Thomas’ write-up of the Everton game rightly detailed a lack of poise and control; summed up by an erratic midfield.
Nuno’s philosophy is built on ‘controlling the game’ – in and out of possession – but we’ve not seen enough of that in the first month of the new Premier League season.
As adept as we are at soaking up pressure under Nuno, we’ve become over-reliant on this ploy. We’re sitting deeper and seeing less of the ball – no wonder defensive mistakes are creeping in when our backline is under constant bombardment.
The defensively vacant Vinagre and Traore hardly help matters. It just shows how much we miss the more well-rounded options of a rested Jonny and fully fit Doc.
But why are we retreating into our shells?
It starts with Rui. He’s intent on kicking long to mask his poor short-game. You can tell by an often-exasperated Boly that there are occasions when we want to play out from the back, in an attempt to take the sting out of the game. Those moments of frustration aside, Boly, but especially Coady and Bennett, have fallen into the mind-set of pumping it long the majority of the time. Paul Lambert would be proud! I think this approach is a combination of following Rui’s lead and facing constant pressure.
What’s the midfield’s role in all this?
Part of me feels for them being bypassed by Rui/the defence. When they do get the ball, they’re either being pressed like mad, or under pressure to conjure something up – not knowing when the next spell of possession will arrive.
However, I still expect players of Neves and Moutinho’s quality to be capable of getting their foot on the ball and calming things down. Admittedly, Moutinho has exerted his authority at times this term, but Neves clearly isn’t right. Is it a combination of the step-up in quality in the top tier, playing deeper or being stifled by the increase in long balls from the back?
What I do know is that there needs to be more movement from the midfield. And I don’t mean Dendoncker bombing it from box-to-box, which is leaving far too much space in the middle. I want our midfield to be showing for the ball; passing and moving.
I know the backline is immediately thinking of going direct, but the midfield could be doing more to offer an option. I can’t help but think that Saiss sitting in front of the defence would give the midfield more balance. The Moroccan could be that link between the defence and Moutinho and Neves, by collecting the ball from the backline and playing the simple pass to the Portuguese duo, while also breaking up attacks.
It’s a testament to Raul and Jota that they’re providing the goods from such little service, with the midfield and defence miles away.
I’m certainly not at panic stations. I’m delighted with our progress in Europe, and I recognise Nuno has been restricted to far less little time on the training field, along with enforced rotation.
But when I see Nuno getting it wrong tactically, or the lads aren’t thinking on their feet, I will call it out.
The most frustrating part is that when we’re on the front foot, playing the ball with pace on the floor, we look sublime and much more comfortable.
This is how our technically gifted talents will thrive, not from a defensive, long-ball approach, which is failing to give Nuno the ‘control’ he so craves.