McClaren pulls one out the bag again, Freeman runs riot - Knee Jerks
Wednesday, 6th Feb 2019 22:56 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola's six talking points from Tuesday's win against Portsmouth focus on another effective change of shape, and the sheer weight of chances hencing forth from the left boot of Luke Freeman.
I had this weird dream last night. We fairly comfortably won a cup match against lower league opposition. Proper weird it was.
As Clive has already tweeted, for the third time this season, McClaren has found a win when he really needed one. The comparisons with Ollie don't help much really, and are unfair given the differing circumstances both had to deal with, but throughout Ollie's time with us, in both stints in fact, he did have this difficulty in digging the team out of ruts. You could argue three ruts in 18 months is too many ruts, especially with our record with ruts, but at the same time, McClaren has shown flexibility and durability to overcome them (although we do still need to find some league form again ahead of a tough month).
Last night, he showed again that while he has complete faith in his favoured XI, he will change it when things are patently going wrong. A bold switch to 4-4-2 ('Yes, Martin. How it always used to be!' (c) Alan Smith, FIFA 18) sprang a surprise on Pompey, and three new players all gave us a new dimension: Smith with his physicality; BOS with his pace and Hall with his comfort on the ball at the back. And out went almost any attempt to play the ball short from goal kicks (although actually, Pompey never pressed high from goal kicks, so this is one game it could've worked, especially with Hall playing). While this wasn't a scintillating performance by any means, it was, as SM himself said, 'professional'. Lumley had nothing to do other than claim the odd cross, pick up one or two very weak efforts, and fall down dramatically a few times towards the end in an effort to waste a bit of time. The only real question was if we would score and after some pressure, it did finally come.
McClaren admitted after the game the players had felt pressure going into this one. A disappointing loss here would have killed the season stone dead and could have been disastrous as we face tough games coming up. Instead, hopefully some confidence has been restored, some players got a rest, and we're in the actual fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since John Major was quietly eating his peas for dinner with Norma at number 10.
After what was by all accounts a whole team of bad performances in our last two games, here was one with all good (if not great) performances. And yet, how might last night have gone without Luke Freeman? While we did play well, actual chances were at a premium and time and again we looked at our most dangerous from set pieces, which it must be said have been very good all season - not only because of Freeman's outstanding delivery, but also because of the movement in the box and the work done on the training ground for specific set pieces.
Last night we had Furlong's header that hit the bar - beautifully worked, that. Wells almost scored after we tried the nice low corner we did once before this season, using Eze that time I think. Luongo had a header go just wide. Then the goal, followed by the classic Freeman to Smith combo for a second. I mean, that's one man creating on his own about five or six good scoring opportunities in one game. He is vital and I worry a lot what might happen if we are forced to sell this summer. A good set piece taker used to be Bobby Robson's first priority for any team he managed. We have our best at QPR now for many years. It's not just the accuracy, it's the consistency.
Particularly enjoyed him joking with Pav (or the crowd?) just before he delivered the cross for Smith's headbanging finish. Can only assume everyone was thinking or saying the same as me: that ball could not be in a more perfect position for Freeman to put it on Smith's head. And there it is.
Hit the big man
Throwback to last season, when Mathieu led our line with what I'm going to call aplomb, only he didn't have Nakhi Wells next to him then. McClaren doesn't see Smith as a long term option, or as anything other than a weapon from the bench (a fate Smith has endured at pretty much all Championship clubs he's been at), but he proved last night that he can be a genuine danger over 90 minutes. I thought he had a great game - he won a lot of the ball in both boxes, worked really hard, caused them a lot of problems and deserved his goal, which he met with such force that the ball asked for treatment afterwards.
It's a tough one for Smith. He'd likely be an absolute beast in League One, but most clubs in this league would use him as we have - sparingly and mainly from the bench. His all-round game is not quite there to be first choice, but when he plays like that McClaren must be tempted to try him a bit more often. Would Watford fancy him with Freeman whipping those balls in? Still, he'll never win you a penalty. Even having his shirt pulled up to his neck wasn't enough last night.
As the leader of the FAS (Furlong Appreciation Society), I have to admit his form has been patchy lately. That's not totally surprising - before December he hadn't played competitively for at least five months, and then was suddenly playing twice a week. But, still. With Rangel almost back, his place is under threat. But he was much better last night: partly because Pompey never bothered attacking the right all night, so he mostly played almost as a right midfielder at times (which he did very well - one lay-off to Freeman in the first half was lovely). He was unlucky not to score, was a real danger at set pieces and offered us an outlet down the right. Good to see him back playing better, but tougher challenges await this month.
Slightly surprising to see him start, but it made total sense really. Leistner has looked leggy lately, and didn't cover himself in glory at Wigan. Why not rest him and play Hall? His opponent was the decidedly awkward Hawkins, who admired Hall so much he was keen to swap shirts at almost every opportunity, but especially as the game wore on, Hall, and Lynch, soon had a firm grip on him. In the end, much like against Leeds, it was a straightforward outing for Hall and left me hoping that maybe he might, possibly, get fit enough to be a regular again. Would be a massive boost if that could happen - also gives us another option in the Cameron/Scowen role too.
Well, this is it, isn't it? Watford, then Brentford, then Chelsea, then City in the final. Four steps from immortality. It's that easy. It's funny, it was a great turnout, good atmosphere, I thought Portsmouth brought great numbers. And yet, at the end, there was no real outpouring of joy, partially, I suppose, because it had been a relatively straightforward win in a game that you'd hope we would win. But we're in the fifth round. There are grown-ass adults at that game who have never seen us get this far. It's miraculous. Even when it ends with Watford winning 3-0 quite comfortably, it'll still be miraculous.
Pictures – Action Images
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