As they might have said in the movies, today is another day. The anger after yesterday’s game has dissipated somewhat, although real sense of concern over the team has not. Whether or not Pardew keeps his job is up to people much closer to the situation – and with much more riding on the decision - than me. All fans can do is draw some inferences from what goes on on the pitch and express their opinions on what may be wrong in as constructive a fashion as possible, at least once the dust has settled a little after another home defeat. More shocking performances like those of late and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that either we have players who don’t want to be here or players who don’t want to play for Pardew. The onus is now on them to prove otherwise.
For what its worth, and this is coming from someone who has regularly expressed exasperation at the attitude of fans too ready to moan and boo at every available opportunity, I think the fans have been quite tolerant and supportive of late. There has been an element of gallows humour in the ‘Charlton ‘Till I Die’ singing, the ‘We Want Pardew Out’ singing was effectively confined to the half-time break and the end of the game. The booing of Youga during the Bristol City game was totally counter-productive, but there has also been good support when at times during recent games the players have demonstrated an appetite for the fight. Perhaps we need to go further. Howls of derision at every misplaced pass needs to go too. We are in a crisis situation and normal rules don’t apply.
Unfortunately we live in an age when everyone feels not only entitled to an opinion but seemingly obliged to express it, however inane. This might sound a touch arrogant from a blogger, but I really don’t think players need to be told when they’ve made a mistake rather than encouragement to keep trying. One of the most depressing post-Barnsley posts was from All Quiet In The East Stand. If genuine supporters are getting so alienated by the attitude of those around them we really are in trouble. Never mind the daft ‘Respect’ campaign to protect referees, perhaps we need one to protect players.
The players that we have at the club are I believe individually better than at least most squads in this division. It seems to me that we are suffering from three key factors (glossing over the fact that at the moment we can’t score more than once at most and we can’t keep a clean sheet).
First, every good team knows its strengths and plays to them; I’ve said it before but if someone asked me what our strengths as a team were I couldn’t say. We ship too many soft goals to say we are strong defensively, clearly we don’t have an out-and-out goalscorer to feed, we haven’t yet found a central midfield partnership that works well (and have been unlucky with the injuries to Zeng and Racon), and we don’t have wide players that are delivering the goods (which is being polite to Bouazza who seems intent on doing his own thing whatever the situation). We can’t play a long-ball game even if we wanted to but equally it’s nonsense to suggest we are at the moment a good passing side or one that is especially blessed with pace.
It has been apparent in recent games that the team plays like a collection of strangers – with the notable exception of the first 20 minutes against Bristol – with very little that seems instinctive. We have lost to very average teams of late but these teams at least knew what they were trying to do, knew their limitations, and had at least a basic understanding of how to play together. Barnsley were big and made it pay (although Pardew’s claim that we missed Primus to help deal with their set pieces seemed a little strange as only one of the three goals was a header); Bristol (to be fair a better than average side) adjusted their set-up after being outplayed early on but relied on fluidity and passed their way through us.
How to address the problem? It is up to Pardew to impose a style of play and to pick the players best equipped to make it work. I honestly find it difficult to say what that should be, but too much of late smacks of trying something in the hope it comes off on the day. I thought the training ground is where you experiment (and from the tone of his post-match comments Pardew seems to be ready to embrace the idea that when it comes to match-day you pick your best team available). From what we’ve seen of late Todorov made the team play better. He’s an experienced player, so ask him who he finds it easiest to play with. We’re clearly not equipped to play a long-ball game, even if we wanted to, so tell Weaver and others that balls hit long, high and hopeful are off the agenda. That approach also supports Moutaouakil (who I thought played well against Barnsley, I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to say so after the game) and Youga as the full-backs.
Second, every good team has a reliable spine. Weaver may never be a keeper to dominate his area but has more than compensated for that in other respects and he and Hudson are the first names on the teamsheet, but that’s about it as far as a reliable structure is concerned. We have to establish one. With Shelvey not really in the picture at the moment and without Zheng and Racon, we seem to be alternating two from Holland, Bailey and Wright in central midfield. I’m not sure why Semedo hasn’t had a look-in here, having done a more than capable job of providing the defensive midfield cover for much of the first half of last season. It has to be back to basics for a while and that suggests one holding player – Holland or Semedo, who can alternate when the fixtures pile up – and one encouraged to play box-to-box. Bailey is struggling after a fine start for us and we’ve not seen enough of Wright to say whether he is what we need. But with a spell now of one game a week it’s up to Pardew to decide on his preferred combination and stick to it, to give the players a chance to get used to each other. Up front for me, as long as his legs are up to it, its Todorov and whoever can best take advantage of his link-up play, be it Varney, Dickson or McLeod.
Third, an inevitable lack of confidence and an unfortunate lack of character. The two are related. Confidence cannot magically reappear but when its in short supply players have to work harder. If they don’t have the character to respond to errors and criticism by redoubling efforts they are no use to us in our current predicament. I can’t say what that means in terms of team selection, you have to be in the dressing room to see the dynamics.
Another ramble bereft of conclusions? Possibly, but what do you expect? There is no magic solution and improvement is down to honest assessments of what is going wrong and what can be done about it. There is a need to acknowledge that at the moment, despite the quality available, we could struggle against a pub team. We don’t need announcements telling us how close we are to a play-off spot when we are playing so poorly (and at least we should be spared them for a while) and it’s pointless to think about our current league position (no, it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference that we are now in the bottom three). The focus has to be entirely on improving performances as a team. If we manage that the rest will follow.