Friday, 23 November 2012

The road to hell

As I drove up the M1 to Rotherham last Saturday morning, I was in an optimistic mood.
We were on a decent run of form - one defeat in 12 games, four clean sheets in a row, third in League Two and had looked in decent nick away from home.
Driving back down the same road some 84 hours, two defeats and eight bad goals shipped later and I felt like some punch-drunk fighter battling to get off the ropes after an onslaught of hooks and jabs.
The good run was well and truly over, the clean sheets were a distant memory and the only (scant) consolation was that we are still third in the league.
I am always a glass-half-full guy - not one to go in for knee-jerk reactions.
Two heavy away defeats do not instantly mean that our players are not good enough, our manager is suddenly a clown and that we are now automatically destined to plunge headlong down the League Two table.
But you're only as good as your last game - although I not feel that two four-goal defeats condemns us as a terrible side, merely one which has some flaws to iron out.
We have been in decent form, grinding out results without being overly spectacular, and you cannot be third in the table if you are a poor side.
If anyone out there was guilty of getting ahead of themselves, be that in the dressing room or on the terraces, then these two games will act as a welcome reality check.
Taking the two games as a whole, the main problem in my eyes has been in midfield, and especially the dynamic between Marlon Pack and Darren Carter.
Carter, I am afraid, was especially poor in the double header, quite rightly being the man to come off at half-time at Chesterfield.
As I saw it, during the one-and-a-half games they had together, both Pack and Carter frequently went forward together, rather than one going up and one staying back - so when we lost the ball it left the defence hopelessly exposed.
Compare this with Gillingham, where at times it seemed that the pair of them were too deep, almost playing as extra centre-halves. This time, they took it to the other extreme.
But we kept a clean sheet at Gillingham, and let in eight in those last two games - so which was the better tactic?
Ahead of them, Russ Penn was the only one to emerge from Chesterfield with any real credit.
This is mainly because he often found himself having to do the work of three, and was almost trying to stem the blue tide on his own, such was the anonymity of the pair behind him.
We went 4-4-2 after half-time, and, strangely enough, looked more resolute and solid - but we know that we cannot sustain that formation on the road.
After this weekend, we will have Lawson D'Ath back from Reading, and also from the Mad Stad we have brought in Jake Taylor, and with Sam Deering also knocking on the door, Yatesy has scope to shake things up.
I feel 'safer' with us playing 4-2-3-1 - but I must admit that Penn playing as the more advanced of the three central players perplexes me somewhat.
His job is to support the front man, get into the box and get shots in. But in the time Russ has played that role, he has scored twice, in successive games against Southend and Luton.
So has he worked in that role? Largely no, so why does he still play it?
Surely, with his terrier-like ball-winning abilities, he would be better deployed defensively, alongside Marlon as one of the covering two, with young Taylor, D'Ath, Deering or Carter pushed further up.
Deering played there for Barnet and - let's face it - if he is not going to get a chance after two four-goal defeats then when will he...?
Taylor is described as an attacking midfielder who can play wide or off the striker, so seems to fit that bill, and D'Ath certainly showed lots of energy and an eye for goal against Exeter.
That leaves Carter, who seemed to be hitting his straps before these last two games, with his goals against Morecambe - yet we definitely miss Luke Summerfield's box-to-box energy and there is no doubt that midfield trio has not been 'right' this season.
Their failings have contributed to the majority of the eight goals we have leaked this week, especially the first three of Tuesday's goals.
For the first, Chris Atkinson's run was not tracked, ditto Sam Togwell for the second after Darikwa's shot his the bar and then the ball was given away to Brennan Dickenson and we parted for Marc Richards to score. All basic errors.
The fourth came from a cheaply-conceded corner which was then not defended at all.
Some have pointed to the loss of Sido Jombati for the last two games as a factor in the two losses - personally I think that has nothing to do with it.
The problems lie further up the field - you have to defend from the front, and we have not been doing that.
I don't blame the defenders or goalkeeper as much as I do the lack of application in the middle of the park and also the inability of the front players to provide a suitable outlet.
Chris Zebroski, Kaid Mohamed and Jermaine McGlashan were the front three at Rotherham, and Zebroski worked hard as usual but the other two were ineffective.
McGlashan paid the price on Tuesday with Zebroski moving right and Jeff Goulding slotting in, and that change did not work at all.
Goulding barely touched the ball in the hour or so he was on the pitch, and Mohamed - bar a great header for his goal - had a second successive off-day.
Mo's was another goal from a set-piece, and we had another couple of decent squeaks from corners, and while it is all well and good that we look threatening from them, we cannot rely solely on Billy Jones' left foot to set up chances.
A worrying aspect of these last two games is just how little we have created in front of goal from open play. Yes, Zeb's goal at Rotherham was a good move, but that has been the exception, rather than the norm, as we have been unable to get our wide players functioning and our midfield runners linking up with the increasingly-isolated front man.
In the second half at Chesterfield, when we went to 4-4-2 with McGlashan, Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy coming on things did not change in that regard, with none of the substitutes making any real impact, and demanding that Yatesy puts them in the team for Barnet.
With the arrival of Taylor and D'Ath, Yatesy has managed to bolster the squad for a busy-looking December, and soon eyes will turn to January, when he will have some decisions to make.
The Echo this week mentioned the possibility of two players being paid up - this would surely point to Danny Andrew and Bagasan Graham, neither of whom can get a look-in.
Andrew has been on the bench and got a run-out against Exeter, but seems to be in the 18 simply because there is no-one else and having had loan spells elsewhere his days are numbered.
Bags appears to be fit, but has lost out to youth teamer Joe Hanks for a place on the bench in recent weeks, showing where he sits in the pecking order.
In addition, Carter's deal runs out, and given his form in the last two games, serious thought has to be given to whether it should be extended, or whether Yatesy feels he can spend the money better elsewhere - maybe on a Summerfield clone if he can find one...
Then there are the strikers... and Yatesy will be looking for a solution here to the lack of regular goals from his four front men.
Zebroski, before Tuesday, had scored three in four games, and is the only one in any semblance of decent nick at the moment.
Of the other three, Harrad is on a very expensive loan - and the question must be whether Yatesy gets to January and thinks that it is too expensive and cuts it off in the hope of deploying that cash somewhere else.
Duffy and Goulding look bereft of form and confidence and unless they can find it next month, they might find themselves being asked to look elsewhere in January.
None of the latter three deserve a place in the starting line-up at the moment, so if I was sitting down to pick Saturday's side, it would be something like this...
The back five pick themselves, Brown, Lowe, Elliott, Bennett and Jones.
Then into midfield. Hmmm. I would pair Pack and Penn in front of the back four, and give Deering a start ahead of them.
He deserves a chance, and there is also a bit of 'former-club syndrome' coming into play with that choice - look what it did for Penn against Burton.
McGlashan gets the nod on the right, and then I would try something different by giving loanee Taylor a place on the left, with Zebroski up top.
I was tempted to be even more radical and push Mo through the middle, but with his recent goal record that would be very harsh on Zeb.
Bench would therefore be Roberts, Carter, Goulding, Duffy, Harrad, Andrew and Mohamed.
Over to you Yatesy...