YOUSEF HATEM (@yousef_1892) with five points to emerge from last night’s 0-0 at San Siro…
1. We’ve come a long, long way
There is a section of our support for whom any criticism levelled at club, manager and players can be brushed off by making favourable comparison with the joyless, directionless husk we had become under the fat controller and his bacon-scented henchman. It’s tiresome and regressive. I am not one of the “just happy to be here” crowd. For all that, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that there are occasions when it is right to take stock, and to reflect on just how far we have come in a short time. Wembley was one. Qualifying for this tournament was another. And a nil-nil draw in one of football’s great cathedrals is absolutely a third. Be in no doubt, Milan are European footballing royalty. Whether or not this is a Milan team for the ages, this is a storied institution which knows everything there is to know about European competition, a club which – like Germany at an international tournament, or Ian Poulter at the Ryder Cup – raises its game to meet the occasion. We deserved our point. We made our point. We belong.
2. Fortiter Defendit Triumphans
Did we ride our luck at times? Were we the beneficiaries of some profligate finishing from the home side? Yes and yes. “Milan nil” has many explanations. For all that, our defence (and, it must be added, our goalkeeper – for Nick Pope was superb here) was the main reason we prospered. The main reason we found ourselves under pressure – a lot of pressure – was due to the midfield’s tendency to give possession away cheaply (more on them later). Not one foot was put wrong defensively. I cannot recall one Milan chance which stemmed from poor positioning from a Newcastle man, or any of our defenders making a mistake, or any careless dalliance on the ball at the back. Blocks made. Lines cleared. Simple things. Done well. All of them – Trippier, Botman and Pope especially so, but also Burn and Schär – were admirably immune to error, in an environment which invited it. Did they use the ball well? No, not always. Burn kept sending it down the line to nobody. Pope kicked inconsistently. But defensively? Flawless. Given the motto of our born-again city, and last night’s setting – the home of Maldini, Baresi et al – they produced a performance of which we can be enduringly, and rightly, proud.
3. Isak and/or Wilson and/or…who?
Alexander Isak is a phenomenon: a fearsome brute of a man with a gossamer touch. He is, however, human – and he looks knackered. Only Eddie Howe and his coaching staff will know whether Isak was physically ready for this one, but the evidence available to the viewing public suggested – albeit in hindsight, for nobody of a black and white persuasion would ever feel disappointment at seeing the Swede’s name on the teamsheet – that he is still not quite at 100%, despite being rested on Saturday. When Wilson came on, he occupied defenders (copyright Chris Wood, but Callum does it properly…) and brought our midfield into play, in a way that had eluded Isak during the first hour. In fairness to Howe, he might quite reasonably have been of the view that Wilson – having started against Brentford – was ill-equipped to play a full ninety here. This much is apparent: the question of whether we have sufficient options up front, for a campaign which will be more gruelling than last year, remains. Harvey Barnes’ honeymoon period may be quite short.
4. Tonali and Bruno – where have we seen this before?
Our two best players? Maybe. Cult heroes? Certainly. But remember when, for a decade, the two best English midfielders were Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but no England head coach – not even Steve McClaren (shudder) – worked out how to play them both in a way that benefited the collective? Last night, Tonali was shunted out to the left side. It didn’t work. Bruno sat deep. It didn’t work. They both gave the ball away on more occasions than their high standards would have been comfortable with. Neither of them stamped their authority on the game in a way commensurate with their considerable abilities. Don’t get me wrong – they didn’t play badly, because they’re not bad players. But Howe is yet to come up with a way to accommodate them both effectively, and last night was further evidence of that. There are, surely, solutions out there. Tonali is versatile and Howe’s successes with Joelinton prove he is a coach who knows how to get the most out of a player’s versatility. Or, maybe, Bruno and Tonali could play together at the base of the midfield. Or, if rigid adherence to the 4-3-3 system (understandable, given how far it has got us) is preferred, perhaps we acknowledge that we need two starting elevens, each of which can only contain one of our twin suns. Something different needs to be tried, though, and fast.
5. There are still no Mackems in Milan
I didn’t make it to Milan, but plenty did, and no sightings were reported. There is still not even a Pizza Express in Sunderland – how can they be trusted with the real thing? Never mind Geordie assertions of superiority. Even Teesside has a Pizza Express. And an airport. Not that our key-jangling neighbours have much need of either of the North East’s aviation hubs. They’re at Blackburn tonight, apparently.
YOUSEF HATEM / @yousef_1892