Seems it doesn’t take much to turn us back into miserable gits, although the past week or so has been disappointing to say the least. I suspect there are a number of factors behind reaction to Friday night. First, and foremost, we lost to Palace, at home. I see that Fuller has said that we deserved to take something from the game. That is true by definition; it was Palace, ergo a comfortable victory is the world as it should be.
At a more practical level, I don’t think he was putting too much of a gloss on things. Yes, it was disconcerting that Palace played better football than us on the night, enjoyed better possession, and we couldn’t have complained (no doubt I would have done) had we been behind at the break. But to me that isn’t the full story. Palace’s wide men did cause us all sorts of problems in their build-up play, but what they did from good positions was generally dire. Having got free down the right, their guy crossed feebly into Hamer’s arms; when one was pulled back it was blazed over; and more often than not – in the second half as well – from them it was head down and shoot, badly. The problems they caused us didn’t end up hurting us (although I guess they affected our play); whether their failure to capitalise on their good positions worked was just an off night for their finishing or indicative of players still learning their trade I don’t know and frankly don’t care.
The fact is we should have gone in at the break one up, against the run of play or not. The game would have played out differently if that had been the case. After they scored, we had to find a way to get something out of the game and sometimes that means playing to a strength. And aerial power from set pieces was the obvious strength. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it contributed to pushing Palace back, protecting the defence, and it nearly worked. I really wouldn’t have cared how scrambled an equaliser might have been.
There is an element of papering over the cracks in that assessment. After a splendid point away at Birmingham, so nearly an apparently deserved victory, the first half against Leicester gave us good reason to be confident that we could thrive in this division. They contributed to that with a very open approach to the game, but we took them on, played well with movement, invention and threat, and went 2-0 up. That we were hanging on for much of the second half was justifiable in the circumstances (wanting to get a win on the board and not to surrender a lead late on for the second game running). Hull was a little disappointing as far as the result was concerned, but the conditions were a factor. And the Stephens affair was clearly a factor behind the poor display for much of the game against Forest. But on Friday night there were no good reasons – other than the occasion, perhaps the effects of the previous defeat – to explain away the absence of the sort of confidence and edginess that characterised much of our display.
The fact that in pure footballing terms we were outplayed for much of the Palace game was sobering, not just because it was them, a team not expected to be fighting it out at the top. Again, if we had got a point with one of the late efforts there would have been a positive element of us having worked out a way to get something out of a game (we weren’t outplayed often last season, but the first half away at MK Dons was a case in point, when we regrouped at the break and came away with a draw). But that still would have left the impression that in some respects we have to wise up. Some of the things that worked last season won’t do against better opposition (and just on the basis of league placings we are obliged to include Palace in that group). Defenders make fewer mistakes and the fact that Kermorgant wins more than his fair share to knock on for Wright-Phillips won’t translate into the number of goals we saw last season (again, hoofing it up towards the end on Friday night when there was Kermorgant, Fuller, Cort and Morrison, then Hamer as well, to aim at was a case of needs must).
We need more strings to our bow and I suspect a clearer move away from what worked so well last season, namely progressively overpowering the opposition. We do have options, although I can’t say whether the players concerned are match-fit (or indeed how they are shaping up in training) and how possible combinations might work out. It’s fair to say both that before the start of the season both Green and Wagstaff needed to show that they can thrive in this division and that most would have been surprised by the use of Pritchard in a wide role. I thought Pritchard was a star in the first half against Leicester as they just couldn’t pick him up. He had a poor game on Friday night but is still learning. What didn’t help him – and remains in my view unforgivable – was that elements of the crowd, who seem intent on howling at every misplaced pass, steadily eroded his confidence instead of giving him the backing that might have helped him. We now have the additional problem that with Wiggins out there’s a bigger question mark over Jackson. He has got used to working with Wiggins (I hope he’s been practising with Evina), who often provides the overlap to compensate for the fact that Jackson is by no means an out-and-out winger.
In short, there’s a case to be made for changes on either or both flanks. I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of Kerkar or Cook to make any recommendations, but whether it’s a case of giving Pritchard a rest and using Green, Wagstaff or Cook, or even leaving out Jackson for Kerkar (which without Wiggins might be too much of a risk), any such decision by Sir Chris would seem reasonable. I do feel that with more options on the flanks Hollands and Stephens would be able to move the ball forward more effectively. From his comments it would seem that Fuller doesn’t think he’s ready for a starting place, which does keep in abeyance the question of whether we can accommodate him plus Kermorgant and BWP. I can’t really see how, so for me it’s two from these three, depending on what works as a partnership, with Haynes (if fit) the fourth on the bench (which implies Smith having to wait a bit longer).
That all brings us around to the less tangible factors behind the response to the Palace game. We went into the season uncertain where to place expectations and in the space of a couple of weeks have gone from whispering about ‘doing a Southampton/Norwich’ to contemplating the unpalatable. Finish below Palace and the dread is of returning to the third flight. It is far too soon for any such thoughts, but one can’t help thinking them, at least ahead of the next win (ie tomorrow).
Behind this, the boardroom changes and speculation over the financial state of (and prospects for) the club have an unsettling effect when suddenly all is not going well. Silence and secrecy have their consequences. We know we missed out on some transfer targets during the summer but I for one don’t have a clear impression of what we might be ready and able to do if we have to strengthen the squad. Here too any such thoughts are premature. The players earned the right to show what they can do in this division and we have strengthened in some areas of the squad (yes Leon, you were accurate in your assessment of your future at Charlton). Managing even a modest transition through incorporating those acquired can’t be an easy task. It is a test for Sir Chris (and just for the record the talk elsewhere of his position being questioned has to be the silliest thing I’ve come across since Clarke thought he might have a future at Charlton).
It’s also a test for the crowd, in the event that the two coming away games don’t go well. Pritchard in particular needed support on Friday and was let down by some. We all hope that this season takes a quick turn for the better and it is (very) early days. If it doesn’t, I’d only ask anyone who comes away from a game hoarse from moaning out loud at every misplaced pass/’wrong option’ rather than singing their heart out takes a long, hard look at themselves.