With more than a third of the season gone, and our game in hand having been played, we have reached the stage where the stats and the league don’t lie. Yesterday’s disappointing defeat means that instead of raising ourselves up to the middle of the pack we sit fifth from bottom (albeit with a points cushion). It’s reasonable to ask what’s wrong with us, not on the grounds that we’re below teams we would not expect to be (we have no divine right to be above anyone, except for the obvious, and we can hardly complain having lost to Millwall, Bournemouth and others) but because we have quite frankly struggled since the opening day to achieve any sort of consistency in terms of results and performances.
If there was a realistic objective for this season it was to progress. A ninth-place finish to last season perhaps did us no favours by suggesting that progress would have to mean competing for a top-six finish. The relative absence of team strengthening in the summer perhaps put paid to any such thoughts, so progress might amount to consolidating in/around mid-table. But after 17 games we have 17 points; after 17 last season we had 23, not a massive difference but hardly a move in the right direction. I think there were mitigating circumstances for the lacklustre start to the season (one point from the first three games, almost the first four) given that two forwards came in just before the campaign kicked off after three from last season had departed. Undoubtedly being without Solly and Cort has hurt us, as has Kermorgant’s injury, while to date Sordell has had little impact (the goal against Forest being his one moment so far).
If there is a simple answer (there seldom is but sometimes there are root causes), I’d suggest it’s lack of ambition, beginning off the pitch but now on it too. As a club we are in a state of limbo. I’ve no idea if we are on the verge of being bought; equally I’ve no idea if there have been issues with payment of wages, as has been indicated by others. What is apparent is that, for whatever reason (and I’m still inclined to view fair play rules as a smokescreen), the current owners are unable or unwilling to follow through on the stated goal of taking us back to the Premiership (of course not in one/two seasons but moving towards that goal). A sympathetic interpretation would be that the fair play rules and a promising crop of youngsters have combined to effectively put a stop to significant investment in the squad in the hope that in a year or two the youngsters will have come through.
Trouble is, if you start a campaign with limited expectations and ambitions it cannot but spread to the attitude of the players. I’m not questioning their character and commitment, they have demonstrated those qualities often enough (and when under pressure continue to do so). But how can you have real confidence, and bravery, if the comings and goings send the message that the team’s real objective this season is to avoid relegation, that you, collectively, aren’t good enough to achieve more? I don’t think it’s an accident that when Arsenal signed Ozil it lifted every player they had, to up their performance. I’m not suggesting we might have signed an Ozil but the principle still stands.
Let me try to elaborate with reference to games. We know in terms of results our linked problems are home form and scoring goals. What is the simple difference between playing at home and playing away? Surely it’s expectations and the fact that at home the onus is on you to go out and win the game. I’ve not seen one match this season when we’ve gone out and taken the game by the scruff of the neck, imposed ourselves on the opposition. Leicester at home may be a partial exception, but we always beat them (perhaps an expectation there too?). The stirring performance against Forest came out of adversity, having gone behind early on (as with Cardiff last season). There was a sense that night that we had nothing to lose by being adventurous and it paid off, not least as Forest must have felt after 20 minutes that the game was already theirs and they felt no inclination to simply shut up shop. Millwall and Ipswich were content to defend in depth and in these two games we seldom unsettled their defences.
There’s a real difference between coming through under pressure and from adversity and having a winning mentality, the confidence and bravery to go out from the start with the belief that you will win, or at least are good enough to stand head-to-toe with the opposition. Fear of losing, especially in front of your own fans, creates pressure and causes inhibitions (play the safe pass etc). What was missing yesterday, as against Millwall in particular, was the confidence to take a chance to make something happen, risking making mistakes. That, for me, is a mindset problem, albeit one hard to get rid of when our home record speaks for itself. When you struggle to create chances to score something of the belief that you will take them when they arise disappears (and let’s not forget that we missed most of the easy ones against Doncaster and broke the deadlock with a screamer from outside the box).
If the mindset isn’t right, is the team selection optimum? Without Solly or Cort, in defence the only current question is whether Dervite or Wood gets the nod alongside Morrison, given that Wiggins’ form after an iffy start to the season means there’s no current case for bringing in Evina, other than perhaps on the left of midfield. Up front, with Kermorgant getting back to match fitness, there is a selection issue. Church’s movement and workrate are exemplary, but as his career record indicates he is not a prolific goalscorer. Sordell has been but is coming to us off the back of a so far unsuccessful transfer to Bolton. So far for us he started the opening two games (I didn’t see either), was dropped for the next four, came in for one, was dropped for the next two, came back for three games, and has been left out for the past six. I’m not saying he should be given an extended run – clearly we would lose a good deal if Church doesn’t start – but there is a case, not least as a fully-functioning Kermorgant will provide the service. At the least, if Sordell is to come off the bench when we’re chasing a game, he has to be given more time than he was yesterday. If after 17 games your top scorer is on three (from six starts for Kermorgant, from 14 for Church) the chances are you’re not going to like looking at the league table.
It’s also clear that from the start of the season we haven’t found a consistently effective central midfield combination, whether in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. We’re choosing between Jackson, Stephens, Cousins, Gower and Hughes (leaving aside Pritchard or Harriott whether central or in the hole). Of these, only Stephens has started in more than 10 of the 17 games, so there’s been no consistency of selection. Jackson’s injury hasn’t helped and especially yesterday he looked below par playing back out wide left, Cousins has undoubtedly been a plus this season but does seem to limit his expectations to providing defensive cover and playing neat passes, which is fine if there’s a driving force alongside him. Stephens is the true playmaker and has been doing well, but his game isn’t box-to-box and when the opposition defend in numbers we don’t seem to have the guile, perhaps the devil, in our play to turn possession into chances.
Currently the midfield isn’t chipping in with enough goals, Kermorgant and Jackson seem to have forgotten how to get the free kicks on target, and without Cort the defence isn’t notching a few from corners/set pieces. Every good team knows its strengths and plays to them. We are currently short on pace and drive from midfield (Stewart being the obvious exception), a poacher in the box, or some other source of goals.
To be positive, I’m confident that we have the ability and character to avoid relegation. But can it go pear-shaped? Of course it can, if confidence is further eroded and/or if the situation off the pitch has a draining effect on morale. We all hope that the ownership issue is sorted out soon, one way or the other, and that a positive outcome can inject some fresh sense of direction and ambition. Absent that, perhaps either the team carries on as to date, inconsistent and unambitious. Or with or without some tweaking in formation and selection they can get themselves together with Sir Chris and his staff and set themselves higher goals, remembering that they are capable of more.