Not surprisingly in the wake of Tuesday night’s game opinions are being expressed about how we should look to shape up for next season, the assumption being this one is done and dusted. For me it was effectively that after the Plymouth and Wycombe games, but now we don’t need to plan for an early April trip to north London. (I’m going to apologise in advance for the number of words, just that trying to look at clearly interlinked issues – why are we bringing in loan players for the rest of this season, how do we want to shape up for next season etc – isn’t easy to do in brief, at least not for me; so as in the famous saying, apologies for the length of the note, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.)
First off, I did think that some of the reaction to Hartlepool was overdone – which in turn means I’m not among those necessarily looking for a complete clear-out. JJ described the performance as ‘patchy’, which was fair enough but hardly surprising when once more, although the formation was the same, the component parts in all areas of the pitch were changed. Fact is that even though we may have wanted to progress we did not begin the game with our strongest X1, some selected were rusty, others unfamiliar (obviously not in training but that’s different), so to that extent the game was used to help in the experimentation process and/or to give some players minutes on the pitch rather than a concerted attempt to get to Wembley. That’s fair enough, but it is expecting too much for partnerships and understandings to just appear; and without understanding and cohesion you tend to get performances which are, well, patchy.
I hope what JJ is learning from this is that you can’t expect players to be replicas of one another, even if they are put in the same positions/formation, and that we need to emerge from the January transfer window with a clearer idea of just what is our strongest starting X1 in light of the changes, then work on building partnerships (again). While earlier in the season it was largely a case of ‘needs must’, JJ has more options now, which has cons as well as pros, especially as some players are being asked to play in positions they would not normally consider their best. You might argue that good players find a way to play together, but really that’s for the Messis of this world.
So why have we gone off the boil since the early stages of JJ’s tenure and what can we do to recover that form? And how do we want to use the rest of this season to shape up for the next, when it really will be promotion or despair? Of course we have to keep an eye on the relegation situation, of course we want to finish as high up the table as possible and end the season full of optimism, but if experimentation now helps us for next season fair enough.
When JJ took over we’d been shipping far too many goals, poor goals, and stopping that was the immediate priority. Let’s not forget that his first game in charge did not start with Pearce or Clare in central defence; Lavelle was in situ but was injured in the first half at Sunderland, re-enter Pearce, to very good effect. When we found ourselves short of central defenders (Inniss and Lavelle out, Pearce injured), Clare came in to do a job rather than Gunter or Matthews – and has performed so well in that role (misplaced passes aside) that he has kept his place with Inniss’ return, pushing those two and also recently Pearce to the sidelines.
JJ’s main changes were the adoption of wing-backs in a 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2, whichever you prefer) and the recall of Dobson to play in front of the defence (he had started the season under Adkins, alongside Clare). Purrington in a new role was a revelation, including his goals contribution, while Jaiyesimi adapted well too. With Dobson providing the protection, Lee and Gilbey were given licence to attack – and their task was made easier by the intelligent movement of Washington ahead of them to create space, plus the option of Stockley if something more complicated wasn’t on. The front two paired up well and suited the midfield.
It all worked well, for a while, reflected in that for a period the starting X1 all but picked itself (which itself helped the team to play better). The downside was that we really didn’t have cover for key players while the physical intensity of the style of play JJ was demanding of them took its toll. Stockley stupidly got himself a three-match ban and then picked up the hip problem keeping him out, Pearce and Washington picked up injuries etc. Probably also teams took a good look at how we were setting up and adjusted. By the time that more options became available to us, some of that initial new manager enthusiasm had faded – and it really takes very little to take the edge off a team.
The return of Inniss is very much welcomed, but it now means that Pearce, Famewo and Clare (and you can soon add in Lavelle, plus to a lesser extent Gunter and Matthews) are in competition for the two places but also have to play together at times as Inniss may not be up to two/three games in quick succession. For the wing-back roles, to Purrington and DJ have been added as options – with differing levels of success - Blackett-Taylor, Leko, at times Kirk (no longer in the picture), Soare (assumed to be out of the picture), Gunter, Matthews, and now Castillo. And you have to say that of the nine only one is a recognised wing-back, the others being wingers or full-backs who have been asked to do a job.
The midfield triumvirate of Dobson, Gilbey and Lee at its best was superb, effective and good to watch, the only criticism of it being that they collectively didn’t score enough goals. Dobson was given his chance and grabbed it. Lee’s confidence has clearly been affected of late and he has gone from ‘favourite player/starring role, sign him up asap’ to ‘do we want him for next season?’ There’s no simple explanation for the downturn in form, probably a mix of opponents keeping a tighter rein on him and not allowing him space, different forwards in front of him not making the runs that Washington was doing, and not scoring goals. With John joining on loan from Spurs if Browne signs on a permanent deal, and if Forster-Caskey returns from injury soon, he must be thinking about whether he will be with us next season. Up to him to go again for us.
Gilbey has been dropped for the last two games (albeit coming on as a sub and scoring/setting up goals). Watson has been patiently sitting on the bench as cover for Dobson, but Hartlepool didn’t suggest that we wouldn’t be materially weaker if he was called on to start. And there is Morgan. Clearly, as JJ said, bags of talent, has played well (and scored) on his return. But we’ve played him at times out wide, as a No.10, as a defensive midfielder, as a playmaker; just which is his best role? And if he plays, with Dobson a shoo-in, it means now a choice of Lee, Gilbey, John, possibly Browne, further out Forster-Caskey, for two spots. What will JJ say to Morgan, for example, having brought him back into the team, seen him score and get into team of the week, and then a young ‘creative’ central midfielder is brought in on loan? As with Lee, you might say up to him to make himself indispensable, but Morgan is obviously hoping for a run in the team and his chances of that have just been slashed.
Conundrums up front too. We played our best with Washington and Stockley paired. That hasn’t been possible too often and isn’t possible right now. We do of course now have Aneke back, which suggests he and Washington together. Only problem is Washington has looked rather off the pace since coming back from injury, while Burstow has planted his flag on the pitch. Now Burstow is a bonus as far as this season is concerned, we all have high hopes. But you can’t ignore the fact that if he starts we lose out in terms of play outside the box, which in turn makes midfield’s job more difficult. No doubt he will develop in that area but at present it is a trade-off for his goal threat.
Consequently, I’d say if Burstow starts it has to be alongside someone who can carry the load, ie Aneke, while you also have to look at midfield options in that light and probably accept going more direct. Alternatively you work on Aneke and Washington as a pairing or turn to pairing Aneke with Leko, who I tend to think has more to offer as a second forward than a wing-back/winger (but of course there’s no point in that unless we are looking to sign him permanently).
In that context, of course we say good luck to Kirk at Blackpool, just hasn’t worked out for him here, just as it didn’t for Arter and looks like being the case for Soare. Fair to say we never saw Kirk do in a Charlton shirt what he was signed for. And of course we welcome Castillo and now John, hope they play out of their skins for us. I confess I struggle to see the rationale of bringing in Premiership teams’ youngsters in our situation – at the start of a campaign or with a clear view to buy would for sure be different – but if they give us some freshness and vitality and help the team as a whole perform better then fair enough. There will be time enough for fuller assessments when the window has closed, when we can start to think about what might be a good spine for the team next season – because every good team has one. At the moment you'd say MacGillivray, Dobson, and Stockley/Aneke, everything else up for grabs.