Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m as delighted as anyone that we won and that we looked more cohesive as a team with the selections and formation, and agree that we deserved to take the points. But if you were asked to choose the difference between the last two games it was quality of finishing of the opposition (and the contrast in our own). While Rochdale from every decent position they got into in the first half finished with aplomb, Bristol Rovers were lamentable. Their tally of 20 goals in 19 games is only better than that of Northampton (arguably also Blackpool on a goals-per-game basis). That tells its own story.
So yes, Oshilaja played well, Gunter did a decent job at centre-back, but let’s not pretend that the defence was solid. Just take a look at the Sky Sports highlights of the game and the first three snippets involved pretty basic long balls simply collected by their guys and taken into dangerous positions. The first two were shot into the side-netting, the third produced the save with his leg by Amos. And the horrible scuff from an unmarked position inside our box didn’t even get past the editor’s cut. All this before we had produced an effort on target.
Also, for sure a win is a win. But we won courtesy of a fluke goal. Yes, before and especially after we had golden opportunities to add to the total but we contrived not to put the ball in the net, or to avoid one of our own when trying to. And yes, goals change the course of games, we can never say what might have happened had their defender on the near post not stepped over Forster-Caskey’s undeflected corner. But consider two other perfectly viable scenarios. First, Bristol took at least one of their presentable first-half opportunities and we were again chasing the game, then Forster-Caskey’s corner does not go straight in and we miss the golden chances to equalise. Second, after Morgan’s sending off Bristol equalise at the death with their clear header inside our box in stoppage time, with Bowyer having not made defensive substitutions to defend a lead. Under either we would all have been screaming blue murder at either our inability to avoid the opposition scoring first and lamentable finishing, or our inability (again) to protect a lead in the final minutes and the waste of another two points.
Fine margins indeed. And sure, as supporters we are nothing if not fickle. But my two points are first, that Bowyer has some important decisions to make for Tuesday night’s game against Peterborough; and second, that we may now be seeing the framework of a team that really ought to be in the promotion mix, especially in a division which sees the sterile and unlovable (if our game against them is any guide) Lincoln clear at the top.
A couple of weeks ago Watson or Pratley (along with Amos) would have been first on the teamsheet, in the defensive midfield role. The picture has changed with both the bringing in of Millar and Schwartz but also the evidence that Forster-Caskey, given the job of commanding the midfield from a central position and a run of starts, has risen to the challenge. Morgan also looked good in the central role before he blotted his copybook, but with him now unavailable for Peterborough does Bowyer bring back the now available (unless my arithmetics are sadly inadequate) Pratley, running the risk of Forster-Caskey not being so comfortable if obliged to adapt again, or instead go for Gilbey, who doesn’t deserve the chance on recent form but is the choice (assuming Shinnie is not available) as a straight replacement for Morgan, as seen yesterday, or does he shuffle the pack again and change the formation in light of different opposition?
It looks to me one of those ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ choices, depending on the result, but that’s what managers are paid for. It’s up to him and his team, who have forgotten more about football than we will ever know, to weigh up the pros and cons, with the advantage of knowing how fit or otherwise the players are.
With Millar and Schwartz coming in and especially with Millar starting I think the attractions of a diamond midfield, utilising either Williams or Maddison at the point, are much reduced (and in any event Maddison is on the injured list). We have been forced to play recent games without an outright defensive midfield minder (of course whoever plays carries out defensive duties) but now (or soon) it is a decision whether that suits us best. If Millar starts on the left it effectively rules out (at least to start games) using Maatsen in a more advanced role or as a wing-back. Given the understanding that these two seem to have from the start, no point in tinkering with the left side. That means someone on the right for balance in a 4-4-2. Williams did well enough yesterday in the position, but I’d say it’s still up for grabs, at the moment between him and Smyth. Now playing 4-4-2 with Millar and Smyth would get the pulses racing, but is it too much of a risk for Bowyer defensively (let’s face it with Williams out wide we are taking that risk, even if he covered well yesterday)? In the central two positions, Forster-Caskey has to be the first, then the decision is who to accompany him. Is Gilbey up to it or is Pratley the safer option?
The dynamics up front have also changed, because we seem to be discovering that Aneke can, if pushed, last a game, while Schwartz in his two cameos to date has shown both that he will score more goals than Washington or Bogle and that he seems capable of forming good partnerships with a second striker. I like Washington, for his intelligent movement and goals. But overall do we get enough from him, especially as he’s given no indication of forming a partnership with either Aneke or Bogle? My suspicion is that when fully fit Schwartz will be capable of linking up with either of the other three, including Washington, but I’d guess there is unanimity among Addicks that a combination of Aneke and Schwartz will be optimum.
That in turn leads us to the issue of what would be our best starting X1, if all are fully fit and available (and of course not ignoring the need for changes for some games and during games). Amos, Gunter/Matthews, Innis, Famewo, Maatsen would indeed seem to pick itself, with Pearce, Oshilaja and Purrington the back-ups. Put in Aneke and Schwartz up front, Millar on the left wing, Williams/Smyth on the right (possibly Maddison too), and suddenly there are only two starting slots left, the central midfield pairing. The options would be Watson, Pratley, Forster-Caskey, Morgan, Gilbey, Shinnie, plus Maddison and Williams. At the moment Forster-Caskey is in pole position and, while I’d happily defer to LB and his team, my choice alongside him would be Shinnie, perhaps Watson. Tough on Watson and Pratley, but they would undoubtedly continue to be instrumental in and around the starting line-up, with no doubt further injuries and suspensions altering the available mix.
Of course, of my ideal X1 currently only seven are currently available to start (no Innis, Famewo, Shinnie or Schwartz). But on paper at least it looks to me like a team and squad more than capable of competing with the best this league can offer. May the pieces fall into place quickly, but before then we have Tuesday.