It’s still not easy to pick through the bones of last night, to assess what we might have done better given the players available and their fitness, and related to that what we might do to be best positioned for Saturday. But as an overall assessment, and allowing for players carrying knocks and not being able to last 90 minutes (or 96 as the case may be), I’d suggest that Adkins got the formation wrong at the start and only really changed it for the final 15 minutes.
I’m not suggesting we should have had some sort of gung-ho approach, just that we didn’t play to our strengths and instead allowed Crewe to play to theirs. I suggested in an earlier post that some of Adkins’ early decisions had been pretty much made for him through the unavailability of some players. In particular, with Washington injured and Schwartz not a viable option, going with Stockley on his own up front was almost imposed. Give him credit though for going with a wide player either side and opting for Jaiyesimi and Maatsen, rather than Millar. That formation worked well for a spell, not least because we could select two from three with the third available from the bench. When Maatsen dropped out injured we coped with Millar and Jaiyesimi, but the replacement option was Morgan, clearly not any kind of like-for-like. Last night Jaiyesimi was not available and Maatsen was clearly coming back too soon, so we had Millar operating effectively down the left side but nothing coming from the other flank.
The two replacements for Maatsen were Morgan or Washington. Quite understandably I think when Maatsen was withdrawn early in the second half it was Washington given the nod, the formation unchanged. But a little later, when Adkins wanted to get Aneke into the action, the formation demanded that it be Millar to be taken off. So we withdrew prematurely our main attacking threat (I’m assuming he wasn’t injured), someone who had the beating of them all night on his side, in order to bring on an alternative threat, with Aneke beginning by ploughing the left channel.
When that didn’t work, we switched to three/five at the back, with Purrington and Matthews as wing-backs, kept a more central midfield trio, and with Stockley withdrawn shifted Aneke and Washington into a front two. Fine, Chuks ran them ragged, able to almost bulldoze his way through them. Just that we weren’t able to see how he might have influenced the game alongside Stockley in a front two - if that meant going long so what? - with Millar on the left.
Now all this was going on as Crewe were dominating possession and basically playing us off the park. We had a system that wasn’t working, in part because of an error in selecting Maatsen which then sparked a chain of adjustments in personnel but not in formation, again until the closing stages. We made Crewe look like world-beaters by not putting them on the back foot and trying to protect a vulnerable defence. Not gung-ho, but rather attack being the best form of defence.
What does this suggest for Saturday? Only Adkins and his staff will know who is fit enough to start and who might only last an hour at best. What I would suggest is that first, if Famewo and Inniss are able to last a game we need to start with that pairing in central defence, which would be tough on Pearce, who’s played a real captain’s part, but Famewo to me looks more mobile and able to play around Inniss. Second, if Jaiyesimi is still out (which looks likely according to reports) and Maatsen is not fully up to speed, change the formation. Keep Millar on the left and start with two up front. Just which combination that is I can’t say, depends on who can last 90 minutes – and I don’t know where his mind is at but I’d find a place on the bench for Schwartz as well. We have to win on Saturday and he is a goal poacher. If we’re chasing the game in the final 10-15 minutes he could be an option.
Every change involves sacrifice and if we start with two up front the midfield has to change too. Assuming there’s a ‘protector’ in the form of Watson or Pratley, give Forster-Caskey the central role and then decide who out of Gilbey, Shinnie or Morgan is best suited to a role more down the right. Have to say, depending on how it shapes up in training, but there has to be a case for pairing JFC with one of those three and overlooking both Watson and Pratley. It would be bold.
Equally, a case can be made for switching from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 to an outright 3-5-2/5/3/2 and using wingbacks. That would rely on three centre-backs being able to last 90 minutes, or being ready to ask Pratley or Gunter to resume central defence duties, either at the start or during the game. Matthews or Gunter down one flank, Purrington or Maatsen on the other.
I watched the highlights of Accrington Stanley v Portsmouth and from the look of them it might have ended 6-6. We all say the table doesn’t lie by this stage of the season, so it isn’t an accident that Accrington have conceded 67 goals, well above par for their position in the league. So either we set up on the basis of ‘we will keep a clean sheet, come what may’ and rely on pinching one (or more) against a dodgy defence, which has worked a number of times away from home this season, or ‘they are weak at the back, we can outscore them’. We have to hope Adkins chooses what proves the right option.
I honestly don’t care whether or not we’re good enough to get into and then win the play-offs. One of us, Portsmouth or Oxford (who do come into the equation now in light of last night’s results) will get sixth place (I can’t believe Sunderland will fail to beat either Plymouth or Northampton, or that Blackpool might fail with their final three matches), then all bets are off. There’s no merit any more these days in the idea that we might benefit from another season in the third flight to be better prepared if we go up, the team will be completely different next season whether or not we go up. Ahead of the last two home games you’d have said we had become favourites for that final spot. That’s no longer the case.
Neither can we tell what points total we will need. We know Portsmouth have two entirely winnable games left, we could need to win all three. If we don’t we are looking for other results to go our way. And to take a leaf out of Adkins’ book of positivity, had Portsmouth’s keeper not pushed the ball against Marquis at the death last night we would have been truly staring down the barrel. He did. Last-minute goals finally did for us last season, if we miss out this time around it will be a similar story.