Another cup failure as Vale march on – full match report
Wednesday, 11th Aug 2010 11:41 by Neil Dejyothin
The familiar disappointment of a first round cup exit swept across Loftus Road last night as Port Vale knocked out Championship opposition in the League Cup for the second season running. Neil Dejyothin was there for LFW.
Port Vale are a side who must be thinking they're in with a big shout of promotion this season, so this was a good opportunity for them to test themselves against supposedly better opposition. Despite finishing tenth last season and four points away from a play-off position, they've added to their squad over the summer and mustered together a decent looking strike partnership for the season. If only we could say the same.
Over the weekend the Valiants registered a hard-fought 1-0 victory away to Bury, who themselves will be considered strong contenders for the top end of the table come the end of the campaign. So Micky Adams' boys are off to a good start, even if it took left-back Justin Collins to score only his third ever career goal to get the three points.
I was looking forward to seeing their strikers in action. Marc Richards hit 23 goals last term and Adams wasted no time in bolstering his forward options by adding Cheltenham's Justin Richards to the ranks, who himself struck 15 times in the same period.
Can you imagine what 38 goals from two of your strikers would do for a side like us? It would surely make us into genuine promotion contenders and leaves you wondering why we're not getting that chequebook out and breaking the bank if we have to? The Vale board have not settled on their laurels here and despite having one prolific goal scorer, they've now got another in to strengthen their chances of promotion.
What’s striking here (no pun intended) is that while Port Vale have not got huge reserves of cash and probably still struggle to make ends meet, the board have shown ambition and a clear signal of intent. They’ve allowed Micky Adams to improve his squad and that can only tell the club, its players, the fans and every other competitor in the division that they mean business.
We’ve been crying out for a proper striker since Les Ferdinand left, and well, you can paint your own picture can't you? He has never been replaced and we’ve never ever really looked like returning to the top-flight as a result. If we fail to act, then we’re going to continue dishing out toothless performances like this one from time to time, where we get overturned by teams that appear to be punching way above their weight.
Rant over. Now onto the match...
Last season we entertained Accrington Stanley at home in the second round of this competition, or should I say they entertained us, because we were awful. Jim Magilton rotated the side from the opening league games and we were treated to one of the most lacklustre and error ridden performances I'd seen from a Rangers side. The visitors did play some nice football and their 100 or so fanatical supporters on the night were absolutely marvellous and a credit to the club and the game of football. We did not deserve to win 2-1.
I was actually surprised to be refused entry to the ground before kick-off, because, wait for it...I had an umbrella. I was completely puzzled and somewhat astonished by this as I stood there in the pissing rain and asked what I was supposed to do next? The steward told me I was to go around to the front office and exchange it for a ticket so that I could pick up later. Why thanks mate, I'll just go and do that and miss half the game, and we'll go to extra time I'm sure and I'll come back out and fetch it in a 6,000 long queue by 1:30am before making my hour long trip or so back home? Another steward waded in to back him up and an elderly couple seemed to take an interest in my plight and I thought they were taking pity but it turned out they had a brolly and were being denied entry too. Perhaps I should have taken them up on their offer and gone home, especially given how we performed in the League Cup last season. I pointed out to the stewards that surely there would be many more people turning up with umbrellas and low and behold, within minutes, a bunch of us was forming and they were starting to lose control.
We all stood there with that look of "it's going to be one of those nights" on our faces as they tried to explain legislation...eventually they got a supervisor to come along who decided to let us all in and informed the other stewards that they should only block entry if they see someone with a brolly "between 20 and 30". God knows how old they thought I was then!? I didn't even turn around to be asked and just walked in, seeing as a big bald-tattooed and rather scary 30+ looking bloke waltzed in with a brolly of his own just as this was happening.
How then would Warnock's men fair? There were plenty of players with points to prove and we started with Paddy Kenny in goal, a back four of Bradley Orr, Matthew Connolly, Fitz Hall and Gary Borrowdale. A midfield consisting of Josh Parker, Mikele Leigertwood, Shaun Derry and Hogan Ephraim and a strike pairing of Jamie Mackie and Leon Clarke. We had a young looking bench, which included Radek Cerny, Lee Brown, Alejandro Faurlin, Joe Oastler, Max Ehmer, Antonio German and Romone Rose.
Port Vale started with Stuart Tomlinson in goal, a back four of Adam Yates, John McCombe, Gareth Owen and Lee Collins, a midfield of Doug Loft, Gary Roberts, Anthony Griffith and Sean Rigg and their 38 goal strike force in Marc Richards and Justin Richards.
The reality is, Port Vale deserved their victory. They were organised, committed, hard to break down and played some good football too, backed by players with clear hunger and desire. There was an air of determination about them that we lacked on the night and they exposed the most obvious weaknesses in our system too.
The opening 10 minutes or so saw both teams going through the motions as they felt each other out, but it was Rangers who created the first real chance of the match. In the seventh minute Matthew Connolly surprised the Valiants when he picked up a loose ball and seized on the moment by surging forward with it. His mazy run had fans urging him to shoot as he approached the penalty area, but he stayed as cool as a cucumber and slotted a beautiful through ball in to Leon Clarke for a simple tap in. Stuart Tomlinson was equal to it though and stopped his effort with an excellent low sprawling dive that justified his inclusion in the starting line-up over last season’s player of the year, Chris Martin.
Just a minute or so later, Connolly was in the thick of the action again when Gary Roberts found Marc Richards with a tidy pass. Connolly and Hall were both in close proximity but allowed Marc Richards to turn and shoot just outside the box, only for Connolly to deny him with a good block. John McCombe then took it up another gear by striking the crossbar with a fine header from a corner and it was fair to say that for the next five minutes or so that Port Vale were starting to get on top of possession and matching us in every department without ever really threatening, despite hitting the woodwork earlier.
It was obvious our formation was already causing us some problems and I had already spotted Gary Borrowdale throwing his arms out in mystery as to why Hogan Ephraim wasn’t giving him more help with defensive duties. Similarly on the other side, Bradley Orr was often left in two-on-one or one-on-one situations and because of the space in this area, the Vale midfielders were also able to get on the ball and work angled passes straight into the feet of their strikers. Roberts was particularly impressive in the midfield and Anthony Griffith had a decent game in there with him too.
Jamie Mackie responded for the Rs though in the 18th minute, collecting the ball to feet and turning nicely just outside the box before firing over from distance. It wasn’t much, but we were still as much in the game at this point as Port Vale were. Mackie had another chance in the 26th minute too, when he bumbled his way past one or two players and got wide in the box, but lacked the composure to finish coolly or even pull the ball back to supporting players and in the end his feeble effort was easily taken by Tomlinson.
Mackie worked hard throughout, but didn’t quite have the energy he did on Saturday against Barnsley and seemed to try and force things to happen at 100 miles an hour rather than just slowing down a touch when he needed to. I thought he could have done better on one or two occasions where he out muscled someone, or surprised by just ghosting past them with the ball at his feet, but his end product was lacking and often he was off balance or perhaps out of energy to finish what he started. If he can work on and improve those things, because he's clearly a very fit lad, then we've got a great signing on our hands. If he doesn't, I'm worried the fans may get on his back if he continues to do all the hard work but doesn't produce anything to show for it at the end.
As we approached the half-hour mark, the tide of the match suddenly changed and swung in firmly in one direction. Shaun Derry up until now had a decent game in my book. While he didn’t really offer any guile, he was getting stuck in like it was just another league match and never shirked his responsibility in chasing players down or putting in a tackle when needed. But it was his poor header from a Vale punt up field that landed at the feet of Sean Rigg who played the most delightful chipped through ball into the path of Justin Richards over a pedestrian and square looking Rangers defence. Richards took the ball on calmly and still had plenty of work to do as honed in on goal, but he easily slotted past Paddy Kenny to put his side 1-0 up.
It sparked the visitors into life and as we tried to respond by kicking and rushing up field, Justin Richards was almost in again just minutes later as we lost the ball and got caught on the counter attack where he picked up the ball on the turn down the left wing. Fitz Hall came storming across and took him out, earning himself a yellow card in the process.
While Vale wasted the resulting free-kick, it wasn’t long before they were 2-0 up. Mikele Leigertwood gave away a free-kick in the midfield, which the visitors got on with quickly and it was played out with to Doug Loft. He had acres of time and space to get his cross in and although it took a deflection, Sean Rigg was fastest to react and screwed his shot across the face of the goal and Paddy Kenny right into the corner of the net. A few boos and chants of “Warnock sort it out!” ensued.
Rangers to their credit still went forward and in the 39th minute, Josh Parker should have reduced the deficit. A long ball across the pitch from Fitz Hall, one of the rare times his pass actually got to the person he intended, saw Parker take the ball down under pressure and burst in on the left side of the goal. He really should have taken the time to open his body out and go for the far side, but he shot to the near post and Tomlinson got down to make the save and push the ball onto the post and out for a corner.
We had a couple of corners shortly before half-time, but wasted them, either through a defender having an easy clearance or Tomlinson being able to punch clear. That was the story for the majority of our corners on the night and we were soon greeted to the half-time whistle and some boos and general acceptance that it was probably game over.
At half-time, I sat there and realised the whole formation and system was a bit of a mess. The forward line were just all over the place and playing as if they were total strangers. At times we had Leon Clarke and Jamie Mackie up front, with Josh Parker and Hogan Ephraim on the wings, but apart from Leon Clarke, the other three did an awful lot of swapping about making it difficult to know who was actually playing where. There was a real lack of protection for the fullbacks and at times, you could even have argued we were playing 4-2-4 given how high they were up the pitch or how slow the interchanging trio got back to help with defensive duties.
We were not much better elsewhere either. Mikele Leigertwood, Gary Borrowdale and Fitz Hall’s passing was all poor and they needlessly gave the ball away on so many occasions when it was easier not to. With Leigertwood, he might be a fine specimen physically, but his lack of technical ability is really clear as is his understanding of how much weight you should apply behind a pass. Nearly everything he did caused the person he played it to a problem, either putting them under unnecessary pressure, playing the ball out of play completely, making them have to really work hard to control it properly or just plain giving it away. He and Hall were also guilty of passing it behind their man too, paying absolutely no attention to their momentum and stride.
Borrowdale on the other hand got into plenty of decent enough positions, but wasted good opportunities to pass to feet and his deliveries, both in open play or from corners, were just not up to the standard it needed to be in those situations. Fitz Hall, well, I don’t know what to say really. He punted the ball at odd angles so many times up the pitch when he could have just passed to the person next to him. It’s like he doesn’t trust his own ability to take a touch and get the ball under control, as he’s often hacking it away when there’s even the slightest chance of danger. He endured a fair few groans for some of his passing decisions throughout the match and rightly so. He’s still also doing those stupid switch passes from right to the far left side of the pitch, with the end result predictable because he puts most, if not all of them, out of play.
Hogan Ephraim's lightweight frame meant he was outmuscled and fought for a lot of balls, but he barely got involved in the play and the times he did, he lacked the quality to help us retain possession. In fact, most of the headers he and Leon Clarke won went to absolutely nobody and quite often, the pair of them (as well as some of the others) simply tried to just win their header and not actually think about where they should be redirecting it. On the other hand, the Vale players seemed to have confidence to head the ball to their teammates in situations that can be difficult. If you master these moments though you find you can keep the ball and build some very fast and difficult-to-defend attacks because of the angles it gives you. The example here is if Ephraim's on the wing and Borrowdale is on for a short header back to him, he needs to trust himself and try it rather than just head the ball out of play and flick it on. Some of the Vale strikers and wingers were happily heading difficult balls back to their players rather than flicking it anywhere. It's a skill that can be trained and improved.
Anyway, the Vale players returned to the pitch a lot earlier than our lot, who I thought were probably getting a good dressing down from Neil Warnock for letting the game pass them by. When they returned, Leon Clarke was replaced by Antonio German. Clarke did try but wasn’t really able to do much. He won a few headers, but lost most and generally he didn’t really get involved as much as he would have liked or tried to. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because he didn’t look fit enough, but his running style and looks are just like Stefan Moore's. Hopefully he’s not going to play like him!
Then the inevitable happened, because we were asleep as per usual for the opening few minutes of the second period and it cost us a goal and any real chance of salvaging the match. Now I wasn’t quite paying attention to what happened just before, but we gave the ball away and as I looked up I saw Doug Loft out on the left with not a QPR player in sight. Bradley Orr was still a good ten yards away and wondering where on earth everybody else was and he just stood there hesitantly as he allowed Loft to run and run and run towards our goal. Loft didn’t need any invitations and couldn’t believe his luck as he just strode forward unchallenged and took a shot on goal. It was a decent strike, but Paddy Kenny really should have saved it... instead he palmed it into the danger area and there was Justin Richards, free and completely unmarked to tap home as Fitz Hall and Matthew Connolly looked on. It was a terrible goal to give away on so many levels and everybody from the players to the crowd seemed to just sit there with a resigned “err shouldn't we have dealt with that better?” look on their faces.
At 3-0 the game and contest was dead and buried. The players started going through the motions for the next ten minutes and Port Vale started to take a more cautious and rigid shape, allowing our back four to take hold of the ball and giving us the opportunity to go and break them down. But as in the first-half, we just didn’t have the craft. The players just played in straight lines and didn’t really move the ball quickly enough or show any sort of patience. If there was no progress for two or three passes, you could bet your life that Fitz Hall or Mikele Leigertwood would desperately try something by hoofing it into a percentage area and we’d just give it away. If we're not able to break down a team who are happy to counter and go forward or a team happy to sit back and defend tightly, then we've got problems.
We were perhaps a bit unlucky in the 56th minute when Connolly was penalised for a push after he scored a thumping header from a corner, but it wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference to the quality of our play. We did pull one back of course through Antonio German, who until his goal, showed the same type of form we’ve seen from him in the games he’s played. He’s certainly enthusiastic, but is perhaps trying too hard and rushing himself. He skewed a shot over shortly before Connolly’s disallowed goal, where he latched onto a ball and hit it nice and early and seemed really disappointed it went over. But, he could have just taken it down and got it under control before firing his effort in and there are times when he’s just not got his body position set correctly to receive and control the ball, purely because he’s rushing around trying to get into a decent position in order to make an impact. He did another one of those air shots too where he completely missed his effort, so if he just relaxes and is patient, he can make the impact he wants. It’s experience at the end of the day but on the evidence I’ve seen, he’s still not ready yet and needs to learn his trade out on loan elsewhere.
The consolation goal arrived in the 62nd minute after Connolly slotted German in after some fairly good passing play. German struck from a narrow angle and Tomlinson appeared to push it onto the near post for it to bounce across the line and hit the other post before coming out. I thought it didn’t go in, but Leonie sitting next to me was adamant it did. Whatever the case, it was good to see another player grab a goal at this stage of the season. They all count and it's important they are shared around so that there is confidence that the players in the squad are capable of netting.
The goal sparked us into a little bit of life, as did the substitutions of Romone Rose for Josh Parker and Joe Oastler for Shaun Derry. I view Parker much in the same way as I do German. The boy has plenty of pace and is really direct, but he got bullied off the ball far too many times and did a little too much of trying to take them on and beat them for pace every time. That may work at youth or reserve team level, but against experienced pros it’s nowhere near as easy or clever. Again, it’s just something he needs to learn and probably a loan spell elsewhere would be of more benefit. He also didn’t get too much of the ball throughout the match and that’s partly because we didn’t find him enough and partly because he needs to learn how to get himself involved.
While the changes did give us some fresh impetus, and Rose in particular was keen to impress by buzzing around and chasing things, it generally confirmed that Neil Warnock had given up on trying to win the game. He too looks like he still needs time on loan elsewhere at a lower level. To be fair, he wasn't the only one to miss Bradley Orr being in a great position on the right to cross a ball in, and once or twice just ran into the channel and forgot he was there, with one notable occasion where he could have given it back to Orr but instead forgot about his presence and fired a cross out of play at the near post from a potentially good situation for us. But by then, at 3-1 down it was just about fitness and experience for those it benefitted anyway.
There were few chances of worthy note after this point. Rose himself had one or two wild efforts and Jamie Mackie had a shot that went just past the post after a cross from Leigertwood ricocheted of someone and found him in the box. Doug Loft replied for Vale and pulled out a smart save from Kenny - who didn’t do a great deal himself other than pick the ball out of the net.
So what’s the final verdict here? Well, it’s obvious that without some of our creative players, such as Adel Taarabt and Akos Buzsaky, we’re always going to struggle to do anything, even against supposedly inferior opposition. There was a lack of creativity throughout the side and a lack of ideas on how to break down our lower league visitors. Even if we did create anything, such as the chances for Leon Clarke and Josh Parker, the former being a golden one and the latter being a very good one - we were toothless. Top strikers would have put those to bed and we probably would be talking about a very different outcome.
There's something also to be said about the type of chances they were too - they occurred randomly from Connolly taking some initiative and Hall doing one of his usual punts across the park. This isn't intelligent build up play at all, it's just reacting to what's happening at the time and on the spur of the moment. If the individuality of the creative players is not there to produce those moments of magic, then we do need to have a system and pattern of attack, but it was obvious the players simply didn't have a game plan up their sleeve.
The main concern though was the system. The players just looked confused as to who was supposed to be doing what defensively and the lack of protection for the fullbacks at times was a bit of a joke. I’ve said recently that the pre-season preparation where we may have played these systems and against inferior opposition may give you the ball, but it doesn’t equip you with the ‘what if’ moments when you don’t have it. Seeing how Port Vale systematically took us apart and took their chances when they arose, you have to say that Barnsley should have done a lot better with the freedom we gave them in the same situations last Saturday. I await the away days with great interest to see if this really is a serious problem, or whether our lot are just adapting and still getting to know one another and to be fair to them, they do still need the time to gel and we do have to be a little patient.
Port Vale were not massively better than us on the night, but they played better as units and as a team. They had a simple plan of action and executed it well. The front two knew when to stick and take the ball to feet or when to spin in and go behind. It’s clear they’ve worked on their pattern play and to their strengths. They also, apart from the two good chances we had from Clarke and Parker, dealt with everything else we threw at them with relative ease.
Their midfield outfought and outplayed ours, but that’s because they exposed the weaknesses in the wide areas and sucked players out of position or used their one-man advantage well. Gary Roberts in the central of midfield was excellent, dictating play and pinging really lovely diagonal or straight balls to the feet of his strikers. In contrast, I saw Jamie Mackie screaming to Fitz Hall to pass to his feet, only to look up in utter dismay when he was ignored and the ball was pumped over his head and into the corner for nobody to chase. It’s this fear in our players own technical ability that is going to hurt us as much as it is not having proven scorers in the side.
Port Vale never looked scared of us at any point in the match either. We needed players like Hogan Ephraim to really step up to the fore and perform, but he was also largely anonymous and pretty lightweight throughout. The kids played like kids out there and didn’t get as much support from their seniors as they needed and it's clear to me that while it's fantastic they are getting the experience and the chance to play, that they are not quite ready yet and some of our more senior players are still not mature enough yet to look after them either. It was a poor performance from us, but not one that should give us any major concern over individuals and it was still a lot better than at this time last year against Accrington Stanley.
It simply confirmed to us what we already knew. We lack strength in depth in terms of the playing squad and we're in desperate need of some strikers. If we don't do something about replacing the players with limited technical and passing ability too, then we're always going to struggle in matches like these and when suspensions and injuries mount up.
The scary thing is on paper this team looked more than good enough to win here and is entirely possible a similar first-eleven could feature in the Championship this season if we don't add more faces, but Vale wanted it more in the end. They had more possession, more shots on target, more shots off target and more corners and that was reflected by a visiting supporters assessment on the train as I made my way home: "Your lot just didn't look interested or up for it."
Oh well, this time next year it is then eh?
QPR: Kenny 5, Orr 6, Hall 5, Connolly 7, Borrowdale 5, Parker 4 (Rose 5), Derry 6 (Oastler 4), Leigertwood 4, Ephraim 4, Mackie 6, Clarke 5 (German 5)
Subs not used: Cerny, Brown, Faurlin and Ehmer
Bookings: Hall (foul), Mackie (repetitive fouling)
Goal: German 62 (assisted Connolly)
Port Vale: Tomlinson 7, Yates 6, McCombe 7, Owen 7, Collins 6, Loft 7, Roberts 8 (Fraser -), Griffith 7, Rigg 7 (K Taylor 6), M Richards 6, J Richard 8 (Dodds -)
Subs not used: Martin, Taylor, Morsy and Malbon
Goals: J Richards 36 (assisted Rigg), 48 (assisted Loft), Rigg 38 (assisted Loft)
QPR Star Man: Matthew Connolly 7 He should be in the first-team. He won the majority of his headers and was clean and simple on the deck. It says it all that he was our most creative player going forward and whenever he emerged from defence with the ball. His desire to make things happen when he could see the players in front of him were not capable, led to him getting forward and laying off the ball to Antonio German for his goal too.
Referee - Gary Sutton 7 Officiated well and was largely unnoticeable. Both bookings for Hall and Mackie's persistent and somewhat silly fouling was fair.
Attendance: 6,619 very little singing or support throughout apart from a brief period after we pulled one back. Port Vale's couple of hundred of fans made plenty of noise though and mocked and goaded us constantly once they took the lead.
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