Once again, not exactly what we had in mind, Three formations during the game – 4-3-3, then 4-4-2, then 1-1-8 - and not one produced a goal; in fact their keeper was called on to make only one good save (and a routine one). The stats show we had 58% possession, 14 attempts on goal to their six, and 11 corners to four for them. But they are meaningless as one of their six attempts was a bullet of a shot from outside the box. The credit on the day goes to Burnley for defending well, but we didn’t test them enough as the game plan(s) failed to work. On another day, had we scored first in a fairly open first half, things would have been different; and with the play in the final 10 or 15 minutes being all about us lofting the ball into the box and hoping something would fall we could have salvaged a point. But we didn’t play well enough to say we were unlucky.
The team saw Button replace Hamer in goal and with Solly absent for some reason Wilson taking his place. The surprise was that being stripped of Kermorgant for three games, leaving us with three strikers, all of them were thrown in at the start, with Haynes and Obika playing either side of Fuller. Jackson and Pritchard were in central midfield, with Dervitte in to protect the defence, with Stephens and Wagstaff omitted. It was a formation which seemed to rely on Haynes and Obika getting behind their defence, either from Fuller flicks or from telling passes. In the event, neither happened, at least not in any meaningful fashion.
The first half was open, if low on quality. When the ball was in their half we did look threatening; at the same time they had a surprising amount of space in our final third. They were passing the ball better than us, but our tactics didn’t rely on controlling midfield, rather on the strikers to turn scraps into something productive. Even then it was shaping up to be a game in which the first goal would prove crucial. Both teams fashioned half-chances - Haynes had a header which forced a reaction stop by the keeper, Pritchard found himself a number of times in good positions but failed to make them count, while they were guilty of not making the most of the space afforded them. I don’t remember Button being called on as half-time approached.
Indeed, I made a mental note that the first half was all about two teams looking low on confidence and not taking the opportunities that sporadically came along. And then it all turned on two moments. One of their defenders two-poked an interception back and their keeper, under no pressure, opted to pick it up. I wouldn’t say it was a definitive back pass, but had to be a close call. The ref wasn’t moved and when the ball was played forward Austin was allowed too much space to turn. It didn’t seem that serious, but he then hit one which we were right in line with. It was truly one of those that you know is a goal as soon as it left his boot. Button – and no other goalkeeper on the planet – had no chance.
That changed the shape of the rest of the game as Burnley had something to hold on to and could concentrate on defence. Again, to be fair they did it well. Their big centre-back won just about everything in the air against Fuller and neither Haynes nor Obika were able to find the space necessary to make their pace count, both generally being outmuscled and well covered. None of them were helped by the quality of balls played in their direction, which too often amounted to ‘hoof it towards Fuller and hope something breaks’, while the necessary narrowness of the formation meant little opportunity for Wiggins or Wilson to get forward (Wiggins did try but often found himself isolated). However, not long into the second half we did fashion what was to prove out best chance of the game, from our best move. The ball for once was moved quickly out wide and a good ball in was met by Fuller, only for his header to narrowly clear the bar.
Corners were coming and going, but the time had come for a change and, with no extra/replacement forward available, it had to be about formation. Dervitte and Obika went off, with Green and Harriott coming on, to give us two genuine wide men and a basic front two. Only problem was we continued to play as if nothing had happened and carried on hitting long balls centrally. They were eaten up by Burnley’s defenders.
With them pretty content with their lot and not surprisingly taking every available opportunity to waste time, with the occasional cynical foul when anything threatened, we did nevertheless progressively pin them back. But none of the set pieces came to anything. As the clock ticked down Cort spent most of his time up front and it was increasingly a cavalry charge, with Burnley content to defend their area. Every ball in five minutes of stoppage time was lofted forward and every time they headed it clear. But we haven’t scored in stoppage time this season, so why should today be any different?
The game ended with the players trudging off disconsolately. Again, if we’d scored first we probably would have been able to get the space for Haynes and Obika to thrive. We didn’t and now have one win and a draw, just four points, from seven games. If not in an outright relegation scrap, we are vulnerable, given that the teams at the bottom don’t look like giving up. We do have the luxury of two away games coming up, but the next one against Peterborough now takes on a worrying form. You’d have to back Sir Chris reverting to 4-5-1 for the next two. Whatever the choice, of formation and personnel, it is a time to dig deep as today we had the look that I thought Peterborough had when they came to our place – too used to losing. It’s a bad habit and we need to shake it off quickly.
Button – 7/10. No chance with the goal; did flap at one low cross in the second half which could have resulted in a second for them, but otherwise looked sound and didn’t have a lot to do. He’s waited for his chance, now Hamer has to regroup and wait for his to come again.
Wilson – 6/10. Nothing to complain about, other than that the forays forward didn’t seem to have the energy and bite we’ve seen before.
Wiggins – 6/10. Much the same as Wilson; his efforts to get forward, especially in the first half, tended to fall foul of the fact that nobody was anywhere near him.
Morrison – 6/10. Some uncertainty in a few balls that came his way in the second half, and distribution wasn’t great; but the primary role of a centre-half is destructive and in that context it was OK.
Cort – 6/10. Same as Morrison really, they can’t carry the can for the goal and I’m not going to criticise him for not playing like a centre-forward when pushed forward.
Dervitte – 6/10. Nothing really wrong, although they did find a lot of space going forward in the first half and it’s his job to make sure the defence is protected. Sacrificed in a tactical change in the second half.
Jackson – 6/10. It wasn’t a game in which we were going to dominate midfield, or have the space for him to get forward. Nothing really influential but nothing bad.
Pritchard – 6/10. I really don’t know whether to give him a better or worse mark. He did get into positions in the first half which should have produced more but didn’t because his choice of ball was poor; but he did get in the positions.
Obika – 5/10. Harsh perhaps for a first outing, one in which most of the time was spent trying to deal with poor balls in the direction of the front three. But didn’t get beyond his defender.
Fuller – 5/10. It’s not really his game to play the target man for balls in the air against a big centre-half. But he was asked to do it and really didn’t do it well.
Haynes – 5/10. Started brightly, decent header, and the first-half mark would have been much higher. But he really faded as the game progressed and deteriorated into hit-and-hope.
Subs – Green (6/10 – came on to deliver crosses – and long throws – and did get plenty in, but nothing counted); Harriott (6/10 – bright start but was starved of the ball as Burnley responded to us bringing on two wingers by playing deeper).