The crap backheel heard around the world

Summertime and the living is easy.

Football is back again and amidst a world full of toss, this meaningless game is once more giving us a chance to escape into a box of concrete and forget our pains. We drew 3-3 with Liverpool.

And there were three things therein that particularly pleased me:

  • When Jose Holebas, progressing over the halfway line with two teammates standing feet in front of him and nothing but freshly manicured grass in between, opted instead for a backheel into touch;
  • When Abdoulaye Doucoure thought better of a simple pass to the back line and decided to pirouette around his marker, before flicking a pass behind his back and between two others to Tom Cleverley, who fell over; and
  • When Nathaniel Chalobah, faced with a rebounding ball happening into his path mere steps beyond the halfway line, considered the best course of action to attempt a first time lob over the barely out-of-position Simon Mignolet, the beautifully arcing ball dropping some ten yards wide of the Liverpool goal.

The reason these moments were so pleasing, despite all being ultimately fruitless, was that they exhibited a lack of worry. There was no concern that their flagrantly pointless actions would be met with a death stare from the bench or a pelter back in the changing room. They knew that they would be back in the team for the Bournemouth game and not mysteriously ruled out through some undisclosed injury.

This might be a severe overreaction, based on the delirious joy of actually having some football to watch, but everything was just so much nicer on Saturday. The players were having fun, and consequently we did too.

Being at a football match is always better than the alternative, but last year was boring. It was turgid and nobody was having a good time, least of all Walter Mazzarri.

After just a few months he looked to be feeling the pressure. Close your eyes and think of him and if you’re not picturing a scene from Malice, then you’ll undoubtedly be seeing him bent double, rising from the bench, his stiff white shirt flapping at the collar, suit tight to his contorted body, arms in supplication to the Lord above and mouth strained in a pained gape as he draws out his vaffanculo.

We thought he was a man who didn’t like losing, who could see form slipping away, but he was just a man having a crap time. And when you take your cue from people like that, it spreads. On the pitch, a misplaced pass drew cries, a misguided shot brought glares and, by the end, a conceded goal resulted in nothing but a sorrowful glance at the floor and trudge back to the halfway line.

When Nate looped his shot out for a goal kick I chuckled at the thought of him doing so under Mazzarri. Not because possession was king under the Italian – there were too many big diagonals for that – but because making a mistake was unacceptable.

To get the best out of anyone you have to let them express themselves, have fun and feel unconstricted. Even when Liverpool had turned the tables and looked comfortable at 3-2, hitting bars and whatnot as we faded, I was happy. We’d given it a go and had a good time along the way. Does the result even matter on a day like that?

Of course, it’s August, when everyone loves their manager. Just last year Troy was espousing the hardline methods of Mazzarri, comparing them favourably to Quique’s easygoing schtick: “One of the criticisms of Quique last year was that he was a bit too nice,” he said in October, “especially in the back end of last season, when he let people get away with things. Mr Mazzarri will not be doing that, is the easiest way to say it. He’s brought in a different way, and he’s adapted, too.”

“It’s the way it should be.”

He was somewhat less enamoured months later, as his programme notes last week made clear.

And then there was the Southampton game that kicked off last season. Nordin Amrabat was a revelation at wing-back, Etienne Capoue was driving into the box and our attacking play had distinct patterns. Patterns!

But the grind of months on end of the same thing wore everyone down, just as it had the year before.

In Marco Silva we seem to have a coach that can set the tone – Capoue’s reported dressing down and peg-dropping proof of that – but one who wants to be attacking and leave holes. Holes are among the funnest things in football.

Hopefully we have finally landed on the middle ground between the too soft of Quique and the too hard of Mazzarri, and we can all have a good old time until April watching some fun football from our just right seats.

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