Like other bloggers (I suspect), all I wanted to do after the QPR game was pen something quickly, get back to the red wine, and forget about football for a couple of days at least. To go from good game pity about the last-minute equaliser (Barnsley), to blip (Wolves), then to bad day at the office (Plymouth) and now to slump and crisis (QPR) in a short space of time requires a little distance before any perspective is possible.
You have to agree with Charlton North Downs that against QPR (but also in retrospect against Plymouth) we were far too slow in our play, and with New York Addick that it wasn’t that we were playing too much football but too little (on Saturday I texted a friend after 10 minutes asking when we became such a route one outfit). Defenders end up lumping balls forward if there’s nothing else on, usually after a few obligatory square passes between themselves.
If there is one possible reason it seems to me that a lot of the players are knackered, mentally and physically. There were moments against Plymouth and QPR when we moved the ball at pace and ran for each other, creating space and options for the player in possession. When this happened we looked dangerous. But they were all too rare - and became increasingly rare as the games progressed. The key requirement is midfielders and forwards making runs and making themselves available; if they don’t, the system breaks down and a ‘passing side’ becomes ineffectual. It’s hard work to do this for a full game – and it seems to me that in recent games we have been increasingly unable to play at the tempo that was evident a few weeks ago.
How can they be knackered, we’re only a quarter through the season? Well, if you look at the squad, especially the one currently available to Pardew, what stands out is the lack of experience of the sort of football in this division. Really only Iwelumo, Varney and Fortune, maybe also McLeod, can be said to be well enough acquainted with the speed at which one game follows another and the physical aspect of this division (I don’t know about Wolves but I’m increasingly annoyed by the possibility that Plymouth went out to do a job on us – Todorov and Semedo in particular).
Semedo has been outstanding for us so far. But has he ever before come close to playing 13 league games in 10 weeks? Zhi started seven games for us last season (he did of course come late); he has already chalked up 10 league starts. We all know about Andy Reid’s fitness doubts and I think we’re all agreed he should have been rested against Wolves. Two international games and three league games in a couple of weeks, making it 12 league starts, and he’s venting his frustration at the officials. Look at some of the others. Weaver: didn’t play much after being dropped by Man City; Mills: same story; Sodje: how many games did he manage for Reading last season? The sprightliest player for us on Saturday was Sam – whose just had an enforced break.
Of course the players should in an ideal world be able to cope. But if you go for a style of play that emphasises passing and movement, creating space there must be a wearing effect when it isn’t clicking. You get what we had on Saturday: players too often standing still and waiting for something to happen, with the result that defenders are reduced to playing long, hopeful balls in Iwelumo’s direction (even when he’s been substituted) and midfielders get crowded out on the ball because of the lack of options (Sam ended up doing it all himself most times).
I tend to wax lyrical about the (all too) brief spell when Murphy, Smertin and Kishishev worked in tandem in central midfield, Thomas and Rommadahl operated as genuine wingers, and Darren Bent provided the finish. But there were times when it didn’t work (I remember Fulham at home, then losing to Spurs). When it didn’t we suffered because there was no effective Plan B (Murphy couldn’t operate in a two-man central midfield and we didn’t have a second striker worthy of the name).
I feel that in the past two games at least we needed a good back-up plan as we ran out of steam with the failure to get in front – both games would have been very different I’m sure if we had taken the lead; we could then have played more within ourselves. In the event Pardew’s changes left us badly unbalanced, with effectively four up front but no service and at least against QPR the defence being overrun.
As pointed out elsewhere, what we need at the moment is the sort of determination that Matt Holland would offer. Curbs’ usual response to a couple of bad performances was to batten down the hatches and grind out results. I don’t think we have to go that far this time (it’s a little premature to be thinking about avoiding falling into the relegation zone) but we should be looking to change a set-up that, for now at least, isn’t working.
We don’t have the players to make wholesale changes; if Ambrose is still out there’s really only Yassin and Racon pushing for a start. So to my mind either we switch to something more basic and less demanding – ie going longer but out of intention not lack of options – or we change the formation. I think given the resources available, and the fact that starting with two of only three recognised forwards leaves us short of option, it’s the latter, which means 4-5-1 with Zhi playing in the hole.
My only plea is that if we do this we have genuine wide men out there as the system needs width. That means Sam and Thomas playing, with Reid central, Zhi central but with a remit of getting forward to support Iwelumo, and Semedo or Racon playing the holding role. And I don’t know what happened to Mills on Saturday, but if he’s suddenly lost form then Yassin comes back in.
One other thing, guys. As fans, for a while at least we have to lower our expectations. We are not playing well enough to brush teams aside and the forwards look low on confidence, so let’s not make it worse for them by howling at each misplaced pass. And the players? They looked stressed out on Saturday. Determination and commitment are necessary, but what about having a laugh from time to time and giving the impression that the pressure isn’t getting to you.