Wednesday 25 October 2023

Bring On Saturday For A Reaction

After Saturday’s win, you kind of felt ‘yeah, OK, I know it’s been seven unbeaten, including four wins, but if we can just make it five out of eight, then on Saturday six out of nine …’ There is just no satisfying fans. Then again, it has been a long time since we won away in the league, Lincoln despite winning on Saturday were not in the best of form it seemed, without a manager, so why not? In any event, this game would be a further measure of how we are progressing, hopefully with the outcome taking us closer to the top six. Instead we put in a below-par performance and were well beaten by a team which had either done its homework very well or just possessed the weapons to undo us – or both. Collectively they wanted it more than us. 

We knew there would be at least one change to the side, given Aneke’s injury. In the event, Appleton made four, mostly involving a shuffling of the pack. Leaburn started in place of Aneke, while both Watsons and Tedic were moved to the bench, Asiimwe, Fraser and Campbell(T) stepping up from it to replace them, the vacant spot among the subs taken by Campbell(C). Not surprisingly it indicated no change in formation but with Camara and Campbell(C) presumably seen as possible wide position replacements and Tedic now likely to be deputising for the central striker spot.

We started brightly, probing and threatening, and within 10 minutes were ahead with a well-crafted goal. They played the ball out of defence but Fraser tracked their guy back and gained possession, turned, looked up and spotted Campbell making a good run across their back line. He slid through a perfect pass for him to run onto. The low cross came in and it seemed their keeper got a glove to it but not enough contact to divert it away from the incoming May, who still managed to get enough on it to bundle it home.

Lincoln were not surprisingly taken aback and we generally bossed the next 10 minutes or so, carving out another chance or two, including a decent shot from Dobson which was blocked. But as Lincoln regrouped and played their way back into the game that really was as good as it got. Before 20 minutes they had their first real chance, a long throw into the box half-cleared met by their influential guy with a shot which Maynard-Brewer did well to turn aside, the ball having come through a number of bodies. And there was a near repeat a few minutes later, this time the possibly goalbound shot being inadvertently blocked by one of their own, taking one for the opposition.

We were still competitive in this phase but it wasn’t a real surprise that Lincoln levelled things up after the half-hour. Asiimwe lost possession and the ball was moved to the other side. Cross came in from their right towards a guy marked by Jones. He clearly thought he could get to it first and head clear, but failed to do so, taking him out of the picture. Their guy controlled it well, turned, and hit home from close range. A couple of errors, not howlers but we paid for them nonetheless.

For the rest of the first half we were pretty much under the cosh and were relieved to get to the dressing room still level. Hector was caught flat-footed on the right side and the ball across behind our back line was wasted at the far post with a wild shot, then a Lincoln break caught us all at sea and their guy was in on goal on the right side. Maynard-Brewer stood up well and parried his effort, only for the rebound to hit him and go on to rebound off the post before being cleared. Then a Thomas error led to a blocked shot.

It had not been our normal dull first half, the stats showing 18 attempts on goal (11 for them). But there were similarities. Leaburn had struggled to get into the game, up against strong centre-backs, while Lincoln had done a good job nullifying our threat on either side, handling both Blackett-Taylor and Campbell well. Equally, with May in the No.10 role, Fraser was having to concentrate on the defensive side alongside Dobson. So we were, after the opening period, not creating much. Nevertheless, you felt that the game was there to be won by either side and that with perhaps an adjustment or two we could still emerge with the points. That wasn’t to be as we were second-best through the remainder of the game, looking increasingly jaded and dispirited.

Lincoln had a chance or two before taking the lead, while we regularly gave up possession when moving forward. A move down their right and a ball played behind Thomas resulted in their guy moving clear, he squared it for a tap-in. That was followed by a change as Leaburn was withdrawn and Camara sent on, with May moving up front, then with around 15 minutes left on the clock Campbell(C) was introduced for Campbell(L) and Watson(L) for Fraser. Before they could settle in we were three down as we gifted possession around the edge of our box and saw the ball break kindly for their guy to shoot home.

That was that. Lincoln not surprisingly focused on preserving what they had and, while we buzzed around outside their box, we created nothing of note to get us back into it. Tedic came on for CBT in the final 10 minutes, to provide more muscle in the central position, but the game was up by then.

It was, after Saturday, a surprising as well as disheartening performance. Too many were off the pace, even Dobson seemed out of sorts. The one word you would not use to describe our display was compact. We were stretched all over the pitch, allowing them to break to good effect, while the defending was back to timid and static. Dobson and Fraser were often outnumbered and up front CBT looked frustrated, Campbell too often gave the ball away, and Leaburn showed again that leading the line alone against tough opponents is asking too much of him as yet.

Any lessons to be learnt, or just a bad day at the office? Both I’d say. For me, if May is played as a No.10, to operate behind the front guy, you don’t play Fraser – and vice versa. Not saying Fraser played badly, but we want him pulling the strings in the final third, not helping out Dobson. Also, if we want to start with one central forward and Aneke is not available, there is surely a case for starting with Tedic in that role and having Leaburn come on through the game. It’s true we haven’t yet seen enough of Tedic to know if that would work. And Campbell(C) and Camara need game time to be fully up to speed.

Most apparent, while last night will have taught Appleton a thing or two about the squad, Saturday’s game will tell him more. How we respond to the defeat is crucial. All teams have off days – and as stressed elsewhere realising we were having one should have seen the focus switch to being much tighter as a unit before we fell behind. Bring on Saturday as we need to start another run.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Turned Out Well In The End

This one felt like a tough game to call, despite the form guide. Most of us will have been surprised by Reading’s poor start to the season, even allowing for the dispiriting impact of their points deduction, while a two-week break might either see us spring out of the traps with recharged batteries or appear a little rusty. Although for much of the game it seemed to be the latter, as for almost the first hour Reading had the better of the exchanges and chances, it seemed once we took the lead their frailties were exposed; once we scored a second it was game over, the third and fourth goals just turned the screw.

The team showed just one change from Blackpool last time out, with Aneke and Leaburn swapping places for the start in a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1 if it seems more modern). The bench saw some fresh faces as Walker came in as Maynard-Brewer’s back-up, while there was a welcome return for Camara, with Molyneux and Campbell(C) left out of the squad. That meant a pretty forward-looking set of subs, with Fraser, Camara, Campbell(T) and Leaburn, the other side of the coin being just two defenders (Asiimwe and Ness) and no real replacements for either Dobson or Watson(L) in central midfield. With Taylor and McGrandles both out of the picture for the foreseeable future I was a little surprised Anderson (if available after his international outing) wasn’t included to provide balance.

The first half wasn’t the worst we have seen of late from us, but it was pretty poor. Aneke seemed rather out of sorts and reserved, Blackett-Taylor was below par, losing possession the few times he had it, Tedic was anonymous on the right side, while May wasn’t in the game either. The result not surprisingly was few efforts on goal of note from us, really just a cut inside and disappointing shot from CBT and one effort from Tedic from the right edge of the box which may have been a shot or may have been an attempted low cross.

Reading didn’t exactly pepper our goal either, but that had more and better shots, drawing a couple of routine but still necessary saves from Maynard-Brewer, including one which he needed to hold onto as their forwards were in for a rebound. Add in a couple over the bar, some important last-ditch tackles and blocks from us, and they were at least shading the game. With hindsight their failure to get in front during the first half proved decisive.

Appleton opted for a change at the break, with Tedic replaced by Campbell(T), giving us much more pace down the right side. But you have to say in the first 10 minutes or so nothing changed – and Reading had perhaps their most threatening moments. Campbell was beaten on the right side and their guy’s low cross fortunately drew a crucial interception, which was followed by a dangerous corner whipped in which somehow eluded everyone and another Dobson block.

Then the game changed, rather out of the blue with a quality move and finish. Watson(L) played a perfectly threaded ball wide to CBT, who went on the outside and made the space for an equally perfect cross. No defender was going to push Chuks out of the way and he nodded home from close range.

Reading did respond and in the following 10 minutes could have levelled the game. An overhit cross from the right was gathered wide left and sent back in, the ball missed by all concerned, including Maynard-Brewer. Then a guy on their left cut inside and jabbed a shot with the outside of his boot which needed Maynard-Brewer to be alert to turn aside. And after a triple substitution by us just after the hour – with Aneke going down holding his hamstring the cue for Leaburn to replace him, both Watsons also departing with Fraser and Asiimwe coming on – Hector made perhaps his only error of the game, being rather flat-footed and beaten by their guy, only for the shot to be saved.

That was to prove Reading’s last meaningful attempt as a few minutes later the points were sealed. Thomas played the ball forward to Blackett-Taylor. This time he took the inside route, but instead of unleashing a shot played it square for Campbell in space on the right side, just outside the box. He had time to control the ball and pick his spot, leaving Button no chance.

The rest of the game was a catalogue of more chances and goals for us. Leaburn put in an excellent shot only to draw an equally excellent save from Button, then had a close-range header saved on the line. Our third came as CBT had the ball and saw plenty of space beyond his opponent. Skinned him for pace and sent another ball into the box. Seemed rather confusing as it seemed to take a deflection off their guy but that didn’t stop May from sweeping it home. CBT almost made it four on his own before leaving the scene to allow a cameo from the returning Camara, with May going wide left. Into stoppage time and Campbell found Leaburn advancing down the right side, onside and clear. Button was this time poorly positioned and Leaburn was able to shoot home with ease.

Although scoring four obviously grabs the headlines, the stand-out performances through the game for me came from Hector (and Jones), his one mistake notwithstanding, and Dobson, both highly instrumental in the clean sheet. We made no poor individual errors and seemed more switched on when defending than often of late. That, coupled with a set-piece move or two, suggests good work being done on the training ground. 

Of course we are now all on tenterhooks for news about the extent of Chuk’s fresh injury. If he’s out for another spell at least that would suggest Tedic getting time in his favoured position, along with Leaburn, Campbell(T) being first choice on the right, with perhaps Campbell(C) and Camara featuring. We have more options than last time around.

Otherwise seven unbeaten, including four wins, and we are surely the team form of the division excluding the top two. Up to tenth with games in hand over most of those above us, confidence surely blossoming. There’s a full round of fixtures on Tuesday night and our trip to Lincoln is tough to call. Their recent form has been indifferent and they just sacked their head coach, but did get the win at Fleetwood yesterday to stay on the same number of points as us. Five of the seven in our unbeaten run have been at The Valley, our last two trips away ending in draws. If I’m correct you have to go back to April for our last league win on the road (at MK Dons). So it is going to be another good indicator of progress and of just how high we should allow our hopes to get.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Working On Areas

The enforced break in proceedings should, we hope, have allowed time for Appleton and his team to work with the players (at least those not away) on addressing our obvious shortcomings: lack of organisation and awareness at the back which, coupled with individual mistakes, continues to cost us cheap goals; getting our forward options better sorted out to maximise available resources; related to this how to avoid sterile, ineffective first-half displays; and perhaps also how we might become a threat again from set pieces (which we have not been since the departures of Inniss and Stockley).

Coming on the back of a six-game unbeaten run from the start of September, it might appear that all is well, with a number of players having returned from injury and with the squad getting more used to playing with each other following the transfer window changes. Perhaps, but I think we’d all agree there is considerable room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement.

For the defence, individual mistakes are usually just something to accept as inevitable – and if someone keeps making them you bring in a replacement. More worrying is the regular lack of understanding and cohesion, whether it’s dealing with runners or coping with balls into the box. Simply changing personnel isn’t that easy as we are not especially blessed with options in central defence, with Elerewe joining Mitchell out on loan and let’s be honest Ness not yet this season having reproduced the form which filled us with such hopes before his injury and long break. As and when he gets back to that level he will no doubt hold down a regular slot. As it is, Hector and Jones are the central pairing with the shirts, with Thomas used in the full-back role. That really only leaves Ness and the as yet untried Abankwah as the back-ups. And centre-backs get injured and suspended.

Add in that the full-back positions are not yet nailed down. We don’t know if Thomas will be kept on the left side when Edun is back up and running, or whether it will be Watson or Asiimwe most of the time on the right. Then add in that the goalkeeper has changed, with Isted out for a while and Walker brought in as back-up for Maynard-Brewer. Given all this, perhaps a lack of understanding is unavoidable and only addressed over time. After all, Hector and Jones haven’t played together that often. Nevertheless, an effective defence usually needs a clear leader, the one the others take their cue from – and who dishes out the flak when someone isn’t doing their job. The obvious candidate is Hector, but you don’t see much sign of him performing this role on the pitch (perhaps he does it but quietly).

Quite frankly we seem rather docile (or confused) when we cough up chances and/or goals. It would be good to see greater animation and desire to put things right. Perhaps this will all just come with time, I certainly hope so, if only for the sake of Steve Brown’s mental health in the Charlton TV box. He regularly talks of what is and what is not acceptable and too often we are it seems falling short.

Getting the best out of our forward combinations is for me linked to the problem of dire first-half displays. We’ve gone from having no central forward options, with the pre-season injuries to Leaburn and Aneke, to having one with the signing of May, now to four with all available and the addition of Tedic, possibly five if Campbell(C) were to be used in that role. It’s a nice problem to have (one Holden could only dream of), but one I’d suggest needs to be worked on by all the squad, given that none of the forwards are especially similar in style or strengths, there are no real like-for-like changes. Given that, surely we need to consciously adapt our play depending on who is out there at any point in time.

It's no use saying just ‘Aneke, Leaburn, Tedic big guys, May little guy’. We have had ample demonstrations of late that Aneke is different from the others in that he is quite capable of battling two central defenders and competing for balls forward either on the ground or in the air. Leaburn is not as yet, nor is May, while Tedic we don’t know about yet in a centre-forward role. For sure the others offer different skills, with May for example adept at making runs between the back line. To make the most of that he needs someone to supply him with the well-timed pass and others to be working to help create the space. Alternatively you adopt the strategy that Spurs used to use when they had Clive Allen up front and Hoddle, Ardiles, Galvin etc in a packed and very talented midfield. I don’t think they ever played the ball up to Allen to do anything with it. His job – which he did very well - was just to get on the end of things and score. With Fraser, both Campbells, and Blackett-Taylor available that sort of approach has to be possible, as long as all understand that it effectively rules out looking for a simple ball forward to a lone central forward.

To go back to the sterility of first-half play, it seems we often begin brightly enough but then fade and seem to run out of ideas. Or rather we seem to stop working to create space with movement and become instead very static, giving the guy on the ball no real options. With Aneke the obvious out ball is available, with the others it is not. Without him determined opposition with men behind the ball are able to crowd out CBT and dominate the lone central forward. That’s when you need to break things up, look for central midfielders to combine moving forward, for the wide guys to stretch defences to make space for May or Leaburn to run into channels. Instead, too often we stand still, let the opposition progressively take the initiative and dictate the play.

Again, for me it’s all about adjusting our approach to who is on the pitch – as well as the opposition of course. We have to be flexible as we are, at least for now, looking for compromises which involve players not necessarily operating in their best positions and as starting Saturday we have four league games before the end of the month. If we want a No.10 Fraser is the obvious choice, but using May in the role allows the inclusion of another central forward. Leaburn and Tedic can be used in the wider right positions in order to have them on the pitch. Aneke’s inclusion also means we have to be flexible as he cannot be replaced like-for-like but neither can he last a full game.

Ah well, after all that (and let’s leave just why we are not scoring goals from set pieces, which for me cries out for trying some different routines) I just feel glad it’s not my job to make the actual decisions, when all the imponderables also have to be fed in: knocks, illness, performance in training, who did what and when etc. On Saturday we take on a side surprisingly underperforming so far, even factoring in their points deduction, one which hasn’t won for four games and lost three of them, which is having problems scoring goals (just 9 in 11). Would be good to see us at it from the start and not settle into a cautious, static mode if a bright start doesn’t deliver the goals we hope for, rather to look at what’s not working and adjust. Easier said than done for sure.

Sunday 8 October 2023

Point Gained - Thanks To Chuks

While the mood may have been more circumspect going into the Exeter game, yesterday, confidence bolstered, we, rightly or wrongly, expected a win. This may have been over-confidence as on Tuesday night we got the rub of the green in what was for a long time a close encounter, while Blackpool were not on an especially poor run, having won three of their last five. And after a pretty dry start to the season they had begun to score some goals to add to conceding few. And it did prove a tough encounter, one from which we emerged with IMO a point gained rather than two dropped.

Appleton described the game as a “great advert for League One”, reports have headlines of a ‘thrilling encounter’. I really wouldn’t agree. The entire first half was dull, we mustered no efforts on target (and just three attempts on goal), were contained by disciplined opponents with the front line simply not in the game, with Blackpool mostly content to hit long, hopeful balls in the direction of their wide men, most of which sailed harmlessly long. They managed one attempt on target in the first half – and scored with it, all rather reminiscent of teams last season coming to The Valley content to park the bus as they were confident we would offer up a chance or two sooner or later. In fact Blackpool’s defence spent the first hour of the game in complete control and on 70 minutes seemed to have sealed the points with another soft goal (from our perspective) from an individual error. That we came back and levelled the game with two goals in two minutes, and might have gone on to score a winner, is creditworthy. But in truth the game changed on 64 minutes when Aneke entered the fray.

After that Blackpool’s calm control was destroyed. They were incapable of handling him, he laid on our first and through his efforts brought others into the game who hitherto had been invisible, most obviously Blackett-Taylor. We ended up having had 18 attempts on goal, five on target. That Chuks should have scored one or two himself was clear, something he seemed to acknowledge as he showed his frustration at the end of the game. He may desperately want a goal, but I hope he reflects that his contribution resulted in us getting something from a match, something that had looked increasingly unlikely.

With it having been made clear that none of those on the injured list – Isted, Edun, Taylor, McGrandles, Camara – would be available for selection it was always likely that the team/squad would be much the same as on Tuesday. In the event Appleton opted for one change, with no surprise that Leaburn started up front and Aneke moved to the bench. Otherwise it was as you were, for the starting X1 and the subs, with the same 4-3-3 (4-2-3-1 if you like), with Leaburn flanked by Blackett-Taylor and Tedic, May playing in the hole. For the visitors Morgan would be among the substitutes.

We started brightly enough, especially as Blackpool appeared very limited in their ambitions in our half. But the initial enthusiasm seemed to wane as we struggled to actually create anything in their final third. It took us over 20 minutes to actually have a moment of danger, with May’s shot after a one-two with Dobson blocked for a corner. Then right on cue, just past the half-hour mark, Blackpool had their moment of danger and made it count, thanks to poor defending and astute attack play. Their guy advanced down their left side, not challenged, and for once they had runners and options. Tedic watched the ball as his opposite number ran in behind him, collecting the ball and getting to the byline. Hector and Jones prepared for a low, drilled ball in across the box. Instead Rhodes cleverly pulled slightly away from goal and the low cross picked him out, in space. It wasn’t the cleanest strike but wrong-footed Maynard-Brewer and went in. It reminded me of the goal Stockley scored against us recently, just by moving away from two static central defenders and being picked out.

For the rest of the half we huffed and puffed to absolutely no avail, Blackpool keeping their shape and discipline. No forward movement, CBT ganged up on, May unable to pull strings in the hole, Leaburn dominated by two centre-backs, Tedic just not in the game – and perhaps lucky to still be on the pitch after a sliding, studs-up challenge caught their guy. It was a good deal worse than the one which delivered a red card for the Exeter player in midweek (albeit that has been overturned). Would have been harsh, but I was slightly relieved when the card was yellow.

Might have been changes at the break but Appleton opted to wait until the 52nd minute before beginning the process, sticking to changing our right side as Watson(T) and Tedic were replaced by Asiimwe and Campbell(T). Nothing was happening – other than Blackpool almost extending their lead as first Thomas was caught out, leading to a curling shot just over, then Dobson just managing to intercept a ball into the box to their unmarked guy – and we had to wait another 10 minutes before Aneke entered the fray, along with Fraser and Ness, for Leaburn, Watson(L) and Jones (who it seemed had picked up an injury but with it later confirmed he had been ill during the week and had run out of gas).

It is no exaggeration to say the game changed immediately. Suddenly we were winning balls against their back line and finding space, with Blackett-Taylor set up by Aneke and shooting just wide, then Aneke brutally shoving their guy off the ball (fairly apparently) leading to CBT and May setting up Campbell for a shot over.

Just as things were looking a good deal brighter we went 0-2 down, a real sucker punch. A long ball out of defence was headed back by Ness, Dobson played it to Hector, perhaps a little too strongly. He took a touch and was suddenly pounced on by recently introduced sub Dembele. He made the most of the opportunity, shooting in off the bar. With around 20 minutes of normal times left that felt like game over.

It proved not to be, to the players’ credit. After another 10 had gone Asiimwe played the ball down our right side and Aneke beat the defender to it, touching it on and running on to the edge of the area. He then played a delightful ball in, managing something of a deft chip to take the pace off and allow the onrushing May to take it in his stride and adroitly fire home. It wasn’t a gimmee, easy one to hit into the stands, but he showed his Mendonca-like ability to shape his body in order to keep the shot down. Before we knew it we were level. Hector out of defence and on to Campbell. His pass to CBT, who cut inside and curled an absolute screamer into the far top corner of the net, giving their keeper no chance.

That still left almost 10 minutes plus stoppage time (proved to be six extra) and either side might have grabbed the winner. Aneke headed straight at their keeper, Morgan – who had been introduced at 0-2 – saw his powerful shot deflected just over the bar, one of theirs had a free header from a set piece, then a one-two between Fraser and Dobson saw the former put in a powerful shot tipped over. The final real chance fell to Aneke, but from a good position he shot over.

Undoubtedly the final 20 minutes or so had been very entertaining. Goals and chances at both ends, us looking capable of scoring each time we ventured forward. But that was all in stark contrast to what had gone before. In that extended period we had coughed up two more poor goals and had created nothing. Extending the unbeaten run was undoubtedly positive, but what lessons might be drawn?

I’d say still much work to do on the defence, our attempts to play offside were at times badly at fault and we continue to go to sleep at times. At the other end, perhaps at this point in time it’s asking too much of Leaburn to lead the line effectively on his own, against two centre-backs; and Tedic looked very much out of sorts starting in the wider role. We know Aneke isn’t available for a full game, but it’s not rocket science that he either starts and is replaced or comes on as sub. We need either Leaburn or Tedic as his replacement in the central role. Surely at least starting the game the wide right position can be taken by either of the two Campbells. That still leaves whether to have May play as an outright striker in effectively a 4-4-2, or in the hole in a 4-3-3; in practise there’s little difference, unless and until Fraser is on the pitch to be the No.10. And as a final thought, be nice if we were able to carry some sort of threat from set pieces.

There might be a break in proceedings now - aside from the EFL Trophy game, which will surely be used to give some gametime in their best positions; I’d like to see Tedic given a start as the central striker and for Campbell(C) to be involved, perhaps even Kirk (he is still around I think and we may as well try to use him). But plenty to occupy Appleton and his team on the training ground.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Turned Out Nice, Didn't It

Back at The Valley for a game which nobody would have felt confident predicting the outcome before the start – or as it turned out an hour into the game. We went into it notionally on the back of four unbeaten, but with Saturday’s game having poured some cold water on the rate of improvement. Exeter came along having seemingly gone from glowing praise and topping the table a few weeks ago to three defeats in the last four, slipping out of the top six, their manager having said after the last one that they were “nowhere near good enough”. In the end, we got the breaks and ended up comfortable winners, having managed to avoid going 0-2 down in the first half, equalising at a good time just before half-time, then nicking a penalty followed almost immediately after by them going down to 10 men curtesy of a misjudgement by the ref, going on to score two more against by then spent opposition.

After Saturday there were decisions to be made on the team/squad, including taking into account those returning from injury and those who took a battering against Shrewsbury, with another game at the weekend also in mind. In the event Appleton opted for some changes and was forced into others. Isted and Thomas were both unavailable, Maynard-Brewer and Watson(L) starting in their places. In addition, Leaburn and Campbell(T) were moved to the bench with Aneke and Tedic starting, along with Blackett-Taylor and May, offering plenty of forward potential. And Campbell(C) was back in the squad. It was flagged on the website as a ‘possible’ 4-2-3-1, but you can call it 4-3-3 if it were assumed that May would occupy the position behind a front three (the BBC marked it down as a 4-4-2 with Aneke and May up front but it didn’t look like that).

The first half you’d say wasn’t as bad as many we’ve seen of late, with Aneke presence enabling us to compete better going forward we created chances. But through it we struggled to contain Exeter, who made good use of the long out ball to speedy wingers. We might have taken the lead on 18 minutes as the impressive Watson(L) deftly brought the ball out of defence and dinked it over their defensive line for both Aneke and Tadic to run onto. Aneke decided it was his – not for the last time in the game when he might have left it for someone else – and took it forward, shooting under the keeper and into the net. But he was flagged for offside. Whether or not he was seemed a close call; it did appear that Tedic was onside and that if he’d put it in the net it would have counted. The TV replays I saw weren’t much help.

Instead a few minutes later Exeter were ahead, exposing our defensive frailties. There seemed nothing untoward going on as their defender brought the ball out, but a well-timed run from deep was spotted and suddenly their guy was clear with a run on Maynard-Brewer, our advancing back line having been dissected. The shot might have been saved but wasn’t.

Aneke shot over from a good position around the edge of the box, as he had done against Shrewsbury, then we almost went 0-2 down as a ball down their right found someone in space. The cross to an onrushing forward was delivered but he curled it just beyond the corner of the post and bar. A let-off. Back up the other end and Hector up for a corner turned well and shot just wide of the post.

Approaching the break and even watching on the TV in France you could sense growing unease among the crowd. But before that could take root we equalised. May found the space between the lines and from the right side sent in a hanging cross for Aneke to attack. That he did, but having beaten the defender to the ball he sent his header crashing against the bar. Fortunately for us the rebound dropped kindly for Blackett-Taylor who was able to hit it home. It meant a very different feeling than would otherwise have been the case as the players left the pitch.

The nip and tuck continued early in the second half. A cross to the far post found CBT, who beat the flailing defender to it but clipped it just wide, then he turned provider, for them, as he lost the ball, enabling their guy to run on and get in the shot, palmed away by Maynard-Brewer. Then a Tedic shot was turned over for a corner.

The game really turned, with a vengeance, just after the hour. Tedic was fouled but an advantage played, his one-two with Watson(L) creating the opening. The ball in was headed away but Watson with Watson(T) was able to get to it just before a guy Exeter had brought on a few minutes earlier. There was contact and the ref pointed to the spot. You thought May would take on the responsibility, being the main taker, perhaps Blackett-Taylor, who had scored well at Stevenage. Instead Aneke seemed to make it clear that he was in charge. His spot kick wasn’t the best, the keeper guessed right and turned it onto the post, only for May to pounce on the rebound. Our second goal of the night resulting from a rebound off the woodwork and a case of May having the last laugh.

Almost immediately after Exeter’s race was run. Their guy around the centre-circle took a heavy touch and went into a 50-50 with May. May ended up clutching his foot/ankle clearly in pain and the ref obviously interpreted the challenge as late and reckless, perhaps studs up and off the ground, and pulled out the red card. The replays pretty much confirmed that their guy had in fact got to the ball first, in a reasonably controlled fashion, with May ending up kicking his trailing foot. One of those where you could see why the ref viewed it as dangerous play, but still amounted to a bad decision. The card will presumably be overturned on appeal.

That was the cue for Leaburn to replace Aneke. And with a little over 10 minutes of normal time left he cemented the points he collected a ball across the box (perhaps a pass from Watson, perhaps a defender’s intervention), took a touch, then rifled it into the corner of the net. All could relax then and more changes were made: Fraser, Campbell(T) and Asiimwe for Watson(L), Tedic and Watson(T). We added a fourth with around five minutes left on the clock, a ball over the top for CBT to collect. He beat the defender, took it around the keeper, but with the angle tight pulled it back. Leaburn couldn’t get there but once more the loose ball found May, who shot fiercely into the roof of the net. Campbell(C) on for Dobson and we were able to stroll through the nine minutes of stoppage time.

Nobody’s going to complain about a 4-1 win, one that means we can talk now of an unbeaten run (five games, three won, including the first overseen by Pearce). The question marks of course remain: how to get the defence tighter, how to make the most of the attacking options we now have. Starting with Aneke and Tedic, with May in the hole, can be said to have worked in that through the game we created chances, while Leaburn was available as and when Chuks could do no more. Whether May can continue as a No.10, as Fraser gets back to full fitness and hopefully Camara becomes available, are let’s face it the sort of selection problems we only dreamed about not long ago (no doubt Holden does too).

Only disappointment is that I thought this was a league in which you could string together a few results and go shooting up the table. We are up to 14th, but it is a bit of a struggle it seems. No matter, bring on Blackpool on Saturday. Confidence should be high, see if we can keep this run going.

Sunday 1 October 2023

Plenty To Ponder

Having missed the Wycombe game, I had a keen sense of anticipation in the build-up to the visit to Shrewsbury. Two wins and a draw in the last three, up against a team which had lost four of the last five and had only managed four goals in eight games (to be fair only conceded nine), plus signs that the much greater attacking options now available to us might be accompanied by a tougher attitude in defence (ie that we might be putting an end to giving away soft goals). Basically would the game reinforce the view that there are good grounds for believing we are steadily improving and capable of progressing to around the top of the league?

In that context, I’d have to conclude that yesterday was a small step backwards. Of course there are positives: extending an unbeaten run to four, another point in the bag, a clean sheet, and Isted and Jones standing out. Against these have to be set yet another lame first-half display, which might easily have seen us one or two down at the break; a clean sheet but not the sort of one to be proud of, with some lamentable defending at times and Isted required to make a string of good saves; a number of players looking like fish out of water in the positions they were asked to play; and a lack of clinical finishing (although the fact that we didn’t score was also down to a fine display from their keeper). So plenty to be worked on – and for Appleton and his team to think about.

The team was not surprisingly little changed from the one which had beaten Wycombe. In defence Watson(T) started in place of Abankwah, who didn’t make the squad, and in midfield Taylor came in for Watson(L), who did. Otherwise it was as you were with the same 4-3-3, with up front May flanked by Blackett-Taylor and Leaburn and Campbell(T). On the bench Asiimwe and the available again Fraser came in, with Anderson and Campbell(C) missing out.

After a reasonably even start, marked by a free header apiece from a set piece (ours, which fell to Jones, was easily gathered but their one – the first piece of poor defending as their centre-back was allowed to run into space unchallenged - required a smart save from Isted, with the rebound not converted), we increasingly slipped into a ‘play it safe, keep it tight, slow it down’ mode, which handed Shrewsbury the initiative. They were committed, tough opponents happy to get everyone behind the ball when out of possession. The result was no service at all to an increasingly isolated from three, with Blackett-Taylor identified as the main threat and crowded out, while we were unable to work space elsewhere as Leaburn seemed out of sorts and Campbell just wasn’t in the game in his floating/number 10 role. The set-up clearly thrives on space but we were too slow and Shrewsbury too determined to enable any to be created.

It didn’t seem to matter that much as half-time approached since Shrewsbury were also creating nothing. We had long injury breaks for Jones and Taylor, with the latter ultimately unable to continue and replaced by Watson(L), and were anticipating a few choice words from Appleton in the dressing-room to get them to liven things up (as proved the case against Stevenage, who like Oxford and Fleetwood before them had made us look poor in the first 45), when out of the blue Shrewsbury fashioned two late efforts which might have seen them take the lead.

The first was routine in that from a set piece their guy got off a curling shot from the edge of the area, one which required Isted to dive to his left to turn around for another corner. The second was rightly highlighted by Steve Brown on Charlton TV, as the sort of mindless defending which has so often cost us this season. The corner was headed out and our packed defence to a man simply ran out in the direction of the ball. They chipped it back in towards the far post, just over the head of an advancing Hector, and dropping invitingly for one of theirs who had simply peeled away from the pack. If the header had been placed a yard either side of Isted it would have been a goal, but fortunately it wasn’t and the effort was smothered.

That ending surely would have added to the pressure to ensure that we went into the second half with a more positive attitude and a greater work rate. And to be fair that was the case, although the game really only caught fire when around the hour mark – after a Jones header was well saved and Thomas had seen yellow for a foul on the edge of our area- Aneke and Tedic came on for Leaburn and Campbell, with May dropping into the position behind the front three. The game changed as we were able to play the ball to a physical central forward able to hold it and cause mayhem, in turn pulling their defence apart.

And the rest of the game saw a litany of near misses at both ends. Aneke jabbed a shot through a crowd which their keeper saw late and only just kept out, then Tadic set up Aneke, who should have done better from the edge of the area than shoot over. Then an Aneke move forward saw the ball break for May, whose fierce shot was turned around for a corner. From that corner Shrewsbury broke and their guy, in his own half, saw Isted off his line. He sent in a near perfect effort, hit and directed well enough to see it sail into an empty net. But Isted backpeddling managed somehow to get a hand on the ball and knock it down, after which it bounced back up and around the bar and post, with Isted himself ending up injured in the net.

Aneke had a close-range header saved (another which if directed either side of the keeper would surely have been a goal). But after Fraser and Asiimwe had replaced Blackett-Taylor and Watson(T) we almost gifted Shrewsbury the lead, with Isted turning to the villain. We had a shout for a penalty as an Aneke shot on the turn appeared to be blocked by the defender’s arm, although there seemed no movement towards the ball, but from that a routine Hector back-pass saw Isted try to knock the ball to the side of their advancing forward, only to be hopelessly caught out with their guy getting between him and the ball, albeit with his back to goal. Isted bundled him over and the only question was whether the card would be yellow or red. Probably a close call but it was the former. And Isted managed to turn around the shot from the free-kick.

In the final minutes we had moments, with shots blocked or saved, but the two best chances fell to Shrewsbury. Watson lost the ball in midfield and as their guy advanced with it our defenders backed off, and backed off, enabling him to reach the edge of the area, look up, but then put the shot over the bar. Finally, almost at the end of the eight extra minutes, they fashioned a one-one-one, but Isted was out quickly and managed to smother the effort.

Any review of the highlights would leave people wondering how that game ended goalless, especially given the second-half chances. At the break the stats showed that Shrewsbury had had seven attempts on goal, four on target, against two and one respectively for us. The final tally was 15 attempts for them (eight on target), 14 for us (six). That’s 29 attempts on goal, almost one every three minutes, and 20 in the second 53 minutes. Good goalkeeping and poor finishing, at both ends.

There is a lot to dwell on. Teams that work hard to deny us space (Stevenage, Shrewsbury) are capable of smothering us and neutering our forward threat, with May in the team to score goals, not to try to outmuscle two central defenders. Having Leaburn play on the right side of a front three didn’t work yesterday, and with Campbell ineffective that enabled Shrewsbury to ensure CBT never received the ball in space and quickly found himself up against two or three. Aneke, and Tedic, changed that, but we know Aneke can’t last a full game. In stark contrast to earlier in the season, we now have three centre-forwards (Leaburn, Aneke, Tedic) and a goalscorer (May). But if we want to have a forward pairing we have to lose the 4-3-3, either shifting to a 3-5-2 (which tends to neuter Blackett-Taylor, our most potent weapon) or a 4-4-2 (possible but risky, would require two battlers in the central positions). With Fraser returning, presumably gradually, we do have a more natural No.10 than Campbell(T), with hopefully Camara also returning before too long. And although I’ve no idea if he’s not showing up in training, I’m surprised that Campbell(C) hasn’t been featuring more, not coming off the bench against Wycombe and not in the squad yesterday.

All for Appleton to be pondering no doubt. But I’d be emphasising a few factors. First, the opposition and how they will set up. If you expect to be in a war of attrition in the first half, don’t necessarily look to start with your most creative line-up. If Aneke can only put in 30/40 minutes, they don’t have to be the last 30/40. You can have enough substitutes these days to bring him on and take him off later. Leaburn is still feeling his way into the season after the injury lay-off, so at the moment surely starting with one of the two Campbells in the widish right slot – if we stick to 4-3-3 - makes more sense. And although May did well enough dropping deeper, his job is to stick the ball in the net, let’s not start tampering with that. He plays in the front line, or comes off the bench to slot in there, whether or not we change formation to provide him with a partner.

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...