Saturday 29 September 2012

Almost A Good Win

You’re never going to be truly satisfied with a draw at home when the second half is goalless and you have the majority of the chances on offer. But in the circumstances it didn’t feel that bad; a late winner would not have flattered us (and there were possibilities) while Blackburn, after a fairly traumatic 24 hours, were content to see out the game. If there was a neutral’s man of the match it would probably have gone to their keeper Robinson, which says enough, even though the best chance to win the game has to go down as an unwanted block by Wright-Phillips (more of that later). You had the impression that after losing their manager the night before the game they were happy with a point, and that after losing another striker we weren’t too disappointed either, unless Jackson’s injury proves to be serious.

The surprise before kick-off was that Fuller was out of the picture (I have checked the club site and it cites illness). Rather than Smith getting a start (or a late call going out to Scunthorpe to recall Clarke), the choice was to go 4-5-1 with BWP ploughing a lone furrow and Hollands returning in a packed midfield. Now in my book 4-5-1 works in one of two ways: either you are Spurs with Allen, who did nothing except for knocking the ball in the net (repeatedly) after a midfield including Hoddle, Ardilles et al did all the work, or you are Chelsea with a Drogba and Robben and Duff either side. We did once have the latter, with Bent up front, Thomas and Rommadahl out wide, and a midfield of Murphy, Smertin and Kishishev. It’s why I couldn’t bring myself to join in the booing of Murphy; he was petulant, abrasive and generally dislikeable, and he threw his toys out the pram when leaving us (having not been recalled for England and dropped by Curbs when we switched back to 4-4-2). But he played in the best Charlton team I’ve ever seen.

I guess the point is that with a five-man midfield you need fluidity, especially if it’s not a de facto 4-3-3. The formation was forced on us, and in the end we nearly came away with the win. But in the first half especially there wasn’t enough movement to really make it work. It needed one of Hollands, Stephens and Jackson to be bombing forward and too often they played their natural game. Not really criticism of them, or of the formation, but there was a feeling in the crowd (I think) that goals would be hard to come by, unless Green and/or Kerkar made the difference, or Morrison and/or Cort produced something from a set piece. In the event, it was a case of almost, on all fronts.

It was another edgy start, with us trying to adapt to not knocking balls forward in the air and both wingers trying to come to terms with the fact that a decent cross from out wide would probably be fruitless. Sometimes the ball had to be hit high and part of the problem was that Wright-Phillips managed to win some, to his credit but to no practical advantage given that nobody was going to be further forward than him. But we had a couple of half-chances, with a Cort header going over the bar and a Kerkar shot-come-cross going narrowly past the far post. Just when we seemed to be finding a way into the game they scored, after around 15 minutes.

You have to say it was a decent goal. Their midfield guy saw an opportunity to make a well-timed run forward down our left side and for once Solly was caught out. The ball was delivered well, he ran on to it, past the static Solly, and finished well, giving Hamer no chance. The thought at that point was that there was still enough Premiership quality about them that we might find it difficult to get back into things, especially with Rhodes up front. That it didn’t turn out that way is to our credit as Cort and Morrison kept a tight grip on their forwards and as the midfield won possession, providing the basis for us to have the better of the balance of play.

That said, we got back on level terms in fortunate circumstances. A set piece cross in and their guy decided to shove one of ours. He fell nicely to the ground and with the ref having a clear line of vision there was no doubt it was a penalty. Soft, unnecessary, but unquestionable. Robinson faffed around but Jackson’s conversion record gave us confidence. He went for a drive down the middle but Robinson’s legs were left trailing and the kick was blocked. However, the ball was never really cleared and when it found its way back into the box Jackson met it on the full and it flew into the roof of the net. Back on level terms after about 30 minutes and it seemed it could go either way. Blackburn still looked capable of scoring, but we were starting to dominate possession and managing to break up their attacks, while Kerkar was steadily coming more into the game. The one further chance of note in the first half was a Green shot from inside the box that took a deflection and cannoned back off the post.

The second half simmered but never really caught fire as the second goal wouldn’t come. Worryingly, Jackson went down and after lengthy treatment couldn’t continue, casting some doubt about his availability for the games coming up. In practical terms, Pritchard coming on did give us more movement and fluidity as he seemed to have a truly free role behind BWP. Kerkar was starting to give their full back a torrid time and Green was finding space on the other flank, supported by Wilson, which created a game in which we were happy to take a set piece, to allow Morrison and Cort to come forward, or for the wide men to take a shot. And shots there were. Green sent a free kick over the bar and after that a swerving one that Robinson managed to turn away for a corner. One corner found Cort at the far post and his header back produced a scramble which saw Robinson fist the ball away from (probably) not fully over the line.

Blackburn threatened periodically, but generally it was about whether we would get the winner. In the event the best chance came from another free kick. As it floated into around the penalty spot both Morrison and Wright-Phillips had beaten an offside ploy. Morrison got the flick and there’s little doubt that it would have gone in, with Robinson stranded, but BWP had shaped up for it as well and the deflection saw the ball hit him instead of nestle in the net. Can’t really blame Wright-Phillips for it as he’s a forward shaping up to score, but if he hadn’t made the run it surely would have gone in. I did think we should have had another penalty at the death as Cort rose at the far post and was clearly shoved while in the air, stopping him getting in a clean header. It was perhaps one for the linesman to spot but it went begging. For some reason Evina was given the final 30 seconds on the pitch, replacing Kerkar, who had threatened to be the match-winner, although with set pieces in the last couple of minutes I thought we might have sent on Smith – or anyone to add to the aerial threat.

So, far from perfect, but in its way creditable. For the most part we nullified Blackburn as an attacking threat, after their goal had suggested we would struggle to do so. The five-man midfield seemed something cobbled together after the loss of Fuller; it had its pros and cons but with a bit more crispness in the passing and more movement it could have won us the game. The concerns are Jackson going off and Fuller not being available, given the unavailability for the foreseeable future of Kermorgant and Wiggins. Hopefully in both cases it proves to be nothing worrying.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. As against Palace, what mark do you give a keeper who has no chance with a goal scored, few other efforts on target to deal with, but copes capably with everything else?

Wilson – 7/10. Another competent game. Did get caught out once in the second half as he had gone forward and suddenly there was a gap, but at the moment you can’t argue with Powell’s decision regarding Wiggins, however tough it is on Evina.

Solly – 6/10. Has to lose a mark for their goal as it was his area and their guy stole a march on him. Otherwise no problems at all.

Cort – 8/10. No errors I can remember in defence, won everything in the air, and at the other end the guy is just a constant threat. What more can you ask for (except turning the headers into goals)?

Morrison – 8/10. My man of the match as his display was near faultless. Should have come away having scored the winner for us.

Kerkar – 8/10. Grew into the game and his threat seemed to increase. Adapted to the fact that often having worked a good position there was no point in slinging in a cross as BWP was outnumbered, but when there’s a Fuller or a Kermorgant to aim at it should be good.

Jackson – 6/10. Having been switched inside for Ipswich he had to adjust to a central three. Not a bad game, but between the three of them it would have been good to see more fluidity. The penalty save is just one of those things and he buried the chance that followed quickly after. Just hope the injury isn’t serious.

Hollands – 6/10. Much the same as Jackson. Effective but not dramatic.

Stephens – 7/10. He tended to pull the strings when we had possession. Could have been marked down for one bad set piece.

Green – 7/10. The shooting was mixed but he too could have been a match-winner. Some times you feel he should be making himself more available for an easy pass, but the space he found in the second half could have been decisive.

Wright-Phillips – 7/10. Asked to do a different job and applied himself to it well. There was one chance that fell to him late on and he didn’t get too much on it. But I’m not going to mark him down for blocking Morrison’s header. He’s a striker and it’s his job to get on the end of things.

Subs – Pritchard (7/10 – did make a difference as he found the space between midfield and Wright-Phillips that others hadn’t); Evina (oh come on, on the pitch for 30 second and didn’t touch the ball; he’s every right to be disappointed but I hope his mind is still right).

Monday 17 September 2012

Attempt At Sober Reflection

Seems it doesn’t take much to turn us back into miserable gits, although the past week or so has been disappointing to say the least. I suspect there are a number of factors behind reaction to Friday night. First, and foremost, we lost to Palace, at home. I see that Fuller has said that we deserved to take something from the game. That is true by definition; it was Palace, ergo a comfortable victory is the world as it should be.

At a more practical level, I don’t think he was putting too much of a gloss on things. Yes, it was disconcerting that Palace played better football than us on the night, enjoyed better possession, and we couldn’t have complained (no doubt I would have done) had we been behind at the break. But to me that isn’t the full story. Palace’s wide men did cause us all sorts of problems in their build-up play, but what they did from good positions was generally dire. Having got free down the right, their guy crossed feebly into Hamer’s arms; when one was pulled back it was blazed over; and more often than not – in the second half as well – from them it was head down and shoot, badly. The problems they caused us didn’t end up hurting us (although I guess they affected our play); whether their failure to capitalise on their good positions worked was just an off night for their finishing or indicative of players still learning their trade I don’t know and frankly don’t care.

The fact is we should have gone in at the break one up, against the run of play or not. The game would have played out differently if that had been the case. After they scored, we had to find a way to get something out of the game and sometimes that means playing to a strength. And aerial power from set pieces was the obvious strength. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it contributed to pushing Palace back, protecting the defence, and it nearly worked. I really wouldn’t have cared how scrambled an equaliser might have been.

There is an element of papering over the cracks in that assessment. After a splendid point away at Birmingham, so nearly an apparently deserved victory, the first half against Leicester gave us good reason to be confident that we could thrive in this division. They contributed to that with a very open approach to the game, but we took them on, played well with movement, invention and threat, and went 2-0 up. That we were hanging on for much of the second half was justifiable in the circumstances (wanting to get a win on the board and not to surrender a lead late on for the second game running). Hull was a little disappointing as far as the result was concerned, but the conditions were a factor. And the Stephens affair was clearly a factor behind the poor display for much of the game against Forest. But on Friday night there were no good reasons – other than the occasion, perhaps the effects of the previous defeat – to explain away the absence of the sort of confidence and edginess that characterised much of our display.

The fact that in pure footballing terms we were outplayed for much of the Palace game was sobering, not just because it was them, a team not expected to be fighting it out at the top. Again, if we had got a point with one of the late efforts there would have been a positive element of us having worked out a way to get something out of a game (we weren’t outplayed often last season, but the first half away at MK Dons was a case in point, when we regrouped at the break and came away with a draw). But that still would have left the impression that in some respects we have to wise up. Some of the things that worked last season won’t do against better opposition (and just on the basis of league placings we are obliged to include Palace in that group). Defenders make fewer mistakes and the fact that Kermorgant wins more than his fair share to knock on for Wright-Phillips won’t translate into the number of goals we saw last season (again, hoofing it up towards the end on Friday night when there was Kermorgant, Fuller, Cort and Morrison, then Hamer as well, to aim at was a case of needs must).

We need more strings to our bow and I suspect a clearer move away from what worked so well last season, namely progressively overpowering the opposition. We do have options, although I can’t say whether the players concerned are match-fit (or indeed how they are shaping up in training) and how possible combinations might work out. It’s fair to say both that before the start of the season both Green and Wagstaff needed to show that they can thrive in this division and that most would have been surprised by the use of Pritchard in a wide role. I thought Pritchard was a star in the first half against Leicester as they just couldn’t pick him up. He had a poor game on Friday night but is still learning. What didn’t help him – and remains in my view unforgivable – was that elements of the crowd, who seem intent on howling at every misplaced pass, steadily eroded his confidence instead of giving him the backing that might have helped him. We now have the additional problem that with Wiggins out there’s a bigger question mark over Jackson. He has got used to working with Wiggins (I hope he’s been practising with Evina), who often provides the overlap to compensate for the fact that Jackson is by no means an out-and-out winger.

In short, there’s a case to be made for changes on either or both flanks. I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of Kerkar or Cook to make any recommendations, but whether it’s a case of giving Pritchard a rest and using Green, Wagstaff or Cook, or even leaving out Jackson for Kerkar (which without Wiggins might be too much of a risk), any such decision by Sir Chris would seem reasonable. I do feel that with more options on the flanks Hollands and Stephens would be able to move the ball forward more effectively. From his comments it would seem that Fuller doesn’t think he’s ready for a starting place, which does keep in abeyance the question of whether we can accommodate him plus Kermorgant and BWP. I can’t really see how, so for me it’s two from these three, depending on what works as a partnership, with Haynes (if fit) the fourth on the bench (which implies Smith having to wait a bit longer).

That all brings us around to the less tangible factors behind the response to the Palace game. We went into the season uncertain where to place expectations and in the space of a couple of weeks have gone from whispering about ‘doing a Southampton/Norwich’ to contemplating the unpalatable. Finish below Palace and the dread is of returning to the third flight. It is far too soon for any such thoughts, but one can’t help thinking them, at least ahead of the next win (ie tomorrow).

Behind this, the boardroom changes and speculation over the financial state of (and prospects for) the club have an unsettling effect when suddenly all is not going well. Silence and secrecy have their consequences. We know we missed out on some transfer targets during the summer but I for one don’t have a clear impression of what we might be ready and able to do if we have to strengthen the squad. Here too any such thoughts are premature. The players earned the right to show what they can do in this division and we have strengthened in some areas of the squad (yes Leon, you were accurate in your assessment of your future at Charlton). Managing even a modest transition through incorporating those acquired can’t be an easy task. It is a test for Sir Chris (and just for the record the talk elsewhere of his position being questioned has to be the silliest thing I’ve come across since Clarke thought he might have a future at Charlton).

It’s also a test for the crowd, in the event that the two coming away games don’t go well. Pritchard in particular needed support on Friday and was let down by some. We all hope that this season takes a quick turn for the better and it is (very) early days. If it doesn’t, I’d only ask anyone who comes away from a game hoarse from moaning out loud at every misplaced pass/’wrong option’ rather than singing their heart out takes a long, hard look at themselves.

Friday 14 September 2012

Sobering Night, Unfortunately

It’s been a while since we lost a game that really mattered and since the players didn’t collectively rise to the challenge and deliver the goods. There are different standards now and tonight we came up short. No lack of effort, no problem with commitment; the players were clearly desperate to do well. But when it came to composure and quality we didn’t have enough. The game could have turned out quite differently as Palace are no world-beaters, we could have gone ahead before the break (I don’t know if it was offside but seems the replays cast doubt), and there were enough scrambled efforts in the closing minutes to have grabbed a point through our ever-apparent aerial threat. But that might be papering over a sobering night, one in which our play was somewhat edgy from the start, as if the occasion got to a few. We will need to improve.

The team was unchanged apart from Stephens returning after the deadline-day distractions saw him left behind for Forest, with Cook dropping out and Pritchard resuming widish right, while Fuller didn’t get the start that was speculated. And there’s no doubt that Palace had the better of the opening exchanges, with one of their wide guys putting Wiggins under early pressure. They might have got rewards from that had they not played like show-ponies, which they did all night. Any opportunity to shoot (badly) was taken, which was understandable when you saw the quality of their crossing. Good positions were thankfully wasted. But we struggled to make anything happen going forward and rather strangely seemed to get more of a grip at the back after Wiggins pulled something and was replaced by Wilson, with Solly initially switching to the left.

We did get more into the game as the first half wore on and there were enough signs that Kermorgant in open play and he plus Cort and Morrison from set pieces would cause them problems in the air. The game seemed to settle into a sort of stalemate, but at least we were in it and, after a dangerous cross in from the left, had the two key moments before the break. A free kick was nodded on and the inrushing Wright-Phillips seemed to have timed his run to head home, only for the flag to go up. Then just on the break we won a free kick in the sort of position that Jackson made an art of last season. This time the curler was on target but didn’t find the corner and wasn’t hit with enough power to really trouble their keeper. Seemed like he was being a bit too precise; was it pressure?

It never looked like being a goal feast and to have gone in at the break ahead might have made all the difference. It might have calmed us down. But no matter, attacking the Covered End in the second half and the game still in the balance.

Nothing much changed early in the second half, but then that vital first goal went to them. A corner seemed half-cleared but their guy nodded it back goalwards, without any clear sense of direction, and it fell to another in space. The finish was emphatic, but just why he was allowed to bring it down inside the box is a mystery to me. That not surprisingly rocked us, and Sir Chris’ response left little doubt about our tactics for the rest of the game. Fuller came on for Jackson, forming a sort of front three, with BWP moving wider. If anything it underlined the problem we are going to have if Fuller is to start as you’d imagine Kermorgant or Wright-Phillips would have to make way.

This made our play even more disjointed, but the route one approach did tend to push Palace back and it was clear that any sort of set piece might get us the equaliser. With the need for quality balls into the box, Green came on for Pritchard, who had struggled to make an impression on the game, and with Wilson and Solly getting forward the chances did come, late in the day. The best one that could be said to have been fashioned fell to Fuller, but his low shot on the turn went just the wrong side of the post. With Jackson off Kermorgant had the opportunity from a free kick, but it was a fair way out and it sailed over the bar. Then it was the final countdown and the cavalry charge, which so nearly paid off. One effort bounced up and off the crossbar, then the final act saw Hamer come up for a corner and have his header cleared off the line.

It wasn’t to be and we’ll have to live with it for a while. No problem in that respect; they will wake up tomorrow morning and realise it wasn’t just a bad dream. They still have to be Palace fans. But tonight cast some questions over whether the rather methodical approach which overpowered teams last season will be enough this time around. Wiggins looked like he could miss a few weeks, and without him Jackson appears a good deal less effective. Pritchard had a disappointing game, while the Kermorgant knock-on for Wright-Phillips to run on to was tried too often and failed to catch them out. There’s plenty for Sir Chris to be pondering ahead of two away games.

Tonight’s results adds to a certain unwanted symmetry to the results to date. Birmingham saw our first goal and first point, Leicester our first win, and Hull our first clean sheet. Forest brought the first defeat and now Palace our first home defeat. All that needs to be filled in is our first away win.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. No chance with the goal, dealt with everything in the air, and almost won us a point at the death.

Solly – 8/10. Worked effectively on both flanks against tricky opponents. Can’t fault him on the night.

Wiggins – 6/10. Only on the pitch for about 20 minutes but during that time looked surprisingly wobbly. I guess his opposite number didn’t suit his style.

Cort – 7/10. Did what he’s primarily there to do; Palace after all had very few actual chances after the initial flurry from their wide men. Always a threat in the opposition box.

Morrison – 7/10. Same as Cort really, the problem tonight wasn’t in defence.

Pritchard – 5/10. Struggled to have the impact he had against Leicester and was outmuscled for much of the game.

Hollands – 6/10. OK game, plenty of good work, but I can’t remember much of note.

Stephens – 6/10. Kept things ticking over but I guess it wasn’t a night for great midfield play, especially once we went route one.

Jackson – 5/10. Largely ineffective, especially without Wiggins getting ahead of him, and this time the free kick didn’t go in.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Battled manfully as ever, but nothing really dropped for him.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. Perhaps his header should have stood (I haven’t seen any replays). Didn’t get through on the end of knock-ons tonight and looked a little lost when we accommodated Fuller.

Subs – Wilson (7/10 – had his hands full a few times against their wide men but generally did fine and as they dropped back made a more than useful contribution to the aerial threat; pity about a naff shot late on); Fuller (7/10 – a few inches away from scoring the equaliser; how do we accommodate him?); Green (7/10 – was effective late on and showed some guile that we had been lacking).