Saturday 22 October 2011

No Contest By Half-Time

Having just moaned about the failure in the past four league games to score in the first half, you can hardly complain about anything – team selection, tactics, attitude etc – when this time around we reach the break 3-0 up and are playing against 10 men. And indeed, I have no complaints, even if I did have to get up at sparrow’s fart with a sore head from the previous night’s excesses in a Lyon buchon to make it to the game. After the flight back, dash across, and a few glasses I didn’t want a nailbiter. And this turned out to be as relaxed a game as you could want. The final 40 minutes were totally irrelevant, once their keeper had gifted us a fourth.

It would be tempting to conclude that after a defeat and doubts about team selection we went out and took the game by the scruff of the neck from the start. But that wouldn’t be the truth. Truth is, after an even first 10 minutes Carlisle gave us the game by conceding two quite soft goals. That they went on to concede a third, then had a player sent off (quite rightly), before the break meant that I went home perfectly content. But I don’t think today told us anything about the challenges that lie ahead. We should take the credit for winning very, very comfortably. And I’ve no complaints that we didn’t go on to score more. There’s another game coming up on Tuesday night and if Carlisle needed convincing that it wasn’t going to be their day not converting a soft penalty just about drove the message home.

In the event Sir Chris stuck to the Kermorgant and Green option over Hayes and Wagstaff. Solly was reinstated at right-back, as was to be expected, and the only change was that Hughes came in for Stephens, who was it seems away on family duties. With Stephens not available, the choice was perhaps more straightforward. Nevertheless, there was some pressure to show that the changed set-up could work from the start. And the first 10 minutes were inconclusive. The play was even, but perhaps ominously we had two decent chances, with Green putting in a decent shot and then Wright-Phillips played in only to be a bit slow off the starting blocks – perhaps thinking he was offside – and the defender getting back.

The breakthrough when it came was simple – and pointed to defensive frailties that were to make the game a non-contest. Wiggins and Jackson played a one-two down the left and the former’s cross found Kermorgant effectively unmarked. He did the decent thing and headed it into the net. Ten minutes later Hamer picked out BWP with a long clearance, but the defender had it covered, until he weakly headed back in the direction of their keeper and poacher that he is BWP nipped in to convert from a narrow angle. After 20 minutes, without being especially convincing, we were 2-0 up. Suddenly the world seemed back to rights. There were a few tricky moments, mostly coming from them down their left, but as the break approached you thought one more goal and it’s all over.

Wiggins again did the business. He took the ball down the left and instead of crossing kept going before squaring it. A couple of efforts were blocked before the ball fell to Kermorgant, who fairly hammered it into the roof of the net. If that wasn’t enough, their guy – who had already been booked for his second foul on Green – was caught out by Wright-Phillips and responded with a kick/trip that earned a second yellow. If that wasn’t enough, shortly into the second half Hollands intercepted a pass just inside their half. As he advanced you thought he’d lay it off, but instead kept going and hit a shot that ... went through their keeper’s legs. 4-0 and the game was truly up. Their embarrassed keeper’s next contribution was to lay out his own defender when taking a cross.

Carlisle kept playing and not surprisingly we eased off, but there was never any suggestion that they could get back into the game. Not even when the linesman had a bad moment and gave one of those penalties for the ball stricking a hand as the cross is made, when there’s no intent at all. Poor decision, but it really didn’t matter as Hamer dived to his right to save the spot kick. That the referee – denied the get-out of a linesman’s flag – failed to give us a penalty when a ball crossed in was virtually caught by their defender didn’t matter at all. The final 40 minutes or so were played out as something of a training ground exercise. Wagstaff came on for Green, then Euell for Hollands, and finally Hayes for Wright-Phillips. Other chances came and went, but when the sign went up for three added minutes – despite five substitutions and a few lengthy injuries – the feeling was it might have well have been one. There was a glass with my name on it and a takeaway still to come.

The way the game turned out could be interpreted as us responding well to our first league defeat. In truth, we just didn’t find out as Carlisle’s defensive failties meant the game was if not handed to us made very easy. There’s no criticism implied, you can only beat what’s in front of you – and we had the weapons to do that. So let’s worry about Wycombe and others to come tomorrow and be happy bunnies tonight.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Has to get an extra mark for a penalty save; otherwise everything through the afternoon was routine.

Solly – 6/10. Was given some troublesome moments by their guy down their left, and may have been a little uncertain having been dropped for a game, even if this was tactical. But nothing to worry about.

Wiggins – 8/10. On actual performance he should be man-of-the-match; laid on two of our first three goals and otherwise, apart from being ridiculously penalised for an inadvertent handball, once more didn’t put a foot wrong. Evina must be tearing his hair out.

Morrison – 7/10. He and Taylor, restored as the central defensive partnership, made no mistakes and handled all that was thrown at them. That it didn’t amount to much is not their fault.

Taylor – 7/10. As for Morrison.

Jackson – 7/10. Effective without being demonstrative, instrumental in the first goal, and threatened to score.

Hollands – 7/10. Can’t really give him the extra point for his goal, splendid as it was. This wasn’t a game that ended up testing us.

Hughes – 8/10. Perhaps a generous mark, but he’s my man-of-the-match. At the start of the season you’d have thought he’d be behind Pritchard, Alonso and perhaps even Bover. But he came in and did a calmly effective job. Just what you want from a guy waiting for the chance.

Green – 7/10. Not explosive, but after what seemed to have been a poor display against Stevenage he did the basics well, which meant getting in good crosses.

Kermorgant – 8/10. The guy scored two goals. Barely featured in the second half, but the game was over by then.

Wright-Phillips – 7/10. Scored a goal he had no right to; otherwise a bit lacklustre but again, today we didn’t need him to be firing on all cylinders.

Subs – Wagstaff (6-10 – had the opportunity to make a real nuisance of himself against a side already beaten; didn’t really take it, but again the game was already over); Euell (7/10 – came on to play in central midfield and played the ball around well enough); Hayes (6/10 – no real chance to impress as all around him were playing at 50%).

Friday 21 October 2011

Five To One

Five to one in a couple of weeks. Having viewed the October fixtures following Sheff Utd away as on paper at least less challenging than those coming up in November, offering the opportunity to drive home the advantage, we’ve obviously stuttered. That the stumble has coincided with the first material changes to the team to date hasn’t helped the cause and there’s no doubt that Sir Chris faces a selection dilemma for tomorrow’s game. Reinstate Hayes and Wagstaff for Kermorgant and Green and if we win it looks as if it was a mistake to have made the change; stick with the same starting X1 and .... well, we all know the permutations.

I would suspect that if we were playing away tomorrow there would be no question – barring injury, mishap etc – that Hayes and Wagstaff would be back at the start. But we’re not and there’s a trickier decision to be made if we expect Carlisle to play it tight. We’ve seen the references to Carlisle looking to take advantage of our ‘nerves’ and to be going for the win, but that doesn’t mean some gung-ho approach to the game. Bottom line is we have to focus on ourselves and how we want to play the game from the start. Powell is undoubtedly correct to suggest that you need Plans A, B, C and D; but the danger is forgetting just what Plan A is. If we start with Kermorgant and Green that is by definition Plan A. The point about B, C and D is that they come into play if things are not working out and changes need to be made. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the problem with starting with these two is that the back-up plan doesn’t look strong if we find ourselves chasing the game.

Let’s start with the statistics. First one, which we mustn’t lose sight of, is that after more than a quarter of the season we are top of the league. We are in the position everyone else, including Huddersfield, wants to be. We have earned that. Forget Brentford, it was irrelevant. A disappointing home draw followed by away defeat doesn’t amount to a slump; for the time being it’s a hiccup. It becomes a slump if we don’t win tomorrow. But the more meaningful statistic for me is that in our last four league games we’ve failed to score in the first half; and in the ones that I watched (MK Dons and Tranmere) we didn’t look like scoring; from others’ accounts the same could be said of Sheff Utd and Stevenage. And it’s not as if the switch to Kermorgant and Green is responsible. At MK Dons we were quite simply outplayed in the first half; against Tranmere we were equally lacklustre before the break.

No team can dominate for 90 minutes and I can’t point to a game so far this season (having missed a number) in which we’ve been in charge throughout. For me the best starting period to a game was at home against Sheff Wed. For the first 20 minutes or so we mullered them and could well have put the game to bed then. But thereafter we deteriorated and we undoubtedly second-best after the break. Perhaps the message is that we are, at least as yet, not good enough to be able to play at the right tempo, sticking to a game plan, through a full game. But compare the absence of goals in the first half in the last four games with the remarkable statistic previously of the number of matches in which we have gone 2-0 ahead (yes, I know we ended up in that position against Sheff Utd). If you add away at Bury, when Powell said we weren’t at the races in the first half, and you get a picture of very uneven performances through the season.

That perhaps leads us to the obvious conclusion: when we’re good we’re very, very good and when we’re not we’re ordinary. I rather doubt that there’s some magic formula to being good which can be periodically applied (unless it’s down to the pre- and during-match supplements), but there has to be something in the attitude of the team starting a game. Powell has stressed the need to be patient, especially in home games. No question. But being patient means neither the crown nor the team getting unsettled if we’re not quickly ahead; it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to be ponderous and unambitious in our play from the start, seemingly on an assumption that all will be fine as and when we get going.

As the song goes on to say, ‘five to one, baby, one in five; no-one here gets out alive; now you get yours baby, I’ll get mine; gonna make it baby; if we try’. Plan A for me this season is about the pace and tempo at which we play and the message from recent games is that we need to begin games with greater conviction and sense of urgency (not panic). We’ve shown we’re able to play better football than most others if not all others in this division for spells. But these spells are a damn sight less effective if we’re losing and the opposition can play to their strengths. So yes, for me it’s back to Hayes and Wagstaff to start tomorrow, with a genuinely effective Plan B ready and waiting, but whatever the decision let’s see the first half not wasted.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Point Rescued

I have to admit to a slight sense of foreboding ahead of the game. If France can beat England in a rugby World Cup and if Wales can reach the semi-final of anything, the world’s turned upside down – and on a day like that Tranmere turning us over might be par for the course. In the event the football proved to be similar to the rugby in that we put in a first-half display that was well below par and found ourselves deservedly behind. But at least it wasn’t 16-0. We improved in the second and on another day might have taken all three points – undeservedly on the balance of play and chances over the 90 minutes, but with Wright-Phillips of all people failing to convert from a couple of yards out and according to others another penalty denied . We might have lost it too, with Tranmere carrying a threat throughout and Hamer and Morrison grateful that after a failure to communicate and a collision the ball bobbled behind for a corner rather than their guy getting a tap-in. Also, I felt one of theirs should have seen red. By the same token our goal came from the sort of penalty you only get once or twice a season. So, strange day, take the draw and move on.

There were rare changes to the team, with Green and Kermorgant getting the nod ahead of Wagstaff and Hayes, who were on the bench (with Doherty included there as Cort was unavailable). Both had earned the starting places with cameo substitute contributions, and there was an obvious logic to picking Green to provide the crosses if the threat in the air of Kermorgant was to be used. But fact is they didn’t really work. A lot of Hayes’ work involves making himself available and linking up play, helping to get the midfield engine room of Hollands and Stephens going. Without that, we had a tendency to go long towards Kermorgant, and Tranmere were up for that challenge, with an experienced centre-back in Goodison. The related problem in starting with these two is that the options to turn a game around with impact players on the bench were lacking.

With Green struggling to find space and get in the game, we failed to create anything meaningful in the first half. I can only remember a shot from Wiggins on his right foot which went wide. By contrast, Tranmere didn’t look blessed with pace but had a game plan and generally bossed midfield, were in control of our forwards, and with Showunmi carried a threat going forward. They’d already bungled a great opportunity as two went for the ball in the area and got in each other’s way, but after a couple of harmless long-range efforts they took the lead with something of a fluke. Their guy shaped to cross from the left and either he sliced it or it took a deflection (consensus on the way back was that it did indeed come off Solly) and Hamer was left stranded having come a bit off his line, with the ball squirting in at the near post.

At the break we’d given a passable impression of underestimating our opponents and, whatever the line-up, not putting in the drive and effort needed to win the game. It left me thinking that this was the third game in a row in which we’d failed to score in the first period, the second of which we’ve gone in behind. Something for Sir Chris to ponder since as England found out sometimes the game is lost in the first half.

The workrate had to improve in the second half and it did. And we started to see some cracks emerging as once put under pressure Tranmere looked less than comfortable, especially with a goalkeeper who when not timewasting – just why do refs give a guy a warning for this in the first half and when it’s repeated go and have a chat to them instead of just brandishing a yellow? – seemed likely to spill anything that came his way. We nearly had a farcical own goal to celebrate as two defenders managed to contrive to bundle a harmless cross just wide, then said keeper nearly let a shot through his grasp. The play was still fairly even, with midfield keenly contested, but at least we were making some things happen.

Green was more involved in the second half and delivered one excellent cross, but it wasn’t surprising that he gave way for Wagstaff, who nearly had an immediate impact, running through before being blocked off (and Tranmere’s tackling was keen through the game). It was around this time that we were denied a penalty. The ball was being seen out for a corner when their guy clearly shoved ours off the ball. The ref gave a free kick just outside the box where our guy fell, but those I talked to in the North Stand say the challenge was inside. The free kick itself should be glossed over as a training ground move saw it squared straight to a defender.

The penalty when it came was a surprise. Wright-Phillips was doing good stuff outside the box and he won a corner. The ball was crossed and in the usual melee somebody must have climbed on somebody. The ref had no doubts and clearly indicated climbing, but you don’t get them often. Tranmere tried every trick in the book to unsettle Jackson, playing around with encroachment and their keeper even going forward and picking the ball up off the spot. To absolutely no avail as Jackson simply buried it low to the keeper’s left.

That still left around 15 minutes to win the game and our golden opportunity came as the ball bobbled in the box and Wright-Phillips twisted round to bury it a la Mendonca. Unfortunately this time around he made minimal contact and from a couple of yards out it looped up for their keeper to collect. There were other moments, but nothing to compare – except for the Hamer-Morrison misunderstanding that left both in need of treatment and their forward cursing his luck that he couldn’t catch up with the ball. Just one more incident to mention. Just how does their player not get a red card when after a midfield tussle which left him and our guy on the deck and, with the ball 20 yards away, as ours gets to his feet is clearly kicked? The ref gave us a free kick but took no further action.

So, a game we could have lost but which if we’d turned up in the first half might well have won. We’re far from perfect and, after we all indulged in some deserved back-slapping after the Sheff Utd game, this afternoon served as a reminder that there aren’t many walkovers in this division. They didn’t come to shut up shop and more than matched us for passing and movement in the first half. We’ve got where we are by hard work and if the tempo of our play drops we are a shadow of the team that we can be – and need to be if we are to retain our current position. As in the rugby, we gave our opponents hope and something to fight for with a below-par first-half display. That in turn raises the question for Powell as to the best starting X1 as on prevailing form the changes made were justified but sometimes, like a rowing team, the boat goes faster with a different combination. All to be sorted out on the training ground before Stevanage.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 7/10. Don’t think he can be blamed for the goal, despite being beaten at his near post, but has to share the fault for the incident with Morrison which could have cost us the game. Otherwise dealt with the high balls well.

Solly – 7/10. Was caught out a couple of times and picked up a yellow for a late tackle, but for the most part held up well once more against much bigger opponents. Their goal may have deflected off him, but that’s just one of those things.

Wiggins – 7/10. Another calmly effective game. Doesn’t seem to like passing or shooting with his right foot, however.

Morrison – 7/10. For the most part he and Taylor dealt well with an evident threat in the air and the physical presence of Showunmi. Just that collision again.

Taylor – 7/10. As with Morrison, no nonsense and effective against a big team.

Jackson – 7/10. I’d just about make him our man of the match for the calmness with which he waited for and then took the penalty. Otherwise mixed game as we seldom had control of midfield and didn’t pop up in the box as he often does.

Hollands – 6/10. We struggled to get our passing game going and central midfield has to be a key part of that. Didn’t play badly, but didn’t stand out either.

Stephens – 6/10. As with Hollands. They are the engine room of the team and for much of the game it didn’t get out of a low gear.

Green – 6/10. He was in the team to provide the ammunition and came up short today. Still seems to be feeling his way back after the missed games.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Again, won a fair share of headers and almost played people in once or twice. But by and large was shackled by their defenders.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. You wouldn’t have wanted that chance to fall to anyone else, but for once he failed to convert.

Sub – Wagstaff (7/10 – caused them problems when he came on; he and Green are I hope going to contest the spot through the season and it may well be a case of one starting and one finishing a game).

Sunday 2 October 2011

First-Quarter Report: Bloody Hell!

As the first quarter of the season is effectively completed, it’s time to draw breath and assess progress to date. It’s a difficult task for a natural-born contrarian. We’re five points clear at the top, unbeaten, won eight out of 11, with the exception of a couple of outfits based in Manchester have the best points-per-game return in the country, have not just scored in every game but have only failed to score at least twice in two, and have kept four clean sheets. Some concern that we might be rabbit-killers who would struggle against the better sides in the division (as with the exception of Sheff Wed we hadn’t played them) were dispelled by getting a deserved point away at MK Dons and then winning away at Sheff Utd.

In addition, with Green back from his virus, Alonso hopefully getting close, and Cort and Kermorgant brought in, we have much better options from the bench and to cover for inevitable injuries and suspensions, nobody in the first team is playing badly enough to merit being replaced, and we are playing (albeit not yet for full games, which may be a little too much to ask) with panache and style, as well as determination when things are not going to plan (as in the first half at MK Dons). We have the division’s best finisher in Wright-Phillips, who’s notched seven in 10 starts, Hayes and Kermorgant have contributed five between them, and the midfield has more than chipped in (in fact the only statistics against us are the penalties count and the absence so far of goals from the central defenders). And to round things off for me we have a Frenchman scoring goals (which might ease Suzanne’s pain next Saturday when England demolish France in the funny-shaped ball game) and a philosophy fan (Alonso) waiting in the wings.

The season to date consequently amounts to a massive success for Sir Chris and his staff, for everyone involved in the selection of the players brought in, and directly or indirectly for the new owners. It’s been rightly pointed out by New York Addick in particular that the actual net investment made in new players looks quite limited, taking account of the fee received for Jenkinson. And as outlined in the recent Evening Standard piece we are guessing over most of the fees paid, while we still see references to the club having been close to administration without adequate explanations. These concerns will linger, but for the time being at least pale in comparison with the delight in how things have gone. They couldn't have gone any better if we'd shelled out millions. Just how Powell, Dyer et al have shaped an effective and entertaining team almost from scratch in such a short space of time leaves me speechless. I think given the new influx at the start of the season we would have settled for a top six spot and signs of improvement for this point. I know I would have.

So what can go wrong? Well, for a start Powell is a shoo-in for September manager of the month, just 10 months after Parkinson picked up his award for last November. Injuries and suspensions are bound to arise, we have yet to see how the team might respond to a setback (during games they’ve turned things around, especially against Bury and MK Dons, but we will lose sooner or later), and there’s always the Epicurean Swerve (the unpredictable). Of course there’s no room for any complacency; this division is too competitive for that not to be punished. Perhaps the biggest concern is that from now on we are going to be targeted. Other teams will by now have a good idea how we play and will start to better assess how to stop us. The only game I’ve seen so far where we were effectively neutralised and ended up looking second-best was the Sheff Wed home game, where their physicality and desire to play the game in the air wore us down. We can expect more of the same, especially at The Valley.

This division may be competitive – and will become a scrap when the league fixtures come thick and fast in January-March – but it’s not one in which teams tend to dramatically improve. Apart from Scunthorpe, who I thought would be up there, there are no real surprises regarding who stands where. Huddersfield, Preston, MK Dons, and both Sheffield clubs would have been among most people’s pre-season predictions to be in or around the top six, with Brentford Notts County and Colchester perhaps in the mix. We haven’t played Preston or Huddersfield yet (forget the Carling Cup).

If the season goes in stages it’s fair to say that October looks like a month in which we have the potential to drive home our current advantage. Games against Tranmere and Carlisle at home and Stevenage and Wycombe away all appear winnable (no, not grounds for complacency) before November brings what on paper are stiffer tests – Hartlepool, Preston, Brentford and Huddersfield. After these two months we will have played 19 games and be approaching the halfway mark and there might then be the occasion for a fresh assessment. May it be as positive as the one for the first quarter.

For me, this time around the Amsterdam trip threatens to rule out the vital clash against Brentford on Wednesday night. I’m not against the principle of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but for us it has absolutely no value or interest. Even so, with the return flight due to land at City Airport at 18.30 I might just take leave of my senses (it has been known to happen) and turn up in a suit with luggage. After that and Tranmere, Lyon rules out any thoughts of a trip to Stevenage (I believe Suzanne has booked us in for a wine fair for the afternoon; I just hope the French don’t mistake intermittent howls of joy followed by a dance round the hall as necessarily a reflection of the quality of the sample I’m quaffing), but barring disasters the flight back the following Saturday has been planned to allow time to get across London for the Carlisle game. And after that Wycombe away looks entirely doable. That’s as far ahead as I’ve ever managed to plan.