Saturday 15 February 2020

Not One To Remember

It looked like a horrible afternoon to play football; it was certainly a grim one to watch it. You try and take positives from any game but I can’t think of any right now, we ended up well beaten having put in a disjointed, confused performance. Try and learn a few lessons (and there were some) then forget the match as quickly as possible, hope it was a bad day at the office, keep in mind we just won away at Forest, blame the conditions or the curse of ‘football for a fiver’, and move on.

We lined up in a 5-3-2 with Doughty and Matthews the wing-backs and Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr lining up in front of Phillips, as against Forest. The midfield trio saw Cullen and Davis retained from midweek but with McGeady starting instead of Oztumer. Taylor and Hemed were again paired up front. The bench was pretty similar to the Forest game too, with Green taking a place rather than Aneke and no sign again of either Pratley or Williams.

We started the game brightly and undoubtedly bossed the first 10 minutes or so as both teams got accustomed to the swirling wind. Didn’t fashion a serious chance (we did have a couple of shots) but moved the ball around well. We weren’t to know that was about as good as it got. Blackburn slowly worked themselves more into the game and started to look dangerous, keeping the ball on the deck.

Indeed, the first major incident of the game could have seen them take the lead. A clipped ball seemed to put their guy in behind Pearce, who appeared to wrestle him to the ground from behind. My first reaction was a penalty and to wonder whether Pearce would be given a red. But the ref may have seen something before his contact as he gave us a free kick. He may have been right, would have to see it again; undoubtedly we were very relieved.

Before long we did commit the cardinal sin in such conditions by going behind, giving away a soft goal. Their guy was allowed to run across the edge of our box without a serious challenge going in and was given the time to line up a shot. Still didn’t look that worrying but seems the strike took a deflection to leave Phillips and everyone else wrong-footed. From the East Stand we were all surprised that what looked like a rather tame effort had ended up in the net.

It got worse. A few decisions in quick succession went against us and fans and players were getting riled. A Blackburn player went over rather easily and another free-kick was awarded on the left side. Not an especially dangerous position but when the ball came in nobody rose to head it clear. Perhaps it was taken by the wind but it dropped easily to their guy in the middle of a cluster of players and he turned it into the net. As with the first goal, there had been no sense of imminent real danger, but there it was. And we’re 0-2 down.

Perhaps the real turning point of the game came just after and before the break. We floated a ball to the far post and Taylor read it best and peeled away. He was able to nod it goalwards but their keeper stretched to turn it over the bar. Get one back then and the second half might be a different story, would have been a different mood going into the break. But not to be. It was tough on us to be two behind, but after that bright start our midfield had failed to function, the front two were starved, and our defence had coughed up two soft goals.

Bowyer changed the formation at half-time to a 4-4-2 with Pearce sacrificed and Smith coming on to play on the right. The feeling was just get one back and we can still get something out of the match, but we struggled to get out of first gear. Blackburn were not surprisingly content to knock it around and probe, retaining possession much better than us and not having to chase the game. It all went rather flat as far as we were concerned.

On the hour mark Bowyer tried to freshen it up by bringing Green on for the ineffective Hemed, to play alongside Taylor. Perhaps this would give us some cohesion. But nothing really changed. And after 10 minutes or so of this set-up Bonne was introduced for McGeady, with Green dropping deeper having had a very short spell as a second striker. Again nothing really changed and by now Blackburn were looking very comfortable. We had a shot or two but so did they, one from a decent position which was perhaps surprisingly put wide.

With about five minutes left of the 90 we finally made their keeper work, with a free-kick just outside the box curled in by Taylor, who had previously put one from a similar position over the bar. That goes in and despite all that has gone before we have a barnstorming finish. Not to be and the game, for us, ended tamely.

This report seems pretty downbeat because that was the game, from our perspective at least. A formation and an almost identical line-up to that which had secured three points at Forest today just didn’t work, nor did the changes made make much difference. For that you have to give Blackburn some credit and take account of the conditions. It was an easy day to look bad (manager as well as players as his substitutions really didn’t work). Equally, you’re at home, 0-2 down at the break, make three substitutions, and it’s five minutes from the end before their keeper has to make a save. That wasn’t good enough.

So far in February we’ve had the joy of beating Barnsley at The Valley followed by what by all accounts was a poor display at Stoke. We beat Forest on their patch only to come back and get turned over by Blackburn. Perhaps we just have to live with the inconsistent performances, but we clearly can’t afford another poor one next time out against Luton. You’d hope that both Pratley and Williams are available for that one as we missed them today.

Player Ratings:

Phillips -  7/10. First goal was a deflection, second he seemed to have no chance for. Otherwise really didn’t have much to do.

Matthews – 6/10. Was caught out one by their winger but generally fine. Still that problem that with a back five you hope to see the wing-backs bombing forward and we didn’t get that.

Doughty – 6/10. Stuck to his task well enough. Still prefer to see him in the opposition half as an outright winger.

Lockyer – 6/10. Two soft goals for which the defence has to take collective responsibility.

Pearce – 5/10. Caught out a couple of times and might easily have conceded a penalty (possibly with a red card to go with it). Sacrificed at the break to change the formation.

Sarr – 6/10. Perhaps deserves a slightly higher mark as he did well enough, just that like others may have to take some responsibility for their goals.

Cullen – 6/10. Struggled to have an impact in a midfield three which at least today didn’t look effective.

Davis – 5/10. Tidy but generally ineffective, not really sure what he brought to the party.

McGeady – 6/10. Some good touches, a shot or two, nothing decisive.

Taylor – 6/10. Not his best game but kept at it to the end. A header in the first half and the free-kick might have ended in the net.

Hemed – 5/10. Thought this was a big game for him, given Bonne and Aneke coming back. He didn’t make a case today for keeping his place.

Subs – Smith (5/10 – not really in the game); Green (6/10 – on as a second striker then moved after 10 minutes for another substitute); Bonne (5/10 – had around 20 minutes on the pitch but failed to make an impact).

Saturday 1 February 2020

From Comfort To Panic - But Three Points

Now that was a strange one, perhaps football in a nutshell. Plenty of positives. We walk away with the points in what was the first six-pointer of the season, we were in complete control of the game for a period of time, and I get my first win post-boycott (now I’m 1-1-3). Against that, we were a whisker away from not winning a game we thought we had in the bag, for a period of the game we – including the crowd – came close to panic, which indicates the fragility which comes when you have been on the run we have, and without looking at the stats I’d expect them to show that Barnsley had the lion’s share of actual chances (including hitting the woodwork three times and a superb save from Phillips). And there’s no mystery when it comes to reconciling the two sides: when Taylor and Williams were on the pitch we were largely in control, and vice versa.

We set up in a sort of 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 (or if you like 3-5-1-1). Bottom line was that in front of Phillips were a central defensive trio of Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr, with wing-backs of Doughty and Matthews – except that while Doughty operated as a wing-back Matthews, while doing the defensive stuff well, didn’t venture over the half-way line. Pratley and Cullen formed the main midfield partnership with Williams having the role of linking defence and attack, while Green played as a kind of second forward alongside Taylor. That’s not to suggest it didn’t work, just that it was a quite fluid formation with both potential and also an uneasy balance.

In blustery conditions, which made it difficult to play the beautiful game, the early exchanges were pretty even. We had warnings that if Barnsley had the ball in space going forward they could cause problems, while most of our moves forward ended with fouls on Williams – I counted seven fouls on him in the first half, of varying severity - or Taylor. That did reduce pressure on the defence but also broke up play and put an onus on us to make the best of set pieces.

And within 10 minutes we had the lead from one of them, which looked like something practised on the training ground. A chipped free-kick and Lockyer (I think) managed to nod it into that area between the back line and the keeper. Whether it had been practised or whether Taylor simply read it better than anyone else he was first to the ball and only had to divert it one side of the keeper, which he did very well. Good goal well taken.

The surprise was that we almost conceded an equaliser from a set piece of theirs. The referee seemed to let play go on after one more challenge but eventually gave a free-kick. Floated into our area and their guy gets in a powerful header, only for Phillips to spring to his right to scoop the ball out before it crossed the line. Unfortunately it went straight to one of their guys but he hit his effort against the post. Give Phillips the credit for an excellent stop but we had the luck.

Through the rest of the half it seemed to be a case of which challenges the referee deemed to be fouls and which fouls were deemed worthy of a card. Having given a yellow to one of their guys it seemed that the same one then took out Taylor as he laid the ball off, but instead of a second yellow and a red there was only a long lecture. Lockyer also picked up a yellow.

The half came to a close with two more incidents that went our way. First, yet another flattening of Williams gave us a free-kick in a dangerous position. The previous one had been curled well over by Doughty and this time we had two over the ball and went for another training ground routine. One spins away and instead of crossing the ball its played to him. Except that Barnsley saw it coming and nicked it away, launching a counter-attack that saw the ball moved smoothly up to our area. This time it was blocked, but again the warning signs were there.

Then shortly before the break another set piece produced some head tennis only for the ball to finally break for Green in the box. He’d barely had a kick through the first half but hit it with venom into the bottom corner.

So at half-time we were 2-0 to the good and seemingly set fair. We were far from firing on all cylinders: Green was struggling to get into the game and a lot was being asked of Doughty, but Taylor and Williams were linking up well and causing them problems. Bottom line was that we had taken chances and they had been denied by Phillips and some desperate defending when we were caught on the break.

The first period of the second half was when we were really in control. We looked comfortable and more likely to add to the lead than be pulled back and by now Barnsley were starting to look out of the game. But whether due to injury, lack of match fitness, or some other reason, Bowyer decided it was time for a change and on the hour Williams was replaced by Forster-Caskey. That seemed a little strange as the formation was working well enough and Oztumer was on the bench, a change which would have meant continuity. Perhaps Bowyer was looking to tie up midfield and close down the game. As it was, we started to look less effective as the link between midfield and attack was lost.

No matter, we are still winning well. But after 70 mins we made a second change, with Taylor replaced by Hemed. Again, might have been a knock, desire to protect him, or lack of match fitness. Again, it was a change that weakened us. Might not have mattered – and I did think at the time that with Forster-Caskey, Cullen and Pratley on the pitch we should be able to control midfield – except that Barnsley rather out of the blue pulled one back.

We lost the ball in midfield and were caught truly on the hop, a repeat of Barnsley’s ability to move forward in space. Their centre-forward managed it well, slipping one desperate tackle and drawing in another defender, then laying the ball off to his right to the guy in space, who curled it past Phillips into the far corner.

From a position of control we descended into panic for a period of time. Barnsley hit the woodwork again, a free-kick flashed across the box and didn’t get the touch in, and we were reduced to desperate last-ditch tackles and clearances anywhere. Not surprisingly they had their tails up and we came very, very close to being pulled level. That didn’t happen and we were able to run out the game, despite six minutes of stoppage time, with Purrington coming on for Doughty at the death to shore up the defence.

So a strange game, one that perhaps highlighted the fragilities of both teams. We created few chances in the second half – one move which saw Pratley well placed to score only for him to decide to lay the ball off, an excellent cross from Green which Hemer didn’t get the right contact on – and not that many in the first, despite scoring twice. And for a period of time we nearly fell apart. But we ran out winners in a vital game – and for a club that is currently about getting returning players up to speed and looking at the newcomers, grateful that for the first time in a while we should have enough available players, we shouldn’t be asking for more.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. A great save, no chance with their goal, dealt with everything else.

Matthews – 7/10. Defensively played his part well, against tricky opponents. Just that if you play five at the back you assume that the wing-backs will be getting forward and he never did, presumably under instructions.

Lockyer – 7/10. Solid and effective.

Pearce – 7/10. Same.

Sarr – 7/10. You’ll never say solid with Nabby, but no real mistakes and he played his part.

Doughty – 6/10. I’m not sure that playing him as a wing-back works, but that’s not his fault.

Pratley – 8/10. Another very important contribution, always competitive, usually successful. Just a pity he decided not to shoot when very well placed.

Cullen – 7/10. Very good for the most part but think he was the guy who lost the ball which led to their goal.

Williams – 8/10. Caused them all sorts of problems. When he left the pitch the game changed.

Green – 7/10. Barely had a kick in the first half until he scored. Worked his socks off.

Taylor – 8/10. Effective, combative, and took his goal well. We are all glad he’s still with us.

Subs:  Forster-Caskey (6/10 – not really his fault that the game changed when he came on, but looked not surprisingly a little short of match fitness); Hemed (6/10 – not easy for him either to get into the game, did some good stuff but failed to convert the chance that came his way); Purrington (no mark, too late in the game).