Monday 25 July 2022

'Promising Signs' For Sure, But Flip Sides Too

Don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to agree with the ‘promising signs’ noted by Ben Garner following the Swansea game. Equally, I’d suggest that each of them had a flip side too.

I didn’t watch the Welling game, but no question that the two players from the Swansea match who most enhanced their credentials were Wollacott and Morgan. It’s worth adding that the key threat from us was that Blackett-Taylor was able to go past his marker at will. A little improvement with the end-product and he will be a major force this season, especially as it would appear that he and Sessegnon look as though they will enjoy being paired up. Also, I’d say that Clare is looking more comfortable and effective in the right-back slot, even though we hope he won’t have to continue to fill in for too much longer.

Now the other side of the coin. Wollacott did indeed pull off some excellent saves, especially when bailing out his defenders for their misplaced passes gifting Swansea openings in our final third. Perhaps they just felt obliged to balance things up after their two guys had handed us the lead in very similar fashion to Sarr/Phillips at Wembley. He looks a very accomplished shot-stopper, seemingly able to read well the likely shape of the attempt on goal from the way the guy shapes up. What we found out nothing about on Saturday, however, was his ability to deal with balls in the air and the related skill of commanding his box, organising the defence. Swansea didn’t test him on that front, but pound to a penny if he starts next Saturday Accrington will.

Then Morgan. He had an outstanding first half, directing the play from a deepish position. If one of our weapons is going to be finding CBT early in some space he is perhaps the best we have for spraying the ball around (although I’d say Forster-Caskey comes into the reckoning). But in the second half Swansea changed their shape, made changes to personnel, and we found ourselves under the cosh, especially as the bench was, to put it mildly, lightweight and experimental. In that situation the crying need was for Dobson (or a younger Pratley) to do the dirty work and help us get the ball back and relieve pressure. In other words Morgan has yet to show that he has all the attributes needed to be effective playing in front of the back four – and the recent speculation that Garner might not rate Dobson and he could move on (adding to similar rumours about JFC, Gilbey and indeed Morgan) may need to be tempered by a better appreciation of that side of the game if we are to be competitive.

What else? In addition to the goal given away to Kilmarnock, on Saturday playing out from the back almost cost us twice, once when Inniss made a mess of turning back towards goal and the pass to Wollacott, then an awful pass out of a tight spot from O’Connell. I don’t buy the ‘these mistakes happen, part of playing that way’ line of argument. If playing that way costs us one or two goals a game it has to produce two or three a game to be justified. And that remains to be seen.

Having opted for two separate, strong teams to start against Welling and Swansea it was hardly surprising that the subs for both games were for the most part just out of nappies (Chin and Kanu did get to feature in both games). It will of course be different on Saturday, when we will be playing the 18-man squad game.

So, who starts? I think the only names you’d say are pretty much nailed on are Clare, Sessegnon, Stockley and Blackett-Taylor. That leaves the choice of keeper (MacGillivray or Wollacott), the two central defenders (from Inniss, O’Connell, Lavelle, and Elerewe), the three central midfielders (from Dobson, Morgan, Forster-Caskey, Gilbey, McGrandles, Fraser, and Payne), and the third widish forward (Leaburn, Kirk, Jaiyesimi, Kanu). So essentially there are 17 competing for seven available starting places, with seven of them to be on the bench – ie just three of the contenders do not make the squad, perhaps four if Garner feels he needs another full-back option in the mix for the bench (Clayden, Chin, Ness), as without Egbo we are stretched in that area.

The actual choices for centre-back and midfield are really down to combinations as at this stage you would not say anyone is nailed on. For what it’s worth - and this is personal opinion for a game way at Accrington rather than any attempt to predict who BG will go for – this is my choice:

MacGillivray, Clare, Sessegnon, Inniss, O’Connell, Dobson, Forster-Caskey, Fraser, Blackett-Taylor, Stockley, Leaburn.

Subs:  Wollacott, Clayden, Lavelle, Watson, Gilbey, Jaiyesimi, Aneke (if fit – and how many times will we add that this season? – and if not Payne).

Monday 18 July 2022

More Musings On Options

This is probably the most frustrating time of the year. The games have started, albeit with the emphasis on fitness, the start of the new campaign is in sight (just a few hot, sweaty days and one more friendly to get through) – and as usual there’s still nothing that can be said with confidence about our chances of promotion or who is going to form the backbone of the team/squad for the season ahead.

Ben Garner reportedly commented that he wants a further two or three signings to “complete his squad”, hopefully before the season starts, talking in terms of one or two key positions where we need “a little bit more depth”. That language suggested fine tuning and cover rather than game-changing incomers, but that’s just trying to read between the lines. There is still plenty of scope for the big picture to change – and the comments were made before confirmation of the signing of ‘attacking midfielder’ Jack Payne.

Just as important as the arrivals are whether there will be others leaving. If the rumour mill is to be believed any of Davison, Forster-Caskey, Gilbey, Morgan, or Kirk could depart, presumably on the basis that Garner hasn’t been overly impressed with what he’s seen, while there is always the possibility of bids coming in for others, such as Stockley. Given that, assessing how players perform in the friendlies, whether this or that combination might work, seems a rather pointless exercise, at least ahead of the Swansea game, when presumably we will be going with what Garner considers to be our strongest available squad.

So at the risk of a rehash of previous remarks, here’s my take on how well we are set up as things stand, on the basis of an 18-man squad for each game and a 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-1-4-1/4-3-1-3 set-up (they are basically all the same with slight tweaks).

In goal we don’t know whether MacGillivray or Wollacott will be considered first choice. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s MacGillivray for me. But then I really don’t care if a goalkeeper can pass the ball well. What worries me about Wollacott is that he does not seem to command his area, being reluctant to come off the line for high balls and not obviously directing those in front of him. I don’t think MacGillivray was especially strong in those areas last season either, but did seem to take the criticism on board. Either way, can we please avoid alternation. Every team needs a first-choice keeper as differences in style only confuse the defence. Of course who is first choice can change.

At full-back, with the injury to Egbo and with Sessegnon struggling to get game time under his belt, so far we’ve seen more of Clare (plus Ness) and Clayden in the two spots than might have been expected. The former may do a job filling in but presumably isn’t seen as a lasting option for the position, the latter certainly impresses going forward but defensively looks a little raw (he is after all billed as a midfielder). As things stand it is an area of concern.

Central defence does seem well covered with Inniss, Lavelle and Elerewe joined by O’Connell, plus the versatile Clare being another option if necessary. Just which two get the starting berths is not clear, but for me if he’s fit Inniss starts, then you select whichever of the others complements him best. Central defence isn’t the area of the pitch where you expect to make tactical changes during a game and with two replacements available we will need to be unlucky with injuries and suspensions to be short on this front.

The central midfield three is now perhaps overloaded, with the incumbents – Dobson, Forster-Caskey, Gilbey, Morgan and Fraser – joined by McGrandles and now Payne. Nice to have the numbers but it’s hardly surprising that there’s speculation of a departure. That may depend on another club coming in for one of them of course and on the players’ attitudes.

Up front, we are struggling with square pegs and round holes. With Stockley, Aneke and Leaburn coming through we are covered for the central spot. Yes, I know Leaburn is getting time playing wider and Chucks played deeper when he came on at the weekend, but I don’t think this is more than experimentation. Aneke is a powerful force, one which is wasted as a ‘No.10’.

When it comes to who plays either side of a central forward we do, I think, have problems. We have three wingers – Blackett-Taylor, Jaiyesimi and Kirk – and a central forward who may or may not stay with us, ie Davison. Nothing wrong with playing a winger in one of the roles, perhaps even both if we adopt more of a 4-5-1 (and rely more on 'goalscoring midfielders' getting into the box). But if it’s more a front three I think we are at least a man short, one who can play inside and out and will contribute goals. Of course the name that springs to mind is Washington, but that’s history now. Not really the three wingers we have (I still think CBT should be told to just run the flank in the opposition half as most teams will not be able to handle him).

Strangely enough, a player who would (IMHO) fit the bill would be Leko. I appreciate he didn’t pay off last season, he may not be interested in coming back. But his career is at something of a crossroads going into the final year of his contract at Birmingham and apparently not likely to feature in their plans (which might mean a bargain price – and a permanent signing would be a clearer statement of intent than another loan spell). We had discussions (ie differences of opinion) last season about whether he should be played as a winger or second forward. But now, I suspect he could thrive as one of a front three – and contribute the goals we need from that position. Nothing more than idle speculation, but if it isn’t him I’d suggest the need is for someone of that style, whether or not Davison stays.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Pre-Season Indicators

Two pre-season friendlies in (three to go, starting with Colchester tonight) and what have we learnt? Very little about the new players for sure, too soon to tell. But at least so far it would appear that Garner’s preferred set-up – whether out of inclination or assessment of the resources available, which are bound to shift further before the window slams shut – is 4-5-1/4-3-3, whichever way you wish to describe it.

It is probably better to say 4-3-3 as the intention seems to be having two attackers either side of the main forward rather than two wingers complementing a central midfield trio. But it’s a matter of degree and Blackett-Taylor wasn’t able to feature against Dartford. So you have two from either the wingers - CBT, DJ and currently Kirk – or from the ‘other’ forwards – Davison, Leaburn, possibly Kanu – with Stockley and Aneke alternating as the main forward.

If you want contrasts/comparisons I’d say it looks more like Chelsea when they had Drogba flanked by Robben and another (Duff?) than an outright 4-5-1, such as that adopted by Spurs when they had Hoddle and Ardiles in midfield, Galvin on one flank, and effectively told Allen his one and only job was to get on the end of balls into the box. Both work, depending on the players.

Since the end of last season, and especially with the release of Washington, the assumption has been that we need to sign another forward, a goalscorer. That still seems to hold good, but if Garner thinks that Leaburn and/or Kanu are ready to play a material role in the coming campaign perhaps the chequebook won’t be necessary. Either way, the odds have lengthened on us signing an outright poacher and adjusting the formation to suit him.

The defence has been filled up with fresh additions (Egbo, O’Connell, Sessegnon) and we appear to be well covered for the three midfield spots. Dobson, Forster-Caskey, Gilbey, Morgan, Fraser, McGrandles to compete for the slots as things stand, assuming that Clare is now viewed as a defender. Does seem harsh on him as he is unlikely to be needed as a centre-back and would presumably be behind the two new full-backs in the pecking order. But up to him to make his case for a starting spot, which I’m sure he’s doing.

For sure the rule to allow five substitutions from now on, whatever the pros and cons, does change the nature of the game. It becomes an 18-man squad and a 16-player game, so just who gets the nod to start games is less of an issue than it was. Right now the only shoo-ins would seem to be Stockley/Aneke up front (the assumption being both would feature in a game to replace each other), everything else seems to me to be down to developing partnerships in key areas. If I was picking a first-choice starting X1 right now it would be: MacGillivray, Sessegnon, Egbo, Inniss, Lavelle, Dobson, Forster-Caskey, Fraser, Blackett-Taylor, Stockley, Davison – but reserve the right to completely change my mind as we learn more about some of the new guys and assess fresh comings and goings.

One thing we did learn from the Kilmarnock game is surely be smarter when it comes to playing it out from a dead-ball situation. The opposition know we want to pass it and, as Kilmarnock did for their goal, cut off each and every short outlet. Surely if that happens it’s not beyond the wit of one or more of the front three to drop a little deeper to make themselves available for a slightly longer pass out from the keeper. That keeps the opposition guessing and could provide a useful springboard to attack. Some may say if we play it out from the back we have to live with the odd error resulting in a goal. Can’t agree, I’ve never been in favour of gifting the other side an advantage because of tactical rigidity. It was amusing in the Spain kick-about that second time around when Wollacott saw options in front of him closed down (again) in frustration he kicked it long. Stockley flicked it wide to Fraser, who ran down the left, crossed, and we almost scored.

One other notable feature for me was that if we play possession football at the back the player who looked most comfortable was Inniss. He has the confidence to do it as he knows full well he isn’t going to be brushed off the ball. Just hope, like all Addicks, he stays fit and available.

Plenty To Be Pleased About

Time for us to be the underdog yesterday, despite the record of recent years. Portsmouth, having done what every club says it intends/wants ...