Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Not the end of the world

So we lost a game.
It was going to happen eventually, and defeat at Moss Lane does not spell the end of any hopes of success at the end of the season.
It doesn't mean we aren't going to win the league, or get to the play-offs - it simply means now we are going to find out a bit more about our team over these next two home games.
Yes it was disappointing to see the unbeaten record go, all the more galling that it happened in the 95th minute - and also coming as it did after a six-point Bank Holiday weekend which could have been brought to us by a well-known Danish lager.
But I didn't think we played that badly at Alty. It was one of those games where I think if we had got the first goal we would have gone on to win the game.
Unchanged team, and unchanged bench bar the back-up goalkeeper and we looked confident enough at the start.
We had a lot of the ball, I felt were winning our battles across the pitch and for most of the half we were the ones asking the questions in the final third.
However, one thing was missing - that killer pass, and that killer finish.
We didn't really have clear-cut chances, we had opportunities, and promising situations but were playing mostly 'in front' of Alty's defence and failed every time to test their goalkeeper.
Jack Munns, Harry Pell, Jack Barthram and, most costly of all, Danny Wright all got themselves into good areas in the first half but then wasted the final position, and eventually it came back to bite us.
I didn't feel we were especially threatened by Alty in the first half, bar one save from Dillon Phillips late on they had been kept at arm's length.
But the key moment was arguably Wright's second-half one on one. That miss seemed to deflate us a bit and at at the same time gave Alty a lift.
They got the goal, and for about five-10 minutes we looked a bit lost. I had that confidence that we would get a leveller, and sure enough it came with eight minutes left.
So now what were we going to get? Was it going to be a Chester - get back into the game and be happy enough with a point - or a Barrow - keep the momentum up and go for all three points?
Stick or twist - the perennial dilemma. Gary Johnson opted for twist. After all he has said we need to get promoted. We need to try to win the league.
Now we know that's the way it's going to be. We are going to try to win matches, and after all Altrincham away, despite their good home record against so-called fancied sides of late, is one of those games title challengers are expected to win.
On came Josh Cooke for Harry Pell, and with Billy Waters already on we had a lot of 'forward-thinking' players out there.
That was one of the things which eventually cost us with the winner. We lost the ball high up the field, and with so many players committed, they were able to break.
But then we made it all a bit too easy for them. Michael Rankine got to the byline too easily, and was under no pressure for the cross. Aaron Downes later admitted his culpability in letting this happen.
Then the cross wasn't cut out. The players in the middle appeared to be ball-watching and Sam Heathcote seemed to arrive completely unnoticed to convert the winner under no pressure at all.
A poor goal to concede, and a point lost, along with an opportunity to make up a bit of ground on those around us with the rest of the sides in the pack also having off-days.
All except one. Forest Green made it eight out of eight, and already have a seven-point advantage, and nine over us.
That doesn't mean anything is over however. Go back to 1998-9 - Rushden won their first seven, and we won the league. It can be done.
But if we are to start closing that gap we can't afford too many more Altrinchams. We need to start being more ruthless and kill teams off when we are on top like we were here.
However I must admit to a few worries about the balance of the side - and whether we are making the best of the players we have.
At the moment, we seem to have no width on the flanks. Partly that is down to Barthram having to play on the left, where I thought he looked lost at Alty, and both goals came down his channel.
On the right he is a massive asset, allied with George McLennan on the left, but Rob Dickie, good defender though he seems to be, didn't seem to carry that same threat going forward.
Downes and Daniel Parslow are solid, and Kyle Storer ahead of them is an effective buffer and ticks things over nicely.
Then we have Asa Hall, Munns and Pell. On Saturday with that trio and Storer we seemed to have a 'square' midfield, or a 'rhombus' as it was described by a press box colleague.
It is very narrow, and we seem intent on trying to pass 'through' teams, which all too often involves over-elaboration or players taking one too many touches and running into traffic or a blind alley.
Munns and Pell were especially guilty of that on Saturday, and it is Pell who I really feel this system does not get the best out of.
All too often he is left stuck out wide and cannot really drive at teams and get them on the back foot, as he did in pre-season to great effect. The one time he did it on Saturday, he cut in and fired a shot over the bar and I want to see more of that from him.
He's not a wide player and the problem is that maybe him and Munns want to do the same sort of job, as does Billy Waters, and they can't all do it.
On Saturday, I felt we were crying out for someone to go round the sides and get in behind Alty, get the defenders turning and get balls into the box, but had no-one to do it.
All too often it was left to either Wright or Amari Morgan-Smith to go wide and run the channels. Admirable though that is from a work-rate point of view, it lessens the target in the middle if the cross does come in.
That is unless the midfield runners break ranks - and if that goes wrong that we could be vulnerable to the counter-attack, as happened for the winner at Moss Lane.
So there are things for Gary to ponder, but let's not get too down. It's been a great start and these players have already proved they have some backbone and plenty of resilience.
Things just need a bit of fine tuning and I remain confident that we have not seen the best of this squad by a long way.
We knew there would be blips along the way, now we need to make sure that this is just a small one and make the most of these two upcoming home games.