I’m sure we all found Tuesday night a sobering experience, even if with hindsight we were probably expecting too much too soon given the January changes. Instead of a new dawn, the start of a promotion drive, we saw familiar weaknesses and evidence that we are right now still some way short when set against a promotion contender, which felt like something of a reversal of the situation when we played them at their place at the end of October. After the game LB reportedly said “I do believe now I have a squad that can compete with those better sides ... if we don’t finish in the top six then I won’t be happy with that”. Fair enough, rightly or wrongly for us any season in this division which doesn’t end with promotion is at least in some respects a failure (which is not to say in any way we have a right to be at a higher level but that playing in the third tier will I hope never become an acceptable norm for us).
Let’s take a reality check. Played 26, won 11, drawn 7, lost 8, scored 39, conceded 35, currently eighth but with teams below having games in hand. OK, look at the table and you’d say still in touch – and over halfway through the season the table shouldn’t lie. But remember October. In that month we played 6, won 5, drew 1, lost 0, scored 8, conceded 0. Take out that one month’s results and our record would be played 20, won 6, drawn 6, lost 8, 24 points (or 1.2 points per game), scored 31 (respectable), conceded 35 (awful, 1.75 per game).
Sure it might not be fair to separate things out in such a fashion. No team keeps six consecutive clean sheets without some luck. Some may wish to discount all the games played before TS took the reins (it would make the numbers a little better). But if you take the period from the end of October until now you have a pretty unimpressive record of P17, W5, D6, L6 (F28, A30). If you feel truly masochistic try from the end of November: P13, W3, D5, L5 (F20, A23). We suspected at the end of October that sooner or later we would probably concede a goal; but even with the loss of two first-choice centre backs with no available replacements for a while we did not expect to go swiftly and consistently to letting in an average of almost two per game.
In short, we have spent most of the season to date struggling, before and after one exceptional month. October is at the moment looking like a short spell as a result of which we are in the play-offs picture rather than on the fringes of the relegation zone. We were then hard and determined, with something of a gameplan imposed by limited options: give nothing away, hope to nick one, let Bogle try to beat up/run down their centre-backs, bring on Chucks to score a winner. Either side of the month we’ve had a patched-up defence, players out of position, and no settled partnerships in key areas. It’s normal for teams around the top of a division at this stage of a season to be quite high on confidence, used to winning, usually with a settled squad and style of play. We can’t (yet) lay claim any of those attributes but we (the fans) still expect to win against teams which can.
There are for sure plenty of good reasons for this, most obviously the absentee defenders, plus what Gallen before Tuesday’s game agreed was something of a rush to sign players once we were able to, then having to juggle later on to keep within the salary cap (and now apparently juggling given the number of loan signings). That has worked against us achieving a kind of balance, resulting in players moving out of position (not defence here) so they can be accommodated.
The time for that is over, it’s time now time for us to begin a sustained improvement and show that we can not just mount a promotion challenge but can also get into the play-offs with momentum. We won’t find out too much tomorrow against Rochdale, but that’s where the run has to start. It would help if, unlike at The Valley, Rochdale don't score with every shot they have.