Doing it tough - Knee Jerks
Wednesday, 13th Feb 2019 20:02 by Antti Heinola
Antti Heinola gives us his usual six talking points from the latest last minute heartbreak at Bristol City on Tuesday night.
There are so many joyous ways to win football matches. Thrashings, narrow, hard fought single goal wins, late winning goals etc. They're all great. No win, is a bad win, even if Paul Hart once tested that belief to its limit. But the converse is also true: there are so many ways to lose games. Acceptable defeats. Unlucky defeats. Thrashings. But this week, in the space of a few days, we've lost two games in two of the most gut-wrenching ways: by missing a late penalty after a comeback for the ages and then by losing to a penalty kick, wrongly awarded by the referee. We must be about to do something amazing, because the universe needs to be dramatically re-aligned.
I hate blaming referees for defeats, and I hate when managers do it to deflect from their team's shortcomings. Klopp's recent verbal gymnastics where he tried to claim that being given an offside goal counted against his side at West Ham is a case in point. I just think it's very rare where you can properly blame the ref. Players make mistakes all the time - more than referees - so it's rare that you can fully blame the ref (although there are exceptions - Rob Styles, Robbie Hart...).
And I don't totally blame the ref for us losing last night. But when a ref awards a penalty so late, and it's so demonstrably not a foul, it's hard not blame him for the loss of a point. It didn't look a pen from afar, and the replays showed the decision was even worse than it originally looked. Diedhiou, who had been kept very quiet all game by our back three, had a poor first touch. Furlong, as McClaren said after the game, did the right thing and got between Diedhiou and the ball to get it back to Lumley. Diedhiou then tried to muscle past him and failed. It was, clearly, not only not a penalty, but it should have been a free kick the other way. I can't fathom what the ref even thought he saw there.
You can deconstruct the performance all you like. You can say we should have cleared our lines, or kept possession better or whatever. Fine. But this was not a penalty. We were on a run of four consecutive league defeats. They were on a fabulous run of victories. To reverse both, or to halt both, you need luck - we didn't really need it last night, because we played well, especially first half, but when we did need it, the ref failed us, and it's five in a row. Heartbreaking.
Bravely, McClaren stuck with the 3-5-2 that was so effective in the second half against Birmingham at the weekend. It was obvious from the outset, of course, and naturally, that we weren't approaching the game in the same way as we did after the break on Saturday. It was about controlling Bristol, staying compact, trying to counteract their regular switching of the play as they sought to overload on one side or another. It worked. Not only did we largely nullify them, we also created the better chances and when the goal came it wasn't really a surprise. Smith, once more, was dominant and, again, we played to his strengths without resorting to launching pointless direct balls at him from defence, which doesn't suit his game.
But perhaps the second half showed its limitations when you start to, inevitably, sit deeper. When we did have the ball, options were limited in midfield as Pav and Bidwell struggled to in that difficult wing back role to offer the width that is a bit easier when your team is on top and you can play a few yards higher up the pitch. At the same time, Eliasson found more and more space as he exploited space behind Bidwell and eventually got his reward with a fine goal.
What is encouraging is that McClaren can see the problems and is trying to fix them. He said after the game that we're conceding too many goals from crosses, so having three centre backs helps. And it did last night. But he also said you can tell we haven't practised the formation enough, which was also accurate. It seems he'll stick with it for now, so I think we'll see likely the same side again on Friday. But whatever he does, whether we somehow beat a really good Watford side or not, he needs to find a win or a draw somewhere in the league and soon before panic starts to set in.
One thing I would say was that while I was pleased to see S-Mac keep attackers on the pitch as he replaced our tiring front two, I do wonder whether, in the last 20 mins, we could have gone to a 4-5-1. I know that's super defensive, but maybe Bidwell dropping back a bit might've helped, and we could have packed the midfield and been able to play a bit higher up the pitch and given our midfield more options when they did get the ball. Still, essentially the plan worked, so you can't be too critical - especially in hindsight.
It's been a good season from Wells, if a little strange. He made an immediate impact when he arrived, but didn't actually score for eight games. His relief when he finally did score was evident. But then he was playing well but not scoring; now he is in a bit of a rut and is missing chances he really should score. He missed a couple of good ones on Saturday even before the penalty, and last night he again was culpable in front of goal. First, he really should've opened the scoring when he hit the post - fortunately, Smith put in the rebound. And then second half he had a real chance, which he did create himself with real tenacity, but tamely lobbed it over the bar. It's a tough period for him, but I think mentally he is tough and hopefully it won't last long.
There was a bit of a debate on here about the level of timewasting last night. My view is that when you've lost four in a row, you do whatever it takes to get that result - get yourself out of that rut and just calm things down. Having said that, criticising Furlong for taking his time with a throw, or Lumley for taking time on a goal kick, seems churlish to me. Neither were unreasonable. The ref can add on time for it. When you're under pressure you absolutely should try to slow the game down - something Birmingham failed to do on Saturday, almost to enormous cost. But there are levels. I don't think we had the trainer on at all last night, for example. No one was going down feigning injury, rolling around unreasonably. You look at Preston, when they were one and two goals up against us the other week, they had the trainer on six times and still shielded the ball in the corner at 4-1. Come on, let's be realistic, here.
Glass half full
The players, the management, the fans can be forgiven for feeling pretty down after the last two games: a body blow followed by an upper cut. We've lost five league games in a row (of course, it's not 5 games in a row, we've drawn and won in that run) and you could see the players were utterly gutted after the game, for the second time in a few days. But the positives are that for a game and a half we've played well. Plans have worked. We've scored goals. Smith is in the form of his career with us with 4 in 3. And this run cannot last. It can't. They don't. The longer it goes, the closer we are to it ending. Now is the time to battle, to fight and on Friday, to put all this aside and just go for it. Defeat on Friday doesn't matter. We've had a mini cup run. It's felt great and to go further would be amazing. But defeat would not be a disaster, nor would it be a disgrace. There's no pressure there. Turn up, fans and players, be loud, and just go for it. Maybe luck will change and this time next week we'll all be smiling. And, at least, even if we do lose on Friday, the season isn't over! We have to fight relegation! Woohoo!
Pictures – Action Images
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