1. Lloris and Davies Setting the Tone
After the midweek debacle, what we all needed – apart from perhaps a bracing drink and a holiday in sunnier climes – was for the more experienced souls amongst our number to march to the centre of the stage and begin proceedings by announcing in no uncertain terms that this was an afternoon for clear thinking and sensible decision-making.
Unfortunately, as seems to happen around these parts, somewhere between the changing room and the pitch such wholesome principles were discarded as far too bland, replaced by motives far more eye-catching, if dubious. By the time the game kicked off our lot seemed convinced that this was the day for playing fast and loose with the finer points of the sport, and simply went about the place lobbing in whatever madcap scheme struck them, with zero consideration for consequences.
Monsieur Lloris, the sort of oeuf on whom one would normally bet a healthy chunk of the mortgage on doing the sensible thing, set the tone with their opener, by deciding that today was as good as any to dispense with the safety-first approach to goalkeeping.
This is not to excuse from blame those around him of course, for just about everyone (bar perhaps Kane) lent their full support to the drive not only to usher Wolves in at their leisure, but to do so in the manner that gave best expression to visual comedy. So when the first Wolves chappie steadied himself to shoot goalwards in the build-up to their opener, rather than wave a deterring limb at him, those in lilywhite simply stood aside and urged him on.
To his credit Lloris at least had the decency to leap hither and thither repelling the initial attempts, safe in the knowledge that none of his teammates were inclined to interrupt with any preventative measures. But when the opportunity finally presented itself for him simply to catch the ball gently lobbed towards him, he unveiled the sort of needless mid-air flap that seemed better suited to interpretative dance than the rigours of penalty area necessaries.
Not content with gifting Wolves their opener thusly, Lloris then took it upon himself to set in train the slapstick sequence for their second. He picked the most unlikely method to do so too, as if to demonstrate that here within the confines of N17, no situation, no matter how harmless and child-proof, is exempt from buffoonery. His method of choice was to take the simple five-yard pass and turn it into a construction fraught with danger, utterly wrong-footing Ben Davies by thumping it towards the by-line, a radical alternative to the conventional approach of rolling gently it to his feet.
Davies, by this point, needed no further invitation to muscle in on the slapstick. He was, after all, fresh from losing a battle with his own feet against Southampton, which had resulted in him collapsing in a heap when the easier option was to effect a clearance, thereby allowing our midweek visitors their first goal.
Today therefore, for him simply to resume where he had left off was the work of a moment. As options abounded for quelling the danger – conceding a corner, finding row z, hoicking the thing towards the heavens – Davies cunningly whipped the ball back into play and straight at a Wolves sort.
And inspired by the lunacy of these esteemed figures, those all around them in our back-line scrambled to get in on the act, skidding on the surface and bungling their clearances until a Wolves bod almost apologetically put an end to the routine by dabbing the ball home.
That our visitors did not score a third was something of a curiosity, and not for lack of further cluelessness amongst the principals in lilywhite. While I thought Romero could again be excused from too much blame, alongside him young Sanchez continued to make a drama out of any of the most mundane situations imaginable; while the midfield pair seemed to make a joint, executive decision that they would keep their interference to a minimum and leave the defence to sort out their own troubles.
2. The Early Substitution
Having seen his plan for settling into the match in calm and sensible fashion merrily torn to shreds by his troops, Our Glorious Leader understandably enough went for the nuclear option, and after twenty-five minutes simply closed his eyes and stuck a finger blindly at a different formation on his iPad.
I must confess to emitting a sigh of some disappointment at this. Admittedly a sigh of disappointment was a pretty different response from the disbelieving curses that had been flowing freely in the preceding moments, but nevertheless, trusting sort that I am, at kick-off I had rather been looking forward to seeing this line-up.
For a start I had welcomed the opportunity to watch Doherty fill the size nines of Emerson Royal, but more on that below.
Bentancur for Hojbjerg was also a selection that met with approval. Bentancur had spent the first ten seconds or so of his league debut midweek convincing us that he was our best signing ever, when he followed one nifty drag-back with a mightily impressive forty-yard diagonal.
As such I was determined to greet his every touch with the sort of parental pride you find in a lioness gazing adoringly upon a cherished cub. And to his credit, he does have pretty slick technique, which he was quite happily to showcase as being superior to most of those around him. A handy sort of egg then, but a midfield enforcer – of the ilk we rather crave – he is not. Nor is he two people, and while he can hardly be blamed for this, it proved nevertheless a drawback in the early stages, as he and Winks were comfortably outnumbered in the centre.
Conte’s attempt to remedy this numerical conundrum was to hook poor old Sessegnon, shove Kulusevski into midfield and rearrange the deck-chairs into a 4-3-3.
Sessegnon has achieved impressive feat of having me feel both sympathy and exasperation in perfect concurrence. On the one hand, I get the impression that if a piano were to fall from the sky, the fates would conspire for Sessegnon to set off on a stroll in the exact spot it hit the earth, such is the sort of luck he attracts.
On the other hand, he currently tiptoes around the place looking like a lad who has never laced a pair of boots before, and is aware that he is about to be found out. He can hardly be singled out for blame for his twenty minutes today – Lloris and Davies were worse – but of the high-flying youngster signed a few moons back there is currently not a whiff.
As mentioned, Sessegnon’s removal brought Kulusevski bounding into frame. He seems a harmless sort of fellow, and adds some squad depth, which was evidently an itch that Conte wanted scratching. But if the question is whether we have brought in someone who can improve our First XI, Kulusevski seems at first glance not to be the answer. However, at that price, and in that window, I suspect we all already knew that.
As mentioned, being the wide-eyed, gullible sort, I had greeted with enthusiasm the news that Doherty was to be entrusted with RWB duties. Admittedly this reaction was principally based upon the manner in which Emerson Royal’s performances in that position have sucked so much of my very being from my soul. Nevertheless, if pressed I could also point to Doherty’s second half against Leicester a few weeks back as a pointer that the chap might know his way about the right flank.
Alas, to say that Doherty did nor really cover himself in glory is to understate things. Remarkably, he managed to achieve the feat of looking like a poor version of Emerson (stay with me here). While Emerson does little more defensively than stand and wave as opponents waltz past him, and while history has yet to record him delivering a cross worthy of the name, he does at least have the decency to run into appropriate attacking positions when we are on the front-foot. Things may fall to pieces swiftly afterwards, but he gets that much right. Today, as well as being defensively average, Doherty could not even muster the courage to station himself in the final third.
There is a mitigating circumstance I suppose, for the switch to a back-four meant that Doherty’s wing-back slot faded out of existence, and he became a more conventional right-back. Charitably, one might suggest that we would need to see Doherty given a full 90 minutes at wing-back – and more than once – to get a sense of whether he has either the interest or grey cells for the role.
But today, even before the tactical switch neutered him, he seemed pretty reluctant to set foot over halfway, and oddly overwhelmed by events every time he touched the ball. This is not to cast him as the villain of the piece – most around him were similarly impotent. It was just rather a let-down. Conte-ball does, after all, depend rather heavily on a pair of wing-backs who bristle with life and brio.
Young Winks is a peculiar fish. One cannot fault his willing. Even the most casual and uninterested observer would be struck by his determination to do things right and, rather tellingly, make amends for the mistake he has just executed. He has much about him of the over-excited puppy, simply pleased to be there.
But by golly he makes a lot of mistakes. We should be grateful, I suppose, that in his present incarnation, under Conte, Winks v3.0 is pretty open to the notion of The Forward Pass, for so long a manoeuvre shrouded in mystery to him. And I ought therefore to cut him some slack when he gives away possession in the name of attempting something progressive – for I have not forgotten the days of yowling at him at least to try going forward, rather than forever spinning southwards.
But at the same time, for a chap who built his reputation upon passing of the neat-and-tidy variety he does seem to fudge a lot of that bread-and-butter stuff. On top of which, one can add “Caught In Possession” and “Failing To Close Down Shots” to his rap-sheet.
I do wonder whether a lot of the individual errors in midfield would be removed by adopting a midfield three, as vs Leicester and Liverpool in recent weeks, but that might be a debate for a different day. On the other hand, one might argue with some justification that we did indeed have a midfield three today, and a fat lot of good it did us. Either way, the suspicion lingers that that midfield area needs more than just cosmetic surgery.