I BEG TO DIFFER
I BEG TO DIFFER
I read your opinion on Twitter. I beg to differ.
Unfortunately, narratives are far neater than reality. (Reality is a thoroughly messy affair upon close inspection.) When me and them other professional journalists write our stuff for you, we simplify, we drop the nuance and the detail. We draw themes. It’s more exciting that way. A hero and a villain. One side “dominates” the other. “There was now an inevitability to the game…until it suddenly changed…and then changed back again…” (Also known as “it had never actually been inevitable.”)
To be fair, it’s how we, the supporters, also feel while watching the match. All those emotion chemicals swishing through our veins and washing over our brains.
Ahh…but reality. In the words of The Duke of Wellies, “It was a damned close run thing.” “Whose outcome was in doubt at every minute.” (I said that last bit.)
The reality of last night’s AFC PSG game is that it was always in the balance. Verratti and Motta were a bit brilliant and had the bad taste to come to our gaff and show us how midfield is really done. (Note: Whether you really want an eye-liner wearing raccoon running your midfield in the hard-man’s Premier League, I’m not so sure. On a cold wet Wednesday night in Stoke, his mascara will run.)
The problem is, we are all binary in our opinions when emotions run high. We are all zeros and ones. “Their midfield was superb. Ours was shit. Couldn’t pass. Didn’t cover.” Except…except…that’s not actually what happened.
The bit about PSG’s midfield is true. They WERE superb. But…Ramsey and Coquelin were pretty damn good. Go back and watch the 1st half and the start of the second. Just watch those 2 midfielders. They were good. They tackled, they harried, they pressed. They passed progressively, cleverly on occasion. They got forward. They covered back. They kept their relative spacing for the most part. Both of them. They were good. Not great. Just…good.
I expected the worst from that pairing. We all probably did. The Xhaka camp. The Ramsey camp. They were all livid before the game. And when we struggled to match PSG in midfield, the knives came out for Wenger, Coquelin, Ramsey. Et three, Brute.
But…it was actually, surprisingly, pretty good for the most part. It wasn’t actually their fault that every player on the team took it in turn to spill the ball a couple of times for no good reason during the 1st 30 minutes, and beyond. PSG will hurt you when you do that. And they did. Just as they did in Paris.
My main criticism of CoqSey last night was they did little to solve the “get the ball to Ozil between the lines” problem. And to be fair, that’s kind of a big deal. It’s probably a deal-breaker, given how we currently set up. Perhaps we should factor in that it was Ramsey’s first game at CM, paired with Coquelin or really anyone, for forever. (Note: I am something of a “Ramsey in midfield” skeptic, and I wanted to see Xhaka start ahead of either player, just so you know.)
However, in this particular match, our midfield 2 was pitted against a wiley midfield 3 from PSG whose clear objective was to press and isolate Ozil, with the support of their under-employed and intelligent center-backs. That was job #1 defensively for PSG and Unai Emery. And they did it very well. Perhaps we needed to tweak the formation in anticipation of this, to have our own midfield 3, moving Ozil to start from the wing. It’s been done by Madrid, Germany and even Arsene in the past and for the same reason.
This was an all-action midfield, tackling, jumping on the scraps, forcing turnovers, playing 1-2s, bursting forward, covering back.
For those who said we started slowly like we weren’t amped up to compete, watch it again. We started fast. We battled but we lacked cohesion. It wasn’t till around the 15th minute that PSG wrested control and start to set the tempo, and worked us over till they created the goal.
Regardless, by around the 25 minute mark we got our teeth back into the match. From 35 minutes onwards to the end of the half, we had the upper hand, turning the tide as we pressed in packs up-field to win back the ball…We owned the last 10 minutes.
Then a piece of brilliance by Ozil gave us our just reward with that angled, cutback to Sanchez, ESPing it onto Sanchez’s foot who was coming up blind from behind. Then Sanchez did what no other player does better or quicker. He changed direction. Bang.
We started the 2nd half as we ended the first – effort, pressing, energy. Forcing turnovers up-field and in dangerous positions. But apparently none of this counts compared to silky passing.
The passage of play leading up to our second was swimmingly excellent. Beautiful movement, dovetailed and angled runs, Alexis carving a diagonal groove, and swinging a perfect pass to where Jenks’ mind was already made up for him, thank God. Jenks did as instructed, aiming a low squared cross into the danger zone, and Alexis followed his arc to meet it in the 6 yard box and with an outstretched danger-leg, forcing a harried clearance which pinged off Verratti, scrambling back in an attempt to cover the danger from the dangerous cross into the danger zone upon which the ever-dangerous Sanchez was at that very moment swooping to conquer.
We created a lot of danger.
Lucky? Fuck off. All goals are lucky and require the opposition to play their part. This one we earned. Crank up enough pressure by moving the defence all around, creating the gaps, getting the ball into the most dangerous zone with attackers flying in to meet it. SAF made a living out of that. Bravo, Alexis. Bravissimo.
So there we stood at 2-1. I’ve gotta say, it felt fair to me at that moment in time. And in no sense could PSG say at that point “Hmmm, this is going to plan. We have this right where we wanted it.” We had twisted and tangled them since the start of the 2nd half, as we had at the end of the first.
What you could say about the rest of the game is…PSG have a group of top class technical players who know how to go through the gears when needed. Verratti is The Truth and Motta is a Mudda.
Conversely, we had expended a huge amount of energy pressing upfield to chase the 2 goals. I’d guess the manager is kicking himself for not making the subs quicker and bringing on fresh legs. (As he probably should have against United.)
I read a lot of “They wanted it more than us. We stopped pushing for a goal, ffs.” I suspect we were totally shagged out from pressing non-stop to get the 2 goals. Let’s be honest, our pressing is not the most efficient and sophisticated in Europe. That’s gonna hit yer legs at some point mid way through the 2nd half, no matter who you are, efficient or not. That Iwobi was still on the pitch at 77’ to make a tired block is a bit of a mystery to me.
Regardless, Ramsey and Coquelin continued to graft, tackle, harry and hustle, force turnovers, pass and run.
It’s only 3 minutes before the PSG equalizer that Ramsey forces a turnover, then charges upfield into the 6 yard box to slide and swing at a tantalizingly curved Sanchez cross to the far post.
All action. Just another inch of fitness, and he’s the hero of the night. 3-1.
Score then and no one would have said a win was unfair. On the night I’d say a win, loss or draw were ALL fair results.
The commentator, after they equalized for 2-2: “It’s been a great encounter to this point. They are both going for the win.” Rough translation: This could go either way. It could have, but we were dead ish on our feet.
We made 3 attacking changes. Because we WERE going for it. But it didn’t fix the 7 other knackered outfield players. They tried, though. We had a good spell of pressure up in the left corner around the 80th minute. We had a few more attacks upfield, including the Chamberlain cross into the box that made you think of Old Trafford last Saturday. A frustrating number of our counters, 4 or 5 during the game?, were snuffed out by tactical fouls. And it pisses me off.
Add another factor to the display, the number of loose balls played by us that had nothing to do with our midfield. Constant. They probably cost us the game, if not the battle for control, and sapped our legs to recover the ball or covering unnecessary counters.
But conceding a jammy goal off a standard corner sucked. Had we kept it tight for the rest of the game to defend a 2-1 lead and hit them on the counter, who knows how it may have ended.
Oh, and all that “Cavani should have had 6” crap. Cavani is a top striker with world class movement, timing, and speed, and that’s the reason he had 6 good looks. But average finishing (it would appear.) He gets a goal a game. That’s the Cavani deal.
Quite the contrast to Olivier Giroud’s current goal-a-game form. 81.8% conversion rate, with the mobility of a sofa. He’s like that old detective series, Ironsides. He’s a buggar to get into the murder scene in that wheelchair, but if you can wangle his chair up the stairs, through the doorway, and over the balcony rail, he’ll have those fuckers dead-to-rights. “Wheel him in. Crane him in.”
Or…bear with me…Giroud’s like the old guy (again in the wheelchair) in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “Bring down Granpappy. He’s the best.” Although, tbf, Granpappy was actually rather poor with the hammer when they carried him down. More like Giroud after New Year last season perhaps.
PSG were the better team on the night. Their midfield gave a master class of understated control…but that doesn’t mean Ramsey and Coquelin were shit. They were good. Just not good enough for long enough.
Would a Xhaka-based midfield have been better? Maybe. Probably. Possibly. We’ll see soon enough.