Sunday 19 December 2021

No Grounds For Complaint

The start of the confirmed JJ era, all of us desperate to continue the climb up the table towards those top six places. He took over with a tough away fixture and nobody expected anything less. Play as we have done recently against Sunderland, Rotherham, Plymouth before of course, and Ipswich and we’d be confident of taking something from the game; play as we did when a little jaded, as against Morcombe and Shrewsbury, and we’re in danger. It proved to be the latter and, while we were unfortunate to be behind at the break, we can have no complaints about the outcome as we were decidedly second-best through the second half and could easily have conceded more.

The obvious question is why? The principle factors would seem clear. First, losing Famewo, Washington and Davison to Covid will have disrupted preparations and left us weaker on the pitch and from the bench, especially given the form the first two have been in of late. Although Leko showed well in the first half, his is a different style to Washington and collectively it just didn’t run as smoothly, while moving Purrington to be the third centre-back saw Soare occupy the wing-back role on the left side and he struggled to influence the game. Second, we were up against determined opposition, eager to get a win under their belts for their new manager; and once they had something to hang on to they raised their game and fought tooth and nail, eclipsing our effective central midfield.

Third, simply too many of our players had a below-par game. Gilbey and Lee were less effective going forward than of late, while Jaiyesimi had a poor first half, when he either crossed badly, passed sloppily, or miscontrolled the ball. And it might have been worse. Gilbey saw yellow in the first half for a poor challenge which involved him off his feet and studs showing. It would have been very harsh but I was a little relieved the ref hadn’t interpreted it as a red. Then DJ went to sweep the ball clear and only succeeded in connecting with their advancing forward. At first sight it looked a penalty to me.

Fourth, just the ebb and flow of the game and the importance of scoring first. Nobody questions we had the better of the first 20 minutes or so, Plymouth looking very subdued. The Stockley free header from a free kick and another set-piece ball into him might have produced the opening goal and a different game. Instead, although Plymouth were coming more into the game towards half-time, they would have been content to reach the break with the game scoreless and instead found themselves ahead, curtesy of a good attack down our left and an astute pass forward which led to the shot well saved by MacGillivray, only for the rebound to fall to their guy who managed to bisect two defenders and the keeper and in off the far post. With hindsight that changed the game, although at the break I suspect we all felt ‘OK, it’s happened, now we need to up our game and go and win it’, which simply didn’t happen as we failed to muster an attempt on target.

Fifth, and this is the more worrying element, this is the third consecutive disappointing away performance and result. Against Morcombe we gave up a two-goal lead and we lost to that late foul at Shrewsbury. Fatigue was assumed to be a factor, this time around we had the break between games but were three down and the possibility that more players were under the weather. We will only find out in due course if we can realistically just write off the game as a reflection of that disadvantage and not indicative of a deeper problem in getting the balance right when playing away from The Valley.

We have to see how the whole football situation develops over the days/weeks ahead in light of Covid. But as things stand Wimbledon away on Boxing Day takes on huge significance. If we want to prove that we don’t have a problem playing away, that we still have a chance of the play-offs (and that on that basis there is justification for something extra from the transfer window), we need really a win.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Not As Pretty But Gap Still Narrows

We all knew what we wanted from the game yesterday – a repeat/extension of Tuesday night’s performance against Ipswich, leaving out the first 20 mins or so. We didn’t really get that, but what we did get proved good enough. We weren’t able to reproduce the dominance and attacking threat we showed before, there was – like after the Plymouth game – just less verve and with this slightly less physical effort. Also, unlike on Tuesday night our opponents didn’t fold once they went behind. It all resulted in a much more even contest, one which Cambridge will undoubtedly feel hard done-by to come away with nothing, having fashioned effectively two one-on-ones in the second half. That they didn’t was down to MacGillivray and their finishing.

The team saw one change, with Jaiyesimi taking a breather and swapping places on the bench with Lekko. He’d looked rather unsure of the task of playing wing-back, but with a few more days to get used to the requirements, and with more game-time under his belt, played his part defensively as well as going forward. And on that front he was our main threat through the first half, causing them no end of problems – although crucially when Purrington put in a cross from the left which went to the far post he hadn’t gambled and made the move to get on the end of it.

Let’s face it the first half was scrappy, we struggled to get things moving. Perhaps fatigue, perhaps the horrible conditions, perhaps the opposition. But it mattered not in that as on Tuesday night we’d taken the lead. Lekko’s attempted cross was blocked and he laid it back into the path of Gilbey, who instead of curling it in for Stockley’s head played a shorter ball into Washington, with his back to goal. If his first touch was deliberately crafted to give him just the extra space and room to turn and shoot it was sublime, as the defender was never close enough to shut him down and instead the low shot through his legs went into the far corner.

Cambridge had their moments, creating mayhem in our box one after Famewo was surprisingly shouldered off the ball and also one of their guys shooting just wide of the post from a good position. The only other point of note for me from the first half was that I felt the ref dealt very well with two incidents. First, Famewo appeared to me at first to swing an elbow and connect with their guy’s face, I feared it would be a red. But the ref didn’t overreact and when we had the chance to see it again it was clear that Famewo was using his arm to help him keep position; he did catch the guy but not with any swing of the elbow. Second, their forward caught Pearce in the face with one. Here too there was no real intent. A yellow for both, nothing more. (And in the second half, when Pearce took another and Stockley got involved the ref was again calm, waited for the dust to settle, then acted appropriately.)

At the break I think we fancied ourselves to get another and perhaps run out fairly comfortable winners. But that didn’t happen. Instead Cambridge matched us all the way and had two great opportunities to level the score. First Dobson was for once caught out in midfield, advancing to make an interception and not getting there, which created the space for their guy to play in the forward. MacGillivray moved out quickly to shut down the space and excellently blocked the effort. The second time was more of a long ball which their forward read better than two of our defenders and slipped into nick it past and advancing MacGillivray. Nothing he could do about that one, but thankfully it drifted just wide of the post.

Like on Tuesday we had to wait until late in the day to be able to relax. Soare, who’d come on for an injured Purrington (after DJ had replaced Lekko), put in a cross from the left which was headed out but blocked, falling nicely for Washington. Once again his first touch proved to be decisive and he drilled it home. Queue repeat celebrations, six minutes of stoppage time (but not quite enough for Morgan to enter the fray).

The positive take on the game is no doubt that we won despite not being at our best. And perhaps the main message was a reinforcement of what JJ has already said: when we are really on song we’re a match for anyone in this league, the obvious other side of the coin being that when we are not we need to dig in and will have problems against decent and determined teams like Cambridge.

I’ve got a bit out of the habit of player ratings of late, but I’d make MacGillivray my Man of the Match. I saw ratings for the Ipswich game giving him 6. How do you score a keeper who hasn’t had a single shot to save? Can hardly penalise his score for that. Yesterday he was instrumental in us staying ahead in the game, which would have taken a very different shape if they had equalised. Of course Washington takes plaudits too, for a brace of well-taken goals, while Pearce put in yet another committed display despite looking in clear discomfort (and taking a couple in the face).

So now a chance to rest some weary legs - and surely to sort out JJ's status - ahead of a trip to Plymouth, who having come to The Valley riding high at the top have now lost four and drawn one out of the last five, and lost their manager. Sitting now in sixth, it is their place in the league we covet. Let’s hope the gap has narrowed further before Santa turns up.

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Back On Track

I think the requirement for tonight was clear: to demonstrate, through both the result and the performance, that the points dropped at Morecombe and Shrewsbury will come to amount to nothing more than a blip – and in tandem with this there is no fading of the positive JJ impact, that the opposition weren’t starting to suss us out. To be fair we didn’t know how Ipswich would shape up, having just got rid of their manager.

Fair to say we got what we wanted. After an uncertain start, once we scored there was really only one team in it, the only problem being that it took us until almost the end to make the points safe. For that Ipswich’s keeper takes a good deal of the credit, although we were not clinical enough in taking very good chances. That is, really, the only criticism as we were dominant in all areas of the pitch and had the leaders. I don’t know if Ipswich had a poor evening, if we made them look poor, or both. If there was one area in which they let their fans down it was in their reaction to going behind, it seemed to stun and undermine them rather than prompt them to raise their game. And although they enjoyed a reasonable amount of possession they had nobody able to provide the spark and galvanise others to get back into the game. Quite frankly, they looked a lot like we did under Adkins.

The team and squad was always going to be about availability, as it is fair to say that if all are available we could pretty much guess the starting XI. The return of Stockley was assumed, and it had been indicated that Pearce would be available again (but that Blackett-Taylor would be on the injured list). Both were indeed confirmed, with Clare retained as the third centre-back rather than Gunter, Purrington and Jaiyesimi the wing-backs, the midfield trio of Dobson, Gilbey and Lee, plus Stockley and Washington up front. On the bench Elerewe and Soare provided the defensive options, Watson and Kirk for midfield, plus Leko and Davison for the attack – really a much better balanced mix than often of late, reflecting players being available again.

Ipswich did start the brighter and in the first 10 minutes at least we struggled to put anything together, especially as Lee began by sending a corner and a free-kick straight down their keeper’s throat. We did get more into it after that, with a good run and cross from Purrington on the left leading to DJ heading over. But let’s be honest, when we took the lead on 25 minutes we can’t say it had been coming and there was no inkling of the change to the game that goal would produce.

Washington, as he was to do all night, found space between their defenders, timed his run well to just stay onside, and was picked out with a ball from Dobson played into the channel on the left side. He took it on and from a narrowish angle hit a shot which their keeper parried well, only for Stockley to be first to the rebound and hit it crisply low into the net.

Taking the lead inflated us, just as it deflated them. For the remainder of the first half it was just a question of whether we could take advantage of being on top to extend the lead. But a succession of half-chances came and went. Washington showed great control to take down a high ball and get a shot away, only for it to be blocked, Stockley headed over from a corner, Gilbey played in Jaiyesimi for another effort blocked. Washington this time (unlike against Rotherham) didn’t get away with a push in the back to win the ball. Ipswich did have one or two dangerous situations with balls into the box, but no actual attempts on target.

In the second half Ipswich did seem to play more direct and did cause a few problems early on, although the returning Bonne was cutting an increasingly frustrated figure. However, it was us almost adding to the lead as Stockley played in Washington down the right, his cross was deflected but bounced down and over their keeper, and Purrington coming in at the far post seemed set to score, only for his header to be rather too central, allowing their keeper to get across and save. And as Ipswich’s enthusiasm seemed again to fade, a Purrington low cross evaded everyone, Lee saw an effort blocked, as did Gilbey, then Lee had a close-range header saved after a knockback from Purrington.

Just past the hour Ipswich brought on another prodigal son, this time in the form of Pigott to partner Bonne. It didn’t change anything as next Dobson won the ball, played it wide to Washington, and his ball back across picked out Lee but his shot was too central and the keeper saved again. Clare had a long range shot saved.

With about 20 minutes left, after Pearce had unceremoniously pulled down their guy and jogged away with a yellow, DJ was replaced by Leko. The next action was an astonishing run by Gilbey, who almost made it through on his own. I remember thinking as the clock ticked down, can we please just score again and put this game to bed, we all know what can happen. The next big chance was route one as MacGillivray’s long clearance was flicked on by Stockley and Washington seemed to be in. He hit a shot across their keeper, who stuck out a leg to keep them in it. A Lee free kick near the byline found Pearce whose knockdown was met by Washington but the shot turned around for a corner. For good measure Leko got in on the act, running inside and getting off a shot. Another save.

Just when we were starting to really get concerned we did get the goal to put the game to bed. Washington managed to keep the ball alive down our left and worked it back to Lee. He spotted a run from Gilbey and picked him out. There was still plenty to do, but Gilbey nicked it inside and went past their defender, now only the keeper to beat. And this time he was given no chance, the ball planted into the far corner of the net. Cue mass celebrations and considerable relief inside and outside The Valley.

If you were to be hypercritical there were elements that weren’t perfect. DJ did his defensive duties well but seemed a little hesitant going forward, while Leko will need more instruction in the art of playing wing-back if he is to be considered for the role (presumably Blackett-Taylor will be back). Lee had a less effective game than before, wasted some set-pieces and didn’t convert some good chances; but he was still able to pick out Gilbey for the decisive second. And Washington did everything tonight – except put the ball into the net.

If we can end every game with just such issues to point out we will all be very happy. In the end the performance echoed that against Plymouth, we allowed them not a single effort on target all night, with MacGillivray having not a shot to save. Famewo made the odd bad choice (which did not escape Steve Brown) but generally dominated their forwards physically, as did Pearce, while Dobson was once again quietly very, very effective. Collectively they were up for it and clearly shared in the delight of an excellent team performance. Another like that on Saturday please.

Monday 6 December 2021

Time To Plan For Jan, Starting With JJ

Since the appointment of Johnnie Jackson on a caretaker basis my guess has been that Thomas Sandgaard would wait until the approach of the January transfer window before making a further decision – give him a permanent contract, make him manager until the end of the season, or bring in a replacement. That time is now fast approaching, a point underlined by Ipswich disposing of their manager (albeit after an embarrassing FA Cup result).

Basically the thinking would be something like this. By say mid-December, do we have a realistic chance of getting promoted (based on both position and momentum)? If yes, what do we need to do to increase the chances; if no, we start planning for next season. Clearly we have benefited from JJ’s installation and I’d suggest that replacing him before end-December with someone else would not deliver any fresh ‘bounce’ likely to increase our chances of promotion. For me, changing horses now would be tantamount to more or less writing off this season and preparing for the next campaign (it might be considered advantageous in that respect to have in place early the next manager to get the basics relationships sorted in preparation for summer transfer activity rather sooner than last time around). It would not be surprising to see the players draw similar conclusions and, whether consciously or not, take their foot off the pedal.

It follows from that, for me, that if we consider ourselves as having a reasonable chance of promotion this season, the decision is then between either a long-term contract for JJ or an extension of his position until the end of the season. That would in turn pave the way for decisions over what we might do in January to build on the positive momentum (leaving aside the last two away games) and have a real run at it – and I don’t mind admitting that I’m in favour of anything that increases our chances of going up this time around (and vice versa, which drives my attitude to the unwanted distraction of an FA Cup run and the simply unwanted Papa DoDa thingy).

That said, it’s TS’ money and if he, for whatever reason, believes that the club will be better off with an alternative manger, so be it. Presumably by now he will have seen enough of other candidates to know who would take over, so that all would happen quickly. It would be disappointing, somewhat surprising, but ultimately something we as supporters would have to go along with.

When it comes to the January window, the options and priorities would seem fairly obvious – even if the answers are not. Whether or not we need a new centre-back depends entirely on assessments over the availability of Inniss, Lavelle and Pearce, plus whether Elerewe is considered ready as at least a regular squad member. The midfield and wide positions look covered, while up front whether or not we need another (the outright goalscorer) would seem to hinge on whether Burstow is considered to be ready to play a material role through the rest of the season and/or whether Leko is seen as primarily playing as a second striker (giving us effectively Stockley or Davison and Washington or Leko/Burstow). These are decisions for the manager to be primarily responsible for, at least in terms of detailing what we need if we are looking to strengthen.

I wouldn’t criticise TS for taking this long to decide on JJ. But the time for contemplation and looking at options is pretty much over now. And surely our club is big enough for two guitar players.