More often than not I’m in the ground early enough to be able to watch the players do at least part of their warm-up routine, and in particular the element that happens just under my nose, which is the shooting practice.
That’s the exercise where members of the coaching staff throw the strikers and midfielders balls of various sorts (along the ground, bouncing), and the players take a prescribed number of touches to within about 16 yards of the target before trying to take off Willy Caballero’s head in the temporary practice goal.
It’s always tempting, while that’s going on, to look for signs of form in the team: who has got their eye in? Who is routinely burying it? Who seems ready going to come out and do exactly the same thing in a few minutes’ time? But I’ve learned over time not to infer too much about who’s looking sharp, finish-wise, at that exact point, and who’s typically finding the upper tier of the Matthew Harding.
For instance, before the Europa League tie against Malmo in February, I saw Olivier Giroud manage to hit a shot directly into the member of the coaching staff who had just fed him the ball. Now, I’m not an expert in this area but I would suppose the first rule of this particular exercise is that you beat the first man. It didn’t seem to bode that well. Of course, 55 minutes into the actual match, we went 1-0 up with a goal from…Olivier Giroud. Best to draw no firm conclusions, clearly.
On the other hand, last night as I took my seat, Ruben Loftus-Cheek was cracking the ball past Willy Caballero into the top corner with his right foot in a manner which made you think, ‘Lordy, if he does that in the game…’ And then, fairly soon after half-time, he did that in the game - almost like he’d rehearsed it.
That was just a couple of minutes after Eden Hazard had dropped a couple of defenders and swerved the ball into the bottom corner in a manner which also seemed pre-figured in the warm-ups. So maybe that pre-match exercise is a better guide to form than I’ve been taking it for.
Whatever, throw in Giroud’s moment of exquisite ingenuity at the near post from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s properly disruptive cross, and all three goals had a lot to recommend them last night. The fact that there were three goals had a lot to recommend it, too. That’s a downpour after some recent droughts, and a vindication of last night’s team selection, surely. Moreover, there wasn’t even a hint of offside about any of them, which was nice in the circumstances.
Like you, I’m sure, I’ve had a thorough look back at the tapes of Cesar Azpilicueta’s equaliser in Cardiff last Sunday, checking all partisanship at the door and attempting to arrive at a properly dispassionate view of the incident – and yes, I’ve concluded that it is just about likely that Dave was a smidge offside at the point at which that cross was struck.
On the other hand, all credit to the assistant for favouring the attacking player. We don’t see enough of that these days. Goals are the lifeblood of football, don’t let’s forget.
Anyway, there were three uncontroversial goals last night, and none of them came in the last quarter of an hour of the game, which was a bit of a break with recent tradition - and indeed with tradition in general in 2018/19. The two very late goals which drove Neil Warnock to such spectacular levels of disappointment last Sunday afternoon took to 18 the total of goals our team has scored in the 75th minute or later of Premier League games this season – the second most of any top-flight side.
What does a preponderance of late goals tell us about a team? It depends who’s analysing the numbers, probably. It could be the sign of a team that never gives up, or whose exceptional fitness levels, depth of spirit and extraordinary will to win tell eventually. On the other hand, no doubt some would sneeringly argue that it’s the sign of a team that chiefly struggles to score and then gets lucky on more than its fair share of occasions.
Read: Pat Nevin on late goals
But what is still, to my mind, the greatest goal of the Antonio Conte era was the final-kick Michy Batshuayi winner away at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League group stages in September 2017 – a goal which came at the end of an extended passage of careful passing and which was the product of a practically basketball-like use of the available time. Yet of course, you look at the bare record of the game and the timing of the goal (90+4) implies to history that this was something frantic and last-gasp, overlooking the fact that everybody involved in the patient crafting of that goal had been breathing perfectly deeply and acting perfectly calmly throughout.
It’s called biding your time. Same goes for Ruben’s winner against Cardiff. Late isn’t always desperate. Late is sometimes just highly sophisticated time-management – something we can surely all aspire to. Something we can possibly even practice towards.