Wednesday 22 August 2012

Befuddled But Happy Thoughts

I’ll plead guilty to any charge of dereliction of duty. Instead of dashing back home after the final whistle (perhaps with some leeway to stay for Sir Chris’ celebration) and scribbling something asap, we felt an urgent need to raise a glass in tribute. Then each time it was time to leave for a train someone hadn’t finished, which left no alternative but to have another. By the time we’d made it back, picked up the takeaway, had more wine while watching last season’s DVD, it was well past my bedtime. My plea of mitigation is that the outcome was the result of my head still being somewhere up a mountain in Italy; I think it’s going to be there for a while yet, long after the hangover has cleared. So no match report from me, just some random thoughts (and they have to be random because there’s no possibility of me being able to join up the dots this morning).

First, I’ll accept full responsibility for our failure to win at Birmingham. We were haring back up from Italy to Lyon (along the Route Napoleon) on Saturday afternoon. Before 3pm UK time, the shirt came out and the badge was kissed. It was hot, bloody hot, so instead of putting the shirt on it rested on my lap. That seemed to be sufficient as the text confirming Cort’s goal came through. With about five minutes left we stopped for a glass. Parked and walked over to the bar, but stupidly I left the shirt in the car. Should be OK I thought as the game must be over. Another text, must be confirmation. Alas, I had clearly broken the unwritten code and we paid the price. It will never happen again.

What pleased me most in the pub before last night’s game (in addition to hearing about the Fuller signing) was hearing from those who went to Birmingham that the team showed all the signs of having retained the level of commitment and determination of last season. And last night that was evident in bucketloads. The quality of some of the play wasn’t bad either, but if individually and collectively the character and resolve shined through, in the tackling, covering and willingness to throw bodies in the way was exemplary. We maintain this – and have this as the template for the players brought in – and we will at the least be fine.

I thought the main difference between the sides in the first half – aside from the fact that we took our chances and they didn’t (in particular Beckford missed with his shot and Wright-Phillips didn’t) - was Pritchard. He found space out wide but also came inside and they didn’t seem to know how to pick him up. The changes they made at the break altered the picture and in the second half Pritchard barely got a look-in. No doubt their movement and link-up play going forward was better than ours, even in the first half; it was even occasionally enjoyable to watch after what we’ve become accustomed to in the past three seasons. But while Morrison and Cort were dominant in the air and our box was generally well protected, Leicester couldn’t say the same. I felt Cort deserved a lot of the credit for Kermorgant’s strike. He didn’t flick on the ball in but his presence made sure that no defender got near it either.

At half-time the game reminded me of Huddersfield at home last season. In each area of the pitch our players were winning the battles and we had the weapons to score. They presumably had something of a telling off at the break and a mix of the substitutions, their greater resolve, and the early goal back made for an extremely testing final 30 minutes. It was a challenge we rose to and they were probably limited to three true chances (the free header late on, the diverted cross which went just wide, and one break where their guy should have put in a better shot). On another night one might have gone in – and Leicester can undoubtedly feel aggrieved not to have taken something from the game – but we had our goals in the bag already. I don’t think we sat back but were rather pushed back by a good side, with some tired legs in midfield leading to an increasing reluctance to make forward runs (the priority being not to get caught out), leading to more hopeful balls forward and far less good possession in their half, which kept us under pressure.

It was delightful to see BWP score in a fashion reminiscent of the first half of last season. My only criticism of him last night was in his passing sometimes when having shielded the ball (which he did well). When a forward is in possession the tendency is for the midfield to be moving up, which makes it very dangerous to give the ball away with a weak pass, especially against a team like Leicester. But keep knocking them in and any criticism will be entirely relative.

Their goal was something that Powell and others will be looking at on the training pitch. From a goal kick their forwards stood some yards behind our central defenders. They then weren’t sure whether to move forward to contest the kick or back to cover the forwards. Hesitation meant they got caught betwixt and between, creating the space. It looked like something Leicester have worked on; full marks to them, no problems as long as we learn the lesson.

A thoroughly entertaining game – and one played in the best of spirits by both teams (I can’t remember a bad foul) – and a really great result. If they had nicked an equaliser late on we would have been left wondering where the first win will come from, increasing the pressure on Saturday, and worrying about our ability to hold leads. Instead we can enjoy the table (top and bottom), which in some obvious respects reflects the world being back to normal. The fact that there were no bad tackles doesn’t mean that the ref didn’t make two bad howlers. I thought we should have had a penalty in the first few minutes, when after a corner their guy went through Morrison from behind to get to the ball. Then in stoppage time there was a clear shove on our defender as he went to contest a ball through, which resulted in their winger getting clear. That almost cost us two points. And as for making Morrison leave the pitch for the final corner, with Schmeikel coming up, surely there has to be a little common sense.

So there’s still a grin on my face as I wait for the hangover to subside. Thanks to the poor planning on the part of my partner Suzanne’s relatives (why on earth plan a French wedding without looking at the fixture list?) I can’t make Hull on Saturday. Unless ... The wedding is in Lille. Can I make some excuse about not feeling well, run to Lille Europe for the Eurostar, get across town, watch the game, then get a train back? Everything is possible, but this may be to risk more brownie points than I have in the bag at the moment.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Plan A, Or Is It B?

It does indeed seem that life for us Addicks bloggers is set to get more complicated this season – and Sir Chris has to take the blame. Through the entirety of the last campaign it was 4-4-2 week in, week out. You can imagine the dressing room discussions: “what formation for this one Boss?” “Have a guess”. We were able to indulge in debate over whether Kermorgant should get the nod over Haynes (that one didn’t last long as it turned out), whether Green or Wagstaff should start, and the relative merits of Hollands’ various partners in central midfield. Otherwise it was just a case of trying to find different words to describe yet another glorious victory (I have bought the DVD but still can’t remember any games we didn’t win). Now it seems we’re expected to blow off the cobwebs and try to think about what Plan B or C might look like (and whether Plan A is about to become Plan D).

Of course we can’t yet tell whether formation changes in the friendlies are just testing out possibilities, whether they are motivated by the attributes of those brought in (to which can be added Kerkar, although rather curiously only on a one-year contract), the fact that Hollands has been missing, or possibly to see whether others can thrive in an altered set-up. Powell may have played most of his football for us under Curbishley in a 4-4-2, but that also changed to 4-5-1 when we lacked a decent second striker to play alongside Bent and had the talent in midfield and out wide. Murphy thrived in it in a fashion that he couldn’t repeat in a 4-4-2. So nothing’s set in stone.

Every team needs to be flexible, to be able to respond when things aren’t going to plan, and even to make changes to accommodate the opposition. Last season we could take on everyone (except Stevanage) without thinking about changes; this time around may well be different. My own attitude, for what it’s worth, is that there is no optimal formation in itself, only formation(s) that get the best out of the available talent. We will need Plans B, C and D, but the priority is to be clear on just what constitutes Plan A – and why. I don’t think there’s any real danger of Powell turning into a tinker man and am first to acknowledge that he has forgotten more about formations than I will ever know.

Last season we weren’t exactly blessed with pace, were effective rather than always beautiful (of course that depends on your definition of beautiful, as in this beholder’s eye it amounts to going home with another victory to mull over), but tended to overpower teams, aware that the defence wouldn’t often leak goals (bugger, I’ve just remembered Notts County) and we’d get one or two from somewhere, not least the set pieces. Against higher quality opposition that alone may be sufficient to compete, but obviously you’d expect the points returns to run lower as others will be able to match us in those areas. So let’s experiment away and then work on Plan A, whatever it may be.

At least now the number of new players in matches the number of directors out. I’m not privy to any inside information and have no idea whether there have been disagreements, personality clashes, or more deep-seated issues involved. Presumably Stephen Kavanagh will be bound by some confidentiality clauses, especially as he remains employed by the club, so it’s unlikely we’ll be finding out what’s really gone on any time soon. Nobody can quibble about the effectiveness of the board in backing Powell last season, if not with substantial net spending on transfers then with sufficient working capital for what remains a loss-making enterprise. There would have been no point in the takeover if that capital had not been made available. Slater has shown himself to be a personable and effective front man, while Jiminez has remained in the background. But we know that they don’t provide at least the bulk of the cash.

The owners of the club have chosen an intransparent structure and to not reveal details of all involved. That is a choice, and it’s unlikely to be one made because they are shy, retiring sorts not looking for the adulation of us Addicks. All choices have consequences, in this case a lack of information encouraging speculation and rumours. The board either has to live with this or provide more information. That is another choice for the people involved to make.

Now for me, scribbling away in sunny Lyon (well, it did bucket down when I arrived last night, just to make me feel welcome), the next two weeks will be devoted to meditation and reflection on the merits of different formations ahead of Birmingham and Leicester. To encourage the process it is best to drink lots of Italian red wine (tried bread and water in the wilderness for 40 days but decided it had been done before and didn’t work so gave up after half an hour). I’m sure my partner Suzanne has other plans for a two-week break, but life’s full of surprises and I know my Plan A.