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.

Very Welcome Point And Performance

It may be a reflection on us, our inflated view of our club, but there are few fixtures in this league where going into it we feel very much...