What might have been a hiccup on Monday night has become a bad case of indigestion, with another below-par performance and points dropped at home against a team near the foot of the table. And as against Orient there are no real complaints (except from Suzanne, who was decidedly underwhelmed by our lack of drive, pace, initiative, and ability to pass the ball). Most of the action was concentrated in the final 10 minutes, when we had three excellent chances to score what would have been an undeserved winner, hitting the post once. But the period also saw Tranmere force a fine save from Randolph (who had replaced the injured Elliot during the first half), fluff an open goal and have one come crashing back off the crossbar.
With Sodje brought back in defence to replace Llera, Parkinson opted to keep the two key partnerships – Bailey and Semedo in central midfield and Burton and Mooney up front – unchanged. The surprise was that new loan signing Reid went straight into the starting X1, taking the problematic wide left berth, with Shelvey standing down. So, two out-and-out wingers; at least that made a case for keeping what should be a tight midfield. It also made a case for the attacking threat to come down the flanks. Instead through the game we passed the ball poorly, with Bailey’s distribution well below what we expect, and largely failed to get the wide men in the game.
The first half saw us seldom get out of first gear. No real cohesion, with too often the man in possession forced back through a lack of options. There seemed no obvious threat from Tranmere, but they competed well, closed down the space, and in veteran Jamaican international Goodison had the game’s best performer (to the extent that towards the end he was encouraged enough to be bringing the ball forward). Reid and Sam both had good moments, with some decent crosses delivered. But with Sam up against a pacy full-back (Bakayogo) and Reid not surprisingly finding his feet the only notable moment before the break I can remember – apart from Elliot’s injury, which he seemed to sustain colliding with a colleague when looking to punch clear - was Bailey getting the ball in the box but putting the shot wide. Most of the time the game was competitive but unimaginative and one-paced, with us not putting them under the sort of pressure that might expose weaknesses (they’re not in the bottom three for nothing) and struggling to create.
The pattern of a re-run of Monday night intensified not long into the second half. We went to sleep at a corner, allowing them to take it short with two against one. And when the cross came in a flick on seemed to take one of our number by surprise (I think it was Sodje) and the strong header clear became one which sent the ball into the net instead. Another game and no clean sheet. At that time an own goal looked about the greatest threat that Tranmere could muster, but as the game progressed, despite extensive time-wasting, they were to show as much ambition as us going forward. Instead of dominating a side probably low on confidence we had allowed them to compete on equal terms.
We weren’t behind for too long. An excellent outswinging corner from Basey was headed back and Bailey stole in to get on the end of it for another captain’s goal. That’s 10 for the season to date, an excellent return. Unfortunately this time the strike was the redeeming factor in an otherwise disappointing performance.
Back on level terms the stage was set for us to go on and win it. Just play with a little more intensity and drive. Reid was more involved and started to run their full-back ragged with his pace, but Sam was finding it increasingly difficult to get the better of Bakayogo, while Burton and Mooney were neither combining to great effect nor threatening individually. Having had to use one substitute, only two changes were available and Parkinson opted for McKenzie to replace Reid on the left side (to howls of derision from many fans, but surely the guy was going to tire), while Sam departed for Wagstaff. Sam had been finding it tough going, but the cheers that greeted the change are hardly going to help; Sam has been one of our most effective creators through the season.
The changes did have some effect, with Wagstaff’s greater energy drawing two fouls from Bakayogo (the first was a yellow and the second, right at the death, meant a pretty irrelevant red). And if we were relying on balls into the box McKenzie gave us extra power. The problem was that as the clock ticked down and the chances came we failed to take them. Detailing each of them is not my strong point, but one phase saw a wicked cross elude both Burton and McKenzie, another saw us fail to convert two opportunities, while one shot came back off the outside of the post. That might sound like a convincing drive to win the game, but at the other end we were allowing them as many chances. One guy found himself in the box with only Randolph to beat but sliced tamely wide, Randolph had to turn one low shot around the post, and in a melee in the box it dropped to them and the shot hit the underside of the bar.
Both sides will have left the pitch wondering how they failed to score at the death and both probably felt a draw was a fair result. It was, over the 90 minutes. But for us that simply isn’t good enough. A spate of half-chances created late in the game only served to underline how little we had created before. Football can be a very simple game and when you pass the ball badly and don’t create space with movement off the ball it doesn’t matter who you are playing. You’re going to struggle.
I thought after Orient it was time for some changes, to the Bailey-Semedo and Burton-Mooney partnerships. Today only strengthened that opinion. We’ve now brought someone in to fill the wide left spot, but we aren’t playing well and players that you would normally consider good enough to be in the team (Racon and Shelvey, and Spring) are not first-choice. Shelvey has been in the team and not impressed of late, and maybe Racon is not showing the necessary desire on the training ground. Just as ominous, at the end Semedo pulled off his shirt and ran off the pitch. Are there more changes to come before the end of the transfer window? Who knows. It could be time to revert to 4-5-1. At least with that formation early in the season we played excellent football. I wouldn’t mind if we regularly ground out results now, but fact is we are not looking better than some very ordinary teams that we have played of late (Hartlepool, Orient, Tranmere).
Elliot: 7/10. Well, another game when he could be given a 10 as he had nothing to do when on the pitch. Hope the injury isn’t serious.
Richardson: 6/10. A few times in the second half he seemed to be missing then they threatened, got forward to good effect a few times.
Basey: 7/10. Solid game. I still look forward to Youga’s return, not because Basey has done much wrong but just because he adds something extra. What Basey does bring, however, is that crossing ability, which worked for our goal.
Sodje: 6/10. Reasonable return, although they did create chances late on and there was at least one moment when he seemed to lose his cool. Coming back from a 4-game ban is not the time for anything rash.
Dailly: 7/10. Decent game, but again they could have scored more and the defence collectively takes some responsibility.
Reid: 7/10. Looks a more than useful acquisition, especially given our problems with the position. Became more influential as the game wore on, but was always unlikely to last 90 minutes.
Semedo: 5/10. He’s a good player who can be relied on to do a job. But my opinion remains that him and Bailey together is not the answer, leaving us with little midfield creativity, especially when Bailey’s passing is off.
Bailey: 6/10. His passing was off, but gets the extra mark for another goal.
Sam: 6/10. Didn’t really work for him today and can’t have any complaints about being withdrawn. But for crying out loud if the fans start to get on his back we gain nothing.
Mooney: 5/10. Glad he’s staying, but not much impact today. Seemed to be ready to run off when McKenzie was on the touchline ready to come on.
Burton: 5/10. Disappointing game. When the opposition’s defenders look like the best players on the pitch you have to question the forwards. Needs a goal.
Randolph (7/10 – one strange punch, no chance with the goal, and one good save low down); McKenzie (6/10 – added more firepower up front when he came on, but still waiting for that start in a central position); Wagstaff (8/10 – a good time to enter the game as players were tiring and made things happen with his enthusiasm).