So mobility is the keyword now (apologies to Dylan), with Moutaouakil and Youga replacing Mills and Powell (God bless him) and Varney and McLeod in for Iwelumo plus A.N.Other. Have we stumbled upon the system that gets the best out of the players available? Of course it’s too soon to say, after its use only in home games against a weakened West Brom and a Blackpool side that found itself 2-0 down after 10 minutes. And even if it proves to be the answer we still need Plans B and C for the inevitable injuries, suspensions and loss of form. But so far so good, with the quality of football significantly better.
The new approach still allows us to play with two wide men (even with Christensen going out on loan we have Thomas, Sam, Ambrose and Varney). It would be nice to get a few goals from those starting out wide. More important, with Varney and McLeod creating more space Zhi has looked far more effective than before in central midfield. Perhaps also he is benefiting from being alongside Holland as they learn to play together. And of course with energetic full-backs comfortable playing the ball forward the attacking options increase.
The enigma as ever is Reid. There was a discussion a while back on how we would cope if he were injured. At the time I suggested that, while losing him would of course leave us weaker, it needn’t be a terrible loss if we adapted and played at a higher tempo without him (I was assuming Ambrose and/or Racon would come into the equation in the centre). It seems to me that when Reid got injured we tried to carry on in the same fashion. And in the four games without him following the West Brom defeat (two at home) we had three draws and a defeat, scoring one goal in each of the games. There were other factors of course, including two red cards. But perhaps we underplayed the effect Reid has on the team by not quickly accepting that without him we needed to play in a different way, with more pace. It isn’t rocket science that with your best and most creative player rather slow, if he drops out you reassess the whole style and look to take advantage of the situation to emphasise other possible strengths.
This is not to suggest that we should be indifferent as to whether Reid stays or goes in January. He is a key player for us. And if he goes to Sunderland for a net £2m plus another right-back it would look to me like poor business. Alternatively, if he goes for £4m-plus and we are able to use the money – plus that for Walker and (hopefully) Faye and even Bent (although I assume Wigan will just keep him on loan) – then so be it. These are decisions for Pardew and the board.
It is very tough on Iwelumo to find himself on the bench, having strived manfully on his own through injury and awful service. It must be very frustrating for him to get across to the other players that just because he’s a bit big it doesn’t mean they have to lump hopeless balls in his direction all the time. And as soon as we decide to play better football, the end-result being better quality service to the forwards, he finds himself on the bench. That said, I hope he takes the lesson on board that playing up front in a 4-5-1 still requires mobility. Beattie gave a master-class against us earlier in the season.
I hope we do now have the makings of a settled defence, one that can improve as a unit through the rest of the season. The full-backs, at least for now, pick themselves (with Sankofa/Semedo and Basey/Powell as the cover). McCarthy’s return is a big plus and to my mind gives us good cover in central defence, even if the overall quality is not that high. For me it’s McCarthy or Sodje, alongside Bougherra or Fortune. And McCarthy is the only one of the four who seems prepared to lead the defence.
In midfield Semedo is ready to cover for Holland. Suddenly Zhi is looking indispensable – and irreplaceable. Holland and Reid in central midfield in a 4-4-2 is far too risky and short of pace. If Zhi were to drop out at the moment the options would seem to be Ambrose or Racon – or reverting to 4-5-1. Ambrose had his best game of the season in the hole against Ipswich and on Saturday reverted to being peripheral when out wide. Racon I just haven’t seen enough of to make any sort of judgement. Up front, if pacey and mobile forwards are the order of the day we need to have an alternative. Dickson is the obvious choice unless and until there are January signings.
The bottom line is that tomorrow night’s meaningless cup tie against West Brom can be used to test out some of the players who we may well need in the current set-up. This suggests a run-out for Racon and a full game for Dickson. If the latter is to play an important role this season we need to give him more than a cameo 10-15 minutes to show what he can do. Arguments can also be made for including Sankofa against West Brom. We all know that Watford is a far more important game.
Finally, it would seem clear from the Blackpool programme notes that Pardew and Varney are underlining the message that the drive for promotion starts now and that we all have a part to play. And they’re right. It will be no good to us at the end of the season to say ‘I told you so’. It means accentuating the positive whatever happens, at least for a time. So, my friends, it is time for me to abandon my usual level-headed, impartial and reasoned, perhaps a tad cynical, approach to life and to dive headlong into the world of accentuating the positive. Well, I’ll try anyway.