No point in the ‘blame game’ yet. We have a 16-game season now, with games coming thick and fast. Surely the priority has to be what team structure/formation best utilises the players available to us right now. Every decent team knows its strengths and plays to them; every team low on confidence (and it’s fair to say we are) needs clarity and consistency to keep the game simple, or rather to ensure that players know the game-plan and stick to it.
For me the striking contrast between us and Sheff Utd was that they all knew their jobs on the pitch, they knew what sort of runs their colleagues would make, knew their strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, we looked as if we were making it up each time we had the ball, with an absence of movement ahead of the player in possession limiting his options, leading to either square passing or balls into the front two that asked a lot of them to make anything happen, especially as lofted balls forward were pointless.
So for me we need a clearer ‘Plan A’, with some basic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options. No more Cousins playing wide right. The limitation in having Cousins and Poyet paired in central midfield – despite the excellence displayed by both of them – is that they are a bit similar in that neither is box-to-box and both seem to prefer the more holding role. They are of course both young and expecting them both to play all remaining games would be an enormous ask. So alternate them and allow one to get a breather.
Wiggins and Jackson clearly like working together on the left side, they know each other’s game. Stick to that combination, injuries and fatigue allowing. That leaves a central midfield berth and the wide right position. Green hasn’t made a convincing case for the latter, at least to start games, so like others I’d go for Wilson in that position and, assuming of course that Solly remains unavailable for now, trust Nego or another (don’t ask me if Nego is ready but needs must). For the central berth, surely Hollands and Hughes have to come into the reckoning (Gower too as and when he’s fit), even if there would be doubts about match-fitness.
The wildcard in all of this is Ajdarevic. Just where is his best position? Central midfield, wide right, or roving in the hole? I don’t know, but Sir Chris and his team have to nail this one down as the guy clearly has ability, we just have to harness it. We are short on creative play and the calls for him to start are loud. I just don’t want to see him thrown in without everyone else on the pitch being aware of what role he’s supposed to be playing.
Up front, to say that we are unbalanced is something of an understatement. We have disposed of/failed to hold on to Kermorgant, Smith and Pigott, apparently failed to land on loan Best or Wickham, and so far haven’t utilised Peter the Pole (ie the target men). We have Church, Sordell, Tudgay and Ghoochannejhad, each of which is crying out for a complimentary partner. Unless Parzyszek makes his mark (talk about him being ‘one for next season’ rather begs the point why he was on the bench for the home game against Birmingham), I can’t see an effective partnership from any two of those available to us.
My conclusion would therefore be looking at 4-5-1 with Ajdarevic given a free role in midfield/in the hole. That would then mean picking someone to play the lone striker. Might not be universally popular, but if his mind is right I’d choose Sordell (if it isn’t Church is the safer option but Gucchi just might work if he wasn’t required to hold the ball). I remember when Spurs played with just Clive Allen up front. His job wasn’t to be especially involved in link-up play, to be the target for balls played forward; it was just to be in the box to get on the end of things, which he did very well. Of course they did have Hoddle, Ardilles, Galvin etc to provide the ammunition.
So my ‘Plan A’ team as things stand would be: Hamer, Nego/another, Wiggins, Morrison, Wood/Dervite, Wilson, Cousins/Poyet, Hollands/Hughes/another, Jackson, Ajdarevic, Sordell/Church/Gucchi. On the bench would be Thuram-Ulien, Wood/Dervite, Cousins/Poyet, Green/Harriott, plus two of the strikers, preferably one of them being Parzyszek to (hopefully) give as the option to revert to 4-4-2. Also available are Evina, Pritchard, Cook, plus youngsters. Whether one or more of them can play a part I really don’t know. Certainly for the three named much depends on their mindset (including just how Evina feels about playing for us after being subjected to racial abuse from one of ‘us’).
You can only find one team in the lower half of the division that’s conceded fewer goals than us but by a distance we’re the league’s lowest scorers. Might seem odd in that context for me to be making a case for going with one up front, but the bottom line is we haven’t scored enough with two up front, so something has to change, something to get the best out of what we have.
It does seem time for Sir Chris to be pulling rabbits out of the hat as, despite the win against QPR, things ain’t working in key areas. The set-up for QPR worked as we were up against a quality team on a poor run; it didn’t work against Sheff Utd as they were a decent team on a tremendous run. Huddersfield at The Valley will no doubt be tough but surely we will have the edge on them when it comes to commitment. They are relatively comfortable and appear to have little to play for. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that they will roll over, at best they will be dangerous opponents. But for us it is pretty close to a must-win game and we have to turn greater need into greater passion and determination. Win and the pressure eases for us to take three points at Millwall (which would of course remain a ‘don’t lose at any cost’ match).
At this stage in the season every team is where it deserves to be. We are bottom but with the games in hand to change that. We’re also in a situation where it could all be close to falling apart, if the players out of contract at the end of the season throw in the towel. It isn’t exactly optimum either that we go into this decisive phase of the season with Powell’s contract situation as yet unresolved (at least not as of midday Monday, to the best of my knowledge). I’ve no idea whether it’s a case of ironing out a few ‘footballing issues’ (one has to assume one or more of job title, team selection and transfer policy) or whether the two sides are gridlocked, with Duchatelet adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ approach.