Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dagenham 2-0 Bristol Rovers (League Two)

It was a second consecutive poor away performance from Rovers at the LBBD stadium on Saturday and it ended with Gasheads letting the squad know exactly what they thought of the display.

Every team can have an off-day and in League Two these will be more frequent than at other levels but this wasn't a case of hard luck, we were just lifeless from start to finish. There was no spark, no conviction and the team looked disjointed. I can't go as far as to say certain individuals weren't bothered because it simply wasn't the case but I am very concerned by the sleepy start we've made to the season. Although we are unbeaten at home we have been very poor away from the Mem, scoring just 1 league goal and accruing 0 points. It puzzles me - we have near enough the same squad as last year but can't seem to create any goalscoring opportunities, something we were quite good at in the new year. What's the problem?

Well, our key players are not performing or leading by example, we don't have enough quality in wide areas and tactically we're lumping the ball forward and not utilising our midfield. These are three contributing factors. To me it seems obvious that with the personnel we have available playing route one football is not a good idea. Our goals in the second half of last season came through incisive attacking play when the ball had been kept on the deck and passed from midfield to our strikers. For some reason we seem incapable of producing that this time around and it's incredibly frustrating to watch because we all know that the team are able to do it. So, is it the manager's orders to get the ball forward with quick punts upfield or are the players panicking when in possession?

Matt Harrold hit a weak penalty - Lifted from:
The game on Saturday seemed to suggest it was a combination of the two. When any of our back-line have the ball at their feet they tend to play a lofted ball forward - Michael Smith, Tom Parkes and Lee Brown do look to pass it initially but eventually opt to get rid, Mark McChrystal tends to do that as soon as the ball reaches him. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, I'd rather the defence got rid of the ball instead of dallying on it and giving away cheap chances to the opposition but it's frustrating that the ball goes from back to front and then back again because we don't retain possession. I think John Ward does tell the team to go long a lot of the time but it's pointless when none of our strikers are genuine powerhouses. Ryan Brunt and Matt Harrold are tall forwards but they aren't the strongest and they are often towered over by centre halves. What is the point in giving the ball straight back to our opponents? When we have the ball we need to be able to keep it and force chances in the final third.

It doesn't help that Oliver Norburn attempts 40 yard glory passes every time he is in possession. They never work and the ball just sails out of play. You will notice that a lot of the time if Norburn is facing the right way the opposition won't press too much because they know exactly what he is going to do and they want to encourage him to attempt it because they know they'll be getting the ball back. His team mates can be excused for being reluctant to pass it to him. In fairness this may also apply to our wingers, who have proven to be too inexperienced to influence matches at the moment. They need game time to improve but to be relying on teenagers to provide assists every week is ludicrous and offers us very little quality on the flanks, rendering those areas almost redundant - we can't expect them to produce. If they do it's simply a bonus. I can see why the defence don't like passing it directly to our midfielders as they can't trust them to make use of it but that's a sad indictment of our current situation.

Norburn has been very poor this season but he isn't the only one, his central midfield partner has failed to shine as well. John-Joe O'Toole has yet to get going and games seem to be passing him by at the moment. I doubt he could give you a reason why it isn't going for him so far, it's just one of those things. The entire team are struggling for form and the pressure on his shoulders is massive. While we need him to get back to his best there also has to be other players stepping up to the plate and driving us on to victories, both defensively and up top. Unfortunately they haven't so far.

Dagenham were not a good side, that was clear from the way in which they gave possession away cheaply themselves, but they had a clear idea of how to cause us some damage. They had a game plan and they persevered with it, to their reward. They were determined, gutsy and kept the ball down when they could, passing to their pacey wide men whenever possible. Zavon Hines was a nuisance on one side and striker Rhys Murphy, formerly of Arsenal, was linking up well with both him and Billy Bingham. For their neat touches their opening goal should have been defended with ease by our experienced back four but it wasn't, which just about sums Rovers up at the moment. When the ball was eventually lofted across goal, McChrystal had time to adjust to the bounce and clear the danger. What he did, in fact, was wait for the ball to drop without opening his body up and swung a wild left foot that made little contact. The ball found its way to a Daggers player and the ball was put back into the 6 yard box where unmarked captain Abu Ogogo was on hand to bundle home.

The second half was marginally better from a Gas perspective but it still wasn't good. After a short spell of pressure we were given the opportunity to equalise after a Smith cross was blocked by the hand of a home defender. The ref awarded a spot-kick and Harrold grabbed the ball in hope of netting his first goal of the season. Disappointingly it was a poor strike because it lacked any form of accuracy and Chris Lewington was able to get down slightly to his right and keep it out. I knew from that moment that the game was lost because there wasn't a hope in hell of us creating another chance in front of goal. Our hosts seized the initiative at this point and went on to score a second through Luke Howell after a corner was not defended properly. Defensively I don't think we have a massive problem, as I've stated many times in the past, but we're conceding sloppy goals because we're having to do too much defending during a game. There's no respite during the 90 minutes because the ball keeps coming back and it isn't bringing the best out of our very good group of defenders. Clean sheets will come as and when the rest of the team regain their confidence, something Ward can play his part in by altering the tactics he employs.

With the players we have available to us at this very time this is the XI I would like to see start against Hartlepool United on Saturday: (4-3-1-2)

----------------------------- Mildenhall --------------------------------
Smith ------------ Parkes ------------ McChrystal -----------Brown
------------------- Gill ------- Bond ------- O'Toole ----------------
------------------------------ Clarkson ---------------------------------
------------------ Richards ------------ Brunt ------------------------

Matt Gill: does he deserve a chance? - Lifted from:
There is, obviously, a lack of width in this line-up but that's deliberate on my part as I don't think relying on Alefe Santos and Ellis Harrison is a good idea for either their development or for our chances this season. I admire the way in which Ward wants to stick with his teenage wingers but it simply isn't working and I get the impression they are feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders as a result of their continued appearances. The spine of our team is where our strength lies and we should focus on trying to play through these players. In Matt Gill, Andy Bond and O'Toole we have three experienced, strong midfield players who like to keep the ball moving and offer a desire to get forward as well as defend. The positive feature of this formation and XI is that they aren't the sole support to our strikeforce as the versatile David Clarkson can play in the hole. For many months supporters have been asking for Clarkson to play in this position and it would give him the licence to dictate play from an advanced area instead of having to live off scraps. We would HAVE to keep the ball on the deck with this narrow line-up and that will bring the best out of each player in the team.

I fear this is to adventurous for Ward to try himself as he seems stubbornly insistent on playing 4-4-2 or a defensive 4-5-1. I understand the need to be wary of defensive duties in a game and not to go too gung-ho but the three central midfield players can marshal the back four as well as support attacks. To me this gives us our best chance of winning football matches at the present time.

The other formation and line-up that I think could bring us success is this (but if Ward feels the above is too wild then this will be a non-starter): (3-5-2)

----------------------------- Mildenhall --------------------------------
----------- Parkes -------- McChrystal --------- Kenneth ---------
-- Smith ----------------------------------------------------- Brown --
------------------- Gill ------- Bond ------- O'Toole ----------------
--------------------Clarkson ------------ Brunt ------------------------

Here our width would come courtesy of Smith and Lee Brown who have both shown they are adept at running down the line and whipping in crosses. They don't always trouble the opposition but most of our goals in the opening 7 league games have come from overlapping crosses from our full-backs. In this wing-back role both Smith and Brown offer Ward the defensive protection he cares so much about but offers additional strength in the middle of the park with the 3 central midfielders. Smith and Brown will support the attacks but we now have players playing through the middle of the pitch, something we desperately need to start doing with the abundance of central midfielders we have. Garry Kenneth slotting into the defence is vitally important because I genuinely think he could prove to be a terrific player for us when given the chance. Alongside both Parkes and McChrystal, the trio could easily become the most formidable central defenders in the lower leagues. I know I wouldn't like coming up against them.

Ward will inevitably stick with the same players and the same formation at the weekend which is incredibly frustrating when you consider the other options we could use. He will stick with Norburn, play Bond out of position on the wing and rely on one of our teenage wingers to be the focal point of our attacks. Given this and the undoubted direct tactics that we will use I have a feeling Saturday will be a real scrap against a side who have won just once this season.

Oh dear.

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