Saturday 29 November 2008

Demain Il Fera Jour

Perhaps the only way you can assess a game is how you feel at the end of it. Cold, a little damp, mildly disappointed at not winning, but some relief that we didn’t lose - and sheer delight at a clean sheet. I’m not sure what others think (or feel), but for me it was a case of no steps back but none forward either, other than a more solid shape to the team at the expense of quality. We should be under no illusion that we are now in a relegation scrap and the rest of the season is just about staying up. If this is accomplished it is a case of job done and nobody should be looking to pass any sort of judgment on the basis of one game under the new regime (I can’t comment on QPR, I wasn’t there). If today proves to be a basis from which we can build that’s fine.

It proved to be a game that we didn’t win because four good chances in the final 20 minutes of the first half were not converted. One was shot wide, two brought outstanding saves by the Southampton keeper, who has to be given whatever man of the match award is going. But Southampton made one change for the second half and thereafter dominated possession, passed the ball better than us, and through the second half looked the more likely winners without creating a great deal – one superb save by Weaver being the exception. Until the final few minutes when Todorov made some things happen and almost won the game for us. Overall nobody can really quibble about a draw being a fair result; but if we had scored when we were on top and gone into the break ahead it could have been much better.

The team saw Youga go the way of Moutaouakil in the pursuit of more physical presence, with Cranie retained at right-back and McEveley making his debut on the left. Fortune was preferred to Primus alongside Hudson, while Bailey returned in place of Racon from Tuesday alongside Semedo in the centre of midfield. Gillespie and Bouazza provided the width and Gray and Burton were paired together up front. More solid, more dependable, but no great pace about the team.

The first half an hour was fairly even, but with Bailey and Semedo having the better of things in midfield and McEveley getting forward to good effect we started to dictate the game. Burton and Gray seemed to work well enough together and the chances then started to come. That they weren’t taken was as much to do with their goalkeeper as profligate finishing.

The second half was more of a disappointment as less came through midfield, Bouazza did another disappearing act, and their tactical change saw us resorting more to rather aimless balls forward. During this spell we could have lost the game. Sam came on to replace Gillespie, then Todorov for Gray and it was the latter move that saw us look more effective going forward once again. I’m not sure what the guy has to do to start, but he still looks a class apart to me and I hope he will feature more in the games ahead. In the final minutes Holland came on for Bailey.

Overall the quality wasn’t great, but a home game where we don’t concede a goal has to be a blessing at the moment. Again, it’s whether we can build on this, because the more negative interpretation is another home game without a win. That’s five now and 10 games overall. And Suzanne didn’t get her win. I’m trying to think of an appropriate Piaf song, but at the moment Je ne Regrette Rien doesn’t exactly hit the mark, nor does La Vie En Rose.

Of the new boys, I thought Gillespie played well. He knows his stuff and can be relied on to contribute effectively. Burton also looked like he knew the score and what was required, while not setting the place alight by scoring. McEveley had a mixed game. Defensively he was caught out a couple of times and once lost the ball badly and was slow at getting back. But he got forward to good effect some times and added drive and solidity, as did Cranie. Fortune had a good game and seemed to work well with Hudson, Semedo made plenty of tackles and covered well. Bouazza? From now on I’m inclined to judge him on whether he scores as he seems to contribute little else. The phrase defensive duties doesn’t seem to apply to him. He didn’t score. Perhaps the biggest plus point was Weaver. After recent games his confidence could have been low, but he showed character in showing no after-effects and when called on to make the save he did.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 8/10. Well done.

Cranie: 7/10. Looked solid and adds height to the back four. In contrast to recent games we looked relatively untroubled from set pieces, which has to be attributed to the players who came in.

McEveley: 6/10. Not far short of being an 8 but made some mistakes which could have been costly. Too soon to pass judgement as he looked like he could become a star. More than a passing resemblance to Danny Mills.

Fortune: 7/10. Slotted back in effectively, good game.

Hudson: 7/10. Better game than against Sheff Utd and quietly effective.

Bouazza: 5/10. Contribution still inadequate. Frustrating.

Semedo: 7/10. No real errors, but sometimes looks lost when in possession.

Bailey: 7/10. With Semedo lost control of midfield in the second half, but a steadier game than those of late.

Gillespie: 7/10. Good professional, a git when he plays against us but now he’s one of us.

Gray: 6/10. Not bad but needed a goal when we were on top.

Burton: 6/10. Too soon to judge, he’s only been with us a few days. He and Gray did carve out chances in the first half.

Todorov: 8/10. Made a clear difference when he came on and nearly won it for us.

Sam: 6/10. Not much time to make a mark, had a couple of good runs.

Holland: Not on long enough for a rating but we know all we need to here.

Sunday 23 November 2008

River Of Salt

Well, Pardew did suggest in his last programme notes that this might be the time for the purse strings to be loosened a little. Presumably – barring a takeover of the club - his pay-off further reduces the already very limited scope for the next manager to shape a team, as well as the potential for attracting a new manager if Murray decides against internal promotions. The third successive Charlton manager leaves us in a worse shape than when they arrived. How different we all felt when Pardew arrived. At least the next manager will not have to cope with unrealistic expectations.

Postscripts on the Pardew stewardship of Charlton can hardly be positive. Fortune undoubtedly did not favour him. If a linesman had not made a bad mistake in injury time against Fulham, if the Premiership authorities had not rescued West Ham, if Sunderland had not come calling for Andy Reid. He can’t carry the can for us being relegated (although with eight games to go we were still capable of staying up only to fail to cope with the pressure), can’t take all the blame for the failure to rebound, given the numerous changes that relegation imposed, but as he acknowledged he has failed to arrest the slide that in retrospect pretty much set in early this year as an automatic promotion spot and then a play-off place slipped away. This season he has singularly failed to impose any semblance of a consistent team or style of play, to get the best out of the players, and for that he pays the price.

A realisation of the position we are in should frame the debate over who succeeds him. This season is now all about avoiding relegation, with a dangerous gap emerging between us and teams above us, which is hardly surprising given recent results. Can we afford a lengthy process of advertising the post and interviewing candidates? It’s not as if the incoming manager will have the time or the resources to create a team suited to him. There can be comings and goings in January but the task is much more about shaping the current squad – and righting whatever has been wrong on the training ground and the dressing room.

It seems to me there are two initial decisions to be made by Murray and the board. Parkinson is effectively now the incumbent and it would be invidious to advertise the post a treat him as one of the candidates. Either he is given the job, whether permanent or as a caretaker, for a decent time or he is not. To my mind a decision to open up the position would amount to saying that Parkinson is not considered right for the job. I don’t know the answer.

If not Parkinson you have to assume that it would be worth a phone call from Murray to Curbishley to test the waters. If he wants the job and we can afford him and the associated changes (presumably he still comes with Day, so there would have to be further departures). I have no idea whether Curbs would want to come back, but of the immediate non-Parkinson alternatives he obviously stands out.

If not Parkinson and not Curbs, the choice is to promote from within or go outside. Pros and cons on both sides. Kinsella seems not to be considered as a suitable number one, Robson seemed to be being groomed but found himself out in the cold, and Powell still counts as promoting from within. Gritt’s name is not being mentioned either. None of these options (if they are indeed options) looks especially attractive. One that might – and which may serve as the wildcard factor – is to make Holland player-manager. He is coming to the end of his playing career and seems to be a manger in the making. I have no idea if the time and circumstances are right for him to step up, but of the internal options this strikes me as a possibility. It’s not so different from the start of the Curbishley reign.

If we go outside its anyone’s guess. Bottom line is we would be choosing from a list of motley candidates as no Championship manager is likely to jump ship to join us. Again, our priority now is to stay in this division and to install a manager that maximises our chances of turning things around in a short space of time. Time is decidedly not on our side. To my mind that makes advertising the post as much of a risk as promoting from within. Parkinson would find himself just keeping the seat warm and presiding over a difficult period, especially as he can hardly amount to a new broom.

We have seen, most recently at Tottenham, that a new face can work wonders when the face in question has the happy knack of good man management and good fortune. Equally new brooms have often led to failure. So once more no easy answers. But before we look at possible outside candidates the first two options – Parkinson and Curbishley – have to be decided on.

There’s no sense of joy today, or even relief, just sadness. I’m old enough to have grown up with a succession of short-lived Charlton managers, all of whom for various reasons failed in the job – or at least ran their time at a club going nowhere. Hill, Firmani, Stokoe, Foley (is he too old to come back?), Bailey, Mullery, Craggs all came and went. Lawrence was the exception to the rule for me – and a very welcome one. Fact is he presided over a difficult period but made a success of the job until he too ran his course (maybe he is a comeback alternative?). So undoubtedly did Curbishley. The next guy will at least have something in common with Lawrence and Curbs, that they take over a club in exceptionally difficult circumstances. The qualities they brought are the ones that I hope our next manager shares. Just please let him be a lucky one - and let him, like Lawrence and Curbs and unlike Dowie, Reed and Pardew, leave us in a better position than when he took over.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Another Saturday Shot To Hell

Before the game we were trying to think of the last game against Sheff Utd we’d enjoyed. The unanimous verdict was a 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park in the promotion season under Lennie Lawrence. No need for any revisions on that front then. We have (famously) conceded five or more at home and got something from the game. But it’s blindingly obvious that the improvement in the last two away games has not extended to avoiding giving away poor goals. Thirteen conceded in four games and everything else becomes irrelevant. This was a key game after two resolute away performances; but just about everything that could go wrong did.

So, let’s go through the goals. In the first few minutes, having failed to score the early goal that could have changed the game (it was something of a scramble in their box), an attack broke down with Sam left on the floor. A cross to the far post seemed to be being dealt with. But instead of the ball going into the proverbial row Z they were allowed to reclaim possession and it was squared to of all people Beattie. I’d need to see it again, but it was Youga’s area and I’m assuming it was down to him. At least we had got the obligatory Beattie goal out of the way and the game proper could begin. Only problem is playing 4-5-1 at home and behind and chasing the game from the start is not ideal.

A soft foul on Sam, decent free kick delivery and Primus buried the header. 1-1 and it should have been game on. Then a free kick for them and Speed, who has made a career out of escaping markers in the box, was given a free header to give them back the lead. Whose fault? Well, whoever was supposed to be marking him.

Conceding a goal just before half-time is always heart-breaking, but conceding three either side of the break is just about criminal. No doubt about their third. A fairly harmless cross was Weaver’s all the way. He dropped it (he may have been fouled but it wasn’t obvious) and the loose ball was buried. Another cross early in the second half got a touch on at the near post and Youga couldn’t avoid it coming off his toe into the net. Their fifth was apparently quite well worked, but as I was texting the latest update at the time I can’t really say. Let’s blame that one on the cat.

Bouazza pulled one back with his one meaningful contribution of the game (he did have a run and shot in the first half). But any thought of an unlikely comeback effectively disappeared a little later as Gray, possibly Bouazza, put it wide with only the keeper to beat.

Sheffield had other chances, including in the first half when Weaver came well out of his goal and with his clearance managed to find Halford (he of the returning long throw). His effort from well out came back off the crossbar. More chances were missed by them towards the end, but it really didn’t matter. We had a few chances too. Ditto.

To try to be reasonable this wasn’t a case of a spineless performance the like of others of late. There was no lack of effort and at times we didn’t play badly. We just looked like shipping goals and did. It is pointless to talk about whether we played well in the last 20 minutes – and certainly Holland and Bailey, both of whom were anonymous in the first half, came into the game and looked more comfortable when we switched to 4-4-2, with Youga departing, Semedo dropping to left-back, and Waghorn coming on to accompany Gray and then Todorov when Gray was replaced. Whether it was a case of the formation suiting them better or Sheffield sitting on what they had is impossible to say.

Did anyone have a good game? Not everything he did worked and sometimes he seemed to take the wrong options, but Sam was lively and involved throughout. Primus made a number of clearances and could have scored more than one. Semedo did his job in the centre and then at left-back; and Moutaouakil was pretty good. Gray worked hard to no great effect in a system which relies on both men either side of him pulling their weight. Against that Weaver’s frailty from crosses has hurt us in two consecutive games now, Hudson looked more uncertain than in previous games, Youga seemed to let his own goal (and possible earlier mistake) get to him, while Holland and Bailey failed to impose themselves on the game in the first half. But again its all meaningless when we give away poor goals. It’s another match after which if anyone asked me if Sheffield were a good team I’d have to say I don’t know. They didn’t have to do that much to score and win the game comfortably.

Can Pardew survive this? In his defence its not his fault if individuals give away goals, other than to the extent that he has picked them. What is curious, especially in view of the goals we are shipping, is that the loan signing to date is a forward, while another loan signing, Cranie, didn’t feature. Before the game it seemed that the defence at least effectively picked itself. That assumption has to go out of the window in light of the mistakes made. On the positive side it seems that Racon and Fortune are close to being back in consideration, hopefully Zhi before too long. Thoughts that we might have found a new formation and more resilience have just flown out of the window. Whether the manager carries the can for this we will just have to wait and see. For now its a case of another depressing summary of another depressing afternoon. Time enough for reason tomorrow.

Player Ratings:

Weaver: 4/10. Made one decent save when the game was lost. His error before half-time might have been enough to finish us off. Clearly there is a decision to be made over whether Elliot comes in for QPR. One off day is acceptable and happens to every goalkeeper. But his confidence on crosses and general decision-making are low and you just can’t afford that.

Moutaouakil: 7/10. I don’t think he was culpable for any of the goals (unless he was involved in the fifth). The blame lies elsewhere, although I see from the programme interview that he is deeply religious. Maybe having him and Primus in the same defence is costing us as divine intervention does not seem to be working in our favour.

Youga: 4/10. Costly errors saw him substituted. Seems that there is a serious question mark over his position in the team, which is a great regret as when he is playing well he adds a great deal to the team.

Hudson: 6/10. Did a lot right and can’t be blamed for any goals. But it did seem to me that he was less dominant than in other games this season. He’s still a big plus for us, but marshalling a defence that’s shipping goals can’t be good for anyone’s confidence.

Primus: 7/10. Scored one, could have had more. But played in a defence that shipped five goals at home.

Sam: 7/10. As above, was involved and lively.

Semedo: 8/10. Has to have some culpability when you are the defensive midfielder and we concede five. But I don’t think he did much wrong and slotted in capably at left-back.

Holland: 5/10. Seemed unable to influence the game in the first half. Came into it more in the second when we changed formation, but it was too late by then.

Bailey: 5/10. Same as Holland.

Bouazza: 5/10. Gets a plus for another goal but otherwise was out of the game. Always looks capable of so much more.

Gray: 6/10. Not easy to play the lone central forward when you’re losing the game at home. Is he able to not train with personal problems and then play?

Waghorn: 7/10. Not easy to judge in this situation. I hope he plays for us in better circumstances.
Todorov: 6/10. Came on when the game was lost. Was involved in one or two chances.

Collectively the scores look too high for what was another thrashing at home, another game when the last 20 minutes were meaningless as the game was lost. But in the midst of it all this game was about individual mistakes which cost us dear, not the abject overall displays that we have seen of late. Still lost though.

Monday 17 November 2008

Retour Aux Basiques

What lessons can we learn from Saturday? Well, two obviously. First, don’t have your keeper eat bananas during the game and forget where he puts the skins; second – and I really should have known this – never, never, never ever leave the PC and radio when Charlton are winning. Up 2-1 going into the second half and its a quick jaunt around the Village to pick up some necessities. Steeled myself for the possibility of bad news, perhaps they’d equalised. Can’t rule it out. But 3-2 down upon return was a harsh lesson. The Charlton underpants and socks, even sometimes the python-skin boots, have been sacrificed after failing to prove themselves as the quintessential lucky accessory. Now for away games, especially now that there’s no excuse for not enduring full commentary, it’s going to have to be a case of not moving from the seat. At least until this technique fails to deliver.

Two tough away games and only one point when it might easily have been all six. But like most others (it seems) I’m more heartened than disappointed (which is not to say that the players should not take the pain and use it to redouble their resolve for the games coming up). What was essential after Barnsley and previous debacles was to play better – and more like a team, preferably even a team that has an idea of how it’s supposed to play. Two creditable performances later and there’s clearly been an improvement. As long as we maintain the improvement the results will follow. This isn’t blind over-optimism; I think we all know very little is going to be perfect this season (except the January drubbing of Palace) and so far its only a case of one step forward after a number back. It can easily still go pear-shaped again – perhaps in the event that we don’t win at least one of the batch of the next three, in which case confidence could slump once more. We don’t need reminding that we haven’t won a game since 4 October (lost four, drawn three, almost become the next Man City etc).

It’s fair to view the coming three games in seven days as a mini-season. In the past two games performances were everything. Now we need to move on and to produce a victory, whether a glorious, free-flowing rout or a ground-out battling 1-0. It don’t matter. Home to Sheff Utd and Southampton and we could be viewing four points from the two games as a fair target. Away to QPR in between, where a draw would be acceptable (win most welcome). So 4-6 points from the three games would be a decent return, which does not mean winning the first two and viewing it as job done for the third.

(It seems that for these games at least we will be able to draw on the services of 18-year-old Sunderland striker Martin Waghorn who has come in on loan. Described on the official site as pacy, this has to be something of a slap in the face for over-18-years-old-pacy-frontman-recently-returned-from-injury-and-rushed-into-first-team-action Izale McLeod, even for slightly older pacy and hardworking frontman who can’t score goals Luke Varney. Can’t comment on the move as I know nothing about him, but I’m a little surprised. I was at the youth cup game against Sunderland last season when Waghorn apparently scored against us. I find it difficult to remember any goals scored by the opposition and certainly have no recollection of this one (was it the last-minute winner?). At least we have got our own back on him by using a photo on the club site that makes him look like something out of the Munsters.)

As ever its about improvement – and let’s give Pardew some credit for the upturn in attitude and performance. Those of us who sat through humiliation at the hands of West Ham on a freezing Boxing Day some years back remember Curbishley changing formation and the team turning over Man City 4-1 away the next game. My final thoughts (for now) on the Pardew debate are not meant to be as indecisive as they sound. Bottom line is we are not going to attract the acknowledged best managers in the business; we didn’t manage that in the Premiership when Curbs left. Pardew has not proven to be the saviour many hoped and I’m sure the past month or so has shaken him. But if he can emerge from the period as a better manager and show continued improvement he is the right man for the job (that being by definition the best available).

Some clearly have simply given up on Pardew and want a change; personally I try not to lose sleep on issues which are beyond my control (which is a blessed state as very little sleep is lost). If Richard Murray feels that a change would be for the good of the club fair enough, especially as its the money of him and other directors that would be at stake, not mine. Equally, as long as he is the manager, has Murray’s backing, and we show that we can build on the recent improvement he deserves our support too. Now you can interpret this as being in favour of him staying unless and until he is sacked or backing any decision by Murray to make a change.

After all, our season is undoubtedly about to take a turn for the better. Our turnaround is a little more protracted as we have more games to play, but as we are duty-bound to track the fortunes of Lyon Duchere, my adopted French team, the omens are very good. Having failed to update their site covering the 11th round of games for CFA Groupe B the results for the 12th (from last weekend) have been added. Taking the results for the season to date it’s not exactly rocket-science to work out how La Duch fared in the missing fixture.

After a decent start to the season in the higher league (after last-match promotion the previous campaign), with three wins, a draw and one defeat in the first five, Lyon Duchere hit a sticky patch. It’s not kind to highlight the fact that this extended either side and through my one attendance at a game, with Duchere losing the game before I visited Lyon (at home 2-1), the one that I saw (0-1 away), and the one that followed (0-1 again at home). Three defeats and one goal scored. So it was a case for them of back to basics and a 0-0 draw was duly ground out away against Marignane. That paved the way for a morale-boosting 4-2 home defeat of lowly Bastia, a splendid 2-1 away success against Montpelier B, and over the weekend a third consecutive victory, 1-0 at home to Saint-Priest (which I regard as a suburb of Lyon but which my partner Suzanne assures me is a separate town, one with certain memories as it was where the wedding was held at which we met – at least I think it was as the pastis flowed freely).

The upshot is that Lyon Duchere have moved up to third in the 18-team division. As the France Football site has the top team in a different shade from the others and those placed second and third a shade in between I’m inferring (and far too lazy to confirm) that the champions get automatic promotion and the second and third-placed teams either go into a play-off or some selection process for elevation to National, France’s third division. It doesn’t take much to turn a season around in France either.

It’s going to be hard for Lyon Duchere to overtake either of the top two, however. With 32 points from 12 games (three for a win, one for a draw, and a point for each game you turn up for) and a record of won 6, drawn 2, lost 4, they are four points behind second-placed Toulon, who also have a game in hand, and five behind top-placed Hyeres. Next up for La Duch: on 29 November away against Hyeres. They can go into it with confidence and no real pressure. So all we have to do is beat Sheff Utd, QPR and Southampton and we can go into December in similar fashion.

Suzanne will be attending the Southampton game (having booked a weekend in the UK some time ago under the impression that I would get around to buying tickets for the Leonard Cohen concert in Brighton before they sold out; I didn’t, so the lucky girl gets to go to The Valley instead). She was at the Reading game and last night informed me that it wasn’t necessary for Charlton to wait until she returns before they win again. French humour you see. But may I echo the sentiment.

Friday 14 November 2008

Belated Ramblings

I don’t know. A string of dire performances and the chattering classes (of which I am a proud member) can’t stop offering their advice and opinion. A marked improvement (by the sound of it) and a decent away draw (albeit one which might obviously have been something better) and what is some people’s response? Total silence. Well, if there’s nothing much new to complain about what’s the point?

In my defence I didn’t go to Plymouth for the game (admittedly a strange sort of defence from a supporter) and had to rely on ITV’s belated Championship highlights (why do they keep changing the time on Sunday morning? It plays havoc with my schedule). As it happens Lyon was visiting London and stayed until Tuesday, which along with one or two work commitments put back any second-hand comments on the game (along the lines of what were you doing between the penalty and ‘news of another goal at Home Park’). Since then I have been waiting in vain for the good folk at France Football to update the section of their site covering CFA Groupe B to at least provide an update on the fortunes of Lyon Duchere, my adopted French team. But they too seem to have gone for an early hibernation. (The team is sitting comfortably in mid-table but a proper update will have to wait.)

So the only part of possible substance in this post is the overdue acknowledgement that Saturday at least gives us something to build on. For heaven’s sake can we please try to do that? After all, we have had the false dawns of late of the first 20 minutes against Bristol City, the second half against Burnley, and the last 10 minutes away at Ipswich. Disappointment at not getting three points is far outweighed by the impression that the attitude all round was better. I honestly don’t care much about our league position at the moment. It’s not being complacent but its too early to be desperate – we have players good enough in this division if they play to anything like their potential - and any thoughts of the play-offs are for the time being at least for the birds. I am content if there is tangible and sustained improvement – given the low base of some recent performances we are starting from.

As regards playing to potential, it seems that Ambrose will never be able to achieve that in a Charlton shirt. In the Premiership he sometimes thrived but was seldom a match-winner or managed to impose himself on games. In the Championship he seems to have gone backwards and the idea of a rejuvenated player post-operation has been something of an illusion. It’s all something of a pity, but no sorrow at his moving on (or back home). We’ll have to see whether Ipswich manage to get more out of him – if they do maybe we’ll have him back in the new year. Whether it’s a good move presumably depends on who Pardew brings in on loan.

As regards the game tomorrow, bringing back Semedo seems to have paid dividends and a bolstered midfield, with a front three/midfield five at least looks worth sticking with for away at Birmingham (assuming Semedo is fit). With Youga and Moutaouakil providing good support going forward the formation doesn’t need to be as defensive as it sounds – and at least with Todorov and Dickson involved there is the opportunity for some changes if needed. Let’s not forget we were losing for a large part of the game on Saturday, prompting changes from Pardew, rather than the starting line-up proving a revelation. Bottom line is that everyone acknowledges there have been too many changes to the team of late, so a little continuity might not go amiss.

It seems that the one area where there has been a change is in Pardew’s preparation for the game. After Plymouth he commented that "I entered the week thinking 'if I was a new manager, what would I do?' I changed everything around - training, the whole shebang - for the game and got the reaction I wanted.” Sounds fine and sensible, good idea to try to freshen things up all round. I was rather more concerned with what he said before the game: "I've really planned the week. I've looked at the team, reviewed what has brought us success and what hasn't, and addressed that. I've concentrated on the team and the players we've got, to prepare them for a tough encounter at Plymouth.” There’s been enough Pardew-bashing of late, but quite frankly what on earth do you normally do during the period before a game?

Birmingham. I can’t imagine anyone actually wanting to go to Birmingham (in truth, as a Londoner born and bred, I struggle to think of what function places like Birmingham have, other than to house people with funny accents). The only possible pleasure comes from a happy return after a Charlton success. Of course, we all know our favourite St Andrews match. But a decent number two for me is still Sasha Ilic’s heroic display in a 0-0 draw to deny Birmingham a play-off place (with our place – and our glorious triumph – already assured). We had little to play for, but with the Brummies, including the utterly unlikeable Jasper Carrot, going out of their way to try to intimidate the team responded magnificently, none more than Sasha. If we can show half the character tomorrow that the team did that day we will be fine.

Sunday 2 November 2008

No Simple Solutions, Or Ain't No Answer In Me

As they might have said in the movies, today is another day. The anger after yesterday’s game has dissipated somewhat, although real sense of concern over the team has not. Whether or not Pardew keeps his job is up to people much closer to the situation – and with much more riding on the decision - than me. All fans can do is draw some inferences from what goes on on the pitch and express their opinions on what may be wrong in as constructive a fashion as possible, at least once the dust has settled a little after another home defeat. More shocking performances like those of late and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that either we have players who don’t want to be here or players who don’t want to play for Pardew. The onus is now on them to prove otherwise.

For what its worth, and this is coming from someone who has regularly expressed exasperation at the attitude of fans too ready to moan and boo at every available opportunity, I think the fans have been quite tolerant and supportive of late. There has been an element of gallows humour in the ‘Charlton ‘Till I Die’ singing, the ‘We Want Pardew Out’ singing was effectively confined to the half-time break and the end of the game. The booing of Youga during the Bristol City game was totally counter-productive, but there has also been good support when at times during recent games the players have demonstrated an appetite for the fight. Perhaps we need to go further. Howls of derision at every misplaced pass needs to go too. We are in a crisis situation and normal rules don’t apply.

Unfortunately we live in an age when everyone feels not only entitled to an opinion but seemingly obliged to express it, however inane. This might sound a touch arrogant from a blogger, but I really don’t think players need to be told when they’ve made a mistake rather than encouragement to keep trying. One of the most depressing post-Barnsley posts was from All Quiet In The East Stand. If genuine supporters are getting so alienated by the attitude of those around them we really are in trouble. Never mind the daft ‘Respect’ campaign to protect referees, perhaps we need one to protect players.

The players that we have at the club are I believe individually better than at least most squads in this division. It seems to me that we are suffering from three key factors (glossing over the fact that at the moment we can’t score more than once at most and we can’t keep a clean sheet).

First, every good team knows its strengths and plays to them; I’ve said it before but if someone asked me what our strengths as a team were I couldn’t say. We ship too many soft goals to say we are strong defensively, clearly we don’t have an out-and-out goalscorer to feed, we haven’t yet found a central midfield partnership that works well (and have been unlucky with the injuries to Zeng and Racon), and we don’t have wide players that are delivering the goods (which is being polite to Bouazza who seems intent on doing his own thing whatever the situation). We can’t play a long-ball game even if we wanted to but equally it’s nonsense to suggest we are at the moment a good passing side or one that is especially blessed with pace.

It has been apparent in recent games that the team plays like a collection of strangers – with the notable exception of the first 20 minutes against Bristol – with very little that seems instinctive. We have lost to very average teams of late but these teams at least knew what they were trying to do, knew their limitations, and had at least a basic understanding of how to play together. Barnsley were big and made it pay (although Pardew’s claim that we missed Primus to help deal with their set pieces seemed a little strange as only one of the three goals was a header); Bristol (to be fair a better than average side) adjusted their set-up after being outplayed early on but relied on fluidity and passed their way through us.

How to address the problem? It is up to Pardew to impose a style of play and to pick the players best equipped to make it work. I honestly find it difficult to say what that should be, but too much of late smacks of trying something in the hope it comes off on the day. I thought the training ground is where you experiment (and from the tone of his post-match comments Pardew seems to be ready to embrace the idea that when it comes to match-day you pick your best team available). From what we’ve seen of late Todorov made the team play better. He’s an experienced player, so ask him who he finds it easiest to play with. We’re clearly not equipped to play a long-ball game, even if we wanted to, so tell Weaver and others that balls hit long, high and hopeful are off the agenda. That approach also supports Moutaouakil (who I thought played well against Barnsley, I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to say so after the game) and Youga as the full-backs.

Second, every good team has a reliable spine. Weaver may never be a keeper to dominate his area but has more than compensated for that in other respects and he and Hudson are the first names on the teamsheet, but that’s about it as far as a reliable structure is concerned. We have to establish one. With Shelvey not really in the picture at the moment and without Zheng and Racon, we seem to be alternating two from Holland, Bailey and Wright in central midfield. I’m not sure why Semedo hasn’t had a look-in here, having done a more than capable job of providing the defensive midfield cover for much of the first half of last season. It has to be back to basics for a while and that suggests one holding player – Holland or Semedo, who can alternate when the fixtures pile up – and one encouraged to play box-to-box. Bailey is struggling after a fine start for us and we’ve not seen enough of Wright to say whether he is what we need. But with a spell now of one game a week it’s up to Pardew to decide on his preferred combination and stick to it, to give the players a chance to get used to each other. Up front for me, as long as his legs are up to it, its Todorov and whoever can best take advantage of his link-up play, be it Varney, Dickson or McLeod.

Third, an inevitable lack of confidence and an unfortunate lack of character. The two are related. Confidence cannot magically reappear but when its in short supply players have to work harder. If they don’t have the character to respond to errors and criticism by redoubling efforts they are no use to us in our current predicament. I can’t say what that means in terms of team selection, you have to be in the dressing room to see the dynamics.

Another ramble bereft of conclusions? Possibly, but what do you expect? There is no magic solution and improvement is down to honest assessments of what is going wrong and what can be done about it. There is a need to acknowledge that at the moment, despite the quality available, we could struggle against a pub team. We don’t need announcements telling us how close we are to a play-off spot when we are playing so poorly (and at least we should be spared them for a while) and it’s pointless to think about our current league position (no, it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference that we are now in the bottom three). The focus has to be entirely on improving performances as a team. If we manage that the rest will follow.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

In his programme notes Pardew wrote that, while he could not dictate the outcome of this afternoon’s game, he “can dictate the mood in the dressing room”. Well, unless he’s a bloody good comedian he can’t even do that. There is little point in writing a detailed match report. After this latest shambles there is only one question and that is whether the manager stays or goes. On today’s evidence, plus what went on against Bristol City and Burnley – Ipswich too by all accounts, although I wasn’t there – he has some explaining to do to justify why he should keep his job, apart from the cost of sacking him. He’s pretty much lost the fans and the players are giving no indication that they want to play for him. There’s something obviously rotten in the state of SE7 and it has to change because at the moment we’re on a downward spiral.

I think everyone was surprised by the starting line-up. We had been led to believe that Gray would be absent for a while for family reasons, reasons which presumably affected his training of late. He lasted 90 minutes but I can’t remember a meaningful contribution from him. Ambrose we are led to believe is lined up for a swap for Ipswich’s Campo. Bailey is out of form and struggling and Wright is still finding his feet at this level. And Varney looks like he needs a rest. Yet they all played. Bailey and Wright in central midfield, Ambrose and Sam out wide, and Gray and Varney up front. Todorov and Dickson on the bench.

The lack of cohesion in midfield meant very little service to two front men short of confidence. Any team that plays Darren Moore looks set up to be comfortable against a side that hoofs the ball forward to two not especially big strikers. But that’s what we did, including too often from Weaver. More from the programme notes on the Burnley game: “I made a couple of changes at half-time and the response was instant”. Kind of begs the question what were you doing with the formation in the first half.

The cause was not exactly helped by conceding after a minute or so, with a set-piece half-cleared but Macken having all the time he needed from around the edge of the area to pick his spot. Another set piece, another shot, Weaver saved but Macken buried the rebound. And from a corner a headed third. After that it was game over. We scored in the second half but there was no real suggestion of a comeback.

For what it’s worth the half-time change in this game was Bouazza for Sam, with Bouazza going on to provide a second-half performance that epitomised why he should not be considered: a few runs with the intent of producing a Bouazza shot and then total indifference when switched to the left when Dickson came on for Wright, with Varney moving out wide right (where he did look more comfortable and made a few things happen, including getting the free kick for our goal) and Ambrose moving into the centre. We looked more cohesive after that but by then the game was lost and Barnsley were not exactly exerting themselves. Oh, and Dickson looked like a pale imitation of the enthusiastic and exciting player of a year ago.

We have had a lot of games in a short space of time and have been looking to players who might not yet be up to playing two a week. But everything that Pardew has tried in terms of starting X1s has not worked. Making changes at half-time is a poor substitute for getting it right from the start. And when we did that, against Bristol, we fell apart once we went behind. The team quite frankly doesn’t know what it is doing collectively and the responsibility for that has to fall on the manager’s shoulders.

Poxy, wet and cold day. Barnsley weren’t very good, but like all the teams we have played recently they didn’t have to be. There are no positives to take from the game. And I can’t for the life of me think why I’m writing this – or why anyone should bother to read it.