Searching for light on a grey day - Knee Jerks
Sunday, 11th Sep 2016 20:13 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola took positives from Saturday's draw with Blackburn, but is troubled by plenty of other aspects as well ahead of a tough September.
When this fairly drab game did come to life, it was mainly through the bright sparks fizzing from Shodipo or the reliable incandescence of Chery. First half, starved of the ball, he dropped deeper and deeper to try and make something happen as Henry and Cousins, for the most part, felt too cautious to try and run past him. To a large extent, he was nullified. But after the break, with a bit more adventure from us, he had more of an influence – first with an absolutely sublime, Adel-like ball for Nasser, who took it down perfectly before shooting straight at the keeper from five yards. And then the free kick.
And this was a beauty. I can’t exactly recall all the best free kicks I’ve seen at LR – Bardsley’s v Southampton lives long in the memory; Paul Wright’s v Liverpool; any number of Buzsaky’s, but the Wigan one sticks out; a few brilliant strikes by Langley – I think there was a special one against Luton. But this was right up there and may just be the best I’ve witnessed at home.
It was a long, long way out. The BBC report said 20 yards, but the ref’s line for the wall was two yards outside the box. It must have been 28-30 yards. And at an angle. Realistically, there was only one place he could aim, so the keeper had the advantage. But when you hit it that hard and with that accuracy and it dips enough to strike the bottom of the bar… well, that’s perfection. A grey day, a grey game, but that was worth it all. Utterly brilliant.
Staying on the positive theme, this was a really encouraging display from Shodipo. I thought he did well before half time, but was much better after the break. It was almost as if JFH had pointed out to him that he was playing well, that he belonged out there, so why not show that extra bit of confidence? And he did. At times in the first half Williams seemed to have him worked out, but after a crude hack led to a yellow, suddenly Shodipo had the upper hand and he had him on toast after the break.
Still, what was missing in the first half was a good ball in or a dangerous effort on goal. But at least half of that improved in the second 45. He did have one wayward shot, but he sent in a few useful crosses, played a couple of neat passes inside the box, harried Williams into mistakes and most memorably pinged a gorgeous (and dangerous) crossfield ball to Chery, just inside the box, which should have brought us at least a decent effort on goal.
Unlike some, I don’t think this ‘proves’ JFH should have been playing him more. I think he’s absolutely right to manage him properly, not burn him out, not put too much pressure on him. It looks like he might be a player, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s doing by next spring. Despite this display he might find himself on the bench on Tuesday (although you would expect him to be above Nasser based on yesterday’s game), but he will definitely get chances this season. Carry on like this – with confidence, endeavour, tricks and pace, and he’ll force Jimmy to pick him. As fans, we really need to get behind him too, because with some real confidence he looks a handful.
I’m a fan, unlike many. But I do agree with the general consensus that when he starts games he never seems to do particularly well. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player quite so suited to being a substitute – weirder still, he’s a great sub for almost any situation. Chasing the game? Get him on, and his awkward style and flailing limbs and general unpredictability will scare the opposition and maybe help get us a goal. Winning by a goal or two? Get him on, use him on the break, and while he might overhit his first two crosses, he’s also liable to stick one in the top corner too. Bizarre player.
But yesterday it never came off for him. He never got in the game in the same way Shodipo did, and when things went a little wrong a few times he retreated into his shell and began looking for the easy ball to Bidwell, rather than trying to make something happen himself. This is death in this formation – with two deep central midfielders, the two wide players must help Chery in the way that Smith and Routledge and Mackie helped Taarabt so brilliantly in our Championship year. Nasser didn’t do enough yesterday going forward and he seemed on a different wavelength to everyone else. No lack of desire there, no lack of willing, but a below par performance, to put it kindly.
Just a quick word on Jake Bidwell, who I’ve now seen a few times. I like him. He’s not flashy, he’s not a flying full back but he is what we expected: a solid six or seven out of ten every week. Hard as nails, clearly. Loves a challenge. But decent on the ball too. Made some lovely runs yesterday, and his free kicks curled in from the right look genuinely dangerous. Good signing – exactly what we needed there.
What a weird day for those two. Both did little wrong, both had enjoyable forays going forward as Blackburn sat back, both dealt with Danny Graham (who looked like he ate Neil Ruddock for breakfast) with ease. Apart from Chery’s to Nasser, Hall arguably played the pass of the game late on when he split the defence with a lovely ball between full back and centre back for Bidwell (whose subsequent cross was frustratingly bad). And yet the two of them were battered by Blackburn’s high balls into the box.
We looked very vulnerable from corners, long throws and free kicks, but I’m not sure it was the central defenders’ fault. It felt to me like they had about six dangerous, large headers of the ball and we only had three – which went down to two once Polter went off. The pair of them couldn’t mark all of them. Smithies did his best and was lively in coming for high balls (pleasingly he looked to have put the Preston display behind him), but we still had several ugly scrambles and could easily have conceded more. Not sure what the answer is – but maybe this is part of the reason why JFH wants Ned at right back – it just gives us an extra bit of height for aerial attacks.
So, six games in, we’re a respectable seventh. It could have been second after yesterday, but equally it could easily have been eleventh too. Three wins, a draw, two defeats. Never scintillating, mostly solid. Plenty of concerns, but some encouraging signs too.
On the one hand, most of our games have been against teams who’ve made a poor start to the season. On the other, we were very unfortunate to lose to Barnsley, who are flying. On the one hand, we’ve failed to beat two teams in the bottom four at home. On the other, tables lie at this stage of the season and JFH, through injuries and suspensions and transfer delays, hasn’t been able to get the sort of side out that he wants to just yet. On the one hand, we haven’t scored a goal from open play yet (although at least two of the penalties we’ve had would have probably led to goals to be fair, and we’ve been a little unlucky with a few chances); on the other, only four teams have scored more goals than us.
It’s tough looking at the impact Wagner has had at Huddersfield and comparing it to ourselves. We’re very comparable with them – and have certainly spent more money, as well as nicking their centre back – but JFH hasn’t had that immediate, startling impact Wagner has. It’s fine for people like me to watch yesterday’s mainly dull game and look at the positives and say JFH needs much more time, but Wagner makes that appeal for patience look naïve – to some extent anyway: Charlton started last season beating us and Hull and drawing at Derby and Forest. They didn’t win again until November.
So, judging from yesterday, I feel we’ll get what most of us expected: a season in mid-table. It probably won’t be pretty, but hopefully the building blocks are slowly going down and as the season wears on, this team will start to feel more comfortable and begin to be able to defend stoutly while still look menacing for longer periods than yesterday. But there are so many caveats and ‘ifs’.
IF Yeni settles (which after his bereavement, could understandably now take a while); IF two from Cousins, Luongo and Borysuik can nail that central midfield area and give it some much-needed dynamism; IF Wszolek can give us pace, directness, and a few goals; IF Chery and Polter stay fit; IF Shodipo continues to impress… then we may see a much more attractive side in the next few months. But if Yeni doesn’t settle, if Cousins struggles to adapt to a deep-lying midfield role, if Chery gets a long-term injury and so forth, we are not going to score many at all.
It’s totally valid to question JFH now, to worry about our lack of creativity, but we must remember these are early days for him, the team and the new direction the club is taking. At the very least, it’s pleasing that we have a squad who want to be there and as drab as yesterday’s game was, there wasn’t a single player you could accuse of not trying hard enough.
Sadly, I fear a tonking from a confident Newcastle on Tuesday – how we respond to that will be very important.
Pictures – Action Images
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