unforgiveable stuff. There was hardly any imminent danger, and the mind simply boggles at what the hell his thought process might have been. We dodged that particular bullet last night, thanks to Vitesse’s handy implosion, but on a bigger stage that would be one heck of a blunder.
As mentioned, the fellow has generally done more right than wrong so far, and indeed one ought to tip the cap in recognition of his neat pass through the lines that set up the lovely goal for Lucas. But Romero’s bread and butter is at the opposite end, and no professional with an ounce of common sense ought to pick up a second yellow for a challenge on the blasted halfway line.
Regular drinkers at the AANP well will be fully aware that Ben Davies is not regarded with any particular fondness by yours truly. A decent enough egg, for sure; a footballer worthy of the lilywhite shirt, I’m not so sure.
It’s been a bone of some contention, mind, mine being an opinion that is not universally shared, which seems fair enough, as one is always happy to chivvy democracy along with a friendly wave.
But rather than enter into that debate again, I highlight him here more to marvel at the fact that, like some sort of cat that’s already died eight times and is now being dropped from a considerable height, the chap seems to have landed plum on his feet with the arrival of Antonio Conte.
The evidence of a few hundred appearances suggests to me that Davies is not much of a left-back, primarily because his crosses too often go anywhere but the waiting limbs of a comrade. On top of which, he’s racked up his fair share of pretty avoidable and careless defensive lapses (and he was dashed lucky to get away with another one yesterday, waggling an errant foot at an opponent in the area when the game was still 0-0, and thanking the watching gods that the Europa Conference is too cool for VAR).
It is possibly because of those lapses that one would head a long way down the pecking order before selecting him as a centre-back in a back-four.
But introduce a back-three, and suddenly Davies becomes a pretty credible option. Being left-footed is the principle advantage here; but not far behind that is the fact that he’s not a particularly – or indeed remotely – devastating wing-back. Whereas Reguilon was fashioned from clay specifically in order to make merry on the wing, and should therefore on no account be regarded as a centre-back, Davies is sufficiently circumspect to be useful in a back-three.
Having two others alongside him is a useful insurance policy, to guard against those accidents to which he is prone; and being left-footed serves him well both in facing up opponents and in distributing the ball.
He still strikes me as the luckiest man in N17 to have found himself in Conte’s first line-up, but that position, on the left of a back three, strikes me as the one for which Mother Nature has best equipped him, and until January reinforcements arrive he might well become a regular feature of Conte-ball.
(Still not sure quite how he ended up furthest forward, and inside the opposition area, to create our third goal; and I’ll skimp on the praise because he actually made a pickle of an intended shot, rather than deliberately picking out a pass – but the assist goes down to Davies, B. so well done him.)
One could go one – there is much to be said about the pros and cons of Emerson Royal; the potential re-introduction of Winks; the Ndombele body-swerve and Lo Celso’s latest clanger – but this was a presentation to Conte, rather than a representation of him. What the hell he truly made of it all is anyone’s guess, but it was good of our lot to make crystal clear to him the size of the task that awaits. And frankly, if the entertainment continues to be as good as it was last night, then the remainder of this season will be an absolute blast.