Opinion: A Conference League wake-up call

Bryan Gil
Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Well, we hope You-Know-Who wasn’t watching that. Two mediocre sides (and that’s a generous assessment) playing in a small ground in a Mickey Mouse competition that somehow is supposed to be our best chance for silverware this season. And we were fairly fortunate to have only lost 1-0.

The minute I saw that lineup with none of the starters v City even making the trip, I knew that a) we wouldn’t score and b) Nuno would be happy if he got out of Porto with a scoreless draw or a one-nil defeat. So we have that going for us, which is nice.

But let’s take an honest look at who played last night, and realize that but for a striker who doesn’t want to be here, a central defender who came down injured, and an attacking midfielder who has yet to play a single second of football so far this season, whether due to being in Nuno’s doghouse, his own or both, this was everyone who didn’t play on Sunday. In other words, our second team. And wow did it fail to impress. Scarlett and John were simply outmatched and unable to demonstrate either the power, speed or creativity needed to get scoring chances.

Gil and Sessegnon were at sixes and sevens playing on the left in the first half, things improved a bit when Clarke came on and the Spaniard moved to a central position, but overall, none of them shined. Winks and Doherty are no better and perhaps worse than their uninspired 2020-21 selves. Carter-Vickers showed why he is far from a to-notch defender, the final bollixing of the ball between his legs leading to Pacos’ final chance a fitting example of that. Davies was OK—and at least understood the need to advance the ball forward through the air. And Romero was as advertised—imperious, aggressive, but also capable of taking an unnecessary chance, as he was caught upfield on the goal by Silva. There were a few snappy passes by the Argentine so I’m willing to cut him some slack. I thought Giovani Lo Celso was our best player, but even he faded some in the Portuguese heat. And our substitutes were named Clarke, Bennett and Posotski. Anything more need be said?

Presumably Nuno will have to gamble on a few of the regulars playing Thursday, no matter what happens at Molineux. He doesn’t want the ignominious distinction of being knocked out of this tawdry competition almost before it even begins. But again without Kane and Ndombele that is a risky proposition—we simply can’t afford to see any of Son, Dele, Bergwijn or Lucas go down for any considerable period of time with such a thin squad. But let’s face it—a 16-17 man squad—which is about all we really have right now—is never going to cut it in today’s Premier League.

I simply don’t see the value of Winks, Doherty or Cameron-Vickers; I don’t think John, Clarke or Posotski are yet ready for this level, if they ever will be. Scarlett is still a far cry away from becoming a decent back-up. Gil and Romero will take some time to get acclimated to this team, setting and coach—as will Sessegnon, I’m afraid. We do have Aurier and Sissoko, of course, but for how long? And do really want either of them denying some young player or academy product the chance to improve?

Assuming a Kane sale, Levy and Paratici must bring in a striker, another attacker, and another defender to make this team remotely close to where it has to be to a) have any chance of top four status and b) advance in this Thursday competition. And Ndombele’s situation has to be resolved—it is wonderful to see Skipp make the strides he has and Lo Celso can play a crucial role—but we need more in the middle of the pitch and Tanguy’s potential is still there for all to see. What was sorely lacking last night (Sessegnon and Gil attempted it a couple of times but were betrayed by their final touch) was anyone that could break down the Pacos defence and mount an attack through the middle. Ndombele if nothing else can do that.  

Sunday was wonderful but it doesn’t really change anything. Absent our best player, we are a marginal European contender in England; and a marginal threat to win something in Europe. We aren’t deep. And our attack will leave much to be desired. Let’s hope a series of results like last night don’t make us quickly forget that one wondrous opener, Nuno has plenty of work to do. 

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