Sunday, 20 November 2022

Horrible Indeed

Ben Garner said it was a ‘horrible’ performance and nobody’s going to challenge that, other than perhaps to argue it was worse than horrible. Seems that MK Dons set the template for how to beat us and Port Vale had done their homework: everyone behind the ball, challenge up the pitch so that we were focused on retaining possession rather than doing anything with it, and rely on capitalising on an error or two to nick a goal. They were under no obligation to make it open and pretty; and they surely didn’t. But none of that adds up to an excuse for a lame, spiritless showing, one which it was hard not to conclude was the result of us, collectively, simply not being up for it.

Curbs said after the game that he questioned whether anyone aside from debutant Maynard-Brewer came away with credit, although even here when they were showing his finest moments they amounted to picking the ball up and clearing it, he had no chance with the goal and no other shot (or cross I can remember) to deal with. But I’d add another as Sessegnon strived through the game to make something happen. For the rest, the returning Clare seemed in petulant mode, Inniss and Lavelle did most things OK but were culpable for the goal, Dobson and Fraser were less than precise with their passing and shadows of the enthusiastic pairing we’ve seen before, Blackett-Taylor as ever had the beating of his opposite number but couldn’t make it count before running out of steam, Rak-Sakyi was crowded out, Kirk you would have thought on the back of two excellently taken goals last time out would be up for it but failed to have any impact on the game, and Stockley was anonymous.

The subs had a modest impact in that Aneke had our best chance of the game, shooting over badly from the edge of the area having turned well, and Payne had one turned over in stoppage time (although it may have been too high in any event). The only other time I can remember us looking dangerous was when Rak-Sakyi managed to get clear on the right side but Aneke couldn’t get on the end of his ball across. Forster-Caskey, Campbell and Morgan also appeared, but all the changes made came when we were behind and chasing the game against opponents with something to hold onto.

That we were behind was another sorry tale. After a first half as unmemorable as any I can think of, with no efforts on target from either side, they scored as one forward made mugs out of three. A long ball out was contested by Dobson and he was pushed out of the way. It was a sneaky foul but a foul nonetheless. Reminded me of the one Washington got away with against Rotherham last season. Then their guy ran with the ball across the face of the goal as both Inniss and Lavelle seemed off-balance and failed to get near him, then hit it back in the opposite direction into the net. Far too soft.

There’s nothing else from the game worth dwelling on. Give Port Vale some credit for having an effective plan and sticking to it, then just ponder on whether anything could have been done to alter the outcome. Clearly there’s nothing in terms of personnel, just about everyone available was in the match-day squad. Perhaps just a few things that might have been done. First, make changes earlier. It wasn’t working and there was no reason to expect on the day that it would. Second, is there a particular reason why Garner won’t try bringing on Aneke to play alongside Stockley rather than replace him? Yesterday it might have given Port Vale something to think about. Third, with Kirk not in the game I would have thought trying Payne in that role might have brought more joy. Again, couldn’t have turned out any worse.

My only other thought was something hinted at in the CATV post-match discussion. If you complain about lack of movement when we have the ball in our own half, imagine you are a forward playing for us. When the next period of play is all about keeping possession what’s the point of making runs? There has to be purpose in playing out from the back – and that is playing out, not sideways and back, unless drawing out the opposition – and Port Vale were not going to be drawn out.

What is more worrying is that the performance indicated a collective lack of ambition. We didn’t show enough courage, character or determination to merit taking the points. Exactly why that is I’ve no idea – but I don’t think some of Garner’s post-match comments are in any way helpful. He is reported in the South London Press as saying: “I’ll be looking to make changes moving forward. We have to turn this squad over. We need to get better players in. We have to strengthen. We have to invest. You can see at the moment, across this part of the season, we’re not competitive enough in this division.” Just how does he expect players to be motivated to perform when he says something like that? I don’t care that he didn’t get to spend what he wanted to, that he wants to strengthen the squad (we all want that). To say ‘we’re not competitive enough in this division’ is lamentable, tantamount to ‘it’s not my fault’. We have shown that on our day we are competitive in this division, with what we have – but not consistently and often enough. Just why that is and what to do about it should be Garner’s focus I’d suggest.

Sunday, 13 November 2022

Take The Point, Could Have Turned Out Worse

Ahead of yesterday’s game I suspect we were, on balance, expecting three points, not as a given but as likely. During the game those expectations fluctuated considerably. In the aftermath I’d say we would best be content with a point, not because we couldn’t have won it – after 36 minutes we would have been very disappointed not to and we might well have scored a decider in the final 10-15 minutes – but because it all might easily have turned out a good deal worse. Burton will no doubt point to their 25 attempts on goal to our 12, with 10 against four on target. That would be to ignore the fact that we came away with something because of some very good finishing, not luck. All part of the game.

The team was flagged as having three changes, with Sessegnon returning in defence, effectively for the suspended Clare, with Chin moving to left-back and Inniss and Lavelle in central defence (and Elerewe on the bench making up our options on that front). Dobson and Fraser again in central midfield, while Campbell started on the left, Rak-Sakyi on the right, and Kirk given the job of sort of second striker/number 10. Morgan and Payne were on the bench, as was Forster-Caskey, while Aneke and Blackett-Taylor provided the forward options. Then three became four as news came through of Wollacott being injured in the warm-up, MacGillivray getting the gloves sooner than he expected, while Asiimwe was added to the subs, with no back-up keeper now available. 

The early exchanges were quite frankly dire, with a good deal of head-tennis and Burton pressing, looking to long throws and corners to load the box, while we struggled to get or keep the ball (other than balls played square in our final third). We hadn’t threatened at all, whereas Burton had forced MacGillivray into the first of a number of tips over the bar from headers, but on 26 minutes, out of the blue, we went ahead. For once instead of the square pass Inniss saw space and moved forward into it. Burton failed to close him down, or get their back line tight, and he was able to look to the right then play the ball forward into the path of Kirk between two defenders. Still a lot to do but his first touch was good and with his second he planted it past their keeper and into the far corner of the net. A finish Sir Clive would have been pleased with (although fair to say it would have been a routine one for him).

On 30 minutes we had a scare as a ball in from their left was well gathered on the ground by MacGillivray, bravely going in where it hurt to claim it and taking a bang on the head. As he received treatment of course the concern was he would have to go off, and be replaced by who? It was a question left unanswered by Garner after the game and fortunately we didn’t get to find out. 

On 36 minutes our cup overflowed as we scored a second, again out of the blue. Long ball forward and Stockley managed to get a touch. Kirk took a chance and moved in anticipation, again between defenders, collecting the ball inside the box. It sat up nicely for him and as he’d noticed their keeper advancing off his line he put in a perfectly judged chip just clearing his outstretched arm and into the net. 

At this point we’re thinking if it’s this easy to score against them all we need to do it keep it tight at the back, more chances and goals will follow, and we take away the three points. The thoughts lasted a minute or so as Burton were awarded a free-kick on the right side (apparently Garner thought it was either offside or a free-kick for us, although his remonstrations were more muted than against Ipswich). The ball was whipped in dangerously and Oshilaja was all over Dobson to plant a firm header into the corner, giving MacGillivray no chance. Just as when Morgan was left vainly trying to grab a centre-half against MK Dons, so here too the match-up was very much to our disadvantage. Perhaps Burton did their homework, clearly we have work to do on the training ground.

OK, going into the break two up would have been very nice, still take 1-2 and regroup. That also was not to be as Burton took advantage of some very slack defending. The worked the ball around on the right side, when it appeared we had a number of opportunities to break up the attack. When it was put into the box their guy miscontrolled it but it went to another inside the box. As our defenders, most obviously Inniss here, stood and watched him, he brought the ball down with his chest and hit the volley past defenders and keeper.

On the overall balance of play level at half-time was not unfair on either side, but the fact was we’d blown a two-goal lead as a result of defensive frailties. And we had not played well. No control in midfield meant no decent supply to the wide pair, so we played it around at the back many times and scored twice by exploiting their open back four in moves which went quickly from back to front. Just how the shortcomings of both sides would play out in the second half was at that point completely unpredictable. There was no thought of ‘next goal wins it’.

We had a couple of chances early in the second half to retake the lead, with Sessegnon firing just over after good work by Campbell, while Kirk had one blocked. Instead just before the hour the advantage went to them, with question marks again over the defending. Our goalkick resulted in MacGillivray sending it long, with as the post-match TV analysis pointed out our centre-backs having parted for a possible pass. When it was returned their forward picked it up and was able to advance with no real challenge and he put in an excellent shot which flew beyond MacGillivray into the net.

At that point, with Burton’s tails up, we endured a period when the game could easily have been put to bed (although just how many we have to be behind to be out of the game is a difficult question to answer of late). Predictably Aneke and CBT were brought on, for Stockley and Campbell, but before they had a chance to settle Burton had forced another tip-over from MacGillivray and from the resulting corner Oshilaja missed a sitter. They were looking likely to score at every set piece by now.

Payne and Forster-Caskey were introduced, for Kirk and Dobson. And glory be, on 75 minutes, very much against the run of play, we were level. Aneke did well on the right touchline to wrestle possession and then played a peach of a ball forward, beyond their back line and into the path of Rak-Sakyi, who had moved to the central position with the changes. He too opted for the lob, with greater height than Kirk’s earlier effort but the same end-result as it sailed well over their keeper then dropped very neatly into the empty net.

With still perhaps 20 minutes to go the odds surely favoured one or other sides scoring again. And in this period we did have the better chances, although Burton continued to threaten from set pieces, forcing more MacGillivray saves. Blackett-Taylor, who again showed the ability to go past his man with ease, on either side, fed Rak-Sakyi, who opted to go right and saw his shot blocked well, then we had a moment of pure comedy as CBT left two defenders on the ground only to so horribly slice the shot it went for a throw-in. Morgan came on for Fraser and in four minutes of stoppage time we had the final chance, with another Rak-Sakyi shot blocked. Just not to be, for either side.

What to make of it all? Garner talked afterwards about players being tired and as CATV talked of afterwards it did look like a game too many for Dobson and Fraser in particular. They were overrun in midfield and it seemed that every second ball dropped to a Burton player. The result was, although the stats show we had 55% possession, most of that was knocking it around at the back. Our goals came from the few times we got the ball forward quickly and were able to take advantage of their defensive shortcomings with excellent finishes. We’ve now conceded nine goals from the last three league games and that speaks for itself. Let’s just be grateful the fixture list for the next month is not heavy, hopefully gives us the chance to get some of the injured back (although let’s note that Chin put in a shift yesterday).

Friday, 11 November 2022

Don't Care About The Cups

The period since the Ipswich game has thrown up some questions – has there been a week before in our history when we went into three cup competitions and progressed in each one? When was the last time we were London’s only representative left in a domestic cup competition? Oh, also a fresh debate over whether we should get excited about the cup – and if so how much.

Taking on board the opinions of other Addicks, it would appear my position is at the extreme end of the spectrum. I don’t care a jot about the cups. In other circumstances undoubtedly I would; of course good cup runs are in themselves desirable. Just that right now surely our single goal, our one and only priority, is getting promoted back to the Championship. The chances of that happening this season may not be strong but they exist, essentially on the basis that on our day as things stand we are competitive, plus if we can hang in there long enough injured players will return and we have the potential to strengthen in the January window. Despite the winless run we are not far off the top six.

For sure there are pros and cons. The cups give us the chance to get minutes into the legs of those who need them, they offer opportunities for the further development of some of the emerging youngsters. Also, good cup runs can go hand-in-hand with success in the league; after all, winning is a good habit to acquire and confidence clearly counts for a lot. If we had a fit and healthy, large squad these positives would I think count for more. But we don’t.

Jaiyesimi and Leaburn were already on the injured list before the Ipswich game, after which were added Egbo and O’Connell. Now it seems Thomas and McGrandles have joined them. If you add in doubts about how many minutes/run of games we can get out of Inniss, Sessegnon, Blackett-Taylor and Aneke, include the risk of further injuries and suspensions, and let’s just say the squad is stretched, even given the return from loan of Elerewe and the possibility that whatever was in the way of Forster-Caskey being chosen is being eroded. In defence Clare is covering for Egbo so can no longer provide back-up for Sessegnon or in the centre, Lavelle has gone from being in the cold to an automatic selection (basically its two from Inniss, Lavelle and Elerewe), while the options out wide and up front are not extensive.

In that context, additional fixtures and the risk of more added to the unavailable list are unwelcome. Sure, there is something of a lull now on the fixtures front, with Burton on Saturday followed by a trip to Port Vale the following weekend, a break, then only a couple of league games in the first half of December. But after that its back to congestion.

I’d add in a further consideration. Reaching the last 16 of the League Cup (or whatever it’s called now) and being drawn at home against Brighton in a game to be played just before Santa comes calling might be something to look forward to. But if there’s any suggestion that in the players’ minds (or Garner’s come to that) that the game is more important than the league fixtures around that time that would be entirely unwelcome. They may not be mutually exclusive but I would swap all progress in all cups for a play-off place in a heartbeat – and would rather lose to Brighton than drop points against Morecambe or Bristol Rovers (the two prior games).

Why do I feel this way? I’d put it down to two primary reasons. First and foremost, I fear for our future if we don’t get promoted this season and show no signs of going up early in the next. It isn’t difficult to outline a scenario under which crowds dwindle further, Sandgaard feels obliged to take cost-cutting to another level and/or truly loses interest (and his recent comments regarding a focus on off-field matters can be seen as a step on that path, losing sight of the main goal and distracting yourself with minutiae), and we find ourselves again on the market as an asset with no value, given that we do not own The Valley. It is a pessimistic scenario for sure, but you can’t say it is impossible. After all, prior to the remarkable Ipswich game we were seeing low crowds and increasing apathy. I do believe that our club can only be considered sound if we are playing in the Championship, with regrettable periodic trips to the third flight if they happen, and do not see a viable future framed around expectations of a further extended stay in League One. The alternative scenario begins with being back in the Championship.

The second reason may be more personal/selfish. I’ve seen us sup at the top table, great years they were. I want us to be playing Premiership teams again, either on a regular basis or as a Championship outfit looking to measure progress, not as a plucky underdog. Also, I’ve seen us play at Wembley in a Mickey Mouse competition and have no wish to repeat the experience. Finally, throw in the horrifying thought of potentially having to choose between a March trip to London to watch us play FC Nobody in the Papa thingy or losing a record of never having missed us play at Wembley. Please spare me that.

Sunday, 30 October 2022

A Draw To Remember, For A Long Time

After Tuesday night’s slap in the face what would we see this time around? The determined and effective team which saw off Portsmouth or the one which lacked intensity and imagination against MK Dons? Not all down to us of course, as those two teams adopted different approaches; and surely today Ipswich would come looking for the win. Second in the league, 11 won out of 16 (and only two lost), 31 goals in the bag, spread well across the team, and sure of going top if they took the three points. But as our five wins have included two of the top six (and four of the top 10), perhaps another rousing performance against a promotion contender was on the cards.

What we ended up with was a game which will live long in the memory, mainly for the remarkable stoppage time of course, as six minutes ended up being nine (for good reasons) and four goals were scored (making it five in total in stoppage time – a record?), the last of which sparked howls of delight from Addicks in London and across the globe (it was International Addicks Day after all). We had a timely reminder of just what football can deliver, especially as we ended up with a tangible return for our character – and as a catalogue of errors and dire officiating spiced things up. You can understand why VAR is not used in this league, if it was the game might still be going on. That we emerged not having lost was incredible. I wonder what odds you would have got on a draw after Ipswich had gone 0-2 ahead in the second half (I’d guess perhaps 20-1 in the circumstances), then at 2-4 after 94 minutes (this is real fantasy land, I’d suggest at least 500-1, even if bookies seldom go that far).

We’ll try to keep things brief, just focus on the main incidents. As regards the team, we knew there would be at least one change from Tuesday night, with Inniss sitting it out on another suspension. Looked like a choice between Lavelle, Thomas and Clare. Otherwise just a question of whether Garner would stick to the system with Kirk in a sort of forward position and two wide men, with possibly the return of Sessegnon and/or Blackett-Taylor. In the event Thomas got the nod to replace Inniss, with Lavelle on the bench. Sessegnon was back in from the start but so was Clare, which left it in doubt whether we would be sticking with 4-4-2. It turned out we would, but with Clare switched to right-back and Egbo asked to play in the wide-right midfield slot, Kirk was switched to the left side, and Rak-Sakyi – who had made a better fist of the job against MK Dons – alongside Stockley, while CBT was back but also among the subs.

The first 20 minutes or so were pretty even, with plenty of probing by both sides but – aside from an opening minute misplaced ball out from their keeper going to Stockley, who was taken by surprise and couldn’t clear the keeper with his shot to find the empty net – little in the way of goal threat. However, the game did take a turn for the worse from our perspective as Egbo went down and, after lengthy treatment and an attempt to run it off, had to go off. Perhaps surprisingly Garner opted for Morgan to replace him; I thought Payne would have been the more obvious choice for the position.

That change did alter the game as progressively Ipswich got on top. We simply weren’t causing them any problems, with Kirk generally ineffective and Morgan and Clare on the other side more focused on how to sort out their defending, while Rak-Sakyi was not really involved, Stockley looking isolated once more. We had nevertheless prevented them from creating real openings and on 40 minutes you just felt we needed to get to the break on level terms and regroup, see if the introduction of Chuks and/or CBT would change the picture.

Didn’t turn out that way. A breakaway and good ball through saw their guy with a clear run on goal, with O’Connell struggling to keep pace. Whether or not he was distracted by a whistle from a moron in the crowd, O’Connell did in the end get to him and helped divert his effort wide – but at a cost. He stayed down and was unable to continue, a stretcher being required. On came Lavelle and suddenly we had very much a makeshift defence (no reflection on them as players just how many minutes they’ve been on the pitch in recent months and whether the four, especially the central two, had even worked as a pair in training).

Into six minutes of stoppage time and Ipswich came close. They had joy again down their left and the ball in four their guy in acres of space. Odds on for him to score, but the shot was somehow deflected for a corner. It proved a brief respite as that was played into a dangerous area and one of their centre-backs got free of his marker (possibly for some reason Morgan, who ended up closest to him with a despairing lunge) and had a free header, which he planted firmly in the net.

At the break we had real cause for concern. Two players off injured, a goal down against a strong team, and not much in the way of goal threat from us. You felt then that another Ipswich goal would be the end of things, our hope being that the subs could shift the balance.

Not long into the second half and it went from bad to worse. The ref was instrumental as he decided Dobson’s excellent challenge - which saw him clearly poke the ball away from their guy before any contact between the pair, only for their guy to carry on and go over Dobson’s other leg – was a foul. To add insult to injury he gave Dobson a yellow, and as the wall was being formed dished out another to Clare, presumably for dissent. The shot from the free kick was blocked but we were slow to respond to the ball falling to them wide right. Nobody closed them down, or pushed out of the box. A good ball back in and with three or four defenders standing watching their guy timed his run well and beat an advancing Wollacott to nod it past him. Had Wollacott called for it? Hard to tell, but the goal could be put down to lack of organisation and understanding. No doubt who Garner was blaming as he was sent to the stands, urging on the crowd as he went (seems it was later confirmed he was yellow-carded for dissent then given a second for sarcastic applause of the officials).

It was at that point hard to see anything other than an Ipswich win, possibly a very bad one for us if they extended the lead. On the hour we did make changes out of choice, with Aneke on for Stockley and Blackett-Taylor for Kirk, with Rak-Sakyi moving out wider and Morgan central, with both he and Fraser expected to provide support to Chuks. And within a couple of minutes we were back in the game. Aneke tussled for the ball on the right side and ended up outmuscling their guy (OK, replays did show he had him around the throat but might have been viewed as 50-50) and took it on. He hit a cross to the far post where Sessegnon met it with a good header. Their keeper pulled off a good save but the rebound fell invitingly for Rak-Sakyi to control and poke into the net.

Back in the game, but the daft thing was it could easily have immediately been 1-3. A cross from the left and another free header, only for their guy to send his effort straight at Wollacott; either side and it was a goal. Nevertheless, our tails were up and clearly Ipswich couldn’t handle Aneke’s sheer strength or CBT’s pace. He roasted the full-back at just about every time of asking. On 70 minutes Ipswich made three changes, including one very big guy of their own up front. But glory be on 75 we were level. Blackett-Taylor cut inside this time, across a couple of defenders, and sent in a shot. It looked fairly routine but their keeper instead of parrying it wide turned it back into the danger area and Morgan was on hand to put the rebound home.

What next? An unlikely winner or be happy with the point? Have to say I tended towards the latter as Ipswich were dangerous and, while we carried much more goal threat now, were looking leggy in defence. With five minutes left the dreaded winner for Ipswich almost came as the ball broke to one of theirs inside the box only for him to scuff his effort over.

Into another six minutes of stoppage time and our hearts were broken. Their big guy was allowed to turn with the ball to face goal and put in a very good shot to Wollacott’s right and into the bottom corner. I felt at the time obvious desolation but was focusing on how well we had done to overcome injuries and a two-goal deficit, even if we ended up losing. On 94 minutes it looked like we would be very hard done-by as another shot from the edge of the area was deflected and went in. 2-4 was unfair on us.

When Morgan curled in a free kick on the right side which found CBT at the far post and he squared it for Thomas to tap in (replays showed he had conveniently shoved his marker into the net before the ball was played to him) at least it felt a little fairer as regards the scoreline. With the indicated six minutes already up, nobody expected anything more. But the ref kept things going, taking account of the goals scored and Ipswich’s lengthy celebrations, getting at least one thing right in the game. As we brought the ball forward via Morgan and Fraser it was surely just a case of getting it into the danger area and hope for a miracle. In the event it was played wide and CBT delivered one to the far post, where Dobson of all people got above their guy. His header may have come off the defender but in any event curled over a keeper off his line and into the net.

Well, we haven’t celebrated a late goal like that for a long time, probably Wembley. When the final, final whistle went nobody was in any doubt about who had won the draw. Ipswich were just shaking their heads over how they had not won, we just celebrated. And rightly so. We had collectively overcome game-changing injuries (let’s face it, their first two goals could be put down to a lack of understanding and their second two to very tired defenders not able to close down the space or get bodies in the way of shots) and two two-goal deficits (with three tap-ins two goals which their keeper will be unhappy with) against promotion contenders.

In the cold light of day (not yet) we will have to start picking up the pieces. How long Egbo and/or O’Connell will be on the sidelines remains to be seen, while Inniss has another game suspended and I think Clare now has one too. The good news is that we don’t have another league game until 12 November, with three cup games in the interim to play around with. The greater question is just how does Garner mould the team when some of its most potent weapons are not considered able to last 90 minutes? As a final note, I’d add that I thought that Sessegnon, who has been unable to last a full game himself, was outstanding.

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Defeat Not Just Down To Officials

With the mood having so clearly changed – as eight without a win quickly became three wins in a row and unbeaten in five – and with eyes fixed as much on Ipswich’s arrival at The Valley on Saturday, this one had all the makings of a banana skin. In fact it was so obvious, discussed before and during the game, that surely we would avoid one, surely the message would be that the recent wins had shown the need for a high performance level if we want to win, against anyone in this league, that MK Dons might be arriving bottom of the league but everyone is surprised by that, can’t take them lightly. Instead, with hindsight perhaps even considering the notion of a banana skin illustrated the problem, one we failed to shake off through the game and ended up well beaten. The game did turn on officials’ decisions, as Garner claimed afterwards, but that isn’t even half the story as MK Dons created the better chances before those decisions, virtually the only chances, and stuck to a gameplan which worked.

Now I missed Saturday’s game, being in London for the weekend (and happily able to get to the splendid Back to The Valley event on Friday night) but with a prior engagement for Saturday (involving a stroll to Parliament Square). So I can’t comment on the extent to which against Shrewsbury we did/did not match the levels attained against Portsmouth. But last night we clearly didn’t have the same edge and intensity. Perhaps just fatigue but different opposition throw up different challenges, even if on paper they have the same formation; and we didn’t adapt our gameplan to that, either before or during the game.

For example, whereas Portsmouth played with a more stretched set-up, looking to get people forward, which helped Dobson and Fraser to stay compact in front of the defence, MK Dons were content to sit deep behind the ball and play on the break. Dobson and Fraser were sucked further forward and MK Dons were able to run beyond them and get at the back four. MK Dons were more dangerous than Portsmouth as a result despite being set up defensively. Against Portsmouth Kirk had buzzed around to good effect, not carrying a goal threat but helping to link play and get the ball to the wide men. MK Dons just denied him that space and outmuscled him, with the result that he drifted wider himself to find space, which in turn left Stockley as isolated as he had been when we were playing a front three. And although Rak-Sakyi and Campbell both had their moments they were more often crowded out, while the decision to give Sessegnon a rest (which was the only change to the line-up, with the game coming too soon for Blackett-Taylor) and ask Clare to fill in at left-back didn’t help as he looked uncomfortable there all night.

The result was a first half to forget, for us and any neutral. It took us 40 minutes to muster a shot, an effort from Egbo from outside the box which sailed over the bar, and in stoppage time the ref blocked off their guy, enabling us to intercept the ball out of defence. Campbell, who was involved in most of our threatening moments, was played in but from a widish position and with a defender throwing himself in the way only managed to hit the side-netting. That all came just after MK Dons had their best moments, as a breakaway down their right saw their guy get the better of Clare, who comically cut across to usher the ball behind for a goalkick only for his momentum to take him out of the picture and the ball not cross the line. It sat up for their guy to square it and with the goal at his mercy another hit the bar. In the follow-up they cut inside and a decent shot required Wollacott to turn it around for a corner.

It clearly wasn’t working for us and the break gave an opportunity to consider options. And I think Curbs got the call right on Charlton TV. He advocated moving Kirk out wide, with presumably Campbell (who had picked up a knock) coming off, and bringing on Aneke to partner Stockley. There was indeed a change, with Campbell substituted, but with Payne coming on to play on the right side, Kirk moving left, and Rak-Sakyi asked to play in a central position.

The change did help improve things (not a reflection on Campbell but rather how we might be better able to create and score against their set-up). Rak-Sakyi caused them far more problems than Kirk had in the position, while Kirk was able to concentrate on space on the flank and delivering balls into the box. The downside was that a ball into the box was still only likely to find an outnumbered Stockley (which became graphically clear when Kirk delivered a peach of a ball across their box which nobody was able to connect with), while MK Dons were still winning the physical battles. Also, the impression that we were getting on top – despite MK Dons creating more chances (one saw their guy round Wollacott only to be forced wide) - worked against a further change to get Aneke on the pitch in time to accompany Stockley.

Again, Garner may have been proven right, that we could have raised the pressure and won the game late on. But the evidence was hardly compelling. MK Dons were still creating chances of their own, one involving their guy rounding Wollacott only to be forced wide, and we were showing signs of fatigue and frustration, with Inniss’ balls out of defence getting intercepted and Clare kicking out at their guy after losing the ball. In any event, all such ideas went out of the window in the 65th minute. Another well-worked breakaway resulted in a race between their guy advancing towards the box and Inniss. Their guy tumbled into the box and the ref had decisions to make. Was it a foul? Contact by both, my first impression was nothing in it and no foul but you do see them given. Was it inside the box? Replays said no, ref said yes, so penalty given. Yellow card for Inniss? Ref says yes and, having already been booked, off he went. Wollacott got his hand to the firmly-struck penalty but couldn’t keep it out.

We never looked like being able to come back from that, with MK Dons persisting with their gameplan despite their man advantage. We brought on Aneke with about 20 minutes left, but for Stockley, while Sessignon replaced Kirk and Clare moved to central defence. And any thoughts of late pressure disappeared when Fraser was adjudged to have fouled their guy in a central position outside the box and they scored from the free-kick (again Wollacott getting a hand to it). Morgan and McGrandles came on, for Fraser and Dobson, which gave a fair indication of thoughts turning to Saturday long before the final whistle.

We can either just write off the evening and start thinking about Ipswich on Saturday or learn some lessons. We didn’t show the opposition enough respect, either with the effort and intensity in another lame first half (surely possession counts for nothing when the opposition is entirely comfortable with you having it) or the assessment of the way the game was playing out. And related to that we surely have to be more flexible – yet paradoxically more consistent – in our use of available players. What worked well against Portsmouth did not work last night, which amounts to a failure to set up in a fashion which would hurt them most and a failure to make changes during the game in light of this.

If all were fit and available we would have an interesting mix of options for the attacking positions – but whether or not the players occupy the same spot on the pitch they are different with different strengths and weaknesses, to be adjusted if necessary in response to the opposition. What we don’t have is a first-choice combination which we can be confident will be available and able to last at least most of the game. Come Saturday and Ipswich what choices are made will presumably be affected by injuries (and suspension), with Leaburn and Jaiyesimi out of contention for now, doubts over Campbell and Blackett-Taylor, and Aneke presumably still being thought of as an option for 20 minutes, 30 max. But hey, we’re playing a ‘good team’ so …

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Bar Has Been Raised

Were it not for the Leaburn injury news we would I think have been going into last night’s game in a much better frame of mind following the victory against Exeter. Another three points we knew would take us up to 10th, only two points off a play-off position (yes, having played more than some but still, after such a run without a win?). But the realisation we would be back to two genuine forwards, one of them coming back from injury and likely to be risked for no more than 20 minutes, had rather put a spanner in the works, leaving it open whether we would press-gang someone into playing as a second forward or reverting to the previously favoured 4-3-3.

All I can say is we were wrong to have such doubts as the team delivered our best full game of the season, completely dominating good opposition (albeit they had stuttered of late), threatening from open play and (for once) set pieces, and a clean sheet thrown in for good measure. The decisions on formation and team selection were vindicated and we were served up with a focused and energetic display. The only thing to complain about (and there is always something) was why we hadn’t displayed such resolve in games against (on paper) lesser opposition during the winless run.

The team when it came through didn’t entirely clear up the issues. Kirk, Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi were all in the starting line-up, suggesting one of them would be paired up front with Stockley in a continuing 4-4-2, rather than having one of the three on the bench and going back to 4-3-3. Would it be CBT, for pace in behind, or Rak-Sakyi, who has been used before as a second forward (albeit not to good effect)? The least likely option seemed to be Kirk, who would offer no real pace in a central position and hasn’t looked before like either a number 10 or an inside forward. But Kirk it was – and he was to play his part, not in terms of a real goal threat from that position but making a nuisance of himself drifting in and out of positions and providing an assist. Most important, that choice enabled the wide pair of Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, ably supported by Sessegnon and Egbo, to terrorise Portsmouth.

As has been clear from the start, going with only Dobson and Fraser in central midfield was a risk, even with others dropping deeper to help out. I’ve had my concerns – and thought that if we wanted to use that formation it might be better to pair Dobson with Clare, or Forster-Caskey, to provide similar effort to cover the gaps. Those concerns also went out of the window as Fraser put in an outstanding display, mixing determined covering and tackling with perceptive distribution, while Dobson was also at his best. To complete the picture, O’Connell and Inniss mopped up just about all that was thrown at them, with a little shirt-tug here and there, and both were to score. Can’t say much about Wollacott since aside from an early fairly routine tip over the bar he had very little to do. Portsmouth’s manager acknowledged that they were below par, but that seemed down to us and the pressure we put them under.

As for the game itself, Portsmouth did have the better of the early exchanges, dominating possession and bring the save out of Wollacott. But we took the lead after just 16 minutes with our first effort on goal. A corner was played short to Fraser and he curled in an inviting cross. The movement in the box had worked well and left Inniss paired against someone who was never going to win a physical contest with him. Jumping from behind and over the guy, Inniss powered the ball down and into the net. It has been a long time coming but gave notice that we have been doing more (necessary) work on set pieces on the training ground.

All games have turning points and one did come on 25 minutes as Portsmouth intercepted our attack on their left and for once got behind us. The ball into the box looked likely to be met by their forward, but he hadn’t reckoned on O’Connell grabbing a decent chunk of his shirt to pull him back. Appeals for the penalty were rejected, but quite frankly as they said on CATV either the guy was offside or it was a stonewall penalty, possibly a red card too (I don’t know the rules anymore but the Plymouth guy went for our penalty in that game). If the officials just missed the shirt pull we really did get away with one.

And not long after we doubled our lead. This time it was a Portsmouth attack which broke down as Fraser got his chest in the way of a crossfield pass. It dropped nicely for Kirk and he got the timing and direction of the ball to a rapidly advancing Blackett-Taylor just right, into his path beyond his marker and bisecting the two defenders. His first touch was excellent and nobody would now get near him. But the second was a double-hit and for a moment it seemed CBT had overrun the ball. I suspect their goalkeeper thought so too as he seemed to be distracted. Instead the guy’s pace just compensated for it and he still reached the ball, poking a low effort through the keeper’s legs.

All that was required after that was see it through to the break without conceding, although Rak-Sakyi drew a decent save from their keeper after cutting inside. At half-time we were good value for the lead, the questions being whether Portsmouth would shake things up and provide more of a threat in the second period. The subsidiary question was just how long some of our starters could last, given their track records and the effort that had been put in.

Portsmouth did make changes, winning a few corners and a free kick or two, and a new guy on the left caused problems for a while. But we also threatened, with CBT almost making it three before the hour, like Rak-Sakyi cutting inside an unleashing a good strike which was headed for the top corner before their keeper got a hand to it. And any doubts over the outcome were put to rest not long after as, similar to the Plymouth game, a red card and a goal secured the points. Fraser drew a sliding tackle from a guy already yellow-carded and, although it looked fairly innocuous at normal speed, it was above the ground, ankle-height, and could have been nasty. A second yellow seemed the correct decision and off he went. And with them in disarray the free kick from Fraser found O’Connell in acres of space inside the area to head home unchallenged.

That in turn solved the problem of who might last the game as we could make changes with no risk. Off went Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, to be wrapped in cotton wool, with Morgan and Payne replacing them. Not long after Stockley and Sessegnon departed for Aneke and Clare, then Fraser was replaced by McGrandles. There was to be no icing on the cake from Chuks this time, or a run-out for Campbell, but nobody cared.

We should take a little time to enjoy that performance and the result. And give Garner a pat on the back for getting the selection calls right. Just two things really to note before we look ahead to Shrewsbury on Saturday. First, with Leaburn and Jaiyesimi not available we are not well covered if anything happens to one of the wide guys (and they both put in a good shift). Second, I hope all concerned feel that the bar has now been raised. We played with intensity and commitment and got the result; we weren’t at that level during the winless run and it wasn’t an accident, or bad luck, that we were coming up short. There can be no excuse for lapsing back after we’ve shown what we can do.

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Relief At Last

This time it was just about the winless run (eight and counting) and the league position. To say we badly needed a win was of course an understatement; everyone was crying out for one, especially as three points could take us up from 18th to 11th, suddenly just four points off a play-off spot (really just didn’t want to think where a defeat would leave us). And for the first time in a while, really since the Plymouth game, we got what we wanted. Three points, four goals, propelled into the top half of the table, and for good measure it was a decent game against a team which came to play football, one which provided an interesting contrast in formations and which it is fair to say was decided by our stronger bench and their tired legs, plus the rub of the green favouring us. That’s not to deny that we played better than of late, were more of a threat, just to acknowledge that like every game at this level it could have turned out differently.

Saturday’s game had after all really left us none the wiser as regards what formation and team selection was optimum. But we had the rare sight of an unchanged starting line-up, which meant 4-4-2 again. The only change was the previously flagged and (very) welcome return of Aneke on the bench, with Thomas squeezed out (presumably the thinking was that Clare could do a job anywhere along the back line). With also Blackett-Taylor and Payne available to come on, it did emphasise just how much we have missed the extra forward option (having let Washington, as well as Davison, leave), especially one who you might expect to be able to take advantage of tiring defenders.

We started brightly and dominated the first 25 minutes or so, finding space down the flanks as our 4-4-2 (versus their 3-5-2) meant we outnumbered them there – while they were as yet unable to exploit their extra man in midfield. And this time around we made it count.

For once Steve Brown was left gobsmacked by the opposition’s defending as on 20 minutes Dobson floated a ball forward to find Leaburn in acres of space. His first touch was spot on and instead of shooting with his left cut back inside then drilled it goalwards. It seemed to take two deflections on the way, off their defender then keeper, but barely diverted from a true path. And just a few minutes later we doubled the advantage. Rak-Sakyi got into a dangerous position only for his effort to be blocked. The danger seemed over but Fraser dispossessed their guy and curled it back in invitingly for Stockley. You wanted to see a firm downward header into the net. Instead let's be honest he muffed it and only glanced the ball – but into the midriff of their defender and into the net that way.

Suddenly football seemed an easy game again, or at least it did for about 10 minutes before Exeter pulled one back. They had been more in the game in that spell, but the goal still came out of the blue. Kirk hit the ball out of defence but it was nodded back towards our end. It dropped around two of theirs and before anyone could react one of them hit the rising ball beyond Wollacott, although he did get a hand to it and might have turned it aside. Not a worldie but a decent strike.

That gave them a fresh lift and for the remainder of the first half we were pegged back rather, without letting them get a clear sight of goal. At the break the game still needed to be won. Would both sides keep their different shapes? Would substitutions prove decisive? And who would get the crucial next goal? The short answers, in order, proved to be yes, yes and us – thanks to the woodwork.

Exeter made a change or two, and we brought on Clare and Morgan, for Sessegnon (who’d played well but can’t yet last a full game) and Leaburn (who had picked up an ankle injury and was limping). It was perhaps surprising that Aneke wasn’t a straight replacement, but Garner may have felt that with around half an hour to go it was too soon to throw him into the mix. That meant a small change in set-up for us as Morgan adopted an advanced position rather than operating as a second forward.

With around 25 minutes of normal time to go Exeter came within a whisker of getting the equaliser. A series of corners in one of their spells of ascendency (in terms of possession) ended with one leading to a ball dropping in our box. Their guy hit it on the half-volley with venom. Wollacott was helpless but the rising effort cannoned back off the underside of the bar and out.

That was to be the closest Exeter came to getting something from the game. And if that had gone an inch lower who knows how it would have ended. As it was, Blackett-Taylor and Payne came on with around 15 minutes to go, straight replacements for Kirk and Rak-Sakyi, and into the final 10 Chuks did appear, for Stockley. What can you say? CBT – who in marked contrast to the poor cameo on Saturday proved highly effective - laid on two goals, one apiece for the other two subs.

The game seemed to be put to bed shortly after Aneke was introduced as Blackett-Taylor made ground down the left again and this time squared it for Dobson. His effort was blocked but fell kindly for Aneke around the penalty spot. This time you’d like to say he buried it with aplomb, but in truth he rather mishit it only for the ball to strike their keeper’s leg, rebound onto the post, and then in. Football’s fickle finger of fate.

Into six minutes of stoppage time and we had another goal to cheer. Wollacott’s kick out was flicked by Aneke into CBT’s path, he delivered the cross, and Payne gave an object lesson to Kirk, Rak-Sakyi and others in the art of getting on the end of a good ball in. He made it his and headed firmly into the net. There was still time for Exeter to be given a soft penalty and reduce the arrears, with Aneke’s enthusiasm getting the better of him. He’d pulled back their guy outside the box but the ref played an advantage, Clare was duped having perhaps switched off, and Chuks then shoulder-barged their guy over. It was one of those where at 4-1 the ref gives it whereas in stoppage time at 1-1 he might have bottled it. Can’t say it was a terrible decision but a fine one which went against us.

Let’s just take win and enjoy it. And when the dust has settled perhaps not go overboard. Yes we played well, yes we deserved to win, yes there was encouragement to be taken from individual performances (it was hard to pick a man of the match). At the same time, on Saturday with goal-line technology and VAR we might have had a goal and up to three penalties. Last night we scored first with two deflections, second with an own goal, and third with one off both the keeper and the post, while at the other end Exeter were denied an equaliser by the bar. Their temporary manager said “it just comes down to fine margins and they went against us”; and it is hard to disagree, although again we deserved the points, being able to bring on fresh bodies which made a material difference as they tired and having put ourselves two up during the first phase of the game when on top.

We now have a break before Portsmouth come visiting, a chance to assess Leaburn’s knock and to take a deep breath. If we had not won last night we may well have found ourselves in the bottom four ahead of the next game. As it is, we can approach it with a good deal of the pressure off. It should be a good test, with a fuller stadium, while Portsmouth have stuttered of late (two draws and a defeat in the last three). Seems they are playing 4-4-2 as well (so much for all that ‘modern football’), so it could be a match-up; and we can’t overlook the fact that our two clear victories this season (Exeter and Plymouth) have been against teams which were pretty open at the back. Looking forward to it for sure.

Horrible Indeed

Ben Garner said it was a ‘horrible’ performance and nobody’s going to challenge that, other than perhaps to argue it was worse than horrible...