Sunday, 12 October 2014

Alarm bells...?

AMID all the concern over our lack of goals in recent games, one fact, possibly more important than that, seemed to be overlooked.
However, after yesterday's self-inflicted defeat at Shrewsbury, it has been brought back into sharp focus - the fact that we have now gone seven league games without a win has almost crept up on us unannounced.
It seems a long time now since that heady day at Tranmere, with four wins and a draw from our opening five games, as since then we have drawn three and lost four, and the alarm bells are starting to ring.
While the lack of goals has been an issue since Tranmere, it was joined yesterday by three things which were a feature of last season, and which we hoped were consigned to the past.
They are individual mistakes, conceding goals in clusters and losing points having been in the lead. These three things are a recipe for disaster.
Social media reaction to the defeat and performance has been pretty damning, labelling it terrible and accusing the players of lack of hunger or commitment, but I don't feel it was as bad as that.
I didn't have any issues with effort and commitment from any of the players, but some definitely had off-days and one or two struggled to get into the game and made errors at very crucial times.
The 3-5-2 had Jack Deaman keeping his place, with Troy Brown the odd one out, and new boy Eusebio given his chance alongside the Byron Harrison, under pressure for his lack of goals and lucky in many ways to get another chance.
The first half saw us have the better chances with the Shrewsbury goalkeeper busier than Trevor Carson.
He saved from Lee Vaughan in the first minute and his defenders helped out when we couldn't force a corner in at the near post, while Eusebio was causing a few problems.
The Portuguese teenager was full of tricks, showing a willingness to take people on - even if he did in equal measure show an unwillingness to look up and see if he had a pass on.
He also tried a comical dive in the penalty area which we would condemn if an opposition player did it, so we need to tell him to cut that out.
Eusebio had a couple of shots which went over and one which the keeper saved well, and a poor touch denied him a real chance after Harrison cut the ball back.
While Shrewsbury had a lot of possession and were winning the midfield battle with our old loanee James Wesolowski getting the better of Matt Richards and Jason Taylor, I did not feel we were really threatened in the opening half.
They had a lot of the ball, but it was mostly in front of us and our back three were well organised, catching James Collins and Andy Mangan offside on numerous occasions.
With our lack of goals, and Shrewsbury having arguably a worse recent record with two goals in eight games, a 0-0 looked about right as neither side looked to have a great cutting edge.
But it could be said that two half-time substitutions changed the game.
Ours was enforced as Steve Elliott had been struggling after an impact with Collins seemed to leave him with a dead leg for about the last 10 minutes of the half, and Brown had to replace him.
Shrewsbury's was a tactical one, with the vastly-experienced Liam Lawrence coming on and he made a big impact for them.
But we got the perfect start. Carson made his first save of the game from Wesolowski after Lawrence played the first of many telling passes, then spotted Eusebio in space as he had for Koby Arthur's winner against Accrington.
He beat his man and this time got his head up sufficiently to spot Harrison in space. Byron has been criticised for his seeming failure to bust a gut to get into the box at the right times, but he did it this time and finished off the cross.
A welcome end to his long run without a goal, and the perfect start to the half. So now to settle down for a 10-15 minutes or so, frustrate the home crowd, and try to see out the game, and maybe nick a second against a side low on confidence in front of goal.
What we didn't want to do was to give them an instant reply, lift their confidence and get the crowd back on their side. But that's exactly what we did.
Brown was the guilty man for the equaliser with his first touch after coming on as he was caught dwelling on the ball by Wesolowski and the ball went through to Collins, who wasn't going to miss.
So now it was about mental strength - a test for the side to see how they would react... and we reacted by gifting them another goal.
This time Vaughan was the guilty man. Wesolowski got a cross in, a poor one, so Vaughan headed the ball straight back to him and he got another chance. He picked out Lawrence and his shot was diverted in by Mangan.
So from the perfect start to the half, it had turned into a deja vu from several games last season with the lead thrown away by terrible errors which had not reared their head until now.
The best thing about the 3-5-2 system had been the defensive solidity it brought - but now we are without a clean sheet since the 0-0 draw at Morecambe, having conceded one goal in the last five games before yesterday.
So we had to chase the game, and Yates had John Marquis ready to come on for a few minutes but by the time he could get him on the field the task was made harder by a third Shrewsbury goal - and another poor one.
We had plenty of players around Nat Knight-Percival as he headed it past Carson, but none of them made what you could call a real challenge, and that was 3-1, so the task was now even harder.
Marquis did come on after that goal, replacing Raffa de Vita, who had a very anonymous game as the more advanced of our midfield three.
He struggled to get into the game and has yet to make a real impact in any of the games he has had so far.
It is difficult to work out what his position is. He has played wide in a three, as a forward and as a 'number 10' and hasn't really looked suited to any of them.
He did his best work at Swindon as a left winger, but the 3-5-2 doesn't allow for wingers and so it is hard to see where he will fit in - it just seems that we have too many similar bits-and-pieces players with Omari Sterling-James and Andy Haworth also in this category.
After the third goal we looked very deflated and seemed to have a total lack of energy - it seemed that the Wednesday-Saturday turnaround which we are not used to took its toll on a few players.
Taylor and Richards both had off-days, and that, combined to de Vita's anonymity in the game, never allowed us to get a grip on midfield, with first Wesolowski and then Lawrence getting the upper hand in there.
Eusebio faded out of the game, and the defence had lost their confidence after giving three poor goals away.
We never looked like getting back into it. The best chance we had after the goal actually came at 2-1, Harrison turning a shot wide after Matt Taylor headed a cross down to him.
If he had taken that, it could have made a difference and given us an obvious lift, but instead we shot ourselves in the foot again and make a tough task almost impossible.
The worrying thing about the last 40 minutes or so was the echoes of last season which it brought to mind.
After the game, Carson came up a gave a very honest interview here which sums it all up pretty well.
There was also a debate in the dressing room - not from the manager ranting at the team, but from the players asking questions of each other.
This doesn't mean a massive fallout, but seems to mean players who are committed demanding more from each other and being highly frustrated at being let down by other around them, which I feel bodes well.
We have been told we have a close-knit squad and I don't see the harm in the odd raised voice in there between them.
I think it shows a squad who want to succeed and are equally as frustrated when some drop the standards they set early in the season as we are as supporters.
As Carson said, people have to realise that this is eight without a win (including Bristol City) and things are not as rosy as they were a few weeks ago.
So once again the manager has a job on, and the pressure will begin to rise on him again.
After 12 games, our record is now 4-4-4, with a goal difference of minus one, so we couldn't be any more mid-table if we tried - and the table in now starting to settle down.
At the start of the season, I divided the league into three sections of eight and of my predicted top eight sides, six of them are now in those places, the exceptions being Wycombe and Morecambe. Another of them were Northampton, in ninth.
I had us down to finish in the bottom section of eight, and if things carry on like this then that won't be far off the money either.
From a rosy start, Mark Yates now has a very important five games coming up, and he needs a win quickly to stop this rot, but none of them will be easy.
Northampton come to town on Saturday and they are never easy and have a few of our old boys in tow.
Then we go to Cambridge, who have surprised many and seem a very free-scoring outfit at home, having put five past Oxford on Saturday. That took their tally to 23, the best in the division.
After that is a trip to Plymouth, somewhere we never get much joy, and after that York come to town, in what will become a Russ Penn and Keith Lowe love-in in earnest if we still haven't got at least one win by then.
I had York in my top eight, but they sit 22nd and are the draw specialists with only one win so far in their 12 games
After those four games, comes the first round of the FA Cup, and Yates will be hoping for a favourable draw - although I am sure he thought he had that when Tamworth away came out this time last year. This is not the time to pull out Bristol City away.
These next five games are crucial for Yates' future. He needs to sit down and try to find a formula which works for the players. And fast.