Wednesday 22 January 2020

A Point Well Earned

OK, we didn’t get the outrageous last-gasp winner from the free kick, which would have been sweet, but a clean sheet and a point was an outcome most of us would have taken before the game. And in the end we deserved that point. If anything it was Fulham deteriorating and running out of ideas towards the end, they were far less threatening in the second half than the first, which was a tribute to the effort put in by all in red on the pitch. At times it wasn’t beautiful, but it was admirable.

We set up with a sort of 4-4-1-1 with a flat back four ahead of Phillips of Matthews, Purrington, Lockyer and Pearce (who took the captain’s armband), with Sarr and Oshilaja dropping to the bench. The most welcome returning Cullen partnered the now indispensable Pratley, with Morgan and Doughty making up the midfield, while Oztumer was in the hole and Hemed operated pretty much as a lone forward. And a strong bench (when was the last time that could be said?) contained Taylor, Williams and Green.

And there was a lively start from us as first one low cross managed to evade a man in red then one from the other side was deflected almost into the net. Fulham did settle and began to dominate possession, as was always expected. And their movement up front did start to trouble us. On half-chances it was soon 2-1 as a desperate block came in and later 2-2 as a shot across goal just went wide of our far post. Throw in some blocks from Phillips and for us a storming run box-to-box from Doughty, which ended disappointingly as he seemed undecided over how to end the move, and you had a decent game. Just that as the half wore on you had the impression that Fulham were highly likely to score at some point, while we could – but were starting to find it hard to threaten them as the emphasis was on keeping our shape in front of Phillips.

The second half wasn’t much different, except that Fulham actually deteriorated, which must be a concern for their promotion hopes. They started getting sloppier in possession, less fluid going forward, and looking back on it now I can’t think of a real chance they created in the second half. We weren’t exactly peppering their goal either – there was another promising move which ended with Doughty shooting from a tight angle rather than squaring it - but going into the last 20 mins or so it felt like there was some swing in momentum as the changes were made.

First it was Williams coming on for Morgan, with Doughty switching to the right. Next up Taylor replaced Hemed, who as they say had put in a shift (I kept thinking of the Monty Python sketch, especially given today’s sad news, something for him along the lines of ‘Scraps? We used to dream of feeding off scraps’). Their central defenders were suddenly obliged to become rather more physical than before and with more effective pressing of the ball we were pushing them more towards rather hopeful long balls out of defence. The final change was Green coming on for Oztumer, who had found a decent position for a shot but rather fluffed it – and, while having played very well, did take what I have to say was the worst corner I’ve seen in my life.

There was one more opportunity as Doughty again worked the position but the cross was wayward, then the free kick at the death that came to nothing. So be it, we had our point and they had not scored, something I wouldn’t have bet on at evens at half-time.

So plenty of positive to take from the game I think. Perhaps uppermost is the evidence that neither the January transfer windows stuff nor the recent results has had any adverse impact on the determination and effort being put in. Couple that with the news that Lee Bowyer has signed a new contract and the point we’ve secured tonight can be seen as an important step along the way of stabilising and rebuilding the season.

One aside, we have now played West Brom twice and drawn twice, Fulham the same, and have played Leeds once and beaten them. If only we could play the top three every week.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 8/10. Dealt with everything thrown at him, claimed crosses when he needed to, don’t care about the occasional poor kick out.

Matthews – 8/10. Unobtrusive but can’t remember him being caught out or slipping up.

Purrington – 7/10. I thought he started the game rather unsteadily, but as it progressed he got stronger and played his part.

Lockyer – 8/10. Solid performance with some very good tackles and blocks.

Pearce – 7/10. Overall fine but did think there were a couple of errors losing the ball which put us in a difficult position.

Doughty – 7/10. Caused them real problems and this could have been a match-winning display. But in three good positions, which he had worked for himself, he didn’t manage to make them count.

Cullen - 8/10. Deserves that mark for being able to put in the full 90 mins so soon. A very welcome return.

Pratley – 8/10. Excellent, some timely interceptions and very good reading of the game.

Morgan – 7/10. Didn’t stand out but helped us to keep our shape and played his part.

Hemed – 8/10. Never stopped looking and working for an opportunity and to try to disrupt their play.

Subs – Williams 8/10 (made things happen, no question we were more of a threat going forward after his entrance); Taylor 7/10 (took some strong challenges to welcome him back, still very much hope he stays); Green 7/10 (not much of an opportunity to shine, only on for perhaps 10 mins).

Sunday 5 January 2020

No Cup Upset But Some Positives

We all knew the score (and the probable score) before setting off and confirmation that we will have to wait another season for FA Cup glory isn’t going to matter in the greater scheme of things. Of course we wanted to win the game but the real interest lay in whether the new owners would take a bow or provide some insight into their plans in the programme (in the event there was nothing along these lines, really just not the day for it), a first look at new loanee Andre Green, whether some of the returning injured on the bench might get some minutes (Jonny Williams and Tomer Hemed duly did), and whether some of the kids might make a name for themselves. With West Brom putting out a side containing Barry, Austin and Brunt it was going to be a tough ask; and thanks to the BBC for providing the stat of the day: apparently seven of our starting XI were not born when Barry made his debut in 1998.

So in front of Phillips in a back four were Solly, Oshilaja, Sarr and Stevenson (with Lockyer and Pearce given the day off), and whether you call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 the two wide players were Green and Odoh with Vennings, Henry and Wiredu in the middle and Davison pretty much the lone striker (with Taylor also given the break). The bench included Gallagher, Pratley, Williams and Hemed, along with Morgan, Harness and Powell, the notable absentee being Ledley, giving rise to the impression that we may have already seen the last of him.

In truth the first half was a rather dull affair, with West Brom seeming to be playing within themselves and us not looking to commit going forward; and the first ball towards Odoh was a lofted one, a tactic which seemed unlikely to produce results. Our one effort of note was a shot on the volley from a half-cleared corner which went narrowly wide. Green had one decent run but we struggled to get the ball to him in good positions, Wiredu did get into space a couple of times but overran the ball (the first time he had a bad bobble off the pitch), while the star of the show was Oshilaja.

In amongst all of this West Brom did score, around the half-hour mark. Having probed but seldom actually threatened they were able to score far too easily. Their big No 9 was allowed to amble around the box unchallenged and he moved forward, played a one-two with another of theirs, and found himself one-on-one against Phillips. He didn’t miss. Otherwise they threatened from a number of corners and towards the break we were just hoping that they wouldn’t notch a second as that would probably have been that. They didn’t, so there was still hope, especially as presumably a few if not fresh then older legs would be coming off the bench.

The second half did indeed prove to be a livelier affair, although for most of it the surprise was that West Brom did not extend their lead. We did manage to get the ball to Green outside the box and after he pulled it down with aplomb he moved inside and hit a good shot turned around the post by their keeper. This and greater adventure on our part seemed to sting West Brom into trying to ensure no unwanted extra time or replay. They had a shout for a penalty as a shot at the far post hit someone’s hand, then their big No 9 shrugged Solly off the ball and laid it off for Brunt, to curl one over Phillips only for it to come back off the underside of the bar. It seemed that Austin must convert the rebound but somehow it was kept out and scrambled clear. Then a few minutes later a more routine effort from Austin hit the outside of the post.

Our changes saw Hemed and Morgan replace Green and Henry, plus a little later Williams making a welcome return for Wiredu, who had just picked up a yellow. And as the clock ticked down and West Brom were content to sit on what they had we did threaten to level things up. Hemed had no immediate impact but did provide an extra presence up front, making a lofted ball forward not the waste of time it had been in the first half. And Sarr was bringing the ball out of defence to good effect, usually picking out decent passes forward.

Our first real chance came as Odoh was tripped right on the edge of the box (on another day it might have been seen as just inside). The curled ball in somehow wasn’t converted at the far post, being put out for a corner. And shortly after that a cross in was nodded back and down by Hemed and Davison went for the overhead kick. Thought it was in but that one too came back off the bar. Into four minutes of stoppage time (and two West Brom substitutions) and right at the death Hemed had a shot from the edge of the area which just didn’t dip in time. And that was it.

So no surprise victory but no broken hearts either. We all know there are far more important games to come. Just how we shape up by the end of January remains to be seen. What is most important is that a line is drawn under the past few months and we regroup, don’t get hangdog because games have been lost. The spirit still looks good and has to remain so. Of course the rest of the season begins with another visit from West Brom. Bring it on.