No Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Waking up yesterday morning and still half-asleep, I stretched in bed and pulled a calf muscle. It meant no training spin on the bike and no chance of burning off Friday`s night`s excess. I just felt it was going to be one of those days when nothing went right.
And so it proved. Somewhere around Coventry I realised that I might be late for the match, probably after hearing the guard apologize for the delay. I made it just as the teams emerged from the tunnel. The train ride home was even worse. Not only were the carriages full of Coventry shoppers on a pre-Christmas spending spree in Birmingham (at least they were happy) but the train ground to a halt outside Birmingham International Station. It seemed as though there was an emergency landing at the airport and all the electricity was switched off.
Unlike WW, I presumed the aeroplane did not make a crash landing. I am tempted to say that it must have had a better pilot but I really do not know where to apportion the blame. It seems that even my wife is concerned because when I eventually did arrive home, she had already drunk half the bottle of wine earmarked for the traditional Saturday night curry.
And it all started so promisingly. Siggy scored a great, if somewhat fortuitous, goal in the 5th. minute after good work by Pennant. Feinting to go right, he turned inside and drove towards the box. When he passed, the ball struck a defender and bounced to Siggy who had sneaked behind the cover. The Scandinavian finished with aplomb.
In essence, getting behind the defence is something we should be doing ourselves without the help of a lucky deflection. It`s what opposition teams habitually do to us, which is the reason why we ship so many goals. Take the Forest equaliser. Yet another of our attacks broke down and suddenly a long pass out of NF`s defence found Sharp running beyond our central defenders and free on goal.
To be fair, I did notice that we tried a similar move on several occasions, usually to no good effect, either because of a badly weighted ball or because the perceived receiver had not reacted to the evolving situation. Most of our attacking play went through Sako down a flank. As ever, he delivered a stream of crosses but typically without anyone getting on the end of them. He should have been told that we had sold Fletcher and that we were operating with the deeper-lying Doyle and Siggy upfront. Don`t we miss the Scotsman!
Whoever else we buy in the January window, we need a striker who can convert these chances. At the moment, we are relying (usually in vain) for goals to come from long range efforts from Sako or Doumbia, or from dead-ball settings. On a couple of occasions Sako received the ball in forward positions, as we moved the ball out of defence, but either because the ball was poorly weighted or because he hesitated, the opportunity slipped away.
This is not to say that WW did not exert pressure. We probably won the first half on points and should have killed off the game in the ten minutes up to the break but somehow the ball refused to go into the net, preferring instead to bounce safely away off a defender. Meanwhile, Forest had their own chances, one of which Ikeme stopped with his legs.
OK, so we came out for the second half, knowing that we were capable of beating the opposition as long as we prevented them coming through our midfield and tightened up at the back, while playing more creatively going forward. We also had to up the tempo of our play. After all, we are capable of doing it, when we fall behind, as indicated by the Brighton and Watford games. If we can do it with ten players, why can`t we do it with eleven men on the field?
Yet, we were so bad in the second half that I ceased to worry about the result, having reached nirvana, that state of perfect peace where you accept your fate. Clearly, the members of our team were in the same mystic frame of mind because there seemed to be no urgency in their play. We never looked like scoring. And, of course, Guedioura scored one of his trademark goals, a screamer from a distance. Forest moved the ball, unopposed, down the flank. It`s slipped inside to the unmarked Guedioura coming through the middle at pace. With no-one closing him down, he was able to pick his spot as he drove forward, giving Ikeme no chance.
So, who`s to blame? While defensive lapses did lead to the goals, the back four were not totally at fault. While Johnson and Berra, once more, were found wanting on the turn, they did good work too. The problem began in front of them, with our failure to hold onto the ball going forward and our inability to threaten the opposition goal.
Then there`s our fragility in midfield. Firstly, in the absence of Henry we lack a competent enforcer (leaving aside his penchant for giving away free kicks and accumulating red cards). At the moment Davis has to play. We should also adopt a 4-5-1 formation in order to strengthen our midfield to prevent it being overrun all the time. Conversely, we also need a playmaker in the middle, someone like O`Hara, a player who can make the killer pass that splits the defence. The sooner he is match-fit the better.
While we fans habitually slag off our players, we also recognise that they are better than our current position suggests they are. So, is it the system that is at fault? And, if it is, should the blame be laid at the door of the managerial team? To a certain extent, it has to be. The Championship might be a tough league but, having watched PL football for three years, it`s nowhere near that standard. Time and again, my friend and I express our surprise that WW cannot put away teams of moderate ability. It`s the reason the league is such a lottery!
Having said that, we then add that the opposition usually possesses something that we lack, namely, a shape. Observing the second half yesterday from the corner of the BW stand, I could see our performance as the players moved the ball upfield away from me. From that perspective it was difficult to discern any pattern or much movement off the ball. Inevitably, attacks broke down, immediately putting us under pressure from quick counter-thrusts.
We know what SS`s plan is and as a long-term solution to the problem of getting into the PL and staying there, I endorse it. However, it clearly is not working at the moment. Is that because the players are incapable of adapting to it or are they resistant to change? Is it a problem of communication, that is, the inability of the coaching team to express their views clearly and to devise training routines that will groove in the new practices. What is going on at the training ground at Compton?
We still have time to put matters right but someone quickly has to discern what is going wrong and correct it. It`s no good waiting for the January window because by then it might be too late. Apart from the difficulty of attracting quality players to a fading team, we have the perennial problem of a shortage of money to buy them in. In a club with so much surplus cash, that would be laughable were it not so serious.
Given time, SS will construct a team with the ability to play his type of game and it will work. I expect he will buy astutely on the foreign market in January (if he is still our manager), imports being cheaper (and therefore more acceptable to our board) and more attuned to SS's style of play. And, we will have Cassidy, if not Griffiths, back but it will be an awful responsibility for one so young to shoulder. The cocky Griffiths would revel in the situation. Ideally, we need a proven Fletcher-type striker. Oh, and a defender or two, and an enforcer and a creative player in the middle of the pitch.