The pain of shattered illusions. Last Saturday Peterborough had the temerity to score against us (not once but twice); on Tuesday night Hartlepool went so far as to inflict actual defeat; and today Exeter showed that even under Sir Chris we can lose at home. Sorry, but whatever deity was working before just ain’t now. You just know it’s not your day when you see the rain coming down (special occasions for us always see the sun shine) and when after the game you pass on the train back to Blackheath in favour of a another glass of commiseration only to return to find the train you want cancelled, walk up the hill to see a bus pass the other way, then approach the top and watch a 54 complete the scene. So was today bad luck – and we all know we’ve had the breaks in Sir Chris’ previous games – or something deeper?
The game was a lot about tactics, combinations and formations, but also luck. We can talk ‘til the cows come home about whether the 4-3-3 set-up worked, whether the starting line-up was the best available etc. For me it was a game that if we played it 10 times we would have won perhaps eight; if we’d scored first – and we had the chances - I have no doubts we would have gone on to win comfortably. But did we deserve to win? Not when you concede three goals at home, one which was bad and two which were awful. It could have been so different but it wasn’t. So there are lessons to be learnt.
In the pub before the game we were musing on how would Powell accommodate both Wright-Phillips – who clearly has to start – and Eccleston, given that the two together up front had misfired in the first half against Peterborough. Powell’s decision was to play a real 4-3-3, with the two either side of Abbott. If we had put away one of the two excellent chances in the first half, which we dominated, it might have been a master-stroke, even allowing for the fact that neither Wright-Phillips nor Eccleston seemed comfortable with the set-up and we seemed to be falling into the trap of playing too many balls up to the big guy (Abbott) and hope something would happen. Neither of the two either side of him seemed sure whether to go wide or tuck in. And if there’s a bottom line to that formation it’s the need for full backs to provide the width going forward. Fry and Jenkinson both played well, but it was asking an awful lot of them to make the formation work.
Nevertheless, in the first half Exeter managed to lull us into a false sense of complacency by showing precious little ambition going forward. It didn’t seem to matter that too often we wasted possession and had no real width. One ball broke to Eccleston in the box and was blocked well on the line and another chance went begging. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surely good enough to win the game – if we could just get ahead. The goal didn’t come in the first half, but at the break I don’t think we were unhappy, just expectant.
However, two things happened. First, Exeter showed greater ambition after the interval. Second, we seemed to switch off defensively. Early in the second half, before any goals were scored, we were sleeping when they took a short corner and again when they took a short free kick. Neither led to anything but both gave the impression that all we were thinking about was how to score, not about how to keep a clean sheet. Suddenly we were open and they took advantage.
I’m not going to dwell on the details, but even though we outplayed them in the first half their first goal in the second came as no surprise. We just weren’t closing people down. Big wake-up call, but before we had time to adjust and get things going we were 2-0 down. I’m back late enough to see that the header was attributed to Doherty; as gifts go it was wrapped as nicely as you want them to be. If that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly Elliot was exposed and took down their guy. I thought it was outside the box (and that a yellow card and free kick was OK) but the ref thought otherwise and the spot kick was awarded and dispatched. That was effectively game over – and the cue for a lot of £5 wasters to depart the scene. That served as a reminder that a full ground is great but no substitute for a ground full of supporters.
The goal back from Wright-Phillips came shortly afterwards (before I’d had the time to text Suzanne that the day was going from awful to something a notch below), but it wasn’t that difficult for Exeter to see out the remainder. We hit the woodwork twice in the second half, had other chances (although sorry, their keeper didn’t take the ball outside his box on either occasion and Wagstaff should get an award for the worst dive for a penalty for many years, not even good enough for a yellow card), and had created enough chances to win on most days. But when you’ve not scored first and conceded three what the bloody hell do you expect to get out of a game?
Today’s first lesson is an obvious one, that we can’t expect to coast to victory in every game and promotion on the magic touch of Sir Chris. It was good while it lasted. The second one is less clear-cut and points to some deep thinking on his part, on three key issues. First, how do we stop giving away silly goals? Watching the video highlights of Harlepool was bad enough (watching Jackson get out-muscled for a routine cross); today was worse. The error for their second goal was almost enough to kill off the game. There’s work to be done and possibly changes to be made, if Fortune or Llera are up to the task. Doherty has been good overall (although I must say I expected more of a leadership role from him than we seem to be getting), but mistakes change games . Something for Powell to think about.
The second and third related points at issue are how to get the best out of what compared with the start of the season is an abundance of riches going forward. Abbott, Anyinsah, Wright-Phillips, Eccleston, Benson, Reid, Wagstaff, even leaving aside the goals we get from Jackson, plus the decision over which two from Semedo, McCormack and Racon. For me the key (unanswered) question is just what are our strengths? Every good team plays to them and it’s been a long time since we knew just what our real strengths are. It’s time for decisions; Powell has had a look at what’s available. We know that it’s about more than a starting XI, with options needed. If you want to play a real passing game you go one way; if you want to rely on longer balls another.
For me the choice is now to say, OK, we’ve got players good enough to dominate games and outscore the opposition. In Wright-Phillips we have the proven goalscorer, with Benson now the back-up. And if firepower up front is the key, we go for Racon now over McCormack, and to give Reid the starting position and run in the team. If it’s Wright-Phillips, who plays best alongside him? Abbott made a real difference against Peterborough, but starting games if Anyinsah is available doesn’t look right. Use Abbott as the battering-ram change in a game if it’s required. If that means telling Eccleson to play wide right, so be it, he’s good enough. If Chris feels that Wagstaff is worthy of a place above these guys, that’s fine too. But if you start the game with the battering ram on the pitch you can’t easily change things if they aren’t going according to plan.
If we’d scored first today and won the game we’d be having a different debate. But we didn’t and we know we’ve had the breaks in previous games. Now we need consistency and players to know the formation and just how we intend to play. There’s a bit of time to nurse the wounded and draw breath after the run of games and work on things on the training ground. But they come thick and fast after next Friday. We should know we need to improve if we are to secure a play-off spot, let alone the top two. We haven’t to date this season shown that improvement and consistency. For me it has to start with clarification of how we intend to play – and perhaps trusting people going forward, while also cutting out those bloody mistakes at the back.
Elliot: 7/10. Having for once looked at the club site report before posting this I’ve seen Powell’s comments about the first goal. I’d have to see it again to think it was his error – and to assess his role in the penalty; but I wouldn’t forget either one splendid save in the second half to turn around a shot that had been deflected.
Jenkinson: 8/10. May have been culpable in part for the penalty (it was in his area of the pitch) but otherwise showed enormous promise, not least going forward in the second half.
Fry: 7/10. Some indifferent balls into the box from decent positions, which made their keeper’s life easier, but generally sound.
Doherty: 5/10. The howler for their second goal was the sort of error that just has to go; Dailly made one against Swindon let’s not forget. Just can’t be tolerated.
Dailly: 7/10. Generally excellent, especially in the first half when we completely contained them. But we conceded three goals.
Jackson: 5/10. Asked to play in a midfield three rather than wide left and didn’t look especially comfortable; dropped back to full-back to accommodate Reid.
Semedo: 7/10. Jose does a job and does it well. Today we suffered from the defensive partnership in central midfield and the formation meaning no genuine wingers.
McCormack: 5/10. A real mixed bag of a game. He did some things well, but some poorly, not just some passes but sometimes being totally static when we have the ball. We have to get more out of him to control the game, or we need to play Racon. Does himself no favours with his histrionics when (possibly) fouled and was lucky to escape a silly booking for petulance. That said, those that cheered when he was replaced should take a good look at themselves. We are going to need him.
Eccleston: 8/10. Of the two playing either side of Abbott for much of the game he was the one that adapted by far the best in the first half especially. He clearly has class (his involvement in that goal against Peterborough and his strike against Hartlepool) and has to play, even if not in what I assume is his normal role as an outright striker.
Abbott: 6/10. Pave earned a good deal of respect for his performance against Peterborough, enough to suggest he can play a role in the rest of the season. Could easily have scored today. But I’m not convinced by the formation and for me his physicality is best employed by coming off the bench if we need to change things.
Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Someone asked the very reasonable question after Peterborough what does BWP have to do to get a higher mark? For a start he has to not get himself booked for petulance, and not look distracted during the first half playing in a system which might not suit him. But he’s scored again and I look forward to a better mark when we find his best partner and play a system that’s geared around his abilities.
Subs: Racon (7/10 – game had gone before he had the time to turn things around, but like Reid perhaps it’s time to just trust him); Reid (6/10 – must be fed up coming on to try to change games; give him the run); Wagstaff (6/10 – tempted to give a higher mark just for the sheer optimism of the dive for the penalty).