If I was a cantankerous old git this afternoon it just got a lot worse, although I'm too depressed to be angry. If it was better balance we were seeking tonight, to say the least, didn’t provide it. Half the team looked jaded from too many games while others were rusty from too little involvement of late (perhaps no reserve games is costing us). By the end there was uniformity of a sort: in lack of confidence and effectiveness. When the Carlisle fans started singing ‘your ground’s too big for you’, with a sub-13,000 attendance it was hard to disagree. And we now have balance with two runs of four in a row.
This one’s going to take a while to digest and four consecutive defeats – against Hartlepool, Exeter, Notts County and Carlisle for heaven’s sake – even longer. For me, the drawbacks of 4-3-3 were made even worse than before by changes to the team, presumably enforced. No Jackson or Anyinsah and, with Abbott having gone home, Reid came in for a start on the left while Wagstaff joined Wright-Phillips and Eccleston up front. It was a sort of 4-3.5-3.5 with I guess the emphasis on pace and movement. The trouble was Carlisle swamped central midfield. This meant that Racon and Semedo were overwhelmed and the service to the front men was cut short, with defenders too often having to try to play something over the top or in the air, where we had no chance. We clearly had the potential to trouble them in their half, as shown by the opening goal, but were entirely unable to play through midfield or exert any sustained pressure and eventually that told as Carlisle turned possession into goals.
Carlisle started tentatively and for a while became more scared as Eccleston and Wright-Phillips showed what they could do. An excellent run by the former saw the ball delivered to the latter, who had the time to put the ball away with some aplomb. That should have been the cue for more to exploit their weaknesses. Instead Carlisle, while showing no real threat, found themselves able to hold and pass the ball by sheer weight of numbers in the key area. The service forward became more sporadic and with Reid taking time to get into the game the possession statistics must have made poor reading for us. They grew in confidence and we committed the cardinal sin of letting in the equaliser before the break. Again there seemed no real threat, but too much time and space was given to them down their left and when the ball was squared, while the shot took a nasty deflection to take it wide of Elliot.
Give a dog a bone and what do you expect? Their hopes were raised and at the break the game was going away from us. I thought there would be a change made then, but with Doherty having limped off (to be replaced by Fortune) it carried on as before. I’m honestly struggling to remember the two more goals that they scored. I think I’m already in a process of trying to blank it all out. Both were poor defensively, but the abiding memory was more our inability to get anything going through the second half – which wasn’t helped by the referee’s failure to punish cynical fouls by Carlisle when danger threatened. They’d already had a couple booked and perhaps one of those two might have seen red. The fouls merited yellows, but the only further time the card was used was for a player kicking the ball away to waste some time. Them going down to 10 might have provided some balance.
Of course once we were behind players became more nervous of mistakes, given the crowd reaction to each misplaced pass. There wasn’t a lack of effort through to the end, but lack of confidence usually shows up in being scared to make mistakes and insufficient running off the ball. Reid got more involved as the game went on and there were some moments when we threatened. But not enough of them and we failed to turn good positions into real scoring chances. I don’t think their keeper actually had a shot to save in the second half, which given the potential firepower we had out tonight said a lot. Benson came on for Eccleston and with Wagstaff moving wide and Benson at least in with a chance in the air the shape looked better – although Eccleston had again looked the class act when on the pitch. And in any event by then the game was up as Carlisle were prepared to chase and harry to keep what they had.
There’s another three games in a week coming up, two at home, so no respite or real chance to pause for breath and consider options. As a friend remarked after the game, you can’t even really point at one or two players; neither can you fault the effort. It really wasn’t the fault of Semedo and Racon that they were overrun, or of Wagstaff for trying to play through the middle and it not working. We are in a crisis now and for me the simpler gameplan is to play Reid and Eccleston on the flanks, Wright-Phillips and Benson or Anyinsah up front, and Semedo and McCormack in central midfield – with the brief to protect the defence and move the ball out wide. If we’re not able to play through midfield it’s not Racon’s game. If we decide to do that, with Jackson available, you have to choose between Wright-Phillips or Eccleston up front – and that’s a difficult one. I’m afraid, Sir Chris, the onus is on you to come up with the answers.
Elliot: 7/10. Some very good saves and no criticism from me for the distribution. May have been culpable in one of the goals, I just don’t remember.
Francis: 6/10. Loses a mark again for the quality of balls into the box, which was disappointing.
Jenkinson: 7/10. It’s been an impressive introduction.
Doherty: 6/10. Nothing much wrong before he had to go off.
Dailly: 6/10. Creaked a bit tonight but not really sure whether that was due to trying to hold the defence together as we came under pressure through weight of numbers coming forward.
Semedo: 6/10. Tackled and covered manfully, but in an area of the pitch where we were outnumbered.
Racon: 5/10. Against Notts County the pitch was impossible to play football on and tonight Carlisle ran over or through him.
Reid: 5/10. Looked short of match practise and low on confidence but grew into it as the game progressed. Just failed to make it count.
Eccleston: 7/10. Laid on the goal and looked lively throughout. Our most potent threat going forward.
Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Could be a 5 for the work outside the box, although he did put in a shift tonight, or a 9 for the finishing. Just can’t argue with the goals ratio.
Wagstaff: 5/10. Played down the middle before but with different partners. Tonight it didn’t work. More involved when moved out wide.
Subs: Fortune (5/10 – looked very rusty and that may have cost us); Benson (7/10 – did improve the picture but by then it was too late).