So it seems that two have exited, with Smyth recalled by QPR (and immediately dispatched to Accrington) and Bogle to make the switch to Doncaster. Of course we wish both of them well, sort of. Neither has really made a mark with us but that’s the way it goes sometimes – and I’ll not have anyone suggest that one of the conditions of Bogle’s move is that he plays against us in April. No doubt for that quip he will come back to haunt us, and since we are up against Accrington in the final game of the season Smyth could do the same.
I’m a little disappointed, probably more than most, that Smyth has left. Clearly we now have the numbers not to require Bogle, but looking at what we have now there still seems to me to be a gap for a wide-right attacking player – especially as we risk becoming over-reliant on Millar down the left. But so be it, unlike at other stages of the season – when we have been periodically short of either defenders, midfielders or forwards – we are able to talk of options, whether or not the two departures clear up room for another to come in.
For the defence, I think some praise is due, despite the goals conceded/errors made. Pratley and Gunter have filled in as best they can, Pearce has struggled on return from injury but never lacks heart, while Oshilaja has I think improved with each game since being included after his return, the key issue for me being a tendency towards rash challenges (or what look like them) in dangerous areas. It can’t be easy for Pearce and Oshilaja in particular to step up well aware that Inniss and Famewo, if fit, would be expected to resume their pairing, given how effective it has been. Of course there are other issues involved, such as how we defend as a team and whether we play with a protective midfielder in front of the back four etc, but the numbers speak for themselves.
And while it may be old school I think partnerships apply as much for central defence as attack. Many moons ago I interviewed Jack Charlton and he told me he asked Alf Ramsey why he picked him as he clearly wasn’t one of the best two centre-halves around. Apparently Ramsey’s reply was that he had the best defender in the world (Bobbie Moore) and needed someone to complement him, and that Charlton was the best available of that type. Clearly Inniss and Famewo were a partnership as the latter was well aware that the former lacks a little pace and compensates. Now I don’t know why for sure, but Pearce and Oshilaja together looked uncomfortable, Oshilaja looks better with Gunter, probably be the same with Pratley (and perhaps the same would apply for Pearce).
That does for me suggest that if (as is indicated) Famewo is back some time before Inniss it is questionable whether he can form a good partnership with Oshilaja. That’s for LB and his team to look at and decide. Sometimes it’s like the boat going faster without having the fastest individuals doing the rowing. It just does. And if that means retaining Gunter (and Pratley as back-up) in central defence to pair with Oshilaja, Famewo or Pearce, so be it.
For the midfield, the arrival of Millar and the form of Forster-Caskey have firmed up options. We can play with a flat midfield four (Forster-Caskey with either Pratley or Watson in the centre, Millar and someone else wider), with a diamond (Forster-Caskey flanked by two such as Shinnie and Morgan with Millar at the point), or potentially a 3/5 with Maatsen as one wing-back and Millar as a No.10. Whereas until recently Waston or Pratley were the first names on the sheet, we have shown we can function with neither – but have the option of them. I can’t help thinking that Pratley has played out of his skin since returning from suspension because Watson will be after his place, Forster-Caskey – especially with Shinnie back - has shown we can operate without the Watson/Pratley alternative, and LB might be threatening to put him back to centre-half if he doesn’t perform.
So much here depends on Millar. If he plays on the left the midfield takes its shape from that (and Maatsen as a wing-back is not then an option). It’s why I regret Smyth going as if something happens to Millar he would be the option to keep the same structure, with an attacking wide man, with the person chosen for the right side switched to the left. So for me Forster-Caskey and Shinnie start (with Gilbey in reserve), sometimes with the Watson/Pratley option (and Pratley is in possession of the shirt), Millar wide left or in the hole (with Williams his current back-up), and the right side still up for grabs (Morgan, Gilbey, Williams or Maddison – provided that the rumours of him not being happy are untrue, if they are he can leave as we don’t need any of that).
For the front two, we just haven’t seen enough of Schwartz or Stockley to be drawing any conclusions, but as things stand now its two from four with Aneke and Washington. If it’s to be ‘big man/little man’ then Stockley and Aneke take one place and Washington/Schwartz the other, depending on who hits it off together.
Clearly there is likely to be rotation in this area (and for Saturday there are doubts over whether Washington will be fit), but at least in general we are now talking about tweaks and options rather than wholesale changes from game to game. We can’t be far from getting it right, as Bowyer has suggested, but whether the season runs out before we can fire on all cylinders remains to be seen.