Perhaps it was just plain arrogance, but I suspect I wasn’t alone ahead of tonight’s game in thinking we need not just a win (having failed to get any sort of run going so far this year) but an emphatic one, to send a statement. This against a team which may be languishing at the foot of the table but which tore us to pieces at their place in November and which in a current form table would be higher than us (three wins in the last five against two and a draw for us), led by the familiar face of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (who let’s not forget did have one good game for us, when we played Chelsea and he pulled his finger out).
What we witnessed proved thoroughly depressing as after a bright start we progressively deteriorated as Burton improved. You might suggest we were unlucky in that we could easily have scored two or three in the first half while Burton scored with their only effort on target, while what proved to be the winner was a speculative effort cruelly deflected. But they made things happen, we didn’t do the basics well enough, and once they were ahead Burton were more likely to score a third than we were to get back into it, with a powerful Purrington shot turned over by their keeper just about the only serious chance we had in the second half. Substitutions and formation changes added to the dismay as Burton worked their socks off to win the game, proving more determined than us. Rather than us peppering their goal in the final 15 minutes or so it took two excellent Amos saves to prevent a heavier defeat and at the end we looked dispirited and disjointed. Burton must love playing us, we’ve provided them with 24% of their points tally for the season to date.
The team showed some freshening up after Saturday, with Gunter, Maatsen and Famewo all rested, Matthews, Pearce and Purrington coming in to replace them. As it turns out we operated with a back five, Pratley dropping back into defence. With Forster-Caskey still unavailable there were also changes in midfield, with Watson given a start alongside Shinnie. Millar and Jaiyesimi were selected to play either side of Stockley, making it a kind of 5-2-3, or a 3-4-3 depending on which way you look at it, with three forwards – the returning Aneke, Washington and Schwartz - all on the bench.
The formation did seem to confuse Burton and for the first 15 minutes we were well on top, sometimes operating with three down the left side. The game was only two minutes old when Purrington found Oshilaja on an overlap and his cross found Stockley, who headed powerfully but their keeper managed to turn it onto the bar and the ball was cleared. No matter as before 10 minutes Shinnie played in Matthews but the ball was nicked away for a corner. Shinnie swung that in and the movement was good enough to enable Stockley to this time power the header into the net.
We continued to dominate and after Jaiyesimi had made an awful attempt at a dive inside the box Millar showed him how to get the decision, drawing a free kick outside the area. Shinnie sent in a curling shot that beat their keeper all ends up only to hit the crossbar. A second goal at this point and the game may well have had a very different outcome. Instead progressively from that point on Burton came into it and reminded us that they put four past us in the previous game. A set-piece move from a corner – the ball played low outside the box - caught us napping only for their guy to shoot wide.
It was nevertheless still something of a surprise when Burton equalised, in the 25th minute. They had a throw on the left side, we had numbers, yet everyone seemed to stand still as it was thrown to their guy, who had all the space he needed to send in a hanging cross. Seemed Amos might have come for it but didn’t and from close range their guy headed in. Just criminal to concede like that as shares of the blame had to be taken by a number of players, including it seems Jaiyesimi who seemed to switch off.
The rest of the half was fairly even and rather more scrappy, with Burton perhaps working out how to cope with our formation. But in stoppage time came what would prove to be another turning point. We had a free kick in a fairly central position and it was squared to Matthews on the right, who sent in the cross. Stockley was there again but his header crashed against the bar and out (Oshilaja putting the rebound in the net but from an offside position). If that had gone in and we went into the break ahead … ifs, buts, didn’t happen.
We were unfortunate not to be ahead at half-time. But we can’t say we were unfortunate to lose the game for the way the second half played out. We nearly coughed up another goal as Matthews looked to play the ball forward but saw his pass intercepted, which led to a low cross which eluded one of their guys only for a second at the far post to see his effort blocked by his colleague by then lying on the ground. And not long after that escape we were behind. There seemed little danger as their guy brought it forward and opted for a speculative long-range shot. But it took a deflection off Watson and looped up over Amos and into the top corner. After that it was downhill all the way.
Bowyer made an immediate change, bringing on Aneke for Jaiyesimi, who had faded after a bright start, and we seemed to move Millar into a more central position behind the front two. On the hour we had what with hindsight was the closest we came to levelling things as a ball in was flicked on by Stockley and Purrington sent in a powerful shot which was very well saved by their keeper. That was the exception as by now too many passes were going astray and we were beginning to look desperate as not surprisingly Burton were working hard to keep their lead, even creating chances to extend it, with one of their efforts clipping the crossbar.
With around 20 minutes of normal time left Bowyer made a double-substitution, Maatson coming on for Purrington and Schwartz for Pearce. This meant a back four, Millar moved back wide left, Shinnie on the right, and curiously Aneke dropping deeper into the position behind the front two, having only been brought on to play as a second forward 15 minutes earlier.
The changes didn’t have the desired effect, to say the least. Schwartz I don’t think touched the ball, Aneke looked at sea in a deeper position, Millar and Maatsen were unable to create much on the left side, and our efforts to hit the ball longer only made us look desperate. With about five minutes left on the clock Smith came on for Watson but seemed to find it difficult to say on his feet. And it took two fine saves by Amos to deny Burton a third. In truth Burton saw the game out quite comfortably.
Sure we’ll go again on Saturday but you get the impression that this defeat will be hard to come back from. The manner of our second-half disintegration was disturbing, as was the fact that we were outfought by Burton and also outplayed as they did the simple things better than us. No point in drawing any conclusions about our season on a miserable evening, as they could hardly be positive.
Amos – 7/10. Have to see it again but thought he could have come for the cross for their first goal. Otherwise excellent.
Matthews – 6/10. Not a bad game but gave the ball away badly once which nearly cost us a goal and some smaller errors.
Pratley – 6/10. Asked to do a job again in defence and did that, even just about managed to avoid picking up a yellow.
Pearce – 6/10. Nothing bad but we did concede one headed in by a guy close to the goal line.
Oshilaja – 7/10. Plenty of effort and decent work going forward down the left.
Purrington – 7/10. Did nothing wrong and got into goalscoring positions, unlucky not to score in the second half.
Watson – 6/10. Made some important tackles but didn’t add much drive to the team when we needed some. Should be a leader on the pitch.
Shinnie – 6/10. Did some good things, almost scored from a free kick. But faded along with others in the second half when we lost our way.
Jaiyesimi – 5/10. Started well but faded, perhaps at fault for their first goal.
Millar – 5/10. Perhaps his least effective game for us. He’s been excellent but seemed off the pace tonight, body language wasn’t good. Is he another who needs a rest?
Stockley – 8/10. Scored with one header, saw one turned onto the bar, hit the bar with a third effort.
Aneke – 6/10. Not going to give a worse mark as I can’t see the logic of bringing him on as a second forward only to bring on a different second forward 15 minutes later and ask him to play in an unfamiliar position.
Maatsen – 5/10. Disappointing.
Schwartz – 4/10. Worse than disappointing. Sure he needs service and tonight that was lousy but I don’t think he touched the ball.
Smith – Not on long enough for a mark, leave it at that.