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.

Sunday 9 October 2022

Winless Run Continues

With the failure to beat Oxford last Saturday having extended the winless run to seven, and no away wins so far this season, it wasn’t easy to be upbeat ahead of a difficult trip to Lincoln, who’d won two of their last three. The sort of game which in normal circumstances you look for a victory but at least ahead of it might have considered a point a reasonable outcome. In the event it was a point apiece – and in truth neither side created enough to make a case for having deserved more from an encounter which will be quickly forgotten, having decided nothing.

A week ago we’d wasted the first half by sending out a confused and ineffective formation, so the team news was eagerly awaited. In the event Garner chose to go with the team for the second half of the Oxford game, with a 4-4-2. Back four of Egbo, Inniss, O’Connell and Sessegnon in front of Wollacott; Dobson and Fraser in central midfield, Kirk and Rak-Sakyi in the wide positions, with Stockley and Leaburn up front. A fellow Addick suggested it was a ‘win or bust’ selection and it did put the onus on attack, or at least so it seemed.

Always going to be two risks/drawbacks. First, the risk of being overrun in central midfield, a risk which for me suggested that if you go with the 4-4-2 with wide men not renowned for their defensive capabilities you choose two battlers (I’d have thought Clare or Forster-Caskey to partner Dobson). Second, it left nothing much from the bench as a forward threat. Blackett-Taylor was at least back in the fold, and Payne would also be available to come on, but that was it. With a front three to start - that being CBT, Stockley and Rak-Sakyi, and not involving wing-backs - Leaburn is available during the game either as a second forward (in which case Kirk would be introduced too as the provider) or to play on the right side.

No matter, Garner’s calls. And to be fair through the game we never looked at risk in central midfield, an area Lincoln singularly failed to exploit. Dobson and Fraser deserve credit for that, although it was also in part due to Egbo and Sessegnon being focused more on defensive duties than getting forward. The real surprised were that an attack-minded formation failed to result in many actual chances through the game for us, despite having the majority of possession, and just how ordinary Lincoln proved to be.

The first half came and went with really only two incidents of note, perhaps a few more. We began well enough and dominated the early exchanges, Lincoln came more into it after around 20 minutes but also without really threatening. We had an appeal for a penalty early on as Stockley jumped with a defender and claimed handball, but it was hard to tell and the ref was well placed to see and gave nothing. And then we broke from a Lincoln corner with numbers over, but Kirk’s pass to an onside Rak-Sakyi was poorly angled and paced and allowed their keeper to intercept.

Our real moment came after half an hour. Stockley managed to play Leaburn in down the right side. He did well to stay ahead of the defenders but put in a rather disappointing shot, straight at their keeper. However, he managed to let it squirm through his legs. He turned and desperately gathered it, but had it gone over the line? Immediately we looked to the officials, only to find that the ref had collided with one of ours and was taken out of the picture (he was to depart some minutes later), then that the linesman was badly behind play and wasn’t able to look along the line to decide how much of the ball had gone over. They had little option but to give nothing as no-one could be sure – and even the TV replays and photos later failed to prove conclusive.

That was about it for us. Lincoln’s moment came in stoppage time, curtesy of what today was a rare collective lapse by the defence. A long throw was contested by quite a few and ended up being flicked on to their guy in acres of space. He hit it first-time on the half-volley, low and hard. Wollacott dived to his right to pull off a superb save to keep us level at the break.

Half-time and the stats showed both sides had two attempts on goal, one each on target. Let’s face it, not a game to get the pulses racing. And the second half continued in the same vein. Occasional moment of goal threats which quickly passed, interspersed by long periods of pressing and passing to little other than neutralising effect.

You might give credit to both defences, but neither side exerted enough pressure and both displayed a lack of composure when it came to making the most of small opportunities. Rak-Sakyi delivered an excellent cross to the far post only for Kirk to head tamely wide, when the option was to nod it square into the path of Stockley or Leaburn. For them Ebgo fell asleep once and a ball was flicked into the path of their guy, who shot over the bar from a good position.

We did have two decent shouts for a penalty. First, around the hour Dobson delivered a good ball in and Stockley seemed to have got beyond their defence, only to be hauled back. After thinking about it the substitute ref pointed – and I thought he’d given it. Instead the decision was offside, although it was unclear whether the flag was against Stockley – in which case fair enough – or against Kirk after the incident – in which case the foul on Stockley should have been given. And later it was Leaburn’s turn to be pulled down before being able to get on the end of a ball into the box. For that one it’s quite possible the ref just didn’t see the actual incident, or decided it was a coming together with no foul committed. On another day either or both could have been given, but neither were stonewall.

And that really was it. We brought on Blackett-Taylor and Clare for Kirk and Sessegnon, with the former managing to have an absolute mare for his 15-minute cameo. That was worrying. As we tired towards the end McGrandles and Payne were introduced, for Dobson and Rak-Sakyi. We couldn’t introduce fresh legs up front because there were none and, while on the overall balance of play we could make a case for having edged it, towards the finish it was Lincoln looking the more likely to grab a late winner.

For sure the positives were there, mainly the clean sheet, with the defence only really coughing up two chances all game (albeit both the result of mistakes). But it was as if we knew that the formation carried risk and perhaps over-compensated with the full-backs kept back and midfield usually not taking chances. Our play was too slow and imprecise to open them up; and on the few occasions we did didn’t make the most of them. The closest we came to a goal was their keeper making a howler. Sure, with goal-line technology (perhaps even just a linesman keeping up with play) and VAR we could have had a goal given and up to three penalties, the game could have been very different.

By the same token, the game brought us no closer to agreement on our best formation. For sure having Leaburn alongside him and able to run beyond him helped Stockley. But with Rak-Sakyi well marshalled for once and Kirk rather peripheral that didn’t translate into attempts on goal. Equally those of us favouring 4-3-3, given the players we have, will have been brought up short by Blackett-Taylor’s poor performance when he came on. The formation needs him and Rak-Sakyi.

These imponderables will get another airing in the near future with the visit to The Valley of Exeter on Tuesday night. Eight games without a win, a drop to 18th place in the table, just two points above the drop zone. No, Garner’s job is not under threat. But we have to put the transfer window issues behind us, forget about what might get done in January, and stop the impression that the season is already a write-off (not helped by Garner’s comments about needing more windows).

Sunday 2 October 2022

Please No More Talk Of Needing More Windows

On the back of a miserable run of six games without a win, we simply, very badly, needed all three points. Didn’t get them and all round it wasn’t good enough. Post-match Garner said he was angry at half-time, which was not surprising after a limp performance had seen us fall behind to a soft goal and record no efforts on goal. I was angry at after 10 minutes, at half-time, and at full-time as the match represented another step backwards. And for that I think all concerned – owner, manager, training staff, players, arguably even the fans (for contributing to a flat atmosphere) – take a chunk of responsibility.

The team showed four changes from Barnsley and indicated a change in formation. Wollacott returned between the sticks and Inniss was back after suspension. With Lavelle and O’Connell keeping their places, it pointed to three at the back, with Egbo and returning Sessignon to operate as wing-backs, with no sign of Clare. Payne was also named to start, with Dobson and Fraser, but with no Blackett-Taylor and no Morgan (like Clare neither were on the bench). That left it unclear whether we would operate with a midfield three (Dobson, Fraser and Payne) or five with the wing-backs and two up front (Stockley and Rak-Sakyi) or whether Payne would operate with the other two in a front three. It proved to be the latter.

People are just going to have to take my word for it when I say before the kick-off I thought the formation was confused. Wasn’t clear at the time if Clare, Morgan and CBT were injured or rested, given that we had been led to believe that we had only one missing (Aneke); it seems Clare was ill but I still don’t know about CBT and Morgan. If CBT was dropped, it was a poor decision (although I haven’t seen them in training) as it forced the change in formation. OK. But if you lose him and switch to three at the back with wing-backs, it is surely nonsense to have a front three, with two of them squeezed between Stockley and the wing-backs. Garner may have complained about players not being brave enough, playing the channels etc. Fact is there were no channels to run as Oxford set up to outnumber us in central midfield and shut down the space. If you go with three at the back and wing-backs, surely you go with two central forwards from the start and choose three in central midfield. Not only did we not do that, setting up as a 3-4-3, for the two central midfield spots for that to work surely you need grafters to try to compensate for the opposition’s extra man. Instead we had Fraser trying to do what he is not best suited for, behind Payne in a role which didn’t look ideal for him, while also ensuring that Rak-Sakyi was neutered, unable to find any space.

We all saw the outcome. In the first half we were slow and uncoordinated. Our best moment came when their keeper palmed out a low cross into an area where one of our players might have been. Dobson was perhaps fortunate to get away with a challenge down the touchline which might have been described as ‘crunching’ but which saw his feet leave the ground as he took man and ball, not quite sure which one first; laughably he was yellow-carded for an alleged handball which no-one but the ref saw as he went to ground.

And we gave away another goal to leave Steve Brown fuming. O’Connell and their guy contested a high ball from their keeper, resulting in a sideways diversion of the ball. It landed in acres of space between Dobson and Lavelle, each assuming the other would go for it. Neither did. Instead their guy was able to half-control it and run on. Dobson (not yet yellow-carded) decided against a professional trip, Inniss inexplicably backed away rapidly, despite being surrounded by other defenders and their guy being on his own. That invited the shot, which was decent and well-placed, but you expected Wollacott to get a hand on it, even if he was unsighted. He didn’t. Oxford, while being content to get behind the ball, came close to doubling their lead on a breakaway as their guy held it up well and played in an onrushing colleague, only for him to put it wide from a good position.

The change at the break to a basic 4-4-2 saw Leaburn and Kirk replace Payne and Lavelle, which made sense. With two big central forwards we needed good crosses and Kirk fits that bill. I’d have said there was also a case for replacing Frasier to introduce more bite in central midfield – although with no JFK the choice would have necessarily been McGrandles. With two big central forwards we needed good crosses and Kirk fits that bill. The game became immediately more lively, albeit more open, and we started to make things happen. Rak-Sakyi cut inside and his shot was deflected, by a defender’s two raised arms, only to bounce back off the post, with Stockley then adjudged to be offside following up. With the benefit of replays the officials got it all badly wrong. It should have been a penalty for the block, even if the ref wanted to wait to see if the ball went into the net. Even then it should have been a corner. The ball had clearly gone over the goalline before Stockley touched it. No matter. Add in an audacious effort from Egbo to try to catch their keeper off his line and at least we were threatening.

And after around 10 minutes we were back on level terms. Rak-Sakyi caused problems down the right and his cross found Kirk at the far post. It wouldn’t come down in time for him, then Fraser saw his effort blocked. But from the byline Kirk was able to scoop it up and send it back into the danger area, for Stockley to head in unopposed from a yard or two out.

At that point I doubt many would have bet on no more goals. But that is the way it turned out. In fact the best chances for a winner came in five minutes of stoppage time. First Oxford came within a whisker. A move down the left was followed by a pass down the line to an onrunning guy. As Inniss spread himself that guy checked and the goal opened up. But give Dobson credit as he put in a challenge which might have been enough to put him off as a hurried effort was sent over the bar. Then Rak-Sakyi got the ball out of defence and found Jaiyesimi (who had come on for Stockley late on). He held it up well and then, in a similar fashion to Oxford’s first-half breakaway, played it back across for an onrushing Dobson. His touch took him a little wide and their keeper came out to narrow the target, then blocking Dobson’s effort.

A draw was probably a fair result. We can’t ignore an awful first half, or the fact that Oxford might well have scored a late winner. But while a late one for us would for sure have been very welcome, it wouldn’t have papered over the cracks. I don’t mind admitting I was personally disappointed by Garner against post-match talking of needing more transfer windows to bring in the type of players he wants, which is tantamount to saying he doesn’t think the players he has are good enough. How’s that for motivation? Surely management is about getting the best out of what is available. And if he felt that the players were not brave enough in the first half, he might take a moment to reflect on to what extent was that caused by a set-up which never looked like working. If he is saying the players didn’t buy into what he wanted that is, however, seriously worrying.

We have shown this season that we can play pretty well: the first half against Sheffield Wednesday, the second half against Derby, the Plymouth game. Perhaps once the Pappa thingy thing is out of the way we can focus on what we did right in those games and look to recreate that style. With Egbo and Sessegnon now available (albeit the latter looked short of full fitness and couldn’t last the game) we should be stronger than before. I’m not among those now calling for 4-4-2, at least not to start. If Blackett-Taylor is available the 4-3-3 still to me looks our most effective way of playing; if he isn’t I would say go with either 3-5-2 – which is not optimum for Rak-Sakyi – or 4-4-2. But two up front from the start (Stockley and Leaburn) leaves nothing from the bench (yes, Payne, Rak-Sakyi and DJ can stand in the slot but it isn’t playing to their strengths). I even don’t care if Stockley is isolated, we have to adjust to that. Paul Mortimer pointed out on Charlton TV that surely it would be far more effective playing balls to him at chest-height, giving him the opportunity to control and distribute, rather than asking him to jump against two centre-backs and at best to flick on to nobody.

Still angry? Guess so. But it's not surprising as we seem to be moving backwards, with a captain talking after the game of the players being disappointed because they know they can do better and a manager saying he wants more transfer windows to bring in different players. Doesn't sound to me like a recipe for success. 

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 ...