Five to one in a couple of weeks. Having viewed the October fixtures following Sheff Utd away as on paper at least less challenging than those coming up in November, offering the opportunity to drive home the advantage, we’ve obviously stuttered. That the stumble has coincided with the first material changes to the team to date hasn’t helped the cause and there’s no doubt that Sir Chris faces a selection dilemma for tomorrow’s game. Reinstate Hayes and Wagstaff for Kermorgant and Green and if we win it looks as if it was a mistake to have made the change; stick with the same starting X1 and .... well, we all know the permutations.
I would suspect that if we were playing away tomorrow there would be no question – barring injury, mishap etc – that Hayes and Wagstaff would be back at the start. But we’re not and there’s a trickier decision to be made if we expect Carlisle to play it tight. We’ve seen the references to Carlisle looking to take advantage of our ‘nerves’ and to be going for the win, but that doesn’t mean some gung-ho approach to the game. Bottom line is we have to focus on ourselves and how we want to play the game from the start. Powell is undoubtedly correct to suggest that you need Plans A, B, C and D; but the danger is forgetting just what Plan A is. If we start with Kermorgant and Green that is by definition Plan A. The point about B, C and D is that they come into play if things are not working out and changes need to be made. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the problem with starting with these two is that the back-up plan doesn’t look strong if we find ourselves chasing the game.
Let’s start with the statistics. First one, which we mustn’t lose sight of, is that after more than a quarter of the season we are top of the league. We are in the position everyone else, including Huddersfield, wants to be. We have earned that. Forget Brentford, it was irrelevant. A disappointing home draw followed by away defeat doesn’t amount to a slump; for the time being it’s a hiccup. It becomes a slump if we don’t win tomorrow. But the more meaningful statistic for me is that in our last four league games we’ve failed to score in the first half; and in the ones that I watched (MK Dons and Tranmere) we didn’t look like scoring; from others’ accounts the same could be said of Sheff Utd and Stevenage. And it’s not as if the switch to Kermorgant and Green is responsible. At MK Dons we were quite simply outplayed in the first half; against Tranmere we were equally lacklustre before the break.
No team can dominate for 90 minutes and I can’t point to a game so far this season (having missed a number) in which we’ve been in charge throughout. For me the best starting period to a game was at home against Sheff Wed. For the first 20 minutes or so we mullered them and could well have put the game to bed then. But thereafter we deteriorated and we undoubtedly second-best after the break. Perhaps the message is that we are, at least as yet, not good enough to be able to play at the right tempo, sticking to a game plan, through a full game. But compare the absence of goals in the first half in the last four games with the remarkable statistic previously of the number of matches in which we have gone 2-0 ahead (yes, I know we ended up in that position against Sheff Utd). If you add away at Bury, when Powell said we weren’t at the races in the first half, and you get a picture of very uneven performances through the season.
That perhaps leads us to the obvious conclusion: when we’re good we’re very, very good and when we’re not we’re ordinary. I rather doubt that there’s some magic formula to being good which can be periodically applied (unless it’s down to the pre- and during-match supplements), but there has to be something in the attitude of the team starting a game. Powell has stressed the need to be patient, especially in home games. No question. But being patient means neither the crown nor the team getting unsettled if we’re not quickly ahead; it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to be ponderous and unambitious in our play from the start, seemingly on an assumption that all will be fine as and when we get going.
As the song goes on to say, ‘five to one, baby, one in five; no-one here gets out alive; now you get yours baby, I’ll get mine; gonna make it baby; if we try’. Plan A for me this season is about the pace and tempo at which we play and the message from recent games is that we need to begin games with greater conviction and sense of urgency (not panic). We’ve shown we’re able to play better football than most others if not all others in this division for spells. But these spells are a damn sight less effective if we’re losing and the opposition can play to their strengths. So yes, for me it’s back to Hayes and Wagstaff to start tomorrow, with a genuinely effective Plan B ready and waiting, but whatever the decision let’s see the first half not wasted.