Sunday 29 December 2013

Played Poorly And Didn't Lose

When you play badly you should be happy just not to lose. And we did play badly, with only mitigating circumstances from seemingly enforced changes from the Boxing Day team and a difficult pitch. Against better opposition we would have suffered, although as we’ve seen before we probably wouldn’t have been as sluggish against a better side. It seemed that having bagged three points against Brighton we wanted to nick this one, or at least not lose. That we didn’t was down to poor play in the final third by Wednesday. That we didn’t win – and get some much-needed breathing space from the bottom three - was first and foremost down to us but also due to us not taking the chance at the death to secure what would have been an undeserved but entirely welcome three points.

Ahead of the game there was the thought about whether we would stick with a winning team or whether another match quickly after might necessitate changes. That Solly didn’t manage another in quick succession after his comeback wasn’t entirely surprising, but losing Wiggins as well (apparently for the birth of his child) meant disruption. Wilson, having scored two from the more advanced position, reverted to full-back and Evina came in for Wiggins. That meant a space in midfield and Sir Chris opted to recall Jackson, in a central(ish) position alongside Cousins, with Stephens pushed out to a wide right role, Stewart on the left, and Kermorgant and Church up front.

The changes worked against any early fluency, especially as Stephens seemed completely wasted in a position that doesn’t suit him, Jackson looked off the pace, and Stewart struggled to get in the game. Stripped of any threat down the flanks and unable to retain possession in central midfield, from early on we were resorting to generally aimless balls towards the front two. Church and Kermorgant may be used to having to feed off scraps, but today, with no support for either, it was a truly thankless task.

At the other end Wednesday were generally unambitious as long as the game was scoreless and seldom threatened, although in Wickham they had a player who threatened to rise above the dirge and what passing and movement there was came from them. Our worst moments came when efforts to play the ball out from the back ran aground, catching us on the back foot, but I kept checking my watch. 10 minutes nothing of note, 20 the same, then the entire first half. We had I think one poor shot from outside the box which took a deflection. On another day it could have been diverted into the net, but today, in keeping with all else that was going on, it bobbled tamely back to their keeper.

Things could only get better and they did shortly after the break from a piece of quick thinking and quality at odds with all that had gone before. A throw-in on the right side threatened nothing, but with all the obvious options covered Stephens made a break into space, wasn’t picked up, and was found. He took it into the box, stepped inside and planted the ball into the corner of the net. It was a goal out of nothing but full marks for Stephens’ intent to make something happen and his ability to take the opportunity.

That broke the deadlock to the extent that Wednesday made changes to adopt a more attacking formation, creating more space for us to (possibly) exploit. We seemed to have weathered the initial reaction and even had a chance to extend the lead as a ball in to the near post saw Church ghost in and get a deft flick only for Kirkland to turn it around the post. The officials gave a goal kick.

Wednesday were enjoying the lion’s share of possession by now and we struggled both to retain the ball or to find any outlet. When you’re winning you don’t really care that much, but we were on the edge as balls began to fly into our box. Generally they were dealt with well, but eventually the pressure told as their guy twisted free on the right. His low cross was blocked but looped up across the goal for a tap-in from their guy. There were appeals for offside, but sitting in the East Stand I really couldn’t tell.

Wednesday now smelt blood and continued to press, but failed to create the clear-cut chance to win the game, through a combination of poor shooting and poor choices in decent positions. One driven low cross went all the way across our goal without anyone getting a touch. Stewart, who had been no more effective in the second half than the first, departed, along with Jackson, to be replaced by Green and Dervite, with Stephens seemingly moving more wide left than central. Green did make a nuisance of himself and brought much-needed drive and energy, but more often than not ran into cul-de-sacs. Basically we got no better.

Just as we were settling for the point, we had the chance as the clock ticked towards 90. Another ball forward was contested by Kermorgant and ran loose to Church on the edge of the area. He took a touch but then blazed the shot over the bar. That he should have at least hit the target goes without saying. This was a game in which such opportunities were very few and far between. I care not a jot whether it would have been an undeserved winner (unquestionably it would have been).

So, we know the only positive was not being beaten, extending the unbeaten ‘run’ to three and keeping up Sir Chris’ target of taking something from each of the holiday games (extending that away at Ipswich will require much more than we offered today). The actual team performance was very, very poor, the way the team was set up didn’t work (shifting Stephens to a wide position to accommodate Jackson, who was off the pace throughout, has to be viewed as a decision that didn’t pay off), and our point was on the balance of play over the full game more than we deserved. We can (and will have to) do better.

Player Ratings:

Alnwick – 7/10. Dealt with what he had to capably, didn’t seem to be culpable for their goal. Poor distribution, but we didn’t do anything with the ball in any event.

Wilson – 6/10. Not sure how he will have felt reverting to filling in for Solly, but stuck to the task. Not as prominent getting forward as in other games but wasn’t helped by having no real wide player ahead of him.

Evina – 7/10. Filled in capably enough and made a few runs forward. Can be content with his performance.

Morrison – 8/10. That Wednesday were generally restricted to efforts from outside the box is a fair testament to the defence today and he played his part.

Wood – 7/10. Generally accomplished defensively, just made a couple of errors with distribution which could have been costly.

Stephens – 7/10. To say that out wide isn’t his natural position is something of an understatement. But it was his quick thinking and finishing that gave us the lead.

Cousins – 6/10. Covered well and tried to keep possession better than most.

Jackson – 5/10. Seemed off the pace throughout on his return, no surprise he was taken off.

Stewart – 4/10. You have to give the mark for the performance and today he barely touched the ball. That was as much down to others failing to provide him anything to work with, but a potential match-winner who provides nothing on the day has to get a low mark.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Less effective than against Brighton, due not least to the quality of balls in his direction.

Church – 5/10. Worked hard as usual and I thought he pulled out a good save from their keeper with his near post header. But fact is he was presented with a good chance to win the game and failed to take it.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Belgian To Win Dutch Auction?

Seems like we’re going to have to put back in the box all the Monty Python jokes about Belgians, with the indications being that our own Dutch auction is about to be won by one of their number, one based in the French-speaking Walloon area, much to the delight of my French partner Suzanne (who being French is ideologically close to communist, so she applauds Vivant’s proposal of a basic income guarantee for all citizens).

As usual, anyone looking for insight, actual information (inside or not) etc should not look here. As has been pointed out by others, we’ll believe a deal has been done when one is confirmed but the fact that the club has put a brief statement on the official site is a fair indication that either this deal, or another one to be flushed out, will become a reality soon. Presumably the fact that a purchase price of 14m has been released lays the base amount for any other offers, although it’s reasonable to suppose that there are accompanying elements involving debt, past deals etc that make an actual figure somewhat meaningless.

I know nothing about Roland Duchatelet other than the thumbnails that have been published elsewhere; and it’s been many moons since I wrote about Belgian politics (there was a time I could name both linguistic wings of the major parties and know which combination formed the incumbent government). The reports suggest he isn’t obscenely rich but has pockets deep enough. And let’s face it if our current supply of funds has dried up completely they don’t need to be that deep to compare favourably. It’s tempting to say that he has a clear interest in football (ie a plus), but buying a team (Standard Liege) in your own backyard can be an astute move for a guy with political ambitions. Just why he might be interested in branching out into south-east London remains to be seen (other than the obvious fact that we are the finest club in the country). Perhaps more negatively, someone who’s made decent money in a growing industry and has gone on to form his own political party, as well as buying a football club, is unlikely to be short on ego. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, provided it’s not tipped over into the realms of despotism (viz Cardiff).

The bottom line I think we’d all agree is that our current owners can’t or don’t want the current situation (ie their funding of the levels of losses necessary for us to compete in the Championship) to continue. From the failure to date to conclude possible deals it can be inferred that the price and/or conditions previously demanded for a sale have been unacceptable to the other party/parties, such that our owners are now more inclined to take whatever’s on the table. And if there are no concrete alternative offers materialising pretty soon it looks like Monsieur Duchatelet will take over.

Of course we have concerns. Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if a new owner opens up with “there will be no move away from The Valley and my first priority is to agree a new contract with Sir Chris, followed by signing extensions for key players; and by the way there will be funds made available to strengthen the squad in January if the manager feels this is desirable”. Something along those lines and I’ll eat chips and drink lager for the rest of my life, perhaps even learn to love that silly peeing statue (I know that’s Brussels but it’s close enough to Liege in global terms). I will even try to become a more committed pro-European than I already am (it was Brussels for the last new year, Amsterdam this time around, not long after we extend our winning home run tomorrow). Bring it on.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Santa's An Addick

Well bless my cotton socks, Santa’s an Addick after all. Today we found a new goalscorer, saw Kermorgant back to his strutting best, came from behind to win, at home, and found the net three times for the first time this season. Doesn’t take much to make me happy. To be fair, we were due some breaks at home and today we had some, with Brighton generally playing decent stuff, hitting both posts, having one headed off the line, and fluffing a couple. On another day they would have taken the points, but this one was to be ours, reward for character and sheer determination to overcome a side that for stretches appeared to be better and stronger than us.

The team was unchanged from that for Bolton, with Wilson continuing in the more advanced wide position in front of the returning Solly, Wood keeping his place ahead of Dervitte, and Church and Kermorgant paired up front in a straightforward 4-4-2. The pitch was heavy, with the ball not running true in all areas, and the opening exchanges were to be fairly routine. After 20 minutes of honest endeavour neither keeper had been called into action.

That was to change, all too predictably for us. A quick check on the BBC report says “Charlton failed to deal with a ball into the box …”. In truth this was another example of a sneaky professional foul going unpunished. A ball in the air in our box was going to be headed clear before their guy gave our defender in the air a blatant shove in the back. Ball not headed clear, drops to their guy, who takes a touch and plants it into the bottom of the net. Referee and linesman both had clear views, neither signalled anything. It seems to happen so often to us I’m just sick of it.

Given our home record this season, Brighton could have been forgiven for thinking it was already game over. Certainly falling behind to a team that likes to knock it around and retain possession pointed to another dispiriting afternoon. Our response was decent enough, with Stewart creating the space in the box for a shot but not able to wrap his foot around it, Church having an effort (and a strong appeal for a penalty after being shoved off the ball in the box), and Wiggins going on a storming run down the left. But you wondered where a goal might come from whereas Brighton looked capable of adding to their lead, with their fluidity and movement periodically stretching us.

We badly needed to be level at the break and glory be we did indeed level things after around half-an-hour. Good work by Kermorgant got Stewart in on the left side and his lowish cross was either dummied or helped on by Kermit to an unmarked Wilson. I had no idea from where I sit if his curling effort was well placed or not until the net billowed, so it was indeed well taken.

That stung Brighton a little but despite the probing the defence held firm and we saw things out to the break. Couldn’t help thinking at the time that we looked happy to be back in it rather than having ideas about going on to win, but at half-time the game was finely balanced, with one of theirs yellow carded for a professional foul on Stewart, holding him back when he would have been breaking into space; couldn’t quite justify a red but wasn’t that far off. Felt like next goal would prove the winner, but what do I know?

The second half carried on in a similar vein, with Brighton enjoying more possession but with Stephens and Cousins working hard to prevent them turning that into scoring opportunities, while Church and Kermorgant worked their socks off to chase everything down. Stewart was becoming more influential, after a mixed first half, and he was to be instrumental in us taking the lead. A ball in from the left side saw Kermorgant attempt a sort of bicycle kick only for it to run on for a second time in the game to Wilson inside the box. He somehow managed to dig the ball out from under his feet and planted it into the roof of the net. Glory be, we’re winning at home! Final whistle if you please.

Brighton now had to chase things and made additional changes, while we had more space on the break, with Solly and Wilson making things happen down the right. This was the period when we had major breaks as from one corner their guy headed over, another shot was put wide from a good position, and then a header from another corner was cleared off the line, by Stephens or Wiggins.

With plenty of time left it was getting hairy, but then came the moment when it seemed we’d put the game to bed. A cut inside by Stewart saw him brought down, the ref played an advantage only for a resulting shot to be blocked, by a hand I thought. If he’d played advantage the first time I thought it should have been a penalty. Instead play was brought back for the original foul on Stewart. It’s been a while since we scored from a direct free kick, but Kermit’s got his strut back. A couple of paces and a beautifully curled effort over/around the wall. Their keeper didn’t move and we had the breathing space we needed.

Now it was all about seeing out the game. Brighton managed to hit both posts from the same attack and that should have told us that finally our luck at home was turning. We sent a signal of our intent as Church and Stewart went off, to be replaced by Evina and Dervitte, while all was done to run down the clock. Four minutes of stoppage time were indicated and just when we started to feel almost comfortable Brighton pulled on back. Don’t ask me what really happened as it was confused, with the ball finally put into an empty net by their guy. It wasn’t to matter in the end as the final whistle did eventually come, after Wilson had departed for Pritchard, who played his part by wasting some more seconds down the right.

An immense result and so needed. We know another massive game is coming up on Sunday. Another victory could change the season, but with these three points the pressure at least eases. We ended the game with all of our Frenchmen on the pitch. My partner Suzanne is currently making her way somehow across London and will be in attendance for the Sheff Wed game. Today she would have been proud of her favourite compatriot as Kermit was strutting, complaining – and most important scoring again.

Player Ratings:

Alnwick – 7/10. No chance with the first goal, not really sure what happened for the second, and otherwise capable. He’s been all we could ask for to date.

Solly – 8/10. He’s an excellent player and there’s no question that his return adds significantly to the side, which is no reflection on Wilson.

Wiggins – 8/10. One or two things didn’t come off in the first half, but generally his very capable self.

Morrison – 7/10. We were up against a decent team today and the defence was stretched, but he and the others held up well.

Wood – 7/10. Much the same, he’s reliable and effective. Just that on another day we could easily have conceded more.

Stewart – 7/10. Struggled to be influential in the first half, but became more effective as the match wore on. He adds some quality and the ability to unsettle a defence, which we badly need.

Stephens – 7/10. Decent game, plenty of work to do without the ball and generally effective with the passing.

Cousins -   8/10. Felt he had a better game than recently, perhaps because of the nature of the game as his ability to read situations and make important interceptions/tackles were to the fore.

Wilson – 9/10. Hope the guy takes his new song with the affection that is behind it. Solly’s back and is always going to be first choice at full-back, so it’s up to him to nail down the position in front of him. He scored twice when goals for us have been in short supply, so he’s earned my MotM for today.

Church – 7/10. Tireless running, much to good effect. Perhaps a slightly unfair mark.

Kermorgant – 9/10. Showed that when he’s fit and on song he is one of the catalysts for the team. A heart-warming display, rounded off with that sublime free-kick.

Subs – Evina, Dervitte, Pritchard (no marks are fair as when they came on we just wanted to see out the game, but they played their part).

Saturday 14 December 2013

More Misery At Home

There wasn’t exactly a mood of optimism ahead of the game, given the recent form of us and them. And it’s not exactly laughs and cheers following it, as the supporters’ lack of belief seemed to be echoed on the pitch. There was no shortage of effort and commitment, just a feeling that we didn’t believe we would score and a lack of conviction, of belief that this was a game we could win. It was encapsulated in the first 30 minutes, as Derby offered nothing; we controlled the play, dominated possession, but seemed to be happy to be in the game, scared of what Derby might be able to do as and when they started to play, and reluctant to try to turn dominance into a match-winning position. If anything we ended up paying the price for that period, conceding an unfortunate and undeserved goal but thereafter seldom looking as if we could get back on level terms, let alone win.

With Jackson unavailable, Sir Chris opted for a 4-5-1, with Green given a start on the right, Stewart on the left, and Prichard playing in the hole behind Kermorgant. Might not have seemed progressive playing at home, but we thought we were up against a good side, certainly a confident one, and when the manager calls for a siege mentality ahead of the game you aren’t exactly primed for an all-out attacking formation.

We can’t say the set-up really worked in that first half-hour, but with Stephens winning tackles, Green involved, and Cousins tidying up behind we were on top, not least because whatever weapons Derby may have were being kept in reserve. You felt that at some moment they would show what they can do, but that didn’t happen. Instead it was something of a phoney war, with us probing but not really threatening – and them doing neither. There were good runs, a couple of free kicks in decent positions (the first of which Green either overhit or forced their keeper to tip over, depending on your interpretation, and the second clearly underhit), and moments when something might have happened. Kermorgant couldn’t make the most of one incident in the box, then didn’t get enough on an effort from outside the box with their keeper out of position.

What was missing was the invention to carve out a real chance, with Pitchard not effective and Stewart this time flattering to deceive, looking for free-kicks which never were and howling at the injustice of it all – in contrast to Kermorgant, who was manhandled all afternoon only to see another weak referee fail to provide any protection (more of that later). It wasn’t that the ref made awful decisions, he just failed to see what was going on, the shoves, the cynical fouls when Derby were out of position. Not awful, just weak and inadequate (with no assistance from linesmen that pretended to see nothing and said nothing).

The ref was to play an important role in the moment that we feared might come. After half an hour a challenge outside the box was a possible foul but the ref allowed play to continue, only to bring things back for a free kick when the move came to nothing. I actually think that’s fair, as long as it’s consistently applied (more of that later). The shot from the free kick was harmless but took a wicked deflection which left Alnwick stranded. Derby found themselves 1-0 up in a game in which they had barely broken sweat.

4-5-1 is fine when you are on even terms or ahead, but when you fall behind the drawbacks become quickly apparent. Derby saw out the remainder of the first half by knocking it around and attempting very little. They didn’t have to. I doubt they could believe their luck; certainly it was a body blow for us, one which undermined our entire approach but also served to underline the fact that we had failed to make our dominance in the first 30 minutes count.

We needed to start the second half well and hopefully get back into things. And soon into it Green played in Wilson overlapping. His cross was played in towards Kermorgant, who was shoved out of the way by their defender. The ball actually broke to Stephens (I think) around the edge of the box but he put the shot just wide of the post. Now what was wrong with giving the penalty, just as advantage had been played for their free kick? Clearly the ref hadn’t seen the shove on Kermorgant, but it was right in line of sight for the linesman. To nobody’s surprise, he indicated nothing.

In a game of few chances it was another turning point. Thereafter Derby did threaten a few times as we ran out of ideas, perhaps waiting for what seemed to be an inevitable change of formation. It was a tough call for Powell at 0-1 as an equaliser would have changed the entire picture, whereas a second goal for them and subsequent changes would have been criticised for coming too late. And that nearly happened as Derby did finally create something, with a well-worked move ending with the ball squared to a guy inside the box in space, only for his shot to come back off the bar. If that had gone in the mood would have become truly gloomy.

The changes did come, with Church and Harriott replacing Green and Pritchard, who hadn’t been able to rise above nuisance value in a role which doesn’t play to his strengths. The surprise was that Harriott didn’t seem to be operating wide right but instead played more centrally. If anything that compressed the space, with Derby packing that area and Harriott often finding himself running into a swarm of defenders.

Our second real moment of the game was to be the final turning point. After a set piece Kermorgant looked up and curled the ball towards the far post where Morrison rose. From a yard or two out it seemed he only had to get a good connection on the ball and it was in. He didn’t manage to do so. That was to be the final opportunity, given that the referee was never going to give Kermorgant anything, even when he was grabbed around the neck in the box. When Kermit finally was awarded a free kick, in a nothing position, he presumably said something to the ref to pick up a yellow. Whatever he said, in French or English, was presumably appropriate.

The final, desperate, change saw Sordell come on for Wilson. Don’t ask me what the formation was after that, but it didn’t matter as shortly after Derby scored a second. A poor pass put Morrison under pressure in the absence of Wilson and his clearance only found one of their guys, who did something and the ball ended up in our net. It really didn’t matter as this was another home game in which the chances of us scoring were small indeed.

A word for our visitors? I seemed to have upset some Leeds fans recently when I labelled them scum for the antics of their players on the pitch, the sustained cynicism, professionalism if you like. Fouls to break up play, dives, rolling around in agony, mixed with the sort of shoves that these days you see at every set piece in the Premiership. The word was probably a bit emotive, born out of frustration after we’d lost a game we shouldn’t have. Derby weren’t as bad, but not by much; and I don’t know what the term is for one notch above (neither am I going to suggest that we should have won today; to do that you have to create more). The common denominator is weak refs who fail to see – or are happy to ignore – what is going on. As long as we have such officials, I guess these tactics will continue to be embraced by some teams.

We’re left with another dispiriting home defeat. What was also worrying was signs of bickering on the pitch at the death. The dressing room is presumably an unhappy place at the moment, for good reason (and with the takeover seemingly having fallen through, ending thoughts for now at least of January purchases, the fans aren’t exactly happy either). There’s work to be done to improve confidence and belief as we now have a run of fixtures which need to produce points.

Player Ratings:

Alnwick – 7/10. No chance with either goal and not a great deal to do otherwise.

Wilson – 7/10. Overlapped well enough, no defensive errors.

Wiggins – 7/10. Capable, and what I liked was his efforts to get forward when the chips were down.

Morrison – 7/10. The defence wasn’t the problem today; we conceded a deflected free-kick and a goal which didn’t matter when we had made changes that left us short at the back. And I’m not going to dock him a point for not converting that cross, even though I can’t help thinking he should have done.

Dervite – 7/10. Same for him.

Green – 6/10. Was involved and put in some decent crosses (even though I think he didn’t get the two first-half free kicks right), but no decisive contribution.

Cousins – 6/10. Once again neat and tidy, provided effective cover in front of the defence, but no more.

Stephens – 7/10. His robust tackling was a factor in our domination of the first 30 minutes, but he too didn’t make a decisive contribution – and put the shot wide early in the second half.

Stewart – 5/10. He got rave reviews from the Yeovil game and I’m a fan of his, as he makes things happen. But today he was anonymous when we needed a match-winner. Seemed miffed at not getting first-half free-kicks and complaining instead of getting on with things.

Pritchard – 5/10. Very tough for him today, the game passed him by as he was asked to do a job that doesn’t seem to suit him.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Things didn’t run for Kermit today. Tempted to give him an extra mark for whatever he called the ref; on that scale I would have seen red.

Subs – Church (5/10; failed to have an impact when he came on); Harriott (5/10; ran into cul de sacs, presumably having been told not to play out wide); Sordell (no mark as he was again only on when the game was up, but there do seem to be concerns about his attitude).

Sunday 1 December 2013

So What's Wrong With Us?

With more than a third of the season gone, and our game in hand having been played, we have reached the stage where the stats and the league don’t lie. Yesterday’s disappointing defeat means that instead of raising ourselves up to the middle of the pack we sit fifth from bottom (albeit with a points cushion). It’s reasonable to ask what’s wrong with us, not on the grounds that we’re below teams we would not expect to be (we have no divine right to be above anyone, except for the obvious, and we can hardly complain having lost to Millwall, Bournemouth and others) but because we have quite frankly struggled since the opening day to achieve any sort of consistency in terms of results and performances.

If there was a realistic objective for this season it was to progress. A ninth-place finish to last season perhaps did us no favours by suggesting that progress would have to mean competing for a top-six finish. The relative absence of team strengthening in the summer perhaps put paid to any such thoughts, so progress might amount to consolidating in/around mid-table. But after 17 games we have 17 points; after 17 last season we had 23, not a massive difference but hardly a move in the right direction. I think there were mitigating circumstances for the lacklustre start to the season (one point from the first three games, almost the first four) given that two forwards came in just before the campaign kicked off after three from last season had departed. Undoubtedly being without Solly and Cort has hurt us, as has Kermorgant’s injury, while to date Sordell has had little impact (the goal against Forest being his one moment so far).

If there is a simple answer (there seldom is but sometimes there are root causes), I’d suggest it’s lack of ambition, beginning off the pitch but now on it too. As a club we are in a state of limbo. I’ve no idea if we are on the verge of being bought; equally I’ve no idea if there have been issues with payment of wages, as has been indicated by others. What is apparent is that, for whatever reason (and I’m still inclined to view fair play rules as a smokescreen), the current owners are unable or unwilling to follow through on the stated goal of taking us back to the Premiership (of course not in one/two seasons but moving towards that goal). A sympathetic interpretation would be that the fair play rules and a promising crop of youngsters have combined to effectively put a stop to significant investment in the squad in the hope that in a year or two the youngsters will have come through.

Trouble is, if you start a campaign with limited expectations and ambitions it cannot but spread to the attitude of the players. I’m not questioning their character and commitment, they have demonstrated those qualities often enough (and when under pressure continue to do so). But how can you have real confidence, and bravery, if the comings and goings send the message that the team’s real objective this season is to avoid relegation, that you, collectively, aren’t good enough to achieve more? I don’t think it’s an accident that when Arsenal signed Ozil it lifted every player they had, to up their performance. I’m not suggesting we might have signed an Ozil but the principle still stands.

Let me try to elaborate with reference to games. We know in terms of results our linked problems are home form and scoring goals. What is the simple difference between playing at home and playing away? Surely it’s expectations and the fact that at home the onus is on you to go out and win the game. I’ve not seen one match this season when we’ve gone out and taken the game by the scruff of the neck, imposed ourselves on the opposition. Leicester at home may be a partial exception, but we always beat them (perhaps an expectation there too?). The stirring performance against Forest came out of adversity, having gone behind early on (as with Cardiff last season). There was a sense that night that we had nothing to lose by being adventurous and it paid off, not least as Forest must have felt after 20 minutes that the game was already theirs and they felt no inclination to simply shut up shop. Millwall and Ipswich were content to defend in depth and in these two games we seldom unsettled their defences.

There’s a real difference between coming through under pressure and from adversity and having a winning mentality, the confidence and bravery to go out from the start with the belief that you will win, or at least are good enough to stand head-to-toe with the opposition. Fear of losing, especially in front of your own fans, creates pressure and causes inhibitions (play the safe pass etc). What was missing yesterday, as against Millwall in particular, was the confidence to take a chance to make something happen, risking making mistakes. That, for me, is a mindset problem, albeit one hard to get rid of when our home record speaks for itself. When you struggle to create chances to score something of the belief that you will take them when they arise disappears (and let’s not forget that we missed most of the easy ones against Doncaster and broke the deadlock with a screamer from outside the box).

If the mindset isn’t right, is the team selection optimum? Without Solly or Cort, in defence the only current question is whether Dervite or Wood gets the nod alongside Morrison, given that Wiggins’ form after an iffy start to the season means there’s no current case for bringing in Evina, other than perhaps on the left of midfield. Up front, with Kermorgant getting back to match fitness, there is a selection issue. Church’s movement and workrate are exemplary, but as his career record indicates he is not a prolific goalscorer. Sordell has been but is coming to us off the back of a so far unsuccessful transfer to Bolton. So far for us he started the opening two games (I didn’t see either), was dropped for the next four, came in for one, was dropped for the next two, came back for three games, and has been left out for the past six. I’m not saying he should be given an extended run – clearly we would lose a good deal if Church doesn’t start – but there is a case, not least as a fully-functioning Kermorgant will provide the service. At the least, if Sordell is to come off the bench when we’re chasing a game, he has to be given more time than he was yesterday. If after 17 games your top scorer is on three (from six starts for Kermorgant, from 14 for Church) the chances are you’re not going to like looking at the league table.

It’s also clear that from the start of the season we haven’t found a consistently effective central midfield combination, whether in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. We’re choosing between Jackson, Stephens, Cousins, Gower and Hughes (leaving aside Pritchard or Harriott whether central or in the hole). Of these, only Stephens has started in more than 10 of the 17 games, so there’s been no consistency of selection. Jackson’s injury hasn’t helped and especially yesterday he looked below par playing back out wide left, Cousins has undoubtedly been a plus this season but does seem to limit his expectations to providing defensive cover and playing neat passes, which is fine if there’s a driving force alongside him. Stephens is the true playmaker and has been doing well, but his game isn’t box-to-box and when the opposition defend in numbers we don’t seem to have the guile, perhaps the devil, in our play to turn possession into chances.

Currently the midfield isn’t chipping in with enough goals, Kermorgant and Jackson seem to have forgotten how to get the free kicks on target, and without Cort the defence isn’t notching a few from corners/set pieces. Every good team knows its strengths and plays to them. We are currently short on pace and drive from midfield (Stewart being the obvious exception), a poacher in the box, or some other source of goals.

To be positive, I’m confident that we have the ability and character to avoid relegation. But can it go pear-shaped? Of course it can, if confidence is further eroded and/or if the situation off the pitch has a draining effect on morale. We all hope that the ownership issue is sorted out soon, one way or the other, and that a positive outcome can inject some fresh sense of direction and ambition. Absent that, perhaps either the team carries on as to date, inconsistent and unambitious. Or with or without some tweaking in formation and selection they can get themselves together with Sir Chris and his staff and set themselves higher goals, remembering that they are capable of more.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Increasingly Frustrating Afternoon

Hardly what the doctor ordered. Any thoughts of Tuesday night’s win sparking a real change in our home record died a death in a game which proved to be won and lost in the first five minutes. Ipswich came out of the blocks while we seemed to believe we were still playing Doncaster. They forced two excellent saves from Alnwick, nearly converted a corner, and then scored from another. They really didn’t threaten again, but in the event didn’t have to as in an increasingly frustrating afternoon we failed to show the wit or precision needed to break open what became a massed defence – and unlike against Doncaster (and Leeds) didn’t produce a moment of magic from outside the box to score. Sobering and dispiriting.

The team was not surprisingly unchanged from Tuesday night, with Hamer still out injured. Unusually I checked the BBC pre-match summary before heading off and noted that we have scored fewer goals in the first half than any other Championship team whereas Ipswich have a habit of going ahead, often only to blow it. After five minutes you wished we’d done our homework properly as Ipswich began all guns blazing and we really had no answer. Alnwick first turned a one-on-one effort around the post, then produced an outstanding double-save, one a point-blank stop. Their first corner saw us sleep and let a guy get clear at the near post; their second produced a goal from close range. Hard to argue with it as we had the warnings.

After that opening, the game settled down and there were encouraging signs. In particular Kermorgant seemed to be getting back to his previous mobility and was winning every ball in the air with some ease. Stewart looked threatening, and Church was working well. It seemed as though we had the weapons to hurt them, if we could make the best use of them. In what was a relatively open first half we failed to do so. Crosses from decent positions didn’t find a target and too often the necessary cohesion just wasn’t there as passes were misplaced, runs misread etc. Wilson overhit one cross when well placed and hit the next one hard and low, without anyone getting on the end of it. In the event, apart from Church being played in and judged offside (I’m not sure if he was or wasn’t but do know the linesman was some yards behind the play and just guessed) and the closest we came to actually scoring was a Wiggins cross which seemed to come back off the woodwork and/or their keeper.

After their opening salvo Ipswich had been contained, but at the break you felt we might need something special, or just one off someone’s backside, to get back on level terms. We were tending to go long, which might not have been pleasing on the eye but was a fair reflection of where our strength lay in this game.

In the second half Ipswich increasingly decided to hold what they had and ensured they got nine or ten behind the ball, putting the onus on us to break them down. It proved to be an effective tactic as denied space and more often jumping from a standing position Kermorgant’s ability in the air was increasingly nullified, while Stewart was kept under wraps, not finding the space or the service to have a decent run at his opposite number.

Changes were required. A double-substitution saw Church and Jackson replaced by Pigott and Green. Bringing on a second winger, allowing Stewart to switch back to the left, seemed a decent move, while Church coming off also made sense, not because he was playing badly but because the space to get in behind or around them just wasn’t there any more. But the fact that Sordell wasn’t brought on seemed strange as we were crying out for someone to make things happen in the box, or to take any half-chance.

Stewart did threaten a few times but ended up being well dealt with and as the game entered its final stages all we could look back on from the second half was another cross that by accident almost ended up in the net. Sordell did come on, with Wilson sacrificed, but the afternoon was summed up right at the finish as a poor challenge on Kermorgant (not the first in a generally fairly contested game) saw the ref intervene and blow his whistle without looking up to see where the ball had gone. It had actually run through to Stewart with nobody close to him and a clear run on goal. Only added to the frustration, as did a stoppage-time fracas which only ended up wasting time.

Possession stats mean little. The telling one is that we failed through the entire game to fashion a proper scoring opportunity. Tomorrow we’ll be left with the sobering statistic of having scored seven goals in nine home games, having failed to score in five of them. After the awful performance at home against Millwall, we played well against Forest and might well have won, were decent against Blackpool and Wigan (but failed to score), should have beaten Leeds (or at least drawn), and did a professional job against a lacklustre Doncaster. Today the focus is back on the negatives. In truth I don’t think we were especially worse than against Doncaster; but the opposition was better and the way the game panned out we looked increasingly ordinary when some devil and a little magic was needed.

Player Ratings:

Alnwick – 8/10. Might have been a nine as he pulled off excellent saves before their goal and thereafter dealt well with the little that came his way.

Wilson – 6/10. Nothing especially wrong other than not delivering telling crosses from good positions.

Wiggins – 7/10. Much the same, got forward to good effect but couldn’t find a telling contribution (if his cross had gone in it would have been a very welcome fluke).

Morrison – 6/10. The defence collectively was all at sea in the first five minutes but after that seldom troubled.

Dervite – 6/10. Much the same; composed and assured after the opening spell but in retrospect that opening cost us the game.

Stewart – 6/10. In the end was well dealt with by their defence and today flattered to deceive. Might have been different if the ref hadn’t blown for the late foul and he went through and scored.

Stephens – 6/10. Difficult game to shine in as there was possession aplenty but he wasn’t able to pick out a telling pass in the final third.

Cousins – 6/10. Neat and tidy, provided good cover for the defence, but today no more.

Jackson – 5/10. Expect he’ll be disappointed with his showing as he struggled to get into the game from out wide and didn’t get anything in the box.

Church – 6/10. No shortage of effort but no decisive contribution.

Kermorgant – 7/10. If there was a positive from today for me it was the signs that he’s getting back to match fitness. Far less effective in the second half as they sat deep, but seemed to have their defenders on a plate in the air in the first half.

Subs – Pigott (6/10: threatened once or twice); Green (7/10: presumably came on to deliver crosses in an increasingly desperate attempt to level the game and did have some impact); Sordell (no mark as he was only on at the death and don’t think he touched the ball).

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Much-Needed Win, At Home

It’s still a little early in the season to be talking about must-win games, but there was no question the pressure was on tonight. The home defeat to Leeds not only put an end to the previous decent run of results (since the Millwall game) but also focused attention back on the poor home record this season (and the echoes of something similar for much of last season); and the defeat at QPR, while not especially damaging in itself, left us back to one place above the relegation zone. Three points tonight and at least that gap widened to six points and pushed us four places up the table, with another home game coming up; anything less and … well, just didn’t bear thinking about. In the event, while it was far from a breeze, Doncaster proved a very different kettle of fish to the side that visited us briefly earlier in the season and the points were indeed taken, giving Sir Chris some long overdue exercise after the final whistle at The Valley.

Transport difficulties and the need for at least one pre-match glass threw out our timings and I have to say I missed the first few minutes – and the build-up to the game. Consequently I’m indebted to a fellow Addick for informing me after the match that it hadn’t been Hamer in goal; just hadn’t crossed my mind it wasn’t him and I was preparing mentally some positive comment along the lines of him having not let his error against Leeds for their third to affect him, judging on the reports from the QPR game and the performance tonight, when he was called on just once but when required made a good save late on to head off what might otherwise have been a nervy end. Instead, I am informed we lined up with Alnwick in goal, with Hamer having picked up an injury in the warm-up. So to him must go the credit.

Otherwise, with Wood not brought straight back in, the defence threw up no surprises: Wilson, Wiggins, Morrison and Dervite. Cousins and Stephens kept the central midfield berths, with Stewart on the right and Jackson being called on to play wide-left (I’m sure there was a quote not so long ago from Powell to the effect that he’d never play there again, no matter), with Pritchard missing out to accommodate a basic 4-4-2 with Kermorgant and Church up front.

Missing the start also meant I didn’t see what was apparently an early miss by Church. By the time I’d settled in the game was looking rather low-key, with a rather sparse crowd (full marks to the Doncaster fans who turned up again) not helping. Indeed, the first 20 minutes or so were fairly mundane, from both teams. Stephens was trying to make things happen, and Stewart was looking a threat, but otherwise our movement wasn’t especially sharp and with Kermorgant still feeling his way back into things we were looking fairly ordinary, as if the obvious need to get a home win under our belts was weighing on us.

Then almost out of the blue we had a couple of excellent chances. Good movement by Church on the left side created the space for him to put in a low cross which was left by Jackson for Kermorgant, who hit it on the turn only to see the ball rebound off the inside of the post and out. Then a ball in from the other side was met sweetly by Jackson, only for his curling effort to be well turned away by their keeper. After that the game settled down again. At the other end we were looking fairly comfortable, if not completely assured. Doncaster caused us all sorts of problems with their set-pieces in the abandoned game and that seemed to leave a scar; one ball in saw three Charlton defenders converge on it and all contrive to miss it.

Then from the relatively mundane came a goal that surely puts to rest our goal of the month competition, if not goal of the season. Ball coming down over his shoulder around the edge of the area and Stephens hit an absolute screamer into the far corner. Really one of those ones that Malcolm Allison used to say you might as well blame the cleaner for.

One more before the break and you felt that might do it, but when that chance came, from a driven low cross, Church failed to make a meaningful connection when it seemed any touch would do. Kermorgant did also make something of a hash of putting the ball into an empty net from about 30 yards, but the linesman’s flag was up in any event, while a free kick from him curled over the bar. Instead perhaps the turning point of the game came shortly before the break as Doncaster fashioned their one real chance of the night. Their guy sprang the offside trap (according to the linesman at least) and was almost clean through, only for a series of desperate lunges persuaded him to turn inside once or twice and by the time the shot came in it cleared the bar.

At the break things were far from done and perhaps the game should already have been put to bed, but if they’d equalised then who knows?

The second half picked up in pretty similar fashion, a lot of ordinary stuff played in the direction of Church with Yann struggling to have his customary impact, but with the defence not put under serious pressure. Doncaster started to make their changes, including the introduction of a worryingly nippy forward, but before we could start to be truly anxious we did get the breathing space we needed. I can’t say who played the ball through to Church (but whoever it was take another mark in the ratings) but it was a peach, allowing him to run through on the keeper. He bided his time but once the keeper had committed himself tucked it into the corner of the net, perhaps off the post. A much-needed goal for him and for us.

Doncaster’s response was fairly tame and instead the chances came and went for us to truly kill them off. Stewart decided it was time for some shots. His first was turned over the bar and his second came back off the bar. Wilson got in on the act, forcing a good save, and then there was the moment of farce when it seemed somebody must score and instead Church swivelled on the loose ball and miskicked.

So the third never came but the game was seen out comfortably after Alnwick had dived smartly to his left to turn aside their one second-half serious attempt on goal. Sordell replaced Church, Hughes came on late for Jackson (who had picked up a yellow card), and right at the death Green was allowed to stretch his legs for a few minutes, with Stewart coming off.

It was, I guess, what Sir Chris might describe as a decent professional performance. We needed a home win badly and took it. A word on our visitors? Decent and fair. I think they were missing some players tonight, but it also underlines the cliché that goals change games. In the first half of the abandoned game they scored three and not surprisingly it lifted them all round. Tonight they looked a pale shadow of that outfit. Good luck to them, no hard feelings I hope about the abandonment and the outcome tonight. Just hope that Ipswich play on Saturday like the Doncaster of tonight and not the one of the abandoned game.

Player Ratings:

Alnwick – 8/10. The guy was called on to make one serious save and pulled it off, while dealing with everything else that came his way.

Wilson – 7/10. Unlucky not to get on the scoresheet; just one bad moment in the second half when he allowed their guy to turn him inside the box, otherwise decent.

Wiggins – 8/10. If it hadn’t been for Stephens’ screamer he would have been a fair shout for man of the match. Excellent in defence and played like a winger going forward (reviving the promotion year games by tending to go outside/past Jackson).

Morrison – 8/10. Can’t remember him putting a foot wrong.

Dervite – 7/10. Generally fine but did concede a few free kicks in areas which allowed them to threaten.

Stewart – 8/10. Not everything worked, but he gives us a real outlet and sometimes went past his marker with ease. Unlucky not to score with at least one of his two efforts.

Cousins – 7/10. Not especially prominent but usually neat and tidy and kept things ticking over.

Stephens – 8/10. He was trying to lift things when were were having ordinary spells, especially in the first half. And he’s just scored a goal of the season contender.

Jackson – 7/10. Clearly remembered how to play with Wiggins on the left side, another who was unlucky not to score with a decent effort.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Still working his way back, which is hardly surprising. Hasn’t yet got back the strut and presence and the easier movement. His main effort on goal came back off the post.

Church – 7/10. Tireless in chasing some ordinary balls, sometimes to good effect. If he’d missed his one-on-one we might have been talking about the chances he didn’t take, but we won.

Subs – No marks really for Sordell, Hughes or Green as the game was all but done and dusted by the time they came on.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Just Do It, Now

If I have a fault (and believe it or not it isn’t just Leeds fans that suspect I might), it could be verbosity. My posts, and probably just about everything I’ve written in my life, are not noted for their brevity. I’ve tended to take comfort from the fact that most (if not all) of what’s been produced has been under extreme time pressures (either to meet deadlines or to hotfoot it to the pub or the nearest available bottle) and that, to paraphrase I believe a British general the day before a battle, ‘I apologise for the length of the order of the day but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. So let’s try to keep this one short.

For crying out loud what are the owners/board waiting for? The issue of Sir Chris’ contract should have been resolved during the summer. We’ve now seen the reports of the interview he gave, basically saying he wants to stay and that the issue is creating some uncertainty. It is now in the public domain to the extent that merely doing nothing would be an unforgivable slap in the face to our manager (and his staff). Please may we see an announcement, or some form of communication, to the tune that the club wishes to retain him and that a new contract/contract extension will be put to him in the (very) near future.

I’d like to go on, but I’d only be underlining the same point, commenting on the possible implications of inaction (how could this do anything but undermine the morale of all concerned etc). And after all I’m only echoing what others have been urging for months. The issue has now been brought to a head (I hope not the result of serious frustration on the part of Sir Chris) and inaction/silence would begin to speak for itself. 

Sunday 10 November 2013

Sober Reflections

OK, it’s the morning after (the afternoon actually but it wasn’t an early start and my French partner Suzanne, who attended yesterday, needs her cups of tea and room service). Was the choice of word I used after the game to describe Leeds over the top? Perhaps. But I’m getting sick of seeing games heavily influenced/decided by a combination of various forms of cheating and an inability on the part of the officials to deal with them. I may have felt annoyed (and disappointed) after our defeat, but how would I feel if I was a West Brom fan going home having seen what would have been a famous victory denied by a player cheating and a ref buying it (and then to have to listen to a manager try to defend the indefensible)?

I did watch the Football League show highlights to see if they would shed any light on the major incidents. Aside from strengthening my view that there penalty was a poor decision by the ref (adding to the injustice after he’d not given us one in the first half for what seemed to me to be a clear foul) they didn’t as just the goals were shown. But I did catch QPR equalising against Reading courtesy of a free kick curled into the net through the edge of a wall that had been separated by a blatant – and clearly pre-conceived and practised - shove by a QPR player.

Leeds’ players tactics involved using the poor conditions to apply pressure on a weak referee, with collective moaning and complaining over each decision given (or not given), some cynical fouls (which went unpunished by the ref in terms of cards), an effort to persuade the ref that Morrison’s challenge was dangerous (which included the obligatory rolling around in agony), a judicious use of feigned injuries to disrupt the game at times (coupled with Kenny’s time-wasting, for which he was warned at least three times before finally being yellow-carded), and then that tumble in the box. My annoyance was probably compounded by the feeling left from our previous home game, against Wigan. In that game, any time we were building up a head of steam one of their players would go to ground and prompt a stoppage to give them time to regroup.

The onus has to be on the match officials if we want to try to cut down the use of ‘professional’ tactics. When is the game going to embrace the technology available to assist the officials, who obviously (I feel) face a task that is beyond them? As things stand we have three officials on the pitch trying to make instant judgements and every Saturday/Sunday evening the pondering on TV/radio on a series of decisions they make which decide games, some obviously wrong, some questionable.

As things stand, we have a game in which almost every corner/set piece could result in two or three penalty offences plus a similar number of fouls by the attacking side, an apparent acceptance (encouraged by some pundits) that any contact in the box entitles a player to dive (and when a player opts to fall down when he doesn’t have to is diving), and a perhaps lesser offence whereby any defender in trouble facing the wrong way with a forward at his back tumbles over for the inevitable free kick (something which Jorge Costa was a past master at). I honestly don’t understand this ‘there was contact …’ argument. Why should the penalty area be any different from the rest of the pitch and if that argument is extended you have just made football a non-contact sport.

Personally I’d be in favour of additional officials on the pitch (either a ref for each half of the pitch or four linesmen), or acceptance of the use of video technology from the stands. I’d welcome retrospective action (match bans etc) where there is clear evidence of players having cheated (yes, of course it’s a grey area open to interpretation), even if this has no impact on the match result and even if it means acknowledging that the officials missed something/made mistakes. I’d also favour referees, as in rugby union, being able to signal an advantage and allow play to continue, to come back for the offence if there is no positive outcome. Perhaps, just perhaps, we would have less diving in the box if players were aware that they could stay on their feet and get an effort on goal and still get the penalty awarded if no goal results.

In criticising Leeds I’m not suggesting we are somehow holier than thou. In a previous game (Millwall I think) Sordell engineered a dive just inside the box that even us Addicks couldn’t bring ourselves to back. I’m also aware that other Addicks would support the team being more ‘professional’ (ie sneaky) sometimes. But on balance I think a side that adopts, deliberately, a cynical approach also loses something. You can’t switch the cynicism on and off and I do think it works against team spirit, character and resolve, qualities that shine through when the chips are down. I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.

As for the game, I don’t think I glossed over the fact that the result was ultimately decided by our crime when having levelled for a second time (would have given Church an extra mark in the ratings if I’d been fully aware of his contribution to our second) we gave away a soft third within a few minutes. Perhaps Hamer went out with the approach (even instructions?) to be wary of coming off his line for balls in the air, given the conditions; but he really had to claim the ball before it dropped to their guy (yes, the one who scored all the goals). It was a costly error – and from his reaction I think he knew it. So be it, every keeper makes mistakes. Let’s just work on the communication between keeper and defenders.

We move on, as I must, as there’s another bottle of red to open and a rabbit to be hacked up and cooked if Suzanne is to be kept content.