Disappointing all round: for the rather laboured and uninspiring first-half display, for the failure to take the chances when they came later in the game, and for the stifling of the game by a well-organised but desperately dull Oldham team. It’s still far from a crisis, but one win in six in the league and three games without a goal are starting to look a little indicative. Against that, it was a match we should have won and the same could be said for at least two more of the six; we have only lost one; and whereas in the early games we were getting the breaks (at both ends) of late things just haven’t quite been breaking our way. Yes, you make your own luck, but sometimes – like today – you just need one to go in off someone’s bum. In the event the key chances fell to McLeod and he would have been better off trying to use his bum rather than his feet and head.
With Richardson and Sam both passed fit, the line-up was entirely predictable, ensuring that Llera retains the rather unwelcome distinction of being the only unenforced change in the league so far. It was important that he had a good game and, while not perhaps as commanding as in some earlier games, he did. Indeed, the defence as a whole coped quite comfortably with the limited and progressively infrequent attempts by Oldham to get forward. There were to be one or two iffy moments, including their winger getting the wrong side of Richardson and a couple of back passes that nearly went awry. But really the problems were going forward, especially in the first half.
We started rather slowly and that set the pattern, as Oldham were winning midfield battles and our attempts to pass around and through them too often foundered. They’d clearly done their homework, doubling up on Sam and at every opportunity showing him the inside, keeping the ball off his right foot. But whereas we were sticking to the passing game, there was – as against Exeter - insufficient energy and zip to it, with the result that Oldham kept their shape and waited for us to give the ball away, which happened too often as players struggled for an outlet, with Burton well marshalled and Shelvey struggling to have an impact.
There were sporadic good moments in the first half, usually the result of intelligent running by Racon, linking up with Sam on the right. Bailey shot wide, Llera moved forward and drilled in a shot which their keeper turned around, and both Bailey and Sam got into good positions only to deliver poor crosses. For what it’s worth, in one of their rare forays forward I thought Oldham had a stone-wall penalty for a trip, but the referee – who made a few odd decisions but hardly deserved the boos reserved for him at the end – indicated there had been contact with the ball. I didn’t see it. The nearest we came to breaking through was when Spring turned to create space for the shot outside the box, but his curling effort just failed to come back enough (for an instant it looked as if it had found the bottom corner).
The first half ended with Oldham for the most part looking comfortable. More effort and an injection of pace and urgency were clearly required for the second half if we were to unsettle them. With no sign of this early on changes were only a matter of time. McLeod came on for a disappointing Shelvey – and was to prove the key figure. The extra body – and not long afterwards the greater physical presence of McKenzie, who replaced Burton (who was disappointing overall but I thought had a good case for a penalty as a tug prevented him getting on the end of a good cross from the right) – started to force mistakes from their back four, while Youga became increasingly prominent going forward, often looking like taking them all on – and nearly succeeding.
However, first McLeod miskicked badly in a good position, then from a corner peeled away well to the far post only to make an awful mess of heading the ball into the net. Llera clipped the crossbar from a set piece and then the chance of the match. Good work down the left saw the ball squared and it ran through to McLeod. He managed not to make proper contact in what was a horrible miss, giving every impression of a rabbit in the headlights. There was still time for an excellent overhead kick to thump against the bar (I’m not sure who it was by, it could have been McLeod or Racon but someone said it was Youga). But we hadn’t taken the chances and even two yellow cards for time-wasting and five extra minutes (despite only four substitutions and the trainer not coming on) failed to produce the breakthrough.
What to make of it? First off, the teams we’ve played of late have not been gifting us the goals that came our way in the early matches (usually to Burton’s benefit) and our start has clearly encouraged teams to shut up shop at The Valley and be happy with a point. Spring has played well in the matches I’ve seen, including today, but it seems to me that we are missing Semedo’s physical presence when it comes to dominating teams in midfield. And while we continue to play the passing game, to my mind it hasn’t been done with the necessary movement and change of tempo, making it much easier for teams to keep their shape and sit behind the ball without really being stretched. Any thoughts that we can breeze through this division have really gone and, like today, sometimes we will have to roll up the sleeves and work harder. So, no crisis but a real need to win next Saturday’s tough test.
Elliot: 7/10. Had most problems from back passes and increasingly a spectator as the game wore on.
Richardson: 7/10. At least one bad moment in the first half, when it seemed he might have been feeling the injury, but played his part getting forward in the second.
Youga: 8/10. Not far off winning the game for us, providing excellent options going forward and no gaffes at the back.
Llera: 7/10. Good, solid performance, which is just what was needed. Almost scored with a header.
Dailly: 7/10. Composed and assured, although it wasn’t difficult to look good as a defender in the second half as Oldham sat back.
Bailey: 6/10. Honest enough performance, plenty of work, but struggled to make things happen going forward.
Spring: 7/10. Nothing wrong with his display, other than his shot was a few inches wide.
Racon: 7/10. Was our brightest player in the first half; I just felt that when we were pressing the game with two up front he was playing the same game as before when the needs had perhaps changed.
Sam: 5/10. Oldham did a job on him and Sam was unable to do anything about it; no complaints at being replaced by Wagstaff late on.
Shelvey: 5/10. Not a good game and against a defensive team was unable either to support Burton or really bolster the midfield.
Burton: 5/10. Disappointing. Got very little change from their central defenders and was largely unable to hold up play and bring others into it.
McLeod: 4/10. Very bad misses. Every forward misses chances, but he looked like he froze at key moments. Has to just forget this game and not let it affect what might already be fragile confidence. His pace and mobility actually caused Oldham problems and he could easily have been the match-winner rather than the villain.
McKenzie: 7/10. Made a difference when he came on, by unsettling their defence. My first sight of him and so far so good.
Wagstaff: 6/10. Little time to have an impact.