Sunday, 17 January 2021

Big Decisions For Tuesday Night

Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m as delighted as anyone that we won and that we looked more cohesive as a team with the selections and formation, and agree that we deserved to take the points. But if you were asked to choose the difference between the last two games it was quality of finishing of the opposition (and the contrast in our own). While Rochdale from every decent position they got into in the first half finished with aplomb, Bristol Rovers were lamentable. Their tally of 20 goals in 19 games is only better than that of Northampton (arguably also Blackpool on a goals-per-game basis). That tells its own story.  

So yes, Oshilaja played well, Gunter did a decent job at centre-back, but let’s not pretend that the defence was solid. Just take a look at the Sky Sports highlights of the game and the first three snippets involved pretty basic long balls simply collected by their guys and taken into dangerous positions. The first two were shot into the side-netting, the third produced the save with his leg by Amos. And the horrible scuff from an unmarked position inside our box didn’t even get past the editor’s cut. All this before we had produced an effort on target.

Also, for sure a win is a win. But we won courtesy of a fluke goal. Yes, before and especially after we had golden opportunities to add to the total but we contrived not to put the ball in the net, or to avoid one of our own when trying to. And yes, goals change the course of games, we can never say what might have happened had their defender on the near post not stepped over Forster-Caskey’s undeflected corner. But consider two other perfectly viable scenarios. First, Bristol took at least one of their presentable first-half opportunities and we were again chasing the game, then Forster-Caskey’s corner does not go straight in and we miss the golden chances to equalise. Second, after Morgan’s sending off Bristol equalise at the death with their clear header inside our box in stoppage time, with Bowyer having not made defensive substitutions to defend a lead. Under either we would all have been screaming blue murder at either our inability to avoid the opposition scoring first and lamentable finishing, or our inability (again) to protect a lead in the final minutes and the waste of another two points.

Fine margins indeed. And sure, as supporters we are nothing if not fickle. But my two points are first, that Bowyer has some important decisions to make for Tuesday night’s game against Peterborough; and second, that we may now be seeing the framework of a team that really ought to be in the promotion mix, especially in a division which sees the sterile and unlovable (if our game against them is any guide) Lincoln clear at the top.

A couple of weeks ago Watson or Pratley (along with Amos) would have been first on the teamsheet, in the defensive midfield role. The picture has changed with both the bringing in of Millar and Schwartz but also the evidence that Forster-Caskey, given the job of commanding the midfield from a central position and a run of starts, has risen to the challenge. Morgan also looked good in the central role before he blotted his copybook, but with him now unavailable for Peterborough does Bowyer bring back the now available (unless my arithmetics are sadly inadequate) Pratley, running the risk of Forster-Caskey not being so comfortable if obliged to adapt again, or instead go for Gilbey, who doesn’t deserve the chance on recent form but is the choice (assuming Shinnie is not available) as a straight replacement for Morgan, as seen yesterday, or does he shuffle the pack again and change the formation in light of different opposition?

It looks to me one of those ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ choices, depending on the result, but that’s what managers are paid for. It’s up to him and his team, who have forgotten more about football than we will ever know, to weigh up the pros and cons, with the advantage of knowing how fit or otherwise the players are.

With Millar and Schwartz coming in and especially with Millar starting I think the attractions of a diamond midfield, utilising either Williams or Maddison at the point, are much reduced (and in any event Maddison is on the injured list). We have been forced to play recent games without an outright defensive midfield minder (of course whoever plays carries out defensive duties) but now (or soon) it is a decision whether that suits us best. If Millar starts on the left it effectively rules out (at least to start games) using Maatsen in a more advanced role or as a wing-back. Given the understanding that these two seem to have from the start, no point in tinkering with the left side. That means someone on the right for balance in a 4-4-2. Williams did well enough yesterday in the position, but I’d say it’s still up for grabs, at the moment between him and Smyth. Now playing 4-4-2 with Millar and Smyth would get the pulses racing, but is it too much of a risk for Bowyer defensively (let’s face it with Williams out wide we are taking that risk, even if he covered well yesterday)? In the central two positions, Forster-Caskey has to be the first, then the decision is who to accompany him. Is Gilbey up to it or is Pratley the safer option?

The dynamics up front have also changed, because we seem to be discovering that Aneke can, if pushed, last a game, while Schwartz in his two cameos to date has shown both that he will score more goals than Washington or Bogle and that he seems capable of forming good partnerships with a second striker. I like Washington, for his intelligent movement and goals. But overall do we get enough from him, especially as he’s given no indication of forming a partnership with either Aneke or Bogle? My suspicion is that when fully fit Schwartz will be capable of linking up with either of the other three, including Washington, but I’d guess there is unanimity among Addicks that a combination of Aneke and Schwartz will be optimum.

That in turn leads us to the issue of what would be our best starting X1, if all are fully fit and available (and of course not ignoring the need for changes for some games and during games). Amos, Gunter/Matthews, Innis, Famewo, Maatsen would indeed seem to pick itself, with Pearce, Oshilaja and Purrington the back-ups. Put in Aneke and Schwartz up front, Millar on the left wing, Williams/Smyth on the right (possibly Maddison too), and suddenly there are only two starting slots left, the central midfield pairing. The options would be Watson, Pratley, Forster-Caskey, Morgan, Gilbey, Shinnie, plus Maddison and Williams. At the moment Forster-Caskey is in pole position and, while I’d happily defer to LB and his team, my choice alongside him would be Shinnie, perhaps Watson. Tough on Watson and Pratley, but they would undoubtedly continue to be instrumental in and around the starting line-up, with no doubt further injuries and suspensions altering the available mix.

Of course, of my ideal X1 currently only seven are currently available to start (no Innis, Famewo, Shinnie or Schwartz). But on paper at least it looks to me like a team and squad more than capable of competing with the best this league can offer. May the pieces fall into place quickly, but before then we have Tuesday.

 

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Another Mixed Bag, Including Positives

On the face of it we went into this one as underdogs, at least on the form guide. No win in five for us, another centre-half down to add to a lengthy list of the injured and unavailable, and with it unclear as yet whether scoring four against Rochdale was a sign of what’s to come, as the two new players bed in. Up against a side that had won three of their last four. What we enjoyed was a direct contrast with Tuesday as today both teams were unable to hit the proverbial barn door and a match we should have won reasonably comfortably ended up being decided by a fluke (read defensive howler, this time not from us). No matter, we took the positives from Rochdale and can do the same again today, even enjoying the funnier side, which today included a cameo from our new Dane which he will want to forget.

The side showed three changes from Rochdale, one enforced. According to Lee Bowyer the defence picked itself (which I’m not sure Purrington would agree with), with in front of Amos Gunter and Oshilaja the central pairing flanked by Mathews and Maatsen. Forster-Caskey seemed to be joined in central midfield by Morgan, in for Gilbey, with Williams and Millar in the wider positions, and up front Washington starting (as Smyth dropped to the bench) alongside Aneke, who having lasted the full match on Tuesday evening started again, with Schwartz presumably not yet fit enough to start one. It looked like a 4-4-2 but we’ve been fooled before.

The first half was rather a damp squib. We generally dominated, with Forster-Caskey and Morgan controlling their area, Maatsen and Millar looking good down the left, and created decent situations, without producing an effort on target. Aneke, who looked unstoppable against Rochdale and scored a couple, seemed to have morphed into his alter ego Bogle as he fluffed from inside the box a couple of times. Indeed, with Bristol’s forwards equally inept when the goal came into view, we were about 40 minutes into the game before either of the keepers was called into action, with another Bristol long ball taken down into our box but the shot well saved with his leg by Amos. That sparked a retort as at the other end Aneke forced a save from their keeper with a low shot, Williams putting the rebound over the bar.

At the break you felt that we ought to prove too strong for Bristol, too many weapons, but we hadn’t turned territorial advantage into goals. Also, although the defence was holding up, it was worrying that Bristol didn’t have to work hard to create their openings. Generally a long ball into an area was enough, whereas our good moments tended to be the result of much more intricate play. No matter, for a change we were not behind.

No changes made at half-time and the game continued much as before, with us having the upper hand but not making it pay. Before the hour Bristol made a change and apparently switched formation to a back five. Oshilaja picked up a yellow for a rash challenge and not long after the deadlock was broken, in bizarre fashion. Good work by Washington and Aneke resulted in a corner. Forster-Caskey stood over the ball with Millar on hand for a short one. Instead he then ran along the line towards the goal, the ball was clipped in towards him and next thing we knew it had curled into the net, with their guy on the near post and keeper seemingly blaming each other. It was unclear whether or not Millar had got a touch: the BBC credited him with it but the suspicion was that he had made no contact, a view perhaps not surprisingly reinforced after the match by Forster-Caskey.

The goal understandably changed the game as Bristol had to press forward, which did result in them creating opportunities but also left us space to exploit, which we did until it came to the point of putting the ball in the net. With about 20 minutes to go Bowyer made three changes, with Williams, Washington and Aneke giving way for Smyth, Schwartz and Bogle. Three changes of personnel but no change in formation.

Not long after Morgan picked up what proved a significant yellow with a pull back. Then Bogle intercepted and played in Smyth, who lost out due to a poor first touch, a Bogle flick almost found Schwartz, then a glorious chance for us to get some breathing space went begging. Smyth was found again down the right and he delivered a good low cross, which evaded the first guys but then was on a plate for the incoming Schwartz to tap into the net. He’d come on against Rochdale and curled in a screamer, but the fox in the box turned something else as he managed to get his feet in a tangle and instead of scoring tumbled over.

Would we regret that miss? Bogle almost worked his way through and then, with around five minutes left of normal time, as on Tuesday, we found ourselves down to 10 men. Morgan challenged late for a ball being cleared by their guy and his momentum brought a coming together, clumsy by Morgan rather than anything else but few complaints about the yellow card (and red) which followed.

Not surprisingly Bristol redoubled their efforts, while we withdrew Smyth to bring on Gilbey to take over in Morgan’s position. And Schwartz had another contribution to make to ensure the score stayed 1-0 as from a free kick Gunter’s shot appeared to be goal-bound only for the Dane to get in the way – and from an offside position. That meant we were still biting the nails into five minutes of stoppage time as Oshilaja made a crucial block inside the area. There was still time for Schwartz to play in Bogle for a one-on-one with the keeper, who saved, and for Bristol to put a free header in the box over the bar before what was, with hindsight, an entertaining second half was brought to a close.

Three points, the first clean sheet in ages. If we focused on the positives after a 4-4 draw with Rochdale we might as well again this time around and overlook the fact that a team with more quality in front of goal would have converted some of the chances they had, while we had the chances ourselves to have made the game safe well before the end. Still plenty of room for improvement and a tough test to come against Peterborough, with Morgan unavailable but Pratley presumably back, perhaps one or two of the injured list as well. Onwards and let’s make it upwards.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. Really had just one outright shot to save, shortly before half-time, and did his job well; otherwise just a matter of dealing with crosses.

Matthews – 6/10. Decent enough. Didn’t feature as an attacking threat but can’t remember any poor moments.

Oshilaja – 7/10. Perhaps deserved an 8 as he made excellent interceptions and blocks, none more so than the one late on which probably prevented a goal. Still picked up a yellow for a rash tackle and feared he might repeat the exercise.

Gunter – 6/10. Filled in well enough. Might have got on the scoresheet too had it not been for his shot getting blocked.

Maatsen – 7/10. Undoubtedly gives us good options going forward, especially as he and Millar look as if they work well together.

Williams – 6/10. Worked hard and was involved in some of our good moments, but not strong in front of goal when half-chances came his way.

Forster-Caskey – 8/10. My man-of-the-match (and he got that vote from Steve Brown and Scott Minto afterwards too). Assured on the ball and competitive off it, seems clear he is benefiting from the run of games in his best position.

Morgan – 6/10. Has to be marked down for the poor decision to make the challenge that resulted in his dismissal. Otherwise he’d had a very good game at both ends of the pitch.

Millar – 7/10. Pretty effective, caused them problems all game, even assuming he doesn’t claim the goal.

Washington – 6/10. Some good moments but still the feeling that we’re not getting enough out of him, plus no real sign that he’s forming an effective partnership with another.

Aneke – 6/10. Still a handful but today started rather poorly and ended up not taking the chances that came his way.

Subs:

Smyth – 7/10. Started with a poor touch in a good position but then gave us an outlet which might easily have produced another goal.

Schwartz – 5/10. Look, we’re excited he’s here, we loved his introduction against Rochdale, but today he missed a sitter and then got in the way of a shot probably going in.

Bogle – 6/10. Did good work but failed to convert the one-on-one to make the game safe.

 

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Might As Well Focus On The Positives

Perverse as it might sound, I was looking forward to tonight’s game, after having to sit out the Accrington Stanley match (just add no longer able to get a one-day Sky Sports pass in France to the never-ending list of adverse consequences of Brexit). Even though it was Rochdale. When we talk of Sunderland we always think Wembley, for Carlisle read promotion; but Rochdale always seems to conjure up desperate periods (in particular for me that freezing January 1973 night when a crowd of just over 5,000 was scattered around The Valley to watch King Arthur notch the only goal of the game).

Perhaps many went into tonight’s contest in that sort of mood, but I just wanted to enjoy a game of football, hopefully get a look at the two new players and some notion of how the next churn in personnel and formations might pan out, maybe even get to cheer a goal or two. Perhaps the past four games (and more if we’re being honest) have served to lower expectations as I think everyone knows that we have to be playing considerably better all over the pitch to have thoughts of promotion. Also, I wanted to see some signs that the players wanted to be out there, that they were enjoying themselves and ready to fight for each other. For sure a team (and a manager) not winning is usually miserable, but the spirit and commitment we showed against Portsmouth and Ipswich has gone missing of late and we need it back.

I’m not sure if I really enjoyed it but it undoubtedly had its moments and its positives, if there’s any hair left that hasn’t been torn out. Ship four in the first half, courtesy of a starting formation which failed miserably due to an awful match-up, then almost win it in the second thanks primarily to Aneke’s prowess, see Schwartz get off the mark with a beauty, share eight goals, then instead of the winner in the final five minutes or so we almost let it slip again after Pearce picked up a harsh second yellow for challenging for a ball that he surely had to go for. It was, as they say, a good game for the neutrals, although I’ve no idea what Bowyer will make of it. Hopefully like the rest of us he can see the funny side.

We knew we’d be missing Innis, Famewo, Doughty, Shinnie, Watson, Pratley and Maddison. So when the bench was added in not many missed out. The defence seemed to be unchanged, with in front of Amos Pearce and Oshilaja flanked by Gunter and Maatsen. The changes saw Williams in for Morgan and Aneke replacing Washington, which with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey retained along with Millar and Smyth suggested either a 4-4-2, with Williams and Millar in the wider positions, or a 4-3-3 with Millar and Smyth either side of Aneke.  Either way, with Millar, Smyth and Aneke starting and the bench including Bogle, Washington and Schwartz it didn’t look as though we would be prioritising defence.

I doubt that many would have guessed from the starting X1 that it would be a back five, with Maatsen and Smyth given the roles as wing-backs, in a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, whichever way you look at it. The only problem was that the set-up matched Smyth, who isn’t going to win many outright physical contests, against 6’ tall Germany-born and ex-Palace wide man Baah. Rochdale didn’t take long to realise that this was something they just might be able to exploit. Thirty minutes in and three goals later we changed formation.

We’d made a reasonable start but on 12 minutes Rochdale created an overlap down their left, with Smyth turned inside out. Ball into the edge of the area to an effectively unmarked guy who shot inside the far post. On 20 minutes Pearce was sidestepped by their guy, who played in another who also shot well to score. Another game, another two goals conceded. That seemed to annoy Aneke and he picked up the ball outside their area, powered into it, brushing aside attempted challenges, and slotted the ball under their keeper. But any hopes that this might mark the start of our comeback were dashed on the half-hour as Baah just skinned Smyth and scored again, the finish once more leaving Amos with no chance.

That prompted the formation change, to a back four and a 4-4-2, with Gunter moved to right-back and Smyth up front to partner Aneke. It would be wrong to suggest that Rochdale were less of a threat after that, but at least they had to work to create openings. Not Smyth’s fault, just placed in an impossible situation in an unfamiliar position and not given the help he needed.

Before the break we were back in it as a Forster-Caskey curling shot took an important deflection off a defender’s head and looped over their keeper. Right, you think, we have the initiative, Millar and Smyth causing problems for them and Aneke just far too powerful for them to hand. Instead Gilbey mistimes a tackle and emerges from the subsequent fracas with a yellow, to add to the one Pearce picked up for taking out one of their guys. Their guy lined up to shoot and did, firing it into the net where you assumed a wall would be in the way.

Down 2-4 at the interval but by no means out of the game as we’d shown we could score, had many more efforts on goal than Rochdale (culminating in one just before half-time that Williams blazed over the bar), if only they would stop scoring every time they had a shot. It could easily have been 5-5 at that stage.

Two changes were made, with Gilbey and Smyth replaced by Morgan and Schwartz. And it didn’t take long for us to pull one back. Aneke took the ball on, Schwartz played it out to Gunter on the right, and his cross was met in turn by Chucks to head in. Just a couple of minutes later we were level, with Schwartz opening his account for us with what was the pick of the evening’s goals. Gunter dispossessed their guy, Williams took it and played into Aneke, he laid it on for the Dane, who scored with confidence. 4-4 and still over 20 minutes left.

Rochdale not surprisingly appeared shell-shocked but did gradually get their way back into the contest, helped by Aneke seeming to tire. But with around five minutes of normal time left he almost grabbed the winner and a hat-trick. Millar ran the ball from within our half and played in Chucks, only for their keeper to turn his effort around the post. That was the closest we came as not long after Pearce picked up his second yellow for the challenge on their keeper and for five minutes of stoppage time we were hanging on again, relying on Amos to keep us level (which he did) and prompting the introduction in the final moments of Matthews for Millar.

The final BBC stats showed we had 21 shots to their 13, but both sides had seven on target. I think at the break Rochdale had had five efforts on goal and scored four. It was that sort of night. So we might as well take the positives and gloss over failing to beat a team at the wrong end of the table. You don’t often concede four and not lose.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Don’t think any of the goals can be laid at his door, did effective work in the second half, especially late on with one turned around the post.

Smyth – 5/10. What mark do you give a forward/winger asked to fill in as a wing-back and go up against someone twice his size who would be a handful for any defender? Really not his fault, had 10 minutes up front then subbed at the break.

Gunter – 6/10. Should have been giving Smyth more help in his normal area in the first half, good second half and instrumental in us getting a point.

Oshilaja – 6/10. Some good challenges, seemed to read the game well. But we let in four and he sometimes looks as if he’s playing on the edge.

Pearce – 6/10. Not going to mark him down for the second yellow and red.

Maatsen – 6/10. Another who had a better second half, especially when he was able to link up with Millar going forward.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Much of what we did revolved around him, got a goal (might have been deflected but you have to buy the ticket), but in the first half especially Rochdale were able to run through and beyond our midfield.

Gilbey – 5/10. Difficult game for him, also culpable for our being overrun too often, gave away the foul for their fourth, subbed at the break.

Williams – 6/10. Was influential but didn’t make a decisive contribution going forward and blazed a good chance over the bar.

Millar – 7/10. Not a lot worked for him in the first half but he persisted and was more effective in the second. Clearly is going to give us a good attacking option.

Aneke – 9/10.  Scored two, could have had another couple, and even managed to last the full game. They couldn’t cope with him.

Subs:

Morgan – 7/10. More influential than in recent games, better performance, did pick up a petulant yellow for dissent.

Schwartz – 8/10. Have to love the way he took his goal, also some intelligent approach play and crafty use of the body to block opponents but not give away free kicks. Good start.

Washington – 6/10. Only on for 15 minutes and half of those we were down to 10 men.

Matthews – Only on for the final minute.


Saturday, 2 January 2021

Back To The Drawing Board, With A Couple Less Pencils

Whereas ahead of some recent games the focus was as much on the performance and evidence of progress as the actual result, I think this time around it was a case of win by any means or at least avoid defeat against an assumed rival for a promotion spot, with keeping a clean sheet high on the list of priorities. We were aware that Hull’s plans for the game had been disrupted by Covid-19, although to what extent was unclear, and that three defeats and a draw in their last four games – which had seen them fall back from being potential runaway leaders to third place - meant that their confidence might have taken a knock.

That was the preamble. What happened was another disappointment to say the least. With a square pegs and round holes approach we struggled in the first half to put together anything coherent, looking dangerous only from set pieces and having perhaps just one opportunity to score, when a knock-down was followed by a Bogle air-shot. At the same time we conceded the first goal again and might have let in more. We changed formation at the break and looked more coherent for a while, only to go down to 10 men on the hour, when it seems a rather petulant flick out by Pratley was interpreted as violent play. Going behind had made it an uphill struggle, going down to 10 made it a mountain to climb, and when we went 2-0 down around 15 minutes to go that became whatever the next stage of difficulty is. The remainder of the game was irrelevant.

The team showed only two changes from Plymouth, one of which was enforced, with Aneke’s suspension meaning a start for Bogle alongside Washington up front. The other switch was Williams dropping down to the bench for Morgan, which with Maddison also not starting pointed to a traditional 4-4-2 rather than a diamond, with Gunter, Pearce, Pratley and Matthews in front of Amos, Watson and Forster-Caskey in central midfield and Morgan and Maatsen in the wider berths.

The major incident in the opening period was an injury to Watson, looked like a hamstring, before 10 minutes were up. He was replaced by Gilbey. No change of formation but just a little more uncertainty perhaps over just who would do what, with already Matthews and Maatsen playing on their unfamiliar sides and Pratley continuing his enforced impression of a centre-back. Hull were pretty content to allow us to keep possession but adept at ensuring that nothing resulted from it, with too many wayward passes and insufficient movement to create space.

Hull’s attacks carried much more threat and it was no surprise that they took the lead before 20 minutes were up. For some reason there was a gaping hole where Gunter was supposed to be and a ball forward found their guy in space. Pratley went to him but when the cross was made it deflected to hit Amos and bounced out to another of theirs, who was left with a tap-in.

It could have been worse soon after as Hull executed a training ground free kick. A short square pass seemed odd but their guy curled in the cross and as our defenders were running out their guys were running in. A free header should have been converted by was directed straight at Amos. Up to then we had only a couple of Pearce headers to show for our efforts, but from another set-piece he this time nodded down, presenting Bogle with the opportunity to smash the ball into the net. His leg did swing but the foot connected with nothing. The commentators suggested a bobble. Perhaps.

Before the break Hull came close to a second as Pratley missed a through ball, only for their guy to blaze over. And we had some curious behaviour by the ref around yet another set piece, which saw him consult with players, talk to captains, then run over to the touchline for a conversation with the two managers. Heaven only knows what the problem was, or what was said. But the incident led to more confusion as first we appealed for a penalty as their keeper punched clear, only for Pratley to be flattened outside the box. It was all getting rather fractious and frustrating, not least as Hull insisted on kicking the ball away every time a decision went against them but the ref did nothing to stop it.

We needed to change things at the break and did. Bogle was replaced by Smyth but more important we switched to a back five, with Matthews and Maatsen moved back to their normal sides to form the wing-backs, Gunter, Pearce and Pratley as a central three. Add in a little more focus and determination and in the early exchanges in the second half we looked more coherent and in better control.

On the hour Williams came on for Morgan, getting the nod over Maddision to provide more of a forward threat behind the front two. We didn’t get the chance to find out if that would work as a few minutes later we were down to 10 men. Williams appeared to be fouled but the ref clearly felt he was looking for a decision and when he picked the ball up that decision was a free-kick for Hull. Harsh but so what? Until it seemed the linesman drew the ref’s attention to something that Pratley said or did. First impressions were some comment out of place, later it seems that their guy stopped and caused a collision, prompting Pratley to flick out a boot at him.

With hindsight that was really the game done then. We switched back to a back four, with Gunter and Pearce the central two. But what forward threat we had evaporated and before we could think about a final onslaught to get a point against the odds Hull scored again. A run across our defence looked offside but nothing was given. The guy’s cross was headed against the bar but the rebound was played to another who fired in.

All that remained to be decided was whether we would manage to keep 10 on the pitch as Pearce picked up a yellow for complaining when Hull kicked the ball away yet again, while Forster-Caskey saw yellow for a pull-back and then missed an attempted clearance and connected instead with a Hull player. Could easily have been interpreted as a second yellow.

Clearly there’s going to have to be some honest talking in the dressing room as we came up short again today. For Friday’s game we will get Aneke back but will presumably lose Watson and Pratley, while there will be considerable debate about formations, how to get the best out of the squad we have, and what changes to that squad might be coming now the transfer window is open. It isn’t rocket science to point out that since losing the services of Innis and Famewo we have struggled as a team and basically ship too many goals. This was a hard game to take any positives from, plenty for Bowyer and Jackson to be working on.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. Really had very little to do, unlucky with their first, no chance with their second.

Gunter – 6/10. I don’t know where he went to for their first goal but it was a big hole. Otherwise no problems whether at full-back or centre-back.

Pearce – 7/10. Wholehearted as usual and played pretty well.

Pratley – 5/10. Can’t be definitive about the sending off but he gave an inept ref a decision to make and going down to 10 cost us any chance of getting something from the game.

Matthews – 6/10. Please let this be the last game to have him starting on the left side. Not his fault, but everything looked laboured when he was that side – and for the brief spell as a wing-back on the right he looked far more comfortable and effective.

Watson – Can’t give a mark as he was injured before 10 minutes were up. Have to assume he’ll be missing for a few weeks and that is going to be a big loss.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Some erratic passing in the first half but generally one of our more effective performers, especially as he wasn’t asked to play in a wider role.

Morgan – 6/10. Not especially effective in the first half out wide or closer in for a while in the second, struggled to have an impact on the game.

Maatsen – 6/10. Three positions for him during the game, not an easy one to find space in.

Washington – 6/10. Some good movement and intelligent runs but ultimately didn’t cause their defence too many problems.

Bogle – 5/10. Poor half, missed our only decent chance of the game.

Subs:

Gilbey – 6/10. Not a bad game but wasn’t able to create much.

Smyth – 5/10. Not easy for him as not long after his introduction we were down to 10 men.

Williams – 5/10. Much the same, we didn’t get the chance to find out if he could have turned the game.


Saturday, 26 December 2020

Not Sharp Enough At Both Ends

Today we looked for improvement from last time out against Swindon, in terms of both quality of performance and the result. Oh, and I was assuming a Range Rover would be coming my way. On all fronts, as against Swindon, the end-result fell a little short of expectations (especially as the guy who won the draw for the car was called from the pitch and wasn’t even watching the game). We didn’t defend well enough to win, again conceding twice, while too often we made the wrong choices in the final third.

That sounds ominously like a lack of quality where it matters, probably also an element of players being asked to take on different tasks and that creating at least initial confusion. Bottom line is we didn’t play well enough to dominate the game or to feel hard done-by with a point. Plymouth will probably say it was a game they were just as likely to win as us. We’re feeling frustrated that we’re not blowing teams away. Perhaps we need to lower our expectations.

The team saw three changes from the previous two outings, with Gilbey, Maddison and Bogle dropping to the bench to be replaced by Matthews, Williams and Aneke. But nobody was sure what that would mean in terms of formation. Could be a back five – with Gunter alongside Pearce and Pratley in the centre and Matthews and Maatsen as wing-backs - or a back four and either Gunter or Matthews lining up in a more advanced role. The club site talked of a back four of Matthews, Gunter, Pearce and Maatsen, with Pratley in midfield, but there was also talk of Maatsen starting in midfield.

In the event it was a back four, with Matthews switched to left-back. Maatsen did indeed get the more advanced role, with Forster-Caskey the other side of Watson and Williams offered the chance previously afforded to Maddison to play just behind a front two of Washington and Aneke. On the bench Smyth made a welcome return from injury, plus Morgan returned from isolation, but still no sign of Shinnie, who I think we’ve missed more than we expected to.

After five minutes we were behind, with our defence exposed. Guy played in down the left as we appealed for offside, Watson went to challenge him close to the by-line only to be comprehensively side-stepped, ball pulled back to their guy who was alert enough to escape defenders and slot the ball past Amos. It was a goal that smacked of collective uncertainty on our part.

For the next 20 minutes or so we dominated possession, created some reasonable positions, but looked just as likely to let in a second as draw level, with Plymouth breaking quickly and in numbers. Most of our good work involved Williams, although he sometimes just failed to get the weight of pass right (while the shot he had is best glossed over), and Aneke was holding the ball up well and playing in others. Washington was found in the box and he looked to repeat his recent curler, but this time his effort was well saved, Maatsen had a decent shot parried. Equally their guy went past Pratley with some ease, forcing the foul.

No matter, on the half-hour we drew level, perhaps in fortunate circumstances. A corner saw Aneke challenge their defender, who knocked off balance only turned it towards his own goal where Gunter was able to pounce and knock it in from close range. The ref’s interpretation of what was a foul (and what merited a yellow) did vary through the game, but if he’d given the foul against Aneke I don’t think we would have too much to complain about.

No matter again, we are level, now let’s see if we can get a proper grip. We were level for three minutes. Then a free-kick from an innocuous position was headed towards our goal then hit one of ours, to bounce down between defenders and Amos. Their guy was again the most alert and ran between the two to score from close range. Perhaps unlucky but nobody tracked his run.

All to do once again. And if anything we were fortunate not to fall further behind shortly before the break as their guy seemed to have a free header from a corner. Then just on half-time Maatsen let fly from outside the box and his screamer cannoned back off the bar with their keeper well beaten.

No changes at the break and the first 15 or so minutes of the second half were much the same as before, us pressing but looking susceptible to fast breaks. We had a free kick for handball just outside their box, with Aneke’s shot hitting the wall (and shortly after he picked up a yellow with a late tackle). Good positions but no real chances created, their keeper not being worked.

The first changes came around the hour. Watson and Williams made way for Morgan and Maddison. Williams/Maddison was a straight swap, but with Watson off and Pratley kept in defence Forster-Caskey moved to the more central position in front of the back four. And it only took a few minutes for the changes to pay off. Ball played to him some way out, but he drew a challenged and nutmegged their guy, ran onto the ball and fairly drilled in a daisy-cutter from outside the box. A great example of a player getting just reward for a piece of positive play, making something happen.

Over 20 minutes left, now can we go on and win the game? The opportunity seemed to be there, with Morgan slotting in well and by now Plymouth looking tired, perhaps having expended a lot of energy with their breaks forward, perhaps also them ready to settle for a point. And we did fashion the chance that should have won the game. Maddison managed to keep the ball in play inside their box and squared it for Washington. It seemed laid on a plate but he ballooned it over the bar. Steve Brown in the commentary box said it hit a bobble just as he went to hit it, which may be the case. Otherwise it was a bad miss.

With hindsight that was as near as we came. Bogle came on for Aneke not long afterwards and, although he had his moments, we didn’t seriously threaten again (Washington did play a good ball low into their box but nobody was there). In fact Plymouth played out the final period, including five minutes of stoppage time, quite comfortably, even threatening once or twice to get a winner themselves. Smyth came on for Washington with a few minutes of normal time to go and did find space, only for Morgan’s ball to him to be overhit; and Morgan did blot his copybook with a poor ball out of defence which led to a Plymouth shot.

At the final whistle nobody was holding their head in their hands at two points cruelly denied. The BBC’s match stats show we had 64% possession and had 13 shots to their 9, but both sides had five on target. We were behind twice and Plymouth might argue that our first goal should have been a foul and our second was just a moment of magic out of the blue. Bottom line is we’ve not kept a clean sheet for five games now and it’s pretty obvious that if you concede two you it’s tough to win, not impossible but tough. Not just the defenders, Brown got it right from the commentary box when he pointed out how quickly Plymouth were able to get the ball from their defence to our final third. We know that things would be different with Innis and Famewo but still plenty of work to be done defending better as a team.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. No chance with either goal, not a great deal to do otherwise.

Gunter – 6/10. Nothing wrong that I saw but not much in evidence going forward and takes share of responsibility for defensive failures.

Pearce – 6/10. Much the same really, nothing wrong but ...

Pratley – 6/10. Just about on effort. But often defended like a midfielder, pulled out of the centre, might have given away a penalty when he slipped. He’s doing sterling work for the team, just wish he didn’t have to in this position.

Matthews – 6/10. Can only assume Purrington was injured (he wasn’t on the bench) or there was some particular reason Bowyer opted to switch him to the left. Summed up by his attempt to cross the ball with the outside of his right foot rather than use his left.

Watson – 6/10. Was badly caught out for their first goal, otherwise decent enough.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Involved throughout, gave a decent account of himself when switched to the more central position.

Maatsen – 7/10. Not great with the final pass but lively in this position, might easily have got on the scoresheet with his shots.

Williams – 7/10. Was instrumental in a position which I’m sure he enjoys. But also was tiring when taken off.

Aneke – 7/10. Good game outside the box, nothing today came his way inside it. 

Washington – 6/10. Did good work but often made the wrong choices in possession and badly missed the chance that really should have put us ahead and might have won the game.

Subs:

Morgan – 6/10. Did make things happen but final pass wasn’t controlled enough and poor late clearance nearly cost us.

Maddison – 8/10. For the goal alone deserves the mark. He will try things that don’t come off, but today one did.

Bogle – 6/10. No barnstorming finish from us today and we faded as an attacking threat in the final 10 minutes.

Smyth – Only on for a few minutes.


 

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Disappointing Display And Points Squandered After Initiative Surrendered

Ahead of today’s game there was almost a feeling that with the postponement of our midweek game we’d been denied third spot, putting the onus on us to ensure a win today against opponents in poor form in order to make up ground lost through no fault of our own. Plus we were looking for evidence that the positive display in the second half against Wimbledon was indicative of what we might expect from a team still learning how to get the best out of each other.

We were, it has to be said, disappointed on both fronts as a patchy, too often scrappy, display saw us fall behind, draw level before half-time, then take the lead and have the initiative, looked like we’d go on to win by a few against pretty ordinary opposition. Instead we failed to make the most of some opportunities to score again, made a change to the formation which basically contributed to handing over the initiative to the opposition, and went on to concede an equaliser at the death. Two points squandered (adding to the two against Shrewsbury) and also questions to be asked about the tactics.

The team was unchanged from the last time out, which meant 4-4-2 (but a diamond midfield) with Amos, Gunter, Pearce, Pratley and Maatsen the defence, Watson flanked by Forster-Caskey and Gilbey and Morrison forming the point, with Washington and Bogle up front. The unusual week between games perhaps enabled Bowyer to shelve rotation this time around, while leaving things unchanged meant that we might get some insight into whether the rip-roaring, free-scoring Addicks performance against Wimbledon was down to the formation adopted or the changes made in the second half (Aneke and Williams coming on), or a combination of the two.

The first half proved to be something of a reminder that in the first period against Wimbledon we hadn’t set the house on fire. We had the upper hand in the first 10 or 15 minutes without really troubling them, a Washington shot being the only effort I remember, as we found it difficult to get through or around their five-man midfield. Swindon then did come into it more and asked a few questions, to the extent that it was not out of the blue that they took the lead.

They knocked it around on the edge of our area, we had chances to get it clear but failed to do so, and it finished up with a one-two which left their guy in space on the right side. Maatsen committed himself and their guy turned inside, slamming the shot past Amos.

That was the cue for renewed effort on our part and we had one or two openings, with blocked shots, Maddison kocking in dangerous balls, Pratley with a clear header from a corner but not connecting well, Bogle with a shot deflected over the bar. The downside was that we still hadn’t tested their keeper and too often there just wasn’t fluidity or effective movement. I made a note of one moment after the half-hour when Forster-Caskey got the ball in a decent position and looked up, with four or five Charlton players just ahead of him all standing still.

Nevertheless, perhaps as a reward for effort we did draw level with something of a gift. Their defender let the ball through under his foot and that left Bogle with just the keeper to beat. He took it around him and despite what looked like a foul managed to convert. A few minutes later, however, Bogle missed a sitter as instead of blasting into the net he tried to craft the shot and made a hash of it. We nearly paid for that as from a corner Swindon worked what looked like a practised move, ball to the far post headed back and their guy looking to sweep it in only for good defending to deny him.

At the break 1-1 was just about fair, but remembering the previous game we had expectations that we’d turn on the gas again and win it. And there was no waiting around as Aneke came on at half-time for Bogle (while an injury early in the second half saw Swindon lose one of their three Smiths).

Really nothing much happened early in the second half, Forster-Caskey taking a yellow for the team with a pull-back. But on the hour we went ahead. Good work down the left ended with Washington, possibly offside, who squared it to Aneke, possibly offside, who tapped it in. No flag, fair enough.

Now in front, you really did expect us to go on and win well, if we could take advantage of the space we were finding. A second change saw Purrington come on for Forster-Caskey, with Maatsen moving to the right side of midfield. Might have been down to shoring up the defence as guy Maatsen was up against was a handful, might have been due to a Forster-Caskey knock and/or the fact he was on a yellow. Either way the formation was the same.

We were now getting in to reasonable positions going forward (while another substitution saw Swindon reduced to only one Smith on the pitch) but making poor decisions. One break looked like four on two but the pass forward by Gilbey was poor and gave away possession, then Gilbey improbably jinked his way through only to again choose the wrong option. And with about 20 minutes to go we made another substitution, this one more puzzling. Maddison was taken off and Matthews came on, we went to a back five with Gunter moving inside. I suppose the rationale was to shut up shop, but it left a midfield of Watson, Gilbey and Maatsen, with possibly Washington dropping back too. The change seemed to herald us playing deeper and invited Swindon onto us. It also meant that Gunter wouldn’t be bombing down the line as he had against Wimbledon.

Into the final 10 minutes and it seemed we might be able to play it out, even looking dangerous on a few more occasions, these generally involving Washington. But he in turn chose the wrong pass, or to try to cut inside instead of shooting and losing possession. Gilbey shot over, Purrington picked up a yellow. Then in the final minute of normal time we conceded a corner. Ball in moving away from goal but their guy somehow managed to divert it back goalwards and Amos a little off his line couldn’t get a hand on it as it went in under the bar.

Swindon were happy with their point and we no longer had the personnel to chase the game in four minutes of stoppage time (especially as I assume we couldn’t make another substitution, having made three separate changes, so Williams sat it out). Two points dropped for sure and plenty to reflect on as we take the break for what is to pass for Christmas. Bottom line is we weren’t able to reproduce the second-half display against Wimbledon and weren’t able to close out the game.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 6/10. No chance with the first goal, some culpability over the second I think as he was off his line for a ball he couldn’t collect.

Gunter – 7/10. Decent enough game, but whereas against Wimbledon his bombing down the line in the second half was instrumental in our win today he gets switched to centre-back for the final 20 minutes.

Pearce – 7/10. No complaints, sound performance, not culpable for the goals. Plenty of good work.

Pratley – 7/10. Much the same, was generally effective and while we conceded twice I can’t remember Amos having another serious save to make.

Maatsen – 6/10. Was up against a much stronger opponent and stood up well, but was turned for their first goal.

Watson – 8/10. My man of the match. Very assured display, read it well, won tackles, kept things moving.

Forster-Caskey – 6/10. Hard with our formation today to make dents in a five-man midfield when those around you too often are standing still.

Gilbey – 6/10. Disappointing with his end-product today.

Maddison – 6/10. Not as instrumental as against Wimbledon, saw less of the ball, still looked capable of the decisive pass.

Bogle – 6/10. Got his goal but missed a very good chance soon after.

Washington – 6/10. Too many things from him today just didn’t quite work out, from shots to crosses and passes.

Subs:

Aneke – 7/10. Another goal, we failed to capitalise after it on the fact that he had the beating off them.

Purrington – 7/10. Can’t complain, came on and did his job.

Matthews – 7/10. Much the same.

 

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Improved Second Half Wins The Points

Now that was, in the end, just what the doctor ordered: five goals, including ones from midfielders getting into the box, and a storming second half performance when we needed to up our game after a mixed first half, one in which we’d dominated without creating clear-cut chances, then scored a beauty out of the blue, only to concede twice in three minutes to go into the break behind.

The team saw in front of Amos Pratley asked to drop back again into central defence alongside Pearce as Famewo wasn’t able to overcome a training ground injury (with Oshilaja on his way back on the bench), Gunter and Maatsen completing a back four. Midfield, with Morgan and Shinnie unavailable, was a diamond with Watson flanked by Gilbey and Forster-Caskey and Maddison forming the point behind a front two of Bogle (back for a start, Aneke on the bench) and Washington. My thought before the game was that this should be the position for Maddison to shine in, he’s been given the opportunity, up to him to take it.

It proved to be a competent but rather uneventful first 20 minutes, during which we dictated the play, with Maddison indeed prominent, but hadn’t really fashioned an opening. I marked it down as 18 minutes before a real shot in anger (a couple had gone before), with Pratley heading back from a free-kick and Gilbey getting one in which was saved. Shortly after, very much against the run of play, we very nearly went behind. A ball in from their right was deflected past Amos, who was coming out to gather, and it seemed they were bound to score, only for Gunter to get there first and clear.

Another 15 minutes went by without real incident, except for a poor tackle on Forster-Caskey which at least merited a yellow but wasn’t even given a free kick (the ref’s approach to yellow cards was to prove inconsistent to say the least) and the returning Piggott being given too much space to get in a shot. We did then break the deadlock, rather out of the blue. Moving out of defence Pearce looked up and played an excellent ball forward for Washington. He still had a lot to do, but turned inside and then curled a super shot into the far corner of the net. On the balance of play we deserved to be ahead, but on chances to that point Wimbledon had been closest. No matter, relax a little, play some football, get into the break.

That might have been the plan, but it went out of the window not long after. A ball forward found Pigott on the edge of our box and our defenders all backed off and allowed him to turn and look up. Like Washington before him he curled one into the far side of the net. Excellent strike but should never have been given the time and space. And it got worse as their guy managed to keep the ball in play along the goal-line and had a shot blocked by Amos for a corner. From that the ball was half-cleared, only for again too much time and space to be afforded to someone to put it back into the mix and find two Wimbledon players unmarked. The second of them headed beyond Amos into the net.

At the break there was an element of fair play to Wimbledon. They’d kept their 3-5-1 shape, defended well, and taken their opportunities. We’d been not sharp enough in our passing and movement, one moment aside, and defended sloppily at times and paid the price. We would have to play better to get the result we wanted.

There did indeed seem a greater sense of urgency when we resumed. Maddison played in Bogle but his control let him down, while a Wimbledon break from our corner created a three-on-two but they failed to take advantage. And on 52 minutes we made the changes, with Aneke and Williams coming on for Bogle and Gilbey. No change in formation, just personnel.

Almost as soon as he was on Aneke was causing problems, just failing to get his head onto a chipped cross, before he was ridiculously yellow carded for something, followed by a Wimbledon player shown yellow for stopping us taking a quick free kick, which they had been doing in the first half without comment. Then their keeper, who had already been timewasting, saw yellow for a disagreement over whether the ball was in the right place for a goal kick.

Back to the football and just after the hour we did draw level. Good work down the right between Waston and Maddison, on to Aneke. His shot was blocked but fell to the onrushing Forster-Caskey who scored. And before we had time to digest that one we went ahead. Gunter again found space down our right and squared it, for Williams to run onto and convert, from pretty much the same spot Forster-Caskey had found. Midfielders making runs into the box paying dividends!

There followed a spell of around 10 minutes when we had the opportunities to score again, to presumably kill off the game, but didn’t take them, raising the risk of a sweaty end to the match. Into the final 10 minutes of normal time and we made another change, Maddison – who had been involved in many of our better moments and was always trying to make something happen – went off for Purrington, with Maatsen moving further forward and Williams switching into the point of the diamond position.

Shortly after we did get the goal that effectively wrapped up the points. And it was a gift. Their defender slipped as he went to clear and Aneke pounced, taking it wider before shooting into the net. Wimbledon didn’t look like coming back from that, and after Oshilaja had come on for Washington to shore things up, they suffered the indignity of conceding a fifth. Purrington and Maatsen made space down the left, Maatsen played it inside, Williams’ shot hit the post, but Purrington put in the rebound.

All’s well that ends well as they say. What was pleasing for me was that at the break we clearly needed to up our game and we did, although the extra threat that Aneke brings was clearly a key factor. We need midfielders to be scoring goals and today they did, by making runs into the box. The stats showed we had 16 shots, 10 on target, much higher than some recent games. Plenty still to work on but the fans at the game, including Thomas Sandergaard, will have gone home happy. Me? The performance and the result merit a good Givry Chambertin, just to compensate for the fact that if we hadn’t conceded the penalty at the death against Shrewsbury we would be second tonight.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Don’t think he was at fault for either goal, dealt with everything else.

Gunter – 8/10. Made decisive contributions today at both ends. His first-half clearance prevented a goal and in the second half his attacking forays made a real difference.

Pratley – 7/10. Did again what we asked him to do, but we did give them too much time and space at times and paid the price.

Pearce – 7/10. The same, although deserves special mention for the pass to Washington for our first.

Maatsen – 7/10. A little sloppy at times in the first half but nothing serious, and also contributed going forward in the second half.

Watson – 7/10. Decent game, provided the protection and ensured things ticked over.

Gilbey – 6/10. Played his part but not especially instrumental and replaced before the hour.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Gets the extra mark for being in the right place to score when one came back off their keeper.

Maddison – 7/10. I suspect he’s always going to have critics but one thing about him is he makes things happen. Not everything came off but he was involved in most of our good moments.

Bogle – 6/10. Worked hard as ever but a couple of times he should have made more of opportunities and didn’t cause their centre-backs too many problems.

Washington – 7/10. Thought he was rather ineffective in the first half, then he goes and scores a blinder.

Subs:

Aneke – 8/10. No question he made a difference and was a key factor in the win. 

Williams – 7/10. Played his part and scored again!

Purrington – 7/10. Only on for around 10 minutes but scored.

Oshilaja – Can’t give a mark for five minutes but good to have him back available.