So, bad day at the office after four on the spin or something more serious? Well, a bit of the former and bit more of the latter. It was a reminder that we're not yet at least the finished article. We didn’t play well enough on the night to win, that much was clear. On another night it could have turned out differently. But that's always the case - and if you look convincing for just two 15-minute spells, with key players misfiring, and fail to put away your chances during them a half-decent side will probably turn you over. And Sheff Utd were a decent side. They avoided serious mistakes and in Beattie and Gillespie (when he wasn’t hurling himself to the floor) had the two best players on the ball, Reid included.
The game? We played pretty well in the first 15 minutes without really dominating, with a Sodje header from a corner a good chance spurned. After that we went flat and the players started to look like they were going through the motions. Sheffield didn’t look as though they had the pace or the ambition to go ahead, but were then gifted the lead as a decent cross looked like being converted before a desperate shove by Thomas. Nobody really questioned it was a penalty, or doubted that Beattie would put it away.
Semedo and Sam were withdrawn at half-time. The former had done nothing wrong but it was a reasonable decision to see if Holland could give us as much cover and more drive; the latter had had a poor game, failing to get any change out of their full-back, and a switch to 4-4-2 with Varney come on was worth trying. It didn’t look like that for a while, with Sheffield looking untroubled. But the game kicked into life as Thomas went on a fine run and fed the ball inside the box to Zhi, whose square ball led to a superb save by Kenny. There followed the miss of the match as the ball was laid on for Zhi, who tried to do too much and saw his shot graze the bar.
Another half-chance was wasted and that was that. Beattie won a throw he had no right to. A corner resulted and after a poor defensive header sent the ball back up in the air the ball was somehow put in the net. For a minute or so there was confusion as the ref seemed to have disallowed it; certainly Mills, by now covering at left-back after Basey went off injured, thought some crime had been committed. We didn’t look like coming back from 2-0 and the third was just rubbing it in. Cue mass exodus; but I stayed to the death. You just can’t not applaud Holland for taking it on the chin and doing the rounds in front of the remaining fans.
The positives? I managed to get a 54 back without having to walk too far; it's not too cold and there's a glass of acceptable if not awe-inspiring red to hand. OK, Thomas was lively and a threat all night; pity about the push for the penalty (maybe it had to be done to avoid a goal but you expect a bit more subtlety from a professional). Bougherra and Mills looked like our best attacking options towards the end, but by then the game was up. For the most part the defence played well enough; give credit to Sheffield for taking their chances when they came – I don’t think they missed a good opportunity.
The negatives? Reid was lacklustre and had no great influence on the game. This has happened before, but the management need to take a good look at how many games he is capable of playing in a short period of time. We can’t say he played poorly because he was tired; maybe he just had an off night. But it needs to be looked at. Sam came up against good defenders and looked poor.
For me there were two key weaknesses on the night. First, once more the central midfield trio failed to control the game (when we had five in midfield). It is crazy when you play this system for players to get isolated. But that’s what happened. Zhi and Reid seemed too eager to get forward quickly, rather than working forward as a unit and breaking forward. The result was often Semedo and the back four having to work the ball around before an inevitable long ball as there was no real outlet, especially with Sam not offering an option on the right.
Second, we were unable to play at a tempo necessary to stretch a team like Sheff Utd. They were hard (but by no means dirty), well-organised, and came with a game-plan: keep it tight and rely on a breakaway or set pieces. Once they were in front they were happy to keep players behind the ball. Once they were 2-0 up they were content just to defend their penalty area. We needed to take the game by the scruff of the neck in the first half, before we went behind. Instead, after a lively start we seemed to think that it would come sooner or later. Instead we found ourselves chasing the game.
Overall I’m going to sit on the fence: because that’s just where I want to be after a defeat. It's not the time for perspective. We seem to look poor against strong teams if we go behind and have to chase the game. We don’t have a ‘fox in the box’ to really worry the opposition when they defend in numbers, nor do we look especially dangerous from set pieces (especially when Reid gets his radar wrong as he did tonight). We have limitations. But on another night … if Zhi had put the chance away and made it 1-1 I think we could have had a cracking last 20 minutes. But forget it Zhi. It was a chance, it was missed. Move on.
As a friend said, if we can just keep winning four in a row and lose the fifth for the rest of the season we will be all right. So, can we please start another run on Saturday. Just get over it and win. We’re not going to learn much against Burnley (I assume they’re poor and that we will win, but for all I know they’re Croatia). Then there’s another game on Tuesday, and another the following Saturday. That’s five in 14 days. That’s the Championship for you. How does the song go? 'And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes; but where it's going, no-one knows'.
Weaver: 7/10. No chance with the goals; unconvincing with some crosses.
Mills: 8/10. He’s a one-off; I don’t know what displeased him for their second goal, but he wouldn’t let it go. Classic.
Basey: 7/10. Gillespie got the better of him once or twice, but still encouraging.
Fortune: 7/10. A reasonable game.
Sodje: 7/10. Ditto, but he missed the chance early in the game and it might have been his header up in the air that led to their second (sorry if it wasn’t).
Semedo: 7/10. Did nothing wrong, unfortunate to be substituted but it was a risk worth taking by Pardew.
Reid: 5/10. A disappointing night.
Zhi: 5/10. Missed the key - but not the only - chance.
Sam: 5/10. Disappointing.
Thomas: 7/10. Was instrumental in our best moments.
Iwelumo: 6/10. Tried manfully but with little change from good defenders.
Subs: Varney 5/10 (again did his best work outside the box); Bougherra 7/10 (got forward to good effect); Holland 7/10 (welcome back).
Ref: 9/10. Kept his card in his pocket and let a well-contested game flow.