Both teams went into this top-four battle with lengthy injury lists. As a result, Lampard and Mourinho had to make substantial tweaks to their lineups and tactics. For Chelsea this meant relying on players who had been frozen out for months, in Olivier Giroud and Marcos Alonso. That both scored can be chalked up to That’s Football®, but also Chelsea’s game plan — a major part of which relied on Mason Mount to be as annoying as possible.
During the 2012 Euros, when Spain were in peak Death By A Thousand
Cuts Passes mode, WAGNH Blogfather, Graham MacAree, wrote about Italy’s chances of replicating Portugal’s performance against La Furia Roja. Portugal frustrated Spain, keeping them out of their normal passing rhythms for 90 minutes plus extra time. MacAree noted that if SPain’s next opponent, Italy, were to stand a chance, they needed to replicate the extremely annoying performances of Portuguese midfielders Raul Meireles (ed.note: a.k.a. MRLSH) and João Moutinho. (Italy did not, and promptly lost 4-0.)
In the piece, MacAree notes that while most people know the standard types of midfielders — runners, passers, and destroyers — one type is a bit more rare, but can be hugely useful when deployed correctly: The Annoyer.
In Lampard’s 3-4-2-1, Mason Mount partnered with Ross Barkley just behind Giroud. Ross was to play the role of the more standard attacking midfielder, which at times also drops into midfield to help with ball progression. Mount, however, was told to become the annoyer, the human papercut, the itch you can’t scratch, the stubborn splinter, the little brother you can’t shake.
It wasn’t only Mount’s energy that helped him excel at this task — though it was impressive to see him still hounding Spurs players in stoppage time — it was also his quick reading of play, pressing awareness and bravery. Though the limitations of time and space make it clearly untrue, it still felt like Mount was rushing onto every Spurs player receiving a pass — even players receiving a pass from a teammate being pressed by Mount were seemingly also being pressed by Mount.
When it came to 50-50 balls, his quickness and agility would either let him get a toe in to push it toward teammates, or allow him to get his body in the way to absorb contact and draw a foul. Any untidy touch or pass that was more than a half-yard off its optimal trajectory was basically a summoning spell for young Mason, instantly switching Tottenham players’ objectives from ‘build play, progress the ball’ to turning their backs and/or punting the ball away in either direction.
According to WhoScored, Mount didn’t record a single interception all match, but that’s more of a limitation of available statistics than an actual reflection of his performance. It was impossible not to notice all of the panicked, misplaced passes and disruption he was causing.
Meanwhile, when the Blues had possession and were looking to attack, it was again Mount who was using his pace and unpredictability to cross the face of defenders with diagonal runs. One early such run led to his only shot on goal, a powerful drive that Hugo Lloris jabbed behind for a corner. Though it was his only shot, the threat of his pace and shooting ability had been felt early.
That paid off for Chelsea’s second goal. Giroud leapt well along the near touchline to nod the ball into Mount’s feet, who gathered well and dribbled toward the box, drawing every defender’s eyes. He then cut the ball laterally and slid it across the top of the box to Barkley who pushed it farther wide to Marcos Alonso, who had nothing between him, his sweet left foot, and the whites of Lloris’ eyes.
MARCOS ALONSO— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) February 22, 2020
Worked beautifully by Chelsea pic.twitter.com/7DRBssIUnu
The primary concern with Mount’s game overall is that it isn’t possible to play this role in every match. In games where we’ve needed to break down stubborn defensive teams, it doesn’t work as well, and his efforts at slotting into a more traditional midfield role are hindered by his subpar passing ability. That needs to change since The Annoyer is not always a viable option to affect a match. In fact, even as expertly annoying as Meireles and Moutinho were in 2012, Portugal still lost a boring 0-0 game (4-2 on penalties) that was only interesting in a ‘baby brother won’t stop giving older brother wet willies’ sort of way.
But in those times when Mount can be his most annoying self, and it so thoroughly short-circuits the opposition — and especially when that opposition is Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hostpur — it is a pettish delight.