My partner Suzanne sometimes laughs at me for being a ‘slave to routine’ (sometimes she laughs at me for other reasons). Out of bed, turn on PC power supply, go to kitchen, fill and turn on kettle, prepare coffee, glass of OJ from the fridge, back to ‘office’, turn on PCs, back to kitchen, pour water onto coffee, take coffee and mug to office, take Ipad and OJ into bathroom for the shower and Radio 4. For the record the routine is different in Blackheath as there are stairs and a radio involved, but you get the picture.
What she refuses to acknowledge is that while this is going on I am working: reminding myself what I need to focus on, what I expect to do, how I intend to address certain problems. Now I can walk and chew gum but I can’t do these things properly if I’m trying to work out her latest preferred location for my cafeteria and just why she is in the bathroom when she must be aware I am walking towards my shower Ipad and OJ in hand.
It's the same in other areas. We learn to drive, or touchtype, by going through dull routines, until they are second nature and automatic. That way you can concentrate instead on the important stuff, like looking out for other cars, reacting effectively to a developing situation rather than wondering which is the brake.
The point is (and I think there is a point) that there is a downside to player rotation and regularly changing the formation. This is not to overlook the positives of the approach, at least the former: in this division the games come thick and fast, injuries and suspensions are inevitable, while flexibility and ability to change when things aren’t working is highly desirable. I’d suggest the objective of having two players for every position and having some rotation of personnel is positive, as is an ability to change formation during games in response to events. But I don’t think that overlooks that it is also desirable to know your team’s strengths and how to play to them, to have a Plan A. And right now we don’t.
I also think player rotation and formation changes can have a mentally draining effect on players. Take the extreme opposite. Some of us remember Cambridge under John Beck, saw them play us at Upton Park and they were booed off the pitch at half-time for the dire nature of their play (but they were winning 2-0). Their defenders had clear instructions to wellie the ball out towards the sidelines (to win a throw, advance down the pitch winning more throws, then launch a bomb into the box for their giants to score); their forwards knew that whenever a defender got the ball this would happen, so automatically they anticipated it. Now nobody wants to follow this example, but the point is that this makes football easier to play, there’s not much of a thought process and players can move in anticipation of what their colleagues are about to do. Right now our players are sometimes bombing down the pitch with the ball, sometimes hoofing it long, sometimes trying to press – and more often than not the rest of the team is guessing what might happen next, which works against players making runs in anticipation of being found and can create the impression of a flat performance, one lacking collective energy.
A fellow Addick last night pointed out that we match up well against stronger sides, beating them for determination and focus and winning the physical battles. Keeping things tight in defence, despite the loss of central defenders, and in midfield was the cornerstone of victories against Portsmouth, Wigan, Ipswich etc. But when teams like Burton and MK Dons come along, teams brave enough to pass it, run at us, and pull us out of position we look second-best. That may be a reflection of areas we are weak in, including pace (without Smyth and Doughty), also I suspect is down to us not having an effective Plan A when the onus is felt to be on us to make the running in a game.
OK, we know we are still a work in progress with a large number of new players, some of whom haven’t played much football, while injuries have taken their toll. We have good reason to expect us to get better (and Bowyer has stressed that we are ahead of a reasonable curve in that sense). Some players are playing not in their favourite positions I suspect, not just Pratley and Gunter. So perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider what might work well as a current Plan A – all acknowledging of course that Bowyer, Jackson et al have forgotten far more about football than I will ever know.
Start with some limitations. Up front, with Smyth injured and Davison on loan we are down to three strikers, one of whom is not trusted to last 90 minutes. Bogle is valued for his work wearing out the opposition and giving way for Aneke to benefit (of course it’s not that simple), neither of them has so far shown signs of being able to form an effective partnership with Washington.
At the back, we know the team if all are fit and available. Amos sits behind Innis and Famewo while Gunter and Matthews compete for a spot, as do Maatsen and Purrington. Pearce and Oshilaja are currently not being considered for a starting place (but obviously will feature at some point). Without Innis and with Famewo now back, the first question to be answered is who plays best alongside him, out of Pratley and Gunter, or whether a back three would be favoured. Leave that to one side.
In midfield we have an abundance of players, just no partnerships and nobody laying an undisputed claim to a starting place. Assume first that either Watson or Pratley play in the holding role. Then remember that without Doughty or Smyth we have no natural wide players. Morgan fills in there on one side, but I think it’s a waste to have Maddison do the same. Let’s leave Levitt to one side for now and consider the options: Shinnie, Gilbey, Forster-Caskey, Pratley/Watson, Morgan, Maddison, Williams, possibly Vennings too.
Taking all this together, I think our available resources point in favour of a 4-5-1 formation. Subject to fitness and form on the training ground, my inclination would be to start with a back four in front of Amos of Matthews or Gunter, Pratley, Famewo and Purrington. With a midfield five, have Maatsen play wide left (he’s certainly looked capable of that) and either Morgan or Mathews/Gunter wide right (I’d assume Morgan). Pair Watson and either Shinnie or Forster-Caskey in central midfield (I think they get the nod over Gilbey at the moment for this role), then have Maddison playing a more advanced role, with licence to bomb forward (and if he doesn’t take the chance offered Williams is the replacement, or Gilbey).
Up front I’d go with Washington. We don’t have to be wedded to starting with Bogle or Aneke and swapping them sooner or later. Bogle has not yet been effective in holding the ball up and his first touch doesn’t I think lend itself to him operating as a sole striker. Aneke is not expected to last 90 minutes. So start with Washington – and have both Bogle and Aneke available from the bench to really bully defenders later on and to be able to mix things up if necessary. With such a set-up we’d be looking for goals from midfield and to play through midfield, with two wide men and good defensive cover, taking out the option of hoofing it up to a big guy. We’d also have players who can change position if needs be.
I suspect that after last night we’re all giving some thought to what sort of team and formation we’d choose, not because of any lack of confidence in Bowyer but just because it seems as if at the moment places are up for grabs and nothing is settled. Burton outfought and outscored us, MK Dons outplayed us. So be it, it’s a long campaign, in Bowyer we trust.