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And breathe - Knee Jerks
Monday, 27th Aug 2018 12:34 by Antti Heinola

Antti Heinola's six talking points from the weekend win against Wigan include Joe Lumley's recall, Nahki Wells' impact and the Paul Smyth situation.

Things we all said as we walked out:
'Well, it wasn't pretty.'
'A win's a win.'
'I'd have taken that at the start of the game.'
'Good to get a clean sheet, too.'
'Phew.'
'Never in doubt! Ha ha!'
'We'll probably win the league now! Ha ha!'

McClaren

Well, he'll have enjoyed a small glass of sherry when he got home. (He'd prefer a big Hawaiian cocktail, one of those ostentatious ones with fruit jammed onto the rim of the glass, but they usually come with those little umbrellas, so he hasn't had one of those in years). But whether the result was really the start of something better or merely a fairly lucky win that clearly would not have happened had the two loans not been brought in that will be followed by more misery is something we'll have to wait to find out.

He deserves credit of course - if we heap criticism upon him for losing 7-1 and 3-0, then we must put praise his way when we finally dig out a 1-0 win. But the truth is there didn't seem to be a huge amount of difference compared with our other home games this season. We moved to a 4-4-2 to accommodate the new players, which meant both out number 10s were stuck out on the wing, where they worked hard, but felt wasted. Luongo was slightly improved, Scowen probably went the other way, Freeman was better than he has been, Lynch and Leistner did all right. McClaren's biggest call was to bring back Lumley, and it was probably his most important one. He got it right.

But the pressure was clear for all to see as he stood on the touchline, next to a screaming Paul Cook. Head often in hands. Sometimes crestfallen. Sometimes hopeful. Gesticulating wildly. Holding three fingers up urgently like Matt Le Tiss ordering three sausage and egg McMuffins. Football can be cruel, but it can also be kind, and Saturday was one of those days. After a dubious penalty against Sheff U, and two simple chances wasted v Bristol City, we scored once here; a goal that plainly should've been disallowed for a blatant push by Joel Lynch. That, and Wigan inexplicably missing two glorious headed chances, led to a win.

Winless runs are rarely snapped with something beautiful and bountiful. This is how they usually end. A flukey goal and clinging on for dear life (QPR 1 Villa 0 with Jurgen Sommer in goal is one that springs to mind). McClaren will want them to dig in again next week, get something at Birmingham, and hope that confidence returns (it was in short supply yesterday) so that he can start implementing his bloody philosophy - albeit without at least two of the young players we all expected to see play substantial roles this season. Job kept. For now.

Lumley

It's always tough to drop your keeper. But sometimes it does more harm than good to keep them in the team. Ingram probably should've been out the side for the Bristol game such was his obviously tender state of mind. He wasn't, and it cost us dear. Lumley came in, didn't look nervous, was yelling at his more experienced backline (it's the youngsters that need the help, says SM, yet Lumley wasn't ever afraid to coach, bully and bollock the experienced lot in front of him all afternoon). As with any keeper, particularly young ones, he did look 'dodgy on crosses' - indeed, Wigan's three best chances came from deep balls that he was nowhere near and we failed to defend with any competence at all. Fortunately, they failed with all three chances. Having said that, his confidence helped the defence. He made a superb save that looked a goal all the way in the first half, and dealt with any other shots competently and without taking risks. His kicking wasn't great, but was better than Ingram and he was keen to start attacks quickly if he could. All round, a good display. The jersey has to be his for now - which will mean mistakes, like at Leeds last year, but the signs are he could be a very good keeper.

Centre Backs

The two Ls. Still inspired little confidence. Leistner, dominant in the air v Bristol, was beaten more often than not to headers by the Wigan giants. Lynch, of course, prone to the silly tackle, the needless free kick. That Wigan's best chances came from high balls into the box is a concern, as is the lack of pace. Surely this week a central defender will be coming in if they can possibly find one, but he'll need to be tall and relatively quick. Still, they did keep a clean sheet and barring the very end of the game, there was little panic. Nor should there be. That's four vastly experienced players now at the back. Defence is all about organisation, having a settled team of players. Another clean sheet next week will do the world of good.

Nahki Wells

Hemed will get the headlines for his acrobatic finish, but for me Wells was the obvious man of the match. I've always liked him when I've seen him against us. He's small, but tough, and not pushed around easily by defenders much bigger than he is. On Saturday, the difference between him and our other strikers was marked. Quick. Incisive. Skilful. Able to dodge his way out of tight situations. Got a number of blocks in, and pinched the ball a fair few times too. All in all, a right pain to play against. Only thing missing really was a goal, but the couple of times he did get a decent chance, his shots flew well wide or over. Still, even though he's a striker, that's nitpicking, because he really played very well. It does mean that we'll need to play two up top, so McClaren's early season plan of one up front with three behind has now totally gone. He has work to do to get Eze and Freeman into the places where they can do real damage. One may have to make way after all, unless we can switch to a 4-3-3, or possibly a 3-4-1-2 or something.

Smyth

Not playing, not on the bench, McClaren saying he may go. Utter madness. When Wells tired at the end of that game, it was made for Smyth. I'd have loved to have see him come on against a tiring defence to use his grit and pace and determination. Would've been ideal. And that's the point: he doesn't need to be a regular for us to need him in the squad. Manning going was an obvious error - Smyth, in my opinion, will be an even worse one.

Confidence

The difference between the lively Wells and the bustling Hemed compared with the rest of the side was particularly stark in the first half. Two players up front willing to hold the ball, to take risks, and to attack. Of the nine players behind them, only Freeman, Eze and Lumley showed anything like the same kind of belief. The rest did what players lacking in confidence do: get rid of the ball quickly. Don't think, just get rid of the hot potato. First half was a case in point: the team flocks forward for a classic free kick hump from the halfway line. Except Lynch knocked it square to Rangel so he could do the humping. Passing the responsibility, passing the buck. It may not feel like it to the players at times, but that's what it is. If you're not in possession, you can’t make a bad mistake. It's easier to play a 5-yard pass than to risk a longer, more dangerous ball. That's all natural, and why once you get on a bad run it's so hard to get out of. What we have to hope is that one win might knock some of that timidity out of some of the players. Our best period probably came just after half time, when Wells' clever run and pass saw Freeman shoot just wide and, for once, we weren't asleep until the 55th minute. That was encouraging, as was the desire to get bodies in front of the ball, even if it was a bit frenetic at the end. That grit will need to be retained, but also quality needs to improve. We arguably played better against Sheff U and lost (we certainly had more genuine attempts on goal) - so a similar performance next week could easily see us lose again. But they have a week to 'meticulously prepare'. I think I'd take a draw now.

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Myke added 13:09 - Aug 27
Thanks Antti. If it was anyone but Birmingham I would agree with your last line, but it's important to beat our 'relegation rivals' isn't it? I wonder will Steve go with 2 up front in away games or sling Cousins in and allow Eze or Freeman to operate behind Hemed?
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