Saturday 29 November 2014

Too Many Chances Go Begging

It’s impossible to lose a game to a stoppage-time goal and not feel hard done by. But some go your way and some don’t. Nobody would deny that a draw would have been a fair result on the balance of play and chances created, with really nothing to choose between the two sides in a decent game. Fact is the game is about putting the round white thing into the net and today two teams spent 94 minutes failing to do that, despite creating enough possibilities (had to check the BBC stats and according to them we had 21 attempts and five on target, Ipswich 19 and six respectively; at the end of the day only one mattered). If it had been us taking the points in stoppage time by actually scoring Ipswich could have had no complaints; by the same token neither can we (especially as we’ve won games this season by scoring the only goal late on).

With Henderson and Wiggins still unavailable, the defence picked itself. But whereas we started with a 4-5-1 against Millwall including Buyens, his absence was countered by bringing in Harriott to partner Vetokele up front in a 4-4-2, with Jackson and Coquelin in central midfield and Cousins and Gudmundsson either side of them. The plan seemed to be to exploit Harriott’s pace to get in behind them. Like so much through the game, for both sides, it nearly worked.

I remember the game at The Valley against Ipswich last season, when they flew out of the traps, scored early, and effectively had the game won before we started. Almost a repeat this time around as a corner in the first minute found two Ipswich players effectively unmarked, only for them to get in each other’s way, resulting in a tame header wide. But in a decidedly open start we responded with a move ending with Gudmundsson being played in well but stretching to get the shot away and the ball flying over the bar. Their front two were causing problems in the early stages, winning more than their fair share of aerial challenges (that McCarthy influence as they made sure with shoves and pulls if they weren’t going to win the ball against Bikey-Amougou and Ben Haim there would be enough interference to ensure no decisive clearance), while Solly had his hands full with the experienced Hunt, a task he was to prove well up to. Equally the ploy of using Harriott was causing them problems, especially when Vetokele was able to find him with some deft touches into space to exploit his pace.

I don’t take notes and listing each move and shot is beyond me. Suffice to say both teams through the first half continued to exchange almost decisive blows. A fierce shot from Solly was parried, as were efforts from Harriott and Gudmundsson, while a superb run from Coquelin into the box was well spotted only for their keeper to smother the effort from close range. At the other end Pope was required to make saves of a higher standard than those against Millwall to keep them out, while a couple of free kicks whipped in by Hunt only needed someone to get on the end of them.

At the break, for all the effort it was scoreless and the game was still there for either side to win. They had the edge when it came to set pieces, while a couple of tall and effective forwards meant they were happy enough to play it longer. We had crafted decent openings and had enough attempts on goal and as against Millwall seemed to have the weapons to possibly win the game, with Cousins and Gudmundsson getting joy down the flanks, Vetokele always a threat, and Harriott having the pace to trouble them. But as against Millwall we hadn’t scored.

The early stages of the first half were rather scrapier than before, with both sides giving away possession rather too cheaply. But after a while we settled into the same sort of pattern. Chances came and went at both ends, more frustratingly for us than them. A ball played across their box was fed on to Gudmundsson in space on the right. He chose not to shoot first time and cut inside onto his left foot, only for a defender to get a block in, and finally when one seemed to fall to Vetokele he was unable to get his shot away. They had a fierce drive from a full-back that flashed wide, plus a free-kick which proved dangerous as the ref failed to spot a blatant shove on Jackson who was all set to clear. I remember remarking with about 20 minutes left that it increasingly looked as though both teams could play until midnight, even allowing for the horribly early start, and not score.

The time for changes approached and as they rejigged we brought on Wilson for Jackson, with Cousins switching inside and Gudmundsson moving from the right to the left side. And with about five minutes left Tucudean came on for Harriott to provide a different sort of threat, although in truth it worked against us as we seemed unable to change the approach to different personnel and abilities. As the clock ticked down it did start to look as though if anyone was going to pinch it the odds were shifting to Ipswich.

Into five minutes of stoppage time and – after the curious decision to bring on Bulot (for Gudmundsson) for a full couple of minutes - the chance for them that we had feared arose, with their guy seemingly in on goal to shoot only for Bikey-Amougou to get in what at the time seemed to be a point-saving challenge. Then Bikey climbed to nod the ball into touch only to collide with their guy, who seemed to take a bad knock in the face. But instead of him being taken off, their trainer produced a spare shirt from his back pocket and after the break he was waved back on, we lost the ball, he ran onto it inside the box and shot into the net. A bit more crimson, or no spare shirt, and he wouldn’t have been on the pitch. There was barely time to restart and it was all over.

There’s no point dwelling on it. We deserved a point, could easily have taken all three, but lost, for an obvious reason. Today Gudmundsson, Harriott, Cousins, Vetokele, even Solly, failed to ensure that they found the back of the net. Nothing to be done about it other than to work against not scoring becoming a mental block. If we create as many chances in each game we play we will win more than we lose.

Player Ratings:

Pope – 8/10. A few very good saves, no chance with the goal.   

Solly – 8/10. Excellent game, saw off Hunt, got forward to good effect, all very good.

Fox – 7/10. Also pretty decent, more of a presence going forward sometimes.

Bikey-Amougou – 7/10. Gets an extra mark for the challenge that seemed at the time to have preserved our point; otherwise against a troublesome front two wasn’t entirely comfortable.

Ben Haim – 6/10. They did have more chances than we’re used to seeing against us, perhaps not as assured as we’ve come to expect.

Gudmundsson – 6/10. Excellent work except for converting the chances that came his way, of which there were a few.

Jackson – 6/10. Generally effective without standing out, really neither side controlled midfield.

Coquelin – 7/10. Decent game, almost made the breakthrough with an excellent run into the box only for the effort to be smothered.

Cousins – 7/10. Also decent, provided an outlet, worked hard as ever.

Vetokele – 7/10. Some excellent touches to play in Harriott, but for once when the good chance came his way in the second half failed to get the shot away.

Harriott – 7/10. Thought he had his best game as a second forward that I’ve seen. Couple of decent shots, caused them problems. But as with everyone else not the goal we craved.

Subs:  Wilson (6/10 – not much time to impact on the game and if anything we tailed off towards the finish); Tucudean (6/10 – no impact when he came on and that contributed to our uninspiring finish); Bulot (no mark, just why bring on a player you hope will do something going forward with just a couple of minutes left?).

Saturday 22 November 2014

Almost Nicked It At The Death

When we come to write our favourite moments from these encounters I guess we’ll struggle to remember much about this one, except for the chance at the death that would have put the world to rights and sent us home happy. At the end neither side could complain about the draw; equally, neither could have complained if the opposition had nicked one and taken the points. On balance we created the better openings/situations without making their keeper work until stoppage time; but they had their moments too in a tight game of few chances. Nothing quite fell right for us in front of goal and we didn’t get the breaks from the ref, who turned down a decent claim for a penalty (if you jump to block a shot with your arms in the air and it hits them …) and failed to wait for a possible advantage late on when Vetokele was clattered and the loose ball seemed to be there for Wilson to have a run on goal.

With Henderson presumably injured Pope was in goal, with Fox continuing to deputise for Wiggins and the rest of the defence picking itself. Peeters opted for a 4-5-1, with Cousins and Gudmundsson occupying the wide positions and Jackson, Buyens and Coquelin the central trio, with Vetokele operating as a lone striker. It was a set-up not designed for an open game, putting the premium on one of the midfielders, most obviously Jackson, getting into the box to provide support – or perhaps just getting Igor in a decent place to continue his scoring form.

The early phases were pretty cagey. Despite our five-man midfield Millwall had more of the possession without looking threatening, but Cousins was finding a good deal of space down the left and it was from there that the first chance came. Vetokele played it out wide and kept going into the box, Cousins curled in one of the better crosses of the day, and Igor met it well but fired the header wide of the post. That was to prove our best chance of the half, not least as the flow was disrupted before half-an-hour as Buyens pulled up with what looked like a hamstring. He was replaced by Harriott, keeping the same formation with Coquelin dropping deeper but with it taking a while to work out who was playing on the left side, with Cousins operating there (until he switched over), Harriott wanting to occupy that space, and Jackson naturally left-sided. It left us a bit unbalanced, even though Gudmundsson, assisted by Solly, was getting some joy down the right.

Millwall had one header at the far post which forced a smart stop from Pope, who was tested by a corner or two. But their best moments came just before the break. First, they ‘won’ a free kick in a dangerous position, courtesy of one of those ‘there was contact, he was entitled to do a dying swan dive’, which the officials fell for. That was cleared but shortly after Harriott was just beaten to a loose ball and that left a lot of space for their guy to run into and send in a low cross that Pope couldn’t claim and the players sliding in at the far post were unable to convert. For the most part they’d been contained quite comfortably, but that was a close one.

At the break any neutral would have been crying out for a goal, while everyone knew that – barring something out of the blue – the game might have a fair way more to run before one side or the other might make changes to go for it.

We started the second half with better tempo and caused them problems, again without being able to fashion a clear-cut chance. I remember excellent work by Gudmundsson to create space and possibilities, effective work from Coquelin, some threat from Harriott when given the opportunity to run past defenders, and Vetokele always looking a threat, but with all this interspersed with a number of poor crosses (including corners) headed away and some strangely iffy distribution from the back, with Bikey-Amougou doing his defensive stuff very well but looking a bit out of sorts when bringing the ball out and guilty of some misplaced passes. Millwall had an occasional shot blocked or saved, with nothing that you felt was more than a routine stop by Pope. And there was our penalty appeal, which I think was more than a 50-50 shout; not deliberate handball to block the shot but again, when you jump in the air with your arms up you can’t complain if they’re given.

The changes came as the game progressed, with Millwall replacing their forwards, including bringing on Fuller. With about 10 minutes left on the clock Tucudean came on for Jackson, with us reverting to 4-4-2, and later Wilson came on for Gudmundsson. Vetokele received the ball just inside their half and it seemed something might be on, only for him to be taken out (really worthy of something between a yellow and a red) and the ref to react to the foul rather than looking up to see whether there might be an advantage. Wilson was still a fair way from goal but just might have had a clear run.

That was it as we went into five minutes of stoppage time. And finally the chance came. Vetokele (I think) played in Tucudean nicely. He had a defender on his shoulder but it was effectively a one-on-one with the keeper. Tuducean opted for a chip over the advancing keeper and to run onto it; the first part was completed but he wasn’t able to prevent the defender just getting to the ball and scrambling it behind for a corner. George’s chance to write his name in the history books had gone; if he’d gone for the full-blown chip over the keeper and into the net The Valley would have erupted. Not to be this time around and when the corner produced a blocked shot from Vetokele it was game over.

No doubt they will be happier with the point than us and overall we didn’t create the chances to claim with justification that we were robbed. So be it, we move on, and look forward to April at their place.

Player Ratings:

Pope – 7/10. Dealt with all that he had to, some smart saves but ones he would have expected to make. Still exudes an air of vulnerability when it comes to clearances and didn’t seem to get properly behind one or two shots, but no problems.

Solly – 8/10. Excellent defensively, decent support going forward; overall I thought he looked more assured than in some previous games, hopefully now getting back to his best.

Fox – 7/10. No problems here either, decent game. Doesn’t yet have Wiggins’ attacking threat but that may come.

Bikey-Amougou – 7/10. Solid in our box as ever, saw off their first two forwards and their replacements, but the distribution was iffy.

Ben Haim – 8/10. Impressive again.

Gudmundsson – 8/10. Thought he was going to prove the match-winner as he had the ability to make space and beat his man, sometimes in unpredictable fashion. Just didn’t quite manage to make the killer contribution.

Jackson – 7/10. Quietly effective in defence, made those ghosting runs into the box but today nothing came his way.

Buyens – 7/10. His injury disrupted our rhythm for a while, hopefully nothing serious.

Coquelin – 8/10. First I’ve seen of him and I’d make him our man of the match. Knows how to hit a pass accurately and equally important crisply, covered well when Buyens had to go off.

Cousins – 7/10. Good work around the pitch, just still not the precision with crosses and passes in the final third.

Vetokele – 7/10. Always a threat, even without support, just that today nothing dropped into his path.

Subs - Harriott (6/10 - the good/threatening moments were there but also some loose passing and he was caught out late in the first half in a fashion that almost cost us); Tucudean (6/10 - well, it was so nearly a 10); Wilson (no mark, only on for a few minutes). 

Friday 21 November 2014

No Moral High Ground

Just in case there’s a danger of too great an outbreak of pro-Roland sentiment …. What to make of the club’s response to the “bitterly disappointing” (according to CFO David Joyes) Financial Fair Play regulations changes, outlined in a statement on the club site and subsequently repeated in a radio interview reported on the BBC site (and apparently to be elaborated upon in tomorrow’s programme)?
It does of course depend on your starting point. If you regard the size of losses being run up by some Championship (and other) clubs as unsustainable and consequently seriously destabilising, or if you’ve bought a network of clubs across Europe with a view to using a consortium model to potentially exploit the FFP changes – if they were implemented as envisaged – I would imagine that ‘bitterly disappointing’ is a fair response. Alternatively if you believe that FFP changes are unnecessary and unwanted, or that a pan-European consortium model is at best the exploiting of a loophole that should be closed sooner or later and at worst nothing more than cheating, the reaction would be somewhat different. And if I were writing the headline for a piece on the vote in favour of the FFP changes, it might have been along the lines of ‘shock, horror, Championship clubs vote in their own best interests’.

So let’s not go claiming that there’s any moral high ground to be claimed, whichever side of the argument you’re on. The idea that football clubs ‘should’ be run at a profit, or at breakeven, or at modest losses can’t be grounded in the idea that all successful businesses follow those guidelines. They don’t, neither ‘should’ they. There is no virtue involved (OK, I had neither a Catholic nor a Calvinist upbringing). Of course for investment in any business to be justified on purely commercial grounds there has to be reason to believe that the investment will show an attractive enough return in an acceptable (for the investor) timeframe (and if for other reasons an individual/group wishes to pour money into a football club good luck to them). Given that running a Premiership club at a profit is no small challenge, that potential return has to come in the form of the value of the asset, ie the value of your club in the Premiership against that in the Championship. As long as there are owners – and potential purchasers who would pass the ‘fit and proper person’ test (which seems to encompass just about everyone who ever lived) – prepared to fund losses of whatever size (and for whatever reason) to pursue the Premiership goal, where does unsustainability and/or unfairness, let alone morality, come into it?

It can only be on the grounds that either football clubs should be run in a fashion that retains at least the appearance of a level playing field, much as there are rules governing the design/speed of a Formula One car, or that football is a special industry, given its importance in the community (ie the supporters). The former seems at best a pipe dream as long as the Premiership lure is there, at worse unnecessary interference. The latter may have more merit, with football clubs in that sense having more in common with banks, given the consequences of failure. Only problem then is that if football has shown itself to be adept at anything in my lifetime it’s been ensuring that clubs very, very seldom actually go out of existence (and even more rarely relocated to another part of the country). Supporters may suffer from owners’ excesses in the form of relegation after administration and points deductions, but at least in all but a few cases the next week they still have a team to support. Also, in my opinion, FFP is about as misguided in its thinking and as likely to prove ultimately useless and current bank regulation reform.

I have no problems whatsoever in the footballing authorities having the powers to investigate a club’s finances in order to assess if there is excessive risk being taken, with the powers to take punitative action if the conclusion is that there is (not without problems admittedly as docking points from/fining clubs in an exposed position would have obvious consequences; these can be circumvented by a warnings procedure to give the owners time to correct the situation, like bank stress tests if you like). This is after all the job of any company’s auditors. But if the owner of Bolton Wanderers wishes to pour money into his club and to end up with a large amount of debt to himself on the books, what exactly is the problem as in no way is this unsustainable? It’s just a figure in the books. Perhaps clubs in that situation could be asked to provide something akin to the banks’ ‘living wills’, to outline how the club would survive in the event of their demise/they run out of money/they run out of enthusiasm.

I would see such things as desirable. I actually also favour phasing out parachute payments, which encourage distortions. As a short-term fix to allow clubs time to adjust to the widening of the financial gulf between the Premiership and the Championship they had a time and a place. Now all clubs are aware of the risks and have had the time to incorporate changes in players’ contracts to alter remuneration in the event of relegation (parachute payments have worked against this). Of course that means that it would be more difficult for Premiership teams, especially the newly promoted, to sign some players. So what? Instead oblige clubs in the Premiership (and the Championship) to outline how they would cope in the event of relegation.

What is not desirable (in my opinion) is some poorly drafted, stupidly rigid, and easily circumvented formula for what is and what is not sustainable. And that’s to overlook the possibility that FFP ends up getting challenged in the courts. As with the banks I actually favour regulation that is geared around ensuring that risk-takers end up personally carrying the can if those risks end badly, ie convergence of interest. How on earth can an individual involved with a club that goes into administration be later considered a fit and proper person to get involved with another? (Of course the answer comes in the form of a chequebook.)

So back to Joyes’ statement and comments. He outlined that the clubs which voted in favour of the easing of FFP rules fell into three main groups. If I was one of the clubs in one of those groups, I would have voted for the changes. Doesn’t make them (or me, I hope) ‘immoral’. Perhaps the clue came in the radio interview. He said (reportedly) that “one of the reasons why our owner bought the club in January was because FFP was in place” and that “we do have an advantage as we are in a network of clubs around Europe …” To have viewed view FFP as a done deal as written can be considered somewhat na├»ve, or more kindly that a business plan based on an assumption that it was should have been seen as involving an element of risk, which may not pay off.

Let’s take another line. To date, no Championship club has benefited to the extent of securing promotion to the Premiership from a consortium model. So the issue is not on the radar. What could happen if and when one does, or for some reason a club/authority brings the issue to the fore? Could other clubs call for the current restrictions on ownership of more than one club in England be applied at a European level, on the grounds that an ability to move players around between clubs – and potentially to buy players for the consortium with that in mind – constitutes an unfair advantage and the exploitation of a loophole not yet closed? Clearly doing this is within the rules as they stand, but as we’ve seen rules can change. Whether or not a consortium approach is fine, the future of football, questionable but within the rules, or ’immoral’ is another matter of opinion. Just let’s not try to pretend that the stance of our club is anything more than promoting its best interests, to try to defend a perceived advantage, just as others have done by the way they voted.

Saturday 1 November 2014

A Point Won

Have to view it overall as a point won rather than two dropped as at the break we were behind and looking a bit ragged, especially as their No 11 seemed capable of running through us at will. No question we’d have taken the draw then. A better second half, the almost scripted equaliser from Igor just five minutes after he came off the bench, and we could have gone on to win. Equally, while Wednesday caused us fewer problems in the second half, they had a fair shout for a penalty late on (it was their lump of a centre-forward and the ref was closer to it than me) and may feel that but for one defensive lapse in concentration they would have left with all three points. So probably a fair result and a competitive, decent game played for the most part in good spirit.

With Vetokele and Gudmundsson unable to start, and Bulot in the treatment room, Peeters went for a sort of 4-3-3, with Tucudean playing alongside Moussa and Ahearne-Grant, Cousins, Jackson and the returning Buyens in midfield, while the defence picked itself as Solly and Wiggins were available. It was a set-up that put the emphasis on fluidity and precision going forward, against defenders who were always going to win the physical battles. That precision mostly eluded us, with passes in decent positions often not quite coming off.

The early phases seemed to be more about us having come out with the wrong studs on as players stumbled with the ball, creating danger. And we had an early warning of where the danger might come from as their winger flicked the ball beyond Wiggins and showed him a clean pair of heels. The cross was cleared but the writing was on the wall. To be fair to Wiggins, their guy had no problem going past any others that came up against him. Their lump had a header from a corner that might have been converted, we had a couple of reasonable shots from around the edge of the box. The first clear opening came our way as from a corner Cousins found himself unmarked around the far post with time to line up the header, but he failed to keep it below the bar.

With Semedo as competitive in midfield as we remember him the balance of play gradually swung Wednesday’s way, largely because we were unable to really string things together in the final third and as their winger just kept causing us problems. From one run he let loose a venomous shot that went just wide, but the next time he advanced with the ball and brushed aside challenges he struck the shot into the bottom corner, giving Henderson no chance, and we were behind.

The final 15 minutes or so of the first half (which was extended by a lengthy injury break as one of their guys was stretchered off) saw Wednesday more likely to extend their lead than us get a leveller. The lump was dealt with well enough by Ben-Haim and Bikey-Amougou (to the extent that when he realised the latter was challenging him in the air he focused more on trying to give Bikey an elbow than winning the ball) but the wingers were another matter. And on the stroke of half-time they nearly extended their lead in possibly controversial circumstances. Cousins seemed to be upended around their box but nothing was given (to be fair to the ref it was right in front of the linesman and he didn’t flag), they broke and with the ball played on their guy was through on Henderson, only to put the shot wide. If that one had gone in it would have been a long road back, whenever Vetekole came on.

Peeters did make a change at the break, bringing on Gudmundsson for Ahearne-Grant. He had been threatening but like the other two alongside him had struggled to retain possession. The change seemed more about giving us better ball retention, which Gudmundsson was to manage, although there was no real change of formation with the Icelander operating centrally. And after one glancing header from their centre-forward early in the second period we generally kept them under better control, with their wingers increasingly less effective. Perhaps Wednesday sat back a bit to protect the lead. Either way we began to have more and better possession and to push them back.

The change we were all waiting for came with about 20 minutes to go, with Vetokele replacing Moussa. He didn’t score with his first touch, but it wasn’t far off. The goal was really laid on a plate by outstanding work down the left by Wiggins. He wriggled his way through their defenders and as their others around seemed frozen Igor moved into position to convert the squared ball from around the penalty spot. It was the sort of chance that we had failed to create in the first half; Moussa and Ahearne-Grant must have looked on in disbelief. But there’s a knack to being in the right place at the right time and it’s no accident that he was there to score.

Then it was a case of whether either side could get the winner. Wednesday, despite replacing their No 11 for greater solidity (in the form of a rather lardy substitute), did cause some problems, but so did we. Jackson made a superb run on the blind side and was picked out by Buyens, only for this cut-back to find nobody. Solly hit one rasping effort just over the bar and Tucudean made a bit of a hash of a bicycle kick, only for the ball to bounce up and almost catch out their keeper, who turned it over the bar. After Wilson had replaced Jackson he put the ball in the net, but from a position that even hardened Addicks might have accepted was a tad offside. And the real chance to win the game fell to Vetekole who was played in but for once the first touch was a bit heavy and he ended up toe-poking the ball past the keeper but wide of the post.

As the clock ran down there was the Wednesday penalty appeal. Their centre-forward turned inside in the box and Bikey took a swing at the ball and missed it, going on to make contact with the lump. Whether it was a case of him seeing the leg and going over it or genuine contact made and a foul I couldn’t say, but it looked iffy. Again, the ref was a good deal closer and saw nothing amiss, so fine by me.

In the end neither side could make the breakthrough. We deserved something out of the game for the second half improvement; we dominated possession (helped by Ben Haim and Bikey taking it forward) and had the better chances. Wednesday will probably look back on a failure to kill the game off at the end of the first half, and the penalty appeal. So be it, we move on.

Player Ratings:

Henderson – 7/10. No chance with the goal and otherwise can’t remember him having to make a serious save.

Solly – 6/10. Still looked to me like the body language isn’t great, seemed a bit hangdog. Played his part in defence but we’re still waiting to see the previous assurance.

Wiggins – 7/10. Has to get an extra mark for the goal, which he laid on a plate for Vetekole. To say he was troubled by their winger is, however, an understatement; I suspect most full-backs would have been.

Ben Haim – 8/10. A couple of misplaced passes coming out of defence, but solid at the back and was instrumental in us keeping the pressure on them after the break with some astute runs forward.

Bikey-Amougou – 7/10. Still just have to love this guy, but it was a rash challenge in the box which might have resulted in a penalty.

Cousins – 7/10. Decent enough game, almost got through a couple of times, but really should have got that first-half header on target.

Buyens – 7/10. Effective, peach of a pass to pick out Jackson in the second half.

Jackson – 7/10. Consistent workrate as ever in a competitive game.

Moussa – 6/10. Plenty of effort, but an afternoon when he struggled to make a decisive contribution.

Ahearne-Grant – 6/10. Did look dangerous but collectively the front three in the first half didn’t gel as well as they might have.

Tucudean – 6/10. As with the other two. If only his mishit bicycle kick had gone in.

Subs – Gudmundsson (7/10 – instrumental in our better second-half showing, although not surprisingly a bit rusty); Vetekole (8/10 – we know what a difference he makes to us); Wilson (7/10 – only on for about 10 minutes).