Good lads, poor results – Knee Jerks
Monday, 13th Aug 2018 15:02 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola is back for the new season with his six talking points from Saturday’s home defeat to Sheffield United.
A defeat that somehow seemed or felt inevitable, and that's been reflected in the largely negative response to the game since. And yet, there were some positives, and a little bit of hope, plus we lost because of an absolute joke of a decision. At the same time, a defeat at West Brom is fairly nailed on, and once you start a season with a series of defeats, it's very hard to recover, as Hughes found out a few years back.
There's been much spoken about what a nice bunch this lot are, and how we are not nasty enough to win games in this division. There's certainly something in that - are we too honest? Too fair? Do we lack hard men? I'm not totally convinced by that. Leistner, Lynch, Bidwell and Scowen (who was absolutely superb on Saturday) are all pretty physical, and Mathieu is 6'10. But at the same time, we just looked weaker than a big, solid, technically decent Sheffield side. After a tough first 15 minutes, we more than matched them; this was a game that we could just as easily have won 2-1 than lost 2-1 - but it never properly felt like we might.
It's hard to put your finger on it. There was some kind of difference there. Clive complained last week that we were sucked in too easily by Preston, but sometimes it is very difficult to combat those tactics. In the last 20 minutes on Saturday Sheffield players went down under a series of innocuous challenges, and stayed down. Then when the ref halted play they refused treatment so that they wouldn't have to leave the field. I'm not really sure what you can do about that. You can avoid silly challenges like obvious little pushes on keepers, but you have to challenge robustly for the ball, and any tackle leaves leeway for a player to decide he's injured. It was comical on Saturday, but also sad: if we do ever get to lead a game with 20 minutes left this season, will we do this? Stop the game at every opportunity to kill it? Do we want to? Is this where this league, which used to be blood and thunder, has ended up? Full of timewasting tricks that ruin the spectacle?
I don't know and I'm not totally sure what my point is here. For all the talk of our squad lacking experience, we had only four relatively inexperienced players at this level in the starting line up, and one of those was the best player on the pitch by a mile. Would the introduction of a Derry-type and a Hill-type make that much difference? I think we have more obvious problems, which I'll come to.
But before I do, let's look at a couple of real positives. Firstly, Ebere Eze. I'm not really bothered about not getting carried away. Get carried away. For fox sake enjoy this bloke before he's gone, because regardless of what contract he has signed, barring a horrible injury, he will not be here next August, and we might be lucky if he's still here at the end of January. I haven't seen a game yet where I'm not anything other than convinced that he is a star; if anything, I think he may be even better than I thought. On Saturday, after a quiet start, he sparked the whole team, bringing two great saves out of Henderson before burying a fine strike into the corner for a richly-deserved goal. Overall, we apparently had 14 shots, six on target. Eze had six shots, five on target, and one goal. Outstanding. His movement was great, he is superb in possession, so calm, has great vision. It is all there.
I've seen some people worrying about whether he and Freeman step on each other's toes. I'm not worried. On Saturday we saw what will hopefully only grow this season - two very good creative players interchanging positions, passing to each other and working together to create openings. It's odd to me that people are already saying it won't work or it can't work. Why not? They've barely played together. Give them some time. Potentially, they could be very, very dangerous playing behind a striker. People worry about Freeman not being able to play wide - yet he often drifted wide last season, and it was his crosses that brought us a lot of goals. I'm not worried by these two in the same team, I'm excited by it.
I've only seen him this once, but he matched up to the descriptions I've read. And he seems to be the centre back we've been crying out for for about five years. He may look like a hunched-shouldered version of Steve Palmer, but he's still at a very good age and he brings to this side leadership, strength and an unwillingness to be bullied. Plus, he's good in the air, he can pass. Lacks some pace, but that's it. The frustrating thing is, he feels like the absolute perfect foil for Nedum Onuoha, but he's come a season too late.
What impressed me was how he sorted out Leon Clarke. Early on, Clarke got an elbow in. Leistner was not impressed, and as he ran back into position after speaking to the ref, he pointed at Clarke and issued a warning. Clarke barely had a kick after that, other than one clever flick and shot that brought a decent save from Ingram, and was reduced to continually complaining to the ref for the rest of the game as Leistner dominated him in the air. A real positive. We only signed one player, but at least he's decent.
So, to the problems. In terms of handling, crosses and shot stopping, all ticks on Saturday. And, 20 or 30 years ago, that was all a keeper needed. Now they need to be so much more. We didn't miss Smithies for his saves on Saturday; we missed his distribution. And that is, or seems to be at the moment, the huge difference between the two keepers. Smithies was excellent with the ball at his feet. Calm, reassuring, accurate. Ingram does not summon the same sense of calm when it's passed back to him. Kicks went out of play, kicks went to space with no one within 20 yards, kicks went direct to the opposition. What we're trying to do is laudable - however much the Facebook idiots will complain about long ball, we tried for most of the game to give the ball to Leistner, get it to Scowen, and move through the thirds. And once Scowen had it, that worked ok, although we rarely looked really dangerous. But getting it to Scowen in the first place was the problem. United closed us down quickly, almost every time we played it out things felt risky, and on the one or two occasions we could have got a move going quickly, Ingram was down hugging the ball to his chest, giving everyone a breather. It was disjointed and ugly back there. It can, possibly will improve, but we don't have a lot of time. With Leistner looking like a solid centre back, at the moment losing Smithies is looking far more damaging than losing either Onuoha or Robinson.
To some extent, Sylla did ok. He put himself about, he did a couple of good flicks that almost brought chances and he set up Eze for a searing volley with some typically effective chest work. But overall, he was kept very quiet by the United defence. Smith fared no better when he came on. Neither are bad players. Over the course of the season, they'll probably get you 12-15 goals between them. But if McClaren does want to bring Chris Martin in, you can see exactly why. In effect, we have a similar set up now to what we had in our Championship year. Couple of good midfielders, and a rich mix of attackers all suited to playing behind a hold-up striker. Then it was Routledge, Ephraim, Mackie, Smith and Adel vying for places behind Helguson. Now it's BOS, Smyth, Freeman, Eze and possibly Pav behind... well, one of two players who, and this is not really a criticism, just a fact, simply do not have the game Helguson had. You could see it on Saturday. First half especially our build up play was at times very good - Luongo, Freeman and Eze all had great runs with the ball, we passed it quite well, we made a few openings. But it rarely featured Sylla, and after he went off Smith was not part of it either. When we talk about needing experience and hard b'stards in the side, I think this is where we need it most. A battering ram. He doesn't need to be quick, he just needs to be strong, to be able to head the ball, and to be able to hold and lay. If he does that, we could be very dangerous with the talent behind him. He doesn't even need to score a lot of goals, because if we have three chipping in behind him as Routledge, Smith etc did a few years ago.
It's obvious already this season that teams are targeting Kakay. On Saturday, Sheffield spent the first half overloading down their left - Jake Bidwell might as well have played left wing for all the defending he had to do for most of the half. He was frequently out-numbered, and while his storming runs forward and his impressive first touch were huge plus points, to me he looked a little out of his depth back there. Smyth certainly was. He dropped deeper and deeper to help his mate out, but all that did was encourage Sheffield further to exploit a perceived weakness, and while Smyth was standing almost on top of Kakay, Sheffield didn't have to worry about his pace going forwards. Second half, BOS was instructed to stay further up the pitch, to keep their left back pinned back, and the danger down that side dissipated a little - Kakay also looked better as a result. And that's where experience comes in and why we might be looking at Routledge if reports are to be believed (although surely Pav, finally, would have a natural place ahead of Kakay at the moment, with his defensive abilities, incredible stamina etc? Strange one). Routledge would be able to coach Kakay through a bit, and not get drawn into becoming a second right back as Smyth did. Overall, I thought Kakay did well, not as well as some think, but he played ok and worked his arse off. Unfortunately, Sheffield recognised we might struggle there and played accordingly. Fair play, at least on that, to McClaren for righting things at the break.
A long way to go, a lot of work to do. The season is long and hard.
Pictures – Action Images
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