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).

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