Tonight was a bloody bad night. Having jetted back from a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend (or unimaginative Xmas present for partner which amounts to killing two birds with one stone, take your pick) in Lisbon and still struggling to shake off the after-effects of a lousy cold, or the residue of the port and the cherry liquor (take your pick), it just wasn’t what the doctor ordered. So this one’s going to be short.
It was one of those nights where nothing went right – from the line-up, through losing a player in the first minute (the world and his dog knows we should have been playing against 10 men after the dreadful challenge that saw Basey depart), through conceding the first goal again, through substitutions, through to ending up with only 10 on the pitch, and to scoring when it was too late. But the theme that ran through the night was, again, just not playing well enough, collectively and individually, against a team seemingly short of confidence and on a bad run. Tonight we didn’t look like a top team (for the division) getting undone by plucky opponents; we looked like an average side, one seemingly content to do its fair share of hoofing the ball forward, which might on another occasion have got something out of the game but didn’t get the breaks but which gave the other side encouragement and something to hold on to. We have better players than that.
The formation saw Bailey out wide left, with Semedo and Racon occupying the central midfield berths, and Sodje(A) paired with Burton up front in a basic 4-4-2. In the first half the only problems were that our front two caused very few problems, in contrast with theirs, we were outfought in central midfield, and our defence was all over the place, not just from set pieces. After the early challenge on Basey saw Solly introduced as a straight replacement, which as in previous games limited our options later on, Bristol Rovers looked by far the livelier and more determined side. No real problem if you can weather the early pressure and grow into the game, but instead we looked nervous and surrendered possession far too easily. Too many balls pumped forward early and nothing like enough made of them by the front men. And it all left Racon – in the side presumably to add some passing skills – totally bypassed. And we fell behind.
As a master class in how not to defend from a corner their first goal took some beating. One to the near post saw every Charlton player go towards the ball, which left their defender who peeled away totally unmarked when it was flicked on. Just rank poor defending. What followed was equally unsettling. Semedo losing the ball in a challenge saw it played through to create a one-on-one, with Elliot (who was splendid all night) saving well, then panicked clearances led to more chances for them. We had moments of our own - with Sam beating two defenders and crossing low, only for the forwards to fail to arrive on time, a deflected free kick headed back to allow Sodje(A) a free header which was aimed firmly at their keeper, and a dipping shot from Bailey which went just wide. But in an open game in the first half they created the clear-cut chances and had the goal. It was probably summed up by our penalty shout involving Bailey going down far too easily after only minimal contact and picking up a booking and theirs seeing Sodje(S) get away with a very dangerous shoving off the ball of their forward.
A second change at the break saw Mooney brought on for Sodje(A), the only surprise being that it wasn’t for Burton, who had an ineffective first half and was to go on to make it a truly poor full 90 minutes. The change that I thought should have been made came later, which was to bring on Reid and switch Bailey back to the middle. The night wasn’t made for Racon, but Semedo was the one to make way. In any event there was no time to see if it would have been effective as Bristol scored their second, somewhat fortuitously. A booted clearance came off the head of Sodje(S) to a guy clearly by then offside. Whether he was offside when the first ball was played I don’t know. Either way he was goalside of Dailley and ran through to score.
After that Rovers settled for what they had and sat behind the ball, which allowed us more possession but left us facing a massed defence. And our cause was pretty much up when Mooney and their defender clashed heads (accidentally). The lump which immediately appeared on Mooney’s head left little doubt that he wouldn’t return. It was ironic that we played the later stages with only 10 when they should have been one down from the start, but the game was up before then. Racon’s deflected shot towards the end of stoppage time did nothing to change the mood.
No full player ratings tonight, but the good marks would go to Elliot (he kept us in the game in the first half). At the other end of the scale Burton was dire. His night was summed up by being shoved into a challenge on their keeper and picking up a booking. Without the shove he wouldn’t have been involved, which would have been in keeping with the rest of his evening.
Parkinson has some thinking to do now. We aren’t playing well and haven’t been for some time, with tonight’s result leaving us basically in a pack with Colchester and Swindon rather than closing the gap on the top two. The defence is unable to keep a clean sheet, the midfield options are being tried without obvious success, and we’re still striving for the right combination up front. Confidence looks like it’s ebbing away – and possibly taking team spirit with it. In these situations it’s usually a case of back to basics – after all, that’s what Bristol Rovers did to us tonight. That has to start with a strong defence and maybe its time to give Llera an extended run again, whether for Sodje or Dailey, as we keep shipping goals. Youga’s return would be great, but there’s no sign of that. In midfield, if a five is our best option go with it. We undoubtedly played better with that set-up early in the season. And McKenzie has to come into the reckoning if he’s fit; Burton can have no complaints after tonight if he is left out.
Me, I’m going to try to think about Lisbon, flea markets on a sunny day, port by the bucketload, and anything else rather than the game.