There was a run of games last season which could reasonably have been described as the worse in the club’s post-war history, not so much for the actual points gained but given the opposition (we haven’t forgotten the run without a win in Curbs’ first season in the Premiership but for crying out loud we were playing against the best then). Have to say the current run is on a par – and of course it hasn’t definitely ended yet. Successive fixtures against Cambridge, Wycombe, Bolton, Forest Green, Fleetwood, now Barnsley have delivered no wins. I mean no disrespect to these teams, good luck to them, we have no divine right to beat them; but don’t tell me it isn’t depressing. As is our position in the league and the prospect of, for the first time in my life, a fourth consecutive season in this bloody awful division. That is enough to make any Addick miserable.
The reported claim by Thomas Sandgaard in the recent Fans Forum that “the squad is in a better place than last season” is no longer supported by the evidence. It sparked a discussion with fellow Addicks over whether we are stronger or weaker, with opinion divided. For my part I’d say that the squad now has arguably greater potential but that last season’s was the more likely to get us promoted – while acknowledging that it failed to do so. Both squads you would say were short of what was required. But when JJ changed the formation, brought back Dobson, forged a midfield three of him, Gilbey and Lee, and had Washington available as well as Aneke to support Stockley, we had a period of time when we were as good as anything else the division then had to offer (and the opposition is stronger this season). Pity we had then good traditional full-backs (Matthews and Purrington) when we wanted wing-backs (while now perhaps the reverse is true), fell foul of injuries and suspensions, and ran out of steam, proving unable to overcome the dreadful start to the season.
By contrast, this season we have so far recorded two victories. Peversely the first, against Derby, delivered our only clean sheet to date, when we could easily have been three or four down at the break and out of it. The other, the win against Plymouth, was splendid but deceptive. We had taken the lead early on and were playing well, as we had done so in periods of other games. But shortly before the break Plymouth will have been thinking at one down all was still to play for against inconsistent opposition. Then a shot blocked by a flailing arm, penalty and a red card; and before they could regroup in the dressing room Clare goes and hits an outrageous third. Game over, one of those nights. And since then we have been leaking goals without the opposition having to do much, like early last season, and failing to turn decent openings into goals. So Just don’t tell me that we are stronger now than last season. Rather let’s say we have the potential to become stronger.
I’d start by acknowledging some errors. TS handled the final days of the transfer window badly, increasing the sense of disappointment at the outcome. You don’t say what he did unless and until deals are all but signed off, just stick to something like ‘we are looking at opportunities to strengthen the squad and if we can we will do so’. (More recently it was pleasing to see his apology for Leo Rifkind’s regrettable tweet regarding what we might expect as regards ‘financial stability’ and our owner’s objectives for reducing losses and getting promoted.) Equally, in the aftermath of the window it helped nobody for Ben Garner to talk in terms of a top-six finish amounting to over-achievement. If you get asked whether or not you agree with such a statement you say something like ‘getting promoted remains our objective; achieving that goal will require steady improvement and hard work’. I do think that if you tell a group of players promotion is probably beyond them you affect their motivation, however marginally and subtlety.
Moving on from those issues, what can be done? If some things seem obvious to me, someone with no background in football, they can’t be rocket science. Whatever is being done on the training ground isn’t working (yet) at either end of the pitch. So here’s my plan.
First, for the defence, assuming we stick with a back four I don’t know which combination will work best, but we haven’t seen a strong partnership yet emerge from the three (now four) centre-backs available to us; and consistency is not helped by Inniss (and as a result Lavelle) being in and out of the team. Nevertheless, anyone listening to Steve Brown tearing his hair out on CATV at the nature of our defending must be aware that something is not right with the approach. If the training staff don’t know why, bring him in to help. Also, we seem to accept that Blackett-Taylor and others can’t last a full game, so why not alternate more frequently during games the centre-back pairing? If Inniss can’t do two consecutive full games play him for an hour in each (not least as without him we seem to carry no threat from set pieces). I thought the increased number of substitutes available was going to be a game-changer, but that’s not been the case so far.
Second, up front. I’d say we have two problems: players snatching at chances and/or making poor decisions in good positions; and insufficient flexibility when it comes to team selection and making changes. On the former, this comes across as a mental issue. The best finishers in the game register a decline in heart rate when an opportunity develops, as the focus narrows and the brain reverts to relying on what they know to work. For others it rises, leading to panic. I guess the solution is one or a mix of mental coaching and endless repetition of shooting in training. Johnnie Wilkinson didn’t suddenly wake up a fantastic points kicker, he devoted countless hours practising, so when he was called on he delivered. Experience says some players (in many sports) just never master the art. But they have to try. Hard.
On the latter, we may have CBT, DJ, Rak-Sakyi and Kirk all available to play in a three, but they are not the same players. Equally, if Stockley is on his own it requires that we play differently to if we have him partnered with Leaburn. The choices also I think affect how we set up in midfield. Basically if you start with CBT and Rak-Sakyi in a front three, as I think we should continue to do, you regard them as the main goal threat. The onus is on midfielders to supply them with the ball, in a fashion which enables them to use their pace (CBT), trickery (RS), and ability to go inside and outside. Stockley’s job is to hold possession and bring them into the game, as well as look to be in the box for the end-result. However, if Leaburn joins Stockley during a game the onus switches more in favour of well-delivered crosses from the wide players, which is where Kirk comes in. CBT can’t last 90 minutes at the moment, so if he is replaced look at changing the formation at the same time.
Third, we still haven’t found our best midfield combination. We tried not including Dobson (Derby) and nearly paid for it. So then it’s down to two others, from Morgan, McGrandles, Fraser, Payne, Forster-Caskey (and Henry) – and here I’d add Clare. I’d say that if it’s a front three with CBT and RS you want one midfielder to see it as a major part of his job to get into the box and finish. That would be a choice between Fraser and Payne. So far neither Morgan nor McGrandles have nailed down a spot. I’d make the case for a change and putting in either Clare or Forster-Caskey to accompany Dobson and Fraser/Payne. Let’s be honest, we don’t yet know if JFC is back to the player he was; if he is, has to be an option. Equally, we may now list Clare as a defender but he started the first game last season along with Dobson in midfield. He would tighten things up and leave things clear for Sessignon and Egbo to be chosen to start, let’s see what they can do (and I really want to see Sessignon and CBT working in tandem down the left side).
Well, that’s my sixpennethworth. We know we badly need a win tomorrow. And for all the verbiage above, I really don’t care how we get it.