Monday, 3 September 2012

Accrington Stanley ... who are they?

I thought that by holding off writing this for 24 hours or so, my feelings over this limp surrender would have mellowed in the cold light of day. They haven't.
Going into this game, I couldn't find anyone who thought we would not win the game.
All the predictions I read were 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1... a cakewalk, pipe and slippers job it seemed.
Maybe that was part of the problem. That was the view of the paying customers, maybe it was also the view of those who crossed the white line, so they thought going through the motions would be acceptable.
After all, this is the season when we put right the wrongs of last March onwards, and cruise majestically to a top-three place and march relentlessly into League One. Not on this evidence.
I know it is one game, I know we have only played four games this season. I know this was our first defeat of the season. I know we are still three points off top spot. I know all that.
But all that doesn't stop the alarm bells ringing after as inept a home performance from a Cheltenham Town side since the current manager took over.
It had the hallmarks of some of those displays at home under previous managers. You remember them, the abject surrenders where a limp Cheltenham side is rolled over by a side who are set up well and, quite simply want it more.
We have seen lots of them away in recent times too - Crewe, Stevenage, Southend, but at home they have been a rarity in more recent times.
I usually moan about fans booing the team off. I certainly would never do it myself, but am not going to criticise those who did so yesterday.
Positives? Not many. The final whistle was the main one...
Now I know players have off days, but it is a rare thing when all 10 outfield players choose to have theirs at the same time - however I don't think they were helped by the manager's choice of system, and seeming reluctance to change it.
Our success and best results since he took over have come with a three-man central midfield, but he opted to change to a 4-4-2.
That left Marlon Pack and Russ Penn to be over run by Stanley's trio of Will Hatfield, George Miller and Luke Joyce - but we have seen that happen a lot when we play a two-man midfield and come up against a trio.
We just never seem to be able to cope with it. The extra man always has the upper hand, and surely it should have been changed at half-time.
Marlon was as poor as I have seen him in a Cheltenham shirt. Wasteful in possession far too often, and well closed down by a Stanley midfield who chased and harried all game.
The same went for Russ - unable to impose himself on the game, and was outbattled - something which has rarely happened since he has been with us. Maybe it's the new completely shaven haircut - Samson-style, it may have taken his strength away.
It seems to me that Marlon can not play in a 4-4-2. Very rarely have I seen it work with him in that system as the deeper role he can play in a three suits him and allows him to get on the ball more and play the 'quarterback' role he seems to relish.
Up front, Chris Zebroski and Shaun Harrad were paired in a new-look partnership which didn't make an auspicious start.
Part of that can be put down to the way the game panned out - a goal down in four minutes, 2 down at half-time and the game gone a minute after the break - but the link-up play was fleeting, they were left isolated and the service was negligible.
In the opening minutes, I thought the Stanley back four (and Aristote Nsiala in particular) looked nervous and shaky, and was there for the taking, but we never got a head of steam up to put them under concerted pressure.
Both Shaun and Zeb had a couple of half-chances, but neither looked like scoring and I would have have had one of them off at half-time (or even before) to go back to 4-2-3-1, with either Darren Carter or Sam Deering coming on.
Jermaine McGlashan got into plenty of good positions out wide, and was our main threat - until it came to the time to deliver a cross.
Time and again he hit the first man, and was unable to pick out the ruby shirt. That is the part of the game he needs to work on.
He has the pace, his upper body strength is surprisingly good as he displayed when he took on two defenders and fed Mo in the move which ended with his volley being well saved, but his crossing is erratic.
Mo and his yellow boots lasted an hour on his return from injury, but looked a bit rusty. He should have scored in the first half but got no power in his shot. There were a few flashes of pace but that was it.
As for the back four...
Much of the spotlight will fall on Harry Hooman, and rightly so I'm afraid.
Alan Bennett is fit again, but pre-match you would not have found many people who would have argued with the decision to leave Benno on the bench and keep Harry in the side.
He was voted player of the month for August after some excellent displays in a side which has kept two clean sheets in the first three games, and he has set up one goal and nearly scored himself as well.
But four minutes in, his error led to Padraig Amond's goal, and you saw the confidence drain out of him.
Instead of attacking the ball as he has done on the first four games of the season, he was letting it bounce, and was part of the collective hell from a corner that led to the second goal for Miller.
Then, it was he who hung back to play Romauld Boco onside for the third that consigned the second half to a slow, lingering death, which left us with 44 minutes until the final whistle put us out of our misery.
Post-match, I have seen many comments saying that Yatesy should have given him the hook and sent Benno on, or criticising the decision to play him in the first place.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Yatesy has made plenty of bold decisions in his tenure, and he opted to leave Harry in there, and unfortunately it has backfired.
I think Mark did the right thing in leaving Harry out there. To have taken him off would have killed his confidence even more. The game was gone anyway, so better to use it as part of the learning curve.
Now he can sit down this week with the DVD, learn from his mistakes, go back on the training ground and come back a better player after a return to the bench. Benno has to start at his old club Wycombe next weekend.
Steve Elliott will be happy to see his oppo back alongside him, I would suggest. He would have had the job of lifting Harry up and seeing him through the game while having to also deal with Amond's excellent movement and the runs of Hatfield and Boco.
Billy Jones was the better of the two full backs, although Boco caused him plenty of problems, he did send in some useful set-pieces again.
Sido was his  usual mixed bag. It seems to be sacrilege to criticise him, and he often seems to get man of the match for not doing a great deal, but he was poor defensively and better going forward.
That is a problem as his position in the side is right back, and defending should be his priority - as a mate of mine pointed out in the post match inquiry, if his name was Tom Smith and he didn't come from Portugal, he might get a bit more flak rather than seemingly being above criticism for poor performances.
Danny Andrew was pilloried by fans for his defending but lauded as he was 'good going forward' - I don't believe Sido has started the season well from a defensive point of view.
Scott Brown was not at fault for any of the goals - the 10 in front of him afforded him no protection at all, only serving to heighten the surprise that it took 60 minutes for any of them to be replaced.
Another topic pre-match was the bench. The six outfield players sat there were Carter, Deering, Bennett, Keith Lowe, Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy.
A Championship-class midfielder, our club skipper, the 2010-11 player of the year, last season's 15-goal top scorer, one of our marquee summer signings and a striker with 20 goals in the past two seasons for us.
By common consensus, it was one of the strongest benches we have managed to field in our 14 years of League football - and it should have been used quicker.
As I said earlier, at half-time or even before, we should have matched Accrington and gone back to our tried and tested 4-2-3-1, but we stuck with 4-4-2 as Mo was taken off with Duffy coming on, and Zebroski moving wide again.
That the starting line up stayed out there so long almost seemed like a punishment - you have got us into this mess, now it's up to you to try to get us out of it.
Finally, Carter and Deering came on and for 14 minutes we went back to our 'usual' formation but it was too little too late.
Overall, we have to hope this was a one-off, and one poor performance in August does not derail a season.
We now have three tough-looking games - Wycombe, Southend and Oxford in the next two-and-a-half weeks.
It's not make or break this early on, but it's a test of character and heart coming up a little earlier than we had hoped.
The manager has been rightly lauded for his summer recruitment, and the squad he has at his disposal is one of the best we have ever had.
His job now is to find a system they are comfortable with and the right blend of players to make it work.
He admitted post-match that he got it wrong this time - let's hope it's not long until he gets it right.

I am not going to do a player-by-player. It speaks for itself that everyone was poor, bar Scott Brown, who is excused as the three goals were not down to him, rather the ineptitude of those in front of him.